These days, many athletes are familiar with the movements we most often associate with strength such as the Back Squat, Deadlift, Overhead Press, variations of the clean, etc. Let’s assume that we’re working with a new athlete is a relative novice to lifting.
To first assess a new athletes strength, I prefer the deadlift.
It’s such a simple movement - simply stand up with a barbell. Purists may cry out on the intricacies of the deadlift, but at the end of the day it’s just standing up with weight.
The deadlift is a great measure of basic strength and easily adjusted to the athlete’s capabilities… a 5-rep max might be more appropriate (and less intimidating) than jumping right into a 1-rep max for a newbie.
There are plenty of movement cues which can improve and refine one’s deadlift, but I’ve found that learning curve for the deadlift is much shorter than other lifts. As a measure of total body strength (legs, hips, back, traps, and grip), it's hard to beat.
Initial Strength Standards for the Deadlift
The most basic strength standard for men and women is the ability to deadlift their bodyweight for a 1-rep max. For novice athletes who don't have disability or serious weight problem, this is a quickly attainable goal. Down the line, we certainly want to get them stronger than this, but the ability to deadlift their own body weight gives me the confidence to move them onto more complicated lifts as it relates to strength work.
The added benefit of this relatively easy deadlift standard is the psychological benefit to the new athlete. It’s amazing how people can focus on a specific goal - they have a number in their head that if achieved, provides feedback of success. The power of positive feedback should not be underestimated.
Now that the athlete has achieved a goal of a bodyweight deadlift and relished in their success, we want to move them forward.
The next goals should be 1.5% of their body weight. An advanced or competitive athlete should work towards 2x bodyweight (this mark may be subject to change dependent on age, training objectives, etc).
This will take more time to achieve - the body’s adaption will simply slow down. It may take several years to get to the 2x bodyweight mark. Ample doses of encouragement from the coach and patience from the athlete are required. I believe you can apply this standard to any healthy male or female.
Strong Deadlift... Now What?
Voila - we’ve hit 1.5 - 2x bodyweight deadlift. Now what? Arguably, you’re strong enough for just about anything. If you have a burning desire to hit a certain deadlift number or want to compete in a lifting competition, keep on deadlifting.
You should be aware that you’re likely going to sacrifice other components of your fitness at some point… this is the line between general purpose training and specialization in a lift. Personally, I’ve found that my performance in areas other than strength begins to suffer when I get much beyond a max deadlift of 2.5x my bodyweight.
If you’re not chasing a 1RM, you’ve met an excellent standard of strength. I still recommend lifting strength, but it’s probably time to de-emphasize the strength work and work on a different component of fitness. This is entirely dependent on the athlete's specific goals, but we’re either going to continue the rotation of emphasizing fitness attributes or get specific to the athlete’s overall training objective.
Other Thoughts and Notes
Below are a few other notes as it relates to the deadlift:
Don’t chase numbers - I’ve been guilty of this in the past, and still am on occasion. Which is more important, a strong deadlift relative to the athlete's bodyweight in conjunction with a developed work capacity and endurance base, or a SUPER heavy deadlift at the expense of conditioning. Unless you’re aiming to compete in a Powerlifting meet, pick the first one. Performance is primary… gym numbers are secondary (You can always lie to the girl at the bar anyway).
Belts are OK - As I’ve talked about before, you should never get hurt in the gym. If you’re going for a heavy set or a new 1-rep max, wear a belt. I swear, your core won’t suddenly disappear as some might advertise.
Push the Hips and Squeeze the Cheeks - The most common failure on a lift is when the athlete gets to mid-thigh, and can’t fully extend the hips to finish the lift. Push your hips forward with power, and squeeze them cheeks. You’ll be able to finish. Train this on all reps, no matter the load.
Clear the Lifting Area - I’ve never actually seen anyone pass out doing a deadlift, but the internet is full of hilariously awesome/terrifying videos of dudes finishing a lift and then promptly passing out. Be safe, have ample space behind and in front of you.
- Conventional vs. Sumo vs. Trap Bar- I don’t have a dog in this fight. I generally do conventional. Do what feels comfortable for you - it’s all training the same stuff.