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Back exercises to increase your deadlift

Whether you are trying to increase your deadlift for competitive powerlifting or simply to achieve your own personal goals, eventually we all hit a plateau.

This is where we may be making solid gains in our deadlift strength through a particular combination of back exercises, then suddenly these gains come to a halt and you can’t seem to get any stronger.

This happens to even the best lifters and will usually be caused by one of 3 factors; lack of variation, overtraining, not consuming sufficient calories.

We already took a look at your options for improving your grip, so this article will take a look at some of the methods you can use to break out of a plateau in your deadlifts.

What are your options?

There are a few different ways of approaching your workout routine when it comes to getting your strength gains moving again. You can change the exercises on a more frequent basis, change the reps and sets or even just change the way you perform the same exercises you are at the moment.

Which of these approaches you choose will largely be based on how much weightlifting experience you have and how long you have been stuck at this plateau.

Back exercises such as high reps of heavy dumbbell rows are excellent for improving the lockout section of deadlifts

It is generally recommended that you make a change to your workout routine every 6 weeks. This doesn’t mean lifting 15 reps instead of 12 on one of your sets, but rather making more drastic changes to the exercises you include in your workouts and making bigger changes in rep ranges.

Example of a change in back workout:
Weeks 1 – 6:

  • Deadlifts 3 sets of 10 reps
  • Barbell rows 3 sets of 12 reps
  • Wide lat pulldowns 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Seated cable row 3 sets of 15 reps
  • Weeks 6 – 12:

  • Dumbbell rows 4 sets of 8 reps
  • Underhand close-grip lat pulldowns 4 sets of 12 reps
  • Wide grip pull-ups 3 sets to failure
  • Deadlifts 3 sets of 8 reps
  • From then on you can just rotate between these 2 routines, or even add in a third or fourth 6 week routine if you want to add even more variety. The only negative about adding more than 2 workout plan variations is that it becomes difficult to keep track of your strength level.

    If you barbell row 200 lb for 10 reps throughout weeks 1 to 6, then miss barbell rows for weeks 6 to 12, on a 2 stage program you will then go back to barbell rows and it will be clear if you improved.

    In this example, if you leave barbell rows out of your workouts for 12 weeks instead of 6 before going back to them then your strength level will be much more difficult to monitor.

    Identifying causes and solutions to the weakest portion of your deadlift

    As with each of the ‘big 3’ lifts (Squat, Bench Press, and Deadlift), the deadlift movement can be broken down into 4 main sections:

    1. Lifting the barbell clear of the floor and up to just below your knees
    2. Moving the bar past the sticking point of your knee and starting to bring your hips forward
    3. Pulling the bar from just above your knee to the lockout position
    4. Lowering the weight back to the floor

    Breaking the deadlift into these sections helps make it clearer which specific muscle groups you may need to get stronger before you can see an overall gain in your deadlift strength.

    If you have hit a plateau it’s highly likely that it will be just one of these areas that is currently failing. For example you may have a very strong lower back but weaker hips, making the lower portion of the movement easier but then getting stuck when it comes to clearing the bar past your knees.

    Fixing weakness in section 1:

    • Back exercises such as good mornings and hyperextensions will focus on developing your lower back strength
    • Never ‘touch and go’ with the weight on sets with more than one rep. Let the weight come to a stop before lifting again to prevent any energy being transferred from the bounce
    • Increase the distance you have to move the bar, also known as ‘deficit deadlifts’. You can do this by standing on a couple of 1 inch thick mats or even one of the blocks used for stepping exercises
    • Improve your speed and explosive power for driving the bar through this hardest part of the lift by adding box jumps and hang cleans into your workout

    Fixing weakness in section 2:

    • Section 2 is where strong glutes, hamstrings and hip flexors really come into play so try adding some barbell glute bridges to your workouts
    • If you aren’t confident with barbell glute bridges then try barbell hip thrusts
    • Good mornings also help developing this section of the lift, through developing a tighter back which prevents rounding of your spine when deadlifting

    Fixing weakness in section 3:

    • Romanian Deadlifts will strengthen section 3 of the movement, and are one of the best exercises you can perform for strengthening your hamstrings and hip extensors.
    • The finishing portion of the lift is all about lat strength. If you are struggling to lockout then train your lats heavy with high reps, particularly bent over rows, which will help strengthen your entire posterior chain

    Assistance back exercises to help break a plateau

    Dumbbell rows – Excellent for focussing on the contraction at the top of the row. This back exercise mainly works your lats, traps, rear deltoids, forearm flexors and biceps.

    Wide grip pull-ups – Best performed near the beginning of your workouts, you can always add extra resistance with a weight plate and dip belt to keep your reps in the recommended 6 to 8 range.

    This mainly works your lats and is good for strengthening the top portion of the deadlift.

    Bent over barbell rows – If you are including these in your workout purely to help increase deadlift strength, then these are best performed from the ground.

    So while you are leaning forward with your knees slightly bent, pick the bar straight off the ground and row with it for one rep before resting the weight back on the ground.

    Pause for a second then continue until you complete 10 repetitions.

    Good mornings – The starting position is the same as back squats. While keeping your back straight, bend hips to lower torso forward until it is parallel to the floor.

    This back exercise should not be performed with heavy weight but is still excellent for developing strength in your abs, obliques, hamstrings and glutes. Perhaps the best exercise for carrying over strength gains to the deadlift, this exercise improves proper loading of the whole posterior chain.

    Hip thrusts – Possibly the best exercise available for increasing glute strength. While you can perform this exercise from the floor, a better option is to use a power rack if possible. Essentially you slide your body under a weighted barbell until it’s positioned above your hips.

    Slide your feet along the floor towards you to get in position and drive through your heels, lifting the weight off the ground. This is best performed with a padded roller around the bar section that rests on your hips.

    Power shrugs – This exercise needs to be performed in a power rack where you have the free weight of the barbell but also the support bars to prevent the barbell dropping below a certain level. The support bar height should be set just above the knee cap.

    The exercise is then very similar to normal barbell shrugs, except you are performing sets of 10 single repetitions as powerfully as possible.

    Kroc rows – This is a variation on the classic dumbbell row. Essentially you pick a very heavy dumbbell that you can normally get around 10 reps with good form. You then perform 20 to 30 reps with this weight, not worrying too much about form but rather moving such a heavy weight for such a high number of reps that your body probably won’t be used to.

    As well as increasing your grip strength, this exercise will also greatly improve your upper back strength and deadlift lockout.

    Stiff-legged deadlifts – Similar to regular deadlifts but with a few major differences. This exercise is designed to really target your hamstrings, so you don’t need to lower the bar to the ground after each rep.

    This helps keep tension on your hamstrings. This exercise also requires that you keep your legs stiff with only a slight bend at the knee.

    Advanced training techniques

    While the exercises listed above will certainly help you break through plateaus, there are times when even this won’t be enough. It’s times like these when you can use some more advanced techniques such as chains, bands, partials and other variations of the deadlift.

    This article will look at these techniques from the point of view of a regular gym goer more than from the perspective of a powerlifter, as powerlifting methods and exercises deserve an article in their own right.

    Finding a gym that has a wide range of heavy dumbbells for rows and a power rack for partials is important for more advanced training techniques

    Probably the most accessible technique you can use in most commercial and home gyms is the use of partials and other variations such as Romanian deadlifts.

    Partial reps – Partial reps are usually performed through just the top half of the movement, from moving the bar past your knees to the full lockout. The whole idea is that the limited range of motion means that you can use considerably more weight than you would for performing the full range of motion.

    For safety it’s best to perform this exercise in a smith machine or power rack where the barbell can’t drop below a fixed position.

    Bands – This is usually used as a way of improving your strength through the top portion of the exercise. This is if you attach one end of the band to the top of a power cage or smith machine, then the other end to the collar of the barbell. The tension then reduces as you lift the weight higher, making the weight you lift heavier the higher you raise the bar.

    You can also get bands that attach to the base of the power cage / smith machine and the other end to the barbell which make the lower portion easier. As you lift the barbell the tension in the bands increases, as does the difficulty.

    Chains – While bands are more versatile, chains still have their uses. Essentially you are attaching heavy chains to each end of the barbell. As you lift the barbell clear of the ground you will start lifting the chains as well.

    The higher the bar moves in the range of motion, the more chain is picked up from the floor and the resistance increases.

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