Written by Brandon Lilly
The most common questions I get from powerlifters pertain primarily to the deadlift. It is the one lift that seems to have caused lifters the most problems, and many argue that the deadlift is the purest test of strength, and will amongst the three lifts. I, myself, have faced many demons in the deadlift having been stuck without adding one pound for over two years before. I know the maddening frustration that comes from it all. But, there is hope. In just 7 months I took my unequipped deadlift from a very, very difficult 725 lbs. to a much easier 804 lbs. Since that time I have pulled over 800 lbs. six times in competition. I stopped listening to the advice that was backed by science, and I started listening to lifters that out lifted me, I started analyzing my form with excruciating detail, and I actually started training hard. Again. I found in myself that I was very explosive from the floor, while struggling horribly once the bar passed my knees. You can agree, or disagree, but I believe that all the years squatting, and pulling in briefs really limited the amount of actual work my glutes, hips, and hamstrings did when I was lifting, so when I took the gear off I was extremely deficient. So, I began my journey to fix my lockout, and strengthen muscles that had been taking it easy inside the gear.
(Before I go any further, I am not saying that everyone in gear is weak… Pathetic I have to preface my own beliefs with a preventative statement, but I am referencing my flaws, and why I believed they occurred, and am now passing that information along with the hopes that it can help others.)
One of the few statements I am known for is that “You can’t finish a lift perfectly, if you don’t start a lift perfectly.” I encourage my training partners, and athletes that I work with to stop seeking form that is “good enough”. Seek perfection in your form, and do not allow bad habits to go unnoticed, or to remain once discovered. Do you begin with an upright position, or a rounded back position? Do you pull conventional, or sumo? The questions that can be asked are numerous, but I want you to relax. Start with this… Do what feels natural. Ed Coan pulled 887 lbs. conventional with a good “upright” starting position, while Konstantin Konstantinovs starts in a very “rounded” position and has pulled 900+ lbs. on numerous occasions. The point that is being made is that there is no right, or wrong way. I have found that people are much more successful long term sticking with what they do naturally, and making small changes from there, rather than coming in and imposing all kinds of radical changes to their form. The best way to progress, and determine what is best for you is to try different things, record yourself, log all your training sessions, make notes on where things become difficult in the lift. By doing this you not only become invested in your improvement, you learn by the process of elimination what works best for you.
Check out this video from Brandon discussing how he added 90 pounds to his deadlift in 16 months…
After you have identified how you are going to pull, you need to understand how each will effect your lockout. Round back pullers (like myself) usually have massive explosive power off the floor. However, the knees, and hips tend to lock fairly early leaving some extra strain on the lower back to finish. Whereas, a straight back puller usually sacrifices some speed from the floor but ends up in a better position to uniformly lockout the legs, and back at the same time. Whatever the result is with how you pull, you need to look at your lift as a “whole”, not just where you are weak within the lift. One problem people have when trying to identify, or rather improve weaknesses, is how to actually go about this. We know that if your hips don’t shoot through at the top you most likely have weak glutes, but at this point do you do set after set of glute raises? Is that functional strength for the deadlift? To understand how to strengthen a muscle within a lift, you need to monitor how the muscle works within the lift. Is it your glutes that are lagging, or are your hamstrings so tight you can’t fully extend, and flex your glutes properly? If that is the case, all the glute raises in the world won’t fix you, while 10-15 minutes of stretching the hamstrings per day could solve all your problems. STOP LISTENING TO EVERYONE ELSE, AND WATCH HOW YOUR BODY WORKS!!! That is when you will succeed. You have to understand not only where the body is weak, but what is occurring within the muscles just prior to noticeable failure. For example, if you are slow above the knees, what happens from the floor to the knee where the lift looks “good”, then in the 3-4” from below that knee to above the knee, what happened in that area to cause the lift to start slowing down? That is where you will find out how to fix your lift. Not when the bar stalls completely, but when it starts displaying failure.
Weakness at the Knee
If you start noticing lift failure (remember not absolute failure, but the point where the lift begins to break down) at knee level you need to work the range of motion just below the knee, to lockout. The lift I most often prescribe for this area of weakness is the snatch grip deadlift from blocks. I usually set up a 6-8” block for lifters, and have them do reps ranging from 5-10. Why so many reps? Remember we aren’t ego building, we are muscle building to eliminate a weakness. So we are trying to specifically target the muscles in, and around the area of failure. That rep range will be challenging enough to build muscle, but easy enough to recover from so we can pull heavy when needed. It’s about building not testing. I also like traditional block/rack pulls from just below the knee, but again the main thing here is to use your natural form. Do not allow yourself to try and leverage yourself against the weight to lift more. That will not accomplish the desired result. Stick to your form.
Another great movement that was introduced to me by a great deadlifter (Mike Tuchscherer) is the pause deadlift. If you have read anything about me, or my training you know I love pause presses, and pause squats to resolve weakness issues, I just never knew how to employ pauses into the deadlift until I spoke with Mike. He told me to use a moderate weight, and to always go lighter than I think I need to. He said to pull the weight to the weak spot, hold it for 1-5 seconds (usually 1-3), and then accelerate as hard as possible to lockout. This increases time under tension, as well as specific positioning muscle recruitment. I added these in every other week with great success.
Weakness from Mid-Thigh to Full Extension
This is honestly one of the most difficult “fixes” for a lifter. Sometimes I tell guys this part is all mental because if you have gotten it this far up it’s just a matter of how bad you want it at the end. While this is true, and that would make coaching much easier, there are no doubt people who severely suffer at lockout. Exercises I have lifters employ here are very simple, rack pulls from just over the knee (while still maintaining a higher rep range, I do encourage lifters to work up to heavy triples, and doubles to build confidence with an overload), and moderate weight goodmornings. I believe goodmornings are a fantastic exercise when people do them in a way that is beneficial… Building a 700 lbs. goodmorning is more likely to destroy your back along the way than build it, so I have lifters use 40-50% of their max raw squat and do rep work in the 5-10 range. Another exercise is dynamic block pulls. I have lifters use slightly heavier weight than they would from the floor and do typical explosive training, just off the blocks. The theory being that if they get “faster” with heavier loads than they would be able to handle from the floor then they will increase their overall speed and this will benefit the lockout. The last exercise for this deficiency is Goodmorning Squats. (You can see these on my YouTube page: brandonlilly3) These are a favorite of mine, and the idea is to do a goodmorning to the mid point, then drop into a squat, and do a full reversal in the squat. Why? Because both mimic how you will deadlift. The good morning portion will attack the lower back with fairly locked legs, and the deep squat will strengthen the glutes, hamstrings, and quads from a “starting” position. Those exercises have built up my legs to a huge degree.
Perfect Deadlifts Build Perfect Deadlifts
Keep this in mind as you are working on parts of the deadlift, to reinforce the whole movement. The best way to do that is to adhere to a plan of not testing your max for a while. You don’t set the roof on a house just to see if the wall your built will hold it, you wait til you have all the walls constructed to add the roof. That is the same principle here. Don’t get caught up in testing yourself, believe in what you are doing, and commit to it. There will be no easy way to go about building your deadlift, and undoing years of bad form. But at some point you have to admit that you can do better than you are right now, and with that comes an ownership in your training that will allow you to progress as long as you choose to because you are now training for you, and no one else. Understand that it will take tremendous effort, and if it was easy then everyone would pull big, but that right is saved for the few who take the time to conquer the barbell, conquer their training, and conquer themselves. The time will come when the work will be rewarded… The 3rd deadlift rising to full lockout, getting the down command, and seeing the white lights. That is why we do this, and that is why you will fight for every last pound in the gym so when the bar is coming to that old familiar sticking point you know you are stronger than ever before, it just comes down to holding on, and finding out just how bad you want it!!
Brandon Lilly is very well traveled, Elite powerlifter. He has trained at Guerrilla Squad Barbell, Westside Barbell, Lexen Xtreme, and is now home at Berea Barbell. In his strength journey he has competed in bodybuilding, strongman, and powerlifting. Brandon is one of only 19 men to ever total over 2200 raw, having 2204 which ties him for 16th all time (826.5 squat, 573 bench, 804.5 Deadlift). Brandon amassed a 2612 total in Multi-Ply, and has best lifts of 1008 squat, 832 bench press, and 777 Deadlift. Brandon is the author of The Cube Method and 365STRONG and is aiming to create a paradigm shift in the Powerlifting world.