How I got stronger

On July 17, 2010, I deadlifted 425 pounds, a new personal best. On April 22, 2011, I made two attempts to deadlift 435 pounds, and failed both. Then, on June 29, 2011 (nine weeks later), I deadlifted 453 pounds. Twice.

How did I get stronger in nine weeks than I had in the previous nine months?

The answer is short and deceptively simple: I lifted heavy weights.

Don’t get my wrong; between July ’10 and April ’11, I kept up my workouts, refined my technique, and even added a little lean body mass. But I didn’t often lift heavy.

Usually “heavy” is a subjective term, but in strength training, it has a more specific definition. For my purposes (building maximal strength), “heavy” means a weight that’s about 95–100% of my one-rep-max (1RM). With a 1RM of 425, I needed to regularly lift more than 403 in order to force my body to get stronger.

So, for nine weeks, I capped off all my deadlift work sets with one or two heavy pulls, usually between 405 and 415 pounds. I also began taking all my final work sets to technical failure, even if it meant squeezing out more reps than I was scheduled to do.

For instance, the week before my PR attempt, I maxed out a set at 418 and pulled a (relatively) whopping 8 reps, something I’d never done before. In fact, I only “needed” to hit a single rep to satisfy my program. But I kept on pulling and pulling until I reached technical failure and began to feel myself loose the lordosis (natural curve) in my lumbar spine. In fact, if you watch very carefully below, you can see it happen on the eighth rep.

Beginners can gain strength by lifting as little as 40% of their one-rep-max, but like any other pursuit, eventually the law of diminishing returns kicks in, and you have to work harder and harder to improve by a smaller and smaller margin.

The world’s top deadlifters work for years to add just a few pounds to their top lift; I added 28 pounds in nine weeks—so let that be a clue as to where I stand in comparison to them. In other words: I am not that strong. I have not yet come—not by a long shot—within striking distance of my absolute genetic potential. It’s a realization both very daunting and inspiring.

Now that I’m properly deloaded from my PR, I’m hitting the weights hard again, this time pulling heavy singles in the neighborhood of 420–430. Here we go again.

500 OR BUST.

Update: On November 7, 2011, I joined the 500 club with a 503 pull.

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