BY AMIR FAZELI Juggernaut
Niels Bohr said an expert is someone who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a narrow field. I am certainly not saying I am an expert, but I do think I have made a lot of mistakes and gone through a ton of frustration with my deadlift through the years since beginning powerlifting. Hopefully there are many more mistakes I can make in the future to work my way toward being an expert.
With that being said, I thought long and somewhat hard about some of the more significant training mistakes I made before I managed to find better, more effective ways to bring my deadlift up to a level I am satisfied with (but of course, never content). Genetics certainly played no part; I don’t consider myself “built” to deadlift. I had/have my fair share of injuries just like anyone else who pushes their body past its limits. Luck had also nothing to do with it. The right environment was a huge factor in training amongst my crew and clients at my gym, Adonis Athletics, which I am the owner of in Sydney, Australia.
There was a period of about 12-15 months where my deadlift was stuck at about 285kg/630lbs at a bodyweight of around 82kg/180lbs. Even though I had a fair few years of experience as a trainer and my background is a Master’s in Sport and Exercise Science specializing in Sports Performance, as a powerlifter, I was intermediate at best. To fill the void, I was always reading up on different training methodologies, talking to lifters and coaches from around the world, and experimenting with different concepts, but always with a theory as to why a certain type of program would or would not work. I would always look for patterns and principles.
Through my endless experimentation, I seemed to take one step forward but two steps back for those 12 or so months. Nothing would work, and some fellow lifters told me I had hit my ceiling – my genetic potential. I refused to believe it. I stopped for a second in time and looked back at the things that had gotten me to that level from when I started and began to analyze. When I finished analyzing, I began to apply. When I began to apply the same principles again, my deadlift was jump-started once again. From that point, my deadlift has pretty consistently improved, and as I refine those principles, it continues to do so even though I am much stronger and still at around 180lbs when I compete. My best pull in competition to date is 310kg/682lbs, and just a couple of weeks ago, I very narrowly missed the world record of 316kg/695lbs.
The following is a list of what I believe were the mistakes I made along the way and what I learned. Some or all of them may also be applicable to you if you feel your deadlift is stagnant.
NOT ENOUGH VOLUME
This one is pretty simple; I wasn’t deadlifting enough. I wasn’t moving enough weight: too few sets, too few reps (or too many in some cases), and not the appropriate intensity where it counted. I believe, for me, even adjusting frequency to correcting volume over the week is not as effective as the amount of volume I need to do per session. I have now figured out how much volume I need to do per session and what works for me. I simply wasn’t doing this amount before. At Adonis Athletics, the coaches also apply the same principle to our lifters, and through the extensive work we do with so many lifters, we know (at least roughly) how much volume there needs to be for every different lifter of a particular experience level.
TOO MANY VARIATIONS
This was one of the more stupid mistakes I made initially. I went through a patch in which I believed (for some reason) that adding in more variety of exercises resembling the deadlift would help my deadlift. Sure, a couple of variations that address the particular weakness a person has in their deadlift form or force curve will certainly help. But throwing too many variations in the pot just results in no direction – no change. I believe most people have, at most, maybe three different variations of the deadlift which should address their issue. That issue will be resolved, and then another problem might be addressed with another set of 2-3 variations. Even then, the variations don’t drift too far from the original lift – so no freaking reverse band deadlifts with chains with a deficit snatch grip. Do you even specificity, bro?
OVERESTIMATING THE POWER OF ACCESSORIES
For some reason, GHRs were the talk of the town when I was going through my plateau. They were the answer to everything. Your squat is stuck? GHRs, bro. Need to build better hamstrings? GHRs. Your foot is broken? GHRs now. Oh, you got cancer? Gimme a G. Gimme a H. Gimme an R. So away I went – GHRing like a 1970s Soviet weightlifter. Narrow stance. Wide stance. Pad forward. Pad just above the knees. Oh boy, did I get good at GHRs. I even figured out how to not get your balls crushed on the ones where the pads don’t have a gap in the middle. Guess what?! Pretty much no carryover to the deadlift.
Are accessories important? Hell yeah! Are they the missing link? Hell no! They are just that – accessories. They will help iron out weaknesses, add muscle, and give you a good overall structure so your body can produce force and withstand force. But they aren’t going to make you good at a specific lift by themselves. Not if you are not a beginner, anyway. The higher up the pyramid of your sport you climb in regards to experience level, the more specific you need to be with your exercise choices and application of time.
ADOPTING TECHNIQUES THAT WEREN’T RIGHT FOR PROPORTIONS AND STRENGTHS
At the 2012 World Championships, I decided to adopt a super wide stance. In the lead-up to the competition, I was watching and analyzing a lot of videos of different deadlifts from lifters around the world, and I stumbled across the lifters from Chinese Taipei. Boy were they impressive. I admired their lifting ability and superior technique execution. Flawless was the word. Being younger and dumber, I decided it would be a great idea to adopt their super wide stance. If you haven’t seen them deadlift, you should – sumo stance with toes right out to the plates. I decided by doing what they do, then I could lift how they could … It was only logical. So what happened? On my 290kg/638lbs attempt, I lost balance at the top due to the nature of the stance and dropped the weight on my big toe … all of it.
Anyway, the point is: Figure out what stance and what variation of a stance is the right one for you, your build, and your strengths. The best way to do this is to get an experienced coach to watch and analyze your pull and give you feedback. Lifting is biomechanics; the aim is to determine the most effective biomechanics for your build and levers. Simple.
Since then, I have experimented with a lot of various stances and variations. I have now found one that gives me the most power according to my strengths and weaknesses and optimizes my lift.
MAXING OUT TOO OFTEN AND TESTING STRENGTH INSTEAD OF TRAINING STRENGTH
In this day and age of Internet gurus and the all mighty Google, this one is the most common amongst beginner lifters and is probably one of the leading causes for lack of progress, plateaus, and injuries. Imagine if you turned up to math class every day and the teacher gave you an exam. No actual classes, no actual teaching of math prior (not in any great detail, anyway). Just an exam, day after day after day. How much do you think you would progress in math after one, three or six months? If you answered barely any progress, you would be taking home the grand prize today!
The same concept applies to the deadlift (and any other lift for that matter). If you want to get better at it, you need to improve your ability to rep it. You need to work at it. You need to bust your ass. Multiple sets of 10s, 8s, 5s over the course of weeks and months. Setting and beating PRs in those numbers. Progressively increasing volume and intensity over time. These are the principles of training that have stood the test of time. You have to school yourself before you can test yourself.
To conclude, there are no secrets or shortcuts. Every lifter you see who can do what you find inspiring has obtained the ability to do it through years of training. Countless hours of perfect practice. Blood, sweat, tears, and near aneurysms.