Exercise Progressions for Bigger Pulls
by Mike Robertson
I’m not sure if it’s just my generation, but I’ve noticed the guys in my gym are impatient bastards, me included. While we understand we can’t build the “perfect” body in just a few days, nearly all of us overestimate our exercise abilities, learn new techniques (or try classic moves for the first time) and immediately jump into the advanced versions.
Take the deadlift, king of all exercises. All you do is walk up to the bar, bend down, and pick it up, right? Easy peezy lemon squeezy.
Turns out it’s not that simple.
Lack of strength, poor technique, and being tighter than a Jonas Brother’s girlfriend can all lead to an ugly deadlift, decreased muscle recruitment, and injury.
But there is a way to prepare yourself for the big movement. And no, it doesn’t involve a ton of mobility and flexibility drills. All you need is some patience and the desire to lift heavy weight.
So you think you’re ready to pull big, eh?
You’ve read about guys like Andy Bolton, Ed Coan, and Ronnie Coleman and decided 2010 is the year you’re going to get serious about bringing up your deadlift.
We all know that deadlifts are not only a great way to display your raw strength, but add slabs of muscle to your body as well.
The only problem? Many of you can’t do them safely, let alone effectively.
Sometimes it’s a strength issue—you don’t have the strength in the appropriate areas to deadlift the way you should.
For others, it’s a mobility issue. Not having adequate hip mobility can make getting into the correct starting position impossible.
At our gym, I want everyone to be able to deadlift in some form or fashion. Whether your goal is to build muscle, get strong as hell, or strip some extra fat off your body, the deadlift is a fantastic tool to have in your arsenal.
Does everyone need to pull heavy singles from the floor? Absolutely not. This article is geared toward the foundation techniques and exercises to help you deadlift safely and effectively.
While I’ve outlined how to deadlift properly before here, let’s briefly review some of the major issues you see in most guy’s deadlift technique.
• Failure to get the low back flat and chest up in the starting position
• Jerking the bar off the floor and/or rounding your lower back
• Failure to finish with the hips versus the lower back
What I’m going to show you is the exact progression we use at our gym to help our clients build the appropriate strength, mobility, and body awareness to deadlift like a true Grandmaster.
Pull-throughs are an excellent starting point in our progression, although they do look a bit ridiculous. But wipe that smile off your face; we’re big boys here. And if it takes straddling a cable pulley and squeezing our glutes for a bigger deadlift, then by golly we’re gonna do it.
Not only do pull-throughs allow us to really minimize range-of-motion (ROM) if necessary, the weight pulling us backwards allows us to really engage our glutes to drive hip extension.
To do it, stand facing away from a cable machine, reach down and grab a single handle (or rope attachment) with both hands. Take a few steps away from the machine and set your feet just outside of shoulder or hip-width apart.
From the starting position, hinge at the hips and force them back. You want to maintain a chest out and flat back position throughout the lift. Once you get a stretch in your hamstrings, drive your hips forward and finish by squeezing the glutes at the top.
You may have a tendency to over-exaggerate the arch or finish position. Don’t! Think of finishing tall and driving the hips forward.
With an RDL, we typically move through a larger range-of-motion which provides the benefit of strength along with the ability to increase the load. Finally, we get the weight out in front of us, which is more specific to the deadlift than a pull-through.
To do it, load a barbell around hip-height in a power rack and grab the bar with a double overhand or mixed-grip. Take a step back and set your feet underneath your shoulders.
From the starting position, focus on pushing the hips as far back as you can. (Imagine you’re trying to touch the wall behind you with your ass.) Just like the pull-through, you want to maintain a chest-out and flat back position throughout. Once you get a slight stretch in the hammies, drive the hips through and finish by squeezing the glutes.
With RDLs, too many people focus on the ROM up front. Instead, focus on maintaining an optimal low back alignment and improving hip mobility up front.
Trap Bar Deadlifts or Rack Pulls
Where pull-throughs and RDLs place the bulk of the emphasis on the posterior chain and hip mobility, these progressions start to look and feel a little bit more like a true deadlift.
But which one should you use? If you have a trap bar and can assume the correct starting position (chest up, back flat), then go right ahead. If not, use a power rack to perform rack pulls.
One of the biggest issues you see when setting up for the trap bar deadlift or rack pull is how people get set. Most guys will keep their chest up but just bend their hips and knees simultaneously. What you typically see is a ton of dorsiflexion at the ankle; instead of loading the glutes and hammies, they move to their quads where they’re stronger. When you see someone set-up this way, you can also watch their lumbar spine roll up like an accordion, which looks about as painful as it feels.
To remedy this, set up by standing tall, “setting” the arch in the low back, and pushing your hips back like you’re performing an RDL. If you can push your hips back and grab the bar, you’re in perfect position. If not, push back until you run out of hip motion, and then bend the knees slightly.
Once you’re set, the lift is identical to a traditional deadlift. Think about taking the slack out of your arms and the bar, and then, with control, break the bar from the pins or floor.
Many will tell you, “Just grip and rip!” While it’s good advice for some hardcore meatheads, it’s bad advice for the rest of us. Trying to yank the bar off the floor allows the hips to shoot up too quickly in relation to the torso. The hips shoot up, the bar drifts in front of the body, and you end up in a horrible position to finish the lift.
After you take the slack out, ease the bar off the pins (or floor), and finish by driving the hips forward at the top. Do your best to keep your chest up and back flat throughout.
For some, sumo deadlifts may be the last stop in your journey. For me, sumo deadlifting has always felt more natural. For others, though, this will be the final progression before finishing with conventional deadlifts.
Again, I discussed deadlift technique in-depth in my Precision Pulling article, so be sure to check that out. A few notes for those of you who may not be used to sumo deadlifting:
• Make sure your toe flare is adequate — your feet, knees and hips should be in a straight line. The wider your feet are, the more toe flare you’ll need.
• This is going to take a great deal of groin and adductor flexibility, and it may take a few weeks to adjust to it.
A brief note: Some of you may argue that a trap bar or rack pull is a better lead-in or progression than a sumo deadlift if your end-goal is to do a conventional deadlift. In all honesty, I can understand that line of thinking. However, I think there’s some added mobility required to sumo deadlift appropriately, and that can pay off down the line if mobility truly is a limiting factor in your pull.
Along the same lines, I think the trap bar isn’t quite as “specific” from a body mechanics and line-of-pull perspective, but we’re really arguing minutiae at that point. Use whichever you feel works best for you.
It might take a few days, a couple of weeks, or for those of you who are really stiff, immobile or weak, a few months to get here.
First and foremost, give yourself a pat on the back. You’re already further than 90 percent of the strength training population!
Conventional deadlifts are arguably the premiere strength and mass builder. I have yet to see a guy who can handle appreciable weights in the deadlift that doesn’t have a dense, hard look to his physique.
This kind of look, my friends, can’t be faked.
Technique and performance of the conventional deadlift is essentially identical to the trap bar, albeit with a greater range of motion. One of the most critical components of a smooth conventional deadlift is your foot placement. In a sumo deadlift where there’s less dorsiflexion at the ankle, many will set-up with their heels directly underneath the bar and their shins touching the bar at the onset.
While it’s up for debate (and highly individual to boot), I like to set-up with my feet approximately shoulder width apart, toes very slightly turned out, and the bar 2-3 inches in front of my shins. As I lower myself to approach the bar, a small amount of ankle dorsiflexion occurs and places my shins up against the bar before I initiate the pull.
From there, the basic deadlifting tenets apply: chest up, back flat, and finish with the hips. If you need a complete A to Z guide to the actual execution, please refer to the article I mentioned earlier.
Whether your goal is a leaner physique, eye-popping muscles or just a huge friggin’ deadlift, the techniques outlined in this article can get you there. Take your time to work through the progressions and you may be surprised with how much smoother and more efficient your deadlift technique feels.
Here’s to bigger pulls in 2010!