The Death Lift!

[Header image courtesy of Gilmour Creative]

The death lift—the one true test of strength and the one lift that is still relatively untouched by the advancements of powerlifting gear. Nowadays, people can put a lot of time into mastering their supportive gear and get hundreds of pounds of carryover, especially in the squat and bench. But the deadlift stands alone as a lift that you either have or you don’t.

Only one man has pulled a 1,000-pound deadlift in a sanctioned meet and that’s Andy Bolton, who did it twice. However, Benedict Magnusson has successfully pulled an amazing 1,015 pounds in a non-sanctioned meet and raw! Heading down the list of amazing deadlifters, we find that only thirteen men in history have ever pulled 900 lbs or more. I wanted to know what makes an elite deadlifter. Is it mental, physical, genetics, a solid training program? What?

I had the great honor and privilege of taking some time to communicate with three of the best deadlifters of all time—the legend Ed Coan and Vince Urbank, who have successfully pulled over 900 pounds in a sanctioned meet, and Steve Goggins of elitefts™ who has pulled 900 pounds hook grip in training.

I wanted to know what the difference was between an 800-pound deadlifter and a 900-pound deadlifter. I asked the three of them the same two questions—what are some misconceptions about building a huge deadlift (that you’ve personally found), and can you tell us what has contributed the most to your amazing pull (physical, mental, or spiritual aspects or training method)? Below is an uncut response from each of them about the subject. Enjoy!

Ed Coan

The deadlift isn’t a tricky lift. It’s pretty easy. You bend over and pick up the weight. Now, how you get the most out of it can be tricky. I think the misconception with deadlifting is heavy, heavy, heavy way too much. You can also go way too light on speed work. The weight has to be enough that there is a carryover—too light and it won’t work and too heavy and you overtrain.

I usually changed it up after a contest and did a variation of the deadlift for a whole cycle. I usually picked a deadlift variation that worked my weakest spot. For me, I liked to do a stiff legged deadlift cycle. It lasted nine weeks while standing on a three-inch block. Then I did three weeks of eight, three weeks of six, and three weeks of four. I also paused them on the bottom.

The mental approach is easy! If you set up a good program that is very “doable,” your confidence builds during the whole cycle. By the end, you’re as strong as shit mentally. People forget that it’s a long process to be good at any lift. Your expectations have to be reasonable. Don’t think that you can go up 30–40 pounds every cycle. Take your time and you’ll get there. I really did have great training partners along the way. They knew me and all my little hang ups and let me be me.

Vince Urbank

Some common misconceptions I’ve found are that lifters assume their lifting should be tied to a particular frequency (i.e. “I have to squat every week” or “I have to deadlift every week”). A lifter’s recovery depends on age, body weight, sex, lifting experience, current strength level, training style leading up to that point, and other factors. So if your recovery is constantly changing, why would you always rest the same amount?

Beginner/weaker lifters need to train more often while experienced/very strong lifters need more rest. Be honest with yourself. If you’ve been powerlifting for ten years and you deadlift 500 lbs at a body weight of 308 lbs, you aren’t an experienced lifter limited by your genetics. You don’t need more rest. You haven’t trained and recovered properly and now you’re paying the price for your mistakes. You’ve essentially kept yourself at a beginner level despite training for a considerable amount of time.

Assistance exercises can help, but there isn’t any replacement for doing the movement competition style and training to become powerful through that exact range of motion and from that position. Don’t be lazy and say that rack pulls are good enough because you’re tired from squatting, and don’t do band pulls and tell yourself that they’re as good or better than pulling weight from the floor powerlifting style.

Straps can be good to help keep the grip from becoming overtrained, but don’t rely on them and don’t max with them unless you’re a Strongman and your upcoming show allows it. Too many lifters build a huge deadlift while using straps as a crutch so heavily in training that their strapless max ends up being far below their max with straps.

The squat and deadlift are both heavy, lower body exercises that tax the nervous system. Both involve the same muscle groups (although in differing proportions). So by increasing strength in the back, hamstrings, glutes, and quads and increasing nervous system efficiency and output, how could they not both increase at the same time? Don’t blame lack of deadlift gains on your squat gains or vice versa. Once again, be honest with yourself and reevaluate your training.

I feel that following a clean, whole food diet, not eating any junk food or processed food, and doing a lot of manual labor and exercise from a very young age have contributed to my pull the most physically. Through my teenage years and before I ever started lifting weights at age sixteen or seventeen, I had already been doing calisthenics, sprints, and jumps for years. I feel that many years of exercise have helped my muscular development and helped me learn what food and training my body needs to reach my next goal.

Mentally/spiritually, I think the biggest factor to achieving big lifts isn’t believing that others are better than you but truly believing that you can do anything that anyone else has ever done and more if you have a smart enough plan and are willing to do whatever it takes to reach that goal. I also believe that it’s very important to have a constant positive attitude about yourself and whatever your current situation is. Don’t waste any time or energy responding to or engaging negative people. Surround yourself with positive people who respect you for having a huge goal and encourage you for who you are and what you’re determined to work toward.

As far as training method, train heavy and basic. Your heavy training on the primary movements should be primarily with the contest version of the movement or sometimes a very close variation. Reps will obviously go down as the meet gets closer, but you shouldn’t go more than five reps on the squat and two to three reps on the deadlift per set. If you do, try to keep it limited to one big set (especially in the eight to ten weeks pre-contest). If you get weaker from one session to the next, you’re overtraining and need to rest more.

Speed work is great for increasing power but doing it on a constant scheduled basis (i.e. every week) is a waste of time and available recovery. You won’t continually get faster indefinitely, at least not to any significant measurable degree. So save the speed work for when you need an extended break between heavy sessions and your lifts have been slowing down. You get substantial “speed” training on your heavy days if you’re being as fast and explosive as possible on your warm ups.

Vince Urbank is proudly sponsored by Grecian Ideal Nutrition

Steve Goggins

Most elite lifters say that you shouldn’t use straps when deadlifting. For me, I find this to be untrue. I was able to build a tremendous amount of strength in my back by using straps. However, you still have to work your deadlift without straps as well.

Another misconception is that you should stop in between each rep. It’s OK to touch and go as long as you don’t bounce the weight off the floor. I also think many people believe that once you pull a deadlift, you have to let it down hard and fast. In my training experience, I always let the bar down slowly in a negative type fashion in between each rep. When you’re deadlifting in a meet, it’s OK to let the bar down fast just as long as you’re under control.


Some people think that you need to train your deadlift more than once a week. In my experience, I haven’t found this to be of any benefit. Another misconception is that one should pull 90 percent or more one week before a meet. You can, but your results won’t be what you expect or what they should be. I would always stop 14-21 days out for my last heavy pull.

Beginners think that when you start to pull heavy, you should use more arms and upper body to pull the weight off the floor. Using your upper body does nothing more than cause you to lean way forward and use more lower back. Keep your arms as straight as possible and your shoulders as relaxed as possible to get the best benefit(s).


Related Articles:

Monster Garage Gym: Hook Grip 101…It’s a Love-Hate Relationship

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Does Your Deadlift Suck?


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About the Author

Like many lifters, Marshall Johnson started out as a bodybuilder and has only been powerlifting for three years now. Now, he's a rising name in powerlifting with a 1000-lb squat.