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Programming for the Deadlift

May 5, 2009 07:32 AM


One of the most frequent questions asked on training forums is how to structure a routine. Sets, reps, volume and intensity form a daunting obstacle when your success is on the line. In this article I will seek to provide you with several programming options for the deadlift. These routines will be, in general, applicable to other lifts but volume between upper and lower body routines will be different (and the subject of another article).

Also note that this article assumes two things. #1 - Your movement ability is up to the challenge of specializing on the deadlift and #2 - Your form is dialed in. (for help in both of these areas you can use my DVD with Gray Cook - Secrets of Core Training - the Backside which is dedicated to the deadlift)



Appreciate the Difference

Understand that training the deadlift will be different from your typical "cosmetic" routine. Increasing your deadlift will benefit your physique, but this is a side benefit, not the main goal. The main goal in training this movement is to increase maximum strength. Tudor Bompa in his book Serious Strength Training refers to the maximum strength range of training to be the 1-7 repetition ranges and is used for the purpose of increasing strength and/or tone. Doesn't that sound like most clients' goals? Then why stick with the typical four sets of twelve?

Fitness routines are dominated by a philosophy of confusion. Muscle confusion that is! Constantly changing exercises in order to "shock" the body into changing. Well, if your goal is to refine an efficient neurological pattern and increase your strength - plan on using the same lift for quite some time. There are similar variations that will allow for a continuation of the training effect, but switching from deadlifts to lying leg curls is not one of them.

Continued practice of the same activity, when the variables are manipulated will result in an incredibly accurate and powerful performance of the chosen skill. Well, strength is a skill and should be trained as such.

Someone once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result each time. Sounds a bit like using the same set, rep and weight scheme while rotating exercises in the hopes that it will work this time.

Therefore, the programming suggestions that will follow are meant to train for strength and will provide routines based on manipulating certain variables within the routine. Let's get to work.

Brutally Simple

Ocham's razor is a theory that states that all factors being equal, the simplest explanation is the correct one. (I'll bet he was a strength athlete!). This is quickly followed by the powerlifting saying of "he who lifts the most - lifts the most." The best methods for increasing strength do not require a computer model and a year of planning. Simply follow the basic guidelines for progressive resistance. Begin at a relatively light resistance and slowly and progressively increase that resistance until you come close to or reach a new peak for that lift. Steve Justa, in his book "Rock, Iron, Steel- The Book of Strength and Pavel Tsatsouline in "Power to the People!", provide excellent blueprints of brutally simple routines.

Steve Justa's strength training is based mainly on the application of singles (1 repetition) within the 70% of your 1 repetition max range. So if your best deadlift is 300, you would begin with 210 as your working weight. In Rock, Iron, Steel - The Book of Strength, Justa recommends daily lifting for grooving and improving one lift. No whining about overtraining and rest days and what body parts are going to be overworked!! When you follow an abbreviated program that does not go to failure, you are capable of daily training. See Power to the People! for details. On Monday you would perform 3 singles, then add two singles each day until you are performing 15 singles on Sunday. That next Monday, you would add 10-20 pounds and start again. At the end of four weeks, you re-test your one repetition max (1rm) and recalculate your 70% working weight and begin again.

Pavel Tsatsouline recommends a similar brand of strength training. Following the principle that consistent practice is necessary to improve a skill, Pavel's basic program will have you performing two sets of five repetitions. The starting weight would be approximately 70-80% of your five-repetition maximum for the first set and a reduction of 10% for the second set. The next day you would add five pounds to the first set and re-calculate the second set. You continue in that manner (12-14 sessions) until you reach a new five-repetition maximum. In Power to the People, the various forms of cycling are discussed. Cycling involves simply rotating the intensity of your work on different schedules. It is an excellent way to train.

There you have it. Simple, effective strength training that does not require a doctorate. And, for those of you who do not go to the point of testing a one repetition maximum, Tudor Bompa, in Serious Strength Training, provides a chart of calculated maximums based different best repetitions at specific weights. With some practice and experience, you will find your own ranges but this chart provides a starting point.

The Next Level

Simplified strength training will allow for an extended period of progress for most trainees. However, an experienced lifter will need to "kick it up a notch!" The following routines will require increased mental effort and will test your physical metal.

The famous Russian Squat Routine (RSR), if it is not famous to you - shame on you, is a time-tested program for increasing either your deadlift or squat. There is an excellent article outlining the RSR at the www.dragondoor.com site. I will provide two examples of the routine. The first is a preparatory routine developed by Eddie Kowacz, a former Marine, veteran of law enforcement and member of the World Martial Arts Hall of Fame. The purpose of the pre-RSR routine is to allow the trainee an opportunity to adapt to the volume and intensity of the full RSR.

What you will notice in the pre-RSR is a simple rotation of lower and higher intensities and volumes on a three-day a week schedule. It works. One of the members of the www.dragondoor.com forum added 30# to his deadlift by following the pre-RSR.

Pre- RSR
Week 1
5 sets of 3 @ 70%
5 sets of 5 @ 70%
5 sets of 3 @ 70%
Week 2
3 sets of 3 @ 75%
5 sets of 3 @ 70%
5 sets of 5 @ 70%
Week 3
5 sets of 3 @ 75%
3 sets of 3 @ 80%
5 sets of 5 @ 70%
Week 4
5 sets of 3 @ 85%
3 sets of 3 @ 80%
3 sets of 3 @ 90%
Week 5
Your choice @ 70%
Your choice @ 70%
Test for new 1 rm


The full RSR is a test of your resolve. The six week, three day a week, routine spends a great deal of time in the 80% and above range. Treat this as a specialized routine where you limit all other training. (You will be thankful you did.) It is a moderate volume routine rotating 80% intensity days with both higher volume 80% sessions and eventually - lower volume but increased intensity sessions. When you hit the six sets of six day (see below), you may see dead relatives but it is only the third week of six. I personally have seen fifty-pound increases in my deadlift during both of my RSR experiences.

The Russian Squat Routine
(Sets x Reps @ % of 1rm)

Week 1
6 x 2 @ 80%
6 x 3 @ 80%
6 x 2 @ 80%
Week 2
6 x 4 @ 80%
6 x 2 @ 80%
6 x 5 @ 80%
Week 3
6 x 2 @ 80%
6 x 6 @ 80%
6 x 2 @ 80%
Week 4
5 x 5 @ 85%
6 x 2 @ 80%
4 x 4 @ 90%
Week 5
6 x 2 @ 80%
3 x 3 @ 95%
6 x 2 @ 80%
Week 6
2 x 2 @ 100%
6 x 2 @ 80%
Test new 1rm (105%)


Another peaking plan suggested by Prof. Yuri Verkhoshansky in an interview with John Abdo, The Verkhoshansky Seminars- Part 4 - "The Peaking Plan", is a blueprint for effective peaking of one or multiple lifts. The six-week plan is a classic example of "Pyramiding". In the words of the Professor -"100% cannot be trained consistently, Strength needs a strong foundation. The stronger the foundation, the higher the peak." Each workout will start with easy percentages and grow in intensity and then come back down for enhanced speed and technique.

The Verkhoshansky Peaking Plan
 Day 1 Day 2
Week 1
Set 1 45% X 8-10 45% X 8-10
Set 2 55% X 6-8 55% X 6-8
Set 3 65% X 6 65% X 5
Set 4 65-70% X 6 75% X 5
Set 5 65-70% X 6 80% x 5
Set 6 65-70% X 6 80% X 5
Set 7  80% X 5
Set 8  75% X 5
Set 9  65% X 6-8
Set 10  50-55% X 8-12
Week 2
Set 1 45% X 8-10 45% X 8-10
Set 2 55% X 6-8 55% X 6-8
Set 3 65% X 6 65% X 5
Set 4 70% X 5 75% X 4
Set 5 70-75% X 5 80% X 4
Set 6 70-75% X 5 85% X 4
Set 7  85% X 4
Set 8  85% X 4
Set 9  80% X 5
Set 10  70% X 6-8
Week 3
Set 1 45% X 8-10 45% X 8-10
Set 2 55% X 6-8 55% X 6-8
Set 3 65% X 5 65% X 5
Set 4 70% X 4 75% X 4
Set 5 75% X 3 85% X 3
Set 6 75-80% X 3 90% X 3
Set 7 75-85% X 3 90% X 3
Set 8  80% X 5
Set 9  55-60% X 6-10
Week 4
Set 1 45% X 8-10 45% X 8-10
Set 2 55% X 6-8 55% X 6-8
Set 3 65% X 5 65% X 5
Set 4 75% X 4 75% X 4
Set 5 80-85% X 3 85% X 2
Set 6 80-85% X 3 90% X 2
Set 7  95% X 2
Set 8  75% x 4-6
Week 5
Set 1 45% X 8-10 45% X 8-10
Set 2 55% X 6-8 55% X 6-8
Set 3 65% X 5 65% X 5
Set 4 75% X 5 75% X 3
Set 5 75% X 5 80% X 3
Set 6  85% X 2
Week 6
Set 1 45% X 8-10 45% X 8-10
Set 2 55% X 6-8 55% X 6-8
Set 3 65% X 5 65% X 5
Set 4 75% X 3 75% X 3
Set 5 80% X 2 85% X 2
Set 6 80% X 2 90% X 1
Set 7  95% X 1
Set 8  100% X 1
Set 9  102+% X 1
Set10  105++% X 1


There you have a peaking plan developed by one of the foremost experts in the field of building strength. It provides a straightforward approach to reaching new levels of performance in your chosen lifts.

It does not end there

There are other great routines out there. Routines by Sheyko, Smolov and others are time tested in the iron pits of Eastern Europe and the power lifting pits of America. Google is your friend.

Appreciate the Similarities

What you have hopefully noticed about these various routines, is that whether they are brutally simple or taken from the next level, they all operate on the same premise. That volume and intensity must be cycled through on a systematic basis in order to maximize performance. While the above routines are being applied to the deadlift for the purposes of this article, they are applicable to almost any lift, although you must reduce the volume and intensity for upper body exercises.

Professor Verkhoshansky in his pyramid-based routines emphasizes building the base of the pyramid because it is the foundation of strength building. Without it an athlete will not reach their true peak. Pavel Tsatsouline suggests very simplified rotations of volume and intensity that always return to a lower level in order to build that base. Steve Justa spends a great deal of time building the base for strength with singles in the 70% range. From that base all of these various routines build progressively to a peak over a period of weeks.

On his website, Dave Draper cautions against rushing progress. This is the path to injury and stagnation. You must be willing to put your time in - in order to reach your potential. "Rome was not built in a day." And neither will your strength be built by pushing too hard too soon!

For the beginning trainee, please pick one of the brutally simple routines and follow it for the next few months. Then rotate to one of the other peaking routines. Spend your time building your base.

For the experienced trainee, please pick one of the brutally simple routines and follow it for a month or more. Then give the Pre-RSR routine a try. Following that you may pick either the full RSR or the peaking plan of Prof. Verkhoshansky. Experiment and find what works for you and your individual abilities.

In conclusion, the science of strength is based on some fairly simple premises and (much to our benefit) is already well mapped out. Research various protocols and find out as much as you can about building strength. So if your goals are increased tone and strength. Do not use a cosmetically based bodybuilding routine to accomplish these goals. Give the true strength building routines a try and watch your goals come to fruition.


Brett Jones CSCS, MRKC, CK-FMS is a Pittsburgh based strength and conditioning professional. He is the co-author of multiple fitness DVDs including the Secrets series with Gray Cook (including Secrets of Core Training - The Backside - very helpful for the DL), and Kettlebells from the Ground Up. You can contact him by email - appliedstrength@gmail.com
 

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