I separate my workout days into four Core-Lift days:
2. Bench Press
4. Military Press (shoulder press)
They don’t have to be in that order necessarily, and access to equipment at the gym might dictate the order or even whether you have to do a compound day and complete two of these in one session. However, I do find that Deadlift and Squat should have a day in between and what better than to do that by splitting chest and shoulders too, as they are very sympathetic to each other.
Many people combine Deadlift and Squat in one session which I will also do in a pinch or if I’m feeling particularly good, but in the normal course of things I like to put my all into each one, and I can’t do that if I hit them in succession. The lower back, glutes and hamstrings are used heavily in a dead lift and I don’t feel I maximize my squat if I do it after (and vice-versa).
There is also the option of combining Squat with Bench or Military and the same with Deadlift. Again, this is a personal choice, but on a 4-day-week strength/growth cycle, it’s a perfect set-up to blast one a day and have 3 “rest” days (I’ll get to why that’s in “quotes” later).
This article is covering the Deadlift and accessory lifts for the back muscles. I combine these because the big strength lift is the Deadlift and it really works over the lower back amongst other things. Following that with middle-upper back exercises allows the whole area to be worked in the same session and keep warm and mobile during it too.
The Deadlift is a lift for strength in my opinion (read: Big or Strong: Do I Have To Choose?). Given that the lower back is the main target area, with glutes and hamstrings coming close seconds I don’t really see the point in big hypertrophy sets. I see guys pounding out big 12 rep sets but I personally don’t care for it. I want a strong lower back more than anything, so it’s big weight, low reps and long rest intervals all the way.
Not to be confused with the warm-up sets (below), I find a real quick warm-up is essential before doing any weight lifting in the gym.
No-one would ever recommend you run straight onto the field and start playing a full contact sport without warming up. Well, the more you get into lifting weights, the more you will realize that sometimes it feels like you are doing just that.
I know you’re itching to get at the plates, as I am, but honestly, five minutes on the cross trainer/eliptical are 5 valuable minutes.
I usually do 5 minutes of medium intensity, to the point when I start to sweat and my breathing has deepened. And of course, when I feel loose and warm.
You can’t just jump into your deadlift without some preparation: you’ll injure yourself and won’t reach the weight you have potential to reach because the area isn’t warm enough. Warm-Up sets are a must. I start with only the bar every time – it may feel ridiculous but there is merit in just going through the motion with the bar before adding weight because it wakes up the muscle memory and locks the movement into your mind-muscle connection so it’s one less thing to worry about later.
Depending on how much you can lift you will add weigh accordingly. I go for about 8 warm-up sets to get the juices going so I’m able to lift big when it matters. They don’t have to be long and you should never start fatiguing the muscles during warm-up sets. Just enough of a sensation that the muscle is being engaged. Eight reps is good when you are in the light weight and as you add more, drop it sequentially to 5 reps.
Once warm enough I start the main sets. Currently I’m doing two types of main sets.
The first main set is repeated 3 to 5 times depending on how I’m feeling and I do 5 reps per set. For big multi-joint strength movements like the deadlift, it’s best to lift enough weight so that you can complete the set without too much fatigue. In fact, I could probably do 3 more reps after the initial 5, but keeping some gas in reserve is best for strength building. The weight selection is important, and is about 75% – 85% of the one rep max (1RM). Day to day variations will mean some days you can’t lift as heavy as the previous time you did the workout but don’t worry; provided the general curve of improvement over the long term goes in the positive direction then there is no problem with these small scale oscillations.
Rest intervals for strength sets can be 2-3 minutes, with the longer rests being taken for the biggest lifts of the day. For accessory lifts later on in the workout the rest period can be dropped to 60 – 90 seconds.
The second main set with the deadlift is repeated about 3 times and is only 3 reps per set. The weight I choose for this one is even bigger than the first set. Sometimes I will do this set of three before the sets of five. Either way works but by doing it first you might be fresher and so able to lift even more weight.
I prefer to do these after squats on Squat/Leg day because they hit the hamstring more, but some people might want to complete them while they are already set up to do it. With straight-leg deadlifts, I reduce the weight from the main deadlifts so I can perform 8 – 10 reps in the set and be fatiguing on the last 2 reps. This is a sort of strength/growth hybrid rep-count and it’s good for adding some dimension to the hamstrings. Strong, built hamstrings are a really good looking asset.
Seated Cable Rows
During the deadlifts, the middle back region has been a well-targeted secondary muscle, so I usually move to the Seated Cable Row to target it as the primary group. Again, I stay in the strength zone and keep the weight high, the reps low and the rests decent.
Seated cable rows are something that can really add strength and definition to the larger portion of the back. The lats, traps and spinal erectors are all engaged, again keeping the flow going through the back. It also works the back of the shoulders and the biceps as secondaries. This movement, as simple as it looks and sounds, can actually be murdered, even by “experienced” lifters.
Whether using a close or wide grip bar, the movement is essentially the same. The legs should remain tense but not locked straight. Personally I don’t use my legs dynamically at all because the point is to use the target muscles, not make it easier by pushing with the legs. I also keep a straight back and the tension on the cable throughout the set. I’ve seen people lean way forward as the stack drops and it looks like their body is going to be ripped in two. Do not do this.
For the first rep, take use your legs to drive back to the starting position, and from there keep them in the same position with your back straight. Use your back muscles to squeeze as you pull the cable towards your mid-section. Then squeeze the back muscles together again at the full tension of the rep as your hands are virtually touching your body. Reverse the order to complete the negative (releasing) side of the rep.
Here, I complete 5 to 8 quality sets of 5 reps. Again, the weight should be enough that you can complete another couple of reps after the 5.
Pull-Downs or Pull-Ups
People who can lift their own bodyweight or even more should do Pull-Ups and/or weighted pull-ups before moving to the cable Pull-Down machine to finish the muscle group off. This is the last big back set I’m recommending so it’s a good one to push the limits a bit more. It will build big, strong lats. And they always look impressive as well as being immensely practical.
When possible I do strength sets here too, but it’s a good exercise to hit the growth aspect more too. There is a big difference between forward facing and backward facing grip. A backward facing grip – i.e. where your palms are facing you – means you can use your biceps to assist the pull-up or pull-down. Forward facing grips make you rely more on the lats for the full movement.
There is also a big difference between close and wide grips on the pul-down machine and it will change the emphasis on the muscles worked slightly. Mix it up and change your grip around as you do this exercise; the variation will make for a more overall coverage. Also experiment with set length and rep count here – sometimes it helps to have one area you experiment with. Depending on how I feel, I mght do big 12 rep sets and feel the swell in my lats. That feels good walking to the next exercise.
With the back muscles worked out by the previous few exercises, a good one to finish off with is dumbbell rows. I use a bench to rest one knee on, plant the hand I’m not using and make a nice flat table top with my back while hanging the dumbbell vertically down by the bench. As I pull the dumbbell up I use the same principal as the seated cable row and squeeze my back muscle to start and finish the pull with the arm muscles coming into action during the middle of the lift.
Completing 3 or 4 sets of 10 – 12 reps on both sides just about finished the upper back muscles for me. Depending on how I feel, I will add some bicep curls with either dumbbells again or a bar. The biceps have been used quite a lot with the row exercises though so it’s not tragic if they are skipped at the end.
All of that should take about 35 to 40 minutes. Given my core muscles have been used quite heavily during the deadlift it only takes a couple of minutes of plank and some well targeted ab crunches to really finish me off.
20 minutes of cardio is a good way to loosen back up a bit and burn some calories to finish the day. All in all, it’s a well spent hour in the gym
These simple and well-known exercises are excellent.
Lift safe and lift well.
Summary Table for Deadlift and Back
|W-U Sets||5-8||5-8||Don't fatigue muscles|
|Deadlift||3-5||5||Main set 1 – lift enough weight that you can do 2-3 more reps if you wanted|
|Deadlift||3||3||Main set 2 – same as above and rest 2 mins between sets|
|Straight Leg DL||3-4||8-10||Optional – can do on squat/leg day|
|Seated Cable Rows||5-8||5||Straight back – no leg movement|
|Pull-Ups/Downs||3-5||5-12||Play with rep-counts and sets here|
|Dumbbell Rows||3-4||10-12||Keep good technique to the end – last 2-3 reps should burn – reduce weight if necessary|
|Biceps||3-4||10-12||Optional if arms have strength left – last 2-3 reps should burn – barbell||dumbbell etc|