Love ‘em or hate ‘em, you know every routine needs ‘em. We’re talking about deadlifts….one of the “Big Three” exercises that always seem to leave you struggling to walk the next morning.
But, just how you add deadlifts to your routine will determine the results you see.
Table of Contents
- What are Deadlifts?
- 2 Quick Deadlift Tips
- How Many Sets of Deadlifts for Mass
- Deadlift Sets and Reps for Strength
- Deadlift Sets and Reps for Beginners
- Deadlift Reps for Hypertrophy
- Why Do Some Programs Have Only One Set of Deadlifts?
- Can You Deadlift 3 Times a Week?
- How Much Rest Should You Get Between Deadlift Sets?
- How Many Sets of Deadlifts Should You Do?
What are Deadlifts?
Deadlifts are often seen as the most important exercise for your entire body.
They’re known for improving strength in the lower body joints and muscles. In particular, they target the lower back, hamstrings, glutes, and quads.
Sure, this is great for building lower body muscle mass.
Stronger legs will keep your buddies from thinking that you skip leg day (even when you insist that you don’t). You may even be confident enough to finally wear shorts to the gym.
But by building the strength in these muscles, you can also help to improve your posture and balance as you get older.
Here’s a play-by-play for how to do this exercise.
- Begin with a barbell on the ground in front of you.
- Squat down so that you can grab onto the barbell with your palms facing toward you.
- Push off the ground with your feet while keeping your back straight.
- Stand upright and then begin lowering yourself back down.
2 Quick Deadlift Tips
1. Be Smart
It doesn’t matter who you’re trying to impress at the gym: Overloading the barbell with too many plates when you’re trying to deadlift is just asking for trouble.
The last thing you want to do is to blow out your back. Not only will this probably keep you sidelined for several days as you recover, but it can also cause a lasting back injury.
Plus, nobody else at the gym actually cares how much weight you can deadlift.
Being smart when you’re deadlifting can mean a few things, such as:
- Choosing a reasonable weight that you know you can lift
- Using pure strength instead of momentum to get the weight up
- Keeping your back straight from start to finish (no arching either way)
- Safely add and remove weights from the bar using a tool or wedge
At the end of the day, it’s better to deadlift a weight you know your back can handle than to push your body to its limits and cause an injury. The glory and bragging rights are simply not worth the risk.
And remember, using a weightlifting belt to improve your deadlift only works after you’ve built a solid strength foundation. Then, you can pick up a weightlifting belt with a single prong buckle or a lever belt like this and boost your numbers.
2. Add Some Variety
You can switch up your routine like clockwork every three months. But no matter how many new exercises you swap into your routine, you always end up stuck doing deadlifts.
It’s like you just can’t escape the damn exercise.
Luckily, you do have a few alternatives.
Here’s a list of exercises you can swap your deadlifts for if you’re looking to keep your workouts interesting or take it easy for the day.
- Sumo deadlift
- Trap bar deadlift
- Romanian deadlift
- Kettlebell deadlift
- Back extensions (lower back focus)
You should definitely stick to the old-school barbell deadlift (or even the trap bar deadlift) as often as possible. These versions will allow you to put up the most amount of weight and build true strength quickly.
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How Many Sets of Deadlifts for Mass
In most cases, 10 to 15 sets per week spread among 2 to 3 workouts will help to build mass.
For example, your routine might vary in intensity and look something like this:
- 5 sets at 50% 1RM on Monday
- 3 sets at 70% 1RM on Wednesday
- 2 sets at 90% 1RM on Friday.
Or, your routine might be part of a split where you do the same workouts several times per week. In that case, your deadlift routine might look like this:
- 5 sets at 65% 1RM on Tuesday
- 5 sets at 65% 1RM on Friday
Either way, you want to be sure that your 10 to 15 sets on the deadlift are divided among a few workouts per week and that you have at least 48 to 72 hours of rest between workouts.
10 to 15 sets for deadlifts in a single workout is entirely too much.
Deadlift Sets and Reps for Strength
Realistically, you can build strength with any rep range on the deadlift. But, if you really want to target maximal strength, aim for 1 to 8 reps per set.
Your approach will depend on the additional goals that you have.
For both strength and power, do 3 to 5 sets of 1 to 5 reps per workout.
For pure strength and a little muscle, do 3 to 5 sets of 6 to 8 reps per workout.
In total, you should be sticking to 10 to 15 sets per week for strength training as well.
Deadlift Sets and Reps for Beginners
Beginners are a whole different story when it comes to seeing gains and building mass. It seems like just looking at the barbell adds an extra 20 pounds to your PR on the deadlift.
The StrongLifts 5×5 program had the right idea.
Aim for 5 sets of 5 reps and do this workout once or twice per week.
This will help to push your body to its limits and shock your muscles into growth in just a few short weeks (or months). Plus, you don’t have to worry about burning yourself out or getting back into the gym before your muscles are ready.
If 5×5 seems a bit too intense, feel free to drop down to 3×8 at a lower weight and work your way up in terms of intensity.
Deadlift Reps for Hypertrophy
We all know why you’re here: You want to get big.
The general rule of thumb when it comes to hypertrophy is to stick to that coveted 8 to 12 rep range. Keep in mind that your lower back and leg muscles should feel nearly overloaded by the end of each 12-rep set (but, don’t train to failure).
You’ll probably be working at about 50-75% of your 1RM on the deadlift.
In total, you’ll be getting about 80 to 180 reps on the deadlift every week at the intermediate level. But, give your deadlift muscles the necessary time to ease into this rep range.
Why Do Some Programs Have Only One Set of Deadlifts?
In those newbie days of training, you can’t wait to knock out zillions of sets until your muscles shake and tears well up in your eyes (or, as we say, “sweating from the eyes”).
But programs like Starting Strength and StrongLifts tend to be a bit … disappointing for anyone hoping to spend hours in the gym and essentially crawl to the car.
The #1 complaint?
One — yes, one — set of heavy deadlifts per workout.
(To make matters worse, it’s five reps, and sometimes you’ll do another set later in the week.)
However, the seemingly flimsy logic makes sense from the noob’s perspective:
- With a 5-rep cap, you’re likely training within 87% of your 1RM anyway, which tends to be quite taxing on untrained muscles; any more than one set could feel like overkill.
- The workouts begin with 3–5 sets of squats, which could fatigue the lower-body muscles needed for the deadlift.
- Heavy deadlifts are ridiculously draining for beginners, both mentally and physically, recruiting nearly every major muscle group and putting you at risk for “neural fatigue.”
- Beginners often reach fatigue after just one heavy set; a study from 2013 found that one set of high-intensity weightlifting was just as effective as three sets for building strength.
If you’re a somewhat seasoned lifter, none of this really applies. Instead, split your deadlift training into 2–3 sessions, experiment with 50–90% of your 1RM, and try 10–15 total sets a week!
Can You Deadlift 3 Times a Week?
There’s nothing in the Swoly Bible that says you can’t deadlift three times a week. But then again, in theory, just about any weightlifting routine could work if you splice it together just right.
But does it deliver an edge that 1–2 sessions per week don’t?
The science says, “not quite.”
Deadlifts Are Demanding For Just About Every Muscle Group
If you’re following a traditional twice-a-week PPL routine, it’s definitely possible to schedule 48–72 hours of rest between deadlift sessions.
But, of course, there’s a catch.
Deadlifts aren’t a perfect fit in either pull or leg days; they recruit muscles from the trapezius and erector spinae to the quadriceps and glutes (and plenty of minor muscles in between!).
So let’s say you lump deadlift training into pull day. If leg day follows immediately after, your quads, hams, and glutes still won’t be fully recovered, and your performance might tumble.
The best-case scenario for deadlifting three days per week is via three full-body workouts!
Increasing Training Frequency Won’t Necessarily Improve Gains
The findings of a 2016 review revealed that a frequency of twice a week is ideal for building mass, signaling that three times per week could yield even greater gains with more research!
But it seems the trick is actually balancing volume and frequency!
After analyzing 25 previous studies, experts discovered that there’s an inverse relationship between training volume and frequency.
In layman’s terms?
If you bump up your frequency, dial back the volume. When you ramp up your single-workout intensity, cut back on the number of deadlift training sessions during the week.
Research suggests that both will nurture similar hypertrophy gains and eventually level out.
Deadlift three times per week if you prefer powerlifting and all-out lifts, stick to the low end of the hypertrophy rep range (6–8 reps), use fewer sets, and load up the bar a bit heavier.
How Much Rest Should You Get Between Deadlift Sets?
As is the answer for almost everything fitness-related, that depends! So the question is: are you training for pure strength, mass, power, endurance, or something in between?
The list below explains the results of a 2009 review published in Sports Medicine:
- If you’re training for absolute strength, 3–5 minutes of rest between sets is ideal for training at higher intensities and squeezing in more volume per workout.
- If you’re aiming for muscular power, the 3–5-minute zone is also ideal, particularly for a reliable 1RM estimate and safety.
- If you’re targeting muscular hypertrophy, 30–60 seconds of rest between sets can encourage mass-building and boosted growth hormone levels.
- If you’re focusing on muscular endurance, the 20–60-second rest zone can enhance repetition velocity.
As it turns out, your rest position might be just as important as your rest time. This theory stems from original research published back in 2016, investigating performance in the CrossFit world.
The findings suggest that passive rest, particularly a supine (lying face up) or seated position, can better manage your heart rate, respiratory rate, work rate, and recovery between heavy sets.
So that means 1–5 minutes of rest while seated or lying on your back is ideal while deadlifting!
How Many Sets of Deadlifts Should You Do?
Just how many sets and reps you do on the deadlift will depend on the type of gains you’re hoping for. Regardless, you should be aiming for about 10 to 15 sets per week.
The actual number of repetitions would be the key difference.
For strength, you want to focus on 3 to 5 sets of deadlifts per workout with 1 to 8 reps per set.
For mass, consider the 8 to 12 rep range to be the golden rule.
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