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Home » OSL Blog » Choosing the Best Deadlift Program to Avoid Strength Plateau and Increase Rep Max

Choosing the Best Deadlift Program to Avoid Strength Plateau and Increase Rep Max

August 12, 2019

Key Takeaways

  1. Before you start any deadlift program, you must build strength in your core muscle groups first.
  2. Today we’ll show you exactly how to do that, with exercises to get you strong and ready to start a deadlift program.
  3. We feature three deadlift programs that are free and readily available for you to use.
  4. With different features and offerings, we’re sure you can find a deadlift program that is right for you and your goals.

Are you a seasoned deadlifter looking for more weight gains and to increase your strength?

Are you a beginner looking for a deadlift program to start out with?

Have you been seeing different deadlift programs but are unsure how they compare and which one to use?

Well, today’s the perfect day to be reading an article here at Old School Labs. We’re going to answer all those questions and more for you right now.

Deadlifting today is much different than deadlifting in the Golden Era of bodybuilding. Back then, deadlifting was done mostly to increase muscle mass for aesthetic competitions. Now, deadlifting is a sport and many perform in focused deadlifting competitions.

If you are brand new to deadlifting, make sure you check out our How to Deadlift article first. It will give you a good basis on proper form, do’s and don’ts, and different types of deadlifts.

Deadlifting is a sport & it became the focus of many athletes especially in competitions.

Once you’re ready, come back and read through this article to learn about the best deadlift programs. 

The Importance of Building Strength First

One of the easiest ways to derail your muscle gains is to hurt yourself in the gym. Before you can even start a deadlift program, you have to make sure you have strength in the right places.

What do we mean? 

Well, deadlifting requires strength in the posterior chain to be able to pick up heavy weights with proper form. Without having strength in the right muscles, it can almost surely lead to injury.

posterior chain
The posterior chain is the grouping of muscles in the back of your body.

The posterior chain is the grouping of muscles in the back of your body:

  • Traps
  • Posterior deltoids
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Erector spinae (muscles around the spine)

So, prior to starting any deadlift program, you have to be sure that you are working those muscle groups. Which means you need a strength program BEFORE you start a deadlift program.

Let’s take a look at some exercises you can use to create your pre-deadlift program. We suggest doing these strength training exercises for at least three weeks before you start deadlifting. 

Strength training before following a deadlifting program is essential, & the results are worth it.

Especially if you are a beginner. If you’re a more experienced lifter, then you might want to do a strength test. You might find that you have one or two areas where you can build up more strength. Focus on those muscle groups and then choose the best deadlift program to meet your goals.

Ready to get started on your strength training?

1. Grip Strength: Farmer’s Walk/Farmer’s Carry

This is a great way to build up your grip strength to prepare for your deadlift program. It also works the entire posterior chain, as well as your abs and quads. If you have heavy dumbbells, you can do this workout at home or at the gym if you don’t.

farmer's carry
The farmer’s carry works grip strength, the entire posterior chain, quads & abs.

How to do it: Grab two heavy dumbbells and hold them at each side. Keep a firm overhand grip throughout the exercise. Engage your core and keep your back straight. Look straight ahead and don’t let the dumbbells swing. Walk from one end of the room to the other. Turn, and then walk back to the starting point. That is one rep. Continue until you complete the suggested reps and sets.

Complete 5 – 8 reps and a total of two sets for this exercise. If you need to take a break, rest for 15 – 30 seconds between sets. To further challenge yourself, complete a third set to really strengthen your grip.

2. Hamstring Strength: Bulgarian Split Squats/Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats

To really work your hamstrings for peak muscle activation, try Bulgarian split squats. You’ll need a squat stand or bench for this one. You should always start these without any weights until you’ve got proper form down. Then, you can grab a dumbbell or kettlebell to hold in front of you to really activate those hamstrings.

Who this exercise is not for: Anyone who suffers from low back pain or has an anterior pelvic tilt. We don’t want you to injury yourself right out of the gate here. If you have either of these, then skip this exercise and opt for leg curls instead. They are just as good and reduce the risk of injury.

Bulgarian split squats
Bulgarian split squats

How to do it: Decide which foot you are going to start with. Place that foot with your shoelaces on the squat stand pad, or the bench pad. If you are using the dumbbell or kettlebell, hold it with both hands around the bell. The weight should be close to your chest with the top of the weight just under your chin. Hold the weight there while you are completing your reps. Engage your core and keep your back straight during the exercise. 

Once you are in position, bend your front knee until your back knee just touches the ground. This is your starting position. Rise up until your front knee is straight, pause and then proceed back down. Go until your back knee is almost touching the ground. Continue to complete your reps and then switch legs to complete your reps and that set.

Complete 6 – 8 reps per leg and a total of three sets. If needed, take up to a 30-second break between sets.

3. Back Strength: Dumbbell Row and Barbell Row

These two exercises will work your back to increase the strength needed for your deadlift program. You’ll also work your arms, shoulders, and chest as well.

bent over dumbbell row
The bent over dumbbell row mainly focuses on the upper back.

The dumbbell row will focus on your upper back while the barbell row will focus on your middle and lower back. Doing both of these exercises will increase strength and stability along the posterior chain.

barbell row
The barbell row focuses on the middle & upper back.

We’ve already covered these two exercise in other articles, so no need to provide instructions again. You can find the dumbbell row here and the barbell row here.

4. Lower Body Strength: Step Ups

This exercise is one you can easily do at home with a bench, step platform, blocks or a sturdy stool. You can also use blocks at the gym if needed. You’ll work your glutes, hamstrings, and quads while also giving your core a workout.

You can do these without any weights or you can choose to hold a dumbbell in each hand for an added challenge.

step ups
Step ups work work the glutes, hamstrings, and quad while engaging the core.

How to do it: Stand facing your chosen step platform. Pick a leg to start with and place it on the bench. Make sure your core is engaged and your back straight so that you don’t lean forward during the exercise. Using that leg, drive into the bench while pulling your body up so that you can place your other foot on the bench. Hold for a few seconds, keeping your core engaged and squeezing your glutes. Then, return back to the starting position, keeping the same foot on the bench you started with. Bring that foot down next to your other foot, and then put your other foot onto the bench to start the exercise again. Once finished, you’ve completed one rep.

step ups
If you are a beginner start doing step ups without weights then add them as you progress.

Complete 8 – 10 reps per leg for a total of three sets. If you can’t do three sets, do two and then work your way up. Start without any weights so that you can perfect your form and balance before you add weights. Take up to a 30-second break between sets if needed.

5. Balance and Stability: One Leg Exercises

To get the most out of your deadlift program, you need to have strength as well as good balance and stability. Here are a few one leg exercises you can do that really focus on gaining good balance.

These should be performed with a kettlebell but can also be done with a dumbbell. Don’t go too heavy on the weight for these exercises. You want to focus on your stability more so than lifting up a heavier weight. Pick a medium-size kettlebell instead.

Practice the exercise using bodyweight only at first until you are steady on one leg. This will reduce your risk of injury and falling. To maximize stability, hold your arm not bearing the weight out to your side if needed.

One Leg Press

Stand on one leg with the other pulled up and bent at the knee, creating a 90-degree angle. Hold the weight in the same hand as the bent leg. If using a kettlebell, make sure the bell is on the outside of your body. 

You will stand stationary throughout the exercise, only moving your arm holding the weight. The greatest challenge is to maintain your balance while completing your reps. Start with the weight at your shoulder, and press up until your arm is completely straight. Controlled and slow-motion throughout is key while engaging your core and keeping your back straight. This will help you be able to stand on one leg, then switch legs to complete your set.

Complete 6 – 8 reps per leg for a total of two sets. Take up to a 45-second break if needed between sets.

One Leg Front Push

This is almost the same exercise as the one leg press. The difference here is how you use the kettlebell. 

one leg front push
The one leg front push activates hamstrings, core, glutes, traps, & forearm muscles.

Stand on one leg while holding the bell with both hands at chest level. Push the kettlebell out from your chest until your arms are straight in a slow and controlled motion. Then, bring the bell back towards your chest. Continue until you’ve completed your reps and then switch to the other leg to finish the set.

Complete 8 – 10 reps per leg for two sets. If you need to rest between sets, try to keep it to 45-seconds max.

One Leg Overhead Walk

Another great stability exercise, this one looks easier than it is. Pick a kettlebell weight that is a little heavier than you’ve been using for these one leg exercises.

Slow and steady wins the race for the one leg overhead walk. Concentrate on the motions, speed should not be a factor for this one.

one leg overhead walk
the one leg overhead walk improves your strength, form, & stability.

Begin at a point where you can walk at least 20 steps forward. Stand tall with the kettlebell facing out in one hand. Raise the bell until your arm is straight and start with that leg to begin the exercise. Step forward by bringing your knee up to about a 90-degree angle. Once you’ve stepped down, pick up your other leg and repeat for at least 20 steps. It will almost look like you are riding an imaginary bicycle. Once you’ve reached the end, turn, switch the kettlebell to the other hand, and start over.

Complete at least 20 steps per side and do two full sets per side. Take a 45 – 60-second break if needed between sets.

6. Core Strength Exercises

Before starting any deadlift program, you have to make sure you have solid core strength. We’ve already showcased a few exercises that can help your core, but we wanted to offer a few more.

Strengthening your core is essential to ensure your form is correct for deadlifts.

Here is a list of seven great core stability exercises and how to do them. Most can be done with no equipment, but a BOSU ball and stability ball are featured. If you don’t have either of those, don’t worry, you can just do them without the equipment.

side plank
Side planks are a body-weight core strengthening exercise.

Repeat these strengthening exercises for a few weeks as needed for each muscle group. Giving yourself a strong foundation to start with will ensure success in your chosen deadlift program.

Now, let’s take a look at some deadlift programs to find one that’s right for you!

Candito Deadlift Program

There are a few features about the Candito Deadlift Program we really like:

  • It’s free! You can download the deadlift program right to your computer, tablet or phone in pdf form. 
  • There are different levels so you can start where you are. There is a beginner’s deadlift program, intermediate program, as well as an advanced program. Each deadlift program is either 6 weeks for the beginner and intermediate or 12 weeks for the advanced.
  • It’s not just a deadlift program. The pdf offers other features, including:
    • Getting into the right mindset
    • Three different templates to use, focusing on strength and control, power, and hypertrophy
    • Diet
    • Loading weights properly
    • Accessory exercises

The Candito program offers a 4-day setup per week to build greater muscle mass. When you are just starting out finding the best deadlift program for you, that might be too much. Start out with a 2 day a week deadlift program first if needed, and then build up to 4 days a week.

Strength Focus

When reviewing the program, we think it’s one of the best deadlift programs that you can get for free. And you’ll notice that the majority of the templates include other exercises, letting deadlifts be the strength focus.

The Candito program is a deadlift program offering different starting levels & more.

Even people who deadlift for competitions don’t actually do deadlifts every day, more like once or twice a week. They focus on other exercises to help them achieve a higher 1RM (rep max). The strength you build outside of deadlifting is what will ultimately increase your overall 1RM.

You really get a great overall program here. Not many programs are easily available online for free that offer as much information as the Candito program does. The ability to advance and progress within the same program is a great incentive to give this one a try.

Coan/Phillipi Deadlift Program

Powerlifter Ed Coan created this 10-week deadlift program for fellow powerlifter Mark Philippi. This program is also free and available for use, but the similarities to the Candito program end there. 

Ed Coan
Ed Coan performing a deadlift.

Here are some other ways Coan’s program differs from Candito’s:

  • This program is for intermediate or advanced lifters only
  • The program’s purpose is to increase lifters 1RM or get over a strength plateau
  • The reps are based on a percentage of your goal 1RM and change each week
  • You only do the program one day per week
  • There are no other features, just the outline of the program

You won’t find sumo deadlifts or deficit deadlifts in this program. In fact, the only deadlift included is the competition stiff-legged deadlift. There are a few other exercises designed to increase your 1RM, but no variations in exercises otherwise.

We consider this one of the best free deadlift programs for experienced lifters looking to increase their mass and strength. If you are looking to get into a competition or beat your previous rep max, consider this program.

Cal Poly Deadlift Program

This is another free deadlift program that helps you move past the strength plateau for rep max gains. The program has also shown successful for athletes needing to condition before getting back onto the field.

The Cal Poly deadlift program enhances performance & help you achieve rep max gains.

Here’s how it differs from the other two programs we’ve featured:

  • It’s an 8-week deadlift program
  • It features only deadlifts based on 1RM percentages with kettlebell swings at certain points in the program.
  • The program features a three day, Monday-Wednesday-Friday format
  • You should be doing only this program for the 8-weeks and no other exercises during that time frame. Stretching and mobility exercises are okay for warm-up.

We also like this as one of the best free deadlift programs for reconditioning and strength. It’s an easy one to do and there have been at least 50 athletes who have found success with it.

Final Thoughts

It’s important to have a really strong foundation – both mentally and physically – before you start deadlifting. Watching people who deadlift makes it look easy, even though it’s anything but.

Any deadlift program is a mental & physical challenge.

It takes time, perseverance, and dedication to become a powerlifter. If you plan to get into competitions, it will take months of hard work before you’ll be ready.

We hope that this article today gave you a solid starting point, no matter your goals. We’re excited for you to take this journey, and we’re here to support you along the way. 

Now’s the time to do some serious strength testing to get your pre deadlift program put together. Then, you’ll really be ready to get into the gym so you can crush your goals and your rep max!

Have you tried any of these deadlift programs? If not, which one would you choose and why? Are there any programs that you’ve tried with success you want to share with us? Let us know in the comments below!

Disclaimer: None of the individuals and/or companies mentioned necessarily endorse Old School Labs or COSIDLA Inc. products or the contents of this article. Any programs provided for illustration purposes only. Always consult with your personal trainer, nutritionist and physician before changing or starting any new exercise, nutrition, or supplementation program.
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