Deadlifts—Why, when, how?

By: Josh Bryant

Ronnie Coleman Deadlifting Under Brian Dobson’s Tutelage

Arnold deadlifted over 700 pounds before ever oiling up. Eight-time Mr. Olympia, Ronnie Coleman, performed reps with 800 pounds on the deadlift! 

There is nothing more satisfying to suppressed primordial urges than deadlifting. Deadlifts superiorly strengthen and build the entire posterior chain (backside of the body); deadlifts build amazing core strength, grip strength, functional strength and, with the right amount of volume and intensity, enhance cardiorespiratory fitness and fat loss to boot!

Conventional deadlifts (the type referred to throughout the article) work virtually every muscle in the body; if you were going to go to prison and only had a barbell and the ability to perform one lift with the goal of not getting “punked” in the shower—start deadlifting.

Hopefully this situation is not your reality. 

But, if your goals consist of packing on muscle mass, getting stronger, enhancing athletic performance, fat loss or just building a no-nonsense physique, the deadlift will build more mass than any other lift while simultaneously accomplishing the other objectives. 


For the sake of competition readiness, many powerlifters like to train squats and deadlifts on the same day to simulate a meet. Still, others are hell-bent on training the lifts on separate days to maximize the deadlift session and hit the supporting accessory work.  Unfortunately, there is no consensus from the top down; success has been achieved both ways.  

Tactical Powerlifting Trains Squats and Deadlifts on the Same Day

Generally, powerlifting splits are separated by the lift(s) trained or the session’s objective(s).  Bodybuilding splits are separated by the body part trained in an individual session—yet the same confusion still persists.  Some notable bodybuilders train deadlifts on “back” day, others on “leg” day.

So, who is right?


Sequence and application are most important, a strong case can be made for deadlifts being a prime hamstring and glute builder and even a fair amount of quads is used—awesome applicant for leg day.  One glimpse at King Coleman and no one will dispute the deadlift’s ability to build the back.

When deadlifting on leg day, sequence is everything; you want to place deadlifts later in the workout and focus on more volume and reps.  The reason for this strategy is fatigue—both neurologically and physically.  By not following this advice your chance of injury increases, while the best case is your workout is less effective—neither is acceptable when training to maximize aesthetics, size, strength or performance.

An example of a leg day that includes deadlifts looks like this (performed in the order listed).

ExerciseRest Interval IntensitySetsReps
Front SquatsAs NeededMaximum35
Leg Curls90 secondsMaximum36-8
Leg Press120 seconds15 rep max312,12,Max
Reverse Lunges120 secondsMaximum38,10,12
Deadlifts120 secondsModerate   38-12

Because of the central and physical demands of heavy deadlifts on back day, we will put them first in the workout; basically, they become the steak and anything after are the potatoes. Deadlifts on back day will be performed for lower reps and, of course, assuming technique is good, the mantra will be go heavy or go home!

ExerciseRest Interval IntensitySetsReps
DeadliftsAs NeededMaximum45,3,2,5
Dumbbell Shrugs90 secondsMaximum312,10,8
T-Bar Prison Rows120 seconds8 Rep Max35,5,Max
Neutral Grip Pull-ups180 secondsMaximum36,6,Max
Lat Pulldowns With Cables on Knees (one each hand)60 seconds20 rep max154

IFBB Pro bodybuilder and two-time Arnold Classic Champion, Branch Warren, performing deadlifts as part of a back workout, under the tutelage of author, Josh Bryant.

Final Thoughts

Country music legend and 2006 Texas gubernatorial candidate, Kinky Friedman’s, campaign slogan says it best, “Why the hell not?”  You now know what type of deadlifts to perform, why to do them and when to do them.

“Excuses be gone,” quoting the late self-help guru, Dr. Wayne Dyer; let’s make some progress!

Deadlifts respond amazingly well to cluster sets