I don’t know how many times I’ve had people ask me why their deadlift seemed to be getting weaker. People will be deadlifting for months, even years, making significant gains with new PR’s (personal records), and then BAM you can no longer hit the weight you were hitting just a week ago. What happened? How can you automatically become weaker in just one week? This can be quite frustrating for anyone, especially serious lifters. This can happen with other compound lifts as well, such as squat and bench press, but usually I hear the most about people’s deadlift getting weaker.
I remember senior year in high school I finally had reached my goal of deadlifting 500 pounds for 1 rep, and I was ecstatic! But then, I tried again a week later and couldn’t lift the weight off the ground. I even dropped the weight to 455lbs which I normally could deadlift for 5 reps, and I only could do it for 2-3 reps. I was extremely frustrated, and wanted to know what was wrong, but there was little information online that could help me.
It wasn’t until I began my education for my Doctoral Degree in Physical Therapy that I truly began to appreciate the human body and training principles that explain why this can occur, and how you can fix it. I am going to discuss the ways I have avoided this happening, and what you can do to keep progressing and making gains.
The main reason for your deadlift getting weaker is a phenomenon known as overreaching, overtraining, or CNS fatigue. This occurs when you are reaching past your body’s ability to handle the workload. People often are deadlifting with too much volume and/or intensity, and by simply cutting back on the volume they will notice their deadlift begin to improve.
What is the difference between overreaching and overtraining?
Overreaching is a short-term decline in your weight lifting performance and can be recovered from in just a few days. For example, if you deadlift Monday and can hit 225lbs for 5 reps, and then you try it again on Wednesday and only can get 3 reps. You may be overreaching. This decline in strength is not permanent and you will be back to normal strength in only a few days. Overreaching simply means you are reaching past your body’s ability to handle the workload. Overreaching is done either by too much volume or too much intensity. Overreaching is not necessarily a bad thing as long as you eventually give your body time to recover. Overreaching is the most common cause of your deadlift suddenly getting weaker.
Overtraining is a little different than overreaching. Overtraining is constant overreaching without giving your body the chance to ever recover. This is not a good thing and can lead to a decline in strength for a much longer period of time. If you constantly are pushing your body while deadlifting and notice you keep getting weaker and weaker, you may be overtraining. Especially if you aren’t eating right and lacking sleep.
You may be asking yourself what is CNS fatigue?
In simple terms this is when your central nervous system becomes fatigued due to the progressive overload from lifting/training. Basically, your brain is exhausted from constantly pushing your body to maximum exertion. This is common with compound lifts such as deadlift, squat, and bench press. So with CNS fatigue your brain doesn’t have the capacity to contract your muscles with as much force/power as usual, so you will be weaker on maximal lifts such as deadlifts. CNS fatigue is not very common, but can occur if you are constantly deadlifting close to your 1RM (one rep max).
Symptoms of CNS fatigue:
- Joint aches
- Low energy
- Decreased motivation
- Flu-like symptoms
- Difficulty concentrating
Am I overtrained?
Overtraining is slightly different than CNS fatigue and is not as severe. Overtraining is training at a volume or intensity that is too much for your body to handle. This is very common with powerlifters and even those who do Crossfit. Basically your body cannot recover with the amount of training you are completing.
Symptoms of overtraining:
- Muscle fatigue
- Decreased workout strength/endurance
- Decreased immunity
- Frequent injuries
- Slow injury recovery
- Waking up feeling tired
How do I get my strength back on deadlift?
If you notice that your deadlift has gotten drastically weaker within a short amount of time, then you need to cut back your deadlift volume and intensity. A drastic decrease in strength is telling you that your body cannot handle the amount of workload you are completing on the deadlift. You need to back off to allow your muscles and central nervous system to recover. Your body is not able to fully recover if you are constantly maxing out on deadlift, and lifting close to your maximal capacity.
Step 1: The first step in getting your strength back on deadlift is to deload. Deloading on deadlift will allow your muscles and central nervous system to recover, and your strength on deadlift will start to increase back to normal or even higher. You need to deload for atleast 2 weeks to fully recover. Most people say they deload by skipping one session of deadlifting, and that simply is not enough recovery time.
Step 2: You need to incorporate periodization training. This means completing a training program (usually 4-6 weeks) while progressing during the 4-6 weeks by increasing weight, increasing volume, or increasing intensity. This periodization period is then followed by a period of deloading. This means you may lift for 4 weeks while increasing the weight and then deload for 2 weeks, and then complete another 4 weeks while increasing the weight. Periodization training incorporates planned periods of deloading in which you drop the weight to allow your body to recover. Periodization training with planned deloads will allow you to continue progressing and making gains on your deadlift.
Step 3: Incorporate active recovery. Research studies show that active recovery will improve recovery, and decrease the time it takes to recover. This means that you can still perform deadlift during your deloading period with just lighter weight. The light weight will not be taxing enough on your body to cause muscle catabolism (break down) so this can actually help recovery.
Step 4: Depending on how long you’ve been lifting, you need to constantly be changing up your routine. Novice (beginner) lifters adapt slowly to a new lifting program, so they can perform the same program for 8-12 weeks before the need to change it. Whereas, advance lifters adapt quickly to a new program so they need to change up their program every 3-4 weeks. I see this mistake all the time in the gym, people do the SAME thing every workout for months and months. Your body will not change, and your strength gains will suffer if you do not constantly switch up your routine.
Step 5: You need to vary exercises. This goes along with step 4, not only do you need to constantly change your program/routine, you need to change up your exercises! Some people do the same exercises every single workout, and yet they wonder why they never get stronger or bigger. Vary exercises for deadlift can be as simple as going from conventional deadlift to a sumo deadlift. Other ways to vary exercises for deadlift is to switch from the olympic barbell to dumbbells, or to perform rack pulls, straight leg deadlifts, deficit deadlifts, etc. You need to vary exercises for every single movement or muscle group not just deadlift. Training deadlift constantly without varying exercises can lead to overreaching, and a decrease in strength.
Overtraining or under-recovering?
I wanted to touch base on this topic because it is brought up often in the fitness community. Some people believe there is no such thing as overtraining, but rather under-recovering. So the reason your deadlift may be getting weaker is because you simply are not recovering between each session. You probably aren’t overtraining your body from working out, but rather not recovering enough between each session. So you may be getting weaker on the deadlift or other compound exercises, and think it is from overtraining, but really you could prevent this by taking your recovery more serious.
How do I recover properly between workouts?
Recovery is a HUGE component of training and working out, yet it is often overlooked. Recovering doesn’t necessarily mean just drinking a protein drink following a workout. I believe recovery is more important than the actual workout. Meaning, what you do outside the gym matters more for your overall results than what you do inside the gym.
Most important factors for recovery:
- NUTRITION. You’ve probably heard this before, but nutrition is huge for recovery. Proper nutrition will allow your body to heal and recover between workouts. Food is essential to restore/heal muscles following a workout. Focus on eating lean proteins, healthy fats, and vegetables. Protein is one of the most important factors for recovery. I recommend a solid whey protein or protein blend to maximize your recovery.
- SLEEP. So many people lack sleep and their results in the gym are suffering due to it. It is crucial to get a proper amount of sleep each and every night. Try to at least get 8 hours of sleep to really maximize your results in the gym. I guarantee you will notice improvements in all your workouts once you start getting 8-10 hours of sleep. This may be one of the main reasons you are getting weaker on deadlifts.
- STRESS. You need to reduce stress levels if you want to make the most out of your workouts. Stress can cause inflammation and POOR recovery. Stress causes cortisol levels to rise, and when cortisol levels are elevated it makes it very hard for the body to recover. So stress may be limiting your gains inside the gym. Proper nutrition and proper sleep will help with managing your stress levels as well. Some simple ways to reduce stress is daily walks, going outside, yoga, sauna, reading a book, or crushing a hard workout.
TheMuscleMaster’s tips to prevent getting weaker on the deadlift:
I wanted to give you some tips/tricks I have used over the years to keep my deadlift from plateauing.
- CONSTANTLY switch up your workouts! Like I said before, it is super important to switch up your routine and incorporate different exercises. Our body’s are super smart and efficient so if you continue to do the same thing every workout, your body will stop adapting and your strength/size will plateau.
- Improve your strength in other workouts such as squat, bent-over rows, hamstring curl, etc. because this will carry-over to your deadlift. You do not necessarily need to deadlift to get stronger on deadlift. Other workouts will work the same muscles that are responsible for the deadlift. So by getting stronger on the squat your deadlift will improve as well!
- ADD resistance bands! I always incorporate resistance bands to my compound exercises such as deadlift, squats, overhead press, and the bench press. Resistance bands are a gr
eat way to break through a plateau, and continue progressing on your key lifts. You can add resistance bands to nearly every exercise, so they are a great investment. I always tell myclients to buy a set of resistance bands and bring them to the gym with them (most gyms do not have them). Add resistance bands to every deadlift session for 3-4 weeks, and then after 4 weeks try your 1RM (rep max) without the bands. I guarantee you will see drastic improvements in your strength. You can use these resistance bands like shown in the picture below, or use resistance bands like these.
Like I said before, I know first-hand how frustrating it is when your deadlift is not improving. But, if you incorporate the steps I listed above, you can prevent this from occurring. It is not uncommon to sometimes just have an “off day” and on those days you just aren’t as strong as usual. That is okay, but if you notice that you are constantly plateauing or even getting weaker on the deadlift or any other exercises. Then incorporate the steps I listed above about periodization, deloading, and recovering properly. You will notice a huge difference in your overall performance. Remember to dial in your nutrition, sleep, and reduce stress levels. These play a major role in your strength and performance. If your nutrition/sleep are dialed in, and you still are getting weaker on the deadlift, then you may just need a simple change in your routine such as adding resistance bands to break through your plateau.