How Often Should I Deadlift?

In the course of every athlete’s quest for ultimate fitness, we’ve all asked ourselves, “How often should I deadlift?” If you’ve been around the gym long enough to know that the deadlift is the penultimate exercise, you might be tempted to incorporate it into all of your training sessions.

While that might seem like a good idea at the outset, the truth is that how often you deadlift has as much to do with your experience as an athlete as it does your preferred training style, the kind of weight you load on a bar, and the type of volume in your program.

Man performing a heavy deadlift

The volume is a measure of how much work you do during one training session. It’s the measure of reps multiplied by the number of sets that help determine how heavy you lift.

Are Deadlifts Necessary?

Deadlifts are one of the major compound lifts that have been around for as long as we’ve been lifting. It’s a functional movement that has real-world applications, and it’s a lot of fun to do – once you master foot placement and grip. The deadlift is one of the most effective exercises because it involves so many muscle groups.

Deadlifting is one of the most challenging compound lifts because it asks a lot of your brain and your body. The more weight you lift, the more is demanded of your central nervous system.

In addition to pushing the limits of your grip strength, deadlift starts from zero. This dead start means that your central nervous system works a lot harder than when there’s an eccentric prep stage, like with squats (the bar is loaded on your back first and then you squat).

Deadlifts help build overall strength since they’re a compound movement. In turn, this can help protect your joints and ligaments from injury. When performed correctly, the deadlift can become the best movement to build a bigger back, improve your posture, and increase your resting metabolic rate.

Deadlift Varieties and Their Benefits

Some athletes never catch the deadlift bug because the movement seems monotonous. It’s a simple enough setup, then a pull, followed by a descent back to the group. But those athletes just haven’t discovered the endless varieties of deadlifts and the myriad benefits they offer.

Of the compound lifts – squat, bench, and deadlift, deadlifts offer the greatest capacity of variety. Different variations work specific muscle groups, which makes deadlifting one of the most comprehensive exercises.

Most Common Types of Deadlifts

The most common deadlift variations are convention and sumo, but the options don’t just stop there. Deadlift rack pulls, Romanian deadlifts, and deficit deadlifts all have their place in training programmes. Trap bar deadlifts are also a popular training option that’s becoming increasingly more popular.

Conventional deadlifting uses a more narrow stance and less of an angled foot. Both are fantastic compound movements. Conventional deadlifts are ostensibly a full-body workout. The major muscle groups that are engaged and activated in a conventional deadlift include:

  • Adductor Magnus: (Inner Thigh)
  • Erector Spinae: (lower back)
  • Gastrocnemius: (the bigger part of your calf muscle)
  • Gluteus Maximus: (Butt)
  • Hamstrings: (Upper back of legs)
  • Levator Scapulae: (the muscle from your jaw to your shoulder)
  • Obliques: (side abs)
  • Quadriceps: (Upper Front legs)
  • Rectus Abdominis: (abs)
  • Rhomboids: (upper inner back muscles right below your neck)
  • Soleus: (the Smaller part of your calf muscle)
  • Trapezius, middle: (middle neck muscles)
  • Trapezius, upper: (upper neck muscles)

In sumo deadlifting, an athlete has a very wide stance and grips the bar from between the legs. This is a great exercise for anyone who might not spend as much time on leg day as they should since it helps to target legs more than any other part of the body. Sumo deadlifts don’t engage nearly as many muscles as conventional deadlifts. The major muscle groups active are:

  • Adductor Magnus: (Inner Thigh)
  • Erector Spinae: (lower back)
  • Gluteus Maximus: (Butt)
  • Hamstrings: (Upper back of legs)
  • Quadriceps: (Upper Front legs)
  • Trapezius, upper: (upper neck muscles)

Deadlift rack pulls are exactly like they sound. You load a bar while it’s on a rack and pull from there. This is a shorter version of a conventional deadlift and helps you lift heavier, which might help with stalls and plateaus. By lifting from a rig, you’re engaging more of your back and less of other muscle groups, so this becomes a concentrated back movement rather than a full-body experience. Rack pulls are also exceptional to help improve grip strength since the distance you’re pulling the bar is much shorter.

Romanian deadlifts are also called stiff leg deadlifts. The stance on these deadlifts is more narrow than a conventional movement. By keeping your legs straight throughout the descend, you’re able to engage your glutes and hamstrings in a way that other deadlift options can’t touch. Hamstring and glute training can make you a better runner, help you develop a better squat, and help with explosive movements like double unders and box jumps.

When these options become a little blasé, it’s simple to switch up your deadlift training to be a little harder by adding a deficit. Deficit deadlifts add more height between you and your barbell. You can achieve this by standing on a plate or a deficit block. This offers different leverage on the weight and an added challenge. For athletes on the shorter side, this helps make the deadlift more difficult, which in turn makes for bigger numbers on the bar.

Trap bar deadlifts use trap bars, which are sometimes called hex bars, in place of a barbell. The trap bar requires a completely different setup position than all other types of deadlifts. The benefit of trap bar training is a reduced spinal load. It’s a great choice for beginner lifters who are learning the movement and might not have the best lower back positioning yet. However, trap bar deadlifts can encourage improper form, since the knees tend to shift inward instead of out.

Aside from barbell deadlifts, kettlebells and dumbbells can easily be incorporated into deadlift training. These lighter-weight options are excellent for beginners, but also for anyone who wants to perfect and master form.

Kettlebell suitcase deadlifts are a great way to correct muscle imbalances that might arise from favouring one side over the other. This is an exceptionally useful training tool for basically all athletes since multi-planar movement is a great way to shore up any deficiencies that might be present.

Grip placement

Like variations on the basic deadlift, grip placement and grip width can alter the specific benefits of deadlifts.

The most common overhand standard grip is a real test of total body strength and grip. If your grip isn’t up to snuff, you’re going to find yourself in a position where your body can lift more, but your hands can’t hold up.

Many times, beginning athletes will presume they need to reverse grip a barbell to execute a deadlift, and that’s simply not the case. Powerlifting athletes reverse grip once their conventional grip has failed.

So for the rest of us mortals, the best thing we can do is train with a conventional overhand grip, strengthen our gripping abilities, and only switch to reverse when our grip fails. Equally important is that an overhand grip helps keep your bar close to your body. It aligns your shoulders and upper back position. If you routinely train with a mixed grip, you’re going to be out of synch with your shoulders and back. Over time, this can cause imbalances and injury.

Some coaches might suggest mixing your mixed grip – that is, changing which hand is reversed on each set. But since everyone has a dominant hand and a dominant side, that advice doesn’t seem to benefit in the long run. A mixed grip is likely to encourage the bar to drift. To compensate, you might be tempted to strip the bar, that is, to drag it up your shins as you lift. The only thing this is going to do is leave you with bloody shins.

So before you begin experimenting with grip width, learn to lift with a standard overhand grip. Then you might explore a hook grip or widening your stance.

A hook grip (also called a J-hook) is the standard Olympic lifting grip. It’s used in Oly lifts to allow the barbell to spin when catching a snatch or a jerk. Hook grips are also commonly used by competitive powerlifters since it helps keep the bar very stable and helps prevent the possibility of bicep tears. Hook grips take some getting used to because it’s not the most comfortable grip in the world. To compensate for this and build a pain tolerance, try using athletic tape around your thumbs. It will help as your hands begin to form callouses and prevent skin tears.

Using a snatch grip will help activate and engage the lats more, whereas a clean grip can help train muscle memory to improve your clean and jerk.

How to Choose a Deadlift

Choosing your favorite deadlift is going to depend on several factors – namely what you’re trying to achieve with your lifts and how well you’ve mastered the form.

If you’re chasing a big PR, then training in conventional deadlift makes sense – it’s the most comprehensive lift. Conventional deadlifts will serve you well if you decide to compete, and they can help improve overall stregnth, which in turn can improve your squat, snatch, and clean.

If your’e still new to the form and are working out how to breathe or adding in grip training, then a sumo lift might be best suited for you. When you pull sumo, your legs are very far apart, so the distance the bar has to travel is far less than in a conventional set up.

The same goes for grip alterations – snatch grip is a tough deadlift grip to master, so you might need to go down in weight.

What Is Workout Frequency, and Why Does It Matter?

Workout frequency is a training approach that focuses on how often you train as a whole, perform specific lifts, or lift a certain way. Frequency can be applied to a variety of workout variables, but the one that most people are concerned with is how often they’re in the gym.

Emerging research is beginning to support something that powerlifters and Olympic lifters have known for a long time – when volume and intensity are equal, the number of times you’re physically in the gym isn’t that important.

Wait, what?

Depending on your training goals, when you account for a progressive overload approach to your training programme and factor in reps, then it really doesn’t matter if you’re in the gym three days a week or six since the overall volume is the same.

There’s even some research that shows some athletes might develop a maximum resistance training threshold, which could account for plateaus and stalls. You might be overtraining for your body type, age, and the type of lifting you like best.

For casual athletes, this might come as a surprise that you can achieve similar results by being in the gym four days a week the same as if you go seven. That’s because your max resistance training threshold is probably far above what you’ll ever reach since your goals are simply to stay fit and lift.

But for experienced athletes or for those who are prepping for meets, there’s a higher threshold for work, and fewer sessions could be difficult since recovery is more intense during meet prep.

Strength Training vs. Casual Lifting

Before you figure out your specific workout frequency, you have to be clear on your goals.
Specific heavy deadlifting goals will require a different training approach than if you’re simply exercising as part of a workout program.

If you’re set on getting a huge deadlift, then you need to increase your training frequency for a specific number of weeks. That means that your training programming should focus on reps, becoming stronger, and increasing weight, intensity, and perfecting technique. This means that you’re probably going to be training deadlifts at least twice a week, if not four times.

If your goal is to simply become stronger on your deadlifts, then you should have a moderately balanced frequency. You’ll probably train deadlifts once a week, or twice if you’re incorporating different variations or using light weights as part of isolation accessory work. This is a great approach for lifters who are new to the bar or who want to make sure their movements are perfect before moving on to strength-based goals.

That said, experienced athletes can often accommodate a more intense workout frequency for deadlifts and squats simply because their bodies are more conditioned to the movements, and they’re more accustomed to heavy training. Lifters who have at least two years under the bar also have a better handle on how to approach recovery days, which is an integral part of mastering a big deadlift.

But for beginners and casual fitness enthusiasts who simply enjoy lifting for lifting’s sake, then it’s best to programme a training frequency of just once a week.

Is There Such a Thing as an Ideal Set and Rep Scheme? That Depends

Rep schemes and set numbers vary widely based on individual goals. There’s no such thing as an ideal scheme since every athlete wants to achieve something different. If your training load involves multiple training days, then you’re probably going to be lifting fewer reps and sets. If you only train deadlifts once a week, you might be able to get away with heavier sets. This is such an individualised process that needs to take into account your training history, your diet, and your long-term plans. For most athletes, programmes like StrongLifts are great to help build a solid base from which to improve.

If you’re planning to compete and want to incorporate serious strength gains, Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 might be better suited for you.

German Volume Training offers a way to lift within hypertrophic ranges and still improve form. Consider all of these options as you plan your programming.

The reality is that you’re probably not going to be able to go over 100% of your 1RM more than once a week. The reason is that your body can’t sustain it – either due to recovery times or nutrient needs. Aside from that, if you’re ever tempted to go heavy more than once a week, then maybe you should reevaluate your programming and integrate higher percentages into your plan.

Do You Need to Wear Gear While Training?

Lifting straps, knee sleeves, weight lifting belts, and chalk all have their place in training. Whether or not you use all of this gear, every single session is up to you, but most coaches strongly discourage against it – except for chalk.

Gear is supposed to help surmount what seem to be impossible weights. So it makes sense after a heavy session that you use straps to get in your hypertrophic accessory work. The same goes for wearing a belt when you’re pulling for a PR or adding knee sleeves if your gym is cold and you have other concentrated leg work. But relying on gear during every session only hides deficiencies and can promote incorrect muscle movement patterns.

If you find yourself reaching for your belt every time your deadlift, then maybe you should consider addressing your core and adding in more training, so you don’t need a belt. If your wrists hurt after a deadlifting day, then consider wrist and forearm training along with grip strength training.

For most athletes, chalk is univerally accepted as part of the setup for deadlifts. It helps with grip, prevents sliding, and addes an additinoal layer of friction between your hands and the bar.

The one sticking point about gear is your choice of footwear. Novice deadlifters might think that they should wear the same pair of shoes they squat in for deadlifting. That’s never wise, since a squat trainer has an elevated platform and will ultimately lead to poor form. Instead, find a flat bottomed shoe that has no added padding at the sole. You want your feet to be as close to the ground as possible to help maintain a neutral spine.

Some Deadlift Routines

Programming is so specific to each person, so it’s difficult to create blanket programmes that suit every person. Adding to the complexity are personal goals. If you’re a bodybuilder on a quest for a stage-ready back, your training is going to look different than if you’re a powerlifter in the off-season. With that in mind, there are some blanket statements about training that seem to hold true for all athletes, based on experience levels.

Experienced athletes (athletes who have at least five years of barbell work)

  • 1 heavy day – couplets at 80% 1RM
  • 1 moderate day – five sets of triples or fives at 70-85% 1RM (progressively increasing during the session)
  • 1 speed/technique day – five to eight sets of triples or fives at 60-75% with a focus on form
  • 1 free day – four sets of fours or eights at moderate intensity with limited rest time

Intermediate athletes

  • 1 heavy day – couplets at 85% 1RM
  • 1 speed/technique day – five sets of triples or fives at 70-85%, with grip variation and deficit work
  • 1 light day – four sets of sixs at light intensity

Beginner athletes

1 strength day – five to eight sets of eights at 65-85% 1RM (progressively increasing during the session)

Conclusion

The thing that most people forget about deadlifts is that it’s possible to have a successful with horrible form. The reason is that the movement is so basic at its core. It’s only with training that the nuance and the beauty of everything else that is required in a deadlift comes into play. That means that to be successful with a big pull, you need serious core activation, a strong grip, perfect foot placement, and a neutral spine. Your chest should be proud and upright, your gaze level, and you should be using diaphragmatic breathing. Just like with squatting and benching, the longer your history with this lift, the more cohesive all of these small movements become.

When you’re deadlifting, if the bar moves forward or you lose your core activation, you’re probably still going to make the lift. That’s why it’s so important that you evaluate your form often. Small tweaks can mean big results, even if you’re a regular competitor.

Pull the weight from zero with a neutral back to avoid injury. Rounding it on heavy deadlifts is just asking for trouble because it puts uneven pressure on your spinal discs. If you can’t make your lift with a neutral spine, lower your weight. Your back will thank you later.

Remember that the fastest way to improve your deadlift is to improve your form. More efficient pulls mean your body doesn’t tire as quickly, which in turn allows you to use your muscles more effectively.

Deadlifts are trained best when you work in the 75-85% range with optimal technique and superior muscle tension. Perfect form on every rep is completely possible with a deadlift if you’re willing to slow down your ego and step out of pulling big weights just to pull them. Assistance work can be instrumental in achieving big PRs, but remember that your training frequency should be in line with your overall goals.

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