Four Tips to a World-Class Deadlift

Adam Ferchen, blissfully in the Zone, training deadlifts. Physical therapists moonlighting as strength coaches have attempted to hijack the iron game! “Corrective exercise” enjoys more headlines in hardcore training publications than serious strength training. While this may be cute and pose little risk—I am going to share with you stuff that actually works, not theoretical, neutered jargon. These are strategies that helped Adam Ferchen recently set a USPA world record in the deadlift with 760 pounds at 198 bodyweight, eclipsing his old PR at a 220-pound bodyweight. Adam also became the third-ranked lifter in the 198-pound class, according to powerlifting watch, and has made equal gains on his squat and bench press. Today we will focus on the deadlift; I like sharing these tips with you because it helps you see what has actually worked and lets me evaluate what things work and why. Disclaimer: Adam, or anyone I feature, has a tremendous work ethic—so these tips are useless if you train like a mullet.

1. Improve Deadlift-Specific Grip Closing the “Number 4” Captains of Crush Gripper might get you a cool t-shirt and a picture in a famous strength publication while simultaneously striking fear in the hearts of men and desire in the hearts of “mamas” at your local kick n’ stab biker bar. Additional crush strength, however, is about as useful as a trapped door on a canoe when it comes to holding heavy deadlifts. Heavy deadlifts require a strong support grip—training by closing grippers builds a crush grip. If you would like to divulge deeper into grip specifics read this in-depth article by my grip mentor, Joe Musslewhite. Adam was constantly having issues with grip—anything over 700 he dropped. In the past he would add straps while adding weight to the bar; with the straps he got stronger but where it mattered, on the platform, his deadlift was at a standstill. Application Point We directly attacked this sticking point by practicing overhand deadlift holds for 15 seconds. Adam would hold a barbell with an overhand grip for 15 seconds for two sets, by meet time he had worked up to 380 pounds. Adam would also hold a 5-pound plate between his thumb and pinky for up to 30 seconds and a ten-pound plate between thumb and ring finger—these plate holds were taught to me by Ed Coan. These two plate hold exercises and the overhand deadlift holds add virtually no extra training time and have served as the deadlift-grip savior to Adam and a host of my other world-class pullers. Overhand deadlift holds for 15 seconds can be performed 1-2 days a week for 1-3 sets. The plate holds can be performed 2-3 days a week for two sets of 20-30 seconds

2. Squeeze the Butt Now hold your horses, ladies. While Adam could easily be mistaken for a Chippendale, his goal is to smash records on the powerlifting stage not the exotic dancing one. That being said, what potentially held back this conquest were soft knees. Often times, when Adam would complete a deadlift, his knees would not be fully locked; this was not a strength issue as we had brought Adam’s upper back and glute strength up to snuff, this was technique. Application Point The simple cue of “squeeze your butt” changed everything for Adam. Every single deadlift looked the same, instead of hoping for the best at the last minute……every deadlift was locked out and every session became one that enhanced the skill of strength. I have also seen this same cue work very well for people that lean back too far at the top of a deadlift. If you are having any issues with deadlift lockouts or want to try something new because your deadlift has stalled since the second Bush Administration, give the squeeze your butt cue a try.

3. Block Pulls I remember as a teenager walking into this joint which was marketed as a hardcore gym, it was hardcore if that meant cashing in your 401 K for a Harley-Davidson and hair bleach. The reality was this was mid-life crisis heaven or I guess hell. Point being, everything was about a show—I saw this one peckerwood consistently rack pull 850 pounds from right above his knees. This charade never even earned this poor soul a 600-pound deadlift or even a second look from the over-the-hill exotic dancer turned rent-a-cop. This was pure ego lifting and it is impossible to be your best when operating from a place of ego dominance. Fast forward a few years, I am getting ready for a strongman competition and one of the events was a deadlift that started three inches off the ground. The first time I went to try it I was in for a rude awakening—I had deadlifted 749 pounds in a meet at the time, but 705 pounds was glued to the floor. A lesser range of motion for me meant less weight lifted—logic seems defied. Application Point I was always faster than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest when it came to pulling weights off the floor. As I trained more and more world-class deadlifters from this initial experience 12 years ago, I noticed time and time again deadlifters that pull the weight like a bat out of hell off the floor suck at block pulls with weight elevated three to four inches off the floor. Because the initial speed cannot be generated from the normal starting point, deadlifting from this point for guys that are explosive off the floor feels basically like the equivalent of a dead bench, it damn near feels impossible to get the weight started. This will help fast starters build technique and actual increase starting strength. Obviously, as a meet approaches, you must dial in your technique off the floor and pull off the floor. Try block pulls elevated 3-4 inches off the floor if you are someone that pulls fast off the floor in your off-season. Not only did these help dial Adam in for a USPA world record, I have also used these with success with the likes of Orlando Green, Brandon Cass and Tom Emelander.

4. Pull in the Training Zone Intermuscular coordination is most efficiently trained in what Dr. Fred Hatfield has coined “The Training Zone” with weights that are 55-85% of your max. What intermuscular coordination means is simply the nervous system sequentially coordinating the kinetic chain, so it works together to make a more efficient movement. “Greasing the groove” or “establishing the groove” all happens in the training zone. If Adam did seven sets of deadlift in a workout, only one would be 85% or more, usually. Application Point If all you do is deadlift heavy it is a good way to burnout and leave gains on the table; you need to train a full array of intensities to maximize neuromuscular adaptations, aka deadlift as much as possible! Pulling speed weights with 40-50% of your max will not suffice; the majority of your training in the deadlift should be in the training zone. Pull the weights in a compensatory acceleration style BUT never at the expense of sacrificing technique or tightness. Every rep is practice and a chance to get better—take advantage of it. For a refresher on compensatory acceleration training read this article  Try Josh’s 8-Week Deadlift Encyclopedia Workout to take advantage of these principles

Final Thoughts In Hemingway’s 1932 book on bullfighting, Death in the Afternoon, he writes, “It takes more cojones to be a sportsman where death is a closer party to the game.” I think a similar metaphor can be used with deadlifting. These tips are as useful as three Belarusian rubles at a Trappist beer festival (the expensive, great beer Belgian Monks brew) if you don’t have a good work ethic and a set of large cojones, ladies and gentlemen. Time to deadlift!