20 rep deadlifts

Q: James, I looked in the side bar of your page and didn’t find anything about deadlifts, so I figured I’d email. I’ve read that DL’s should not be performed with a high number of sets or high frequency. What is your take on it? 

Mike (Michigan)

My Answer: Deadlifts should be performed no more than once a week.  Plus you should perform them at reps no higher than 6.  The exception is the Romanian deadlift, which you can perform at higher repetitions.

The reason why you should perform conventional deadlifts with low frequency and low repetitions is that the lower back muscles (the spinal erectors) take a long time to recover from training, especially from a heavy compound movement like the deadlift.  This is why I don’t recommend doing squats and deadlifts in the same workout, since the spinal erectors bear a large load in both exercises.

The reason I don’t recommend higher reps on deadlifts is that the smaller muscle groups (such as the spinal erectors and forearms) tend to fatigue far more quicker than your quads, back and hamstrings.  Your forearms and lower back will give out before your back and thighs will.  So it’s much better to focus on heavy weight, low reps on the deadlift.

Now if you do lower reps on the deadlift, then you have to make up for the low volume by performing lots of sets.  So instead of 3 sets of 8 reps on the deadlift, it’s much better to do 8 sets of 3 reps.

People have tried to do high rep deadlifts in the past, but training the deadlift in this way never became popular.  Ironman publisher Peary Rader introduced the 20 rep squat routine, the 20 rep deadlift routine and the 20 rep clean and jerk routine.  Of all three routines, the 20 rep squat became popular while the 20 rep deadlift never became quite as popular, because it was just too brutal on the lower backs of trainees.  The 20 rep clean and jerk didn’t even see the light of day until those in Crossfit stumbled upon it by accident.

The 20 rep squat is already brutal on the lower back, but 20 rep breathing squats add lots of mass to the thighs and stimulate total body hypertrophy.  You just have to maintain your form while pushing yourself.  This is why I’ve incorporated them into my Neo-Classical Bodybuilding program.

But 20 rep deadlifts will F-up your lower back as deadlifts tend to strain the back more than squats.  20 rep clean and jerks and any other ultra-high  rep Olympic lifts will F-up your back even more.   The problem with 20 rep deadlifts and 20 rep clean and jerks is that these lifts require precise form, otherwise you risk injury.  You may perform deadlift technique perfectly on the first 6 -10 reps, but as you approach higher reps you’ll start to fatigue.  Under fatigue you’re more likely to use sloppy form.

Bottom line: I don’t recommend 20 rep deadlifts.


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