Deadlift: When to increase weight
The simple rule is as long and steady as you can without failing. The increments of increasing weight are bigger for beginners and become smaller as a percentage of one repetition maximum the more the lifter matures. Microloading and deloading are concepts which work, but not well known or applied too late. This article will help you to understand better how to pick your increases. Beginners will start with 2.5kg to 5kg from an empty bar.
Why would you care about when to increase the weight?
Chances are when you are interested in the deadlift that you want to get stronger and/or build muscle. To continuously improve you need to increase the weight. The more weight you can pull for more repetitions the bigger and stronger you get.
While this is a simple basic concept you can not increase the weight indefinitely. Escalating the weight too rapidly can injure you. Your body has natural limitations. These are based on your fitness, age, and genetics. An injury will throw you back considerably. Training suboptimally also lets you progress slower than you could. This is why the question of when to increase your weight for the deadlift becomes relevant.
The longer and continuously you increase weight, the stronger you will become. The journey of strength is not about speed but consistency. Mastery and skill do not build in a rush. They are built with patience and consistency. This article will outline the basic principles on how to increase weight on the deadlift. You will learn about further programs you can do to get better.
Level of fitness
The first general concept to understand is your level of fitness. To keep it simple we will look at three levels of strength:
Beginners can increase the weight the quickest. Most programs for beginners have you deadlift once a week. The weight is increased by 2.5kg per week until you stall. Beginners usually get stronger from workout to workout. This is why their workload can increase more rapidly than for intermediates and experts. This works until you hit your first plateau. Depending on your fitness level and weight this will happen six to 18 months into your first program. Solid programs for beginners are Stronglifts 5x5 and Starting Strength.
Intermediates will have hit several plateaus on programs with linear progression. Therefore they will not improve from workout to workout anymore. They will also have mastered the basic patterns of the deadlift. At this stage, a change to a periodical program is due.
Intermediates usually improve from week to week or month to month. The weight for the deadlift will not be increased in a linear fashion anymore. Increases are being made as a calculation of actual performance in the gym and adjusted. Good programs for intermediates are Madcow 5x5, Wendler 531, the Texas method and Juggernaut. Intermediates can start to address weak points in their lifting by doing appropriate accessory work.
Experts will gear their training towards competition. The big difference to intermediates is that they train specifically for a peak event in the year. This adds clarity and complexity to how weight is increased. Expert programs are built in a pyramid that builds over 3 - 9 months to competition day. Weight increases per cycle from 60% - 95% of one repetition maximum. The last month before competition usually splits into two weeks of deload and two weeks of rest.
Overall weight is increased steadily and continuously for all three groups. The aim is to overreach slightly to make the body adapt. This concept is known as progressive overload. The more experienced a lifter gets, the bigger the stimulus has to be to make gains.
Dimensions of strength
If you are a beginner you might think one dimensional like I did. The most obvious dimension of strength is Intensity. This means how much weight is on the bar. To fast-track your knowledge about building strength in the deadlift here are more dimensions of strength:
- Volume – how many sets and reps you perform
- Intensity – how much weight you lift
- Frequency – how often you work out
- Time – how long you rest between sets
Volume means the total tonnage you have lifted during a workout. So let's say you perform 3 sets by 5 repetitions at 80kg on the deadlift. The total tonnage of this is
- 3x5x80kg= 1.200kg = 1.2T
If you increase the number of repetitions and sets you will have increased the weight for the workout. For Example:
- 4x6x80kg = 1.920kg = 1.92T
This means you have increased the weight of the session by 37.5% by only adding one set and one repetition per set. You have not added one plate to the bar and you still are stronger.
Intensity means how much weight you lift. It is best expressed as a percentage of your one repetition maximum. 50 - 60% are low intensities which are most suited for hypertrophy. 60% - 85% are the building blocks of most intermediate programs to progress strength. If you are not planning to compete in powerlifting or weightlifting you stay within this range. 85% to 95% is the area in which competitive lifters train occasionally to push themselves. The risk of injury grows exponentially along this scale. This is why you stay below 85% if you are not aiming to compete. Taking our example from before:
- 3x5x80kg= 1.200kg = 1.2T
- 3x5x85kg = 1.275kg = 1.275T
Beginners are often fixated on this dimension of strength. The overall impact on your system is an increase in the workload of only 6%. Compared with the example before you can see how you limit your options of increasing weight by only thinking about adding more plates to the bar. Beginners should consider both intensity and volume to make progress.
Frequency is the next dimension and is about how often you train per week. Most beginner programs will have you train three times a week. This is increased over time to four, five and sometimes even six times a week. Frequency has the biggest impact on overall tonnage. This is why it should be used with caution for beginners and experts. Beginners can get injured because they have not developed enough strength to cope. Experts have to be cautious because their limiting factors become the parts of the body that do not grow during strength training. Ligaments, tendons, and bones can only take so much. An expert can go through as much as 10 tons per session. Adding one unnecessary session bares to high a risk of injury at these levels. Intermediates usually do very well with an increase in frequency to get them through plateaus.
Time is the last dimension and relates to how long you rest between sets. This dimension cannot be expressed in tonnage. It adds time to the equation. This is most relevant to crossfitters and strongman. More weight lifted over a shorter amount of time helps in these competitions to win. Most programs prescribe 1 - 5 minutes of rest between sets. You can manipulate the time to lift by taking shorter rest periods. A good rule of thumb is to take more rest the higher the intensity of your workout. If intensity is low, take less rest.
This was a long detour for you on dimensions of strength. I just want you to avoid that you make the same mistakes which I did when I focused too much on INtensity in my first year and ended up with a tennis elbow.
How progression on the deadlift works
The following principles have been backed by science to work to make you stronger on the deadlift.
- Train heavy, get 3 to 9 reps
- Apply progressive overload
- 40 - 60 reps performed every 5 - 7 days
- Microloading 2.5, 1.5, 1.25kg, 1kg
The first principle is to train heavy. This means staying between 3 to 9 reps per set which is challenging. Most beginner programs go for five repetitions. This has proven to be a solid middle way for most programs which want to build muscle and strength.
Applying progressive overload means that you steadily increase the weight. There are many guys in the gym who do the same thing over and over and wonder why they do not get stronger or bigger. You have to increase on at least one of the dimensions mentioned before to get better. Beginners should usually add 2.5kg to 5kg per week on their deadlift until it gets challenging. Intermediates will work off a percentage of their maximum on a monthly or quarterly basis. Experts will tinker around their numbers to win a competition or to set a personal best.
Another way of approaching it is to perform 40 - 60 deadlifts every 5 - 7 days. This spreads out the workload. Most beginner programs stay below this number. Intermediates will do well to bump up the volume on the squat and deadlift to get stronger legs. I found that a good way of doing this is to do trap bar deadlift and front squats. Start the front squats with very low weight for ten reps and add 2.5kg a week like a beginner. I like trap bar deadlift because they help me to train proper form on pushing the floor away from me with my legs. At the same time, they are not as taxing on my lower back than conventional deadlifts.
If jumps of 5kg do not work anymore you can decrease the jumps. You increase weight by 2.5kg, 1.5kg, 1.25kg or even 1kg. For this, you need fractional plates. If your gym has fractional plates you know you have come to a place that takes strength serious.
Programs to increase weight for your deadlift
The best way to increase weight is to take most of the thinking out. Others have already written programs for you which have proven to work. Programs for beginners are
- Stronglifts 5x5
- Starting strength
Intermediates can work with
- Wendler 531
- Texas Method
- Madcow 5x5
- Juggernaut method
- Cube method
An expert will go for programs like
- The Bulgarian method
- Dedicated program
A program which you can very sparingly as an advanced intermediate is this:
- Frequency: twice per week (Monday and Thursday, for example).
- Exercise: deadlift or squat
- Rest: 2-3 minutes between each set of deadlifts
- Week 1: 2x6 with pins set 2-3 inches below lockout
- Week 2: 2x5 standing on plates
- Week 3: 3x4 with pins set to next lowest position
- Week 4: 2x3 standing on plates
- Week 5: 3x2 with pins set to next lowest position
- Week 6: test your 1RM at the end of the week
- Load: 110% of your full range of motion 1RM
- Only Three times a year with at least three months of rest in between
Beginners should increase the weight on the deadlift by 2.5 to 5kg workout per workout. Once progress stalls you can slow down the process through micro-loading or deloading. Intermediates will work with calculated one repetition maximums from their training history to determine increases. Experts will back plan from their desired performance on competition day.
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