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5 Reasons to Use Speed Deadlifts in Your Strength Training Programs

Posted Nov 18 2012 8:42am
When my first book was published back in 2008, a lot of people were surprised that I included speed deadlifts, either because they felt too easy, or because they didn’t think that deadlifting that wasn’t “heavy” couldn’t be productive. Interestingly, when their deadlifts invariably shot up after completing the four-month program, nobody was questioning their inclusion. With that in mind, I thought I’d use today’s article to outline my top five reasons for including speed deadlifts in one’s strength training program.

First, however, I think it’s important to outline what a speed deadlift is. Simply take any variation of the deadlift, and perform it at a lighter percentage: 35-80% of one-rep max (1RM) for sets of 1-5 reps. The higher the percentage, the lower the rep scheme, and vice versa. Examples include 8x1 at 80% of 1RM, 6x3 at 50% of 1RM, and 4x5 at 35% of 1RM. It’s possible to add chains or bands to the exercise, too, if you have access to them. You would rest anywhere from 30s to 120s between sets.

The most important factors, however, are perfect technique and excellent bar speed.

The bar should feel like it is exploding off the floor straight through to lockout.

Now, let’s get down to the reasons you might want to include it in your program.

1. Technique practice

I’ve coached a lot of deadlifts in my career, and people tend to fall into one of three categories:

a. Great technique (~5% of people)
b. Great technique until the load gets heavy (~60% of people)
c. Terrible technique (~35% of people)

In other words, 19 out of 20 people’s technique will go down the tubes as soon as the load gets heavy, so they might as well work on technique as they gradually build the weights up.

When you first took driver’s education class, you didn’t go straight for 65mph on the highway, did you? Nope, you drove around a parking lot, and then headed out for some back roads with very little traffic. Deadlifts are the same way; master the easy stuff before you get to the advanced stuff.

2. Improved bar speed off the floor

Imagine two lifters, both of whom are attempting 500-pound deadlifts. Lifter A puts a ton of force into the ground quickly at the start, and the bar jumps off the ground. Lifter B puts the same amount of force into the ground, but it isn’t applied as quickly, so the bar comes off a bit more slowly. Which lifter is more likely to complete the deadlift? My money is on Lifter A. Bar speed off the floor matters, and that is a very hard thing to teach at higher percentages of 1RM.

What you have to realize is that explosive strength (also known as rate of force development) is dependent on the INTENT to apply force rapidly (lift quickly), not the actual bar speed. An isometric muscle action can be explosive even though the bar doesn’t actually move; just imagine an elite deadlifter pulling against a bar 500 pounds heavier than his 1RM. He’s still applying a lot of force to the bar – and doing so quickly – but the bar isn’t moving. Take a look at my missed deadlift at the 2:12 mark of this video, as an example. You’ll see the bar bending, even if it isn’t moving; there is still force being applied. Advanced lifters get that.

The problem is that less experienced lifters don’t appreciate that you can be explosive in an isometric action; they have to have the feedback of the bar moving fast to teach them that they’re actually being explosive. And, that’s where speed deadlifts can be a great teaching tool and practice mechanism.

3. Power development

In an old installment of The Contreras Files , Bret Contreras did a great job of making a case for submaximal conventional and trap bar deadlifts (30-40% of 1RM) as potentially being as valuable as Olympic lifts in terms of the peak power production, in light of some recent research.  I think we all still have questions about this comparison, as the Olympic lifts require an athlete to apply force for longer (greater ROM) on each rep (allowing for greater carryover to athletes), and more seasoned Olympic lifters may be able to demonstrate higher power numbers simply from better technique.  However, the important takeaway message with respect to my article today is that submaximal deadlifts can, in fact, be a great option for training peak power - and I'd definitely recommend them over Olympic lifts for folks who don't have a qualified Olympic lifting coach available to teach technique.

4. Double extension is probably safer than triple extension in older, uncoordinated, inexperienced exercisers.

I'll probably get some nasty comments for this point; oh well.

We know that as people get older, the age-related loss in power is a huge deal.  So, training power is important for not only folks who are trying to get stronger and more athletic, but also folks who just want to preserve power for quality of life purposes.  I'd love nothing more than to be able to do loads of jumping, sprinting progressions, and Olympic lifts with a middle-aged population, but I'm just not sure that's a good idea in light of the number of degenerative Achilles tendons there are in the crowd, and how poorly many folks move.  These are exercises toward which we can build, no doubt, but early on, double extension exercises for training power can still be beneficial. 

I think this is one of many reasons that kettlebell swings have become so popular; they allow you to train power via double extension with a lot of the same benefits as the aforementioned modalities, but more safely.  Speed deadlift variations can work in much the same way: double extension, compound exercise, plenty of opportunity for power development, and less risk.  Eventually, when you want to start to introduce some eccentric challenges and triple extension, skipping drills, uphill sprints, and sled sprints are all good ways to do so gradually.

5. A way to train squats and deadlifts on the same day without feeling like poop.

Heavy squats are hard, and so are heavy deadlifts.  Doing both on the same day is brutal - and it can increase your injury risk in training.  Accordingly, powerlifters need to lower the intensity on one of the two if they want to get in plenty of quality work on both.

On this front, a training approach that worked really well for me during my powerlifting career was two have two lower body days per week, and break them up as:

Day 1: Squat for Speed, then Deadlift Heavy
Day 2: Squat Heavy, then Deadlift for Speed

Speed deadlifts allowed me to train bar speed, pull frequently enough to enhance technique, and get girls to like me - all without feeling like poop.  It was a win/win situation.

Speed deadlifts aren't the be-all, end-all of training initiatives, but then again, nothing is for everyone at every time. One thing that makes them unique is that they yield benefits to beginner, intermediate, and advanced lifters - but for all different reasons. Try incorporating them here and there in your training and I think you'll find them to be valuable.

For more deadlifting tips, I'd encourage you to check out Deadlift Dynamite , a thorough resource from Andy Bolton and Pavel Tsatsouline.  The introductory offer on this great product ends tonight (Sunday, 11/18) at midnight.

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