Kentucky Strong: Five Exercises to Build Your Deadlift

The deadlift used to be my nemesis. I hated it and it seemed to hate me back just the same. I had been stuck around the 500-pound mark for what seemed like forever. That is until I made a commitment to myself that I would put all of my training focus on bringing up this lift. That would be the sole purpose of my training—maintain all of the other lifts and increase my deadlift. And in 10 months, I went from a 500-pound pull to a 600-pound pull while staying at the same body weight. Needless to say, I was very pleased with the results and others wanted to know what I did. So I wrote the article, “How I Added 100 Pounds to my Deadlift in 10 Months.” Well, in the 15 months following the first time I made that 600-pound pull, I managed to add another 75 pounds to my deadlift, again while still staying close to the same body weight. (I weighed in at 208 pounds fully dressed the day I pulled 675 pounds. I was typically between 200 and 205 pounds during my run from 500 pounds to 600 pounds). I originally was going to write an article on what I felt were the top five exercises to build your deadlift, but I soon realized that I couldn’t narrow it down to just five. So these are what I’d consider five great exercises to increase the deadlift, but there are plenty more.

1. Deadlift

This really may seem silly to be at the top of the list, but it’s true. I had tried to bring up my deadlift by “building it” from other lifts, and while I got stronger on the other lifts, it never seemed to have much carryover to my actual deadlift from the floor. When I made my mind up to pull some bigger weights, I made sure I was pulling the barbell from the floor—and often. If you want to get better at shooting a basketball, you should probably practice shooting a basketball, not swinging a baseball bat or throwing a football.

2. Speed Deadlifts

I found the speed deadlift to be very beneficial. Again, while I did plenty of explosive work (power cleans, box jumps, etc.), it wasn’t until I started doing speed deadlifts regularly that I noticed any carryover to my deadlift. I played around with these quite a bit and found that I prefer these with straight weight for singles in the 50-70% range, with rest periods in the 20-30 second range. I like them suited and I like them raw. Just be sure that you use the respective max to figure your percentages. And as strength coach Sam Luker once told me, “Pull with authority!” The weight is going to feel pretty light, but pull it like you’re going for a new PR—every single rep.

3. Glute Ham Raises

I love glute ham raises, and I really noticed that these helped my strength off the floor. I’ve incorporated these in a variety of different ways depending on the training block. Some of my favorites are 3-4 sets of 5-8 reps holding a weight plate behind my head. I also like high rep sets such as 3 sets of 20+ reps. Another great way of doing them is to do 4 sets of 10-12 reps with very short rest periods (about 20 to 30 seconds). When I first tried to do a glute ham raise, I couldn’t do one rep correctly, and my deadlift was stuck at 500 pounds. Now, I can rep them out with or without weight, and my deadlift is at 675 pounds. I see a correlation there. Train the glute ham raise and train it often.

4. Front Squats

I became a fan of front squats when I realized the carryover for strongman, and I liked that I could recover from them faster than back squats (which made them nice to do as my main squat movement at times when I was really trying to bring up my yoke walk). A heavy bar across the back twice a week can be pretty taxing to the CNS and body overall. One thing I noticed was that as my front squat went up, so did my deadlift. I’ve found that these also help strength off the floor and help strengthen the upper and lower back in order to help keep them in extension when pulling heavy weights. If you’re not a strongman, you may want to use these as an accessory movement after your main squat. But regardless, I think they should be incorporated into your program if pulling big weights is a goal.

5. Farmer Walks

There is no doubt in my mind that heavy farmer walks had a positive impact on my deadlift. While the pick height is a bit higher than the barbell on a deadlift and the weight is to your sides instead of in front of you, each run of these essentially starts with a heavy and fast deadlift variation. A ton of the same musculature is trained on the farmers pick and walk as the deadlift. Typically on farmers, I’m picking up 80%+ of my best deadlift from the floor and running with it for 50 to 100 feet as fast as possible. The pick hits the hamstrings, glutes, lower back, upper back, traps, abs, and quads hard. Once you begin moving forward, each leg is working unilaterally and the hips and stabilizer muscles in the legs are getting hit very hard. Your abs and low back have to brace hard and your calves get hit nicely as well. The jarring and moving with the weights really hammers your grip. Thus, it’s no surprise that this is another great movement to incorporate.

Although I was hoping to give you my top five exercises to build your deadlift, I just couldn’t narrow it down. So instead, you get five great exercises to help you build your deadlift. Give these a try with some proper programming, and I think you’ll be very pleased with the result.

Related Articles:

How I Added 100 Pounds to my Deadlift in 10 Months

Kentucky Strong: Three Little Things That May Make You a Better Lifter

Does Your Deadlift Suck?

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About the Author

Chase Karnes is a personal trainer/strength coach located in Paducah, Kentucky. He holds a bachelor's of science degree in exercise science along with his CSCS and NSCA-CPT credentials. Chase is also a national level Strongman competitor with a second place finish at the NAS Strongman Nationals in 2012. He can be reached through his website at www.chasekarnes.com.