A few weeks ago, I hit my first 600-pound deadlift. Although far from a world-class number, it’s a big milestone for me. It was my first triple-bodyweight pull and marked a long road of retooling my deadlift from awful to not-too-shabby.
I’ve made more progress on my deadlift in the past year-and-a-half than on any other lift in a similar timeframe since I started competing in powerlifting. It’s partly because my technique was lacking, and partly because I felt I had something to prove by being surrounded by so many amazing deadlifters at Cressey Sports Performance.
I’ve learned a handful of important lessons leading up to this PR. Here they are:
1. HIRE A COACH
Almost everyone performs better when an unbiased brain is behind the programming. I hired Greg Robins nearly two years ago and haven’t looked back. His aggressive exercise selection and affinity for volume pushed me out of my comfort zone, which I needed desperately to break my deadlift plateau.
2. THE UPPER BACK IS THE LIMITING FACTOR
In powerlifting – and really any strength sport – the upper back is the limiting factor. In the squat, bench press and deadlift, your arms and legs are at the mercy of what your upper back can support.
Leading up to my 600 pull, I trained upper back four times per week. The back can handle a ton of volume, especially when programmed intelligently. In general, I did rows on lower body days and pull-ups on upper body days. Add in a healthy dose of Safety Squat Bar exercises and I built a solid back that could support 600 pounds.
3. GAINING WEIGHT NEVER HURTS YOUR STRENGTH
It’s tough to stay the same weight and keep getting stronger indefinitely. I gained a bit of weight during the couple training cycles leading up to maxing out, going from 195 to about 200 (I woke up at 199 the morning of 600). It helped tremendously. Mass moves mass, period.
Dave Kirschen, one of the best 198-pound lifters around, once told me that powerlifters never get stronger and go down a weight class. They gradually move up as they get bigger and stronger.
I often have the same conversation with powerlifters who want to cut weight. I ask, “What would make you happier: lifting more weight, or winning a lower weight class?” Without fail, they’d rather lift more weight. So there you have it: don’t skip seconds at dinner if your strength is stalling.
4. CASH IN YOUR CHIPS WHEN THE TIME IS RIGHT
I equate lifting to playing poker. If you always go all in, you’ll lose lots of hands and never build your chip count. But winning lots of small pots eventually leads to lots of chips. You can’t play the big hands if you don’t have lots of chips; you’ll get pushed out by the players with more chips who can bet way more than you.
This is just like lifting: lots of submaximal training leads to hitting small rep and volume PRs, which builds up your chip count. Then, once you’ve got plenty of chips to play with, go all in for a 1RM PR and cash out for the big pay day.
Over the course of the training cycle prior to 600, I hit 550, 555 and 560 for doubles. I built my chip count slowly and didn’t bet on hands I had no chance of winning. In the end, I hit the jackpot with a big PR.
5. DON’T FORGET ABOUT REST INTERVALS
It’s easy to get carried away with long rest intervals when training heavy. However, strict rest periods build training density (work done in a given time) and challenges your ability to maintain technique under fatigue.
I did lots of backdown sets for 2-3 reps with 90 seconds rest after my heavy deadlifts. While they were too heavy to be considered speed work (mostly in the 80-85 percent range), they were heavy enough to challenge my technique and felt speedy after heavier pulls.
6. THE SSB IS AN AWESOME BACK AND AB BUILDER
We use the Safety Squat Bar (SSB) a ton at Cressey Sports Performance because it’s easy on the shoulders of our overhead athletes. It’s also amazing for building the upper back and abs because it mimics the bar position of a front squat without the risk of rolling off your shoulders.
I did a fair amount of SSB good mornings, Anderson squats from pins and front squats (SSB turned backward on the shoulders) as accessory work, which built up my upper back and core in a similar position to my deadlift. The carryover was immediate and substantial.
7. IT’S TOUGH TO PUSH THE SQUAT AND DEADLIFT AT THE SAME TIME
I kept my squat training very conservative leading up to my deadlift PR. Reflecting back, I’ve always emphasized one of the two lifts – not both – when I’ve made the most progress. The more advanced you get, the tougher it is to get multiple lifts to go up at once.
My squat training consisted mostly of moderately heavy singles and doubles (87-93 percent) followed by easy backdown sets and deadlift-specific accessories (see lesson #8).
Greg often describes this type of programming as concurrent with emphasis. I’m still training all three lifts, but I’m focusing heavily on the deadlift while doing enough volume and intensity to slowly build/maintain the squat and bench.
8. COMPETITION BREEDS SUCCESS
Ego is a powerful motivator. During my quest for 600, Eric Cressey hit a 640 deadlift and Greg demolished a 685 pull (and narrowly missed 700). Talk about inspiring.
Competition breeds success, a lack of competition breeds complacency. My need to compete with these guys (or at least not fall too far behind!) drove me to train as hard as possible. If you’re the top dog where you are, find a new dog park.
LESSONS FROM THE IRON
Some lessons can only be learned from a dozen iron plates. These eight realizations can be applied to any aspect of training, so listen to the iron. It’s as wise as it is heavy.