The Slow, Boneheaded Way to a Big Dead Lift

So here's my story of reaching a raw (no lifting gear) 600 pound, triple body weight dead lift. I wrote this because being a strong dude plus personally experiencing my unscientific study of N=1 means that I know everything there is to know about dead lifting.

But really, there are hundreds of good dead lifting resources out there and I don't claim expertise in power lifting. My forte is more in the realm of using weight training to stay healthy and be awesome outside of the gym (sports performance and rehabilitation). But since more than a few people have asked the question...

A past client and friend messaged me:

Hey Bob how did you get your dead lift up so much? I've been stuck for a long failing to hit 315 (lbs).

That question could be taken anywhere. But I can narrow my answers down a bit since I know the person asking the question. His commitment level, access to equipment, coach-ability, and work ethic are definitely not in question.

First, here are a few principles:


Believe it or not, lifting as much as you can for one rep is absolutely not the best way to drastically increase how much you can lift for one rep (at least not for a while). You probably need to spend a long time consistently dead lifting weight that is relatively heavy for you but you can handle with perfect form. If 315 pounds is your assumed 1-rep max that means multiple sets of something around 275 - 300 pounds for 3 to 5 reps. This is heavy but totally within your power to crush and repeat. You do need to lift heavier weights and practice pulling heavy singles (like >90 % of your 1 rep max), but give it at least 8 weeks before you increase the load and cut reps.

This was 590X1
Appreciate the inverse relationship between load and time under tension. Heavy loading (like one rep for max effort) does wonders for improving the nervous system but the time under tension is insufficient to stimulate muscle growth. Lighter loading (like something you can handle for 8 to 12 reps) provides plenty of time under tension, but the load often isn't heavy enough to really cause muscle tearing and rebuilding process that provokes sizZZE.

That's why the magical formula for actually increasing your YOU is to hit between 10 and 20 reps total, usually over 3 to 5 sets of somewhere around 80 to 85% of your 1-rep max. This applies to all of the major lifts.


Also - you definitely need to recover better. Ensure at least 2 days of recover from any leg or back work prior to your regular dead lifting day. Really, recovery is everything. Let go of the machine training altogether.


Should include chin-ups, row variations, and squats. Some big lifters swear by glute-ham raises but I've never done-a-one. Getting your lats and hips strong through is key. But again, rest from these at least 2 days prior to dead lifting and don't squat so intensely that it interferes with recovery for dead lift day.


Cool it with conditioning. I'm not saying to be lazy or go Sumo. But you MUST understand that exercising for specific, focused performance is not the same as exercise for what our culture is obsessed with - namely wellness and weight loss. Exercise for the sake of creating energy balance (burning calories) is a time-consuming, labor intensive, and recovery hindering endeavor. Get leaner by adding muscle to your frame and eating relatively clean, not through burning calories through "cardio."

It's such a basic idea, but one I see poorly handled quite often. A focus on strength means that you will save the "leaning out" or weight loss or what-have-you for another time after you are a dead lift beast.

Now here are a few specifics of my experience:

I had my first go-round with dead lifts at the age of about 24 right after graduating from college. That ended after five (or so) months when I experienced a fairly significant lower back strain (and likely disc herniation) while trying to dead lift 365 pounds.

It was a while before I went at it again. By 30 years of age I could pull 405 fairly easily but I was focused on squatting very heavy and for high reps.

[See 20 Rep Squats Are Not For Everyone.]

At the age of 34, after a two year dead lift sabbatical and no preparation, I threw 405 on the bar and hurt my back severely. About 6 months after that I decided to build back the correct way, as if I were training a client. 405 came back easily and then increased to about 455. At the age of 35, after a long cycle of regular heavy training, I was able to eek out 500 lbs for one rep.

At the age of 36 I tore my right pectoral muscle and then about 9 months after that broke my left hand. I was able to keep strong through turning my gaze back to squats which didn't involve those areas. By my 37th birthday I was back to dead lifting around 475 for reps. I once got 500 for 5 reps.

Then...THEN...something profound happened. I started to actually listen to someone else. Matt said I still was not recovering well enough. He said I should practice more single reps, even with relatively less weight, and build it up. He said I should cycle intensity rather than pushing my limit with 4 heavy sets of 3 to 5 reps each and every week.

So 10 weeks before hitting my 600 pound goal, dead lift days looked something like this:

Week 1: Four sets of 500 X 5
Week 2: 500 X 3, 535 X 1, 535 X 1, 555 X 1
Week 3: 500 X 5, 535 X 3, 555 X 1, 555 X 1
Week 4: 500 X 5, 535 X 1, 555 X 1, 565 X 1
 and then I'd take a week of lighter work like 405 X 20

At one point I hit 565 X 2 and 585 X 1, took a de-load week, then gradually pushed it back up over four weeks in the above manner.

Did I mention that this requires patience and a lot of awfully hard work?

On PR day I wore my PR shirt and after warming up pulled 500 X 1, 535 X 1, 565 X 1, put a good song on and pulled 600.

[For some reason I find the missing beats and discordant sounds of this 
particularly worthy for providing the calm-crazy it takes to hit a big rep.]

What else did I do (and not do)?

I quit playing basketball Monday nights since this left little recovery for Tuesday afternoon, my only option for heavy lifting day.

When the weights were getting up there or I was due to push some jumps in loading, I backed off the intensity of sprint training. For a while I made my weekly "Plyo Fridays" more into power events with short sprints and powerful jumps but nothing grueling. 

I quit squatting intensely, made them into a DL accessory rather than a main event. I squatted hard but not like I prefer to be ground into the floor.

I committed to eating a lot. I thought this may cause some weight gain and I would have to accept at least a little softer middle. But I gained only around 5 pounds and noticed no real difference for better or worse in my abs.

Of course, you can always not listen to me and plow your own slow, injury laden, boneheaded road to something ; )

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