Is the deadlift truly harder to recover from?

In this post I want to briefly explore the idea that the deadlift is a special lift in regards to programming. It seems in modern powerlifting the deadlift is supposed to be harder to recover from and produces more localized and systemic fatigue than the Squat. I personally do not believe it to be inherently different than the Squat in regards to how it should be programmed. The following are my musings on the matter:

A Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

One of the most common arguments that the deadlift is different is that it’s harder to recover from because of the amount of musculature used is so great. Conversely another reasoning is that the deadlift is specifically so fatiguing to the low-back that it needs to be “babied” for fear of affecting performance across other lifts. Whatever the reasoning used the recommendation is usually for a lower frequency of deadlifting than the Squat.

I think this sets up a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe that the deadlift is inherently harder to recover from and subsequently train it with less frequency you never give your body the chance to adapt to a higher-frequency. Therefore, a lower frequency will be more fatiguing than if you trained it with more frequency.

Squatting Is The Priority

Another aspect to this deadlift disparity is when lifters make the Squat the priority. Part of this may be due to the influence from geared lifting, the squat inherently gets more out of equipment than the deadlift. Mostly due to the eccentric aspect. Another possibility is the difficulty of breaking a heavy bar off the floor. The Squat starts and ends in a standing position, aided by the stretch reflex. In the deadlift there is no stretch reflex (at least not to the same extent) and therefore it might psychologically feel like a more difficult lift. This could be another explanation as to the preferential treatment of the Squat.

Spinal Neutrality

Most powerlifters that train the Conventional deadlift with any regularity round their back to some extent. It’s very difficult to keep the back completely neutral and rounding affords some advantages with respect to speed off the floor. The weakness then shows up at lock-out. The lifters back is rounded and so to fully lock-out they need to extend their low-back. This concentric back movement may cause some damage and subsequent soreness. I believe this also contributes to this idea. The deadlift may seem to present more DOMs to individuals who round their back.

One Final Note

I want to be clear about one point. I’m not arguing that you should train the deadlift with more volume and frequency if the amount you’re using is working. However, you shouldn’t be afraid to train it harder if that’s what you need to do to continue making progress. And at some point, you will need to deadlift more to deadlift more.

I would love to hear any thoughts you may have on the topic.

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6 thoughts on “Is the deadlift truly harder to recover from?

  1. Dave Stallard says:

    Yo Chad,

    My name is Dave Stallard. I’ve been creeping on your website for a couple of weeks now. I just started running an auto-regulated Texas method program.

    I’ve found that with the deadlift, there is a lot greater fluctuation in strength compared to squatting and benching. I’ve been deadlifting twice a week for probably six months now and when I deadlift once a week or take a week off of it completely, I feel better the next time I deadlift. I generally don’t deadlift the week before a meet and once I get start warming up for them, they feel great. This is probably due to accumulated fatigue. I’ve also noticed that if I have a good week of deadlifting one week, the next week will not be as good.

    Just for context, my best competition lifts are a 535 lb. squat, 363 lb. bench, 660 lb. deadlift at 242# (USAPL).

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    • chadhydro says:

      Hey Dave,

      Thanks a lot for the comment. These anecdotes are really helpful in teasing out what’s going on. When you say you feel better if you drop your frequency to only once a week, does your performance improve or is it that you feel less fatigued during the session?

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      • Dave Stallard says:

        After thinking about it, I definitely feel less fatigued and I believe performance improves. I am more motivated to pull after a few days off from it. Generally I’ll do the competition deadlift and later during the week do a variation (block pull, deficit, etc.). I know that as I accumulate fatigue, particularly with the deadlift, technique feels sloppy but that is with any skill.

        Whenever my lower back is fried, performance decreases. I’ve started pulling with as neutral a spine as possible and this has allowed frequency to increase. Once I get rounded or get that lower back strain/soreness, performance plummets. What really frustrates me is that since I’ve started deadlifting with a neutral spine, my competition max deadlift has went down by 60 lbs.

        I believe, in my case, that it comes down to motivation. Deadlifting is challenging in and of itself and I do not mind squatting or benching heavy but sometimes I do not look forward to heavy deadliest in the morning when I lift lol.

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      • chadhydro says:

        I can definitely see how motivation would affect the lift. Can you comment on your transition to neutral spine pulling? It makes sense that your max might decrease. Did you find the lift less fatiguing after making the switch?

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  2. Dave Stallard says:

    I started pulling with a neutral spine after I had some pain in my T12-L1. Pulling with a neutral spine and it actually made my back feel better. I think it was locking the lats in. I pulled 660 with a rounded back and my best meet pull so far with a neutral spine is 600. When I first started neutral spine pulling, I found 500 lbs. difficult. I can definitely train the deadlift more frequently.

    My back has been feeling better but my problem now is technique. When I lock my lats in, I have a tendency to drop my hips too low. It’s tough for me to break it off the ground but once it’s off, I generally make the lift.

    To answer your question, yes, pulling with neutral spine makes it less fatiguing.

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