Deadlifting is one of the core powerlifting movements. It requires strong upper and lower body strength and is a great way to build a strong back. Many new lifters start out with concentrating on their bench press, but deadlifting is and always will be a staple for any serious powerlifter, strongman or bodybuilder. Here are some tips to improve yours.
Know when to use wrist straps
Wrist straps help with your grip, and there is some debate about their usefulness. I wrote about my experience with them here. For an average person try training with and without them. Make sure to use an alternated grip when not using straps. In my personal opinion If you are training for powerlifting you should rarely use them. Bodybuilders can definitely get away with using wrist straps more and strongmen competitors can also find them useful to train for events that are modified like car deadlifts which allow straps in the event.
Try a sumo deadlift
To do a sumo deadlift you extend your legs out so your feet are spread far out towards the ends of the bar. You then reach down to a much narrower grip then a conventional deadlift. The execution is much the same, with a deep seated motion, keeping your head up and driving the weight to waist level.
Get some chalk on those hands. You won’t be pushing yourself to the max unless you can maintain your grip. And you don’t want to have your grip fail because of something as simple as sweaty hands. Check with your local gym and see if they allow chalk. If not, they sometimes allow a substitute.
Chains are not just great for bench pressing; they are perfect for other heavy compound movements like the deadlift. You will have to adjust them accordingly but attaching a set of chains to the ends of the bar is a great way to train through some sticking points and lockout with some truly massive weight.
Lift off blocks
Similar to benching off a block placed on your chest, pulling the bar off of elevated blocks is not done to avoid the deep portion of the lift. It is done to fully maximize your strength and target specific points in your movement. If you watch lifters failing deadlifts they often have a sticking point at some stage of the lift. Adjusting your blocks to work through those points can really help develop a big deadlift.
We used to record ourselves doing our lifts all the time. Today’s smartphones are capable of excellent quality video. This is not just to have a video to document your lifting; it really helps analyze your form. Try it from different angles and note if you are sitting deep enough into the lift or having any issues that you might not even notice you are doing.
Wrist straps are thick pieces of material that wrap around a lifters wrist and strap a tail section to the bar of the weight being lifting. This done right snugs the bar into the hand and greatly reduces the effort that the lifters grip plays in the lift.
The use of wrist straps has been a largely debated subject over the years. The argument for them is that they allow the lifter to push more reps and more weight to a muscle group then what the lifters grip would normally allow. The counter argument is that you should build your grip strength to a point that you do not need to use straps at all and using them only serves to limit ones grip strength potential.
My personal experience with wrist straps has to do with my back. My back has always been my strongest muscle group and this has sometimes made training those muscles in the group difficult. At one time nothing short of 200lb dumbbells would suffice in doing heavy dumbbell rows. But nothing I could do would ever make my grip handle reps with 200lbs for that exercise. So I used wrist straps to compensate and get a proper back set done. However as time went on I found myself using straps more and more, including in lifts where they were not necessary, I started using them for comfort and here is where you should be cautious.
As I began to get into strongman and later powerlifting, I found my grip was lacking. I decided I needed to start focusing on developing my grip with strength exercises specific for gaining grip strength and I eventually became less reliant on straps as time went on. However in certain lifts, such as those 200lb dumbbell rows, I still needed them to fully push myself in that exercise and for certain strongman events such as the car deadlift. I am a believer in that if you want to develop a lift better, than do that lift. So in that regard if you are training to be able to lift a car with straps, train with straps, if you are training to deadlift in a powerlifting event that obviously does not allow them, then train without.
In my experience straps can play a part in any training routine but you have to be very careful not to start to use them as a crutch. There are situation such where you simply cannot maintain your grip to properly push another muscle group to its max. An example to this would be say barbell shrugs for targeting your trapezius muscles. This can (depending on your conditioning) involve a large amount of weight, maybe even more than you can deadlift and to really target that muscle, removing the grip element may be a good idea. Likewise if you are training for an event that allows straps then utilizing them in your training is also not a terrible idea. However, one must not fall into the trap of using straps when not necessary out of comfort. This is especially the case if one is involved in a sport such as powerlifting or strongman where grip becomes a significant factor in performance. If you must use straps more than you should, make sure to put in some grip training now and then. And really ask yourself on each lift you use them on if you truly feel they are needed.
We all can have a hard time with motivation to work out from time to time. Figuring out when your body truly needs rest vs when you just want to be lazy can be a fine line. But if you have a suspicion that you are just being more on the lazy side here are some simple things I find to help get you up off that sofa.
Change things up
You should be doing this anyways to help stimulate muscle growth with your lifting. Never be afraid to throw in something totally different from your routine. Try working out with equipment you have never used. If you are a free weight lifter try some machine work. Focus more on your favorite muscle group as that alone can get your energy up.
Go to the gym
If you have a home gym try changing things up and heading to your local gym for a drop-in. Even if you have a gym pass try another gym for a day or two. There is no denying that working out at home is very convenient but you simply cannot beat the energy you can feed off of at a busy gym.
Go with a friend
If you work out alone try bringing a friend along, even if they are not as into lifting as you. Sometimes having someone to show the ropes to can be a lot of fun and if you already have a workout partner or group try bringing a newbie along and help encourage them to come in. They might slow you down a little but it could be a new motivation to hit your workouts more consistently.
Walk out the door
One big advantage to a gym over working out at home is that once you have committed to going you are much more likely to stick it out for the duration of the workout. If you are sitting in your convenient gym at home you might be tempted by that comfortable sofa calling your name. Once you have walked out to go to the gym down the road however, you are much more likely to stick with it.
Do what you want
If you are cringing thinking about your specific exercises today, try a workout just doing exactly what you want. Feel like hitting the bench press all workout? Or maybe you feel like squats today instead of back. Go for it, really it is better than not going and sometimes the change up can be a beneficial shock to your system.
Take a week off
Sometimes you really are not enjoying your workouts right now. Sometimes taking a week off will give you a bit of rest you don’t realize you need. Many times I have found at the end of that week I am suddenly feeling antsy to get back to the gym.
I started lifting weights in the gym when I was 12 years old. I bought a Arnold Schwarzenegger encyclopedia of modern bodybuilding did my best to build a routine. Recently a friend of mine asked when I began to seriously lift, (which would be my mid teens) being 33 years old now, he pointed out that I have been lifting regularly for more of my life than not. Which got me thinking, what does it take to stick to lifting for 20 years.
It was a wide held belief that if you can stick to anything for more that 8 months, you can keep doing it. For most people wanting to start an exercise program long term, I encourage them to focus on the first 8 months. If you just get past that, you can keep going forever.
But training extremely intensely hard is… well hard. Your body has limits, and I have seen more than my fair share of hardcore lifters stop after time burnt out. It is easy to get caught up in the hardcore “push past your limits” for a few years, but there comes a time when your body might start saying, enough is enough. One of the ways I have come up with to combat this is to go through cycles of lifting. Some years and I am training hard, ready to take on competitions, other years I am just in the gym enjoying some light morning lifts.
I am a firm believer in listening to your body. It can tell you when you need rest, when to eat more, when to push harder. You have to look past the body’s primal need to be lazy and conserve energy. Learn the difference between your body needing recovery, and your body just not wanting to break away from the TV for a while.
When I look at my workout for the morning I tend to ask, will this make my day better? will it make me feel more energetic, healthy, stronger. Will I get that endorphin rush from the exercise and feel less stressed. Even if I really don’t want to lift that day, my answer is almost always yes. However on the off chance that it is a no, than that is a very good sign for me to take a few days, maybe even a week and just do some light cardio. I let my body recover and always when I have done this, I come back to the gym stronger.
The people that tell me that if I am not on the verge of always throwing up from the intensity of my workouts then it’s not worth it, well none of them are still lifting. It has been over 20 years of weights for me. Sometimes I am hardcore in the gym, sometimes I am that guy on the machine checking his phone, but I am always happy to be there and will be doing my best to be lifting thought my lifespan.
I don’t train my arms nearly as much as I used to. Back in my early training I had arm day in my routine. It was a day of set after set of curls, dips, skull crushers, hammer curls, you name it. Today I look at my arm workouts as secondary work to my main bench, squat or deadlift days. Once every week or two 3 sets for my biceps, and 3 for my triceps is all I do and I find it more than enough. That said training arms is fun, and just because I no longer agree with doing endless sets for working the arms doesn’t mean I don’t believe in putting some serious intensity into the training. One of the biggest problems I have found is finding ways to change things up. Here are a couple of ways I found to make arm days extra challenging and fun. While keeping the workout short
Super set biceps and triceps.
Most people who train regularly know about super-setting. This just involves combining two exercises into one long set. This can be done with the same muscle group, like super setting back rows with chin ups for your back. Or separate muscles like for you biceps and triceps.
The thing I find about doing this for the arms is that you get an unbelievable “pump” that happens. The idea is to keep the blood pumping into the same area, in this case your arms. Something not achieved with say doing supersets with your quads and delts and blood going to both your legs and shoulders. Give it a try, and be creative on the exercises. Try combining skull crushers with hammer curls. Or preacher curls with pressdowns. One of my favorite is to load a EZ bar up, do a set of basic bicep curls, then immediately clean the weight over my head and do some behind the neck triceps extensions. Vary this by one day starting with biceps and the next triceps.
21 curls were always one of my favorite. If you have not heard of these here is how they work. Take a weight that is a about 70-80% of what you would normally use for a 10-12 rep set. Bring the weight up to your shoulders as the starting positions as if you have just finished a curl movement. Now lower the weight in the eccentric (downward motion) but stop as your arms reach 90 degrees. Bring the weight back up to the starting position and repeat for 7 reps. This is just like doing curls but you are only doing the top half movement. When you reach 7 reps lower the weight all the way down and repeat 7 reps but this time doing the same thing with the bottom half of the movement. This means you are extending your arms fully and curling the weight up only to a 90 degree bend the in elbow.
At this point you may have found the first 7 reps easy but by the end of these 7 you will feel a little bit like you just lit a fire on your biceps. Now after you finish those 7 comes the fun part, finish with 7 full motion reps nice and controlled just as you would normally do a bicep curl. You should only need 3 sets of this to have your biceps pumped and screaming. Again try some variations, my favorite is this with a EZ bar, but try hammer curls with a rope and cable, or for a real challenge and stretch, dumbbells on a slight incline. I also sometimes like preacher curls with this method.
Bench pressing is a lot of fun, there is something about the simplicity of getting underneath a crap load of weight and feeling it start to move upward. It is to me still the most primal and enjoyably lift in the gym.
I am not a bench press monster by any means. But I have been lifting long enough and with enough different lifters that I have learned some tips and tricks along the way. Here are some tips I have for building your bench press.
Don’t just press!
Ok this is a funny one to start, but I remember getting ready for a provincial bench press championship, and as much as I was pressing, I was also deadlifting and squatting. Building strong legs improves your testosterone, building a strong back helps stabilize your bench. All muscles also have their opposing muscle, and when one is stronger and or shorter than the other, it can cause muscle imbalance and injury such as “swimmers shoulder”
Train some days light and explosive.
Many of our training days where not focused on hitting max numbers. Don’t get me wrong we did that too, but often our training consisted of a moderate weight, broken down into sets of 3 reps, done with as much speed and explosiveness as possible. I would often use about 225lbs for this, of which I could reach about 30reps on a good day, however it was more about building those nerves that innervate the muscle cell. It is the reason people who start training increase strength in the first few months without increasing muscle mass… they are connecting new nerves.
Get good spotters.
Ok obvious right? but if you really want to push limits having good spotters is very important. If you are going to do shirt work or training with boards I think having 3 spotters is critical. Having someone know the right time to help and the right time to let you push though the lift is so vital.
Vary your grip
Finding if you are more suited to a wide grip or a narrow grip is important. A wide grip emphasizes the shoulders more, a narrow grip the triceps. A wide grip also reduces the range of motion required to complete the lift. However a wide grip definitely puts more stress on the wrists, and I feel should not be done heavy without adequate wrist wraps. I was for a long time a narrow bench presser. It was not until I started forcing myself into a wider grip that I gained easily another 15-20lbs on my bench. However initially working with a wide grip caused my bench press to go down 30lbs or more for a little while. It takes some getting used to. In training utilizing a variety of grips is essential. Also be mindful if you are entering a powerlifting competition what their rules are in regards to max grip width.
Focus on your compound movements.
When training for strength i see too many beginners doing set after set on small isolation exercises like bicep curls, or side lateral moments. I used to be one of them many years back. These exercise are not without value, and are important to keep muscle balance, but for improving overall strength your focus should be on large compound movements that engage multiple muscle groups such as rows, presses and squats. Try to think about using movements that complement goals like a big bench press. We used to love doing incline log presses for our triceps. It engaged our chest and shoulders as well and helped develop our pressing power. Just keep in mind not to over train this way. By this I mean doing 15 sets of narrow grip bench press a few days after your primary bench workout would not be ideal. Instead treat your arm or shoulder day as a complement to your harder more rigorous bench, deadlift or squat day.
Throw some variety into your training.
I have heard people say in training, to not look for ways around your purpose. Don’t focus on pushups, or cable crossovers for a bigger bench press, If you want a bigger bench press, then bench press, if you want a bigger deadlift then deadlift. I very much agree with this. If you are getting ready for a bench press competition for example, you had better be bench pressing like it was making you millions. That said, throwing some variety into you routine is also important for a number of reasons. First, outside of competitive training, doing the same exercises over and over month after month gets brutally boring. this can be overcome with pure willpower for a few years, but the same routine will eventually drive you away from an activity, no matter how much you enjoy it. The second reason is to shock your system into more growth. The whole biological reason your muscles are gaining strength is because your body perceives you doing a task beyond the capability of your body (hence micro tears in muscles stimulating adaptation by growth) and so your body tries to adapt to that movement. Throwing in some machine work, or dumbbell work every so often will keep your body guessing and growing to adapt. Sometimes after switching your routine enough you will feel sore the next day akin to having started training after a long break. Finally bench pressing generally requires spotters, if you can’t for any reason have someone around to properly spot you, a using dumbbells or loading up a machine is a much safer option. Don’t bench press alone! I have heard of too many injuries in my time.
Using chains, boards and bands
Powerlifters have been using these forever. Clipping chains to the end of the bar in order to incrementally increase the weight on the bar as the lift is executed. Bands attached to the bar do a similar job with increasing resistance. And using boards to stop the bar and certain points in the eccentric part of the lift (downward motion) helps sticking points. All these can be used to increase your bench, as well as other lifts. Utilizing chains on deadlifts work’s great. A few words of caution. Utilize spotters to hold the boards on your chest. Never try to attach them to you, it can end badly. Also use a very secure clip to add the chains to the bar. Speaking as someone who had a chain break away during a squat, it is more than a little dangerous. there are many website that sell proper chain clips that are designed just for that purpose.