Updated: Dec 8, 2022
Jon Pall Sigmarrson yelled "There is no reason to be alive if you can't do deadlift." It's so thrilling watching anyone give their all to break the weight off the floor and push to a perfectly locked out final position. The deadlift is touted as the king of lifts and the most total body movement as nearly every muscle in your body is contributing to moving the bar. But often, lifters find themselves in gaps of poor growth where you may find your deadlift progress stagnating or even going backwards. So what to do to get past it?
1. Increase Your Work Capacity
Maximal deadlifting creates an enormous tax on the central nervous system. In fact, for some individuals it can take 2 to 4 weeks to fully recover from an attempt at their max! As such, naturally there have been a multitude of training plans to accommodate to this high tax scenario. This includes - Westside Barbell emphasizing lower % 'dynamic effort' in their deadlift work and saving the true specific max out for competition (rotating the type of deadlift weekly, emphasizing conventional if you're a sumo puller or sumo if you're a conventional puller, and keeping the max effort attempts centered around the squat variation with less max effort days dedicated to the deadlift specifically), Starting Strength working with %'s that allow for 3x5 ascending across time in simple progression (emphasizing lower RPE/intensity to gradually drive up progress in the lift and rarely taking maximums), the more modern RPE system of training progression where submaximal top sets gradually build out volume with back off sets leading up to a top single or spread of top singles (more or less emphasizing a linear progression and a "strike while the iron is hot" mentality). There are many more schools of thought but each method functions around developing a wider base of work capacity through volume development. This should make sense with the deadlift being such a large encompassing total body movement, so there tends to be a very positive impact from doing high total body time under tension movements like sled dragging, prowler pushing, high volume deadlifting, high volume squatting, and even sprinting and jumping! When work capacity goes up, the deadlift goes up - but - when work capacity goes down, the deadlift tends to go down. If you're wondering what the number one way to bring up your deadlift is, it's to do more general work. Many CrossFitters that have joined our team often find that their deadlift is tremendously higher than their squat and they power clean very close to their full clean (which I credit both to their robust general work capacity). However, you need to be deadlifting at least once per week to keep the technical skill, even if it's as little as 30% of your 1RM - and when you're deadlifting you should be moving the weight as powerfully as possible in the concentric and keeping the weight under control in the eccentric. Most of the deadlift work you do needs to be done with at least 70% and you should save full blown RPE 10 max outs for the end of large training pushes so that you have room in your recovery to make progress in the rest of your training. Push your work capacity in MANY ways!
2. Bring Up The Quads
I know what you're thinking, "but the deadlift is a posterior chain movement!" Yes it absolutely is, but it's also a push from your legs and requires MAD leg drive for big deadlifts. In fact, your leg strength (specific to extending the knees) is incredibly important in getting the bar to leave the floor. If you find the bar coming to a stop before you ever get to your knees, look to your quads. These same individuals that need to bring up their quads may experience occasional knee pain in the squat, the weight feeling easy in the deadlift and then suddenly the bar won't break the ground at all, or they may find their squat massively lagging. The good news, however, is that the quads respond extraordinarily well to volume. Do you know any long femur (tall) lifters who have huge deadlifts but lagging squats? And when they deadlift do their backs round like a rainbow? If they can sink volume into their quads through stuff like front squats, split squats, hack squats, belt squats, and even leg press for a nice stretch of time, I'm sure they'll see great returns on their deadlift. Bring up your quads!
3. Bring Up Your Lats & Traps
It can't be, bringing up your upper body to move a deadlift? YEP! If the lats or traps are too weak to do the lift, you'll probably find yourself hitting a WALL when the bar gets close to your knees. The lats work to maintain the position of your torso through the pull but when weak the lifter will buckle in the upper back which makes keeping the bar close/vertical bar path next to impossible as the bar will most likely travel forward. The traps work to anchor the scaps in place and provide strength to the shoulder to prevent the shoulder from buckling out of position. Now you know what to bring up if you're getting stuck around your knees, build out a JACKED upper back fam.
4. Training Your Glutes & Hamstrings
It's important to remember that in all of these pieces from the ground to the lock out that your entire body is working together to perform the deadlift. If you're struggling to lock out weights then you should 100% turn your focus to bringing up your glutes and hamstrings. This is a more unique situation but when the lock out is weak, first we'll look to hip mobility by taking wider stances across the board in our strength work to increase available range of motion. Second, we'll use movements like barbell hip thrusts, straight leg deadlift variations, back extensions, reverse hypers, and even smaller movements like band pull throughs and leg curls to increase lock out strength. For my Weightlifters, we always maintain a solid work load of this hip extension work to maintain a very strong triple extension in their Snatch, Clean, and Jerk.
Notice that the answer is not immediately "add more deadlifting." In fact, most of my lifters only deadlift once per week and then twice per week in competition peaking. This has worked extremely well for us and has let some of our lifters literally add hundreds of pounds to their deadlift within a year or two. Because we're constantly using other movements to bring up the deadlift, we don't get beat down by our deadlift training and only improve our fitness and total strength. I learned a very long time ago, you can't train if you're hurt so you best sure train your weak points. Your weak points are the reason why lifts stall so if you just do more of the same thing then nothing happens - you have to fall in love with annihilating the things you suck at and your lifts surely will grow steadily... as long as you're consistent! Without consistency, nothing of note will happen. Don't miss training, hammer your weak points, and strike when its time to strike.