Drop the Deadlift?

Posted by Jason Ferruggia

If the deadlift is the best muscle building exercise on the planet why do many successful strength and conditioning coaches not use the movement with their athletes?

The reason is simple; the deadlift takes too much out of you and is very hard to recover from.

When you have an athlete who also needs to be implementing speed work, conditioning and sport specific drills on a regular basis you can’t afford to compromise his recovery ability to such an extreme level.

A hard deadlift session will usually leave him slower, less explosive and with a general, overall feeling of fatigue for the next 3-5 days. This is unacceptable.

Now before everyone freaks out and stops deadlifting please realize that I’m not telling you to do that.

What I’m suggesting is that there may be very little room for deadlifts in an advanced athletes program if they also have to run, jump, practice, etc.

They may be better served sticking to squats, cleans, snatches and other posterior chain work that won’t delay recovery as much as the deadlift.

Or just dropping their deadlifts. Not dropping them from the program but literally dropping them.

You see, the eccentric component, or lowering phase of the deadlift can often be the riskiest part. The last thing you ever want to do is a slow eccentric on a deadlift.

To recommend such a thing is highly irresponsible of trainers or coaches. If you want to be fresh, explosive and minimize soreness you should never really emphasize the eccentric component of any lift.

Control it but don’t do purposefully slow, timed eccentrics. Contrary to what many people believe, it is actually lowering, not lifting weights that makes you sore. When you’re always sore you can’t train at your highest level. This is the primary reason hill sprints are safer and easier to recover from than flat ground sprints- far less eccentric stress.

A lot of deadlifting injuries occur from doing controlled touch and go reps. That is- you lower the weight somewhat slowly and under control, touch the floor without resetting your back and bang out another rep. Then another… and another… and another. With each rep your form breaks down and your lower back goes from flat to slightly flexed to rounded to C shaped.

Dip, Grip and Rip?

For years now you’ve heard me tell you to control the eccentric component of the lift (but lower it quickly) and explode the concentric portion of the lift. Well, the deadlift is the exact opposite. You should almost be dropping the bar and then resetting at the bottom. To give you an idea of what I’m talking about I added a video clip of Matt Kroc puling below. Notice how he lowers the bar very rapidly, letting it crash to the ground, resetting before each rep.

If you’re new to this technique be extremely cautious at first and lighten your weights by about 20%. Because even though it’s safer, you have to realize that each rep starts from a dead stop so the stretch reflex is minimized and there’s no momentum like there would be if you were bouncing the bar off the floor.

Dr. Ken Leistner was known for doing high rep sets of deads with a ton of weight. But he would actually set the bar down and stand up to reset between reps. If you feel like you need to do that in order to pull safely, by all means go ahead.

When you begin lifting the bar you should never try to explode it up. It’s the one lift where doing so is not recommended at all. In fact, doing so is quite dangerous and I’ve seen many guys get hurt this way. In “hardcore” training circles you’ll hear the phrase “Dip, grip and rip” thrown around when discussing the deadlift.

It’s right up there with “If the bar aint bending you’re just pretending.” Following that advice is a great way to get injured. You do NOT ever want to “rip” the deadlift bar off the floor. That’s how you end up with a herniated disk or your spine shooting out through your skin and landing on the leg press.

The pull off the floor should be slow and deliberate while maintaining maximal tension and stiffness throughout your entire body. It should actually be a grind more than an explosion. Like World’s Strongest Man, Mark Henry said, you need a good slow gear to deadlift a lot of weight properly.

Frequency Considerations So now that you know how to slowly grind the bar off the floor and lower it rapidly (almost dropping it) let’s address a few other ways to make the deadlift safer and ensure rapid progress.

First off let’s address frequency. Beginners can pull three times a week and be fine.

Eventually they need to cut it to twice per week and then once every five days. Intermediates can get away with deadlifting once per week.

When you get a bit more advanced and are pulling more than double bodyweight for reps you will probably be better served deadlifting only once every 9-14 days.

You can do this in one of two ways. If you follow a four day upper/lower split, where one lower body day is squat based and the other is deadlift based, you simply train three times per week. This is my favorite split and the one used most often at Renegade and with a large majority of my other clients. When you follow this four day split, training three times per week, deadlifts get hit once every nine days.

For example-
Week 1
Monday- Upper Body Workout A
Wednesday- Lower Body Deadlift Workout
Friday- Upper Body Workout B

Week 2
Monday- Lower Body Squat Workout
Wednesday- Upper Body Workout A
Friday- Lower Body Deadlift Workout

This frequency seems to be ideal for most lifters and delivers fantastic results. The second option for a three day per week program is an upper/lower/upper split. This works very well for athletes and those who do a lot of sprinting and recreational sports.

In this case you have two choices for your Wednesday workout. You could squat and deadlift in the same day or you could alternate squats and deads each week. If you do them in the same day I would suggest going heavy one week and lighter the next.

A better option would be to just sub in an exercise to replace the deadlift every other week. Some type of Olympic pull would be a great idea.

Another choice for those with good recovery ability would be to rack pull every other week from about knee height. Squats and rack pulls in the same workout are nowhere near as stressful as squats and pulls from the floor. If you’re just using the deadlift for back thickness and aren’t interested in setting any records or competing, the rack pull could very well be your only form of deads.

If you train four days per week on the same upper/lower split detailed above (with one squat and one deadlift based lower body day) you would probably be better served to deadlift heavy every other week.

Again, on the non deadlift weeks just do some single leg Romanian Dead Lift’s, dead stop bent over rows, hang cleans or something lighter and less stressful. Speed deadlifts have been suggested here but I’m not a big fan of those. I’d rather see some type of Olympic lift.

The other option for a four day per week program is to simply follow the recommendations above for the upper/lower/upper three day split and have your second lower body day consist of mainly bodyweight exercises like low intensity plyo’s, glute hams, split squats and some sled and prowler work. That can be very easy to recover from.

The one thing I wouldn’t recommend on a regular basis to most advanced lifters (with more than five years training experience and a decent level of strength) is to regularly squat and deadlift heavy on two different days in the same week. You may be able to pull if off now but eventually it will catch up with you.

Closing Thoughts

If you’re new to deadlifts or have questionable form I’d start with high handle trap bar deads. Stick with these for at least six months and never go above five reps.

A lot of people will never have the mobility/flexibility to move any lower than this. If that’s you don’t worry about it. You’ll be fine and will still get the benefits of deadlifting, minus the risk. Eventually you can move to the low handle trap bar deads and then the straight bar if you so desire.

Athletes that want to deadlift should stick with high handle trap bar deads, keep their reps low and drop the bar rapidly.

A couple other things to remember are to activate your glutes before pulling and to stretch your piriformis, hip flexors, hamstrings and whatever other muscles may be preventing you from getting down while keeping a neutral spine.

After every deadlift (and squat) workout you should get down on the floor in a prone position and hold a cobra or prone mountain for a minute or so. Another great idea is to just lay down and read for ten minutes while resting on your forearms. This helps reset your spine and makes a big difference in how you will feel over the next 48-72 hours.

At the end of the day the deadlift is still one of the most productive exercises you can do. But if for some reason you can’t deadlift, it’s nothing to get down about. You’ll be just fine with squats, Olympic pulls, shrugs, glute hams and the like.

For those that can, I hope you picked up a few tips on how to make the deadlift safer and more productive and will be setting some new PR’s real soon. If you have any questions please let me know.