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.
There are 2 grips when performing the deadlift;
The standard deadlift grip is the double overhand grip and is a great starting place whilst you familiarise yourself with the movement 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 mixed grip sees you keep one hand in the standard grip position whilst switching the other to an underhand 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 (personally I liked to switch my hand positions in the mixed grip).
Based on the above my recommendations are to:
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 deadlifting you should see a marked improvement in your ability to lift more weight and can think about reducing the frequency again.
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 strengthagainst 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).
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:
Work on building strength in any of these movements to improve your strength from the floor when deadlifting.
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.
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 requires 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.
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 conventional deadlifts should be performed:
*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.
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:
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?
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 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 the lockout.
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;
Today we will look at the 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.
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 practise 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 getting ready to do your first set, take some time to visualise yourself successfully completing the lift. You’ll be surprised at the effect this can have on your performance and will be crushing the deadlift in no time at all.
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 can negatively affect your performance, with exercises being completed towards the end of your workout being more difficult than 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.
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 fantastic strength and muscle mass development.
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 it’s common to have tight:
All of which can impede your deadlift performance. To fix these issues you can incorporate some of the following exercises:
If you do this then I promise you that the deadlift will get easier, your form will improve and your numbers will go up.