Pick up Heavy Stuff

By Jason Ferruggia

Arnold said the pump was the greatest feeling in the world. But I’m sure he’d agree that picking up heavy stuff is a close second.

It’s truly the essence of weight training. In the day and age of “functional” workouts many people have forgotten this. You can train on one leg or unstable surfaces and you can battle ropes or swing sledgehammers. But at the end of the day, when it comes to being truly functional and fit you have to be able to pick up heavy stuff.

In the early days of strength training there were no squat stands or bench presses. People picked up a barbell off the floor or they pressed it overhead (after picking it up from the floor).  The deadlift was the premier exercise for building size and strength, as it should be.

When you look back at old pictures of Arnold and Franco you always see them deadlifting. One of the reasons being that they both knew you can’t pack on serious amounts of muscle without them.

Nothing else will build thickness across the entire back, from your waist to your neck, like deadlifts will. The glutes, hamstrings and forearms will also get some serious stimulation from this primal movement. Not to mention the fact that it’s one of the top five greatest ab exercises you could possibly do.

Want mountainous traps?

Spinal erectors you could hold a notebook in?

A crushing vice grip?

And rock hard, strong and stable abs?

Then you gotta deadlift.

Getting Started

When incorporating the deadlift into your training for the first time you should modify the range of motion. As manly and hardcore as it might be for me to tell you to start out pulling from the floor it’d also be doing you a disservice. In 18 plus years in the fitness industry I’ve seen very few people who could deadlift perfectly from the floor the first time they tried. They usually end up rounding their lower backs, which is too risky and can lead to injuries.

A wiser approach is to start with partial range deadlifts while you give your body time to develop the necessary strength, hip mobility and hamstring flexibility to pull from the floor. From my experience this usually takes anywhere from 8-12 weeks with rank beginners.  

When Arnold had nothing to train with but a lone barbell and some plates he did the same thing… in his mom’s garden. He dug a hole and stood in it while deadlifting. The plates, of course, were resting on the ground outside of the hole. Each week he would sift some more dirt into the hole, thus increasing the range of motion. By doing this he slowly worked his way down to full range over the course of several weeks.

Since I don’t expect you to start excavating your backyard you can simply use a power rack. If you’re one of the few people lucky enough to have access to a Westside style rack with one inch hole spacing all the way to the floor you can follow Arnold’s plan and lower the pins each week or every other week.

Unfortunately, most racks in commercial gyms are junk and only have one or two holes below the knee (the Westside rack has 5-7), which are spaced 4-6 inches apart. This is far too big of a jump to make on a weekly basis since, as previously mentioned, you’re going to need 8-12 weeks to work your way to the floor.

Proper Technique

Set the bar on pins in a power rack at just above knee height. There is no one who can’t maintain a neutral spine from this position. Be sure the bar is touching your legs and your back is flat before you start the pull. Squeeze the bar as hard as you can, feeling the tension radiate up through your forearms, into your shoulders and across your entire upper body. Be sure to be drum tight before attempting to move the bar.  Take a deep breath and hold it in your belly than stand up by grinding the bar off the pins (never jerk the bar up), being sure to maintain a flat back throughout. Pause for a second at the top then push you hips back to start the descent. The bar should stay in contact with your thighs the entire way. Once it gets back down to the pins pause briefly before starting the next rep.

If the exercise is brand new to you do it twice per week with moderate weights for three sets of five. The deadlift is an exercise that you should stay further away from failure on than just about any other. That’s because it’s very stressful on the CNS and causes more overall systemic fatigue than any other exercise. So use a weight you could do for 8-10 reps with a gun to your head and do 5’s with it. It’s still going to be significantly more than you can do a bent over row with and will definitely build size and strength even though you’re not going all out to failure.

After a month, lower the pins so the bar is now just below your knee. Four weeks later move it to mid shin.

Stick with that height until you are confident in your ability to get all the way down without allowing your back to round over, at which point you can remove the pins and start the bar from the floor. During that time you should be working on hamstring flexibility and hip and ankle mobility in order to help you get down a little lower.

Again, if you have access to a Westside rack you can follow Arnold’s plan and move down a hole each week. If not, follow the progression listed above.

Advanced Considerations

As you get stronger and are able to pull more than 1.5 times your bodyweight you’ll want to reduce your frequency to once per week, as this lift is very demanding and harder to recover from than most exercises.

Since technique breaks down very easily on the deadlift I don’t recommend doing more than five reps on it unless you’re very advanced and have mastered your form.

Another great option is to perform 10-20 singles with anywhere from 60-80% of your one rep max, resting 30-60 seconds in between. This minimizes the repeated eccentric loading which can make deads a lot easier to recover from. It’s also an excellent method for athletes or anyone looking to develop explosive power and the ability to display it repeatedly with short breaks.

Other Ways to Pick Up Heavy Stuff

Due to differing body structures some people will never be able to pull a straight bar from the floor without some type of lumbar flexion, no matter how hard they try. That’s where the trap bar comes in handy. This is a specially designed bar with a diamond shaped center that you stand inside of. It changes your center of gravity and allows you to move your hands out to the side instead of having them in front of you. This position puts slightly more emphasis on the quads and takes some of the stress off of the lower back. It’s essentially a combination of a squat and deadlift that 99% of people can usually do perfectly within just a few workouts. If you have access to a trap bar I highly recommend giving it a try.

Before a lot of us even heard of weight training Arnold was competing in stone lifting contests in Munich. Most strongman competitions revolve around picking up some type of heavy object and putting it down, like Franco did the car in Pumping Iron. Since we’re not all lucky enough to have access to a fully equipped strongman gym I’ll list a couple ways you can incorporate some of these exercises into your program.

Keg Lifting- Go to a liquor store and buy an empty keg (sometimes they’ll even give you one for free) then fill it with sand or water. Now squat down in front of it and bear hug it as tightly as you can. Stand up and walk forwards 50-100 feet then put it down, being sure to use proper deadlift technique. This is a great finisher to do at the end of one of your lower body days once per week for 3-5 sets of 20-30 seconds duration.

Farmers Walks- Get a pair of heavy dumbbells or kettlebells, pick them up off the floor and walk forward 50-100 feet while maintaining perfectly upright posture and bracing your abs tightly. This exercise is excellent for developing stability in the ankles, knees and hips, all around strength and some pretty sizeable traps and forearms.  Like the keg bear hug walk, it’s a great finisher that should be done once per week for 3-5 sets of about 20-30 seconds duration.

Pumping, toning, circuit training, hopping, skipping and jumping is all well and good… but none of it compares to the feeling of picking up heavy stuff.

After a good workout of doing so I recommend throwing a few steaks on the grill, cracking a cold one, and popping in the Conan DVD. Now sit back and recite every word as you rejoice in your manliness.

Good luck.


Jason Ferruggia is the founder of Renegade Strength & Conditioning. He specializes in high performance mass development and has worked with over 700 clients during his 18-year career. Jason is the chief training adviser to Men’s Fitness Magazine and has been featured in and on LiveStrong, Muscle & Fitness, Men’s Health, CBS & ESPN radio.

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