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Accessory Onslaught #3: The Deadlift

December 7, 2008 Category: Anatomy, Articles, Powerlifting Tags: , , .

In this final installment of the Accessory Onslaught series, I am going to give you the tools necessary to develop a big time deadlift. Deadlifts, like the squat and bench, can be built with a mix of smart training, hard work, and proper exercise selection. This article will cover a few of the exercises that can take your pulling prowess to the next level.

Before we get into specific exercises, let’s first examine the muscle groups which are most active when deadlifting. Below is a brief rundown of the most important muscles:

Hamstrings

The hamstrings are one of the most important muscle groups in powerlifting, because they are extremely active in both squatting and deadlifting. The hamstrings perform two primary movements: Hip extension and knee flexion. The hamstrings are made up of three muscle groups (biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus), and make up the majority of the musculature on the back of your thigh.

Glutes

The glutes are also extremely important when squatting and deadlifting. The glutes (especially gluteus maximus) are powerful hip extensors, and are often referred to as the strongest muscles in the body. Gluteus medius and minimus are also active, but their primary role in deadlifting is hip abduction, or moving the thigh away from the midline of the body.

Spinal Erectors

The spinal erectors are made up of the longissimus, iliocostalis and spinalis muscle groups. When deadlifting, the primary role of the spinal erectors are extension and stabilization of the spine. The conventional style is often regarded as being more demanding on the spinal erectors, where as the sumo style places more stress on the glutes and hamstrings.

Static muscle groups (trapezius, forearms, etc.)

The trapezius and forearms do not move during a deadlift, but they are extremely important nonetheless. Their primary role is static strength, or being able to hold their position for an extended period of time as you grind out the big reps.

Primary Accessory

As I discussed in the first two installments of this series, primary accessory lifts are big, compound movements that build a stronger foundation for the primary lift itself. When compared to secondary accessory lifts, they are more demanding on the neuromuscular system because they use more weight and involve more muscle groups. Primary accessory lifts can be used to improve speed, strength, a particular part of the range of motion, or whatever else the athlete may need to improve upon.

We should also discuss the current factions of deadlift training: Training the deadlift, or not training the deadlift. Athletes who train the deadlift usually perform them on their second low body workout of the week. The type of training they employ will vary (singles, repetitions, speed work, etc.), but the fact of the matter is they train the deadlift. On the other side, athletes in the no-deadlift faction will use exercises such as concentric only good mornings, Olympic lifts, etc., to bring up their deadlifts. The hypothesis behind this method is that the lower back is overly taxed by performing heavy deadlifts, so it’s better to bring up the weak muscle groups with specific exercises. Both will work, but you need to experiment and find out which training method works best for you.

For people who are naturally strong deadlifters, improving your squatting strength often leads to improvements in your deadlift. On the other hand, people who are naturally strong squatters don’t derive as much benefit from additional squatting. These people need to be more creative in finding specific exercises to develop THEIR deadlift.

Now, let’s get on to the lifts!

Squats (all varieties) and Deadlifts

I could go into great detail here, but I will instead briefly mention the benefits of squatting and refer you to my first Accessory Onslaught article in the December/January 2004 issue of Monster Muscle. In there, several different methods of squatting are described in detail, including safety bar squats, Olympic squats, and front squats. Remember, deadlifters seem to get a bigger carryover from additional squatting. The Fins have produced some of the finest deadlifts in the world, and many of their programs were predicated on squatting up to three times per week. In this case, each day emphasized a different form of squatting (e.g. back squats performed on Monday, front squats performed on Wednesday, and Olympic-style squats on Friday).

On the flipside, working on deadlifts to improve your deadlift may sound redundant, but let me explain further. What we are talking about is training with the opposite style of deadlift you compete with. The reason for this is that each compliments the other. Sumo is typically weak off the floor and strong at the top, while conventional is typically strong off the floor and weak at the top (conventional). So if you compete with one, something as simple as training with the opposite style for a period of time could take your deadlift to new levels!

Rack Pulls (Sumo or Conventional)

Rack pulls are an excellent exercise for overloading the top part of the range of motion, as well as getting your body acclimated to moving supra-maximal loads. There is something to be said for just getting a ton of weight in your hands and moving it; not only does it acclimate your body, but your mind as well.

Prime Movers

  • Glutes,
  • hamstrings,
  • spinal erectors

Set-up

Begin by placing the pins of a power rack at the desired height. Pins at varying heights can be used as a max effort movement, or you can place the pins at a specific height to train a sticking point. When using the second method, place the pins just below where you would normally miss at. An example would be if you miss your heavy deadlifts right around the knee, start with the pins a few inches below your knees.

Performance

Other than where the bar is starting at, the performance of a rack pull is identical to a regular deadlift. A few key points to remember include keeping the chest up, low back arched, the weight on the heels, and focus on pulling up and back.

Exercise Tips

  • Force the chest up and keep the arch in the lower back
  • Place the weight on and drive through the heels

Rack pulls will help your deadlift by:

  • Acclimating your body and mind to heavy weights
  • Overloading a specific range of motion where you may be weak

Extra Wide Sumo Deadlifts

Extra wide sumo deadlifts are an excellent exercise to strengthen the hamstrings, glutes, and hip abductors/adductors. Moving the stance out will really increase the stress on the hips and groin, two areas where many athletes are weak.

Prime Movers

  • Hamstrings,
  • glutes,
  • hip adductors and abductors

Set-up

Begin by putting an extra clamp on in-between the plates and collars. This will allow you to place your stance even wider than usual without the plates getting in the way. The set-up for an extra wide sumo deadlift is identical to a traditional sumo deadlift, the only difference being the exaggerated width of your stance.

Performance

The performance of the extra wide deadlift is identical to the traditional sumo deadlift. For a full rundown on deadlifting performance, please read my deadlifting article in the June/July 2003 issue of Monster Muscle.

Exercise Tips

  • Force the chest up and keep the arch in the lower back
  • Place the weight on and drive through the heels

Extra wide sumo deadlifts will help your deadlift by:

  • Strengthening the hip abductors and adductors to a greater degree than traditional sumo deadlifts

Concentric only good mornings

The good morning has been a staple exercise for strength athletes for decades, but the concentric only version has been used more frequently in recent years. The obvious benefit of a concentric only version is it better replicates a deadlift (specifically the conventional deadlift, in this case) where there is no eccentric or lowering component.

Prime Movers

  • Spinal erectors

Set-up

This exercise is best performed using a safety squat bar versus a straight bar. Place the safety squat bar on either the pins of a power rack or in a pair of chains suspended from the top of the rack. You want to place the pins/chains at a level where your torso, in the starting position, is just above parallel to the ground (this is usually between 36-40″ off the ground).

Performance

The key to this exercise is to get super tight before you ever think of moving the bar. Shift your weight to your heels and squeeze the glutes, hamstrings and erectors to develop tension. After everything is tight, think about driving your upper back into the bar as hard as possible, while still squeezing all the above mentioned muscles. Come all the way up, and then lower to the starting position.

Exercise Tips

  • ” Put the weight on the heels
  • ” Get the entire posterior chain tight and drive your upper back into the bar

Concentric only good mornings will help your deadlift by:

  • ” Strengthening the posterior chain, specifically the spinal erectors
  • ” Developing concentric only strength

Pulls off blocks

Pulling off blocks is an exercise that many fantastic deadlifters have used to build a freaky deadlift. Just two of the great deadlifters who have promoted using blocks include Rickey Dale Crain and Ed Coan, so if it’s good enough for them, it should be good enough for you! The key benefit of pulling off blocks is it lengthens the distance you have to pull. This increase in the time under tension will get you ready for maximal loads that take a long time to grind out. Another benefit is to teach you to explode off the ground, even with your body in a more biomechanically inefficient position. This is extremely important for sumo deadlifters, whose sticking point is usually at the floor or within the first couple inches of the movement.

Prime Movers

  • Glutes,
  • hamstrings,
  • spinal erectors

Set-up & Performance

Place a piece of plywood on the ground where your feet would normally go when deadlifting (if you don’t want have plywood, plates can be used as well). Otherwise, your set-up and performance is identical to a competitive deadlift.

Exercise Tips

  • Force the chest up and keep the arch in the lower back
  • Place the weight on and drive through the heels

Pulls off blocks or boards will help your deadlift by:

  • Lengthening the distance of the pull, and thus the time under tension
  • Teaching you to be explosive off the floor from a biomechanically inefficient position

Secondary Accessory

Secondary assistance exercises are placed towards the end of your squat and/or deadlift workout. They are less demanding than primary accessory exercises because less weight and fewer muscle groups are involved. Secondary accessory exercises are used to bring up lagging or weak body parts.

Glute-Ham Raise

The glute-ham raise is often regarded as the crème-de-la-crème of the posterior chain exercises; this is because the glute ham raise hits all the major muscle groups on the back side of your body (calves, glutes, hams, and spinal erectors). The glute-ham is an extremely time-efficient exercise for this reason as well: You could perform an isolation exercise for the hamstrings, calves, low back, and glutes, or you could just do glute-hams and work them all at once. How’s that for training economy?

Prime Movers

  • Glutes,
  • hamstrings,
  • calves,
  • spinal erectors

Set-up

Begin by setting up a glute-ham machine so your legs are parallel to the ground and your feet locked in. Lay the torso over the front of the pad and relax down.

Performance

Begin by squeezing the glutes as hard as possible. The glutes are a very strong muscle group, but most people often bypass them in exercises such as this, using only the more dominant hamstrings and spinal erectors. Once the glutes are tight, use the spinal erectors to raise your torso up to the parallel position. As you are raising the torso, press the toes into the plate and squeeze the hamstrings very hard. From the parallel position, break at the knees and begin curling your upper thighs and torso up to a point perpendicular to the floor. Hold, then lower under control to the starting position.

Exercise Tips

  • Squeeze the glutes prior to movement and keep them tight throughout
  • Keep the torso and upper thighs aligned on the second half of the movement (do not excessively arch the back or let the butt push back first)

Glute-ham raises will help your deadlift by:

  • Strengthening all the muscles of your posterior chain in one efficient exercise

Back Extension

Back extensions are an often forgotten exercise, but one which can improve your deadlift nonetheless. In the 50’s and 60’s, back extensions were one of the primary exercises used by Olympic weightlifters to strengthen their low back and improve their performance.

Prime Movers

Spinal erectors

Set-up

Begin by setting up a roman chair, back extension or glute-ham machine so your legs are parallel to the ground and your feet locked in. Lay the torso over the front of the pad and relax down.

Performance

Before beginning, squeeze your glutes as hard as possible. Then, squeeze the low back and raise the torso to parallel (or just beyond parallel) to the ground. Hold, and then lower under control to the starting position.

Exercise Tips

  • Squeeze the glutes prior to movement
  • Make sure to come up to at least parallel, but do not hyperextend the back

Back extensions will help your deadlift by:

  • Strengthening the posterior chain, specifically the spinal erectors

Reverse Hypers

Reverse hypers are another excellent exercise when working on development of the posterior chain. Not only do reverse hypers pound the hamstrings and erectors, but when performed correctly they also improve strength and motor control in the gluteals as well.

Another benefit of the reverse hyper is it can be used as a recovery tool for athletes with low back injuries. By performing 2 sets of high repetition, body weight only work, you flush fresh blood into the area. This speeds the recovery process and gets you back to hoisting heavy iron ASAP.

Prime Movers

  • Glutes,
  • hamstrings,
  • spinal erectors

Set-up

If you don’t have a dedicated machine, you’ll have to improvise and additional loading will be difficult. If you do have a dedicated machine, load up the weights and get ready to rock!

Performance

With your feet together and in the straps, initiate the movement by squeezing your gluteals very hard. With the glutes tight, swing the legs up a point parallel to the ground, keeping them as straight as possible throughout the movement. Return to the starting position and repeat.

Exercise Tips

  • ” Squeeze the glutes prior to and throughout performance
  • ” Keep the legs straight throughout the movement; if they bend, the weight is too heavy

Reverse Hypers will help your deadlift by:

  • ” Strengthening your posterior chain
  • ” Keeping the low back healthy

Romanian Deadlifts (RDL’s)

Romanian deadlifts are to the deadlift what good mornings are to the squat. Not only are they a tremendous developer of the posterior chain, but they also improve your postural awareness when deadlifting. If you have ever missed a big deadlift because the weight got out in front of you, you know what I’m talking about. RDL’s will not only give you the strength but the awareness necessary to overcome this and finish those big pulls.

Prime Movers

  • Hamstrings,
  • glutes

Set-up

Begin by grabbing the bar with either a double-overhand or mixed grip, and set the feet approximately shoulder width apart. Inflate the chest, arch the low back, and place the weight on the heels before starting.

Performance

With the chest up and low back arched, push the butt back as far as possible. Keep pushing back until you get a good stretch in the hamstrings, and then squeeze the hamstrings and glutes to drive you back up to the starting position.

If you feel ANY rounding of the low back during the movement, squeeze the glutes and return to the starting position. Rounding the low back with a load is the #1 way to injure your low back, so emphasize keeping the chest up and the back arched.

Exercise Tips

  • ” Keep the chest up and low back arched throughout the movement
  • ” Focus on pushing the butt back as far as possible

RDL’s will help your deadlift by:

  • ” Strengthening the muscles of the posterior chain, specifically the hamstrings
  • ” Teaching you postural awareness to save a lift when the bar gets out in front of you

Zercher Squats

I have to thank my old powerlifting coach Justin Cecil for introducing me to this stout exercise. Zercher squats are truly old-school: They’ll bring your deadlift up, but you’ll pay the price with some old-fashioned PAIN. Even though the abs and low back are not the prime movers in this movement, they are stressed the most due to the placement of the bar in front of your body.

Prime Movers

  • Glutes,
  • hamstrings

Set-up

Place the hooks of a power rack at approximately hip height. With your arms at shoulder width, bend the elbows to 90 degrees and place the bar in the crook of your arms (if you want you can clasp your hands together or keep them apart, whichever you prefer). Walk out and assume your normal deadlift stance.

Performance

Brace the core, and then sit back like you are performing a squat. As you are going down, the arms will come out slightly in front of you as you sit back and down with the hips. Make sure to emphasize keeping the head and chest up, while forcing the knees out. Come down until the bar is at approximately thigh level, and then return to the starting position.

Exercise Tips

  • If you are having issues with the pain, wrap a towel or sweatshirt around the bar
  • Make sure to emphasize keeping the core tight and the chest up

Zercher squats will help your deadlift by:

  • Increasing your pain threshold
  • Overloading and strengthening the muscles of your core

Conclusion

The deadlift is the grand finale in a powerlifting meet, and can often determine whether your meet was a success or failure. It always feels like you have a better meet when you finish with a big PR deadlift, so why wouldn’t you want to take the necessary steps to improving it? Building a big deadlift is just like the other powerlifts; it takes a combination of intelligent planning, hard work, and guts, but the end result is always worth it. Until next time, train hard and stay strong!

About the Author:

Mike Robertson, M.S., C.S.C.S., U.S.A.W., is the Director of the Athletic Performance Center (APC) in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The APC offers sport performance training, injury rehabilitation, and personal training services to its clients. Mike received his Masters in Sports Biomechanics from the Human Performance Lab at Ball State University, has been a competitive powerlifter, and is the USA Powerlifting State Chair in Indiana. To contact Mike, please send an e-mail to [email protected]

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  • David Harrison

    Fantastic post – thank you for sharing.

    I might only suggest some accompanying videos to demonstrate as I for one have difficulty picturing what you describe when talking about the set up.

    I love these accessories and I particularly enjoy the deadlift so you might have just helped my love affair grow more intense! :-)