How many times has some curious onlooker at your gym come over to and asked, “So, how much can you lift?” My stock reply is, “I can deadlift 639 pounds.” (see picture to the right).
For a powerlifter, the deadlift is the purest test of total body strength. This is true for a myriad of reasons. Firstly, the deadlift recruits and utilizes as many muscles as any other exercise. The only exercise that rivals the deadlift, in muscle recruitment, is the squat. Secondly, the deadlift is unique in that it is truly a “lift-only” exercise. To perform a deadlift, you only perform a concentric contraction (upwards or positive motion) of the required muscles. Both the squat and bench press begin with an eccentric component (lowering or negative phase) prior to the actual lifting of the weight. Thirdly, because you don’t lower the weight first, it’s difficult to build and utilize any momentum in order to complete the lift. Additionally, powerlifting gear such as belts, suits, and wraps assist the deadlift the least. The lack of assistance from the gear forces you to do the work. When you’re on the platform readying for a deadlift attempt, it’s all you. You’re all alone on an island and you’re not getting help from anyone or anything else. Consequently, the deadlift is a totally different animal and should be treated as such.
How many times have you performed a set of deadlifts only to find that the second and third reps of the set were easier than the first? In all likelihood this happens more often than not. On numerous occasions I have seen lifters perform heavy triples in training with a certain weight and then barely be able to complete their attempt at the meet with that same weight. The second and third repetitions of a set of deadlifts are almost always easier than the first because you actually lower the weight first thereby building momentum via stored elastic energy. After the second and third reps, muscle fatigue sets in and the weight usually becomes heavier to the point where form and technique break down. At that point the set should be terminated because your risk of injury increases exponentially. Even if you perform your repetitions in a “dead-stop” fashion the successive reps are still easier because of the tension you’ve built on the eccentric phase of the preceding reps.
For these reasons, the deadlift should be trained with single repetitions. As powerlifters we all want to become stronger and lift more weight. We also want to get stronger as quickly and efficiently as possible. While there are in fact multiple ways to get strong and many lifters have had success training their deadlifts with multiple rep sets, why not take the shortest route? Performing deadlifts for repetitions are perfect for bodybuilders, fitness enthusiasts, and other strength athletes that want to put on some muscle. The constant muscle tension those multiple repetitions provide will certainly help your muscles grow. But the last time I checked, a powerlifter’s singular goal is to lift maximum weight. If maximum weight hoisted is your quest, singles are the answer.
Performing singles doesn’t mean that you come into the gym, load the bar to your maximum poundage, pull it once, and go home. That’s ludicrous and a sure-fire recipe for both injury and overtraining. Training the deadlift requires a systematic approach of using percentages for multiple singles and attacking the muscles that are germane to the lift itself. Fortunately, the deadlift mostly utilizes the same muscles as the squat. This leads to an overlap in training which can be beneficial because as you train one lift, the muscles required to perform the other lift are also being used. An additional benefit to training your deadlift with multiple singles is the fact that you get plenty of practice. Powerlifting may be the best example of a “practice like you play” sport. Lifters are always trying to simulate meet conditions in the gym and singles afford you that opportunity. The deadlift is the one powerlift where a lifter can actually get by with poor technique and still lift ponderous poundage. I’ve witnessed it more times than I can recall. A lifter walks up to the bar, bends over with hips high and a rounded back, and just yanks on it until it miraculously locks out to completion and the approval of the judges. Talk about ugly! If this is you, singles will help you practice and thereby improve your technique. And while it is true that you can get by with poor technique, the deadlift may also be the one lift where excellent technique helps the most. Training with singles allows you to treat each single as it’s very own unique attempt or set. You can practice visualization, set-up, breathing, and technique with each singular effort. With multiple rep sets, you only get a chance to practice on the first rep of each set.
Remember how we talked about momentum? It’s difficult to generate momentum in the deadlift. The deadlift requires us to overcome the laws of inertia on the bar. You’re not going to get a heavy weight moving from the floor by pulling it slowly. Accordingly, deadlifts need to be done explosively with a focus on technique and speed. Singles allow you to be explosive. Multiple repetitions do not allow the same velocity and bar speed. As the set continues, your velocity and bar speed decrease significantly with each repetition. Once you get into proper pulling position and take in a breath of air it’s important to tighten every muscle in the body just prior to breaking the bar from the floor. The mighty Ed Coan says that just prior to the initial pull he tries to contract every muscle in his body just as a bodybuilder might do on stage. He literally tries to make every single muscle hard and tight. This enables him to create tremendous tension on the bar. When Coan deadlifts, he’s like a time-bomb just waiting to explode!
A typical deadlift workout would include a sufficient dynamic warm-up to increase your body’s internal temperature and get the central nervous system firing correctly. I like to jump rope for a few minutes and follow that with some dynamic flexibility and mobility work that often includes medicine balls and leg swings. Save the static stretching for after your workout. Now on to the deadlift itself. The best way to approach your target weight or work sets is to work backwards. Let’s assume, for the sake of this conversation, that our lifter has a max deadlift of 500 pounds. Our lifter plans on working up to 70% of that max for 12 singles. Therefore the target weight for the work sets (singles) is 350 pounds. An appropriate warm-up sequence might look something like this: 135 x 5, 205 x 3, 265 x 1, 315 x 1. That would provide the lifter four sets to warm-up and become acclimated to pulling for the day. (Notice I recommended performing multiple repetitions on the first two warm-up sets.) It’s all right to perform a few reps on the first few lighter sets. This will improve your circulation, warm the body, and prime the muscles for the heavier weights to come. You’re not building any strength on the lighter warm-up sets anyway. That’s what the heavier weights and sets are for. After performing the warm-up sets, the lifter should be ready to perform the 12 singles. Now the lifter has 12 separate chances to work on form and perfect technique. This is more beneficial for central nervous system stimulation, strength development, and mastery of the skills required to deadlift. Performing the same training volume via 350 for 2 sets of 6 reps or even 350 pounds for 4 sets of 3 reps would be far less beneficial. Rest approximately one minute between singles. That affords you just enough time to step away from the bar, grab a sip of water, clear your head, chalk your hands, and ready yourself for the next single. Once the weights are above 80% of your max, longer rest periods may be necessary. I have performed singles with 90% and above and taken as much as five minutes between singles. This more closely resembles meet conditions.
The following is a sample six week deadlift cycle that I have used, with great success, on numerous occasions. The percentages listed represent the heaviest (work sets) singles for that day and do not include warm-ups.
Week 1 65% x 15 sets x 1 rep
Week 2 70% x 12 sets x 1 rep
Week 3 75% x 10 sets x 1 rep
Week 4 80% x 8 sets x 1 rep
Week 5 85% x 6 sets x 1 rep
Week 6 MAX
After performing the singles focus on assistance exercises for the deadlift and squat since they overlap. Do not choose an assistance exercise because some clown on the cover of your favorite powerlifting magazine told you to. Make your selections based upon your particular weaknesses and the muscles required to perform the actual lift. Exercises that most closely resemble the deadlift work best. I like deadlifts off of blocks, rack pulls, Romanian deadlifts, front squats, and high bar squats to name a few. The upper back is also important and can be trained with a variety of rowing and/or pull-down movements. A strong torso is absolutely imperative in a lifter’s domain. Don’t neglect any side of your torso. Train your lower back, obliques, hip flexors, and abdominals with weight or you’ll be sorry. Reverse hypers, 45 degrees back raise, good mornings, glute-ham raises, pull-throughs, sit-ups with weight, and pull-down abs work well. Leave the crunches and Bosu balls for the spandex crowd. The key to assistance work is to choose a few specific moves, hit them hard, and get out of the gym. Don’t get carried away. You’re not a bodybuilder. You’re a powerlifter.
So, the next time your deadlift has got you down just understand that less is actually more and single your way to your next PR!