Deadlift Tips: How to Deadlift 500 Pounds and Beyond
You Will Learn
— The Importance of Proper Deadlift Form
— Why Training to Failure Does More Harm than Good
— How to Strengthen the Weak Link Holding You Back
— Proper Implementation of Accommodating Resistance with Bands and Chains
— The Advantages of High Frequency Training
— How Your Posture Might be Hurting Your Pull
— Ways to Strengthen and Open up the Hips for Big Sumo PRs
Why Should You Listen to Me?
I may not be the best deadlifter in the world, but I know how to deadlift 500 pounds because I have done it myself. At 18, I pulled my first 500 pound deadlift at 160 pounds. At 22, I competed in my first powerlifting meet where I pulled 600@220. Since then, I have pulled 617@220, 630@198 (poor video quality) and I have my eyes set on 650+@181 in the near future. The deadlift tips covered in this article have been met with great success by myself and my teammates at Orlando Barbell, the powerlifting gym I call home. I am confident they will work for you too.
This may seem obvious to most of you, but if you want to deadlift 500 pounds or more, you need to spend a lot of time deadlifting! There are programs out there like the Smolov squat program and traditional Westside methods of training that involved little to no deadlift specific training. The idea behind this was that the squat strengthens the same musculature as the deadlift, so focusing almost exclusively on your squat would be sufficient to elicit strength adaptations for the deadlift as well.
While these two exercises do use much of the same musculature and there is a strength correlation between each for many athletes, the squat and the deadlift are still different enough, especially in regards to motor unit recruitment and eccentric/concentric contractions, that significant time should be dedicated to each in your training if you want to improve on both as quickly as possible. There are no shortcuts on this one. If you want to learn how to deadlift 500 pounds or more, you better dedicate a large chunk of your training to the deadlift.
Improve Your Deadlift Form
As a powerlifter, I cannot overstate the importance of good form. If the bar is drifting away from you or you can’t keep your hips open on the sumo deadlift, you are leaving a lot of pounds on the platform. Although I will write an article on deadlift form at a later point like I did on squat form, I am not going to into analysis of it today as it would detract from the main purpose of this article. If you are unsure of proper deadlift form, refer to Powerlifting To Win’s articles on How to Deadlift and Deadlift Form after you have finished this piece.
Leave Reps In the Tank
Training to failure has been shown to suppress anabolic growth factors such as IGF-1, increase resting levels of the catabolic hormone, cortisol and decrease levels of protein synthesis (source). All of these are detrimental to performance. Furthermore, form tends to break down as we approach failure. Not only does this carry an increased chance of injury, but training to failure reinforces poor habits. I already discussed the significance of proper form in the section above, so if your form needs improvement, get on it!
During my first few years of lifting, I spent a lot of time training to failure, which worked for me as a beginner (anything works for beginners), but progress stalled soon after. I was able to start progressing my lifts again once I started leaving a rep or two in the tank on each set. For me, this effect was most noticeable on the deadlift. Out of the three powerlifts, the deadlift is the closest to a full body lift and requires the recruitment of the quads, hamstrings, calves, traps, spinal erectors, adductors, glutes, abdominals and obliques (likely even more) to complete. Because the deadlift uses so much of our musculature, it is easily the hardest powerlift to recover from.
In fact, the deadlift is so taxing that many lifters find that it takes more than a week to recover if they trained their deadlift to failure the week before. Some elite lifters, like the Lilliebridge family, deadlift heavy only once every other week! I don’t think most of us require so much time to recover between sessions, but if you are interested in the Lilliebridge training methodology, here’s an article for you.
Instead of deadlifting less often, make your deadlift sessions less challenging. Despite contrary belief, you do not need to be giving it your all and grinding out reps to progress! Most of your sets should be spent in the 70-85% range with a RPE of 7 or 8. A RPE of 7 or 8 signifies that you should be leaving two to three reps in the tank at all times. If you are not familiar with the RPE scale or would like to learn more about its application, I discuss it here.
If your form is breaking down significantly and across multiple reps, chances are you are going too heavy and/or need to spend some time addressing your flaws. With that being said, everyone including myself has some technical deficiencies, and I do not encourage paralysis by over-analysis. You are never going to deadlift 500 pounds by fretting over every little obstacle. Strive for perfect form and seek information that can help you improve as a lifter, but don’t hold yourself back from progressing due to minor issues that could be fixed along the way to your first 500 pound deadlift.
Strengthen the Weakest Part of your Pull
Although you should spend most of your time deadlifting, practically everyone has a weak point on the deadlift that can be worked on through assistance exercises. Although exercises like glute ham raises, reverse hypers and the leg press have their place, you are going to get the most carryover out of deadlift variations that focus on your weaknesses.
For example, if you are weak off the floor, chances are your hamstrings need to be brought up to par. Glute ham raises, good mornings or leg curls could be added in, but I would recommend romanian deadlifts or deficit deadlifts instead. They are more specific, give you more bang for your buck and still address the glaring issue.
If your deadlift stutters once you get around your knees, your hamstrings could still be weak and the previously mentioned exercises should be prescribed. A strong upper back would also help as you transition to a more vertical back angle. I like snatch grip deadlifts for this purpose. Snatch grip pulls are even a viable option if you are weak off the floor because they increase the range of motion much like deficit deadlifts do.
Another popular deadlift variant is the pause deadlift. To do this, simply pause for however long you want right before your sticking point and then finish the rest of the rep. Some lifters like, Ben Rice, occasionally even implement a double pause when deadlifting. Some less specific accessory exercises include strict rows, pull ups and lat pulldowns. I would add them after the deadlift variation and keep the reps high (8-15) to get more volume in.
If you can’t lock out your deadlifts, the glutes and upper back are the two most likely culprits. Block pulls and dimel deadlifts are your best bet. You could even kill two birds with one stone by doing block pulls with a snatch grip. This is also where lifting with accommodating resistance shines.
If you have yet to try accommodating resistance through band and chains, I highly recommend you give it a shot. Bands and chains provide overload at the top and increase power production, which makes it easier to breeze straight through your sticking points. I find 10-20% band or chain weight to be perfect. If you use too much band or chain weight, you neglect everything but the very top end of the deadlift, and you create a strength curve that isn’t similar in the slightest to a normal deadlift. Because of such, carryover will be limited. I once made the mistake of using too much band tension in a training cycle to improve my lockout and my deadlift max actually dropped because I got much weaker off the floor, my previous strong point, in the process!
In addition to everything I wrote, you should check out Eric Cressey’s Deadlift Diagnosis Article. It’s truly one of the best reads on the deadlift that I have ever come across, from a guy that pulls 650+ raw at 165. Even if I don’t agree with everything, and I find myself referring back to it all the time.
Break Your Sessions Up
Most people deadlift once a week. If this is you and you can make it to the gym an additional day each week, I suggest you do so and break your current deadlift session into two halves. By splitting your work across two days instead of one, your recovery will be greatly enhanced.
The idea that splitting up your workouts into smaller, more frequent sessions will lead to greater increases in strength than larger, less frequent sessions isn’t an opinion that I formed without evidence. An experiment done on elite Norwegian powerlifters showed that their lifters showed significant improvements in strength and hypertrophy when their training was spread across six days per week instead of three. This will also work with more than just the deadlift. Greg Nuckols over at Strength Theory has written a comprehensive article on the Norwegian experiment here.
The benefits of high frequency training extend beyond increases in strength. I also find high frequency training to be preferable because I get in and out of the gym faster and I don’t feel nearly as beat up after my sessions. Because sessions don’t drag on, I also feel more focused and can really dial in my form.
Practice the Opposite Stance
It’s a good idea to practice both the sumo and conventional deadlift concurrently or switch back and forth. Both are excellent exercises and you never really know which one is best suited for you until you devote months to each. If you are terrible with your opposite stance to begin with, don’t give up!
The first time I pulled sumo, I could only pull 315 for a couple of reps, whereas my best conventional at that time was 540. Today, my best sumo is 630 and my conventional hovers in the high 500’s. I never would have found out how strong my sumo could be if I bailed on it early.
Even if you believe you have found the best stance for you, you should still pull both ways. Our leverages are constantly changing as we put on muscle and lose (hopefully) fat. Right now, you may be best suited for conventional, but six months from now, your leverages and strengths might be geared toward sumo.
Deadlifting can improve posture; however, both Eric Cressey and I agree, that deadlifting alone is not enough to fix poor posture. Poor posture, and postural imbalances such as kyphosis and lordosis can make it difficult, if not impossible to deadlift with good technique. It may be ridiculously boring, but a vast majority of us need to work on stretching the pec minor, the internal rotators of the shoulder and strengthening the external rotators of the shoulder. If your palms face forward when your arms are relaxed by your side, then you need to work on improving your posture immediately! Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson’s Neanderthal No More Series is a fantastic resource if you are looking to evaluate your posture or fix any imbalances.
Sumo Deadlift Specific Tips
Between the two deadlift variations allowed in powerlifting competitions, the sumo deadlift is the most technical. Unlike the conventional deadlift, the sumo deadlift requires both mobile and strong hips. If your primary focus is the sumo deadlift, you should spend time after every session stretching your adductors and strengthening your hip abductors and external rotators. This will make it easier to keep your body close to the bar and your hips open.
As your hips become stronger and more mobile, you can also work your sumo stance out to reduce the range of motion. A wider stance does make the initial pull of the floor more difficult, but the lockout becomes so much easier because you are starting in a more upright position than if you were using a narrow stance.
So how do we go about strengthening the hip abductors and external rotators in addition to stretching the adductors? If you have read some of my previous articles, you know I am a huge fan of seated band abductions for strengthening the hips. I have also provided two videos below of brutal stretches that are extremely effective for opening up the hip. I recommend you perform these at the end of every deadlift session.
No matter who you are and what you do, a 500 pound deadlift is going to take a lot of time and hard work to achieve. By making deadlifting with good form on a regular basis, you are giving yourself a solid start, but for most of us, this isn’t going to be enough.
To further improve our deadlift, we need to thoughtful include accessory exercises that carry over to the deadlift and specifically target a point of weakness in our pull. As covered above, romanian deadlifts and deficit pulls make solid choices for those who are weak off the floor, snatch grip pulls and romanian deadlifts help build the mid end, while block pulls and accommodating resistance with band and chains do a good job of overloading the top of the deadlift.
Throw in some work with the opposite stance, maintain a healthy posture and work on opening up and strengthening the hips if you are a sumo deadlifter, and you are well on your way to your first 500 pound deadlift! If you are looking for some routines out there that adhere to these guidelines, the Cube Method by Brandon Lilly and Beyond 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler both are quality selections that I endorse.
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