Article written by Alanna Casey
A lot of people give the advice to “train smart” but, few actually explain what “training smart” means. One facet of training smart is identifying your weakness and specifically targeting that weakness. That does not mean that you should repeat over and over the lift that you think you’re weakest at. What I mean is, say you think you’re “bad” at squats, I do not recommend you simply squat more. If you do that, you may just be practicing bad habits. You don’t want to be the hamster that spins and spins its wheel but never actually goes anywhere. Now of course you need to practice your main lifts but, when I say “train smart” I believe part of that is analyzing your movements. Watch video of yourself and identify the specific portion of the movement that you are the slowest/weakest. Then, you can pick assistance exercises that are designed to build that weak portion of your main lift. This is the difference between “working out” and “training.”
Let us first examine the deadlift. Generally, lifters are weaker on the initial pull off the ground or they struggle popping their hips through and finishing the lift. This article will address the first weakness: slow off the ground.
I will first stress the importance of your deadlift set up. For this you must experiment and find your optimal starting position. I recommend watching my deadlift instructional for set up tips.
Now, onto assistance movements that will develop your initial pull.
Completely Reset After Each Pull:
This is controversial advice but I’m going to say it anyway. I see a lot of lifters, and especially strongmen & crossfitters, tap the weight and go. The only time I advise doing that is if you are specifically training for a competition in which you will be deadlifting for reps. If you are trying to develop your pull from the ground, you need to practice pulling from the ground (not pulling after you’ve bounced it on the ground). I admit, I used to always tap and go, and why did I do that? Because it’s easier of course! Then, I had a very experienced coach named Jill Mills who told me to cut that shit out! Another reason why it’s easier to tap and go is because you already have all the proper muscles tense as you’re lowering the weight. You’re providing resistance to the weight on the way down, so when you tap and go you already have your major muscle groups engaged. When you completely reset after each pull you are practicing reengaging those muscles. If your goal is to deadlift maximal weight, it is important to practice pulling with that reset. When you pull a max lift you won’t be bouncing it off of the ground. The weight will start on the ground and you will have to practice developing that muscle tightness from the start as opposed to already having tension built. That is the main reason I recommend “squeezing your armpits together” on your deadlift set up. I’m trying to get the lifter to create as much muscle tension as possible before he even pulls.
Deficit Stiff Leg Deadlifts:
This is the main assistance exercise that I used to help my deadlift in my most recent training cycle. I recommend performing these on a 1-2 inch box or a 100lb plate and using about 40-50% of your 1RM. By using a deficit you are starting your pull lower than normal. On these, you want to just barely let the plates touch the floor in-between reps. The goal is to keep the tension on the hamstrings during the entire movement. Keep your legs as straight as possible on these and use your hips as a hinge.
Glute Hamstring Raises (GHR):
These are awesome for hamstring and lower back development. Unfortunately, not all gyms have these kind of machines. If you don’t have a glute hamstring machine you’re probably in a cross fit gym and I suggest you picket at the entrance until the owner buys you one. But in all seriousness, GHR are a must. When you first attempt these you may only be able to do a couple reps or, you may need a spotter to help you on the way up. Keep your back straight and squeeze your ass as you come up. If you want to watch a video of me doing GHR with really shitty form, click here:
Read Gracie Vanessa’s comment on my GHRs; it is spot on. She says, “keep your body in a straight line and don’t drop your back on descent. Stop the lowering phase when you are in a straight line. Make sure your knees are locked at the ‘bottom.’ Drive your head back instead of your butt. Squeeze your butt so it won’t shoot back.”
A cue that helps me on the bottom is simply, “be aggressive.” After squeezing your armpits together (flexing triceps and lats) your goal is to rip the weight off the ground. Attack the weight right from the start of your pull! The more energy you put into the initial pull off the ground, the more likely you will be to get the lift. As you are warming up remember this. Each warm up rep should be as aggressive as your working weight. If you have sloppy, slow form in your warm up reps, you are likely to continue that into your working sets. Train each lift like it’s a max attempt. You are developing a muscle memory pattern so, put the work into each rep and make sure that memory pattern is worth remembering!
Next week I will follow with exercises and cues for improving the top portion of the deadlift movement.