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5 Keys to Long-Term Deadlift Progress

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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Bench Press Technique: Should You Keep Your Feet Up?

A while back, I published an article, Are Pull-ups THAT Essential?, that was the single most popular in the history of EricCressey.com.  One particularly important point I made was that chronically driving the scapulae into depression with overuse of the lats could lead to various injuries in lifters and athletes.

In the comments section after the article, one reader had a great question along these lines: Isn't benching with a big arch and cueing "down and back" with the shoulder blades during a bench press the exact same thing?  Shouldn't the feet be up on the bench to get people out of extension?

I think it is a similar thing, but not the exact same thing.  And, I am not a fan of bench pressing with the feet up on the bench.

Before I get into the details of why, though, we should make an important differentiation between "gym" bench press technique and the bench press technique used by competitive powerlifters in competition.

In competition powerlifting bench press technique, the goal is to shorten the range of motion of the bar while maximizing leg drive.  Putting yourself in a big lower back arch and tucking the feet up under you more is the way to do this.  Additionally, equipped powerlifters wear bench press shirts that pull the shoulder blades forward, and the humerus into extension past the body.  Accordingly, the lifter has to consciously pull the shoulder blades down and back to counteract this tension and not jack up the anterior aspect of the shoulder.  After about 20 minutes of searching my laptop, I found this old video of me from 2005 when I was a legit 165-pounder (you can tell by the ostrich legs).  Notice the big arch and how much upper back involvement I needed to "fight" the shirt (and, for the record, I was never good at using the shirt...hated those things):

The Average Joe doesn't need to worry about these factors when he's lifting in the gym; he just needs to figure out what gives him the optimal set-up to stay healthy and still benefit from the exercise.  Still, I think we can learn a few things from the powerlifting approach.

First, I’m not convinced that such substantial loads for the upper body alone are a good thing. There are smaller joint structures and more mobility than stability than we see in the lower body, which can handle far greater loads. Sharing the load with the lower body tends to better distribute overall training stress.  Bringing the feet up on the bench takes this away.

Second, folks are more likely to go into excessive humeral extension (elbows pass the body) in the bottom position with a “sunken” chest. So, they either jack up the anterior aspect of the shoulder there – or the elbows flare out and we deal with a host of other stability issues.

Third, in standing, we actually have a "normal" lordotic curve.  I think it's optimal to maintain this lordotic curve on the bench rather than take it away completely.  Core stability isn't about cranking someone into excessive extension or flexion; it's about learning how to maintain neutral.  A "middle of the road" approach like the one in the videos below is fine for most lifters (you'll notice a slight arch is even more important on the close grip bench press, as there is a greater tendency for humeral extension past neutral when the hands are closer together):

Fourth, there is something to be said about learning from very strong people and their experiences.  We learned about how bracing was far superior to hollowing in terms of core stability by simply looking at world class squatters and what they did under insane loads.  Along these same lines, you simply don't see world class bench pressers with the feet up and shoulder blades winging out. The flat back posture shifts guys into an abducted scapulae position from the get-go – and it becomes excessive at the top of the press. Internal rotation with protraction closes down the subacromial space and can cause increased rotator cuff impingement as well.  A similar thing actually happens when guys have to lift off the racks to themselves to start the lift, and it's one reason why I always recommend getting a bench press handoff.

Fifth, you have to appreciate that the amount of time spent in scapular depression and lumbar extension (if you are even past the point of "neutral") is relatively trivial.  If this position provides some extra stability, and doesn't take place for long enough to yield chronic adaptations, I'm all for it.

Hopefully, this brief overview explains why I don't like to have the feet up with bench press technique.  If you're looking to learn more, I'd encourage you to check out The Specialization Success Guide, a resource I co-authored with Greg Robins.  It features some thorough bench press technique advice, as well as proven bench press specialization strength training programs.


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  • Avoid the most common deadlifting mistakes
  • 9 - minute instructional video
  • 3 part follow up series