Every gym has at least one of them (OK, more like 10 of them)—the people who want to improve a specific skill or movements so their answer is to practice that skill every single day.
I have a client—bless her heart—who was frustrated that her deadlift hadn’t improved in 12 months and proceeded to deadlift heavy every single time she came to the gym for six months. At the end of it all, her deadlift weight hadn’t increased, but frustration certainly had.
Here’s the thing: You can improve your squat without squatting and improve your deadlift without even deadlifting a barbell.
Awhile back, I interviewed Sam Dancer—a CrossFit Games athlete who famously pulled 655lb at the CrossFit Games in 2014. He revealed to me that he actually rarely deadlifts heavy in training. Most of his time is spent doing accessory work to be able to lift a heavy deadlift when he needs to.
In my experience as a coach, and as a former CrossFit Games athlete myself, I have found that whenever I find myself on a plateau—be it my squat or my deadlift—the best thing to do is take a break from focusing so closely on the movement itself and turn my attention to appropriate accessory work for six weeks—and then voilà, I magically PR when I return to the movement I want to improve.
I’m not alone. In the same interview, Dancer casually mentioned he pulled his then all-time best deadlift of 695lb without having deadlifted heavy for eight months.
In light of this, here are five accessory work exercises you can do (especially if your deadlift hasn’t improved in a while) to help improve your deadlift without even deadlifting with a barbell.
1. Hamstring Curls
There are a few variations of these. They can be done with a band, with a medicine ball, or with a physioball. Check out the video for a demonstration. These are also effective when done with a deliberately slow tempo.
- Try 3 sets of 20-25 reps.
2. Single-Leg Kettlebell Romanian Deadlifts
Single-leg RDLs are valuable for improving posterior chain strength and especially for improving single-leg glute strength and ironing out any left-right muscle imbalances you might have.
Focus on keeping a neutral back and a long torso and keep your hips square.
- Try 3 sets of 8 reps per leg as heavy as possible. Can you do 8 reps with 50 percent of your body weight?
3. Sled Pulls
Heavy sled pulls are an effective way to spend some serious time under tension and build strength pretty much everywhere in your lower body, including your glutes and hamstrings, calves, lower back, and your quads.
- Try 3 sets of a 30-meter sled pull as heavy as possible where you can maintain constant movement.
4. Hip Thrusts
Hip thrusts are especially beneficial because they allow you to really load up and get used to lifting a heavy. In fact, some people can even hip thrust more than they can deadlift, which goes a long way to prepare your nervous system and build your confidence when you return to deadlifting a heavy barbell.
5. Glute-Ham Raises
While glute-ham raises are a fairly challenging movement for most, you can make them easier by pushing your hands off a box at the bottom, sort of like a plyometric push-up.
Try to keep a perfectly neutral spine and avoid breaking at the hips throughout the movement.
Check out the video for two versions of these.
If your deadlift has hit a wall, don’t fret. Add the latter five pieces of accessory work to your training routine for six weeks and then return to the deadlift to see where you’re at.