Recently I had a client who wanted to focus some of his training on his deadlift. He wanted to get stronger and work his whole body, so the deadlift was an excellent choice. Since he wasn’t preparing for competition, I was able to play around with the lift a bit. For most people, just getting the bar moving is the toughest part of the deadlift, so instead, we began by focusing on the eccentric phase of the lift (from standing, lowering the weight down).

 

Sure enough, thanks to dedicated lifting and coaching, his progress skyrocketed. Still, I wondered to what degree performing the eccentric portion of the deadlift first had helped him. In a study this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, this very topic was addressed.

 

The reason to begin with the eccentric phase is the stretch shortening cycle, or SSC. Our muscles act like a rubber band. As they stretch during the eccentric (lengthening) phase of a movement, they store up energy. This effect is seen everywhere in normal life. Take the wind-up for a big punch as an example. Someone who is untrained in boxing will draw their hand back far before throwing a heavy blow. This allows you to generate more power through SSC.

 

After we'd been working on deadlifts for a while, my client wanted to try starting from the floor. He wanted to give it a shot using a weight close to his one rep max, and, no surprise to me, he couldn’t lift it. We started from standing with the same weight, and sure enough he lifted it with ease. The problem is, this wasn’t a very scientific test, but now we have research to test this hypothesis.

 

In the new study, researchers compared the conventional deadlift, where the weight begins on the floor, with the eccentric-first deadlift, where the lifter begins in the standing position. Much like my little anecdote, the researchers wanted to know how much the starting position affected the one and three rep maximums. They had a secondary goal of determining how accurately the one rep max could be calculated based on the three rep max for each version of the lift.

 

The results were more thought-provoking than I thought they’d be. There was no statistical difference between methods when the group was taken as a whole. However, this doesn’t mean there was no difference. A major individual difference was found between lifters. In fact, about half of them performed better with one method, and the other half performed better with the other method. In some cases, these differences were on the order of ten or twenty pounds. One lifter had a difference of over sixty pounds. 

 

As for their secondary research, the standard assumption that the three rep max is about 93% of the one rep max seems to underrepresent the latter number. In other words, this group of lifters had a bigger max than most would guess based on their three rep performance. Unfortunately, there was no mention of what the lifters were accustomed to doing in their normal training. All of the lifters were already experienced in the deadlift, but from what starting position is a mystery. Experience might make a huge difference here.

 

Ultimately, testing is good. You should test your real one rep max, and you should test to see how the starting position of your deadlift affects your performance. Even powerlifters may want to use the eccentric-first deadlift as a change of pace.

 

References:

1. Alan Bishop, et. al., “Comparing 1RM and 3RM between Conventional and Eccentrically Loaded Deadlifts,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000315

 

Photo courtesy of Jorge Huerta Photography.

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