How to Build a Bigger Deadlift with No Weights
The best exercise to build a bigger deadlift… is the deadlift. The Law of Specificity tells us so.
But that doesn’t mean it’s the only way to build a bigger deadlift.
And there’s a small group of exercises that have a huge amount of science behind them – exercises that can have a huge impact on your ability to lift heavy. Exercise that can help you build an incredibly strong posterior chain (the muscles of the back lower half of your body – the hamstrings, gluteals and lower back).
And they require no equipment, which is great news if you’re worrying about losing strength during COVID-19 gym closures. If you’re more worried about losing fitness, read this.
These exercises are the ‘Nordic Hamstring Lower’ family.
There are four members of this family which we prescribe to our clients who would benefit from more posterior chain strength. But before we get into the exercises themselves, let’s first explore the science of eccentric training, and the benefits not only for your deadlift, but also for general strength, performance and health.
Muscle Contraction Types:
When you lift weights, there are two main types of contractions your muscles can do. There are ‘concentric’ or ‘shortening’ contractions, where you are lifting a weight, and there are ‘eccentric’ or ‘lengthening’ contractions, where you a lower a weight.
Do a bicep curl. Now lower the weight slowly, fighting gravity as you do. That’s an eccentric contraction. Do a squat, but do the lowering part really slowly. That’s a slow eccentric, and working hard in the eccentric portion of a lift can make you really strong.
Benefits of Eccentric Training:
Eccentric training has wide reaching benefits to your health and body composition – with the benefits even broader than standard resistance training – so you may actually get more benefits than your usual exercise program.
The research is virtually unanimous in heaping praise on ‘eccentric’ training (sometimes called ‘negatives’). This style of training shows strength gains in excess of 10% over traditional methods, and results in great hypertrophy (muscle growth).
Not only are we able to generate more force after eccentric training, but we are also able to generate it over a greater variance in muscle lengths. Effectively, what this does is to make us stronger over a greater range of motion, increasing our muscles’ torque generating ability. Therefore, less sticking points in your deadlift, and less failures on heavy lifts.
Not only is eccentric training superior to regular strength training, but the use of accentuated eccentric loading delivers superior results to strength, power and hypertrophy (muscle size) over any other eccentric training method studied. Accentuated eccentric loading is a form of eccentric training where the load lowered is more than the load lifted. This adds positive stress on the body in the phase of the lift that will give us the most benefit.
Eccentric training has wide reaching benefits to your health and body composition – with the benefits even broader than standard resistance training.
Eccentric training results in stronger connective tissue (ligaments and tendons) and increased flexibility by changing the mechanics of a muscle (increasing the sarcomeres in series).
These changes in the mechanics and organisation of muscle fibres, also mean eccentric training is a great rehabilitation tool – not only to help promote the repair and recovery of soft tissue (particularly tendon) injury, but also to reduce the risk of future injury.
The Nordic Hamstring Lowers:
So this brings us to the four exercises we would recommend from the Nordic Hamstring Lower family.
Each of these is powerful in its’ ability to develop a strong posterior chain, even without added resistance. The four exercises are:
- Nordic Hamstring Lower with Hip Angle Fixed.
- Nordic Hamstring Lower with Knee Angle Fixed.
- Single Leg Nordic Hamstring Lower with Hip Angle Fixed.
- Single Leg Nordic Hamstring Lower with Knee Angle Fixed.
The key elements of these movements are:
- Movement speed: The eccentric (lowering) phase should be as slow as possible, and even when you can no longer lower slowly, there should be an intent to ‘put the handbrake’ on the ‘fall’.
- Concentric assistance: The true benefit of this movement lies in the eccentric lower. If you’re able to return to the starting position without assistance from your hands, you need to add weight to the lower until you reach the point where you can no longer return (complete the concentric phase) without assistance. This ensures the movement is accentuated eccentric training – the most effective version of eccentrics.
- Body position: Maintain a neutral spine. Often, we see this movement completed with a hyperextended lumbar spine (lower back), which changes the mechanics. Another common mistake (in the ‘knee angle fixed’ variants) is to ‘flex’ at the hip. You should be able to draw straight line through the knee, hip and shoulder.
As this is a strength exercise, the repetitions shouldn’t be high – with the research finding considerable (and long-term) benefits from just three sets of six repetitions. As with strength work however, the reduced reps mean intensity needs to be high. In the case of Nordic Lowers, the intensity comes from a very slow, controlled eccentric lower.
No barbell? No worries! Nordic hamstring lowers are the answer to maintaining (and perhaps even increasing) your deadlift strength.
Want some other strategies to increase strength with no weights? Check out The Ultimate Seven Strategy Guide to Getting Strong Without Equipment.
Dan Williams is the Director of Range of Motion. He has a Bachelor of Science (Exercise and Health Science) and a Postgraduate Bachelor of Exercise Rehabilitation Science from The University of Western Australia, with minors in Biomechanics and Sport Psychology. He has worked with many thousands of individuals along the full spectrum of health, and has coached at The CrossFit Games. He regularly presents to corporate and fitness industry groups and mentors Fitness Professionals.