Improving the Deadlift

Over the past three years, I’ve managed to discover a few things that have dramatically helped improve my deadlift. In 2006 at the IPA Nationals, I pulled 540 lbs, and in December 2009 at the APA Southern Texas Championships, I finished with a 610-lb deadlift. For those of you who want to credit this to using better gear, consider the fact that going into the IPA Nationals I was only capable of pulling 435 lbs raw. I now have a raw deadlift in training of 540 lbs. So in only three years time, I’ve improved my equipped deadlift by 70 lbs and my raw deadlift by 105 lbs.

There are two major areas that have made a profound difference in my training—proper starting position and sound programming.


After this last meet, one of the better lifters there commented on how easy my lifting looked. Well, let me tell you those lifts weren’t easy. I didn’t just lift light weights to get white lights. The reason my lifting “looks” easy is because I have refined my technique so that my pulls are very efficient.

One of the biggest things I see lifters doing wrong when deadlifting is starting in a bad position. This goes for both the sumo and conventional deadlift. First, neither style deadlift is a “leg” lift, yet many lifters try to sink their hips extremely deep to get better leg drive. Next, lifters will not get their shins close enough to the bar before beginning the pull. (Hint: If you aren’t bleeding, the bar isn’t close enough!) Lastly, the shoulders must be in proper position before beginning the pull.

Let’s look at each of these points and how they pertain to each style deadlift:



Similar to the conventional deadlift, the hips should be at an optimal height for pulling. The shins should be close to the bar, and the shoulders must be over the bar. Unlike conventional, the sumo deadlift requires that the knees be pushed out to the side before beginning the pull. If the knees aren’t pushed out, the hips will be further from the bar, resulting in utilization of more low back than necessary and less work from the hips. Pushing the knees out helps keep the hips closer to the bar.

Keeping the hips high

Starting with the hips at an optimum height is imperative to a big pull. If the hips are too low, the lifter will be exerting effort until the hips and shoulders reach an optimum position for the bar to come off the floor. This is wasted effort. This is seen when a lifter begins to lift the bar and his hips move but the bar doesn’t. Once his hips reach the proper height with the shoulder blades over the bar, the bar will come off the floor. The location of the hips when the bar separates from the floor should be the starting position. However, if the hips are too high, too much low back will be used, decreasing the amount of weight that can be pulled while not taking advantage of hip strength.


Special exercises

Selecting the proper special exercises has made a huge difference in building my competitive deadlift. I pull sumo in competition, but what I’ve discovered is that nearly any exercise performed with a close stance will aid the sumo deadlift more so than exercises with a wide stance. My conventional pull has risen at the same time. Therefore, most of my training is done with a close stance.

The selection of special exercises should be individualized, but below is a list of the most effective exercises for improving my deadlift:

Narrow stance special exercises:

·          Conventional deadlifts

·          Conventional deadlifts with bands

·          Conventional deadlifts with chains

·          Conventional deadlifts from a deficit

·          Snatch grip deadlift

·          Good mornings

Wide stance special exercises:

·          Sumo deadlifts with bands or chains

·          Sumo Romanian deadlifts

·          Wide stance good mornings off pins


Many lifters have trouble with their grip when reaching maximal weights. There are a few different ways of battling this issue, but what I’ve found to be the most important way to build my grip is to pull with a double overhand grip. Nothing else compares. Yes, you will have to sacrifice some weight on the bar, but you shouldn’t lose too much, if any, deadlifting strength. If you’re concerned, just switch back to an alternate grip every few weeks so that you can add some weight and keep your strength up. Then go back to the double overhand grip. Even if you aren’t experiencing grip issues, increasing your grip strength will still improve your pull.

Volume and intensity

What I’ve learned is that it isn’t necessary to lift maximally week in and week out to improve the deadlift. In fact, I’ve made better gains when not pulling maximally on a regular basis. After analyzing my own training, I’ve found that my average intensity ranges from 68–75 percent depending on where I am in relation to a meet. There are still times I go heavy, but the overwhelming majority of my training is less than maximal.

For the main movement, I will typically perform 18–24 total lifts in the 65–75 percent range. If I’m doing dynamic effort training, I’ll do 6 X 2 for both conventional and sumo in the same workout (12 X 2 total). In this case, my weights will range from 60–80 percent with the majority of my training falling around 65–70 percent. (I know 80 percent isn’t typically considered dynamic effort, but this is what I do.)

Take home points

1. Refine technique, especially the starting position.

·          Keep the bar close to the shins so that you bleed.

·          Keep the hips high so there isn’t any extra movement before pulling the bar from the floor.

·          Start the pull with the shoulder blades over the bar.

·          In the sumo deadlift, push the knees out to the side to keep the hips closer to the bar.

2. Find and use the most effective special exercises at building the style of deadlift you use.

3. Build your grip, regardless of whether you think your grip is weak or not.

4. Focus the majority of your training intensity around 70 percent.

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About the Author

David Adamson has been a competitive powerlifter since 2001 and has competed in several federations. He has also been involved in collegiate strength and conditioning programs, including Arizona State University and Virginia Commonwealth University since 2002, and is currently an Assistant Director of Speed, Strength, and Conditioning for the University of Texas at El Paso.