top of page

Programming The Big 3

Today's article's by coach Joe Zambito. He does a great job breaking down the big three lifts (squat, bench and deadlift) and how to develop and program them.

In this section we will start to go over how to program the most commonly used exercises in almost every strength program, the squat, bench, and deadlift. Keep in mind, this will be as in depth as possible, but there are endless ways to program these lifts, and numerous supplemental and accessory movements that can be used to build these lifts. It will be up to you as the coach to figure out how to program these for the athlete, and to figure out which lifts get the most benefits for your athletes.

These three lifts will most commonly be used as your primary exercise in the workout that you plan. They are the most common primary exercise due to the massive amounts of muscle they use, and because of this lead to a high overall training effect. This training effect will be increased when performing these lifts early in the workout so as to reduce the amount of fatigue in the athlete. This will increase the amount of strength gains seen for the athlete, and this strength gain will increase the athletes potential to develop special-strength abilities and overall performance on the field. They can also be used to develop these special-strength qualities if technique has been developed. Primary lifts do not have to be limited to these three lifts, and these lifts can also be used as supplementary lifts if it fits into your program, but because they are so commonly used we will go over how to program them as much as we can. Their use will be determined by where they fit in your program, and what the athlete needs to excel at their sport.


The squat is commonly called the king of all exercises, and it has good reason to be. The squat recruits a massive amount of muscle in both the legs and the back. This leads to a very high hormonal response in the athlete which will let us build lots of muscle, and increase overall strength. The squat is also one of the fundamental movement patterns. This means that an athletes ability to squat properly will tell us a lot about how their joints function during movements, and about the athlete’s ability to absorb and produce forces with their lower half. Proper squatting technique should be a priority in all training programs. Factors like the training age, biological age, injury history, and goals of the athlete will all help determine what form of squatting you will have in their program.

When coaching the squat it is a good idea to start from the ground up. Too many coaches forget to look at the athlete’s feet while squatting and this leads to more technical breakdown up the chain then people realize. When looking at the feet, you need to make sure there are three points of contact on the ground in order to maximize stabilization. The three points are the heel, and then the balls of the feet by both the big toe and pinky toe. If any one of these three are not on the ground while squatting then power and strength will be lost. These three points of contact make up what is called the “tripod foot”. If the athlete is coming up on their toes then it may help to put a box behind them so they can learn to sit back more. They may also need to work on their ankle mobility so that their knees can go forward over their toes more. Commonly the athletes' big toes will pop up. One teaching technique that often fixes this is having them step on bands while squatting. Try to pull the bands out from under their feet, just with enough force to move the bands but not enough to rip the athlete off the ground, and this will bring awareness to what their toes are doing while they squat. Trying to just tell them to dig their toes into the ground might be enough to help them fix this. Another verbal cue that might work for the athlete would be to have them imagine like they are standing on a sheet of paper and they are trying to rip the paper without moving their feet. This will help them imagine what it is like to create tension from the ground up. This cue can also be effective if the athlete’s arch is collapsing due to poor foot stability. This arch breakdown can also cause more problems up the chain, so make sure to strengthen the athlete’s foot through activities like barefoot training so they have an easier time keeping this arch. Next, look at the athletes knees. We need to try and make sure that they stay in line with the toes as much as possible in order to minimize the twisting at the knee while under load. Telling the athlete to keep their knees out, or placing a resistance band around their knees to develop awareness when their knees come in and adding a resistance in order to push back against can both fix this problem. Knee collapse can happen through loss of tension at either the foot or the hips. If the hips are the problem, then teaching them to external rotate, “screwing” their feet into the ground, will develop torque at the hips and create more tension. This added tension will help the athlete lift more weight. A very common way an athlete will fail a heavy squat attempt will be because they cannot keep their chest up. While this is often a strength issue, and should be focused on during supplemental and accessory movements, cueing the beginner to keep their chest up will start to help them figure it out. It is common for a beginner to look down while they squat, but this will increase the chance of their chest falling forward. Having them focus on an object straight ahead or slightly up will allow them to keep this chest up position. Another reason why the athlete's chest dives forward is losing upper back tension and elbows flaring. The athlete should be cued to pull the bar down into them. This will tighten up the upper back and in turn help prevent them from dropping forwards. Telling them to “drive their elbows to the front of the room” often will help them create back tension so that they do not fall over. The athletes must also be taught to “build a shelf” with their upper back for the bar to rest on by squeezing their shoulder blades together. Commonly an athlete will complain about pain where the bar rests on their back. This “shelf” of muscle will help prevent the bar from being placed on the vertebrae in their neck. However, this will not fix this problem for every athlete, and if they have no upper back muscle to support the bar it does not matter how hard they squeeze their traps together. In this case, it will be up to you to determine if the barbell back squat is right for your athlete. They will get used to this discomfort over time. If the athlete does not have enough muscle mass to support the bar, or enough shoulder external rotation and thoracic extension in order to grab the bar, then it might be a good idea to choose a different squatting variation for the athlete.

While squatting should be in almost every program, this does not mean that every athlete needs to barbell back squat. Most athletes who first walk into your gym will not have the proper awareness and control over their body, nor have enough muscle mass on their body to safely and effectively perform a barbell back squat. Remember, using the barbell is a privilege for the athlete, and it is something that they need to earn the right to use. Because of this, most athletes will start out with goblet box squats in order to develop the skill of squatting. This over time can progress to Zercher squats, front squats, and eventually back squats as long as proper technique is demonstrated. Younger athletes should also focus more on perfecting and overloading the squat pattern with goblet squats. Younger athletes tend to have very little movement awareness or strength, and goblet squats are a much safer and more effective option for them then barbell squats. When teaching squats, we have found it very helpful to use a box to teach the athlete proper form. This allows for corrections to be made in the bottom position of the squat, allows the athlete to be more comfortable to sit back without falling over, and allows the coach to see if they can maintain and keep tension throughout the squat. After demonstrating proficiency in the box squat, the box can eventually be removed to further test the athletes skill. This is our preferred method to teach the squat, but it is up to your discretion as the coach to figure out if that will work best for your client. Tempos are a great tool to use when teaching a beginner squatter because it allows you to slow down the movement to focus on and fix technical issues. They can also be used for any variation of squatting that you chose in order to build skill.

The squat is a very versatile exercise because it can be used for almost every goal. It can be used to develop strength, special-strength, overall health, build muscle, and a great tool for developing mobility. There are also numerous variations of the squat that allow us to develop all areas of strength and athleticism. As mentioned before, mastering the goblet squat and even body weight squat variations will set the foundation for further progressions to be built off of. When the athlete has earned the right to use the barbell, whatever variation you are choosing to perform that day will generally be done as the primary movement of that workout. This will allow the athlete to perform at the highest level they can, and get the greatest training effect out of this movement. Squats can be used for all three ways to develop maximum muscle tension, the max effort method, repetitive effort method, and dynamic effort method. Younger athletes should stick to the repetitive method with squat variations that they are skilled enough to perform. This will allow them more practice at developing the skill of squatting, and build more muscle which every young athlete needs. Even more advanced athletes can use the repetition effort method if they need to build muscle, or are just trying to get in more volume of strength work. This will be done by programming a certain number of sets each for a certain number of reps that the athlete needs to complete. For example, a 5x5 program uses the repetition method. These sets can be programmed using a certain percent of the athletes one rep max, having the athlete use RPE or RIR, or by judgement of the coach on what weight to use. The point of the repetition method is to build the overall work-load from week to week for the athlete in order to better prepare them for higher intensity work in the future and build muscle. This method will also specifically develop an athlete's strength-endurance ability since they need to be able to complete each set with the determined amount of weight. Athletes with a couple years of training under their belt can begin to use both the max effort method and dynamic effort method if deemed appropriate by the coach. These two methods place more emphasis on the outputs by the neurological system, and the amount of force the athlete can exert by either a high mass or a high acceleration. The maximum effort method is done by building up to the heaviest weight an athlete can move for that variation on that day for one rep. It can also be done by performing max effort overcoming isometrics for a specific time period for multiple sets. The dynamic effort method is done when an athlete takes a certain percentage of their one rep max, generally between 50-75%, and tries to move the load as quickly as possible each rep. Oftentimes accommodating resistance is added to the lift to reduce the amount of decceleration. The dynamic effort method is normally done for numerous sets of low rep numbers in order to ensure quality and speed of movement. For example, 8-12 sets of 2 reps at 50 percent of your one rep max of that variation plus band tension. The max effort method is primarily used to develop maximum strength and strength-speed, while the dynamic effort method is used to develop speed-strength or explosive strength. Generally, squatting will place more emphasis on acceleration strength, but starting-strength can be emphasised if box squatting is used or deadstop squats are used. These two versions reduce the amount of elastic energy the athlete can use while performing the exercise, and this re-acceleration from a stop will promote the development of starting-strength. Both box squatting and deadstop squatting (having the bar rest of the safety pins at the bottom of each rep) use static overcome by dynamic contraction and relaxed overcome by dynamic contraction. Either the box or the safety pins are absorbing the weight of the bar/athlete and supporting them from falling. Because of this some muscles relax and some muscles are held under static isometric tension. The athlete then has to overcome these through dynamic muscle contraction. This is a great way to develop starting strength and explosive strength.

There are many different variations of squats to use in a program. As already mentioned, one can choose to free squat (performing any squat variation without the box or safety pins), box squat (athletes sit on a box at the bottom of a squat), or deadstop squat. Goblet squats can be done to a box or as a free squat, and can be done holding dumbbells, kettlebells, or other weight implements in front of you. If using the barbell, squats can be done in the Zercher position, front squat, high bar back squat, or low bar back squat positions. There are also numerous specialty bars that can be used for squatting including a safety squat bar, giant-cambered bar, transformer bar, buffalo bar, or even belt squat. These different bars and positions of the resistance will all change the joint angles of the athlete, and in turn place greater emphasis on certain muscle groups. For example, front squatting places a greater stress on the quads because of the more upright torso angle, and low bar back squatting will hit the glutes and hamstrings more because of the more bent over angle of the torso. Bands, chains, and weight releasers can all be added to a squat in order to provide accommodating resistance, overspeed eccentrics, or be used for contrast training. Tempos can also be added in any version of squats in order to place a greater emphasis on technique, create greater eccentric stress, or develop the athlete's ability to keep tension in the bottom portion of the squat. These can also be added to all of the squat bars that can be used. The athlete can also squat with their heels up on a slant board, or elevated some other way, in order to drive the athlete into more knee flexion. This can also be done for any squatting variation, and helps develop athletes mobility and increase the emphasis on quad strength. Squatting with the heels elevated can also be used if the athlete does not have good enough ankle mobility in order to squat. This elevation will allow the knees to track over the toes more and fix some technical problems just like the box would. Be sure to pick variations of the squat that fit into an athletes program, and fit the athletes needs.

Squatting is great to use in a pairing as part of a contrast training set. Contrast training in when you pair a heavy movement with an unloaded more explosive movement. The heavy movement excites the nervous system, and this allows the athlete to exert more force for the unloaded movement. A very effective contrast training pair are heavy squats and some sort of vertical jumping movement. These pairing work great because they are performed in similar planes of motion, this allows for greater transfer of power from the heavy squats into the jump. The squats should be performed heavy but not maximal, generally between 75 and 90 percent of the athletes one rep max for 1- 3 reps. This will be enough to excite the athlete, but should not be so heavy that they get fatigued from this effort. The athlete should try to put as much force as they can into the bar every rep and try to move the bar as fast as possible. Then the athlete should rest 15-60 seconds, depending on what works best for the athlete, after the squats before the jumping exercise. Accommodating resistance can be added to the squats in order to reduce the amount of decceleration for each rep.

Programing Squat As Primary Movement Examples

  1. Repetition Method- High Bar Barbell Back Squat for 5x5 at 75% of athletes one rep max. Take 3-5 minutes between sets

  2. Maximum Effort Method- Working up to 1 rep max box squat plus an average band on each side. Rest as needed between sets.

  3. Dynamic Effort Method- 12x2 high bar back squats at 50% one rep max plus 2 chains each side. Rest 45-60 seconds between sets

  4. Repetition Method (Young Athlete)- 5x5 goblet squat to box with 6 second eccentric each rep- work up in weight as long as technique is kept.

  5. Repetition Method w/ Tempo- 5x3 w/ 3 sec eccentric and 3 second pause at bottom. Use weight that the athlete can keep tempo with. Rest as needed.

  6. Max Effort Method- Build up to one rep max bottoms up deadstop front squat (bar starts on pins).

  7. Dynamic Effort Method- 8x2 safety squat bar squats at 50% one rep max plus an average band each side.

  8. Contrast Training (for power development)- 6x3 at 75% athletes one rep max barbell back squat - rest 30 seconds- 6x3 max effort box jumps. Rest 2-5 minutes between sets.

Movements To Build Squat

  1. Max/Dynamic/Repetitive Effort Method Squats

  2. Good Mornings

  3. Sled Pushes

  4. Bent Over Rows

  5. Pull-ups/ Chin-Ups

  6. Specialty Bar Squats

  7. Box Squats

  8. Tempo Squats

  9. Goblet Squats

  10. RDL

  11. Hip Thrusts

  12. Cable Pull Throughs

  13. Hamstring Curls

  14. Bulgarian Split Squats

  15. Glute-Ham Raises

  16. Reverse Hypers

  17. Sled Dragging

  18. Etc.


The bench is the meatheads favorite exercise. With that said, the right to barbell bench press must be earned just like it should be in the squat. While squatting is a fundamental movement pattern, and should be in some form or way in your program because of that, benching is not a fundamental movement. The fundamental movement category that it falls into would be pressing movements. However, there are many ways that an athlete can perform pressing movements in their program that are not the bench press, and for some athletes these other options might be the better call. Some athletes, mostly throwing athletes like baseball players or quarterbacks, need full range of motion and scapular control for their sport. Proper bench press technique does not allow for free movement and coordination between the scapula and humerus. Over time this can cause arm problems, so pressing motions that allow for more free motion in the shoulder blade, like pushups and landmine pressing, might be better options. This does not mean that benching should never be a priority in the program. It will depend on factors like the time of year, the athletes training age, and the athletes injury history. Just be sure you are doing what is best for the athlete.

If you chose to bench press in your program then proper progressions should still be taught in order to teach quality movement and proper technique. Many people say that your athletes should master the push up before they move on to bench pressing. This is because push ups fit the fundamental movement category of pressing, and they are a great exercise for mostly every athlete. They can be overloaded to develop upper body strength by adding chains or a weight vest, and can be used to build upper body muscle. However, you might train athletes who are younger or who are very weak and do not have the strength to press their own body weight. Dumbbell pressing is a great way to reduce the load enough to allow the athlete to demonstrate proper pressing technique, build some upper body muscle, and eventually have the ability to perform a proper push up. Now, you can also work toward a proper push up by inclining the athlete so that they are still working the push up motion, but with a reduced enough resistance that they can perform them properly. Both push ups and dumbbell pressing, either on the floor or eventually on the bench, should be developed before the athlete moves on to the bench press with a straight bar. When the athlete begins to work with a straight bar, the range of motion should gradually be increased throughout the program. At the athletes range of motion increases, the chances for technique breakdown increase as well. Limiting this range of motion early in the program will reduce the chance of this breakdown and therefore reduce the chance of injury. A good way to do this is start the athlete with floor pressing where the range of motion is inherently limited. Floor pressing also takes out the component of using leg drive when the athlete benches. This will reduce the amount of weight that the athlete can press, which is a good thing while the athlete learns proper technique, and gives them less they need to think about. Then, after the athlete moves to the bench, board presses or deadstop presses (where the bar rests on the safety pins) can be used to control the athletes range of motion. After demonstrating correct technique, the safety pins can be lowered closer to the chest, or less boards can be used on the board press.

The bench press is an exercise that is often performed without control or where skill is sacrificed in order to lift more weight. If you are training field athletes, then the actual weight that the bench does not matter as much as the adaptation you are trying to create by using the bench press. If this adaptation is going to be sacrificed in order to satisfy the athlete’s ego then you really are just wasting everyone's time. Along these lines are teaching the arch of the bench press. We generally do not teach a very excessive arch in the bench and have our athletes feet out flat on the ground out in front of them, or just slightly on their toes. This may take a couple pounds of the bench because of the increased range of motion, but it will not cause as much lower back discomfort and reduce the chance of possible injury to the low back while benching. In line with this, make sure the athlete keeps their butt on the bench while pressing. If they are lifting their hips up constantly during their sets what they are trying to do is turn a flat bench press into more of a decline press. This will allow them to lift more weight, but they are often getting this excessive arch in their low back which again could cause injury. This also demonstrates a loss of tension in the athlete which overtime, will reduce the amount of strength that they can express. Moving the athlete’s feet into a proper position can often fix the problem of their butt coming off the bench. Also, cuing the athlete to push out with their feet as opposed to down might help. The easiest way to fix this is to get the athlete to squeeze their butt while benching. This can also help get rid of some low back pain if it is still present without the arch in their low back. Some athletes have such tight and restricted hips that they cannot get their feet onto the floor without pain. If this happens, then their feet can be elevated with plates or mats in order to reduce the amount of hip extension they need to have their feet stable. This can also be done for shorter athletes to help them if their feet do not touch the floor. Athletes then need to be taught to keep their shoulder blades together and depressed, pulling them down into their back pocket, in order to maximize stability at the shoulder. Many times you will see a new bench presser loose their scapula position because they are thinking about pressing the weight. Because of this, their shoulder blades will slide apart as their shoulders protract. A que that might work for these athletes is to insead think about pushing themselves into the bench instead of pressing the bar away. This often helps keep the proper shoulder blade position. Another very common mistake is the flaring of the elbows. Over time, this can lead to some shoulder discomfort and injury. We want to keep the elbows stacked tight under the bar to minimize this possibility of damage. Two cues that often work are to “pull the bar apart'' or trying to”bend the bar”. Either one of these has the possibility of working, and might depend on how wide the athlete's grip is. An athlete with a wider grip might have a better time “pulling the bar apart” because trying to “bend the bar” might cause excessive rotation at the elbows which could lead to elbow pain. However, trying to bend the bar works more often with a closer grip because this will keep the elbows more directly underneath the bar without unwanted rotation at this joint. “Bending the bar” might also help a lifter learn how to engage their lats while they are benching in order to maximize their stability and reduce the chances of them flaring at the elbows. Find what works best. Make sure the athlete has a full and firm grip on the bar with their knuckles facing the ceiling. This tight squeeze on the bar increases the amount of muscle recruited and in turn, force that the athlete can exert. This happens through the Theory of Irradiation. The more neural drive an athlete can develop, a greater amount of electrical signal sent to your muscles by the nervous system in order to contract, leads to exponentially more force production when lifting. The grip width will depend on the athlete’s limb lengths, and what variation of bench press you are doing. Some athletes with a very long wingspan might always have trouble with a full range of motion bench press because of this farther distance to travel their shoulder will have to dump forward in order to touch their chest. This is called anterior humeral glide, and should try to be avoided while benching. If you cannot fix these athletes through technical training then an exercise other than normal benching might be a better idea such as barbell or dumbbell floor pressing, dumbbell bench press, or board presses.

Benching can be used on both max effort days and dynamic effort days after the athlete develops sound technique. So, just like with the squat, all types of special strengths can be developed from maximal strength to speed-strength. The bench is one of the best, and actually safest ways, for the upper body to strain under a heavy load to develop max strength or strength-endurance. This is because other maximal effort movements, like overhead pressing, can strain the lower back through excessive arching. While this arch is naturally a part of the bench press, excessive arching of the low back can be easily limited by moving the feet out forward and arching more through the upper back. If the athlete you are training is not a strength sport athlete, then the amount that they bench does not matter, and the quality of straining is more important. Do not sacrifice lumbar health for weight on the bar for field sport athletes. Instead, teach the athlete to arch with their upper back. This will be done through proper shoulder blade positioning, and thoracic spine mobility work. This will keep the athlete’s low back and shoulders healthier, and help them stay stable on the bench. The prime movers in the bench press, pecs, front delts, and mostly the triceps, are much smaller than the prime movers in the squat and the deadlift. First off, for most of your clients, this will make it easier to recover from a bench press session as opposed to a lower body session. The second factor that changes is the weights that are used for dynamic effort lifting. While the same percentages can be used as the squat and deadlift, 50-75 percent and adding accommodating resistance if you want, generally lighter weights will hit the sweet spot for power development with the bench. 30-40 percent of the athletes one rep max will be more effective at developing explosive strength of the bench press due to less muscle mass involved. The bench can also be used for repetition effort work to increase strength and build muscle mass for an athlete. The different bars and grip positions will change the emphasis the lift has on different muscles, and can be used to develop the athlete's weaknesses. For example, either close grip benching, or neutral grip benching, with a football bar, will place more emphasis on the triceps. A wider grip on a straight bar will place more stress on the pecs and anterior delt. Changing the angle of the bench can also change where the emphasis of the lift will be placed. Inclining the bench more will begin to shift the stress of the lift more to the anterior delts and upper pecs, while declining the bench will place more emphasis on the lower pecs. If muscle mass is the primary goal then the repetition method can be used. Look to increase the amount of work done from week to week in order to progress the athlete.

Many different bars and implements can be used to create a variety of stimuli for the bench press. Numerous different bars can be used to hit muscle groups differently from normal barbells, neutral grip bars, buffalo bars, axel bars etc. Fat gripz can also be added to the different bars to change up the grip. Another factor that is unique to the bench press is the actual angle at which the bench is at. The bench can be inclined, flat, or declined all of which will all hit muscle groups differently. Just like the squat, accommodating resistance can be added to better hit the athlete's natural strength curve, provide overspeed eccentrics (for bands), or provide stimulus for contrast training. All of these implements, plus other training techniques like tempos or the deadstop method, can be used and combined as the coach sees fit to develop the athletes athletic ability. The bench can also be used for upper body contrast training. Just like with lower body training, the athlete will use a certain percent of their one rep max, 75-90 for a guideline, rest about 15-60 seconds and then perform a quick movement. For the upper body, this fast explosive movement will be either a plyo pushup or a med ball throw. When the athlete performs the heavy movement, they are still trying to move the bar as quickly as possible. Floor pressing or deadstop bench presses can also be used for static or relaxed overcome by dynamic contraction work. Just like in the squat, the safety pins or the floor will support some of the weight of the bar and the athletes arms. This will allow certain muscles to relax and some so hold a static contraction. The athlete then needs to overcome the bar's inertia through dynamic contraction of their upper body, and this can develop explosive strength.

Programing Bench As Primary Movement Examples

  1. Repetition Method- 5x5 at 75% of the athletes one rep max. Rest as needed. Over the coming weeks work to 78.5% and 80% of one rep max.

  2. Max Effort Method- Work up to one rep max for athlete on deadstop barbell bench. Unrack the bar every rep and come to a total stop at bottom. Have safety pins set up one inch above the chest.

  3. Dynamic Effort- 9x3 at 30% one rep max plus 2 chains each side. Rest 45-60 seconds in between. Use three different grips. Change grips every 3 sets. Start with wide grip, then move to normal grip, end with close grip.

  4. Repetition Method (w/Tempo)- 3x6 with a 6 second eccentric each rep. Use weight that the athlete can properly perform tempo with. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets.

  5. Dynamic Effort Method (Contrast Training)- 10x2 with 50% athletes one rep max. Use weight releasers with extra 25lbs each side. Move the weight as fast as possible down and up. Rest as needed between sets.

  6. Max Effort Method + Backoff Sets- Work up to a one rep max for the day using football bar and a doubled up mini band each side. After that max is hit, perform 3x5 at 70% of whatever the max was for that day. Rest as needed between max effort attempts, and rest 2-3 minutes between backoff sets.

  7. Dynamic Effort Training (Contrast Training)- 5x3 at 80% of athletes one rep max. Rest 30 seconds before throw. After rest, perform med ball chest pass to floor for 3 reps. Rest 3-5 minutes between sets. Try and move the bar as fast as possible.

Movements To Build The Bench

  1. Max/Dynamic Effort/ Repetition Method Bench

  2. JM Presses

  3. Close Grip Bench

  4. Board Pressing

  5. Deadstop Bench

  6. Specialty Bar Bench

  7. Cable Tricep Extensions

  8. Skull Crushers

  9. Rolling Tricep Extensions

  10. Chin-Ups/Pull-ups

  11. Rows

  12. YTWs

  13. Band Pull Aparts

  14. Lateral Raises

  15. Pushups

  16. Facepulls

  17. Chaos Bench

  18. Sled Pressing

  19. Sled Tricep Extensions

  20. Overhead Tricep Extensions

  21. Etc.


Just like with the squat and bench, there are many different ways to perform the deadlift. These different variations and methods will be determined by what the athlete needs, and how well they handle certain movements and variations. While most athletes and clients should have some form of deadlift in their program for strength development, what is more important is making sure the fundamental movement pattern of the hip hinge is in everyones program. This will tell us if the athlete actually has the ability to load up their hips and posterior chain and actually use those muscles. So before an athlete starts to deadlift from the floor, they must be able to demonstrate the ability to properly hip hinge without load and while maintaining a neutral spine. Multiple drills can be used to teach this skill. Most often we use the three point hinge drill with a PVC pipe on their back. The athlete will maintain three points of contact on the spine, head, upper back, and low back/butt, while they shift their weight back by bending at the waist. A bench can be placed in front of their knees in order to keep them from translating forward and loading up their quads. While ultimately in a deadlift we want to get our quads involved in order to use more muscle and therefore lift more weight, while learning the hinging patterns we do not want the knees to come forward. This will happen because most people are not used to loading up their hips and hamstrings, and we want to constrain them enough at the beginning of the learning process so that they have to learn how to do this. While this drill is effective, it will not work for everyone. Other options to teach the hip hinge are toes elevated good morning, wall squats, or a band assisted hinge where the band is around the athlete's hips pulling them back. Use whatever works best for the athlete.

One reason why the athlete might not be able to hip hinge correctly is that their posterior chain is too weak to use. If this is the case, you should still properly teach them the movement pattern while on their feet through the above mentioned drills. However, you can still develop their posterior chain in tandem with teaching this skill. Even if the athlete struggles with hip hinging while on their feet, most athletes can still hip hinge with their backs on the floor doing a glute bridge or even a hip thrust with their backs on the bench. These along with other hamstring, glute, and low back exercises can be used to develop these muscles and make it easier for the athlete to hip hinge all while still practicing the skill on their feet without load. Do not load a movement that does not look right and that the athlete has not learned the basics of.

When the athlete does start to pick weights up off the floor, we start them off with a kettlebell deadlift before moving on to other bars. While this movement actually looks more like a squat than a deadlift, it still provided a solid base to further develop the ability to hing with load and pick an object off the ground. After that we move onto the trap bar. The trap bar also closely resembles a squatting pattern compared to a pure hing pattern, but we do have to properly hip hing to start the rep and get our posterior chain involved in order to lift the most weight. Again, the trap bar allows us to further advance the skill of hinging at the hips with load, but now we can really start to overload the movement and add weight on the bar and get a strength training effect out of it. While the trap bar is the next step in the progression of deadlifting, we will requarly cycle back to this exercise in order to develop strength for our athletes. After the trap bar we can begin to move onto a straight barbell. Generally we will teach the sumo deadlift to the athlete before we start to conventional deadlift with them. However, this will depend on the athlete's skill with hinging, leverages, and needs. The sumo deadlift will require more skill with the hip hinge then the trap bar deadlift will because the weight is now out in front of the athlete, as opposed to the athlete being “inside the weight” with the trap bar. However, the technique of the sumo deadlift still allows the athlete to stay more upright when compared to the conventional deadlift, which we use last in the progression of deadlifting. The conventional deadlift requires the athlete to be very competent with the hip hinging pattern. For most athletes, this will be because the weight is the farthest away from their center of mass. This will make it harder to keep a neutral spine during the deadlift. So make sure the athlete knows how to keep a neutral posture before progressing to this variation. Once the athlete demonstrates competency in this variation it can be used to develop a very strong back. Not only can the style of deadlifting be progressed, the range of motion on a deadlift can be reduced or progressed by elevating the bar with mats or safety pins on the squat rack. When the weights are on an elevated surface, either mats, weight lifting blocks, or other plates, it is called a block pull. When the bar is resting on safety pins in the squat rack this exercise is called a rack pull. While they will feel different for a more advanced lifter who is lifting more weight, for a teaching tool for a beginner they serve the same purpose of reducing the range of motion in order to ensure technique. The range of motion can also be increased in order to make the exercise more difficult. After the athlete has progressed to the floor, they can stand on plates in order to increase the pulling distance. This further challenges the skill of the athlete, and should only be used after they have shown competency in the movement at the floor.

Technique on the deadlift will really depend on what style of deadlift you are doing. There are a couple universal things to look for while teaching the deadlift. Just like the squat, we want to make sure that the feet stay planted on the ground the whole time. If we start to lose full contact with the ground then we will begin to lose power and strength. If performing either the trap bar or conventional deadlift, we want to try and screw our feet into the ground in order to create torque at our hips. This will increase the amount of glute activation we have for the lift and increase our ability to demonstrate our strength. Also just like in the squat, a band may be placed up around the knees in order to help the athlete feel this. Another cue that might help the athlete figure this out is to make them imagine like they are standing on a sheet of paper and, without moving their feet, trying to rip the sheet of paper. If done correctly then the athlete will feel a lot of tension on the outside of their hips. With the sumo deadlift, it often helps to think about driving the knees out as they come up in order to keep their knees over their toes. Cuing them to “touch the wall on each side of the room” with their knees will help them visualize what they need to do. With any variation of deadlift we want to make sure the back stays locked into place and most of the motion comes from the hips. This will mostly be done through teaching the proper hip hinging motions, and teaching the athlete to take the slack out of the bar. All bars have a little bit of bend in them, with deadlift specific bars having the most. You must teach the athlete to pull up on the bar, without actually lifting the weight off the floor, until this slack is pulled out. If there is 100 pounds on the bar, teach the athlete to pull with 95 pounds of force in order to lock in their back tension, and will make it more effective to use their legs throughout the lift. If they do not do this then the slack will be taken out of them. This is where we see athletes jerking at the elbows and back rounding because they were not taught to lock their back into place and maintain tension at the start of the lift. Once this tension is found, the athlete should be taught to leg press the floor away to maximize recruitment of the legs. Once the bar gets over the athlete’s knees the rep is finished by extending at the hips. Athletes often do not finish a deadlift rep and leave a slight arch in their back at the top of each rep. This technical flaw often gets worse when the athlete is performing warm up sets, or trying to move fast during their reps. Telling them to push their hips to the bar or to squeeze their butt at the top will help them finish each lift. If this is not enough then a band can be placed around their hips in order to help them feel proper hip extension. The band would be anchored to a rack behind them and it would be pulling the athlete back toward the rack. This tension will help the athlete extend against the band to feel what it is like to finish each rep. To return the bar to the floor, the athlete should hing at the hips until the weight is past their knees. Then they will squat the weight back down to the floor in order to keep a straight back for the remainder of the lift.

The most common specialty bar that is used when deadlifting would be the trap bar. After that there are cambered bars that allow the athlete to pull from different deficits and have slightly different grips which will change the training stimulus. However, the straight bar is the most commonly used bar to deadlift with, and the most common way to change the exercise is to change the range of motion at which the athlete is pulling from. While this can be used as a teaching tool, it can also be used for more advanced athletes to overload certain parts of the movement just like board pressing can be used to overload the triceps on bench presses. If the athlete has trouble locking out the weight then rack pulls can be used in order to isolate this portion of the lift to work on. If the athlete struggles right off the floor on a deadlift, then deficit deadlifts can be used to increase the range of motion. Athlete’s that get stuck on the floor have trouble overcoming the inertia of the weight. The deficit will teach the athlete to accelerate through their sticking point, which in this case is on the floor. Bands and chains can be added to any versions of these lifts as well to change the resistance throughout the movement. This accommodating resistance will also overload the top portion of the movement, and can be used to develop lockout strength for lifters that may have trouble finishing out the lift. Fat gripz can be added to the deadlift in order to really crush an athlete's grip. However, the athlete's grip can be developed by just deadlifting as heavy as possible with a double overhand grip. Most of the time you should stick to the double overhand grip to develop the athlete's grip strength and to reduce some imbalances that come along with a mixed grip, but it is up to you as the coach to decide what is best for your athlete.

The deadlift can be used for either max effort work, dynamic effort work, or for the repetition method. The same ideas apply for the deadlift and any of these strength methods as the squat and bench. There are a couple of special considerations when programming the deadlift on any of these days. One must take into consideration if you want to use either touch and go reps or reset after each rep. Both of these methods will develop special-strengths differently. Touch and go reps will develop the athletes strength-endurance more because it will see if the athlete has the ability to keep tension throughout the entire set. This style will be used mostly for the repetition method, but sometimes can be used for dynamic effort as well. Resetting after each rep will develop the athlete’s starting-strength since the bar will come to a complete stop after each rep and the athlete needs to reaccelerate the bar off the floor. This can be used for any of the methods above. If you are performing a max effort day then generally either a squat variation or a deadlift variation will be performed for the day due to the stress that either one of these movements will place on the neurological system. You would then move onto your supplemental movements and accessory movements for the rest of the workout. However, there are multiple examples of programming where both squats and deadlifts are performed on the same days for dynamic effort work, or even repetition method work. In most of these programs, the dynamic effort squats are performed first, followed by dynamic effort deadlifts. Dynamic effort deadlifts are commonly performed for single reps as fast as possible. This reduces the amount of fatigue that would build throughout the set, and still develops the most emphasised special-strength characteristics of deadlifts which is starting-strength. If performing the repetition method, then it will be up to you as the coach as to which one you will perform first in a workout. Deadlifting can be used for contrast training as well just like squats. Most commonly we use the trap bar as our heavy movement in the pairing because it closely resembles the joint angles the athlete would be using in a vertical jump or box jump, which would be used for the explosive movement in the pairing. Some will argue that deadlift will be a better pairing for contrast training than squatting because of the emphasis that places on starting-strength. Starting-strength ability is more closely correlated with speed of movement ability, and this speed of movement and rate of force production are more important than maximal strength at more advanced levels. Both have their place when using contrast training, and will depend on numerous factors in programming.

Programing Deadlift As Primary Movement

  1. Repetition Method-5x3+ at 80% athletes one rep max. Reset after each rep. Rest 3-5 minutes after each set. Last set is an AMRAP. Stop 1 rep shy of failure.

  2. Max Effort Method- Work up to a one rep max for the day on trap bar deadlift with 4 chains on bar. Rest as needed between sets.

  3. Dynamic Effort Method- 12x1 at 75% athletes one rep max. Rest 45 seconds between reps.

  4. Dynamic Effort Training (Contrast Training)- 8x3 Trap Bar deadlift 50% of athletes one rep max plus average band. Rest 30 seconds. Perform 2 reps vertical jumps. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets.

  5. Max Effort Method- Work up to a one rep max for the day deficit conventional deadlift (2” deficit) vs average band.

  6. Dynam Effort Training-15x1 at 60% athletes one rep max plus 4 chains. Rest 45-60 seconds between reps.

Movements That Build The Deadlift

  1. Repetition/ Max/ Dynamic Effort Deadlifts

  2. Rack Pulls

  3. Deficit Deadlifts

  4. Sumo Deadlifts

  5. Trap Bar Deadlifts

  6. Single Leg Deadlifts

  7. Stiff Legged Deadlifts

  8. RDL

  9. Lateral Sled Drags

  10. Sled Pushes

  11. Good Mornings

  12. Cable Pull Throughs

  13. Back Extensions

  14. Reverse Hypers

  15. Rows

  16. Pendlay Rows

  17. Hamstring Curls

  18. Glute Bridges

  19. Hip Thrusts

  20. Pull Ups/ Chin-ups

  21. Etc.

18 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Zone 2 Conditioning you should be doing!

Are you stacking wins in your favor every day? That’s wins that will make you healthier, happier, more successful (however you define it)? These wins are habits that you have intention to do everythin


bottom of page