“How Much Should I Deadlift?”

I train my lower body on Sundays and Wednesdays, with heavier bilateral work on Sundays and speed/rep work on Wednesdays.  This past Wednesday, some time during my clean grip reverse lunge and TRX Pike paired set, two recent high school graduates came in to workout.  They’re motivated and determined, and make an effort to head to ‘lift’ 6 days a week.  After a few quick arm circles and touch touches, one of them set up on the preacher curl bench, and the other sat down on the seated calve raise.  While my workout certainly did it’s part in boiling my blood, nothing makes my heart beat quicker than seeing well-intentioned people make simple but big mistakes.  I took a break from what I was doing and asked them what they were doing.

After a few seconds of bewilderment, one them replied ‘Well, we’re pairing upper body with lower body exercises so we can recover more.’  Awesome.  I like that, I understand it, I promote it, we all know that straight sets are time inefficient, and not the best idea for most people.  Increase the work density of your workout; I’m a fan.  Just not how they were doing it.

“Guys, that’s now you do it.”

“What do you mean?”

How many muscles do you work when you do a curl?  How many muscles do you work when you do a seated calve raise?  Without being a stickler for agonists and synergists, it’s one and one.  We three agreed on this, and then I asked them how many muscles you work when you squat, do push-ups, or chin-ups.  We didn’t actually count, but they realized it’s a hell of a lot more.  I was getting somewhere.  “Why don’t you try pairing a squat and a chin-up instead of two isolation exercises?  You’ll get a lot more work done, and you’ll get stronger in the process.”   Those words were like crack.  “Alright, what should we do?”

Now, it turns out that both kids have trap bar deadlifted before, and since I was reverse lunging in the only power rack at my gym, I had them do that instead.  They said they did “Chest and Tri’s” the day before, and wanted to come back the next day, so I told them to do lower body work and core work today.  The trap bar deadlift was paired with a stability ball plank (the TRX plank was too confusing), and they were in business.  Before beginning his 3rd set of trap bar deadlifts with 135, the taller of the two turned to me and uttered those magic words:

“How Much Should I Deadlift?”

My Oh My, where do we begin.  There was another trainer in the world who simply said ‘More than that’, which is a good start.  I looked at the two and said they should be deadlifting a lot more than they were, and that it should feel hard.  Makes sense in the situation, and they eventually went up to the mid-200’s, around 250lbs or so for sets of 10.  They were definitely trying harder, although I’m not quite sure how much I like sets of 10 on a deadlift.  By the time they were done pulling, I was ready for my finisher, so I asked them if they wanted to push/pull the Prowler with me.

I’d venture to say that they regretted saying ‘Yes’, because after the 5th or 6th set I was looked at like a conjurer of evil magic.  Their legs got stronger, they were involved in an interval style of training, and they achieved that coveted calve pump they were chasing when they walked in.  It’s also a safe bet to assume that they took nice naps when they got home, and will be repeating the process the next time they hit the gym.  If that be the case, then mischief managed.*

Reflecting back on this encounter, the question of  “How much should I deadlift?” was a vague but important one.  Some people want to know specific numbers to pull, or specific percentages of their body weight that they should be lifting, or just want to pull a certain weight for certain reps and move on to other exercises.  To me, it should just be heavier.  Sure, if you think ‘functional training’ is frou-frou balance ball stuff, you might say, “But Harold, heavy deadlifting isn’t functional!”

I’d argue that it is.  When done correctly, you’re developing systemic strength, reinforcing good posture, and developing strength throughout the posterior chain, which is dormant in our slouched and seated society.  You’ll teach your body how to transfer force through your ‘core’, and the simple act of picking up heavy shit will make you feel like you can do anything.  The deadlift is king; but how much should you pull?

Well, the world record is 1015lb, and Benedikt Magnusson made it look like it was speed weight.  While you may not have the genetics, training, or pharmaceuticals he has, let it put something in perspective; nothing you touch is heavy.  (Nothing that I touch is heavy either.  My personal record of 425 was heavy for me, sure, but it’s a feather for the big boys.)

I’d like to help put some numbers in perspective, so I hunted down the world records for raw, drug tested lifters.  This means that they don’t wear any supportive gear such as briefs of squat suits, and they have to pee in a cup after the meet.  Check out your weight class, and think about where you stand compared to the record.  Think it’s possible to train a little harder?  So do I.

These are the Men’s Records, which include the weight class of the lifter, the actual poundage of the lift, their name, country, and which year and federation they completed the lift in.

Class Lift Name Country Year Fed
123 562 Sergey Fedosienko Russia 2009 IPF
132 600 JD Carr USA 1988 USPF
148 690 Dan Austin USA 1987 IPF
165 672 Dave Ricks USA 1990 IPF
181 766 Ed Coan USA 1984 IPF
198 751 Robert Herring USA 9/2008 100%
220 859 Ed Coan USA 1993 IPF
242 804 John Kuc USA 1983 ADFPA
275 881 K Konstantinovs Latvia 2009 AWPC
308 939 K Konstantinovs Lativa 2009 AWPC
SHW 903 Mark Henry USA 1995 ADFPA

Here are the Women’s World Records, formatted the same exact way.

Class Lift Name Year Fed Country
97 319 Ana Santiago-Geitner 1999 WABDL Guatemala
105 330 Pam Meister 1980 USPF USA
114 365 Vicky Steenrod 1981 USPF USA
123 424 Vicky Steenrod 1984 USPF USA
132 455 Carrie Boudreau 1997 AAU USA
148 510 Judy Svercheck 2009 PRIDE USA
165 518 Taylor Stallings 04/29/11 APF USA
181 518 Taylor Stallings 2010 RUPC USA
198 479 Taylor Stallings 2009 RUPC USA
198+ 578 April Mathis 04/29/11 APF USA

That’s a strong group of people, don’t you think?  What’s more interesting than the big numbers coming out of the mens weight classes are the big numbers coming out of the smaller womens weight classes!  Who says that women can’t lift big weights?

Now, let’s get back to the question at hand, how much should you be deadlifting.  If you’re doing it with proper form, I think that a twice body weight deadlift could be considered strong for the normal population.  If you’re athletic or consider yourself fit, you should be looking towards large percentages of your body weight, maybe 2.5 or 3.  In that region, you’re definitely strong, and your body will certainly show it.  I’ll be there one day, but it’s going to take a few years.

In all honesty, it’s impossible to just prescribe specific weights or percentages to somebody to deadlift.  It depends on their body, their training age, even how they feel on any given day.  The important thing is making sure that you’re picking up weights that are challenging, and that you’re getting stronger as you track your progress.  When that happens, you know you’re doing it right.

The deadlift is a great exercise, when done correctly.  When you’re doing it properly and lifting appreciable weight, you’ll build full body strength that helps you perform better and look better.  If you need to ask the question, “How much should I deadlift?”,  then you’re probably not pulling your weight.  Put some pounds on the bar, push those hips back,  your chest tall, and let ‘er rip.


* Yes, I said it.  I’ve been watching the Harry Potter movies with my girlfriend to prepare for the new movie.  Yes, we’re seeing it at midnight.  Yes, I’m going to wear a Harry Potter T-Shirt.  I’ll wear it when I deadlift the next day.

5 Replies to ““How Much Should I Deadlift?””

  1. Wicked man. I love it when well-intentioned younger trainees are shown the way. Get a man to hamstring curl and he’ll keep his chicken legs. Teach a man to deadlift and he’ll be showing off the tree trunks in no time!

    1. Well said, Jon! It’s so true; It’s so much better to take the time to put a dumbbell or barbell in someones hands. I’d much rather take a 5-10 minute diversion from my workout and help someone out than watch them calve raise or leg press their way to frustration.

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