Article written by Josh Mac
I had thought about it all week. It had been a steady climb and I was on a roll. I was going to pull a PR the next day. I had the momentum, I had the grip, and I had the rugged good looks. Hell, based on last week’s max pull I knew I had 5 more pounds in me.
(Record stops …crickets)
Yep, I pulled maxes weekly. Not squat maxes, bench maxes, overhead maxes, but DEADLIFT maxes. I’d grind out a big ugly one, do a few down sets and then beat it by 5 pounds the following week, or sometimes not but I’d give it hell. Boy did I think I was strong!
Oddly enough, that strategy actually brought me to a 600# deadlift at 220 with no belt and without any actual concrete accessory training and with generic grocery store creatine, not even the fancy big named stuff! I had a pull. It was ugly and people winced when I’d yank the bar off of the ground, but I had a pull.
What I didn’t have was any other lift that wasn’t that exact pull. I wasn’t a strong guy who was strong enough to deadlift a 600# barbell; I was a weak guy who could eek out a pull if the bar stayed in the only plane of motion that I was strong in. I had “specialized” myself into a corner of being slightly above mediocre at ONE thing at the cost of neglecting everything else.
Now, this article is not about “deadlift only” powerlifting competitors. I’m not talking about lifters who train specifically for a competitive specialized power lift. I love Night of the Living Deadlift as much as the next guy, so calm your erector shirts!
This article is for those (competitive or not) physical culturists who only use the deadlift to train the deadlift and who identify their best lift as their true measure of strength under the guise of the sport of powerlifting.
Now that our Fusion suits are un-bunched, I’ll continue.
So my deadlift wasn’t pretty, but it passed at PL meets. I had a strong lockout, so hitching wasn’t really a problem. My grip was pretty decent too. But I struggled off of the floor terribly. A cocktail mixture of bad mechanics, body position, muscle imbalance and learned poor motor pattern was to blame for this. As the weight got heavier, my form got shittier. This haunted me years later, despite form and strength improvement, in the form of injury.
So why did I put so much focus on one lift and neglect the others? That was simple, because it was my heaviest lift. Proof of that was in my first full power meet where I went 425/335/600… and that was a 5# PR on squat in wraps! How in the actual hell does someone barely squat 425 with their legs mummified straight in inzer grippers wraps and absolutely make it rain in gravity’s face by speed ripping 600 off of the floor beltless?
The answer was: neglect.
I wasn’t a well rounded lifter because I didn’t have well rounded training. I fell into the mindset that powerlifting was just about “getting” the heaviest lift that you can that day. I thought deadlifting was enough to build a deadlift. I didn’t pay mind to hypertrophy, identifying and working on weak points, accessory lifts or any type of periodization or training philosophy. I wasn’t strong at all, I just so happened to be strongest in one particular groove of motion like I was some kind of fleshy smith machine.
And that’s why you can’t just deadlift.
Sadly, I wasn’t alone by a long shot. This is a pretty common theme among new comers to powerlifting and strength sports. The devil in the details here is that this type of training WORKS for newcomers, to an extent. “So how can it be wrong if it’s working?” Because if you’ve never tried anything else, you’d know that almost ANYTHING works at first.
Why the deadlift?
As I mentioned earlier, I chose to focus on the deadlift because it was my biggest lift. But if I’m being honest, it’s the easiest lift for a beginner to make quick gains with. Let’s all prepare our butts for the impending madness as I’m about to step on somebody’s vibram’s here.
The deadlift can either be a smart, complex, hinge and lever movement or it can be a total idiot yank lift. Guess which one I was doing… Compared to the complexities and body position awareness of a below parallel squat and the technique and brute strength of a decent bench press, the idiot yank deadlift is less about skill and more about strength in one particular bar path and let’s face it, a little luck.
There are a few reasons why a lot of people flock to the deadlift:
1st: it’s simple. Pick the bar up, lower it under control. Done, grab a sammich.
2nd: It required the least amount of equipment. No bench, no squat stands, just a bar and plates and a pair of bitch mitts. (Yo hands fool.)
3rd: no spotter needed. Sure, squatting in a rack offers you some protection but if you get stapled, you either let the bar rake your back, slam the back of your head or awkwardly sink you to the ground until the pins literally save your life. Real smooth Casanova.
But let’s be perfectly honest here: The deadlift is the easiest and fastest way for an otherwise weak person LOOK and FEEL strong. What I was missing was the fact that although powerlifting includes deadlifting as one of its staples, deadlifting by itself is just deadlifting, not powerlifting. One is an exercise and an event, the other is a sport. Even though I had a couple of China made plastic trophies, I wasn’t really powerlifting.
What about the squat?
Squatting to depth is nearly impossible for many newcomers, and mine sucked. Need proof? Head down to Snap fitness and keep an eye on the squat rack. If you wait long enough, someone will eventually put the bar on their BACK. But even most of the hot chicks do it wrong!
In an age of endless knowledge, high definition form tutorials and an endless plethora of e-books and online coaching, you still see people power bowing on their tip toes and giving up when their knees hurt. How the hell did they do it in the 70’s?
So squats are hard to learn, especially on your own. They require mobility, they require a strong everything and it’s a multi part lift. Walk it out, get your feet set the same way every time, head up, take a breath, knees out, back straight, don’t die yada yada yada, WHO HAS TIME FOR ALL OF THAT?!
How about the bench press?
Some guys are just built for bench: short stocky arms, barrel chest, forearms like a Clydesdale’s leg. That wasn’t me though; I had arms like an orangutan. So my bench suffered from neglect back then too. I did some accessories for tri’s but I did nothing for shoulder health and ended up with bursitis in one and degenerative joint disease in both. I rarely focused on upper back or rear delts and my form was so terrible, my front delts were constantly sore from flaring my long, gangly chicken wings.
So with a deplorable squat and a bitch-ass bench that I ignored, the deadlift became my wheel house. It made me feel strong, and I liked telling people what I could lift.
The pitfall of testing
There is more to measuring progress than an absolute balls out one rep max. I hadn’t taken into account any kind of measure of effort like RPE, I hadn’t tracked gains in rep maxes or high water marks in volume. I didn’t even take in to account the duration of rest time or the speed of the bar either.
I had one and only one way of gauging progress: lifting more weight than last time. The only problem I had was that I wasn’t really training, I was testing. Many people smarter than yours truly say that you don’t build strength from performing singles. Well for beginners, yes you do and you may. That’s a bad thing though, because it rewards a behavior that will lead you down a dead end road when the newb gains drop off. Resist the sirens call of another one rep max, you’re headed for the rocks.
I lied, I had another problem: impatience. I was in a hot rush and wanted it all now. I didn’t understand the idea of building something to test it. I was basically red lining a Toyota Yaris on a drag strip every weekend rather than spending that time building a hot rod in the garage. I kept hitting the rev limiter until I blew a gasket. SEE WHAT I DID THERE?! Straight genius.
Learning the How’s and Why’s of a lift
If you would have asked me what a hip hinge was years ago I’d have said a sexual position. As far as I knew, your back was the engine and your legs were just in the way of a deadlift. Watching videos of my early lifting and it was clear; I had no idea what the hell I was doing.
Back then, my deadlift had two distinct phases: Phase 1 where my legs went from bent to straight and phase 2 when my back took over and actually broke the bar from the ground. I now refer to this style of pulling as the 1-2 deadlift.
My hamstrings were just non existent in this lift. If you can picture the hamstrings and the back erectors playing tug of war with the pelvis, my hamstrings basically gave up and got dragged through the mud immediately. This unintentional RDL placed a ridiculous amount of strain on my L-spine, and I’d suffer frequent dull back aches after deadlift days. When I grabbed the bar there was no tightness, no care given to lower back rounding and zero fucks given so long as the bar came up and I could post on social media how much I lifted that day. If that sounds anything like you, STOP IT immediately.
Pride, and swallowing it
I have old workout logs from years ago, and if I had a magic ball where I could go back and actually see myself I guarantee that as the weight went higher on the bar, so did my squat depth. Mentally, I had already discounted my squat and bench as inferior, so the hunger just wasn’t there like it was for the deadlift.
Swallowing my pride meant realizing that my squat was bullshit and my bench flat out sucked. Improving it meant facing it rather than just pretending that I as strong with my favorite lift. That meant shifting the focus on building ALL of the lifts through varied training days, effort and exercises. It meant warming up to the idea that hypertrophy work wasn’t just for those bodybuilder types. It was time to grow up as a lifter.
Breaking bad habits, not backs
I joined a PL gym, hit lifting puberty and actually started training. I drilled technique on all of my lifts and faced the things I liked doing least to make the things I liked the most even better. This meant unloading the bar a bit and using LESS WEIGHT.
Instead of spending the day performing an endless marathon of deadlifts and pissing off my back, I did ab work. I liked good mornings because I was good at them but I hated split squats, lunges and glute and hamstring work because it was hard. So guess what I did. The smart thing finally, I worked on the lifts that addressed where I was weak. Low and behold, I attained a trunk and hamstrings.
As soon as I addressed those weaknesses, my deadlift eventually became a one part movement. I learned to tighten by pulling myself down to the bar and removing the slack. I learned to use my legs and my back together to make my pull one fluid motion. I totally eliminated luck as a variable and replaced it with technique and body awareness. My lifts began going up because I was stronger, not because I was forcing myself to max out with 5 more pounds.
My squat exploded as well. Using movements that complimented the squat built muscle and strength, but it also fostered confidence in my body. The stronger I got, the more motivation I had not only in my training but my ability.
But unfortunately the damage had already been done. My discs had bulged from years of terrible deadlifting form and were a ticking time bomb that finally went off, erasing years of gains.
But rebuilding my deadlift from scratch on the foundation of form and an understanding of body mechanics has helped me get right back to competing. I experimented with leverages and found out that the sumo stance that I had avoided like the plague for so long actually felt better for my body proportions (long and broad, giggity.) Training this lift from the ground up has helped add a hundred pounds to my sumo deadlift in under a year. You don’t get extra brownie points for not wearing a belt at the meet I found out, and YouTube cred is about as useful in the real world as a snow shovel in Tijuana.
If you want to be a well rounded strong mofo, you can’t just deadlift. But you can train to build a body capable of performing the deadlift that you want, and the one after that, and the one after that.