It was 1970 and I was having a hard time going up in the deadlift. The more I deadlifted, the more backward was my progress. Then, one day I read an article by Bill Starr in Muscular Development titled: “If You Want to Deadlift More, Don’t Deadlift”. I was confused. How could that work?
Bill discussed doing high pulls, power cleans, rack pulls, back raises, and so forth. I did not know, back then, that this was the conjugate system. It did not have an official name until 1972, which came from the research being done by Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky in weight lifting and track at the Dynamo Club in Russia.
I had nothing to lose with my 525-pound deadlift at a body weight of 181 pounds, so I gave it a shot.
By February 1973, I pulled 670 pounds, at a body weight of still 181 pounds, and my squat went from 550 pounds up to 630 pounds, just 20 pounds off the all-time raw record held by Bob McGee. I was sold.
I incorporated this Soviet system into the training programs of my Westside Barbell athletes in 1982. Since that time it has constantly evolved as we continue to improve our training methods. Thus far, to date, 21 male Westside lifters have performed deadlifts of 800+ pounds and seven female Westside athletes have performed deadlifts of 500+ pounds. Just as Bill Starr suggested in his article, we use squatting, deadlifting, and good mornings to improve our regular meet deadlift. Here’s how:
Westside rotates the use of an assortment of special bars and special squats. For special bars, for example, we may use such a 14″ cambered bar, a safety squat bar, or a bow bar. For special squats, for example, we may do front squats or Zercher squats (all special squats are performed on at least three different box heights). On max effort day we may front squat to a very low box with a very close or a very wide stance, which builds conventional and sumo competition stances in the deadlift.
For accommodating resistance, we use 40 to 400 pounds of chain. Bands are also used, ranging from 70 to 140 pounds, 250 pounds, 375 pounds, 440 pounds, and even up to 700 pounds of band tension for our strongest men. Concentric squats can also be done by starting the lift under the bar on a set pin in the power rack or by suspending chains. Occasionally, weight releasers are used with very heavy weight up to 300 pounds.
Good mornings with a specialty bar are done in about 25% of the max effort workouts. While squatting and deadlifting are done for a single rep max, good mornings are done for a three or four rep max, arched-back style, for increasing the squat and sumo deadlift. Always arch the back, but round the mid to upper back on the eccentric phase, and then arch the back completely on the concentric phase. Wide or close stance, arched or rounded, they all have a place for developing a particular body part. Bands and chains can be used. Concentric style good mornings are used a lot at Westside. Single-leg style good mornings, with one leg in front of the other, will isolate the left or right side of the posterior chain. By the way, if you are doing a 500-pound good morning with a 450-pound deadlift, you are training wrong.
We do lots of deadlifts, of course, but not off the floor with just straight weight. We do a lot of band pulls with 220 pounds of tension at the top (for our lifters who pull 800+ pounds, we use 280 pounds of tension). On Fridays, after speed strength squats, we do 6 to 10 singles for speed pulls using a bar weight of 50% of 1RM + 30% band tension at lockout.
We may also do rack pulls against bands, conventional style, using approximately 250 pounds or 350 pounds of band tension at lockout. (Interestingly, my regular 1RM deadlift is 765 pounds, with the plates at 6 ½” sitting on the floor, and when I rack pull I use a bar weight of 515 pounds + 250 pounds of band tension–also 765 pounds total–at lockout.) Two other rack pulls are done on a regular basis with the plates 4 ½” and 2 ½” off the floor. Do not allocate more than 10% of your deadlift training to rack pulls or you will be wasting your time. (By the way, I found no advantage in using the lightened method, reversing the bands, when training the deadlift.) The power clean or power snatch can also be used.
A trick Paul Anderson would use when deadlifting is to raise the toes onto a wooden ramp to overload the hamstrings. There are even special deadlift shoes with the toes elevated about ½” to change the center of gravity for better leverage, thereby placing the shoulders almost behind the bar. Paul would also elevate the heels to overload the lower back.
First, train the abs hard and heavy. Then, be sure to train the lower back with light good mornings, back extensions, or stiff leg deadlifts with bands hooked in front to make the lockout difficult. Add in lat work of all kinds: rows, chins, you name it. Do them all and rotate often.