Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Deadlift Hot Fixes


Long time, no see. I’ve been putting a lot of effort into my training in the last year, trying to make something of it. In most cases, my training had shortcomings that were easily identifiable and fixed. While there’s nothing easy about training hard and consistently, there’s usually a reassurance present throughout the process; what you put in, you get back, and that alone makes it endurable, and sometimes even enjoyable.

For squats, I discovered that my reoccurring knee troubles were related to an inadequate warm-up routine, were I would do only two light warm-up sets and ramp up the weight way too fast. Contrary to all other movements, I found out that I needed 3-4 sets with a heavy enough load (50-60% of my first work set) before I was ready to squat heavy; otherwise, I’d get a dull ache in my right knee that would make squatting uncomfortable and impede my progress.

For bench, I concluded that bench pressing once a week wasn’t cutting it, if I was intent on bringing up my weakness, balancing my strength and win a competition here or there. The solution was to bench twice a week and incorporate paused bench pressing. 

Contrary to squats and deadlifts, where I was and still am making good progress on 1-2 work sets a week, I’ve found a much higher volume and frequency to be beneficial for pressing movements. I’d probably generalise that to the entire upper body, as I also train the bench press antagonists twice weekly.

These changes has added an easy 60-70 lbs on my squat and bench, and brought my work sets up to 450 and 315 respectively. But during the time when most this progress was made, my deadlift remained at a relative standstill; I did 585 x 10 in May, and then got stuck at 595 x 6-7 for the longest time. This was vexing to me, because I couldn’t make sense of it at first. Upon closer reflection, I eventually identified the issues, and pulled 605 x 11 a few days ago. 


After I pulled 585 x 10 in May, I wrongfully concluded that my performance was limited by the bar I was using, potentially combined with a weak grip. It was always my grip (left side, underhand) that gave out, not my back, and I blamed it on the worn-out Olympic barbell that I always used. It’s a solid piece of work, but the  knurling has been faded by the tides of time, sweat and chalk. 

It stands to reason that I would benefit from a newer bar with better knurling, I reasoned, and was ecstatic to see my prayers answered when the gym brought in a new set of bars. Even better, these ones seemed to have a clear and sharp kind of knurling that really allowed the bar to dig into your hands.

Many shitty sessions and torn calluses later, I concluded that I was wrong. Not only did this new bar aggravate the underlying issue with my grip giving out, it also tore up my hands to the point that I could only deadlift every other week, because the skin didn’t heal fast enough.

Back the old bar I went. 

Bad bar/good bar.


Clearly, my issues weren’t resolved by switching bars, and I started to look elsewhere. Namely, at chalk. There’s three things you need to know about chalk, both of which I’ve been ignorant of as of recently. 

Firstly, your chalk should be as dry as possible. There seems to be a difference between brands, with some chalk powders being harder and grainier than others, and that’s the ones you want to use. I couldn’t tell you which brands are better than others, but I know the difference when I feel it, and there was a marked difference between the stuff I’m using now, to the stuff I was using back then.

Secondly, bring your own chalk to the gym and keep it in a sealed plastic box or something similar. Minimise exposure to the air and don’t leave the box open longer than necessary. Under hot and humid conditions, such as the summer months, the powder will soak up humidity, turn “wetter” or softer, and gradually deteriorate in effectiveness. We have a chalk bowl at my gym and there’s a night and day difference between it and the one I keep in my box.

Thirdly, don’t overdo it with the chalk. Too much chalk will cover up the creases on your palms and fingers, and have the opposite effect, in my experience. If you ask me, the ideal way to apply chalk, is to rub it all around the part of the bar where you place your hands - all around it, not just on top. Then you apply it on your hands, carefully creating a thin and even film of chalk, reaching in between your fingers and across the whole of your palm. 

When deadlifting in the 8-10 rep range, I usually stop mid-set to re-chalk, and I sometimes do it between every third or fourth rep if needed. What I used to do, was to sloppily jam my hands into the chalk box and/or slather the bar with it - not good. What I do now, is a brief pause to apply it correctly.

This bit about chalk is a true case of the saying that “The devil is in the details.” In this game of diet and fitness, it rarely is, but sometimes, just sometimes, it truly is.


Finally, I wanted to touch on the last piece of the puzzle, which is directly related to the grip, rather than the type of externalities covered before. Having done no grip training whatsoever, it would be easy to presume that it’d be beneficial to add it in. While I don’t dispute that, I’ve seen tremendous benefits from the following mode of gripping the bar.  

It applies exclusively to the underhand grip, which is engaged by your weaker side (left hand for most folks). Hold your arm out and your palm up. Now, relax your arm, and you’ll find that the hand will rotate to the side. Keeping your palm up, requires a conscious effort on your part; it doesn’t just stay that way by itself, so you need to bend it to the left. 

By the same token, I’ve found that “bending” the bar to the left with my underhand grip, really helps keeping the bar in position. I’ve had no grip issues since adopting this mode of gripping, and applying the other “hotfixes” covered earlier.

That's all for now. Talk soon. (Serious)


My name is Martin Berkhan and I work as a nutritional consultant, magazine writer and personal trainer.

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