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Train Your Deadlift for Your Body Type and Watch Your Strength Explode!

January 7, 2008 01:13 PM

The other day I was reading an article by a well-known strength coach when he mentioned that Olympic weightlifting coach Anatoly Bondarchuk believed there were three different kinds of athletes—those who responded best to volume, those who responded best to intensity, and those who responded best to variety. The author then went on to discuss his various rambling opinions on the subject. I, however, had an idea.

For some time, now, I've wanted to write an article on deadlifting for Dragon Door. However, I wanted to make sure I wrote something that was good. You know, the kind of article other lifters would actually want to read. Not just something that my wife and family and the lifters I train would be interested in. After reading Bondarchuk's opinion on the three kinds of athletes, I believe I came up with just the article.

Enter the Deadlift

For some reason, you never see good articles on deadlift training. Or, I should say, you don't see enough good articles. There seem to be articles aplenty out there for the squat and—God only knows!—the bench press. But that's a real shame. Especially when you consider just how important the deadlift is, and how many lifters are out there training it each week. After all, the meet really doesn't stop until the bar hits the floor. The deadlift honestly and truly can make or break the "full" powerlifter. Also, it seems that there are a large number of competitors who are now entering deadlift-only contests.

So what in the heck is the deal? Why aren't there more good training articles for the deadlift? The reason, I believe, is because of a little something called confusion. That's right: confusion. Even some of you deadlift "specialists" out there don't really know how you should be training the deadlift.

Before all you DD readers start crying foul, let me explain.

The Three Different Kind of Deadlift Athletes

How many times have you sat and listened (or read in a book or—heaven forbid—internet forums) to someone complain how this type or that type of training doesn't work for his or her deadlift? C'mon, you know what I'm talking about. Does any of this sound familiar?: "There's no way Westside can work for my deadlift. I mean, how in the hell is the friggin' deadlift gonna go up if I never train it directly?" Or this: "Three days a week for my deadlift?! Is he a complete loon? That dang Pavel and all them good-for-nothin' Russians must be off their rocker. There's no way that training your deadlift that frequently will work. No friggin' way!" Or how about this: "Westside training only works for the genetically gifted deadlifter and the deadlifter who's shot full of 'roids." Or even this: "Training the deadlift twice-a-week only works for the genetically gifted deadlifter or the deadlifter who likes to inject buckets of 'roids in his gluteus maximus."

Am I beginning to make my point?

And the point is that the reason many people aren't making good gains on these different deadlift programs (outside of the fact they don't really try them) is because they are doing the wrong type of training for their body type. Which brings us to the next two points. How do you know what your body type is? And how do you go about training once you do know?

The "Laws" of the Deadlifting Universe

No matter what your philosophical opinion is on the world we live in and the universe in which this world resides, there are certain laws—scientific laws—that can't be refuted. And so it is with the deadlift, as well. No matter what your body type is, there are two "laws" that really can't be deviated from.

I think it's important that we examine these laws of the almighty deadlift before we get to training the different body types. This will help to clear up some of the clutter and confusion that is floating inside many of your little deadliftin' heads.

Law Numero Uno: You can't do a lot of reps. I understand that there are some great deadlifters who do a lot of repetition work in the offseason, even on the deadlift. But even these lifters switch to low reps come contest time. And the majority of us shouldn't even do higher reps during the off-season.

The reason for this is two-fold. For one, the deadlift is the only one of the three powerlifts where the "negative" (eccentric) portion of the lift doesn't precede the "positive" (concentric) portion. Therefore, repetition work will always be less beneficial here than on the other two powerlifts. Two, repetition work is good for building muscular endurance, but it really blows for building maximal strength and power. Let me use an analogy that Louie Simmons once made in order to prove my point. He used the example of throwing a basketball into the air. When the ball first hits the ground, it will bounce the highest. With each subsequent bounce, the ball loses energy and doesn't bounce as high. The same will happen with each repetition of a deadlift set.

Law Number Two: There is no "best" deadlifting form. I'm not talking training techniques here, I'm talking about the form you use. In other words, conventional deadlifting is not necessarily better than sumo deadlifting. Records have been broken in all weight classes using all different forms. The form you use depends on body mechanics (i.e.: the length of your arms and legs) and the strengths of your different muscle groups. Generally, if you have a strong upper and lower back (not to mention strong lats) combined with long arms, then you are almost assuredly going to be a strong conventional deadlifter. If, however, you have "tree-trunk" thighs and short arms and are a powerhouse squatter, then there is almost no doubt that sumo style is going to be where it's at. And, of course, there will be a lot of you that fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

If you don't know what form is best for you, then experiment and find out. That's enough said about form in this article.

Determining What Kind of Body Type You Are

Here are what I consider to be the different kind of deadlifters out there:

The first deadlifter is the one that responds well to high volume. This athlete will do very well training very frequently. If, for instance, you tried one of those "Russian super cycles" that you found here of Dragon Door—the kind of program where you train your deadlift four times during a given week—and you found that your lift had skyrocketed at the end of the training period, then you definitely fit into this group. This athlete is usually genetically predisposed to deadlifting (think Lamar Gant's physique or—the Granddaddy of deadlifting—Bob Peoples).

If you tried one of those aforementioned Russian training programs and you felt like someone had beaten the livin' hell out of you after only a week on the routine, then the chances are that you fit into the second group of deadlifters. These are the high intensity, low volume lifters. This group does very well by training with extremely heavy weights, performing only a moderate amount of sets, and then taking up to a week off in between training programs. If, for instance, you get good results by training your squat on Monday, your bench on Wednesday, and your deadlift on Friday, then you probably fit into this category. (Brag Gillingham is a lifter that comes to mind as a poster-boy for this category of athletes—John Inzer would be another.) However, if you immediately start to get weaker by training this way, then you are one of the other body types.

The third category of deadlifting athletes is the variety set. This athlete does well by training extremely heavy and training fairly often. How do you know if you fit into this category? Well, if you have been training Westside-style and your lifts have been going up, up, up, then the chances are very good that this is your training style.

The Methods 'mongst All the Madness

Let's take a look at each group of lifters and some example training programs that work good for the different body types. Our first lifter is the:

High Volume Deadlifter

I think there are a couple of good training programs out there for this deadlifter. If you fit into this category but haven't been doing a lot of training on your deadlift up to this point, then I think a good routine to start with would be a heavy/light/medium program. Here is an example of the kind of training regimen I'm talking about:

Monday: Heavy Day
Deadlifts: 5 sets of 3 reps. Perform 5 progressively heavier sets, working up to your maximum for 3 repetitions.

Standing Good Mornings: 2 sets of 8 reps. Perform 2 light sets of 8 repetitions.

Wednesday: Light Day
Deadlifts: 5 sets of 3 reps. Work up to a weight that is only 80% of your top weight on Monday.

Ab work: 2 sets of 15 to 10 reps. Pick an abdominal exercise of your preference.

Friday: Medium Day
Deadlifts: 5 sets of 3 to 1 repetition. Perform 3 progressively heavier sets of 3 reps. On your 4th set, perform a single with the weight you used for your last set of 3 on Monday. On your 5th set, perform a single that is 5-10% higher than your 4th set.

Seated Good Mornings: 2 sets of 8 reps.

This program is an excellent one for the high-volume deadlifter to get started with. The first week you perform it, you might want to take it a little easy. Be prepared to go all-out on the second week.

3x3 Training

Several years ago, a German lifter named Stephan Korte came out with this system of training. It was supposedly based on the training of a lot of Russian and Eastern-bloc lifters. I was always of the opinion that 3x3 training was a little too basic and didn't take into account some of the more advanced training ideas of the Eastern-bloc countries. Having said that, I do think it's a pretty good way for high volume deadlifters to train. Here's what 8 weeks of training would look like:

Phase 1: Weeks 1-4
Week 1: Deadlifts: Perform 5-8 sets of 5 reps with 58% of one-rep maximum. Do this workout three times during the week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday for example).

Week 2: Deadlifts: Perform 5-8 sets of 5 reps with 60% of one-rep maximum. Train three times during the week.

Week 3: Deadlifts: Perform 5-8 sets of 5 reps with 62% of one-rep maximum. Train three times during the week.

Week 4: Deadlifts: Perform 5-8 sets of 5 reps with 64% of one-rep maximum. Train three times during the week.

Phase 2: Weeks 5-8
Week 5:
Day 1: Deadlift 1-2 sets of 1 rep with 80% of one-rep maximum.

Day 2 and 3: Deadlift 3 sets of 3 reps with 60% of one-rep maximum.

Week 6:
Day 1: Deadlift 1-2 sets of 1 rep with 85% one one-rep maximum.

Day 2 and 3: Deadlift 3 sets of 3 reps with 60% of one-rep maximum.

Week 7:
Day 1: Deadlift 1-2 sets of 1 rep with 90% of one-rep maximum.

Day 2 and 3: Deadlift 3 sets of 3 reps with 60% of one-rep maximum.

Week 8:
Day 1: Deadlift 1-2 sets of 1 rep with 95% of one-rep maximum.

Day 2 and 3: Deadlift 3 sets of 3 reps with 60% of one-rep maximum.

Both the Heavy/Light/Medium system and the 3x3 training are good places for the high-volume deadlifter to get his or her feet wet, so to speak. There are plenty of other good routines out there, as well, but half the excitement of training (at least for me—I expect it's the same way for many others) is finding something new. So we'll save some of the other programs for other articles or other writers.

High Intensity, Low Volume Deadlifter

In my experience, this lifter is the easiest to train. The bodybuilding mantra of "rest and grow" describes this deadlifter nicely. The high intensity, low volume lifter shouldn't train the deadlift more than once every five days. Once a week is even better.

Here's a deadlifting regimen that suits this lifter nicely. On this program, you will train the deadlift, and the exercises associated with it, just once each week. A good ideal would be to train your deadlift on Monday, your bench press on Wednesday, and your squat on Friday. Also, pick two different deadlift workouts and alternate between each one.

Workout #1
Deadlifts: 5 sets of 3 reps, 1 to 3 sets of 1 repetition. The first 5 sets of 3 reps will all be warm-ups. After that, perform anywhere between 1 and 3 sets with a weight that is 90-100% of your one-rep maximum.

Close Grip Chins: 3 sets of maximum reps.

Stiff-Legged Deadlifts: 3 sets of 5 reps. Use the same weight on all 3 of these sets.

Workout #2
Rack Pulls: 5 sets of 3 reps, 1 to 3 sets of 1 repetition. Use the same format as the deadlifts from workout #1.

Deficit Deadlifts (deadlifting off blocks or plates): 3 sets of 3 reps. Use the same weight on each set.

Bent Over Dumbbell Rows: 3 sets of 8 reps (each arm).

If you fit into this category of deadlifter, but you still want to train more frequently, then try a four-day split that looks like this:

Monday: deadlift training
Tuesday: bench press training
Thursday: squat training
Friday: lats and biceps training

Also, keep in mind that the above workout is just an example program for how you should train. You can increase or decrease the number of sets you need based on whether your deadlift numbers move up or down.

Variety Deadlifter

I have one phrase—and one phrase only—for this kind of deadlifter: conjugate training. The most popular form of conjugate training in the Western world is the Westside Barbell approach. Unless this is the first time you've read anything about powerlifting or unless you've had your head buried in the proverbial sand for the last decade, then you are well aware of the parameters of Westside training. However, keep in mind that Westside's methods are simply a template for how you should train. You need to adapt training parameters to fit your own needs.

For instance, some deadlifters will find that they need more pulling movements than what Louie Simmons recommends. In others words, you might want to do some variety of deadlifting more often than just every seven to ten workouts—as a lot of Westsiders tend to do. Some of you might do good pulling at every other workout, while others might do good by using a couple weeks of good mornings before doing a pulling movement for a couple of sessions. Here is an example—and only an example—program:

Westside Style

Week One

Monday: Maximum Effort Training
Rack Pulls (pins set at knee height): Work up to a max single or triple.
Wide Grip Chins: 3 sets of 6-8 reps.
Pull Throughs: 2 sets of 15 to 20 reps.

Friday: Dynamic Training
Box Squats: 10-12 sets of 2 reps using 50-60% of one-rep maximum.
Reverse Hypers: 3 sets of 8 reps.
One Leg Squats: 4 sets of 10 reps (each leg).
One Arm Dumbbell Rows: 3 sets of 8 reps (each arm).

Week Two

Monday: Maximum Effort Training
Deficit Deadlifts: Work up to a max single or triple.
Glute Ham Raises: 3 sets of 8 reps
Reverse Hypers: 3 sets of 8 reps

Friday: Dynamic Training
Box Squats: 10-12 sets of 2 reps using 50-60% of one-rep maximum.
One Leg Squats: 4 sets of 10 reps (each leg).
Barbell Shrugs: 3 sets of 6 reps.
Hanging Leg Raises: 3 sets of 15 reps

Week Three

Monday: Maximum Effort Training
Good Mornings: Work up to a max triple or single.
One Arm Dumbbell Rows: 3 sets of 8 reps (each arm)
Glute Ham Raises: 3 sets of 8 reps

Friday: Dynamic Training
Box Squats: 10-12 sets of 2 reps using 50-60% of one-rep maximum.
Reverse Hypers: 3 sets of 8 reps.
One Leg Squats: 4 sets of 10 reps (each leg).
Close Grip Chins: 3 sets of 6-8 reps.

Remember that what is written above is just a three-week training block. And nothing is written in stone. The variety deadlifter needs variety.

Here are some other tips to help the variety deadlifter:
—Don't perform the same maximum effort (or heavy) exercise more than two weeks in a row.

—Learn to change more than just exercise selection. Number of repetitions and rest time in between sets can change, as well.

—Don't be afraid to follow different training splits. In other words, don't always train your deadlift (and the muscles that help you deadlift) on Monday and Friday. Sometimes, train as few as just one time a week, and other times train those muscles as often as three times in a given week.

The Sum of All Things

I hope this article has helped to shed some light on the reasons why you are, or are not, making progress in the almighty deadlift. If you have any questions, or would just like to tell me what a nut I am for not telling you that one size does fit all, or you have any other comments, then please feel free to e-mail me at You can also visit me at my website—, where I discuss all things strength, martial arts, and spirituality.

I also want you to be aware that just because you fit into one of the aforementioned deadlift categories, that doesn't mean that you necessarily fit into the same category when it comes to the bench press or the squat. In other words, you could be a variety bench presser and deadlifter, but a high-volume squatter. But, in the words of Conan's Chronicler, that is "another story."

C.S. Sloan is a freelance writer, martial artists and powerlifter (deadlifting 580 at 180 lbs raw). He has been a contributing editor for Ironman Magazine and holds a 3rd degree black belt in Isshin-Ryu Karate-Do.