Increasing The Deadlift

by Kilo on August 3, 2010

I fell in love with the deadlift about two, maybe three years ago. The first time I really started paying attention to it was when I was getting ready for my first Tactical Strength Challenge. The TSC has three events:

1. Deadlift for your max

2. Consecutive dead-hang pullups

3. kettlebell snatches with the 24 kilo bell in 5 minutes.

I had no idea what I could deadlift at the time. I went over to Gold’s Gym and practiced the form I had seen on Youtube. I got online and looked up programs. Of course the one I settled on was an Ed Coan deadlift template.

It called for lots of volume ramping up over about 10 weeks.

Initially I was terrified to deadlift. I found I could lift 315 without much trouble, but the sight of three plates on each side of the bar still kind of freaked me out. But I was knocking out sets of 5 without much trouble. I avoided the temptation to check my form in one of the zillion mirrors and I wondered if I was making progress.


You get three tries. I opened with a thunderous 365. It was about 30 lbs more than I had ever tried before. It went up really, really easily. Then I jumped up to 375. I finished with a fairly easy 388 that I dive-bombed into and ripped off the ground. Later when I watched a video of it, I was concerned to see that I had nearly snapped in two during the lift, and my face had been purple.

“You totally had 400 in you” everyone said. I had no idea if it was true or not, but I was hooked. Suddenly all I wanted to do was deadlift.

The next year

I stuck with Coan’s template for a couple of cycles and then did a few months of Pavel’s Power To The People book. Of course I mixed in way too many other things with it and my progress was only so-so. My major finding was that although the deadlift was about the only thing I wanted to do, I was still a little nervous about it.

I see this same terror in the gym where I train people now. Grown men will glare down at 245 and stalk back and forth getting psyched up. If hats are worn, they are always on backwards for deadlifting. They stomp the ground and slap their own faces. They make those faces as angry as possible. Then they pull with all their might.

Not too long ago I watched a guy set up for a pull at 275. I had no idea he had started pulling until his face turned purple. He let go and stood up. There wasn’t even a sound because the bar never left the ground. “I’m so intimidated by this lift!” he told me when I quit laughing. (Note: I laughed because I had been there myself in the not-so-distant past).

By the end of my second year I was pulling 435 with a lot of effort.

The breakthrough

For reasons I’ve talked about here and here, I was trying to get away from using too much effort in the gym. I had agreed to an experiment where I would try to make everything look easy, including the deadlift.

I also started doing a lot of different deadlift variations. I would deadlift two kettlebells for high-rep sets of 20-50. I would deadlift 225 with one hand. I would do one-legged deadlifts. I would do sets of 60 with 135 on the barbell. Some days I pulled nothing but heavy singles.

I did whatever tested well and I always made it look easy. It should be mentioned that there is a huge distinction between making something look easy and something actually feeling easy. Deadlifts are hard, but for the purposes of the experiment, I kept my face calm, my jaw loose, and if I couldn’t smile during the pull, I didn’t lift it.

In January of 2010 I pulled a very easy 500 lbs. I had not touched anything heavier than 415 in months. In March I pulled 515 way easier than I had pulled 500. These days I am comfortable up around 540. I do not deadlift heavy frequently and I have yet to experience the horrendous effort of the “true max,” where form goes out the window and “no pain no gain” takes over.

I’ve never once gutted through a hard rep once I passed 435. So far nothing convinces me that I have to.

If you are interested in building lean muscle, feeling like an animal, and being the odd man (or woman) at your gym, start deadlifting. You’ll never regret it.


{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Chris Smith August 3, 2010 at 6:31 pm

Great post Josh.

The deadlift has been the one lift that I have had the most trouble with when it comes to minimizing tension. In fact, it is the only movement I have ever done that has caused me LOTS of tension. I have noticed that I get a lot of tension in the front of my neck, which eventually radiates outward and just doesn’t end well. I’ve made a lot of progress with eliminating that, though, particularly by making sure I keep my head up throughout the whole movement and terminating the set before excessive tension really starts to take hold.

Anyway, excellent post.


Bryce August 4, 2010 at 1:03 pm

Was I your example of the person pulling 275? If so, I’m going to show you my skills and pull 300 soon!! Great post!


Kilo August 4, 2010 at 1:54 pm

Oh Bryce, you’re a jolly lad.


Steve August 16, 2010 at 1:50 pm

Nice post, K.
Time for another one, buddy.


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