5 Deadlift Programs Worth Trying to Boost Your Pulling Strength

Basing your training program around deadlifts is a sure-fire way to craft a muscled back and increase your one-rep max.

There are few experiences in training that are more viscerally satisfying than hitting a hard-fought deadlift personal record. Without a doubt, the deadlift can be one of the most rewarding exercises to master. But heavy pulling technique requires more than developing raw strength alone. 

At the root of every deadlift is the hip hinge — one of the most powerful tools in any lifter’s arsenal. In the grander scheme of training, deadlifts, hip hinges, and their variations can be applied far and wide to any level of experience. You may be selling yourself — and your gains — short by only sticking to conventional-style deadlifting in your program.

A person performs a deadlift in the gym.
Credit: YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV / Shutterstock

When creating deadlift-focused programs, it’s critical to understand where and when to vary up your exercises. This article will explore how to properly program deadlifts for beginners, muscle growth, strength, high-frequency pulling, and when implementing deadlift variations. You’ll also learn about the benefits of deadlifting, as well as some common causes of the dreaded deadlift plateau.

Best Deadlift Programs

Deadlift Program for Beginners

For beginners, diving headfirst into full deadlifts from the ground is usually a contentious idea. Sometimes things go beautifully and you can carry on uninterrupted until a natural plateau presents itself. 

However, the hip hinge is a nuanced move to master. Because of this, you may lower your risk of injuries by using variations and progressions. But using variations doesn’t mean you can’t still make gains. You’ll still be training your back and basic hinge patterns while allowing your back, hips, and core to learn to safely hinge under load.

The Workout

Using dumbbells and reduced range of motion exercises will build up your back and core while training you to properly hip hinge. These exercises will generally have a lower risk of injury and naturally lead towards a full deadlift from the ground. You can develop a strong foundation using twice-weekly workouts rather than a dedicated program. From there, a world of opportunities exists for how to program deadlifts for any particular goal.

Deadlift Program for Muscle Growth

All sound programs follow some style of periodization. This is especially true when training the deadlift. The Cube Method by Brandon Lilly is no different. It consists of weekly, percentage-based programming that uses many different repetition and intensity levels across the program. The key is that The Cube periodically includes the opportunity for higher repetition deadlifting and directly inserts bodybuilding sessions within the week to address muscle growth.

The Workout

The Cube follows a weekly undulating style of programming. This means that every week, there is fluctuation in load, sets, and/or repetitions for the deadlift. Each day prescribes sets, repetitions, and load for the main barbell lifts and then customized accessory exercises tailored to the individual.

Choose your own accessories based on your training needs, experiences, and goals. Here is a snapshot of one week of training.

Monday

  • Repetition Deadlift: 2-3 x 8-12 @ 70%1RM.
  • Accessories

Wednesday

Friday

  • Heavy Squat: 5 x 2 @ 80%1RM.
  • Accessories

Sunday

Note: The training parameters for main exercises would rotate week over week. Increase your prescribed percentages over time.

Deadlift Program for Strength

Deadlift training for strength typically benefits from a bare-bones approach. The heavier you’re lifting, the less additional exercises you’ll want to do.

This is where Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 approach shines. It is a no-nonsense approach to getting brutally strong in a few key lifts (the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press). The 5/3/1 approach uses weekly undulating periodization to ensure continued progress and help manage fatigue. It combines maximal effort with a minimalist approach to keep you laser-focused on strength.

The Workout

The 5/3/1 approach prescribes a similar workout plan for each of the main lifts. It can be scaled anywhere from two to four days per week. A unique aspect of this program is that you’ll use your training max (TM) at all times — that’s 90% of a tested one-rep max. So, calculate your weights based on that 90%, rather than on your actual max.

You’ll also strategically use AMRAP sets (as many repetitions as possible). Here is the example of a three week deadlift wave using the “boring but big” assistance template.

Week 1

  • Deadlift: 1 x 5 @ 65%TM, 1 x 5 @ 75%TM, 1 x 5 @85%TM
  • Deadlift: 5 x 10 @ 30 – 50%TM
  • Hanging Leg Raise: 5 x 15

Week 2

  • Deadlift: 1 x 3 @ 70%TM, 1 x 3 @ 80%TM, 1 x 3 @90%TM
  • Deadlift: 5 x 10 @ 30 – 50%TM
  • Hanging Leg Raise: 5 x 15

Week 3

  • Deadlift: 1 x 5 @ 75%TM, 1 x 3 @ 85%TM, 1 x 1+ @95%TM
  • Deadlift: 5 x 10 @ 30 – 50%TM
  • Hanging Leg Raise: 5 x 15

Week 4 (Deload)

  • Deadlift: 1 x 5 @ 40%TM, 1 x 5 @ 50%TM, 1 x 5 @60%TM
  • Deadlift: 5 x 10 @ 30-50%TM
  • Hanging Leg Raise: 5 x 15

High-Frequency Deadlift Program

For most, a high-frequency deadlift program would mean simply deadlifting more than once per week. If you’re going to employ a high-frequency deadlifting program, daily undulating periodization is one of your best options. Daily undulating periodization alters the sets, repetitions, and especially load per workout to make sure that you don’t end the week feeling completely wrecked.

The Workout

Daily undulating periodization can be used as a tool for any lift. In this case, it can help specialize your deadlift training. A three-day split that prioritizes the deadlift through various repetition and loading schemes (such as light, heavy, and medium days) can provide all the complexity you need. 

Day 1 (Medium)

  • Deadlift: 5 x 5

Day 2 (Light)

  • Deadlift: 3 x 10

Day 3 (Heavy)

  • Deadlift: 3 x 3

Note: Each of these days can have a small but strategic number of accessory lifts to compliment the deadlifts. The goal is to not over-tax your recovery by adding too many exercises.

Deadlift Program with Variations

While deadlifting with a straight bar is the most traditional style that comes to mind, that’s not the only way to pull heavy. When you’ve refined your technique on the main deadlift style, you might take some time to prioritize alternative variations. 

The conjugate method is one style that comes to mind — in it, you’ll use numerous different exercise variations and implements on a regular basis. While you don’t need to get as complex as an elite Westside Barbell lifter, tossing in variations can be highly valuable.

The Workout

Daily undulating periodization programming would call for deadlifting multiple times per training week.

On the other hand, conjugate training can be done multiple times per week or in a weekly rotating fashion. For example:

Week 1

  • Conventional Deadlift: 5 x 5

Week 2

  • Block Pull: 3 x 5

Week 3

Week 4

  • Conventional Deadlift with Chains: 3 x 3

Note: Variation, especially with relatively high frequency, benefits those with a high degree of skill in the deadlift already. If you haven’t got a lot of experience with diverse pulling methods under your belt, this one might not be for you.

How To Progress

Undoubtedly, there will come a time in any of these programs where adding weight to the bar becomes the central focus. Once you’ve refined your technique and developed a good balance of accessory exercises, the type of deadlift program you’re running helps dictate how to progress week-over-week.

Beginner Progression

For a beginner-style program, simply adding weight to your barbell over time is the best way forward. Adding the smallest increment of available load between each session should be enough stimulus for strength and growth when you’re just starting out.

Advanced Progression

If you’re working a more advanced program such as The Cube, 5/3/1, or daily undulating periodization, you’ll use percentages to guide daily deadlift weight prescriptions. In this case, you can increase your training max or projected one-rep-max for the deadlift after each complete block of the program.

This way, there is a trickle-down effect on the next wave of training — the sets and repetitions will be the same, but there will be a small but effective increase in load. Similar to beginner programs, making small to moderate jumps in load is the most effective way to progress. Simply finish the current block and add a small amount of weight to the training max before repeating the program.

Variable Progression

With variable deadlift training, certain exercises are more predisposed to low, medium, or higher repetitions. That, in turn, will help determine your load. For example, a stiff-leg deadlift is a harder exercise to maximally load than a conventional deadlift. It makes sense that this lift should probably use slightly higher repetitions and less weight.

Using deadlift variations week-over-week is also usually associated with maximal effort — so pair the exercise with an appropriate repetition range to hit a high degree of effort (close to technical failure). As a simple example, the stiff-legged deadlift week should be performed for sets of eight repetitions with approximately one or two reps in reserve before technical breakdown. 

Common Deadlift Plateaus

Deadlifting is not without its common complaints, especially when programs are pushing you to your max. Some of the most frequent problems experienced while deadlifting are grip issues, back soreness, and difficulty synergizing with other prongs of a training program.

Grip

Grip strength is a game of patience and exposure. Fortunately (or sometimes unfortunately), your legs and back can get stronger much more quickly than your grip. Especially when there is a marked uptick in deadlift frequency or volume, your grip can become the limiting factor in your session. 

Some common remedies for grip issues are to perform all back and arm exercises without straps, adding chalk to your sessions, or using a hook grip to hold the bar. While each of these is a solid solution, nothing beats accumulated time under tension over months and years of heavy barbell and dumbbell training to fix grip problems.

Soreness

Soreness is bound to happen in any intense training. The problem with deadlifting is that it can produce soreness in places that can be rather inconvenient for other lifts or life. The back and hamstrings are fairly debilitating culprits. If your technique is locked down, rest assured that you should slowly adapt to being less sore after deadlift sessions.

A person prepares to deadlift with chalk.
Credit: Andrey Burmakin / Shutterstock

A rosy future doesn’t help if you’re sore now. In the present, you might opt to pull back on volume. Many people and programs often get overly attached to the common “three to four working sets” framework.

The reality is, as little as one heavy top set of deadlifts is likely enough to create some (albeit slower) progress. Plus, the reduced volume can also reduce your overall soreness. That volume can then be ramped up back as your body adapts.

Programming

The deadlift (especially when performed multiple times per week) can suck up a lot of recovery needs from the remainder of a training program. The amount of skill, musculature, and recovery necessary to deadlift at a high level can often produce levels of fatigue that make subsequent workouts harder. 

Similar to managing soreness, managing overall fatigue comes down to scaling programming in terms of workouts per week and even exercises per workout. The deadlift is a great tool to build full body strength, but it builds full body fatigue, as well. On deadlift days or in the totality of a program, manage your volume so that you can get enough rest between each session.

Benefits of Deadlifting

Although you might be new to deadlifting in the gym, this motion occurs daily in everyday life. From picking up your shopping bags to scooping up your children, you likely hinge a lot day-to-day. Properly executed deadlifts, especially with sound programming, can produce enormous benefits for our hips, back, and full-body strength. These benefits can transfer into daily life, as well as other areas in the gym.

Healthy Hips

At the core of the deadlift is the hip hinge technique. The hip hinge is the act of rotating your hips through their fullest range of motion with minimal-to-no knee bend. When performed consistently, the deadlift can be an excellent gauge for hip health and function

For example, your hips may lose range of motion due to compensation patterns or inadequate recovery. This places your back in progressively more compromised positions during many exercises (and life). Practicing hip hinges by deadlifting with good technique is an excellent way to keep your hips healthy.

Healthy Back

While many think that the deadlift is a risky exercise for the back, the reality is that skilled deadlifting can help improve your back strength and health. Many exercises for the back are externally stabilized, meaning that machines or other body parts help stabilize your spine. In those cases, your core muscles don’t have to work as hard to stabilize you. 

On the other hand, in a properly-executed deadlift, your hips, core, and back must all work in unison to brace against the weight being lifted. Overall, this can help you forge a strong, healthy back.

Full-Body Strength

The deadlift is without a doubt one of the greatest expressions of full-body strength out there. The deadlift begins from a dead-stop on the ground, so your back, core, and prime movers need to be locked on and coordinated from the very beginning. In addition to technique, you need to generate the brute strength necessary to complete the lift. So, the deadlift is simultaneously one of the most demanding exercises and one that you can get the most mileage out of in terms of absolute strength.

The Big Picture

Deadlifts can be challenging, but the rewards from regularly performing them are undeniable. In order to consistently perform proper pulls, it’s worth exploring structured deadlift-focused programs. There are many ways to get strong, and deadlift programs can be tailored to adapt to any goal.

From teaching the skill to building muscle and raw strength, these deadlift programs are all worth a fair look. Any one of them can help gain strength, get jacked, or have an undeniably strong back.

Featured Image: Andrey Burmakin / Shutterstock

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