5 Lessons Learned from Deadlifting 500 Pounds

This probably isn't news to anyone, but let it be clear: I love to deadlift.

Now, I'm not exactly sure why I love deadlifting as much as I do.  Until recently, I never would have said I was "good" at it.  And, as a long sufferer of lower back pain, deadlifting used to scare me.

My, oh my, how times have changed.

This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to hit my biggest 2014 goal - deadlifting 500 pounds.  Little did anyone know, I had targeted that day for well over a month as it lined up nicely with my program and I was coming off the carb/overeating fest that is Thanksgiving.  After feeling terrific in my warm ups, I decided to throw some Rage Against the Machine over the speakers, put on my high school baseball shirt (Foxes Up!!!!!!), and give it a go.  Here's what ensued....or, what I like to call, my attempt to use every rainbow-colored plate we have:

In a nerdy, meatheady way, it was the best type of belated birthday present I could have given myself.  And, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't responsible for 40 of the 43 current views on YouTube ;)

Flash back to June of 2013, and my highest deadlift was only 350 ("only" is italicized, because numbers are all relative).  After putting 150 pounds on my deadlift in 18 months, I like to think there's a few bits of knowledge I can share for those looking to improve their lifts, or those that just want to look better nekkid.

1. You have to get TIGHT!!!!

As you may remember from this post, getting tight is kind of a big deal.  Most people don't realize how interconnected our whole bodies are, and that by squeezing everything, you'll be exponentially stronger in a matter of seconds.  In a sense, every exercise is a full body exercise. 

Here's how your spine actually functions....if it were a pirate ship.

Here's how your spine actually functions....if it were a pirate ship.

Disagree?  Well, Thomas Myers may have something to say about that.

How does that apply to the deadlift?  By itself, the human spine is actually pretty delicate.  So how in the world can people put up insane numbers in the deadlift and other feats of strength?  Because when you're getting tight on a deadlift, your spine and the surrounding musculature acts like a system of guy wires.

To oversimplify the analogy, think of your "core" muscles as the wires on one side of the tower (your spine), while your back muscles are the wires on the other side.  Other muscles like your obliques and quadratus lumborum (this word makes me sound smart!), are the wires on the lateral sides of your spine.  When all the muscles are firing correctly, your spine is pretty well protected.  But, problems occur if you have asymmetries, or if you're unable to properly fire all the wires.

Suddenly, you can probably see why something like a dead bug is super important.  Not only will the ability to get tight help you on a deadlift, it's going to help you in life!

Lastly, the only times I've ever felt my back on deadlift was when I wasn't getting as tight as I could either in my lats or my core.  Odds are that if you think you're tight enough, you need to get even tighter!  

2. If heavy deadlifting is your goal, your back is going to round.

Here's a big distinction - if you're deadlifting to get better at a sport, or life in general, it's best to keep your back flat while you pull.*  But, if you deadlift simply to get better at deadlifting, then some rounding may occur.  The difference, however, is thoracic versus lumbar flexion....or in normal speak, what part of your spine is doing the rounding.

We all know ugly deadlifts when we see them - they look like a dog doing it's business on the sidewalk.  We do NOT want any rounding in your lower back, or lumbar spine.  And, at no point should your deadlift ever look like this:

But before throwing the baby out with the bathwater - or getting scared off by this Rob Gronkowski doppleganger making every possible mistake - it's important to clarify that slight upper back rounding may be OK.  Simply put, our thoracic or upper spine has a much larger range of motion, and the surrounding structures are better suited to help buttress any forces.  Plus, since I'm a PRI guy, I operate on the assumption that some upper back rounding is OK for people that are super extended (as in, they got dat ghetto booty) - and I'm one of those lucky ones.

Unfortunately, beginners simply don't have the body awareness to know the difference between the two types of rounding, and they often resemble the guy above.  If you're interested in pulling heavy, your best bet is to see an experienced coach.

And by the way, my lower back felt absolutely normal (if not slightly better) the days after I pulled 500.

3. Train your mind.

When the weights get heavy, it's natural for your mind to start wandering:

  • What if I don't make the rep?
  • Is today the day when someone will have to scrape my spine off the back wall?
  • What's going to happen to Rachel in the upcoming season of House of Cards!?!?!?!?!!!?!

It wasn't until I read the book "Psych" by Dr. Judd Biasotto, that my deadlifts really started to take off.  The book states that so many individuals spend all their time on the physical part of training, but often neglect the mental training which is just as important.  Techniques like positive self-talk, visualization, and complete muscle relaxation sound cheesy, but I decided to give it a try as Dr. Judd holds several powerlifting world records.

The results?  Significant.

After having failed twice at 470, I wasn't sure that 500 pounds was an attainable goal for this year....or ever.  After completing the book, I nailed 450 and 460 on the same day.  Two weeks later? I nailed 470.  A month later?  I crushed 480.  Finally, I hit 500.  And you know what?  I haven't missed a lift since since I put the book down.

4. Technique, Technique, Technique!

Speaking of dogs doing their business on the sidewalk, after seeing this video of me pulling 445 I knew I had to get much better at technique if I wanted to pull 500 pounds.  It looked ugly, and there were several bad habits I had picked up along the way.  For the next 3 months, I focused solely on correcting my technique, and made a habit of recording all of my deadlifts.  By doing so, I was able to give myself almost instant coaching by reviewing each one and dropping bad habits before they took root.  

Plus, I focused on one cue that really helped change my deadlift: rather than trying to pull the bar up, I started to try and push into the floor as hard as I could.  It seems silly, but just changing that frame of mind helps make the bar lighter.  In fact, even though I often say "pull" when talking about the deadlift, I now think of it as a "push" and my technique has really cleaned up.

Heavy weights have a way of magnifying even the smallest details, so once again, if you're interested in pulling heavy see an experienced coach and use video to review all of your lifts.  

Yes, even some of your warm ups.

5. "The road is better than the inn."

Here's one of my birthday presents from Lindsay....to say she knows me well would be an understatement!

Here's one of my birthday presents from Lindsay....to say she knows me well would be an understatement!

In the last few weeks, 500 pounds no longer seemed like the goal.  Rather, it seemed more like a fait accompli.  I KNEW that 500 pounds was just a matter of picking the right day and being smart about how I felt.  Plus, after I hit 480, I realized that the 500 is no longer the end goal....it was simply a town on the road of progress.

Do I have an extra bounce in my step this week after hitting 500?  You betcha.  Yet, in a very Don Quixote way, it's not the goal that I'll always remember....it was the path to the goal.

Earlier this year I remember struggling with just over 400 pounds on the bar, and saying to Lindsay, "How in the world is 500 pounds ever going to happen?"  I also remember walking into the gym on Saturdays and continually thinking I had hit a wall....only to bust through like the Kool-Aid man (oh yeah!!!!).  

Continually seeing your efforts pay off and learning about yourself is the best part about getting stronger. I had a lot of fun reaching my goal, and now it's time to set my sights elsewhere and begin the process again. 

570, anyone? 


*A "flat" back is highly variable from person to person.  What's rounded for one person may be someone else's neutral. Ya feel me?