There aren’t many things to do at the gym which can be seen “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).
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!).
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.”
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.
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!”
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.
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!
Other options for body improvement:
Deadlifting is great but we must make sure that we have our basics covered before taking on more serious sports. This is where Intra workout supplements can be extremely useful. This is why we have curated a list of the best intra workout drinks that you can get your hands on.