Knees strong, palms are chalky.
You wrap your fingers around the barbell at your feet, flatten your back, activate your lats, core, and glutes, and push your feet into the ground as you heave the weight off the ground. Once the bar clears your knees, the hard part is over. Right?
Not always. The deadlift is often framed as the ultimate exercise in raw pulling power but a lot of the world’s strongest powerlifters have missed competition lifts because of an inability to lock out at the top of the movement. Here are a few tried and true tips to help you finish your most difficult reps.
1) Bands and Chains
Bands and chains create more tension as you lift, so they train the body to generate extra force at the top of the movement.
“For lockout strength, I really love pulling against bands and chains,” says Mike Dewar, CSCS, USAW2, a New York City-based weightlifting coach and strength and conditioning specialist. (He’s also a prolific BarBend contributor.) “Chains and heavy bands help build tension at the top of the pull and they did wonders for my speed development at about mid-thigh.”
Another bonus: bands and chains help to increase grip and strength in the back, as demands become seriously increased around the top.
2) Hip Thrusts
The deadlift, of course, is a hip-dominant exercise, which means the glutes play a huge role in completing the movement. A lot of lifters don’t realize that you should lock out with your glutes, not your back. The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body and the fulcrum on which the deadlift takes place: everything hinges on your heinie. And when the butt is weak or inactive it can’t properly share the load, so you’re more likely to strain your back, hamstrings, or knees.
Hip thrusts are considered by some the ultimate glute strengthening exercise, and they carry over nicely to the deadlift. Pause for a few seconds at the top of the movement if you really want to train the terminal hip extension in your deadlift. If you’ve read this far, you probably do.
3) Kettlebell Swings
The hip-hinge style kettlebell swing is another excellent exercise for strengthening the glutes and training a powerful, lockout-crushing snap in your hips. While you can’t go quite as heavy on swings as you can on hip thrusts, an advantage they confer is that they train the entire posterior chain so your hamstrings, low back, lats, and your grip come along for the ride.
Another important benefit of kettlebell swings is that they’re typically trained in higher reps and greater frequency than the deadlift itself, so it helps to grease the groove and train the hip extension so it comes more naturally. Try at least a hundred swings three times a week.
4) Rack Pulls and Holds
Pulling weight off of blocks or a rack generally means you can lift and hold more weight than you could if you were pulling from the floor, so you can really drill your grip and lockout harder than you can with standard conventional deadlifting.
“I like to do a good amount of rack block pulls and holds, maybe like once every other week on days my hamstrings were just lit up,” says Dewar. “I would load weights up, pull, and hold for five to ten seconds in a firm lockout position.”
Heavy reps are a good idea, but it’s not a bad idea to also experiment with sets of five to ten reps, which will target areas in and around the area of failure. Training high-ish reps is challenging enough to build muscle but it’s not so hard that you’ll have difficulty recovering.
The deadlift is an extremely complex combination of power, technique, mobility, and mentality, so we can’t say this is an exhaustive guide to perfecting the movement.
But if there’s one lesson you can take away, it’s that perfect deadlifts build perfect deadlifts. Train the movement often, grease the groove, and build the kind of muscle memory that will help you grind through your most challenging reps.
Just don’t forget about your butt.
Featured image via @big.john39 on Instagram.