Pull More Weight

July 11, 2012

By Johnnie Jackson, IFBB Pro

[Q] What’s the best stance to use when training for deadlift strength? 

[A] There are two basic approaches for your foot positioning. One is the sumo stance, in which you keep your feet wide and turned out slightly. Some people are just stronger that way. I use a more traditional, narrow stance where my feet are usually no more than 12 inches apart. I just feel more powerful keeping my body compact in this way. Going wide puts a lot of strain on your hips so you have to be very strong in your hamstrings and adductors. I say to play to your strengths and do what’s comfortable, but for anyone new to deadlifting I’d recommend a more traditional, narrow stance to start with.

[Q] I want to increase my deadlift max. Is there a place for higher-rep training with the deadlift in my program?

[A] No, not really – not if strength is your main goal. Lifting in the 10-12-rep range is great for breaking down the muscle and growing, but your limit strength is best increased by working at six reps and below. I work up to 8-10 in my warm-up, but that’s not to failure. If you’re trying to set a new max, or you’re going to compete, you’ll need to do a lot of triples, doubles and singles to build strength and confidence with those big loads. Besides, training with higher reps compromises your ability to recover between workouts, and that can ultimately hinder strength gains.

[Q] I’ve heard spot-on form can make a huge difference in how much weight you’re able to pull. What are some of the main pointers you’d give me?

[A] You’re right. I tell people deadlift success is a matter of centimeters. A centimeter deviation this way or that can keep you from pulling as much weight as possible, or it can get you injured. So even though grabbing a heavy weight off the floor and standing up with it looks simple, it’s actually a very technical feat. 

There are many ways you can make sure your deadlift is on point, but for now let’s look at grip, bar placement and your arms. With your grip your weaker hand should be overhand and your stronger one underhand, with your hands about an inch outside your legs so that no friction occurs between your legs and forearms. The alternate grip helps you hold the bar better. It needs to be flush to your shins. This point makes some people uncomfortable but the farther the bar is away from your body during the lift, the more difficult (and dangerous) a heavy lift can become. Finally some guys seem to have to “fight” to keep their arms straight. You don’t want to pull the weight with your arms. Resist that temptation and think of your arms as the hooks that are holding the bar as you stand up with it – no more. These are just some of the common beginning errors.

Breaking Raw

In February Johnnie pulled a meet-record 832 pounds on the deadlift … raw. Here’s what he had to say about his go at the Raw Unity Meet 2012.

The big lift:

“This year I worked with a new trainer, Josh Bryant (www.joshstrength.com). Getting ready for the meet was the hardest I’d ever worked but it paid off. I opened with 771 pounds easy, the heaviest lift in the meet. I did 832 on the next attempt but I was so excited I let go of the weight at the top and got red lighted, so it didn’t count. We decided to try the same weight for my third attempt and I got it easy. I might have done 850 or 865 if I’d given it a good fight but I was happy with how I did.”

The training:

“Hamstrings have always been a weak point for me. I’ve pulled my hams many times over the years so we took a lot of pains building them up with heavy glute-ham raises, which are a tremendous exercise. I did back extensions where I was holding 225 pounds as well as weighted pull-ups. We did a lot of work with bands and chains and manipulated rest between sets. It was crazy hard but well worth the effort.”