How to Get The Most Beginner Gains: The Deadlift

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you’ve been running a novice program for several months now, progressing the loads session to session. Your squat started to slow down so you introduced a light squat day to your training week and things are moving along steadily. Your bench and overhead press are still progressing thanks to the use of your nifty fractional plates. But your deadlift set of 5, which you’ve been alternating every other workout with power cleans or Pendlay Rows, seems to have come to a screeching halt.

A conventional novice program might have you further decrease the frequency of your deadlifts, alternating with lighter posterior chain exercises such as chins, back extensions, or RDLs leading to one heavy set of deadlifts every 7-10 days. This should allow plenty of time for recovery, because after all, you’re sure that the reason you missed your deadlift on Friday is because you weren’t fully recovered from deadlifts on Monday. Right? An extra few days of recovery should be the ticket! But when you go to deadlift again, the weight you lifted for three reps last week doesn’t even go up for two. What gives?

What gives is that one heavy set of deadlifts every 7-10 days might be enough to drive progress for a young, athletic trainee who also happens to have a power clean, or Pendlay row, that is considerably heavy. BUT! This is not most people. Most people need more exposure to the deadlift than 1 time per every week-and-a-half, and further, there are many trainees who need, and can tolerate, a higher weekly volume of deadlifts in order to drive progress.

In the example in the opening paragraph, this hypothetical lifter assumed that their deadlift stalled due to lack of recovery. However, lack of recovery is rarely the primary cause of a stall. As a lifter becomes more advanced in their training, moving from a novice, to an advanced novice, to an intermediate lifter, more stress is necessary in order to cause an adaptation. Take for example the formation of a callus. If you apply just enough stress to the skin, in the form of friction, it thickens in response. Apply too much and the skin will tear or a blister will form. But what happens to your existing calluses if you stop applying stress regularly? The skin thins back out and the next time you lift, your skin is markedly irritated, it’s unable to withstand the stress from the bar and it hurts, tears, or a blister forms. Both are an example of an inappropriate amount of stress if you want to maintain a callus.

Another variable to consider for our hypothetical lifter is the weight of their power clean or row. For a trainee who can deadlift 405 lbs. for a set of 5, and power clean or row 225 lbs. for sets across, there will likely be sufficient stress to drive progress on the deadlift. For a lifter who deadlifts 185lbs. and power cleans 85 lbs. or rows 75 lbs., this isn’t be the case. Training the display of power has useful and meaningful implications for many athletes, so  we aren’t suggesting you throw in the towel on power cleans just because they are technically too challenging or less than 50% of your deadlift, but after the novice phase, you may want to reconsider the exercise you choose for your lighter deadlift workouts depending on your goals.

Below we provide a 3-phase deadlift program for the trainee who has stopped seeing progress on their deadlift based on the scenario considered earlier in this article. This program is designed to reduce or eliminate training failures, prevent resets, and keep you getting stronger without any setbacks. The PRS transitional deadlift program is written in consideration of a traditional 3-day novice training program with a 3-lift format per session that begins with the back squat, moves on to the bench press or overhead press, and concludes with a deadlift variant.

The following flow chart shows how to progress your deadlift using a starting rep scheme of either 1 set of 5 or 3 sets of 5 across. Some trainees will alternate with power cleans as shown here, but others who are not appropriate or able to do power cleans may use Pendlay rows for 3 sets of 5 across or the Romanian deadlift for 3 sets of 8 across.

Transitioning from phase to phase is an important element of keeping your deadlift progress moving in the right direction, and identifying tell-tale signs it’s time to change something is key. We recommend utilizing Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) to help you identify transitional periods as you become more advanced. For a detailed explanation on how to familiarize yourself with RPE and implement it into training, check out this article.

During the initial phase of a beginner program you should be adding weight every session. Maybe you started with 10 lbs jumps for your deadlift for the first few weeks but now it’s getting much harder. You’re not ready to transition to phase 2 until you’ve exhausted your available incremental jumps and are nearing RPE 9 for more than 2-3 sessions in a row. You should get yourself a set of fractional plates so that if you’re a male you can drop your jumps from 10, to 5, to 2.5 lbs session to session and if your a female you may benefit from jumping as little as 1 lb per session. Implement progression drops when the RPE is around 8.5-9 for 3-4 sessions in a row. When you’ve capped out your increments to as small as possible and the RPE has been at or slightly above 9 for 2-3 sessions in a row, you are now ready to transition to phase 2!

Phase 2 is quite simple and won’t last very long. For most people, phase 2 will last somewhere between 3 and 6 weeks. In this phase you’ll be breaking the set(s) of 5 into smaller rep sets. Continue taking the same incremental jump from session to session that you ended phase 1 with. At the onset of phase 2 you’ll notice your RPEs fall between 7.5 and 8.5 RPE. When all sets are RPE 9 or higher for 2-3 sessions you’re ready to transition to phase 3 to ward off missed reps and set backs.

Phase 3 allows you to continue pushing deadlift progress forward without physically and mentally burning out and without missing reps. You’ll continue progressing the top load with small increments from session to session but instead of doing sets across you’ll now be doing drop sets at a 10% load reduction. At the onset of phase 3 you’ll likely find that your top set is between RPE 8 and 9. When your top sets exceeds RPE 9 for 2-3 sessions in a row you are now officially ready for the 3rd transition and can consider yourself a true intermediate deadlifter.

The PRS Intro Intermediate Deadlift Program is a good fit for anyone who follows the 3-phase transition program outlined previously. Unlike the transition from Phase 1-3, you won’t be picking up where you left off after Phase 3. This program utilize RPE in the first week to establish your starting point for the program. Thereafter you’ll add some increment of weight each week to each day’s unique layout.  Generally speaking, 5 lb jumps from week to week is a good place to start for any trainee. As in the novice stage, you’ll drop to 2.5 lbs increments when 5 becomes too much to recover from or the sets become RPE 8.5-9 for 2-3 sessions.

The PRS program uses a Heavy, Light, Medium (HLM) layout throughout the week to provide enough volume, intensity and recovery so that progress can continue to be made weekly. Day 1 and Day 3 can be switched depending on the trainees preference and training situations. The order should be kept consistent once established in week 1.

Deadlift frequency should not drop to less than twice a week, but lighter deadlift variations such as power cleans, power snatches, RDLs, or Pendlay rows can be used on the light day. The exercise selected for the light pulling variation will depend on the lifter’s goals, preferences, or weak points. The rep range may vary from doubles and triples, to sets of 8 depending on the exercise. Power cleans and power snatches are typically programmed for sets of 2-3 reps, whereas Pendlay rows or RDLs are programmed for sets of 6-8 reps. The RPE for the light pull variation should not exceed RPE 8 on any set.

If training the main deadlift  2 time per week becomes too taxing then Paused DLs, Rack Pulls, or Stiff Leg Deadlifts can be substituted on either Day 1 or 3 at any point. Simply utilize the RPE prescription written in Week 1 to establish the starting point when there is an exercise change.

The PRS Intro Intermediate Deadlift Program can usually be followed for 8-12 weeks before a deload is needed. Taking note of how long your rest periods are and how high your RPEs are for working sets will provide good insight as to the timing of the deload. When rest periods exceed 5 minutes between sets AND the RPE is at or above 9 for the top set or more than half of the sets across on Day 1 or 3, it’s time for a deload! With this program we recommend to deload for 1 week if you’ve been running it for less than 8 weeks and to deload for 2 weeks if you’ve been running if for 9 or more weeks. The deload format can be found below.

After a deload this program can be run again beginning with “Week 1” to determine starting weights. Upon the second go with this you should be at a relatively higher start point than the first time and can likely run it again for about 2-3 weeks less than you did the first time. Of course, this is all relative based on your age, sex, body weight, genetic potential, and lifestyle. There will be some trainees who can run this program multiple times without needing much change and there will be others who need more stimulus change from run to run. Changes to this basic intermediate program are beyond the scope of this article.

So there you have it! Hopefully this article has provided insight on how to seamlessly transition from a novice, to an advanced novice, to an intermediate deadlift program for a novice trainee who’s deadlift stops progressing before their squat! For more information and help with individualized programming please visit this link!

Dr. Rori Alter is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, Strength and Nutrition Coach, Competitive Powerlifter, and the founder of Progressive Rehab & Strength, LLC., providing rehabilitation, coaching, programming and nutrition services for competitive and recreation strength athletes. She is a nationally ranked Powerlifter having placed 1st in the Arnold Classic Sling-Shot Pro American 2017 (72kg Women Open), 4th in the USA Powerlifting Raw National Championship 2016 &, 2017 (72kg Women Open), and placed 2nd at the International Powerlifting Federation's World Bench Press Championship in 2018.