Deadlifting for Strength Vs. Size: Small Form Tweaks for BIG Lat Growth

The deadlift can be one of the best lat mass builders with these small form tweaks!

So, if you’ve been keeping up with my articles so far, you know that one of the most important aspects of training for aesthetic development requires strengthening the muscle, not the movement. You can think of it sort of like this: when you’re training for powerlifting, you’re trying to develop strength to move as much weight as possible in the squat, bench, deadlift, etc.

When you’re training for aesthetics, you’re trying to develop strength to make your body look as good as possible (and that goes for whatever “good” means to you, whether it’s to get noticed at the beach or compete on stage in any division). To move as much weight as possible in the powerlifts, you need to train those movements. To look as good as possible, you need to train your muscles.

The difference simply comes down to technique.

That’s virtually all there is to it, at least from a training perspective. Yes, the ways you periodize your training will differ slightly; the way your structure your microcycles (training splits) probably will, too, but ultimately, technique is by far the most important and most difficult concept to learn here.

So, in an effort to help with that, I’m going to break down the nuances of some of the powerlifts so that you can see the exact differences in, say, deadlifting — to have a big deadlift versus deadlifting to have a big back. Next month, we’ll tackle the squat and bench press. If that sounds good to you, then read on!

Deadlifting For A Big Deadlift

If you read most deadlift tutorials (including my own Guide to the Deadlift), then you’ve probably heard the basics before: keep a flat back, brace your core, and use your hips and legs. Those all apply to deadlifting for any purpose. Here, I specifically want to focus on the role of the lats and abs. These are pretty nuanced aspects of the lift, but as we will see, they can be very, very important.

When you’re deadlifting for a big deadlift, you want to engage your lats by pulling them back and down, towards your butt. This requires that you externally rotate your shoulders, relax your arms and traps, and brace your abs hard. This helps to keep your back flat even when moving near-max weights.

However, when you brace your abs, you’re not only focused on that good neutral spine position — you also want to “bear down” and generate lots of intra-abdominal pressure to help power the weight off the floor, balancing the load between your back, hips, and legs. If you brace properly and engage your lats, you should naturally fall into a position where your shoulders are directly over the bar, resulting in the straightest bar path possible.

Mike Tuschcherer explains this perfectly in the video below.

Deadlifting for A Big Back

When you’re trying to build lats so big you can fly away, you’re really not concerned with lifting the absolute max you’re capable of (although heavy loading is still very important). Instead, you want to make sure that you’re putting as much emphasis on the lats as possible throughout the entire range of motion.

To do that, we’re going to change two things.

  • First, instead, of pulling your lats back and down, you’re going to raise and spread your shoulder blades and flare your lats out as hard as possible, just like in a front lat spread (with your arms down, of course).

You’re going to try to hold that position throughout the entire lift.

  • Second, instead of bearing down with your abs, you’re still going to brace, but you should think about “crunching in,” and trying to pull your navel towards your spine. This will help to keep your chest high, just like in that front lat spread.

The result of these two slight tweaks will position your shoulders in front of the bar. That’s not optimal for lifting as much weight as possible, but it will force you to initiate the drive off the floor by using more upper back than hips and legs. Furthermore, it will put you in a position at lockout where you can almost think of driving the elbows backward and really squeezing your lats together at the top.

Troubleshooting the Deadlifts

Keep in mind these are subtle differences! If you watched the first video above, you know that from the front, the positions look nearly identical. That’s okay — keep in mind that as an athlete, even small differences can make a huge change in result. Think about a long putt in golf: if your stroke is off even by a couple of millimeters, you could miss the hole by inches or even feet. It’s the same concept here.

If you’re having trouble engaging the lats, that’s a different story. In that case, I strongly recommend that you perform some sort of pre-exhaust movement before you start deadlifting.

My favorite option is the facing-away pulldown, really focusing on driving your elbows down towards your sternum. You might also try some of the activation movements John Meadows suggests in this video:

Finally, stay patient. These type of nuanced technique changes can take several workouts to start to “feel” and even longer to really master.

That’s okay — every little bit of change you make is contributing to your final goal. Keep that in mind, and also keep in mind that at the end of the day, you have to Think Strong and Train Hard!

Feature image from @phdeadlift Instagram page. 

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack is a professional powerlifter and holds the all-time world record raw total of 2039 in the 198-pound class. He has won best overall lifter at the largest raw meets in the world, including the US Open, Boss of Bosses, and Reebok Record Breakers.

Ben earned his Ph.D. in the history and management of strength and fitness from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018, and has published articles in a number of scholarly publications, including The Journal of Sport History, The Journal of Sport Management, and Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture. He also coaches strength athletes of all skill levels, including several internationally-elite powerlifters and world record holders. You can contact Ben through his website (phdeadlift.com) or via email at [email protected]

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