Deadlifts are considered the holy grail of all exercises. Well, maybe not by everyone, but by most people. Nothing beats the feeling of setting a new PR on deadlifts. However, since deadlifts are inherently one of the strongest exercises one can do, most lifters hit a plateau rather quick due to heavy loads. Here is an example to illustrate my point.
John has been deadlifting for as long as he’s been training. His initial deadlift went from 100 lbs. to 400 lbs. in approximately two years. Thus, John has added approximately 300 lbs. to his deadlift in two years, with an average of 150 lbs. per year. It would make sense that John will take about another year to hit 550 lbs., right? As good as that sounds on paper, things don’t work that way in real life. This happens because of two reasons; 1- Progress is not linear! 2- The heavier the weight, the harder it is to add more weight.
Another sad reason why progress is never linear is because the more advanced a lifter is, the harder it becomes to make progress. Realistically, the human body was not built to “deadlift” 500 lbs. or squat 600 lbs. And to all the “functional” warriors out there, where in nature would someone need to deadlift or squat such massive amounts of weights to survive? Please, enlighten me! I shall wait.
With that said, the more advanced a lifter becomes, the more stress he/she needs to impose on their body to elicit any amount of meaningful and measurable adaptation. Thus, the need for various approaches as well as slightly more complicated programs arise.
My own deadlift
Let me to start off by mentioning that I don’t always perform conventional deadlifts! Not because I hate them, but because I got bored of them and enjoy performing other deadlift variations, more specifically, hack, hex, and Jefferson deadlifts. However, I still do conventional deadlifts from time to time. Also, since all deadlift variations have some carryover to other variations, I know that my conventional deadlift will increase regardless. So, it’s merely because I enjoy performing other variations, that’s all!
That said, my conventional deadlift was stuck at 450 lbs. for 1-2 reps. Although, that’s more than your average joe dreams to deadlift, I wasn’t satisfied. So, I set a personal goal of increasing my deadlift as much as I possibly can no matter what it takes. Scientific literature as well as real world experience agree that to get better at something, you must perform that specific thing more often. Thus, I made that part of my plan. However, training is a bit more complicated than that. I knew if I started performing conventional deadlifts more often, I would, sooner or later, hit a big plateau. Frankly, I don’t have time to waste. So, I did the opposite!
Step 1- Deadlift variations
I already mentioned that I like unconventional training. It’s more challenging and keeps things interesting rather than performing the same set of exercises again and again. As part of plan, I incorporated hex, hack, and Jefferson deadlifts into my program. Since I cannot squat super heavy due to messed up knees, I make up for it by doing heavy hack deadlifts. Hack deadlifts put a lot of emphasis on quads. Jefferson deadlifts are more of a unilateral movement. Hex deadlifts are performed using a hex bar. Here is a pic of what each lift looks like.
Jefferson Deadlift performed by Alex from Alphadestiny (Excellent YouTube channel. Highly recommend)
Why so much variety?
Because the human body adapts to whatever stress you impose on it rather quick. Your body will eventually become too efficient at adapting to a certain stress, and changing exercises by the slightest will have a favorable effect on adaptation. So, incorporating 3 variations of deadlifts into my program ensured that I was having fun (which is important for adherence), putting my body under slightly different types of stress, and developing different muscles that would later help me with other lifts. This combination would ensure continuous progress and no plateaus.
Step 2- Frequency – 2/3 times a week
Common sense tells us that to get better at something, you should do it more frequently. Training is no different. Additionally, it has become evident that high frequency training programs increase strength levels much faster than low frequency programs (hypertrophy is a different story). One popular study that confirms this idea is the Norwegian Project Program. To make a long story short, the researchers brought many elite powerlifters and separated them into two groups; a high frequency group and a low frequency group. The researchers observed that the subjects in the high frequency group increased their lifts significantly more than the low frequency group.
With that said, this is not to recommend high frequency training to everyone. Many factors such as time availability, work schedule, family, stress levels, food intake (cutting/bulking), and genetics must be taken into consideration. So, find your sweet spot of how many times you can perform a lift without overreaching and burning out. For me, that was deadlifting 2-3 times a week. I would deadlift 3 times a week when I am on vacation and had a surplus of calories. Then, I would deadlift only twice a week when food intake was less, and my schedule wasn’t as free. Training a lift more often gives you more opportunities to improve your technique and elicit neural adaptations.
Step 3- DUP – Daily Undulating Periodization
Daily undulating periodization is a form of periodization where a lifter progresses over 2-3 tracks. So, instead of focusing on a single rep range, you would then alternate rep ranges throughout mesocycle (week). For example, instead of trying to deadlift in the 1-3 rep range all the time, you would train in the 1-3 rep range as well as the 7-10 rep range. This form of periodization will help you bust through plateaus rather quickly and manage fatigue.
Another strategy I often use is periodizing my lifts based on pin heights. If you have a power rack in your gym, you’ll notice that you can set up the safety pins at different heights. In my experience, deadlifting at different pin heights has been one of the best tools I used to increase my deadlift so fast. This works so well because training at different heights forces you to change the weights, train certain parts of the full range of motion, develop certain muscles differently, and forces you to use heavier weights.
For instance, if you try to rack pull at pin #5, or above the knees, you’ll notice that you can handle significantly more weight than if you were to start the lift from the floor. If you rack pull 800 lbs. at pin #5 and progressively work your way down the pin heights, by the time you get to the floor, you will have added much more weight to the lift. Training at different ranges of motion is a tool many elite powerlifters have been using for years to bust through plateaus. VARY YOUR TRAINING!
Step 4- Rack pulls
I think rack pulls are very underrated. Not only do rack pulls build amazing traps and upper back, but they also help you get a feel of what heavy weight feels like. Nothing helped me increase my deadlift quicker than doing rack pulls at various pin heights. Rack pulls could be a bit tricky, though. Since rack pulls are inherently heavy, doing them very often will cut into your recovery. This is besides the fact that after a heavy rack pull session, you’ll wake up sore in ways you never thought possible.
Finally, here is a video of me hex deadlifting 595 lbs. (let’s say 600, shall we?) half way through my workout while being sick and cutting at a bodyweight of 180 lbs. Not fun. I know I could hex dl 630-650 lbs. if I start my workout with them. Don’t mind the guys in the back. Shout out to my friend and camera man, Jet! You’re the best lol