How to deadlift if your goal is to gain muscle size and bulk up

The Deadlift Guide (for Size)

The deadlift is the high king of all exercises. It strengthens your body from your fingers down to your toes, bulking you up from your forearms down to your calves. Most of all, though, it will help you build a thick back, a sturdy spine, and tall traps.

The deadlift is one of the only lifts that’s a staple of both powerlifting and strongman training. It’s also one of the best lifts for improving your overall aesthetics.

However, most powerlifters and strongmen deadlift with the goal of developing their max-effort strength. If your goal is to build a bigger, stronger, and more generally badass body, we can modify the deadlift a bit to be better for building muscle, improving your appearance, and giving you better longevity.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • How to bulk up your entire posterior chain with the deadlift.
  • Whether you should deadlift with a sumo or conventional stance.
  • Deadlift accessories, such as the power row, RDL, and squat?
  • Deadlift assistance lifts, such as hip thrusts and good mornings.

This article is bulking: It will grow and change over time. Occasionally we’ll trim off some fat. This isn’t meant to be the final word.

The deadlift turns kings into men.

Deadlift Range of Motion

Just like how hitting legal squat depth is arbitrary, so is deadlifting from the floor. If you’ve got poor hip mobility, whether that’s from your posture or your anatomy, then it’s better to raise the barbell up and do your deadlifting from a place where you can lift with a neutral spine.

On the other hand, if you’ve got great mobility, you may very well benefit from deadlifting even deeper than the floor. In that case, you might want to try deficit deadlifts or snatch-grip deadlifts. Speaking of which, deficit deadlifts tend to be the best deadlift variation for building a bigger and stronger upper back. So if you’re trying to build a bigger upper body relative to your lower body, that would be a good deadlift of choice.

However, a November 2014 study found that including partial range of motion accessory lifts (like rack pulls) alongside full range of motion lifts (like deadlifts) was more effective at improving strength gains than just performing a greater volume of lifts with a full range of motion. So just because we’re using deep deadlifts as our main variation doesn’t mean that we should shy away from assistance lifts with a shorter range of motion.

Deadlift Strength Curve

There’s a difference between deadlifting for strength and deadlifting for size. This may sound weird, but for a powerlifter, deadlift range of motion doesn’t really matter. After all, a powerlifter isn’t failing the lift because his muscles grow too fatigued, he’s failing because he can’t muscle his way through the hardest part of the lift. The rest of the range of motion isn’t a problem.

With the deadlift, the hardest part of the lift is often the very first part—getting the barbell up to the knees. This is why people can deadlift so much more weight by raising the barbell a couple inches off the ground, doing rack pulls or raised deadlift.

A deadlift barbell can help with this, too. If the barbell bends before the weight leaves the floor, that allows them to open up their hip angle, improving their leverage, before they need to lift all of the weight. If they’re pulling 500 pounds, they might only need to pull 300 pounds for the first couple inches, 400 pounds for the next couple inches, and then the barbell leaves the ground, loading them up with all 500 pounds. This is similar to using chains or bands, where the weight gets heavier the further you lift it. This aligns your “strength curve” with the weight you’re lifting: as your leverage gets better, more resistance is added. This is why the deadlift barbell is so great for deadlifting.

The Deadlift and Your Spine

With proper back positioning, the load will be shared between the many vertebrae in your spine, minimizing the stress on any one joint. It’s only if you lift with a kink in your back that one vertebrae will be forced to bear the brunt of the load, which can cause it to slip out of place. This allows your spine to bear incredibly heavy loads, and even to benefit from them.

Using the Squat as a Deadlift Accessory

Squats will build up many of the same muscles that are used in the deadlift, including the quads, glutes, spinal erectors, and lats. However, Greg Nuckols, MA, believes that squat strength doesn’t tend to translate very well to the deadlift. His reasoning is that your limiting factors on the squat are too different from the deadlift.

For example, let’s say that your quads are your limiting muscle group on your squat, and your spinal erectors are your limiting muscle group on your deadlift. When squatting, your spinal erectors are more than strong enough, so they won’t grow. When you go back to deadlifts, sure, you’ll have stronger quads, but those were never your problem. Your limiting factor is still your spinal erectors, and your spinal erectors haven’t grown.

He believes that front squats have the best carryover to the deadlift because they do the best job of bulking up the postural muscles in the upper back, which are often a limiting factor in the deadlift.

About Shane Duquette

W. Shane Duquette, BDes, is a science communicator with a degree in design and visual communication from York University. He co-founded Bony to Beastly and Bony to Bombshell, where he specializes in helping ectomorphs, hardgainers, and skinny-fat people bulk up.

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