Numbers Don’t Always Tell the Whole Story
This past weekend I trap bar deadlifted 455×12, which I consider to be a big personal best.
To play off my boy Mr. Dos Equis, I don’t always deadlift heavy, but when I do, it feels freakin’ awesome.
Thing is, I actually trap bar deadlifted 455×12 about four years ago when I was 6-7 pounds lighter, so on the surface it might actually appear that I haven’t progressed much, or even that I’ve gotten weaker, at least in terms of relative strength.
Here’s the thing though, and this is a very important thing to note: Numbers don’t always tell the whole picture.
To show what I mean, I’ll throw myself under the bus a little bit and post a video of the first time I pulled 455×12 back in the day.
You’ll notice a few obvious differences between the two lifts.
On a basic level, the first time I did it I was pulling from the high handles and using straps, whereas the second time I’m pulling from the low handles without straps.
I have no problems with high handle trap bar deadlifts, but it’s a very different exercise than pulling from the low handles, not even apples to apples really. It’s ostensibly just a few inches, but it makes quite a difference in how much weight you’ll be able to handle, and the added range of motion of the low handles makes it significantly harder. Exactly how much harder will vary between people, but I notice probably about a 5-6% difference myself (I’ve always been fast off the floor), and for others it may be even a bit more than that.
To be fair, the trap bar I had in college didn’t even have an option to pull low handles, but I bet even it did I wouldn’t have used it because at that point in time, I was always looking for ways to lift as much weight as possible. I’m not against using the high handles and think it makes sense for some people in certain situations (i.e. those that don’t have the mobility to pull from the low handles safely), but at this stage, I’d rather increase the range of motion if possible.
I also have no problems with using straps, but it’s obviously harder without them. That being said, the trap bar in my school gym was extremely slick and even with chalk it was tough to hold, so straps made more sense. I have no problem with stronger lifters using straps for their heaviest sets if grip is the limiting factor because to me the deadlift is not a grip exercise, but I don’t think it’s wise to rely on them too much, and you should only use them if you need them. My grip strength has improved tremendously over the years (I don’t do any direct grip work, but I attribute it to lots of heavy sled drags, chin-ups, rows, and heavy single leg work with dumbbells) so I no longer need straps. Ironically, in the first video of 455×12, I started to lose my grip on the 12th rep, but that’s the first time I’ve had a grip issue in a few years. Grip obviously becomes harder with higher reps.
That’s just the tangible differences between the two lifts though.
Intangibly, my form is just way better now and I control and own the weight way more than I used to. When I first pulled 455×12, it was essentially five or so continuous reps followed by a bunch of round-back singles. So really, 455×12 is sort of misleading because while I never really let go of the bar, it definitely wasn’t one continuous set.
To my credit, I think the positive takeaway is that I was training with huge effort, and I had a tremendous ability to push myself to the limit, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that. But you obviously have to be smart too, and pushing yourself to the absolute brink—especially on the deadlift—isn’t so smart.
This time around, I was in more control of the weight, and my form is way better. Not perfect, but very good in my opinion considering the weight. If you put a gun to my head and told me to grind out more reps I could definitely do it (especially with straps), but it wouldn’t be pretty, and these days I’m trying to live by the motto “live to fight another day.”
Another thing I’ve changed my mind on a little bit is paused reps vs. touch-and-go reps. I used to only do paused reps because I thought touch-and-go was cheating, and I also thought it was more dangerous. Now I’m not so sure about that, and I think you can make a good case for either way being safer or more dangerous depending on how you execute it.
With touch-and-go reps, there can be a tendency for form to deteriorate as the set goes on, which usually manifests in people failing to get their hips down and “stiff legging” reps later in the set. That’s why I used to avoid them.
At the same time, you’ll often see that the first rep in a set of deadlifts is the worst when people are trying to overcome inertia and break the bar off the floor. So when you’re doing paused reps, there’s more “first reps,” if that makes sense. With higher rep sets, you’ll see form go down the tubes with paused reps as fatigue sets in.
So here’s what I do. With my lower rep sets (under 5-6), I’ll used paused reps and reset my form on each rep. With higher reps though, I’ll do touch-and-go, but I make a conscious effort to keep my hips down and keep form tight. It’s also important to note that touch-and-go does not give you license to free fall the weight and aggressively bounce it off the floor. I don’t think you want to lower it really slowly either as that’s dangerous too in its own right, but you do want to be in control of the weight.
Think of it as a “kiss” more than a bounce. But when you’re dealing with heavy-ass weight, that kiss may be a bit more aggressive, more like making out with heavy petting, or sliding head-first into first base
I’m not saying you have to do it my way, but that’s how I do it.
In some respects, touch-and-go is easier because you don’t have to overcome inertia and start from a deadstop on each rep, but in other ways it’s harder because you have to do the set continuously and can’t take breaks between reps. So just know the differences and chose accordingly.
The bigger takeaway here though goes beyond deadlifts, and that is to realize that it’s not always about the numbers or the weight on the bar. Sure you want to get stronger, but strength progression can be measured in many ways. Lifting the same weight through a larger range of motion is progression, and lifting the same weight with better form is a HUGE form of progression.
Sometimes you have to check your ego and take a step back and do it right. That’s not getting weaker; that’s getting smarter and better. And training smarter will in turn help you get a lot stronger in the long term.
The sooner you can learn and internalize that lesson, the better off you’ll be.
P.S. While I’m throwing myself under the bus a little with my older video, I have no regrets about how I used to train because I think life is a learning process. I never had a trainer or coach when I was starting out, and until recently I never even had a training partner, so I learned by reading, watching videos, and most importantly, trying everything out. I’ve made lots of mistakes, but they’ve never been from lack of effort. And at the end of the day, I can live with that. In fact, I think in the end it’s made me a much better coach and has allowed me to teach the lifts better, so I’m very thankful for that.
P.P.S. On that note, my 455×12 pull was inspired by one of my hockey boys pulling 405×12 a couple days before. He’s only 16 years old, so it won’t be long before he blows by me, which as a coach is a pretty damn cool feeling.
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