***Disclaimer: this is an intense method of training, so be SAFE. Get the all clear from a medical professional before embarking on any fitness endeavour, and don’t sacrifice technique/your back for an extra rep***
When training, we progress by changing the weight, reps and sets - progressively making things harder, signalling to our bodies that it needs to grow and adapt.
The one variable that usually stays the same is the distance we move the weight - even when doing deficit or a partial range of movement, we keep this the same each time we train (deadlifting from a 2 inch block, rack pressing from the same height).
This makes sense, because adding more weight is cool. More reps is kinda cool, but not as frosty as extra weight on the bar.
But what happens if instead of increasing the weight and keeping the range of motion the same, we keep the weight the same and increase the distance we move? Can our bodies adapt to a heavier weight like this?
Progressive Movement Training seems to have answer.
(if you're not fussed about the history/how it works, feel free to skip these sections and dive right into the PUTTING INTO PRACTICE and TRAINING NOTES sections. I'll only be a little hurt.)
PAUL ANDERSON AND THE HOLES IN THE GROUND (history/how it works)
(I first read about Progressive Movement Training in “Beyond Bodybuilding” by Pavel Tsatsouline, which has way more info and history in it - I’ve jotted down a summary of it here but for more info go check out the book!)
Progressive movement was first used, or at least first documented, by 1950’s strongman Paul Anderson, who used it to build a raw 1,200 lb (544kg) squat - this was a reported training number, not in competition.
The dude was still mad strong, so stay with me here.
What he did was load up a huge weight (about 45kg on top of his max) onto pins that were about 4 inches below his lockout height, and then proceed to squat 2 sets of 20-25 reps.
As you can see the goal is not to do a max heavy single, it’s to get used to a heavy weight.
From there, he recommended dropping the height of the pins after 3 workouts by 3 inches, and aim to do 3 less reps - continue this every 3 workouts and you’ll eventually make it close to or be at the bottom. He said you may want to do smaller drops (dropping the height 1-2 inches) as this will be easier to adapt to.
Even if we’re not quite at the bottom of the movement, we’ll still be able to get a new PB as we’ve worked through our sticking point. There is a point on all lifts that we’ll struggle with more than the full range of movement - because in the full ROM we have some momentum to carry us through the sticking point, but with progressive movement we’ll be going from a dead stop form each height.
That’s great for squats, but what about the deadlift?
Enter Bob Peoples, who used this method to deadlift a reported 328kg at a bodyweight of 81kg (725lb at 178lb bodyweight), before big powerlifting belts, steroids or canvas underwear were around. He didn’t have any blocks or safety pins to put the bar on, so he dug a big hole in the ground and partial deadlifted from there. With safety pins in a rack you can put the pins in a lower position, with a hole in the ground you just fill it up a little each session until you’re back at ground level.
Seems straightforward enough, so how do we set it up? Preferably without a spade.
***The sciencey term for how Progressive Movement works is neurological carryover - in which the training effect is most effective at the angles (range of motion) used, but there is a transfer to other angles (about 15-20 degrees either side). This means training with a small range of movement will have an small effect on a slightly larger range of movement - then when we train at a slightly greater range of motion, this will carry over to an even greater range, and so on and so forth. This means even at greater ranges of motion, our body has some preparation from the previous week’s training, as it’s getting used to moving with the overload weight.***
SETTING UP, NO HOLES REQUIRED (set up)
Now the local gym will have a problem with us digging a hole in their floor, so we’ll use some blocks or boxes instead. If there are no blocks available, we could stack up other weight plates (just be careful not to damage them). The last option is to use the safety pins in the squat rack, because this will take the slack out of the bar and change the movement slightly. By deadlifting with the weighty ends on an elevated surface instead of the bar, we get a movement and forces that are more akin to lifting from the floor. By making the movement more specific (similar) to our objective (in this case, deadlift from the floor), we can be sure there will be greater carry over and thus greater gainZ.
*this is an example of the Law of Specificity - you won’t learn much Spanish by taking Chinese lessons*
The only thing we need to make sure of now is that we are increasing the range of motion by a standard amount, so that there’s no surprise jumps that give your body a fright. The easiest way to do this is to use blocks that are about 2 inches thick, so we can just remove one each week. If we’re using weight plates or rack safety pins, make sure you have a note of what plates you’ve used or how high the safety pins are set.
If there’s a big gap between the safety pins slots, you’ll need to find something to attach/sit on top of them to reduce the gap. If not, try spending and extra session or two at the same height, and try to get extra reps in to build some extra strength before making the jump down a spot.
PUTTING INTO PRACTICE (weight/reps/sets/progress)
Now we have our set up down, it’s time to pick a weight and ATTACK.
But first, some final points to consider before we start:
- This is INTENSE.
- You’re basically overloading the deadlift for many weeks in a row, so you’ll need to eat A LOT to recover. If you’re shredding or not keen to eat any more, I doubt you’ll be consuming enough to allow your body to recover well from each training session, which will increase the chance of injury, and reduce your progress.
- As we’re using supramaximal weight, I’d also recommend you wear a belt to help protect your lower back - safe technique is a must, but the belt will help on the reps you have to fight for.
- Don’t jump into this if you’re just coming out of a peaking cycle or deadlift heavy training - take a week or two to recover first if you are, to let your back recover and reduce the risk of injury. I’ve read that you shouldn’t try this type of training more than 2-3 times a year, and I agree. Switch your deadlift training to something a little less intense for a few weeks afterwards (maybe more volume or speed based) to let the structures of your back recover adequately.
- I deadlifted conventional (arms outside legs) for the duration, I have no idea if there’s difference in pulling sumo (arms inside legs) - I doubt it, but as long as you understand the principles you’ll be able to adapt as you go.
To summarise: BE SAFE. Don’t injure yourself just for a gym PB - take necessary precautions, and drop the bar if you feel your lower back getting out of position. We can get reps another day, but not if your vertebral discs shoot out your spine like frisbees.
Happy? Good. Time to pick a weight.
For squatting, Paul Anderson would do his max plus 45kg - but as we’ve seen this is over a longer period of time as the range of motion is increased every 3 sessions. I’m not saying this isn’t going to work for deadlift, but it’s not what I did.
Instead, by being a little more conservative in the initial weight, we can successfully drop the height each week and be done much quicker.
So instead of 45kg, I’d recommend starting with 10-20kg over your current max. The more conservative we are, the more likely we are to succeed, but we also need to challenge ourselves somewhat to stimulate the body more, so 2kg would be a little "meh".
Now, just before we go ahead and load up the weight, we’ll need to make sure we’re setting our blocks/boxes/plates/rack safeties to the correct height. With a weight on the bar (only a small amount - using plates the are about the same diameter as you’ll be using for the top heavy set) practice the lockout portion of the movement from the height you’ve set - you should only be moving about 2-3 inches at most, enough so that the weight is in the air but not much more.
Adjust until you’re moving through this tiny range, and once you’re happy it’s time to warm up.
The warm up should be no different to how you normally warm up for a heavy deadlift set - using full range of motion with the lighter weights to get the blood moving and the nerves and joints ready for action. Once you get into heavy territory, say 2 or 3 warm up sets away from the working overload weight, move the weight onto the blocks. Then continue your warm up - adding weight, doing reps from this tiny range - until you reach your overload weight.
Here, things will get gnarly.
Paul Anderson would do two sets of 20-25 reps for his squats, but for deadlift we’re going to go for one set, and as many reps as possible. This will let us go all out without having to worry about conserving energy for another set. If you’ve got wrist straps to help hold onto the bar, this is a good time to use them. If not, use chalk and hold fast.
For this first session we should easily get into double figures - so aim for at least 12. The more the better.
If we get less than 10 I’d say the weight may be a little too heavy, and we should drop it slightly. There are people who claim you can run this method in a linear manner right to the bottom (2 sets of 7 reps, next week 2 sets of 6 reps, etc etc), but I don’t think this gives your body enough stimulus, and in later weeks we’re going to hit some deadzone speed bumps (we’ll cover this later) so I don’t believe a strict linear approach to the reps is going to work here.
I could be wrong of course, and linear rep schemes work fine for you, but tbh I think you’ll be the minority in that case.
Once we’ve completed our first all out session - rejoice! That’s the overload done for this week!
And then despair, for it only gets harder from here.
The plan moving forward is to increase your range of movement each week, and continue to do as many reps as possible. This may be fine for a week or two, but sooner or later you’ll reach an awkward point - where the movement transitions from more leg dominant to more back dominant, and it’s just awkward to co-ordinate - and then a deadlifting dead zone - the point where it’s almost harder to lift from than deadlifting from the floor.
Everyone will be a little different due to individual biomechanics and technique, but this deadzone is usually near the bottom - because we’ve not got the momentum from the normal floor start, so we need to brute force the weight up from a dead stop, and through the sticking point, which is a little harder.
As such, the rep guide gets a little fuzzy when the bar is around/just below your knees and when you get to the deadzone. You’ll find the reps decrease each week - this is to be expected - but still aim to do AS MANY AS POSSIBLE. At the awkward point, get at least 4-6 reps, and when we’re getting to the final couple of sessions take what you can - at least one rep means we’re able to yank the weight through the deadzone without any initial momentum to help out, which bodes VERY WELL for the final from-the-floor day,
So if you can get at least one rep in from each height of the final weeks, you can definitely pull the weight form the floor.
This is what my reps looked like, using 220kg as my overload weight (15kg more than my last PB) and blocks that are about 2 inches thick:
Week 1 - 6 blocks - 13 reps
Week 2 - 5 blocks - 12 reps
Week 3 - 4 blocks - 5 reps (bar at knee)
Week 4 - 3 blocks - 4 reps (bar below knee)
Week 5 - 2 blocks - 1 and a half reps
Week 6 - 1 block - 1 rep
Week 7 - PB from the floor (1 rep. Much celebrating)
Due to differences in limb lengths, height and technical setup, you may have more or less sessions and might hit the at-knee and below-knee days sooner or later than I do. This is totally cool, as there’s no point trying to contort your body to fit my dimensions and progress landmarks. As long as you follow the principles of:
1. As many reps as possible
2. Increase the distance a little each week
You’ll be just fine. We can always redo sessions and try to get more reps if we have an off day, or we have to increase the distance too quickly due to equipment (such as large gaps between safety pins or only big boxes available). This version of the method should only take 6-8 weeks to complete, but longer is acceptable as long as you’re making some kind of progress each week (more reps, or a little extra distance).
MY TRAINING NOTES:
Week 3 was rough as this had the bar sitting just at my knees - this is an awkward position to lift from as it’s hard to balance the work between your legs and your back, so you may find yourself stiff legging the weight up or have the bar scrape up your thighs. This is part of the game, so try to be mindful of your technique and keep a good balance between leg/back work.
Or film it/get feedback from someone to see where you’re having difficulty.
I had a tendency to use my back and posterior chain way more than my legs in the later sessions - characterised by my legs straightening quickly and struggling to goodmorning/grind the bar up my thighs. To combat this, get the hips a little lower at the start and focus on leg pressing the world away while keeping the torso a little more upright. The first couple of sessions can be quite back dominant, so just make sure you don’t get into bad habits for the rest of the training block.
I found that 6 was the hardest, which is probably because it’s right at the deadlift deadzone - where there’s only our brute force available to pull the weight off the block. If you can get one or more reps here, then you’re golden. If you get none, don’t be too disheartened - this is the deadzone. As with any rubbish sessions, we can always try it again next time - or if you’re pushed for time, use a lighter weight so we’re still getting the full movement from this height using a heavy weight. It might not be as heavy as our goal, but it’s better than nothing.
In preparation for PB day - eat LOTS the day before so your body is jam packed with energy and ready for some mad gainZ. It’s also totally fine to have a wee deload or extra days recovery before the big day to ensure your body is fully recovered, especially if you’re training hard in other areas.
These are going to be a struggle, so you need to get hyped and get aggressive with the bar. A soft start isn’t going to cut it; you need to grip it and tear it from the earth like you’re going to throw it overhead. Even when it moves slow, keep your lower back in a secure position and fight to rise up and stand tall. If your technique breaks down badly and your back is at risk, just drop it.
Add a full range of motion speed deadlift day during the week - this will help you build more speed off the floor and train your muscles to activate a little quicker, meaning max force can be applied sooner. Just load up 40-60% of your one rep max, and perform 4-8 sets of 3 reps. Focus on being explosive, and moving the bar as fast as possible.
If you’re doing heavy squats, try to keep them on days that are far away from heavy deadlifts to let your lower back recover better (eg DO: heavy deadlifts on Sunday, heavy squat on Wednesday. NOT: deadlift Sunday, squat Monday - this is a recipe for a sore back and bad squat session).
BRACE! Take a huge breath, push your abs out and squeeze everything as hard as possible to make your torso a solid unit - this will help keep your back safe and make it easier to move the weight
Pavel Tsatsouline. 2005. Beyond Bodybuilding. New York: Dragon Door Publications