You know the feeling. Blurred vision, shortness of breath, an ache so deep you feel it in your bones. It's the day after heavy Deadlifts and you feel like you've been hit by a bus.
Anyone who's tugged heavy weights knows the Deadlift can beat you up. Finding the right mix of volume (e.g., sets and reps) and intensity (e.g., percentage of 1-rep max) is a delicate balance. Push too hard and you beckon injury, but push too little and you don't get the gains. How do we straddle the line between too much and not enough?
Deadlift complexes–two to three Deadlift variations for multiple sets of low reps performed back-to-back–offer a solution for increased volume and time under tension while focusing on specific weak points.
The Rep Scheme
Finding the right combination of load, sets and reps is a challenge. For some, technique gets sloppy when they deadlift only once a week. That said, most people aren't technically sound enough to go heavy all the time or do lots of high-rep sets. Deadlift complexes hit the bull's eye between volume and intensity.
Three Deadlift variations for three reps is the most effective scheme for Deadlift complexes when extra volume is the goal. Nine reps per set is a lot by deadlifting standards, but by breaking them into three-rep chunks with varying difficulty among the variations, the complexes become more manageable and hone in on different aspects of the pull.
Triples (i.e., sets of three reps) work wonders for building strength, and stringing them together marries the benefits of strength, technique and hypertrophy.
Compound movements build tremendous strength, but they pose a problem when the target muscle group isn't the first to fatigue. Bench pressers battle with wimpy triceps that crap out before the chest, and squatters struggle with lower backs that tap out before their quads.
The solution? Pre-exhaustion. Fatigue one muscle to target another one more effectively, such as doing Dumbbell Flys before benching or Leg Extensions before squatting.
In the case of the Deadlift, my upper back gives out well before my lower body–a problem that carries over to the Squat and Olympic lifts. Do I want to strengthen my upper back? Absolutely. But do I want to neglect my legs? No way.
Start with a Deadlift exercise that's harder on the legs and move to others that are harder on the upper back. A pre-exhaust complex using conventional, Romanian and Snatch-Grip Deadlifts gives yours legs some extra love before zoning in on the upper back.
- A1. Conventional Deadlift – 3 reps
- A2. Romanian Deadlift – 3 reps
- A3. Snatch-grip Deadlift – 3 reps
To hit my legs effectively, I normally need more weight than my upper back can handle. But with the pre-exhaust complex, I can target the legs with extra volume before quickly switching to a more back-intensive variation.
Mechanical Drop Set Complex
Typically used as a sadistic way to finish off a muscle group with a skin-splitting pump, mechanical drop sets use increasingly easier Deadlift variations to allow us to continue the set after the point when technique would typically break down. For example:
- A1. Deficit Deadlift – 3 reps
- A2. Deadlift from Floor – 3 reps
- A3. Block Deadlift from Mid-Shin – 3 reps
Deficit Deadlifts require a low hip position and vertical torso, which are difficult to maintain during a high-rep set. By switching to a Deadlift from the Floor and eventually to a Block Deadlift (by rolling the bar onto plates or placing the bar on blocks after the last rep from the floor), we can keep deadlifting without worrying about continually hitting a difficult starting position. If your hips tend to sneak higher and your shoulders tend to droop forward as the set goes on, mechanical drop sets make it easier to keep good form while increasing time under tension.
When programming Deadlift complexes, you can't just add them on top of what you're already doing, especially if you're already deadlifting multiple times per week with high intensity. You'll need to swap them out for one of your heavier assistance exercises. Complexes work especially well as a supplemental exercise to a heavy movement or in place of a regular Deadlift. For example:
Max Effort Lower Body (Emphasis on moving maximal weight)
- A1. Back Squat – Work up to 5, 3 or 1RM
- B1. Mechanical Advantage Deadlift Complex – 2-3 sets of 3 reps with 60-70% of 1RM
- Deficit Deadlift - 3 reps
- Deadlift from Floor - 3 reps
- Block Deadlift from Mid-Shin - 3 reps
- C1. Glute/Ham Raises
- D1. Dumbbell Rows
- E1. Abs
Dynamic Effort Lower Body (Emphasis on moving lighter weight as fast as possible)
- A1. Speed Deadlifts – 8-10 sets of 1-2 reps with 60-80% of 1RM
- B1. Pre-Exhaust Deadlift Complex – 3 sets with 50-60% of 1RM
- Conventional Deadlift - 3 reps
- Romanian Deadlift - 3 reps
- Snatch-Grip Deadlift - 3 reps
- C1. Cable Pull-Throughs
- D1. Farmers Walks
- E1. Abs
COMPLEX PROBLEM, SIMPLE SOLUTION
Finding the right amount of Deadlift volume can be tricky for the recovery-challenged lifter. Complexes can help add extra volume for those who need extra technique practice but don't want to feel like they got hit by a Mack truck with multiple heavy Deadlift sessions per week.
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