Max Effort Deadlift: Proper Exercise Selection and Organization for Consistent Gains
Building optimal Conjugate Method programming depends upon a coach's ability to select the appropriate exercises for an athlete and program those exercises to train the strengths responsible for improving the athlete's sports performance.
Ideal strength training for any athlete, regardless of sport, should feature regularly scheduled max effort training sessions to increase absolute strength, improve neuromuscular coordination, and increase an athlete's resiliency and durability. When it comes to improving these attributes for the lower body, two exercises typically come to mind; the squat and the deadlift.
This article aims to provide advice regarding how to program max effort deadlifts into an athlete's training program to yield maximum strength and mass gains, avoid accommodation, and improve overall athletic ability.
At Westside, we have utilized the deadlift, along with many variations, to train our powerlifters and athletes for many years. When building absolute strength, notably lower body absolute strength, no exercise can compare to the deadlift. Additionally, programming deadlift variations as accessory exercises will lead to accelerated gains in muscle mass.
Here are two different ways we program the deadlift for powerlifters and athletes at Westside Barbell.
Focus: Improve Deadlift Strength and Skill
When we choose to program with a focus on improving an athlete's deadlift strength and skill, we will expose the athlete to different deadlift variations, along with the occasional squat or good morning variation. As far as sets and reps go, the goal is to use specific intensity and volume levels to improve deadlift strength and skill while avoiding issues with recovery.
It should be noted that max effort deadlifts performed for single reps typically require 1.5 to 2 weeks to recover totally. When bands are added, this timetable can extend up to 3 weeks. For this reason, we use exercise and intensity variations to allow an athlete to train the deadlift regularly without digging themselves into a hole recovery-wise.
Here is an example of optimal program design focused on improving deadlift strength and skill:
Week 1 - Deficit Deadlift, work up to a top set of three reps
Week 2 - Rack Pull, work up to a top set of five reps
Week 3 - Mat Deadlift - work up to a top set of three reps
Week 4 - Giant Cambered Bar Good Morning, work up to a top set of five reps
Week 5 - Deadlift, work up to a max effort single
Week 6 - SSB Box Squat, work up to a top set of three reps
As you can see, the athlete is regularly exposed to intensity levels at or above 85-90%, with deadlifts making up most of the exercises selected. With this schedule, an athlete can typically expect to PR on week five, with week six being a bridge to the next style of programming we use to improve deadlift and lower body strength.
Focus: Improve Lower Body Strength and Improve Multiple Skills
Designing a program focusing on improving lower body strength opens up more options in terms of exercise selection. Programming that is focused on enhancing lower body strength will primarily use variations of the squat, deadlift, and good morning, allowing an athlete to improve their skill at multiple exercises simultaneously.
While the previous focus is used to improve a powerlifter's deadlift or use the deadlift to rapidly develop an athlete's absolute strength, this approach is excellent for powerlifters or athletes to improve their absolute strength and muscle mass while avoiding the recovery timetables associated with deadlifting nearly every week.
Here is an example of an optimal program design focused on improving lower body strength and movement skills:
Week 1 - Giant Cambered Bar Good Morning, work up to a top set of five reps
Week 2 - Squat, work up to a max effort single
Week 3 - Mat Deadlift, work up to a top set of three reps
Week 4 - SSB Box Squat, work up to a max effort single
Week 5 - SSB Good Mornings, work up to a top set of five reps
Week 6 - Rack Pull, work up to a max effort single
Notice that we still program in the deadlift even though it is not the specific focus. You never want to remove a foundational exercise such as the deadlift from your programming entirely; you only want to reduce the frequency or modify the exercise.
Which Way is Best?
The two strategies featured above are equally beneficial; it all depends on an athlete's situation. Successful exercise programming depends on the programmer's ability to take into account an athlete's training goals, capabilities, and current physical state.
As a strength coach, there is an answer for any strength and conditioning-related problem you may face. It all depends on if you have a mind capable of finding these answers. Fortunately, it doesn't take a genius-level IQ; you must read and train.
No matter the athlete, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to strength training. As a coach, it is vital to have the ability to manipulate the exercise selection and programming to allow an athlete to make consistent gains in strength and power without worrying about gains becoming slow or stagnant.
For more information regarding programming for all sports, check out the Conjugate Club.
Simmons, L. (2007). Westside Barbell Book of Methods. Westside Barbell.
Verkhoshansky, Y., & Siff, M. C. (2009). Supertraining. Verkhoshansky.
Zatsiorsky, V. M., & Kraemer, W. J. (2006). Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics.