Bodyweight Exercises for the Deadlift

The Iron Cross. So simple, such brutal strength to acomplish.

I do a shit-ton of bodyweight exercises, from full on yoga routines (rarely anymore) to your meat and potatoes pushups/dips/pullups, to attempts at more extravagant and 'metabolic' moves that could be lumped under the 'animal flow' category.

Funny how a lot of that stuff looks like break-dancing. Funnier still how much it kicks my ass.

Now I know, you're going to say that there is only so much strength you can build with your own bodyweight, and how does this apply/carry over to powerlifting or something like strongman competitions?

It's simple. Core strength and endurance. A strong core leads to greater stability, support and foundation   in your lifts, in whatever sport or activity you do. Core endurance is vital as well, just imagine your stomach muscles failing during a heavy lift. Gymnasts not only have strong abs and core muscles, but by necessity, they can maintain that strength over extended periods of time.

When asked what two body parts he would focus on if he had no time for anything else, Pavel Tsatsouline replied, "grip strength and core strength." Given an otherwise active lifestyle, that's not a bad answer.

Back to the deadlift. How do I use bodyweight exercises to improve my deadlift? The following routine is an example:

  • Push-up & or Elbow Planks
  • Spider or Bear Crawls
  • Good Mornings with the hands/arms in different positions

Now I could add things like Supermans, or the Table Top exercise and many others, but most days I keep it simple.

How could these exercises possibly affect my deadlift numbers? Or anything else involving weights you ask?

Planks: These are done in the hardest way possible. This means that once in position, you contract everything. Lats, glutes, abdominals, fists, etc. As a result, nearly everything else contracts as well, including your quads, hamstrings and even calves.

This is a concentrated effort that is hard to maintain for more than 10-20 seconds. Chances are, if you're going much longer than that, you're doing it wrong.

So this is intense isometric contraction. and what is one thing we do a lot of when lifting heavy weights, especially in the squat and deadlift? You got it, isometric contraction of the core musculature. Not only does this build strength, but it makes a great warm-up before going into heavy lifting.

Spider or Bear Crawls: Spider Crawls, or Spiderman Crawls, are sheer torture. Alligator crawls may be a more appropriate term, because you are striving to keep your torso flat and as close to the ground as possible while you move your opposite arm and leg at the same time to 'crawl' forward.

Try it. Get in the bottom position of a pushup. Now, raising yourself just enough to get your body off the floor, extend one arm, bend the opposite leg and move forward one step, 'catching' yourself with the movement of the opposite arm and leg. Yeah, it works your core, and everything else.

Good Mornings: I once did 100 repetitions of good mornings, moving down and to left, right and center, sometimes reaching forward with extended arms, and I had a sore back for the next 3 days. Ah, that lactic acid buildup.

Granted, I don't see much point in doing this many repetitions of the exercise anymore, but it illustrates how effectively it targets the lower lumbar, and if you do them right, glutes and hamstrings.

As with planks, I flex. For one thing, I have injured myself doing these in sloppy form. For another, it makes it harder. So I place my hands either behind my head, on my hips, or extended over my head, and I contract my abs, glutes and hamstrings as I lower my torso to parallel.

To increase the work, you can pause at the bottom position. Extending your arms also makes this more difficult, and for some variety, you can twist up to the left and right.

Done as a circuit, these 3 simple bodyweight exercises will get your heart pumping as well, and are a great substitute for a free weight or similar resistance workout. Vary the intensity and use this as a light day when you can't lift heavy, or a great core travel workout when you can't get to the gym.

Max Deadlift and the Preexhaustion Principle

My 4-Faced Onnit Mace

It's week 3 of my journey to a 405 lb. deadlift, (starting from 265, if you missed the first part of this, you can read it here.) and while the deadlift poundage has improved, I seem to be weaker in other areas.

Maybe this is my nervous system telling me to stop sprinting so much with the dog, maybe its the 100 degree heat, I don't know.

I train on with careful attention to how my body is feeling, pushing just enough, slowing down/stopping when necessary.

Today, however, I felt fairly recovered. This, despite the fact that I've been working out everyday. A good sign.

I like to think of it as an intensity wave. You don't always have to stop completely, but you have to slow down, recover, adjust.

Anyway, enough of the banter, today's workout reminded me how much fun swinging clubs and maces can be.

It also reminded me of a very 'bodybuilding-esque' training principle called pre-exhaustion. Basically, fatiguing a muscle group with one exercise (usually something that isolates the muscle group) before doing another (usually compound) exercise.

The result should be obvious, pre-exhausting makes the second, compound exercise, more difficult.

You can probably see where I'm going with this, so let's lay it out:


BW Box (chair) Squats: 2x10-20

Pushups/Sun Salutations: 2x10ish

*(I was already up and moving for a while before I started, thus the brief warm-up)


3 rounds of,

  • 15# Mace swings (10-2's and 360's, for those who care.)

*25# on 3rd round.
*Probably some 15# clubs in here as well.

  • 1 hand and 2-hand KB swings @55# for 20ish reps. (At some point you don't care, you either can't stop swinging or you have to put the damn thing down.)

  • Dbl KB Deadlifts @70# each x 6-8.

There may have been an extra round of one of the exercises thrown in, but I'm not sure. When in doubt, I tend to do one more of something rather than feel like I shorted it.

That's it, that was the workout. But it was more than enough. It got my heart beating out of my chest, provided enough resistance to make me push a little (not too hard today) and it sent me into that Zen-like afterglow, the euphoric calm you get after a good workout.

The Wrap Up

So the bottom line is, although I'm feeling weaker than usual (haha! making fun of myself,) performing the KB swings before deadlifting the heavier 'bells made 140# feel more like 200…ok let's say 185.

This principle could have been further tested by doing something more lumbar/glute/hamstring specific, such as good mornings or hyperextensions. However, if I had chosen that exercise, I don't think the KB swings would have been a good idea. No injuries necessary, thanks.

So give pre-exhaustion a try on your next workout, or revisit it if it's been a while. If you do it right, your muscles are working just as hard and the results may surprise you.

Increasing the Deadlift without Deadlifting

Why the Deadlift?

As I get older, one of the most functional, and therefore, important to practice lifts, is the deadlift. Snatches and the clean and jerk are great too, but reaching down to haul a ton of weight off the ground has proved to be the most beneficial movement for me and continues to be so.

At my last house, I had a huge garage and a nice open backyard, and there was plenty of room for barbells and throwing them around. The new place? Not so much. 

Since I hate going to the gym, this has meant that I haven’t been doing much barbell training in the last couple years. Instead I’ve grown my collection of kettlebells, clubs, maces, sand bags, etc.

The funny thing is, despite not deadlifting for over 3 years, I walked into my son’s boxing gym, tired and sick, and pulled 265, only 40 pounds less than my last max 3 years ago. (I know, HUGE numbers.)

Having only recently gotten back on track with my strength training, this not unpleasant result made me wonder, how much could I increase my deadlift without actually deadlifting a barbell? 

After all, athletes of Westside Barbell ( do tons of assistance work for their lifts. By comparison they perform the actual lifts about once a week. Louie Simmons is religious about developing a solid foundation to build on, literally.

I started the program with the idea of using the following exercises as a base: 
  • Weighted and unweighted dead hangs to improve grip strength and endurance. 
  • Kettlebells for building hip power and the vital muscle and power in the hamstrings and glutes. 
  • Atlas Stone lifts, including the triple extension (what the strongmen do in comps) and good mornings.
  • Finally, I would use sand bags to approximate the biomechanics of the deadlift, while still not actually deadlifting.

Additional exercises may include things like reverse hypers, hyperextensions, and good mornings with a sandbag or dumbbells, as well as various planks and even reverse prayer style sit-ups.

So one of the first workouts looked like this:


  • Joint rotations
  • Over-Unders
  • Bodyweight good mornings


  • KB Swings. Starting at 44# and working up to 70# for max reps (higher if it gets light, or buy a heavier kettlebell.)
  • Sandbag deadlift (gripping either end on the length) 3-5 x 3-5. Not to failure.
  • Deadhangs from a pullup bar (shoulders engaged) for time, adding weight as necessary ( I use a backpack with weight.) 3-5 sets or until a time limit is reached, 5 minutes for example.

This was heavier than it looks, at least for me, so I planned on doing this 2x a week at most.

By the end of the first week I had already deviated from it. The second workout was:

Warm up, as described above, then:

Double kb swings @53#
Double kb cleans @53#
Ring pullups for strict form x2-3

It had been a busy couple of days and the body was shot, so I felt like I was moving twice the weight. After about 4-5 sets of 6-8 reps in each, and 2-3 sets of pullups immediately following, I was done.

Somewhere in there I remember throwing in some situps and Pavel planks (clenching every muscle while in the plank.)

First Deadlift Max Check 

My plan was to check my max on the deadlift every 2 weeks, but last night I found myself in the boxing gym, feeling more energetic than I had in days. After some warm-up stretching and a rope climb, I loaded the bar. I did:
The old rusty outdoor barbell. Extinct.


The first 2 sets were not hard. That wasn't my intention. I probably could've done 5 or 6 reps at 225# and even after 285#, an increase of 20# in one week, I felt like I could have pulled a few more pounds.

Still, this was an improvement, and it makes me think I might just check in on my max every week, instead of every 2.

So just how much weight do I want to pull in the deadlift? 

My goal is to hit 405 within 2 months. Which will give me no more than 4 actual deadlift sessions, all consisting of max lift attempts. 

This week the work continues, so keep checking back as I update my progress.

How to Build Muscle with Bodyweight Only

The question: Can you build muscle by only using your bodyweight?

The answer? Hell yes! 

But just like lifting weights to build muscle, it isn't easy. It may even be too hard for a lot of people. After all, in order to destroy your muscles with bodyweight, you have to use leverage, push harder than you would with free weights to find failure, and learn to have complete control over your muscles in order to activate all the muscle you need when you need it.

What this all boils down to is this. In order to build muscle with just your bodyweight, you need to do three things:
  • Work to absolute failure
  • Continually progress 
  • Extend the time under tension
Work to Absolute Failure

Forget 'leaving a rep or two in the bank,' or avoiding the failure point to save energy for something else. The greater the destructive stimulus, the greater adaptation the body must make, and if you want to continue to build muscle in the long run, you will need to push to failure, fully recover, and repeat.

Absolute failure for bodyweight exercises can be hard to pinpoint. Let's face it, after you've done a couple dozen pushups or squats, you start wondering if you'll ever 'truly' fail. But you can, and eventually the muscles give out.

Using the bodyweight squat as an example, imagine you can perform 50 repetitions before it becomes difficult to stand up. This is when your set begins, and your mental fortitude is tested. When you cannot   stand back up (or you fall to the floor) you are done. 

But just to be sure, hold onto a chair or rail and perform slow eccentric (negative) repetitions. When you fail at those, then you can stop.

You can also reverse this process by pre-exhausting the muscles. Perform an exercise to failure or close to failure, followed by the target movement. Pushups followed by dips, or vice versa, for example. 

The same method can be used for pushups, pullups, etc. Perform a regular set to failure, then do an assisted version (pushups on your knees, pullups with a band or with feet supported) until you cannot perform another repetition. It takes guts to push to this point, and if you do it right, you will feel it the next day.

Continually Progress  

There are many ways to continue to stimulate your muscles to grow, but if weight is weight (your body, free weights,) then repetitions are repetitions. High repetition sets to failure will develop your muscular endurance, but only so much muscle.

As with free weights, you must continually challenge your muscles to grow. This means increasing the load somehow, as well as the overall amount of work done. Here are two ways to accomplish this:

  • Eliminate momentum
  • Increase the lever arm
  • Destabilize the base
Eliminating momentum is another way of saying 'slow down.' Instead of bouncing off the bottom of a pushup or dip, lower slowly, pause at the bottom and then push back up. This ensures complete control over the movement, helps prevent injury, and makes the muscles do all of the work. Use this same tactic with every one of your bodyweight workouts and see how long you last.

Increasing the lever arm means putting your body at a disadvantage to complete the exercise. So for instance, a pushup with your feet elevated is harder than one with the feet flat. Move the hands wider apart and it becomes more difficult still; move the hands further in front of you, and although it brings other muscles into play, it is still more difficult to complete a rep.

This is an easy concept to get if you like doing planks. Most folks can hold an elbow plank for a few seconds, but as you begin walking your hands ahead of your skull, the exercise gets significantly harder. 

Destabilizing your base forces the muscles to work harder to maintain proper form and execute the movement, while also bringing additional supporting muscles into play. 

Some good ways to do this include:

  • Performing pushups with your feet on an exercise ball 
  • Pushups with one foot elevated
  • Hack squats
  • Box squats
  • One leg squats
  • Planks with your hands/elbows on an exercise ball
  • Single leg deadlift
  • Side plank with extended arm and elevated leg
Extend the Time Under Tension

One of the easiest ways to extend a set and force the muscle to work a little longer is to keep them under tension a little longer. This may mean hanging with the shoulders, upper back, wrists and biceps activated for 10 seconds when you can't perform another pullup or row. 

It can also be done by good old fashioned flexing. After failing at that last pushup, stand up and tense your chest, shoulders and triceps in an isometric contraction for 10 seconds. 

Additional time under tension means more work for your muscles.

It Works if you Work it

Bodyweight muscle building is no mystery, and it's no myth. With the right workout and nutrition program, and enough mental toughness, you can push your body to limits you'd never imagined, and build muscle at the same time. 

Finding your Hidden Strength Reserves

It's amazing really, so many indirect actions are perfect metaphors other areas of your life. Take exercise for instance. From my observations, your level of dedication to your workouts indicates:

-How disciplined you are in other daily or frequently recurring activities (uh, diet anyone?)
-How much effort you put into those activities, or barring that:
-How hard you push to complete or push those activities to the next level

Of course, regular workouts can also contribute to your well-being on a daily and ongoing basis, but I'm talking about the less frequently connected dots in life. For instance, little victories in life tend to lead to, or contribute to a belief that you can, accomplish small (and large) victories in other areas of life.

Take a look around the fabric of your week after a good workout or two. What did you accomplish in those workouts? What did you attempt? How did you challenge yourself?

Often, we find that the best victory (especially as you push past 40!) in a workout is finding out how much effort we could give. Realizing, 'damn, I didn't know I had it in me!'

Sometimes, it doesn't matter that you didn't reach the goal, or complete the WOD. What matters, and what is most exhilirating, is discovering a power within you that had been dormant or undiscovered. A power that surfaces through the expenditure of energy from a synergy of mind and body.

That is what lifts you up. That feeling is what drives you on. Empowerment makes you realize that you have barely tapped your own potential, and damn that feels good.

Here's my empowering workout from today. I really didn't know I had it in me, specifically that many pullups in one workout. I have been struggling with consistency and setting up the right combination of home gym equipment in my garage and backyard. Now, I can't wait to load up another 50 lb. sandbag and add weight to my pullups!

Warm-up at track:

-Joint rotations (see instructions here. Just scroll past the first paragraph for the videos.)
-3 laps (jog/walk; sprint/walk; sprint/walk)
Coupled those with:

Finger-only pullups: 3 sets of 3-4 (on a fat steel beam, thus the fingers only)

At home:

5 supersets of:

-Kipping&strict pullups: x 3-4 (not to failure)
-Sandbag 'hug' lift from floor, 100# x 1-2 (not going for failure)
-Single arm 'gas-mower starters' with 80-120# power band x 5 each

So now it's your turn. Go out and start exercising. Do what you do, Crossfitter, runner, triathlete, whatever. If you don't do anything, just walk. Really push yourself. Reach deep. When you want to quit, keep going. After you ignore that quitter a few times you might just forget about it altogether.

Chances are, you will discover something about yourself that was long forgotten, or perhaps you never even knew about.