1, 2, 3, 5, 20, 30, 40, 50. These are all numbers that I like for the number of reps in a set of deadlifts.
Recently, I’ve developed somewhat of a double standard when it comes to deadlifting. I like traditional low rep sets in the single digits, and I’m starting to like high rep sets as well. This goes against most of what I’ve traditionally recommended, and because of the bad rap that bad deadlifts tend to get.
Before we discuss some new ideas, let’s get one thing straight: There are only a handful of reasons for deadlifting with a rounded spine, and so don’t let that be an excuse for your poor technique. If you’re picking a tipped school bus up off of children, do whatever the hell you need to in order to save them. If you’re picking up some weight in the gym because you want to be hotter or healthier, get your spine in order before you abuse it.
When we look at traditional prescriptions of sets and repetitions in resistance training, traditional wisdom has recommendations of 1-6 reps for strength, 8-12 reps for hypertrophy, and 12-20 reps for endurance. As we go more in-depth as to the rules of muscle recruitment, we’re starting to see developments in strength and size at rep ranges up to 30 reps per set. I’d be remiss to say that these include the stipulation that you’re at momentary muscular failure, and that you’re likely unable to perform any additional reps.
It’s relatively easy to set up a study or a training program using a series of machines that isolate movements or muscles and train the living crap out of them. Attempting the same with a free-weight exercise is a little bit more difficult, so we typically hear that it’s a bad idea. It’s a bad idea for researchers who need to isolate variables, and it’s a bad idea for meatheads that pick up weights with less-than-desirable spinal positions.
Before even attempting to address the inclusion of high-rep deadlifts, think about what one of your deadlifts looks like. One single damn rep. If it’s not something that you would post as your Facebook picture or use on Match.com, I’m not sure that it’s in your best interest to spend all that much time in that position. Move well, then move often.
Or in this case, move well, then move more.
Considering some of the things that can go wrong with deadlifting, including the negative impact on Drake’s career, I’d first recommend that we’re not going to failure. Missing deadlifts isn’t exactly fun, as it can beat up your brain and your body. I’m all for applying adequate stress to the human body, but we can be smarter about it.
Let’s reiterate: Make it sexy. Keep it sexy.
If your goal is strength development, hitting low rep, high intensity deadlifts is going to be a great option to build strength. If you’re pulling with good form that’s sustainable to your long-term health and movement quality, then pull your pants off. Wait, what? I mean, train that booty till you tear through those undeserving pants.
If you’d like to toil through some of the joys of higher rep deadlifts, let’s consider what could be the less egregious deadlifting variations: Romanian Deadlifts and HexBar Deadlifts. I’ve found that these can most help us follow our first two rules of deadlifting:
Make it sexy. Keep it sexy.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with conventional, sumo, or rack deadlifts for reps, but since these are sooooo ingrained as high intensity all-or-nothing sets, I’m not sure we’ll best be able to maintain desirable form. Let’s not worry about this issue sneaking up behind our back:
If exercise science typically addresses strength training and endurance training as two distinct and separate physical capacities, let’s create an almost as offensive reduction: High-rep deadlifts may combine the best of both worlds.
We’ve seen the proliferation of Peripheral Heart Training action tempered against our more recent understanding that maybe some traditional cardio isn’t the worst idea. I know, it’s shocking to those who like to lift and see a squat/push-up combo as the perfect way to get their cardio in. Nothing about these pairings is inherently wrong, but we should at least appreciate the difference between straining against weights and letting our heart pump.
The high-rep deadlifts that I’m considering aren’t for setting personal records. It’ll be a little bit silly if you come back in a week and say, “Gee goly, I set a 50 rep Hex Bar Deadlift PR!” Here’s a high-five, but that’s not what I meant.
Instead, let’s think about high-rep deadlifts for conditioning.
It’s blasphemy, I know. Hinging that many times under load? Right, except we do 100 swings in 10 minutes without batting an eye. That’s acceptable, until you load a bar with 25% of your max, pick it up twenty, thirty, or fifty times, and call it a double standard. I have a feeling that deadlifting with more weight, albeit at slower speeds, is giving us a similar effect.
An overlooked variable in many training systems is density. We often look at sets, reps, and load, but we miss density. For me, experimenting with high-rep sets is a way to create dense periods of work, perhaps moving slightly away from conditioning and slightly towards hypertrophy. It’s simply a hunch.
If the Kettlebell Swing allows you to lift weights faster, then the high-rep deadlift allows you to lift weights longer. Perhaps including some fatigue but not failure inducing sets is something that you haven’t been including in your training, and could very much be a stimulus you need to kick some booty.
Using high-rep deadlifts isn’t about setting a new PR, but about creating training density or work capacity. They’re mis-used in most settings, but by maintaining good form with a trap bar or Romanian deadlift, I believe there’s potential for a new challenge you’ve been missing.
High-rep deadlifts can be a bear of a challenge, and dangerous when done blindly. First move well, then move more. Make it sexy, then keep it sexy for the entire set. Use good technique as a limiter and explore your own work capacity. You can make those bears a little bit less scary.