Deadlifts - How to go From Stalling to Stimulating
June 27th 2019
There’s nothing better for fitness fanatics than prepping for the summer season and knocking out a solid leg day in the gym. That feeling of crushing a new PR on a deadlift gets you pumped, quite literally! But what happens when you notice you’ve been hitting a plateau or are struggling to hit your goal numbers? More often than you would think, even the avid gym goer can hit that metaphorical strength wall when shooting for a higher weight. Here’s what might be happening and what you can do to fix it.
Why are my deadlifts stalling?
If you are stalling on your deadlifts, it could be due to a combination of the following reasons:
- Improper warmups
- Not enough recovery
- Bad form
- Nutrition issues
- Improper sleep
So, in order to break through your current deadlift limits, you need to do one or more of these recommendations:
- Fix your form, seriously
- Do more deadlift accessories
- Add more deadlift volume
Why is my deadlift weak off the floor?
You cannot break the deadlift off the floor - you have identified that is your sticking point. But why?
Form would be the number one thing I would look at. If you are a beginner, intermediate or even an advanced lifter, make sure you have optimal form. Next, if you believe that your form is alright, you are simply not strong enough to handle the weight. So, what can you do to help your deadlift that is weak off the floor? I will give you three protocols that will help you get to an even higher deadlift PR.
My personal favorite. Try these out once or twice a week, depending on your deadlifting schedule. You do not need to do them heavy (unless you want to). I personally did around 50% of my 1RM for one set of 10-12 reps. As I begin to feel that this weight is easy, I would increase the entire weight by 10lbs. Rinse and repeat until my deadlift “plateau” is broken.
Just do more deadlifts
I have also experimented with this option. If you just add extra accessories on your main deadlift day, 3x10 or 5x10 of any deadlift variation, you will get stronger. If you do your deadlift accessories on a separate day instead, you will get stronger. I find it incredibly hard to believe that after 10+ weeks of relatively difficult deadlifting accessories that you do not make some sort of progress.
So many lifters vouch for this. Making the deadlift harder is something you need to do to break through your current limits.
I personally dread doing paused deadlifts but since I have other deadlift accessories that are increasing my deadlift, why fix what is not broken? Also, paused deadlifts feel weird for me and they seem to not help me off the floor. However, I have not experimented long term with this deadlift variation so you will experience something way different from me.
I am at a deadlift plateau, why?
Whether it has been a few months or a few years, you are “stuck.” You tried to deload and work your way back up to your working set and that failed too. You just cannot seem to get past your current deadlift limitation. So, here are several reasons why that may be the case:
Think: How is My Warm Up?
Preparing your body for a heavy lift is very important before hitting a heavy weight. When you first hit the gym, your muscles are tight, and the body isn’t ready to rush blood to your specific muscle group. A great way to start your gym sesh is with a 10-minute quick cardio set to get your blood warm and pumping and to loosen up your muscles. When you are finished and ready to knockout some reps, do a few warm up sets. Start with some light weight on the bar. After a couple of sets, add more weight. When you feel you are stretched and warmed up, start building your weight quicker between sets and start your strength training. This helps your body know what it’s about to do and reduces the risk of an injury or a plateau.
How much is enough? Legendary powerbuilder Larry Wheels says you should warm up “just enough.” Meanwhile, many beginner and intermediate strength programs have you doing multiple sets of 10s, 8s, and 5s prior to your working sets. It feels as though your warmups fatigued you even before the actually heavy sets. Then, on the other side of the spectrum, you have legendary strength athlete Jesse Norris doing a reverse pyramid, followed by sets of 12s as his final warmup…
So, there are many ways to skin a cat. My suggestion? You need to figure out what works best for you and what better way to do that than by experimenting with your warmup protocols. Follow what your program says. If that is not working for you, change it to something else and commit to it for at least 8 weeks. Rinse and repeat until you figured out something that works for you.
Think: How Many Times Have I Worked Hamstrings This Week?
More often than not, the reason your muscles stopped budging the weight you lifted earlier in the week is due to lack of recovery. Here’s some science. When strength training, muscles are pulled and stretched until your tiny muscle fibers are ripped apart while resisting a heavy weight, causing soreness. When you are finally out of the gym your muscles enter rest and recovery. They rebuild the connecting point of the muscle fibers creating some scar tissue and resulting in larger muscles. So why are you stalling? Your muscles have not had a long enough recovery period. The muscle fibers may still be rebuilding, and if you hit them again before they’re ready and rebuilt they simply can’t handle the weight just yet. Be careful attempting this because you may end up with an injury, such as a torn muscle, causing you to be out of leg day longer than you’d like.
Do not let your limitations stop you
While on this same train of thought, how many days in a row do you think you can deadlift 400kgs/880lbs? Once a week? Once a month? What about 30 days in a row?
You read that right - deadlifting 880lbs for 30 days in a row. Chris Duffin attempted this challenge to fund cancer research and he lasted up until day 16 until he suffered an injury. I was extremely impressed with how far Chris Duffin pushed the human body to; it really shows that the human body can go through extreme times before giving up.
So, the next time you are complaining that you only hit hamstrings once a week, you should know while your body responses are valid, you can do better and challenge your belief systems.
Having good form in any exercise is key to success in the targeted muscle group. Here are some tips. Before executing a standard deadlift scan your body from head to toe before even grabbing the bar. Feet are shoulder width apart with the middle of your feet under the bar. Hinge forward at the waist, with a slight bend in your knees, and send your hips back making sure your chest is open. Having a solid starting position will be key to executing a full lift without risk of injury. After taking your grip, take a big inhale, and exhale as you lift the bar off the ground engaging your lats, glutes, and hamstrings. Stay grounded in your feet with a neutral head position, and begin to stand by lifting your body then thrusting your hips forward toward the bar. Carefully return the bar to the floor with the same flat back and muscle engagement. This will ensure that the weight is not being pulled from your back but consistently targeting that rear muscle group.
You may notice this happening in other muscle groups as well aside from the posterior chain. Muscle fatigue can happen no matter what type of day it is at the gym. It is always important to give your body the right amount of rest before working them hard again. Everybody is different. So, if you see someone knocking out deadlifts just as much as you, just know that their body might be responding to the lift differently than yours. Your body is your body in and out of the gym. Remember, how you treat your body out of the gym can affect your progress in the gym. Here are some things to consider when you’re attempting to reach new goals.
Would you rather hit a 20lbs PR immediately and be injured for the next 6 months? Or would you rather gain a 15lbs PR yearly for the next 30 years? In terms of strength training, you really need to think long term and carefully execute your workout plan. For many younger athletes, their bodies can take a lot of physical abuse from very intense workout programs. Be knowledgeable and tactical. There is nothing wrong with those programs but make sure you understand your body and practice perfect form.
It is vital for an athlete to be putting the proper nutrients in their body. It is true what they say, you are what you eat! Whether you’re prepping for a show, getting ready for summer, or just staying healthy year-round, know what your body needs and what it is missing. According to Ronald J. Maughan and Susan M. Shirreffs who wrote Food, Nutrition and Sports Performance, “..Energy balance is not the objective of athletic training whenever athletes seek to modify their body size and composition to achieve performance objectives. They then need to carefully manage their diet and exercise regimens to avoid compromising their health.” It is important to know that what your body needs is different from the next person. Look into your body composition. Most athletes like to keep track of their macros which are your carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Calculate how many grams of each your body needs when training and try to hit that daily. Bio-individuality can help your overall performance when it comes to nutrition.
Quick Tip - Caloric surplus
One of the most well-known strategies for breaking through a deadlift stall is to eat more calories. By eating more, you increase your body mass and your potential muscle size. As you may be already aware of, a larger muscle has more potential to getting stronger than a smaller muscle.
Of course, do your research before you go nuts with GOMAD (a gallon of milk a day) or any other diet. As a general rule of thumb, the more calories you add at once, the more fat you will gain. It is much better to organize and plan out how to slowly increase your caloric surplus in a controlled manner. This way, athletes and lifters can maximize their muscle growth and minimize their fat gain.
In the same realm of nutrition, make sure you are drinking enough water! The theory says eight glasses a day should be your goal, however, someone who is 6’3” maybe need more than the person who is 5’7”. Similar to your macro-nutrients, it’s bio-individual. You may have even heard the most recent rule that you should drink approximately a half ounce to an ounce of water per pound that you weigh. For example, if you weigh 150lbs you should be ingesting 75 to 150 ounces of water per day. This is a great rule of thumb, but you can always check with your doctor to be exactly sure. Harvard Medical School recently posted, “Even a healthy person's water needs will vary, especially if you're losing water through sweat because you're exercising, or because you're outside on a hot day. If you're wondering how much water you should drink on those occasions, speak with your doctor, but a general rule of thumb for healthy people is to drink two to three cups of water per hour, or more if you're sweating heavily.”
Nick English from BarBend suggests, “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.” Magnesium is a micro-nutrient that can assist in your muscle recovery. Sleep is something that is devalued when we are overstimulated. Not only are we working out daily, but we have our jobs, families, and a social life that keep our cortisol levels higher than average even at night. Address your sleep individually, and never underestimate how many hours you are getting at night.
And if you have to ask how many hours you should be sleeping, you are probably sleeping too little. It is ironic how we need to ask and research the most optimal sleeping patterns when our body is the best tool to determine whether or not we are rested properly.
Remember, following an individualized strength training program will be your best bet in making sure you can build the weight on your deadlifts efficiently and safely. Understand that building your deadlift strength will test your patience. After all, if you suddenly gifted an 800lbs deadlift, it would not be as meaningful if you did not have to work and grind for it. So, take each training day as a blessing. Use these tips for overall success and take into consideration all things you are using your body for in and out of the gym.
Maughan, R. J., & Shirreffs, S. M. (2013, August 21). Food, Nutrition and Sports Performance III. Retrieved June 26, 2019, from https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/e/9781315873268
Godman, H. (2018, July 18). How much water should you drink? Retrieved June 26, 2019, from https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/how-much-water-should-you-drink
English, N., Babenko, E., & Boly, J. (2019, February 13). Deadlift Plateau? Try One of These 13 Underrated Fixes. Retrieved June 21, 2019, from https://barbend.com/fix-a-deadlift-plateau/