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Want to add some poundage to your deadlift? Making gains with the necessary form and strength required to pile on the plates can be a lengthy quest, but this process can be accelerated by paying attention to some key points and make the necessary deadlifting adjustments that will help put you on the road to a dope deadlift. Tim Sparkes is a competitive powerlifting champion and the owner of powerlifting desert mecca Die Hard Gym in Peoria, AZ. The athlete and coach has trained clients for bodybuilding and weightlifting events, and is able to teach by example, since he’s placed first, multiple times, in national and world championship powerlifting tournaments.
Sparkes, who regularly deadlifts in excess of 700 pounds, has dedicated years of training to lifting some serious iron. He says that for strength-training athletes of all levels, making quick and significant gains may come down to some really quick deadlifting adjustments.
“Your heels have to be driving down into to the board,” says Sparkes, who points out that running shoes will hinder your lift. The coach says that the structure of a running shoe is counterproductive for the deadlift because they don’t provide enough support.
Indeed, the foam soles of sneakers are designed to lessen the contact and impact that your foot makes on the floor, but with the deadlift you need your heels down, so padding, gel, and air won’t help you in this case. Deadlifting shoes are far more suitable, because they have little padding, and tend to be heavier, making the most of the force from your feet, especially the heels.
Sparkes says that there is no need for a complicated warmup ahead of each deadlift session — as it is better to utilize the deadlift movement in order to build up to your target. “I think your best warmup is going to keep your body tight and get it properly adjusted to the weight that you can handle, so you could just to start by doing the actual motion you’re doing for the deadlift,” he shares. “Deadlifting is the best warmup, and your best bet is to just start with a really light weight and work, and get your form and timing down, then keep working your way up.”
The powerlifter says that a good method is to start with lighter weights and perform six to eight reps, then as you add more plates, you can drop the reps to the three to five range. As you reach your top weight you can (and will likely need to) reduce the reps further. Sparkes says that bodybuilders may work with lighter weights, and perform sets of 10 to 12, but the principle of warming up with the deadlift, and increasing the weights while reducing the reps remains the same.
You may think that chalk is only used by Olympic-level athletes,, but the truth is that chalk has a practical benefit that can improve anyone’s lift. “A lot of people try to deadlift without chalk,” says Sparkes. “This means the bar moves, so they don’t have such a tidy grip.”
Chalk acts as a drying agent that improves the friction between flesh and iron, leading to a stronger and more stable grip on the bar. “Slippery hands can stop the shoulders locking up, or cause bad form,” he adds.
If your commercial gym frowns upon chalk, you can substitute it with a chalk alternative such as Chalk Wax.
As with any challenging endeavor, the temptation to get inside our own heads when performing a deadlift threatens to derail what the body can do naturally. “It’s not a puzzle,” says Sparkes. “There are some little cues that you can take, you know, for example, throwing your chest up, whatever, but you can’t think your way through the lifting stage because everything happens too fast. You gotta let your body do it. Hopefully, by the time you’re hitting 550-pounds, you’ve been through this enough times that your body kind of knows the motion and form, once you’re set. You can worry about getting set properly, but then just go. So, the thinking needs to happen before you actually start to stand up with your weight.”
Sparkes says that a frequent mistake many people make with the deadlift is to see the process as just a pull. “It’s really a push, it’s really more similar to a leg press,” he shares. “You know, you’re pushing down your heels into the floor, that’s the start of this exercise, so you grip onto that bar and pull yourself into position.” The powerlifter says that understanding this is key to improving your lift because you should be working on upper-back strength, hip strength, and leg strength to dial-in your deadlift.
“The deadlift covers so much of your body,” says Sparkes. “Break it down and train the individual parts of the whole posterior chain. Have days in which you work on those different pieces; your hamstrings, glutes, hips, upper back. You need to be working on all those pieces individually along with doing your deadlift.”
So, you’ve chalked-up and purchased the appropriate footwear, and you are really tuned into each lift, remembering to focus on the pulling motion. Great! Don’t mess things up now by overtraining. “I think the biggest mistake you can make is to do overdo exercises that work the same body parts, across different days,” says Sparkes. “Don’t perform more lower-back work within the next couple of days after you do your deadlift routines, and all your accessory work. In other words, don’t come in and start doing hyperextensions two days later, or stuff where you’re bending over a lot on some of your movements, when your lower back is already taxed.”
Sparkes advises that if you want to work on areas of the body that are at risk of being strained, you should consider working on machines that will support you, but he stresses that the back takes a long time to recover following a deadlifting session, so instead of deadlifting heavy, and then overdoing things with a heavy squat soon after, what you can do is stagger your workout days to include light and heavy workouts.
Follow up your heavy deadlift sessions with light squat sessions, and vice versa, across different days, with maximum recovery time, in order to recuperate and get stronger without injuring yourself. “You’ve got to gear your routine, and your program, around letting yourself recover properly with those muscles that take the most damage. And yeah, that’s often your lower back,” says Sparkes.