Three Tactics to Optimize Deadlift Training for Fast Strength and Mass Gains

Articles Strength and performance / 21 December, 2017 /

By Stephane Cazeault

We all want to be muscular, strong and powerful, isn’t this what every trainee aspires to? One of the fastest ways to reach high levels of strength is by focusing on the Deadlift, the king of exercises. If your goal is to become a powerful human, using a systematic approach to your Deadlift training will significantly improve your rate of progress. In this article, we will examine the best training strategies to dramatically improve your Deadlift strength. Specifically, how to optimize your lifting technique, how to plan a 12-week cycle to prioritize the Deadlift and finally, how to properly load the exercise to enhance the training effect. If you want to be as big and strong as you can be, keep reading!

A few years ago, an NFL defensive back approached me during the off-season to help him gain some size as the team he played for was asking him to switch to the strong safety position and help for run support. This athlete was 6’3’’ (1.91 m) at a bodyweight of 218 lbs (99 kg) with a bodyfat of 8.4% and we had 12 weeks left before training camp. Even though he had a very athletic physique, it was noticeable that his weakest link was his posterior chain. The posterior chain has a lot of potential for hypertrophy as the glutes and hamstrings are large muscles with a high amount of fast-twitch fibers. The consensus was that we would prioritize the Deadlift for the entire 12-week cycle. Fast forward to training camp, the new strong safety is now a solid 6’3’’ (1.91 m) at 233 lbs (106 kg) with a bodyfat of 6.8%. By focusing on the weakest link with the highest strength and mass potential, we were able to add 15 lbs (7 kg) of bodyweight to his frame.

The most important contributing factor to improving your Deadlift is without a doubt technique. Here are some key general cues:

  • Walk up to bar so bar is 1” away from shins 

  • Barbell should be over the middle of your foot 

  • Feet slightly wider than hip width 
and slightly turned out 5°-10° 

  • Grab the barbell just outside the legs with an overhand and firm grip 

  • Bend knees slightly, but shins remain perpendicular to the floor 

  • Maintain a neutral spine 

  • Fix a point on the floor 10-20’ in front of you and maintain fixed eyesight throughout
  • Activate and create tension in the upper back as you begin to lift the barbell 

  • “Spread the floor” by planting the feet and externally rotating the legs 

  • Pull in a straight line to just above the knees while maintaining same torso angle 

  • Once the barbell clears the knees, push the hips forward and straighten the torso 

  • Maintain a linear bar path throughout the movement by keeping the bar close to legs
  • Lowering begins with the bar close to your legs pushing the hips and knees back 

  • Once below the knees, bend knees to complete the lowering of the barbell

  • Pause on the floor for a second and reset after every rep to assure proper positioning

Some will argue about the benefits of trying to keep the shins as perpendicular to the floor as possible. The issue with most trainees bending the knees from the start of the pull is that this position will force a forward deviation of the barbell trajectory midway through the lift right around the clearing of the knees. This change in bar path will create excessive stress on the lower back, which will, in turn, limit your load potential.

Now that we have a better idea on how to implement good technique onto the lift, let’s look at how we can optimize our planning over a 12-week cycle.

First, it’s important to understand that a hard training session on Deadlift can be quite draining. The muscle mass involved over the entire range of motion from all the reps performed from a dead stop can take a toll on recovery. For this reason, I suggest performing the actual Deadlift from the floor every other phase. I found that performing this lift every week for 12 weeks lead to a point of diminishing return for most athletes.

An effective approach is to alternate a phase of short range of motion Deadlift with a phase of regular Deadlift. Here is an example over a 12-week period using 3-week phases:

Phase 1

Deadlift – Rack – Above Knee

Phase 2

Deadlift – Floor

Phase 3

Deadlift – Rack – Below Knee

Phase 4

Deadlift – Floor

What happens with this set-up is that the short range of motion Deadlift prepares the spine for the upcoming work of the full range of motion Deadlift without overtaxing the body. On phase 2, after 3 weeks of regular Deadlift, you back off to the partial lift again. This will stimulate the hip extensors further while providing a window for recovery and over-compensation for the last phase. By the last week of phase 4, you should be able to reach your peak weight for the cycle.

Knowing how to plan your training is very important, but to really reap the rewards from your training program, you have to make sure you load properly.

An important point to consider, if maximum strength and mass is your goal, is to make sure you follow a tempo with a slow and controlled eccentric (I recommend lowering the weight in 4 seconds) and that you implement a pause on the floor to allow you to reset your position and making sure you’re pulling every rep from as close to a dead stop as possible.

Because of the controlled nature of the lift and the high demands of lifting a weight without any momentum build up, I highly recommend you don’t perform more than 6 repetitions on the regular Deadlift from the floor. Doing more reps will increase the likelihood of technique breakdown because of the residual fatigue of the stabilizers of the upper back. In general, with primary lifts, always emphasize quality over quantity.

As a rule of thumb, when choosing your weight for the partial Deadlift variations, start with a load about 40% higher than your full range of motion Deadlift. For example, assuming the repetitions are equal, if you lifted 200 lbs (91 kg) from the floor, start with 280 lbs (127 kg) for your Rack Lockouts from above the knees.

Following an appropriate warm-up on the exercise, use a step loading approach crossing over a 10%intensity spread with your Deadlifts. If you can Deadlift 200 lbs (91 kg) for a hard 6 repetitions (6RM), with a session calling for 5 sets of 6, I suggest you load the exercise like this:

Warm-up sets

Set 1: 6 reps @ 90 lbs (41 kg) with 50% of starting weight

Set 2: 4 reps @ 125 lbs (57 kg) with 70% of starting weight

Set 3: 2 reps @ 160 lbs (73 kg) with 90% of starting weight

Working sets

Set 1: 6 reps @ 180 lbs (82 kg)

Set 2: 6 reps @ 185 lbs (84 kg)

Set 3: 6 reps @ 190 lbs (86 kg)

Set 4: 6 reps @ 195 lbs (89 kg)

Set 5: 6 reps @ 200 lbs (91 kg)

As you can see from the example, the weights progress over a 10% spread from set 1 to set 5. Because quality is a priority on this exercise, using this step loading approach will ensure you always finish on success and that you don’t miss a repetition.

Finally, to help translate this information in an applicable format, here is the 12-week Deadlift progression performed by the defensive back mentioned earlier:

Phase 1

Deadlift – Rack – Above Knee

4 x 8-10, 2-1-1-0, 150

Phase 2

Deadlift – Floor

5 x 4-6, 4-1-X-0, 240

Phase 3

Deadlift – Rack – Below Knee

5 x 6-8, 2-1-1-0, 150

Phase 4

Deadlift – Floor

6,6,4,4,2,2, 4-1-X-0, 240

This was only part of his Lower Body session; some assistance and remedial exercises were added to further enhance the training program. Notice that the longer range of motions demand for longer rest periods in order to allow adequate recovery in-between sets. In order to improve the efficacy of the training plan, these workouts were performed on Friday with the weekends off to emphasize recovery.

There are many ways to get big and strong, but as you can see, the Deadlift is a sure-fire way to reach your goals quickly. Knowing how to properly load a perfectly executed Deadlift while making sure you have a systematic plan with your training program is a must for long term success. Weight training is the greatest tool for strength development, but like anything else, you not only need to use the right tool for the job, you also need to use it properly. Hopefully, you can apply a few of these concepts to your Deadlift training.

-Stéphane Cazeault – KILO Strength Society



Stéphane has spent the last 24 years perfecting his work. He has a strong formal academic foundation, earning a bachelor’s degree in exercise science from the University of Montreal. Stéphane recently published his first book, 66 Strategies to Program Design.

In his career Stéphane has personally trained professional athletes in football (NFL), baseball (MLB), and hockey (NHL).

Stéphane’s passion is program design. His program design is carefully structured with every possible component taken into consideration to ensure the trainee reaches and exceeds their goals, making his work a combination of both science and art.

Written by Stephane Cazeault