Home Blog 5 Keys to Long-Term Deadlift Progress

5 Keys to Long-Term Deadlift Progress

Written on September 5, 2013 at 6:04 am, by Eric Cressey

In the fitness industry, for some reason, folks like to pigeonhole coaches into certain specialty roles. Over the years, I’ve been called the “mobility guy,” “the baseball guy,” and – most applicable to today’s article – “the deadlift guy.”  You see, I really enjoy picking heavy things up off the ground, and I’ve gotten pretty good at doing so. 

As a “deadlift guy” (whether I really identify with that label or not!), I’ve gotten a lot of inquiries over the years.  These questions relate to programming, technique, exercise selection, and a host of even more obscure topics (such as: “why does my iPhone always auto-correct ‘deadlift’ to ‘deadliest;’ doesn’t anyone at Apple actually lift weights?”).  In the process of answering loads of these questions and coaching thousands people on how to deadlift, I’ve picked up on some trends that explain why many people don’t make deadlift progress.  Contrary to what you may assume, the deadlift is definitely a unique exercise that must be trained a bit differently than just about any other strength exercise.  With that in mind, here are my top five keys for long-term deadlift progress.

1. Don’t have setbacks.

This could be said of all training goals, but the unfortunate truth is that a lot of people get hurt deadlifting.  This might be because of poor deadlift technique or inappropriate programming, but regardless of the true cause, it goes without saying that it’s a big issue.

I learned this lesson early (age 21), as just a week after I pulled 400 for the first time, I felt a nice “pop” in my lower back during a warm-up set at 225.  It set me back a good 3-4 months, but was a blessing in disguise, as it scared me into grooving better technique, as opposed to just piling more and more strength on top of a dysfunctional pattern.  From there on out, I did a much better job of not only lifting with better technique, but also fluctuating my training stress within the strength training program and individual training sessions.

2. Recognize that your body may not be ready for specific deadlift variations.

I’ve pulled 660 with a conventional stance, 630 sumo, and 700 on the trap bar.  A big part of me being able to train all three lifts (and their variations) regularly was the fact that I’d built a good foundation of mobility and stability that enabled me to execute the lifts from a safe position.  Unfortunately, this isn’t the case with everyone who deadlifts for the first time.  In fact, for many general population folks, the conventional deadlift might never be an option purely from a risk: reward standpoint, as they simply can’t get into a safe starting position to start the lift.  For that reason, we start all our athletes and clients with the trap bar, progress to sumo deadlifts, and see where things stand.  Programming a conventional deadlift on Day 1 is like sending a 7th grader into a calculus class when he needs algebra first.

3. Train the deadlift frequently, but not necessarily with high volume.

It never ceases to amaze me how many lifters I encounter who say they want to improve the deadlift, yet answer “twice a month” when I ask them how often they train the lift!  For some reason, many folks in the powerlifting world latched on the idea that if you just trained the squat or good morning, it’d automatically carry over to the deadlift.  Sorry, that just isn’t the case – at least not if you want to make optimal progress.

I’d estimate that I’ve trained the deadlift twice a week for 80% of my training career, and once a week for the other 20%.  It’s almost always trained after the squat within the training session.  It may be lighter and for speed, or heavier for sets of 1-5 reps.

I can’t say that I’ve ever spent much time above six reps, though.  I find that my percentages fall off quickly, and doing a lot of high rep work at 60% of my one-rep max doesn’t really do much for me besides give me a raging headache. Seriously, every time I pull heavy for high reps; my head pounds for a good day – and I really don’t feel like it gets me any closer to where I need to be.

Either train heavy or train to be fast off the floor, but don’t train to be slow, and methodical by conserving your energy for 87-rep sets.

4. Upper back, upper back, upper back!

Buying shirts and suit jackets is a royal pain in the butt, as my upper back is considerably larger than my arms.  In fact, the size of my upper back is what inevitably forced me to go from the 165- to 181-pound weight class during my powerlifting days – in spite of the fact that I was trying to keep my weight down.  I think it speaks volumes for how important upper back strength is for the deadlift, as my pulls were improving considerably faster than my squats over this time period. To give you a feel for how accidentally disproportionate deadlifting has made me over the years, take note of this recent picture. In looking at my traps, one would think that all I need to do is develop an underbite, and then I could have a prosperous career as a troll underneath a bridge, demanding tolls from unsuspecting passersby.


Very simply, having a strong upper back enables you to control the bar, as opposed to it controlling you.  It’s obviously of great importance to getting the shoulder blades back at the top of the lift, but it’s also essential to making sure that the bar doesn’t drift away from you, which would effectively increase the distance between the weight and the axis of rotation (hips).  Letting the bar drift away from you doesn’t just decrease the likelihood of you completing the lift; it also raises the stress on your spine, increasing your likelihood of injury.  Having a strong upper back helps to spare your lower back.

You’ll find the best carryover from rowing variations, farmer’s walks, and rack pulls. However, vertical pulling variations (chin-ups, etc) can still have a beneficial effect.  I also always responded well to doing heavy single-leg work, as it challenged my grip and upper back while I was still training the lower half.

5. Have a plan.

It’s easy to build a solid deadlift, but taking a “decent” amount of success and expecting it to automatically translate to really big time deadlift numbers is a recipe for disaster, as what you do to get to a 315 deadlift is going to be dramatically different from what you do to try to pull 500.  Very simply, you need a plan.

To that end, if you’re looking for a good deadlift development program, I’d encourage you to check out The Specialization Success Guide. Whether you want to pack some poundage on your deadlift or just pick up some heavy stuff to look, feel, and move better, this is a great resource that I’d encourage you to check out.

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26 Responses to “5 Keys to Long-Term Deadlift Progress”

  1. matt suschak Says:

    Slightly off topic but is there a correlation between a strong upper back/traps and high velocity throwing? Thanks.

    Matt Suschak

  2. John R Costello Says:

    I have followed you and Mike for years. Recently Bret Contreras has provided great insight on glutes as well as low back. I would consider buying this book but watching video of him he goes into extension and leans back to get his hips up. Am I wrong or is this poor form?

  3. Mark P Says:

    It’s good to see a post on sustainability. I feel like everything I see or read on the internet is about the short(er)-term. Very few people actually look into fitness and strength in the scope of a decade or longer.

    With that said, your traps are hilariously huge!!!!!!

  4. Dr. Don Says:

    Just wonderin’ — The iPhone auto-correction of DEADLIFT probably reflects how someone with a lisp — an Apple designer-programmer, perhaps? — would pronounce DEADLIEST!

  5. Rodney Crosby Says:

    I am interested to see a planned deadlift progression.

  6. Josh Bryant Says:

    Enjoyed the post! great point on you have to deadlift to get good at the deadlift…..some recent studies confirm the squat and deadlift….are totally different lifs

    Thanks Eric!

  7. Oakville personal training Says:

    Thanks for the post! I also had an injury that set me back 3-4 months, but like you mentioned it helped wake me up and address my mobility issues and technique. One question I do have is technique based. I see more and more people going for speed and strength at the same time by bouncing the bar at the bottom of the lift. I’m sure that varying the tempo and time under tension every week or two is beneficial, but what tempo do you usually tell people?

  8. Dan Says:

    Hi Eric,

    Thanks for your article. I always learn something new on your blog.

    Can you clarify something for me? You say you’ve trained the deadlift twice per week for about 80% of your lifting career. Does that mean twice per week of bilateral deadlifts or any kind of deadlift variation? I’m guessing the latter but just want to check.

    Thanks again,

    PS I’m really enjoying your FST for the lower body product, especially the emphasis you and Mike put on getting that darn left hip back into internal rotation! That has been the missing link in my training for quite some time now.

  9. Beth Says:

    Thanks for the great info, Eric. Question about the grip variations and their relationship to the elbow: if the elbow is a weak link, is one grip mechanically less stressful than another – and which one is the toughest?
    Thank you.

  10. LC Says:

    Is there a recommended variation for a long torso? I’m an ectomorph female with good mobility, can mixed-grip conventional DL 80% of my body weight with good form and would like to work up from there, but am unsure when increasing the load how my form will be affected.

  11. Chris B Says:

    What do you think of the Jefferson deadlift that he advocates? Is it safe for the spine when pulling heavy loads?

  12. Carlos Solis Says:

    Straight forward article that puts away the notion that there is a secret to deadlift. Technique, hitting weak points and consistency through proper volume is the secret. Question: Do you use goodmornings or bent over barbell rows as assistance exercises for the DL? I ask because there have been times when I did use them but did not notice a significant improvement over just training the lift more often in my program.


  13. Eric Cressey Says:


    All things in moderation. 🙂

  14. Eric Cressey Says:


    I used to do a lot of good mornings, but not nearly as often anymore.  I do a lot of chest-supported rows and some bent-over rows.

  15. Eric Cressey Says:


    You’re probably someone who’d respond well to sumo pulls, as the assumption is that the torso is much longer than the arms and legs.

  16. Eric Cressey Says:

    Hi Beth,

    On the mixed grip, the “under” hand is definitely put at more risk…with the biggest concern being biceps ruptures.  Always good to vary which is over/under.

  17. Eric Cressey Says:


    Yes, bilateral. Any unilater DL stuff would just be bonus!

    Glad you’re enjoying FST – Lower!  Thanks for the kind words and support.

  18. Eric Cressey Says:


    I’m sure there’s some relationship.

  19. Eric Cressey Says:


    Check out Dave’s book!

  20. Marc Says:

    Can you share a bit on what you do for hand health to prevent callus tearing with heavy deadlifts?

  21. Chris Litten Says:


    Thanks for another great article. What brand of Trap bar do you use?



  22. Eric Cressey Says:


    You can try using pummus stones to file them down right after you get out of the shower.  That said, every big time deadlifter I’ve ever met has got them, so they kind of go with the territory!

  23. Eric Cressey Says:


    We use this one:


  24. Brian Bochette Says:


    You may also want to look at your grip during the set up for the deadlift. If you grasp the bar too high in the hand (i.e. in your palm) it will slide down into the fingers as you begin your pull. This wouldn’t be so bad except that it will take some of your skin along for the ride, dragging it down and tearing the calluses that you have built from prior workouts. Next time you lift, find the position that the bar will ultimately settle into and make sure to use it as your starting grip. Best of luck!

  25. Marc Says:

    Thanks for the advice. I’ve been striving to break 500 at 165lbs raw, so I’ve been using heavy rack pulls (600+), but I suffered a nasty callous tear that sidelined me pulling for almost 2 weeks. It’s amazing all the new problems that enter the picture as the weights get heavier.

  26. Michael Says:

    To what extent do you use biofeedback / ROM testing, Eric? I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts…

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