Few things are more frustrating than strength plateaus, especially if you’re following a well-designed program that was supposed to help you crush a new PR.
If you’re lifting in an intelligent and periodized fashion and you’re failing to increase your numbers, here are some potential fixes that you might want to consider.
1) A Posterior Chain PAP Protocol
Post-activation potentiation (or PAP) is the pairing of a heavy strength movement with a plyometric movement, and it’s an underutilized way to enhance performance. This is because you’re following a lift with non-fatiguing muscle contractions at high loads for a short amount of time, which stimulates the nervous system and may improve the rate of force development.
If you’re having trouble increasing your lift, consider the pairing we outlined in this article: three deadlifts at eighty percent of your 1RM, rest three or four minutes, then do eight kettlebell swings and wait for five minutes. That’s one set. Do three or four sets, use this as your deadlift workout for two or three weeks, take a week off, then try hitting a new max.
2) Use Your Stretch Reflex
The stretch reflex is an very complicated aspect of strength training, but the basic concept is that muscles contract harder in response to stretch.
“The stretch reflex can inhibit what you might call the muscles’ ‘shutdown reflex,’” says Eugene ‘Bo’ Babenko, a doctor of physical therapy and head coach at Dubai’s CrossFit Gold Box. “If the muscle feels like it’s in danger or not in a good position, it won’t want to fire and it can shut down. By using that stretch reflex, theoretically, you can override that.”
People can often squat more weight when they “bounce” out of the hole, which is one way to use the stretch reflex, and it’s possible to mimic that effect with the deadlift setting up for the lift with high hips, stretching the glutes and hamstrings. Then, right before executing the lift, quickly drop the hips and pull.
3) Kick Off Your Shoes
Feeling the ground under your feet can make a surprising difference in your deadlift, says Babenko. The idea is that lifting barefoot can alleviate an anterior weight shift, keep our weight back, and better engage the posterior chain.
According to deadlifting guru Tony Gentilcore, going shoeless can help ensure that your weight is evenly distributed across all three points of contact on the foot – the big toe, little toe, and heel – which can improve external rotation torque in the hips and low back stability. Give it a shot.
4) Get More Massages
Deep tissue massage can be pretty uncomfortable – we’re not talking about soothing, resort-style massages here – but it may improve blood flow, lower injury rates, reduce muscle stiffness and decrease inflammation.
Particularly if you tend to skip foam rolling and other methods of myofascial release, a vigorous massage may improve your intra-workout recovery and help you return to the gym better prepared to nail a new PR.
5) Use Paused Deadlifts
Wherever you’re stalling in your rep range, it’s worth playing around with isometric holds. But because pause deadlifts can be tougher on the back than other movements, it’s important to employ them judiciously.
For two or three weeks, consider reducing your working weight by twenty or thirty percent and holding the bar at your sticking point – say, mid-shin or above the knees – for three to four seconds before completing each rep. Don’t increase that weight; keeping it consistent over those few weeks should keep you from overloading your nervous system and improve your pulling efficiency.
6) Incorporate Rack Pulls
If you’re having difficulty in the final pull and lock out, rack pulls can help, particularly if the focus is on increasing muscular endurance, activating the lats and contracting the scapulae.
A lifter can always rack pull more than he or she can deadlift, so despite the shorter range of motion they can be incredibly fatiguing. Consider the “one set to failure” method: take the heaviest weight you can lift for five reps or more, then go for broke.
7) Try Jefferson Deadlifts
When chasing a new PR, many lifters will switch back and forth from sumo to conventional, but it’s also worth experimenting with Jefferson deadlifts, an unusual lift that involves straddling the bar before pulling.
As an antirotational exercise, it stimulates deep core stabilizers and helps to shore up asymmetries in strength and muscle development, which can be a key limiting factor when trying to boost a one-rep max. Substitute Jefferson deadlifts for a few weeks, then revert back to conventional and see if your numbers have increased.
8) Improve Your Sleep Hygiene
“People spend four hours in the gym and don’t do anything about their rest,” says Babenko. “The body produces significantly more human growth hormone in later stages of sleep, it’s almost like taking steroids.”
If you’re not sleeping well, you’re not recovering well, and you’re not optimizing your strength levels. Aim for at least eight hours per night and make absolutely certain you’re consuming enough magnesium, an essential mineral that helps to facilitate deep, restorative sleep.
9) Squat More
Back squats do a great job of firing up the posterior chain, and the movement can have significant carryover to the deadlift. If you’re neglecting your squat to focus more on your deadlift, you might be missing an important piece of the puzzle. For many folks, squatting twice and deadlifting once each week can improve their deadlift better than emphasizing deads over squats.
10) Switch to Hook Grip Deadlifts
It probably won’t improve your grip strength, but that’s kind of the point: if your grip is your weak point, using a hook grip will help to take your grip out of the equation. You just need to grab the bar with a double overhand style and wrap your pointer and middle around the thumb, creating the “hook,” which is much less taxing on the grip and forearms than conventional grip.
It’ll take a few workouts to get used to, but switching to hook grip for a full six- to eight-week workout program may help you pull more weight than was previously possible. Then you can get to work improving your grip strength!
11) Boost Your Butt Strength
If your deadlift is weak at lockout, your glutes could be at fault. It’s a common misconception that deadlifts are the be-all and end-all of glute-strengthening exercises, but to get as strong as possible at deadlifts, it’s a good idea to target them directly.
12) Activate Your Glutes
There’s a fine line between activating your glutes and fatiguing your glutes, so you don’t want to go overboard with these exercises. But spending a few minutes waking up your posterior chain with some light glute ham raises, clam shells, monster walks, or reverse hypers can make a significant difference in your results.
“In terms of preworkout, it’s enough to just get a little burn, and a lot of people will feel the difference when they lift,” says Babenko. “It takes a little trial and error. Maybe three sets of ten clam shells will give you a great deadlift session and three sets of fifteen will overtire your glutes. Keep track of what works for your own body.”
13) Incorporate More Speed Work
You want to approach speed deadlifts the same way you approach glute activation, in that you don’t want to tire out your posterior chain, you want to wake it up, says Babenko. He likes incorporating a few minutes of speed deadlifts, box jumps and depth jumps to fire up the body’s type 2 muscle fibers and prepare hem for a heavy pull.
“Your speed response is important because you need to pull the bar off the ground fast,” he says. “If you don’t have that speed component, there’s only so much you can put up and it can be harder to break through plateaus.”
Remember, smart programming is first and foremost the best way to increase your strength. If you’re simply deadlifting when you feel like it and changing your sets and reps on a whim, your progress will stall. Make sure that you’re following an intelligently designed program, and if your strength is still stalling – that’s when tips like these will be the most useful.