Lifting is a lot like a relationship. There’s the courtship period, the honeymoon stage and then the phase where you’re farting in front of each other and discussing feelings. Needless to say, smashing weights is not all rainbows and butterflies. A novice will experience PR after PR initially, but once they get to the intermediate or advanced levels, those PRs are hard to come by. We actually have to earn those itty-bitty gains.
This is exactly where we find ourselves with the deadlift. In the initial stages, we get better at the deadlift by deadlifting more. All that extra QT with the bar will drill down technique and get us comfortable with heavy loads. However, it’s unwise to pull a heavy bar several times a week. After all, the deadlift is an incredibly demanding multi-joint, compound movement that requires ample recovery time in between.
Instead, we’d be better off spending a little extra time building up the lagging muscles involved in the deadlift so we can continue to make gains without wrecking our bodies.
My neck, my back….my glutes and my legs
There are countless exercises we can count on to build up the muscles of our posterior chain for the deadlift, but I’d rather spend my time on the bigger-bang-for-your-buck exercises that will attack several areas at once than spend an hour on isolation movements. In this case, I rely on good mornings, snatch grip deadlift, pull-ups and the glute ham raise (GHR).
Low-bar good mornings
A staple in any deadlift program, the good morning is a fantastic exercise for the posterior chain, but if you struggle to activate the hamstrings when you lift, the low bar good morning is for you.
Typically, lifters do their good morning in a high bar position (barbell on the upper trapezius). This is fine if you want to load the spinal erectors, but if you’re deadlifting often enough, those erectors need less, not more work. Instead, taking a low-bar position is an excellent way to load the hamstrings after a heavy squat or deadlift day. I picked up this trick from one of my powerlifting coaches and it seriously changed my life.
Difficulty level: One middle finger
- “Hug” the shoulder blades around the spine to create a meaty prop for the barbell to sit on
- In this video, I could have brought the bar a bit lower. Try it out with an empty barbell first before loading to get the right feel for it.
- Maintain a neutral neck when hinging
Glute Ham Raise (GHR)
The GHR is one of the most brutal hamstring builders out there, and I enjoy them the way I like broken glass in my dinner. Regardless, it’s a necessary evil if your goal is to build a stronger deadlift. Here, my friend Shedna demos what she calls “the f&8!king worst” exercise of them all (two variations, one with assistance and one without).
Difficulty level: Two middle fingers and a middle toe.
- The set up will look different for everyone and requires playing around. If you’re too close, you’ll end up overloading the calves and possibly get a calf cramp. Ouch! Too far away, however, and you’re stressing the knee in flexion.
- Maintain a neutral spine throughout the ROM. More specifically, avoid lumbar hyperextension in the upright position and excessive thoracic flexion in the bottom position.
- A great tip I picked up from Eric Cressey was to go a bit farther through the range of motion so you can get a bit of rebound. Stopping short (think perpendicular to the floor) is actually a lot harder.
- With the assistance, go slow on the downward phase and then use your hands to push off/rebound to the upright position.
Pull-ups, chin-ups….all their variations
While rowing movements are absolutely crucial as an accessory lift for the deadlift, let’s not forget how beneficial the pull-up is. Not only do you get some practice time with the pull-up, but there are enough variations to play with to get your lats, core, biceps and forearms fired up simultaneously. A few to try are:
- Eccentric pull-ups/chin-ups
- Mixed grip pull-ups
- A set of wide grip, narrow grip, and neutral grips
- Ring pull-ups
Difficulty level: One middle finger depending on which variation you choose.
Emphasize the pull pattern in a way that fires up as many muscles as possible. Yes, you should still do rows, but don’t throw out pull-ups just because you haven’t mastered it completely.
Snatch grip deadlift
I was first introduced to the snatch grip deadlift (SGD) by my on-again, off-again coach Michael Anderson. At the time my goal was “get better at deadlifts” and “look hot for my boyfriend.” The snatch grip DL delivered on both by getting my arms and back super jacked and improving my grip strength (insert dirty joke here). I also found it to be more back-friendly than conventional DLs and it was a nice way to cycle the hinge/deadlift movement without getting bored.
Difficulty level: Two middle fingers on a good day.
Here’s Tony Gentilcore performing the SGD with a full ROM.
- Before pulling from the floor, trying pulling it from the rack position (at or just below the knees) with lighter weights.
- Keep the chest up to avoid rounding the back.
- This exercise is taxing on the grip and forearms. Better to increase reps over time instead of load until you get this one down.
- Set the lats during the set-up and pull your shoulders back.
If your goal is to get stronger and better at something like the deadlift, you’ll want to focus on the accessory work just as much as you do the big lift itself. While I’m always game for some isolation work, time is money and I’d rather focus on these four big movers to get me sweating hard and out of the gym as fast as possible. Just don’t forget to rack your weights!