There aren’t many things you can do in the gym that are “manlier” than deadlifting a heavy barbell loaded with five plates per side. It’s the ultimate cool factor, the one movement everyone stops to watch (plus it means you’re strong as hell).
I remember reading a passage from Brawn, a book by Stuart McRobert, that said with a few years of smart training, any average Joe should be able to bench 300 pounds, squat 400 pounds, and deadlift 500 pounds. (1) That’s a good goal for sure, but not one that many guys are hitting.
In my experience as a lifter, strength coach, and personal trainer, I’ve found it’s pretty easy for a typical male to reach a 400-pound deadlift with proper training. But a 495-pound deadlift is much more rare, something that’s attainable only with hard work, proper technique, and focus on assistance exercises for the supporting muscles. At commercial gyms, I’ve only seen a small handful of guys pull over 495 pounds (and I’ve only seen one guy pull 600).
There have been many amazing articles written about the proper way to perform a deadlift, but very few of them focus on the assistance exercises that truly make the 500-pound deadlift achievable. You can have the best form in the world, but without a strong body and supporting muscles, the bar is going to stay on the floor.
Getting strong on the assistance exercises will go a long way in helping you to achieve the coveted 500-pound deadlift, but before we address the exercises, let’s talk about your weak points (don’t worry…everyone has them!).
Find the Weak Link and Fix it!
Your deadlift will always be limited by a particular weak link, but if you’re able to hone in on what that is, you can strengthen it and make it a “strong link.” A weak link could be related to a weak muscle, immobility, or improper motor patterns. If squatting and deadlifting were the end-all-be-all, there wouldn’t be any weak links—the body would simply get stronger and more mobile in proper proportions. This is rarely the case, which is why we need assistance exercises to shore up our weak links.
But how do you determine what your weak link is? I’ve got a cool list for you below. Go through it and be honest with yourself – it’s the only way to address the problem and get you stronger.
You have weak glutes if you:
- Round your low back during deadlifts to make the back conduct the lift rather than the hips and legs.
- Round your upper back during deadlifts. This can be acceptable, though…many strong powerlifters do this because they can’t push their conventional deadlift max up further if they kept their upper back arched.)
- Let your hips rise first in the squat thereby turning the lift into a “squat morning”.
- Suck at locking out your deadlifts.
- Stop short or hyperextend the low back during the deadlift lockout.
- Don’t have much power out of the hole when squatting.
- Let your knees cave inward during squats or sumo deads.
- Suck at hip thrusts, glute bridges, and pull-throughs and feel them all in the low back and hamstrings.
- Have minimal glute hypertrophy.
- Never feel your glutes turn on or don’t feel soreness in them from squats or lunges.
You have weak hamstrings if you:
- Have trouble sitting back in a squat.
- Don’t have good starting strength in the deadlift, where the most difficult part is getting it off the floor.
- Suck at arched back good mornings, RDLs, back extensions, 45-degree hypers, and reverse hypers.
- Sink like a ship during Russian leg curls and find yourself cheating like crazy during glute ham raises.
- Try to “squat” the weight up when doing rack pulls rather than “stiff leg deadlifting” the weight up.
- Are much better at trap bar deadlifts than conventional deadlifts.
- Can raw squat more than you can conventional deadlift.
- Can sumo deadlift way more than you can conventional deadlift.
You have weak quads if you:
- Turn every squat into a “squat morning,” especially as the weight gets heavy (this could also be due to weak glutes and/or weak thoracic extensors).
- Suck at front squats, Olympic high bar full squats, barbell Bulgarian squats, barbell step-ups, and barbell lunges
- Can stiff leg deadlift pretty much the same weight as you can conventional deadlift.
- Can conventional deadlift way more than you can squat.
You have weak thoracic extensors if you:
- Have trouble keeping the chest up during squats and good mornings.
- Suck at thoracic extensions.
- Kick ass at movements that isolate the hips and legs, such as belt squats or hip thrusts, but suck ass when the bar is on your back or in your hands.
You have weak abdominals if you:
- Round your low back during deadlifts (this could also be weak glutes and poor hamstring flexibility).
- Experience your abs literally caving in when you deadlift heavy (which can be seen when you deadlift with your shirt off).
- Suck at ab-wheel rollouts, weighted planks, side planks, straight leg sit-ups, side bends, landmines, and hanging leg raises.
- Can squat way more when you wear a belt than when you don’t wear one.
You have weak forearms if you:
- Perform a heavy deadlift with sub-maximal acceleration because you know it will slip out of your hands if you rise too fast.
- Chalk up for every upper and lower body pulling exercise.
- Can deadlift much more when you wear wrist straps than when you don’t wear them.
- Suck at masturbating (ok, I made that one up).
Andy Bolton – the first to demonstrate a deadlift of over a thousand pounds (1,009lbs)
I should mention that nearly every lifter’s form breaks down when going super heavy. This is how you determine your weak link. Anyone can use perfect form when going light (assuming they have appropriate levels of hip, ankle, and thoracic mobility and sufficient levels of core stability), so rest assured that even the strongest lifters have “weak links.”
Maximizing your deadlift has very much to do with achieving optimal strength balances among all of the deadlifting muscles. That said, due to variations in body segment lengths, sometimes a lifter will need exceptional strength in a particular muscle. For example, a tall individual with a long torso and long legs needs freakishly strong glutes in order to use proper deadlifting form because his hips will be considerably further away from the bar than a shorter lifter.
Find the Lifts that Train Your Weak Link
For long-term strength development, it’s critical that you begin to learn the lifts that improve your weak link. These lifts tend to be highly correlated with your deadlift or squat. Below is a brief rundown of some of the lifts that powerlifters have used to build big lifts. Note that these lifts can be very different from one person to the next due to differences in body structure and weak individual muscles.
Every expert has his own likes and dislikes when it comes to building the big lifts. Mike Robertson raves about glute-ham raises. (2) Jim Wendler likes the power squat machine, 45-degree back raise, and rack pull. (3) Dave Tate prefers the good morning. (4) Michael Brugger performed Olympic squats, Eddie Coppin preferred the front squat (which helped him keep his chest up during deadlifts), while George Clark utilized the hack lift. (5) Vince Anello swore by the negative accentuated deadlift. (6) Andy Bolton likes leg presses. (7) So did Steve Goggins. (8) Brent Mikesell likes Smith machine squats. (9) Ed Coan performed mostly pause squats and close-stance high bar squats and sometimes threw in Smith machine squats and hack squats. (10) Fred Hatfield liked to perform thoracic extensions off a glute-ham bench. (11) Leonid Taranenko preferred the barbell step up over the squat to strengthen his Olympic lifts. (12) Louie Simmons is a big believer in the box squat and good morning. (13) (14)
What gives? Well, in each of these cases, the lifters found assistance lifts that strengthened a weak link. Weak links may change over time, requiring constant evolution in training. Conversely, due to differences in body segments, a lifter may train a certain muscle or lift indefinitely and never strengthen the weak link to the point where it becomes a strong link. That’s just the way it goes sometimes…
Bodybuilders constantly use the term “mind-muscle connection.” It’s imperative that you feel the right muscles working during the deadlift. You should feel the hamstrings activating down low, the glutes pushing the hips forward up top, the lats and back muscles pulled taught, and the core braced (albeit with a belly of air). If you’re not feeling the right muscles working, then you need to learn how to activate them by flexing them as hard as possible a few times throughout the day (loadless training) and by going lighter and really feeling the muscles doing the work (low-load training).
Sometimes taking a step back allows a lifter to then take two steps forward. If you want to be a rockstar deadlifter, you should be able to squeeze your glutes so damn hard they feel like they’re about to rip off the bone! In our industry, we often hear the phrase, “train movements, not muscles.” In order to perform perfect movements, we need perfect strength balances in the muscles, so a better statement is “train movements and muscles!”
Deadlifting multiple plates just looks goddamn impressive
Although all of the muscles involved in deadlifting are generally active throughout the full range of motion, certain muscles are more active during different parts of the exercise. It’s important to strengthen all of the deadlifting muscles and in proper proportions with one another. The following is not a ranking, just a list.
Erector spinae – The low back musculature needs massive amounts of isometric strength in order to maintain an arch throughout the deadlift. Failure to possess this strength will inevitably lead to low back injury. Depending on your form, the thoracic extensors need considerable amounts of isometric or concentric strength as well (upper back rounders use concentric strength while upper back archers use isometric strength). In order to prevent injuries in the training process, the low back also needs tremendous levels of stamina. My EMG experiments have shown that the entire musculature of the back, including the erectors, lats, rhomboids, and traps, are highly activated throughout the deadlift.
Hamstrings/Adductors - The hamstrings are the most important muscle group down low. Strong hamstrings equal great starting strength and excellent acceleration off the floor. Down low, the adductors serve as hip extensors and contribute considerably to starting strength. The hamstring part of the adductor magnus is a powerful hip extensor through a larger range of motion.
Glutes - The glutes are the most important muscle group up high. Strong glutes equal great finishing strength and lockouts and are also the secret to great form.
Abs/Obliques – Strong abs and obliques brace the core to protect the low back and help prevent the low back from caving in during the lift, which is highly dangerous.
Forearms - Many great deadlifters have been limited by grip strength. Put simply, you can only pull as much as you can grip. Having incredible grip strength aids in acceleration as a weak grip will force a slow deadlift.
Quads – The quads are important for proper form because they help to ensure that the knees move in synchronicity with the hips and shoulders.
Best Deadlift Assistance Exercises
Without further ado, let’s list the best deadlift assistance exercises!
Best Exercises that Work the Glutes in a Stretched Position:
1. Full Squats
2. Front Squats
3. Zercher Squats
Best Exercises that Work the Glutes at End-Range Contraction:
Other Great Glute Exercises:
1. Pendulum Donkey Kicks (see video)
2. Seated Abduction (see video)
3. Band Hip Rotation (see video)
4. Weighted Bird Dogs (see video)
5. Elevated Lunges
6. Bottom Up Single Leg Hip Thrusts (see video)
Best Exercises that Work the Hamstrings in a Stretched Position:
1. Deficit Deadlifts
2. Good Mornings
3. Snatch Grip Deadlifts
Best Exercises that Work the Hamstrings at End-Range Contraction:
Other Great Hamstring Exercises:
The Erector Spinae and Upper Back
1. Thoracic Extensions (see video)
2. Front Squats (possibly the best and most overlooked upper back strengthener?)
3. Safety Bar Upper Back Good Mornings
4. Seated Good Mornings
5. Bent Over Rows
6. T-Bar Rows
8. One Arm Lever Rows (see video)
1. Ab Wheel Rollouts (see video)
2. Straight Leg Sit Ups
3. Hanging Leg Raises
4. Side Bends
5. Weighted Front Planks (see video)
6. Suitcase Holds (see video)
7. Band Anti-Rotary Hold (see video)
8. The Grappler (see video)
1. Leg Press (yes, the leg press is great for deadlifting & quad strength off the floor)
2. Full Squat, Parallel Squat, Half Squat
3. Hack Lift
4. Bulgarian Split Squat
5. Forward Front Lunge
6. Low Barbell Step Up
7. Front Squat Harness Squat (see video)
8. Pendulum Donkey Kick
1. Deficit Deadlift (longer TUT)
2. Rack Pull (heavier load)
3. Deadlifts against Bands (accommodating resistance)
4. Barbell Shrugs
5. One Arm Lever Rows
6. Mixed Grip Static Holds
Don’t worry about what program you’re doing or how your sets and reps are set up. Identify your weak links, fix them with the exercises I listed above, and then come back to the deadlift. I think you’ll be very surprised with how much stronger you are!
Written by Bret Contreras
Discuss, comment or ask a question
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About Bret Contreras
Bret Contreras received his master’s degree from Arizona State University and his Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist certification from the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
Bret has been published on many online fitness websites and his work has spread to Men’s Health Magazine and Oxygen Magazine.
Bret invites you to follow him by checking out his blog.
You can also download his ebook here – www.thegluteguy.com
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