“He who gains a victory over other men is strong; but he who gains a victory over himself is all powerful.” –Lao Tzu
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a single weight-training movement that’s more “complete” than the deadlift. It’s not just an upper or lower back exercise, or a grip exercise, or a posterior chain exercise, or a core exercise; it’s an every thing exercise. To that end, it’s a must-have in any lifter, athlete, or weekend warrior’s training arsenal.” –Eric Cressey
In Part I we learned that Squats and Deadlifts should form the foundation of your work out routines because they are two of the most effective exercises for building muscle mass known to man.
They’re also two of the hardest!!! That’s why we also covered 9 tips to minimize your risk of injury. If you haven’t read Part I– you probably should!
Now, one thing that I must confess is that I am far from a squat and deadlift master. I’m not incredibly strong in either lift and will probably never be breaking any world records. On the other hand, I am getting stronger every day and am doing my best to practice what I preach by “leading from the front” as Zach Even-Esh likes say.
Remember, this blog is my brother’s and my journey to size, strength and living an awesome life as we learn from the strength coaches and other experts we recommend on the website. You and I are on the same path… so I guess that makes you pretty cool too!
Everything that I share here comes from my personal experience, years of research and my desire to apply and share what I’m learning with you (while continually improving and growing as a person.)
Respect for the Iron
When I first started doing squats…. Just lifting the empty bar was challenging for me. Those blessed with better genetics or an athletic background may scoff and laugh at this, however, something tells me that you might be able to relate or at the least- understand.
It’s not where you start that matters in this life… it’s where you end up… and even more importantly it’s what you are doing right NOW that will determine the outcome of your life! The present moment is your only true source of power.
So, when I first started squats and deads, my lower back would really hurt and my knees would get sore and ache. When I was young I thought this was because squats and deadlifts were bad for your knees and back, so I stopped doing them for a while. Many people still believe they are bad and will argue with you til the death over this.
However, as we learned in Part I, squats and deadlifts are very natural and primal movements that the human body was designed to do.
As I continued to learn and study the successful strength coaches, I realized that they are NOT bad for you at all. I was just doing them improperly. The reality is that they are actually good for you if done with proper form and treated with respect.
By proper form I mean using the correct technique and execution of the movement pattern. You could also include warming up adequately, progressively working up to heavier weights, and staying far away from failure under this as well.
By respect, I mean understanding that these are challenging exercises that DO have the potential to seriously injure you if done incorrectly. You must respect them and the weight.
Do not joke around and take them lightly or heave the weights around with bad form as if you’re invincible. You’re not!
As Henry Rollins wrote in his treatise to the Iron:
“Most injuries involving the Iron come from ego. I once spent a few weeks lifting weight that my body wasn’t ready for and spent a few months not picking up anything heavier than a fork. Try to lift what you’re not prepared to and the Iron will teach you a little lesson in restraint and self-control.”
Developing a Sexy Squat and Deadlift
Please take the time to learn the proper technique if you plan to integrate squats and deadlifts into your program. One thing I’ve learned is that bodybuilders sometimes use atrocious form. Not always, but sometimes.
For that reason I’ve found it best to learn proper form and technique for these major lifts from highly experienced powerlifters. Since their goal is to lift as much weight as possible, their ability to do so often comes down to flawless technique. Plus, the squat, deadlift and bench press are what they specialize in after all.
Two guys I really respect and have helped me a lot in this regard are Mike Robertson and Eric Cressey. These guys are basically geniuses and I highly recommend anything they put out (I own and use several of their products.)
Rather than try to explain the proper technique for these two lifts here, I think you’d be better served by reading a few articles by these guys. Mike has written several great articles on how to squat. Check out his 10 Tips for Flawless Squatting and his 6 Tricks for a Sexy Squat.
Eric is the master of deadlifting and has pulled over 650lbs at a bodyweight of 165lbs. That is incredible strength for that body weight! He wrote a three part article series that explains everything about the deadlift: Mastering the Deadlift Part I; Part II; Part III.
Be sure to read those, print them out and start mastering these lifts.
How to Work Up to a Top End Lift
After you have perfected your form you are ready to start moving some massive weights!
Well, “massive weight” is of course a relative term! Meaning whatever is reasonably heavy for you in a given rep range and that allows you to execute the lift with proper technique. Whether that is the empty bar, 95lbs, 315lbs, or 500+ lbs is completely up to your bad-assery!
The last thing you want to do, however, is load up a bunch of weight that you can’t handle and look like an idiot struggling with weights that are way beyond your lifting ability.
Not only does this make you look like a complete moron to anyone who has some real training experience, it also sets you up to fail dismally and most likely seriously injure yourself sooner rather than later.
As a man with an ego, you may be embarrassed or in denial by your need to start with lighter weight or even the empty bar- Especially when you see the big dudes lifting 4+ plates on each side.
What you may not understand is that everybody’s starting strength is different and this has a lot to do with your skeletal structure, limb length, and ratio of fast to slow twitch muscle fibers. Unfortunately, as ectomorphs and hardgainers…. We have gotten the shitty end of the stick once again. Whatcha gonna do, eh?
Lift smart and pay your dues! That’s the only thing you can do and that’s what this section is all about… how to intelligently work up to a top end lift.
Most guys give little thought to warming up properly. Instead, they just do one lighter set and then load the bar up with as much (often more) than they can handle and go to town. This is a bad idea and a less than ideal method for lifting heavy weights.
Progressions for working up to a top end lift vary from coach to coach. Below I’ll give you a couple methods that I like and use for my own routines.
NOTE: All of these examples assume you’ve already done your basic warm-up (foam rolling, stretching tight muscles, dynamic mobility exercises for your joints, some jump rope or light cardio to get the blood flowing.)
Beginner Workout Routines
A popular method for many beginners is to just do a couple warm up sets and then do straight sets across the board. Basically three warm up sets and then 3 sets of 95lbs. As the weight increases you should add in more warm-up sets.
Set 1: empty bar for 10 reps <= Warm-up set
Set 2: 65lbs for 5 reps <= Warm-up set
Set 3: 85lbs for 5 reps <= Warm-up set
Set 4: 95lbs for 5 reps <=== STRAIGHT SET
Set 5: 95lbs for 5 reps <=== STRAIGHT SET
Set 6: 95lbs for 5 reps <=== STRAIGHT SET
Intermediate Workout Routines
As an intermediate lifter you are not going to be lifting extremely heavy loads yet so you can get by with less working up sets. Also notice that the reps start to drop off as you are working up. This is to prevent fatigue and save your energy for the top end set. Let’s say you are doing a set of squats with a top end working weight of 175lbs for 5 reps and an optional back off set of 155-165lbs for 5 reps. You could do the following progression:
Set 1: empty bar for 10 reps <= Warm-up set
Set 2: 95lbs for 5 reps <= Warm-up set
Set 3: 115lbs for 5 reps <= Warm-up set
Set 4: 135lbs for 5 reps <= Working up set
Set 5: 155lbs for 3 reps <= Working up set
Set 6: 165lbs for 1 rep <= Working up set
Set 7: 175lbs for 5 reps <=== TOP END SET
Set 8: 165lbs for 5 reps <=== BACK-OFF SET
Advanced Workout Routines
As an advanced lifter you will need to add in extra warm-up sets before working your way up to a top end lift. For example say you are going to work up to a 5 rep max in squats with 315lbs (adjust the weight according to your strength level.) Do the following progression:
Set 1: the bar for 10 reps <= Warm-up set
Set 2: 95lbs for 5 reps <= Warm-up set
Set 3: 135lbs for 5 reps <= Warm-up set
Set 4: 185lbs for 5 reps <= Warm-up set
Set 5: 225lbs for 3 reps <= Working up set
Set 6: 255lbs for 2 reps <= Working up set
Set 7: 275lbs for 1 rep <= Working up set
Set 8: 295lbs for 1 rep <= Working up set
Set 9: 305lbs for 1 rep <= Working up set
Set 10: 315lbs for 5 reps <=== TOP END SET.
As you become more advanced and lift even heavier weights you might choose to add in even more warm up or work up sets sometimes beyond 12+ sets.
You can follow this same progression to work up to a one max rep as well. In this scenario you would add 5-10 lbs and lift it for one rep. If you succeed, add another 5-10 lbs and lift it for one rep. Continue doing this until you determine your one rep max.
Use extreme caution here and limit how often you do test your max. Coach Jason Ferruggia only has his athletes test their max maybe 3-4 times a year because of the intensity and drain on the nervous system.
Wrapping Up Part II
As an ectomorph who desperately wants to overcome the hardgainer’s curse … YOU MUST add squats and deadlifts into your mass building workout routines! Period.
Yet with your smaller bones, joints, and overall thinner skeletal structure you must be careful about how you approach this. The key is to use your brain and train intelligently. Remove your ego from the equation and develop a profound respect for the iron.
Once you have some respect for that which can crush and destroy you (OR build you into a God amongst men)… spend some solid time working on proper form and integrate squats and deadlifts into your program using the progressions I’ve outlined above.
In Part III, we’re going to be covering several squat and deadlift variations that you can use to get started with, progress further and rotate in and out of your workout routines to prevent overuse injuries and boredom!
Rock on my brutha!
PS: If you want a great guide on how to incorporate squats and deadlifts into a solid workout routine designed specifically for hardgainers…. I highly recommend Jason Ferruggia’s Muscle Gaining Secrets. Jason is the man… that’s all I have to say!