There are few lifts that compare to the exhilarating nature of the deadlift. It’s one of the most animalistic movements we can perform, and the brute strength required to hoist a heavy weight from the ground to the waist comes with an unparalleled feeling.
When things are going great in training, the deadlift is awesome, but what about when strength stalls, 1-RMs won’t budge, and you feel like you’re at a complete loss with your progression. Insert what could be a deadlift plateau. Plateaus can be a gift and a curse. They’re a curse because of the frustration that comes along with them, however, they’re a gift because they force you to train a bit more objectively, try new things, and open yourself up to different methodologies.
In this article, we’ll focus on the idea of what a plateau actually is, then discuss methods to try based on where your deadlift is stuck.
Did You Really Hit a Deadlift Plateau?
Before we dive into the methods below, let’s address a harsh truth. One or two bad deadlift days is not indicative of a true plateau.
Far too often, newer lifters will have a bad training day and instantly think something is wrong, then change the course of their training. In reality, it’s fairly normal to have good and bad days in the gym, and anyone who uses auto-regulatory methods like RPE to track their progress can easily identify this with their intensity trends.
Now, what does constitute a deadlift plateau could be a lift that has been stalled over the course of multiple mesocycles, or a lift that is trending in a static position or downwards over the span of multiple weeks. A true plateau could be strength related, or a mental barrier that one has to overcome — think back to the first time you tackled a three, four, five, and six+ plate deadlift and how much of a mental battle those feats were.
So you think you might be plateau’d and you’ve taken the time to identify where your misses happen most. What should you do?
Deadlift Plateau Techniques
Overall Deadlift Plateau
Typical Problems: Stale programming, lagging muscle groups and technical issues, lack of foundational strength
1. Avoid the Barbell
If you’re frustrated with your barbell deadlift, then train for a mesocycle without it. Sometimes giving yourself a break from the exercise that has been frustratingly slow to progress can actually help you break through the plateau indirectly. A break from the barbell deadlift for a training cycle can provide the body and mind both a window of relaxation from a frustrating plateau, which can help realign focus and motivation.
If you want to switch out the barbell deadlift with another movement for a training cycle, check out some of the options you can use below.
All of the above options are different in nature, but they’re equally great within their own right because they allow you to scratch the itch of training with high intensities while targeting multiple muscle groups at once. Not to mention, they all have potential for strength carryover to the deadlift to varied degrees based on your programming.
2. Tempo Deadlifts
Few deadlift variations can be as fruitful as tempo deadlifts. This variation basically lifts the rock of any potential imbalances and compensations you might have in your deadlift, but aren’t acknowledging. For a personal example, I had a pretty bad hip shift during my sumo pulls that I wasn’t acknowledging until I did a mesocycle with tempo deadlifts.
By adding in concentric and eccentric tempos, I was able to identify why the hip shift was happening, then combat it by reinforcing correct motor patterns due to the nature of the slower lift. Long story short, I was shifting laterally into my right leg during the ascent from the floor to compensate for an imbalance I had built up following my quad surgery.
If you want to add tempo deadlifts to your program for a training cycle, then try doing the following.
- Drop intensities by 10-25%
- Perform normal sets with:
- 3-second concentric
- 1-second hold at the top
- 3-second eccentric
- 1-second hold at the bottom
Note, the above is just an example of how I used tempo deadlifts. Manipulate intensities and volume based on your current training goals. A good rule of thumb is to keep intensities at a level that would allow you to easily hit 2-reps after each set. The goal here is technical proficiency and body awareness, not moving the most weight possible.
3. Squat More
It’s surprising how much a strong squat can carryover to deadlift performance. Now, if you’re an elite level powerlifter, then this method may not work for you, as you’ve probably capped your foundational strength and you need more specificity to progress, however, squatting more is a fantastic tool for novice and intermediate athletes.
Similar to the first bullet above, for a training cycle take a break from deadlifts and replace them with a squat (front, high-bar, low-bar, safety bar squats, etc.). Squats will build the adductors, core stability, glutes, and quads, which can all have carryover to deadlift performance.
4. Train the Opposing Deadlift
Another useful strategy for giving yourself a break from a stalled deadlift is to train the opposing deadlift. It’s not exactly a rocket science answer for working around a plateau, but often times training your weaker pull can have carryover to your preferred deadlift style. This method will be most useful for beginners who haven’t explored both deadlift options to their fullest.
Missing Off the Floor
Typical Problems: Lats disengaging, bar path shifting away from the body, and bracing issues
5. Mid-Shin Pauses
If you’re missing off the floor, and more specifically at the mid-shin, then adding mid-shin pauses can be an excellent training tool for building strength through this posture and teaching patience off the floor. A skill that will also be improved with this deadlift variation is pulling the slack out of the bar. Sometimes, misses off the floor — barring they’re not strictly a strength issue — are related to how one is positioning themselves before actually moving the bar.
For a full mesocycle, drop your intensity by 10-20% and perform pause work at the mid-shin for 1-2 seconds. If grip strength isn’t an issue, then it’s okay to strap up and give all of your focus to the strategic pause you’ve added.
6. Deficit Deadlifts
By adding range of motion to the deadlift at the bottom, intensity can be increased without the addition of weight. The deficit deadlift can be an extremely useful tool for lifters who have issues maintaining their hip angle at the bottom of the pull and remaining patient off the floor.
Besides teaching patience off the floor and strengthening hip angles, this deadlift variation can also improve leg drive, which is a fantastic cue to remember when pulling. If you can properly push through the floor while pulling, then you can double down on the force you can produce during the first range of motion for the deadlift.
- New to Deficits: Use a 10 or 25 lb plate.
- Veteran to Deficits: Use a 25 or 45 lb plate.
One thing to note for deficit deadlifts is that your training percentages should drop pretty substantially to accommodate for the learning curve and additional emphasis that will be placed on the hips and lumbar.
7. Iso Deadlifts
Another great strategy for busing through a deadlift plateau from the floor is with the use of iso deadlifts. An iso deadlift requires lifters to maximally pull up into a fixed, non-movable implement. This allows athletes to maximally contract and scale intensity on time and effort, as opposed to physical external load.
This variation can be great for athletes who want to produce a high stimulus on a very specific range of motion without physically loading the body. Thus, making this variation a great option for neural and form analysis benefits without causing too much fatigue on the body.
Missing At Mid-Thigh Through Lockout
Typical Problems: Posterior chain strength, technical breakdown, poor bar path
8. Banded Deadlifts
When focusing on working through the strength curves in the first (floor to knee) and second portion (knee through lockout) of the deadlift, few things compare to accommodating resistance in the form of banded deadlifts. This deadlift variation is great because its intensity increases as you pull upwards to fight the downward pull from the band. So between the mid-shin and mid-thigh, the amount of force required to complete this deadlift variation is higher than the traditional deadlift due to the additional accommodating resistance.
Similar to deficit deadlifts, start lighter with this variation and use a lighter band. If you don’t have a deadlift platform that has attachments for bands, then you can try the two different banded options below depending on how you deadlift.
- Conventional Deadlift: Position a mini-band around the barbell, then step on top of it, so it looks like a “U” when you’re standing up.
- Sumo Deadlift: Position a mini-band under each foot and string it around the barbell between them, so it’s position directly under your center of mass.
9. Block/Rack Pulls
If you’re a beginner missing at the mid-thigh or lockout, then there’s a strong chance that you simply just need to pull more and give yourself time to progress, but for some intermediate and advanced lifters, block and rack pull work might be the answer. Block and rack work is great because it allows you to overload the top end ranges of motion for the deadlift, so you can almost exclusively work your hip extension with weights that are near or above your 1-RM.
Missing Due to Grip
Typical Problems: Poor grip strength
10. Axle Bar Deadlifts and Timed Holds
There are multiple training methods that athletes can employ when grip strength is an issue. Two methods that are highly specific to the deadlift include axle bar deadlifts and timed holds. Since the axle bar has a thicker diameter, the hands and forearms have to work twice as hard to ensure they maintain their grip. For pure grip focus, this variation is incredibly useful and a nice change up for dropping load while focusing on this training goal (improving grip strength).
If you don’t have an axle bar at your gym, then another great method is the use of timed holds. To perform timed holds, you’ll simply make a time-focused goal for a hold at the top of the deadlift and work to secure the bar and brace accordingly.
There are multiple ways to break through deadlift plateaus, and these are only some options to try. If you feel like you’ve hit a plateau, then objectively look at your training and try to figure out why that plateau might be present.
Remember, a few bad deadlifting sessions are not a perfect indicator of a true plateau.
Deadlift Plateau FAQs
How do I know if my deadlift is plateau'd?
A true deadlift plateau can be defined in a few ways. For example, if your 1-RM has been stuck over the course of a few training cycles, you’re missing lifts consistently at one point, or performance is consistently trending downwards.
What isn’t a deadlift plateau is one or two bad days in the gym, as this is fairly normal to experience. It’s important to objectively assess your training before seeking intervention and changing the course of your training block.
How do I fix a deadlift plateau?
There are multiple ways to work around a deadlift plateau. For working through a deadlift plateau, it’s often a good idea to reverse engineer the problem and assess where the deadlift is going wrong in the first place.
Once you’ve identified the weakness or issue, then you can work to strengthen and improve that specific problem with calculated strategies.
Feature image Oleksandr Zamuruiev/Shutterstock