Working more muscles than any other compound exercise, including the squat, the deadlift is a true beast of an exercise that works both the upper and lower body in one movement.
It can be used to improve posture, build strength, pack on muscle and even assist with fat loss. When performed correctly its completely safe and you’d be crazy not to include in your training in some form.
Building up your strength on the deadlift can not only do wonders for your physique and confidence but it also feels pretty freaking awesome too.
With that in mind here are 14 ways to improve your deadlift and keep adding weight to the bar.
Experiment With Different Grips
The standard deadlift grip is the double overhand grip. This is a great starting place whilst you familiarise yourself with the deadlift but, once you begin to build some serious strength you’ll quickly find you can’t maintain your grip like this.
Instead you’ll need to switch to the mixed grip. The reason for this is because the mixed grip allows you to lift more as it stops gravity being able to pull the bar out of your hands as easily when your grip begins to fatigue.
This is because having one hand grip from underneath gives you much more support, whereas when using a double overhand grip, you only have your thumbs underneath which means it’s much harder to stop the bar beginning to slip out of your hands as your grip strength fades.
I’ve seen it be suggested that you should switch your hands in the mixed grip with each set to avoid imbalances but I’ve also seen people say this isn’t necessary provided you have a well structured training plan.
Based on the above my recommendations are to:
- Use the double overhand grip for warm up sets and lighter sets
- Use the mixed grip for heavy sets
Deadlift More Often
Strength is a skill and like any other type of skill, you need to practice to get better at it.
Deadlifts are no exception, so if you’re currently only deadlifting once per week then consider upping your deadlift frequency to 2 or 3 times a week to get some more practice in.
After 6 – 8 weeks of more frequent deadlift you should see a marked improvement in your ability to lift more weight and can think about reducing the frequency again.
Work On Your Grip Strength
As we highlighted in point one, grip strength can be a limiting factor as you build up to lifting heavier and heavier weights with your deadlift. A simple solution to help you better cope with these increasing loads is to improve your grip strength.
As with any other muscles you need to train this to make it better and using exercises like bent over rows, farmer walks, barbell shrugs or anything else where you can squeeze the bar and work your grip strength against gravity will help.
You could also try holding the bar for as long as possible at lockout on your last rep when doing deadlifts (it might be wise to only do this when you can drop the weight safely).
Improve Starting Strength
It all starts from the floor with the deadlift, if you can move the weight from there then how can you expect to take it all the way to lockout whilst retaining good form?
To get a stronger deadlift you need to work on your starting strength and powering the bar up from the floor, this will help you drive through the sticking point and up to the lockout position.
There is no one way to improve starting strength but a few exercises that have been known to work are:
- Explosive deadlifts
- Pause deadlifts
- Split stance lunges
Work on building strength in any of these movements to improve your strength from the floor when deadlifting.
Use A Weight Belt
Belts aren’t for everyone and truth be told it’s not too often that you see your regular gym goer wearing one but there is research to support the consensus that wearing one will improve your stability and reduce spinal loading which can in turn increase your performance.
One study (2) showed that “wearing abdominal belts may contribute to the stabilization during lifting exertions.” Whilst another study (3) found that “wearing a tight and stiff back belt while inhaling before lifting reduces spine loading.”
Ultimately whether you wear one or not is a matter of personal choice but it’s safe to say if you are performing near maximal reps then a belt could be a great help.
Find Out Which Variation Works Best For You
Aside from the well-known and vastly popular conventional deadlift there are a couple of other deadlift variations that are worth exploring.
At some point in your training you’ll inevitably reach a strength plateau and one strategy for overcoming this is to use something called ‘exercise rotation’ where you switch out your current exercise for a similar that works the same muscles i.e. barbell bench press to dumbbell bench press. This provides enough stimulus to push you through the plateau whilst allowing you to continue working the same muscles.
Additionally, you have to consider that depending on your flexibility, mobility, experience and limb length some deadlift variations may be easier than others for you. Let’s have a look at the different deadlift variations:
The sumo deadlift is performed with a wider stance than the conventional deadlift and can be performed to be either more quad or hip dominant.
It sits somewhere in the middle between trap bar and conventional deadlifts in terms of the mobility needed to perform it properly.
Trap Bar Deadlift
Also referred to as the hex bar deadlift this lift require less mobility than the conventional deadlift and has you pulling the bar from the floor with your arms by your sides instead of in front of you which allows you to more evenly distribute the weight.
Additionally, due to the handle position you do not need to get as close to the floor in the starting position.
The Romanian deadlift, also called the stiff or straight leg deadlift shifts the focus over to your hamstrings and is generally performed with a lighter load than the other deadlift types, you also do not touch the floor in between reps to keep the tension on the hamstrings.
There are a few other types of deadlifts aside from the 3 above and the conventional deadlift but for the average gym goer looking to add weight to the bar you can and will go a long way using the ones mentioned here.
Focus On Your Technique
We’ve talked about the importance of good technique before, not only does it improve strength but it also minimises the risk of injury.
Often a small tweak in technique can bring about large increases in strength. Let’s look at how the conventional deadlift should be performed:
- Stand with your feet hip width apart and toes pointed out 15°
- The bar should be directly over your mid foot
- Grab the bar with an overhand grip, your arms should be just outside of your legs
- As you grab the bar bend your knees until your shins come into contact with the bar
- From this position (still holding onto the bar) raise your chest up, your shoulders should be slightly in front of the bar (think shoulder blades over the bar) and arms should be straight
- You’re now set in the starting position*
- Take a big breath and pull the bar
- As the bar leaves the floor start moving your chest and hips up simultaneously
- The bar should follow a straight path up to lockout and stay close to your body the whole time
- At lockout (full standing position), lock your hips and knees, stand tall with your chest up and shoulders back. Don’t shrug or roll the shoulders it’s unnecessary and don’t lean backwards either.
- To lower the bar from lockout, move the hips backwards keeping the legs almost straight for now
- As the bar passes the knees begin to bend them and continue moving the hips back until the bar touches the floor again
- Exhale the held breath
- From here you can either use the ‘touch and go’ method where the bar touches the floor before you start your next rep OR you can let go of the bar completely and reset before going again.
*keep in mind this looks a little different for different people based on their build and limb length
Check out the video below for a full visual tutorial from Layne Norton.
Build Stronger Assistance Muscles
The deadlift is arguably one of the best compound exercises as it works so much of the body and allows you to build a huge amount of strength over time. However, deadlifting without strengthening the other muscles involved will lead to slower progress as some parts of the body give out before others have tired.
Some of the best exercises to work on are:
- Weighted chin or pull ups for a stronger back
- Bent over rows (+ any other kind of rows) for grip strength and pulling power
- Farmers walks for grip and core strength
- Planks to practice tightening/squeezing the glutes and abs and keeping the body solid from head to toe
- Squats and/or lunges for stronger quads, hamstrings and glutes
- Kettlebell swings for a stronger posterior chain and explosive power
These are the kind of lifts that will probably already be present in your training programme but if not then find some space to add them in and start reaping the benefits.
It should be pretty clear to all that to add weight to the bar you need to get stronger and to get stronger you need to train for strength.
A research study (1) set out to see what number of repetitions would result in the fastest improvement in strength.
They took 199 male college students and split them into 9 groups. Each group trained with different repetitions per set from the following set of repetitions; 2RM, 4RM, 6RM, 8RM, 10RM & 12RM.
They were tested before and after completing a 12-week progressive programme and researchers concluded that the optimum number of repetitions for strength was between 3 and 9 reps.
What does this mean?
Train with the heaviest weight you can whilst maintaining good form and aim to increase this using progressive overload continually over time. It’s as simple as that.
Take Your Shoes Off
This might sound like a bit of a weird one, but I reckon if you think about it you’ve probably seen that guy in the gym doing deadlifts without his shoes on. I’d imagine you thought it was unhygienic and disgusting, and that he was probably just some weird dude.
I bet he had a great deadlift though.
Let me know tell you why he took his shoes off to deadlift and maybe you’ll be up there with him next time.
Deadlifting in socks or even barefoot can help prevent or minimise anterior weight shift (weight shifting forwards) which allows you to shift your weight back and better recruit your posterior chain i.e. glutes and hamstrings. Additionally, it brings you closer to the floor which for those with poor mobility makes it easier to grab the bar and also reduces the distance to lockout.
Going shoeless doesn’t not automatically equal a great deadlift but for the reasons above it can help with your lifting form which may allow you to add weight to the bar.
Apply Progressive Overload
If you’re a regular gym goer you should be intimately familiar with the concept of progressive overload. If you’re not sure, here’s a quick recap;
Progressive overload is the act of increasing the stimulus on your body beyond what it has previously experienced, forcing it to adapt by getting bigger, stronger, faster, etc.
This can be done through a variety of methods;
- Volume – how many sets and reps you perform
- Intensity – how much weight you lift
- Frequency – how often you work out
- Time – how long you rest between sets
Today we will look at intensity and how to continue applying progressive overload using micro loading.
When you start training you should be able to regularly add weight to the bar in 2.5 – 5kg increments (depending on the exercise) but as you begin to move from a beginner lifter to an intermediate lifter this rate will begin to slow down and you’ll struggle to keep adding weight in the same fashion.
This is where micro loading comes in.
This means instead of aiming for a 2.5kg increase session on session you start looking for the 1.5kg, 1.25kg or even 1kg increase instead. You look to make small but steady progress to keep you on track to greater strength and muscle gains.
If you do this you will continue to make steady gains and regularly add weight to the bar.
Get Your Mind Right
Never underestimate the power of the mind when it comes to lifting something heavy. A simple change in thinking from “no way, that’s too heavy” to “I’m going to crush this” can make a huge difference.
Research (4) shows that using tools like visualisation where you picture yourself completing the lift successfully can improve performance in strength training. In addition, an extensive review of the research (5) concluded that “mental practice has a positive and significant effect on performance.”
Further research (6) shows that negative imagery has been shown to deteriorate performance whilst consistent positive imagery has shown to improve performance, thus demonstrating the importance of removing thoughts of not being able to complete the lift or seeing yourself narrowly missing completion.
So, next time you’re lying on the bench between the warm up and your first set, take some time to visualise yourself performing the next set, think about how it will feel and picture yourself completing the lift successfully. You’ll be surprised at the effect this can have on your performance and will be crushing the bench press in no time at all.
Perform Deadlifts First
If you want to add weight to the bar and getting better at the deadlift then you need to prioritise it by putting it at the beginning of your workouts.
Several research studies (7, 8) show that the sequence you perform your exercises in can negatively affect your performance, with exercises being completed towards the end of your workout being more difficult that those at the beginning.
For this reason, it’s advisable to make the deadlift the first exercise you do when you are at your freshest. This will help you to add weight to the bar more regularly.
Work On Flexibility & Mobility
In the same way, you avoid squats because they’re tough, the deadlift has probably eluded you for a while too.
I get it, they can be intimidating, especially when you’re first starting out. However, if you suck it up and learn how to do them properly they can go from intimidating to making you feel powerful beyond belief whilst giving you increased strength and muscle mass.
Before you get started it’s always best to take stock of how you match up to the level of flexibility and mobility need to perform the deadlift, with most of us sitting at a desk all day its common to have tight:
- Hip flexors
All of which can impede your deadlift performance. To fix these issues you can incorporate some of the following exercises:
- Standing or lying hamstring stretches
- Glute stretches
- Kneeling hip flexor stretch
If you do this then I promise you that the deadlift will get easier, your form will improve and your numbers will go up.
There you go, 14 actionable ways to add weight to the bar and improve your deadlift for more strength and more muscle. This post was written to be referred back to as and when needed, feel free to print it out and stick it somewhere if it helps.
Let me know how you get on with the tips included and leave me a comment telling me what’s worked for you when trying to improve your deadlift and if you found this helpful hit one of the share buttons at the bottom or side of this page. It is much appreciated.