Deadlifts – Things I like

After a week of living in hotels and eating out at restaurants for every meal it felt great to get back to the gym and tear up some calluses today.

Sprinting for Body Composition

I recently spent some time visiting family in the Los Angeles area. The weather was awesome. And when I say awesome, I mean I was ready to pack up my stuff and move to California immediately. The sun, the mountains, the ocean… it was more than appealing after a particularly cold and snowy winter in the Northeast. Ultimately, rationality kicked in and I’ve once again accepted that I’ll likely never live in a warm-weather climate.

Disappointment aside, there are certainly benefits to living in an area with four seasons. Besides the yearly occurrence of the greatest season (Fall), the emergence of Spring brings with it an excitement that people who never have to shovel their cars out of two feet of snow will understand.

From a fitness perspective, I enjoy the cyclical nature of training that comes from the different seasons. In the winter I can focus entirely on lifting big and lifting often. I’m not getting outside on a regular basis to hike, bike, walk, run, etc, so my energies are focused entirely on lifting. Once Spring hits, the volume of lifting drops slightly as I begin to incorporate outdoor activities into my daily life. Where-as I might lift on 4-5 days a week in the Winter, come Spring and Summer I will often times drop that down to 2-3 days of lifts with 2-3 days of outdoor activities.

Last Summer I incorporated biking into my regular fitness regimen. I’ve never been a cyclist, and still don’t consider myself one, but do enjoy the speed and distance that can be covered on a bike as compared to on foot. My office is 5.5 miles down a wooded bike path from my home, which lends itself very well to cycling sprints. I’m kind of an on/off guy, so there isn’t any cruise control on my bike. Additionally, I have a Trek District which is a single-speed, belt-drive bike. I love the single speed because it forces me to vary my effort based on terrain. I have to really pound on the pedals to get up steep hills and then find myself without much pedaling options once I get going fast down a hill. I ride to/from work and time both rides, which allows me to keep track of progress over time.

In addition to cycling, I plan on incorporating sprinting into my training this year as well. Reading Dan John’s book “Never Let Go” last Winter, there was a passage that has stuck with me and has been nagging in the back of my mind ever since. To paraphrase (and hopefully not butch it), Dan points out that if you go to a track meet you’ll never see a person with excessive body fat running a sub 50 second 400 meter. By contrast, you’d be hard-pressed to spend any amount of time on a bike path in the summer and not witness throngs of overweight people jogging and riding their bikes, clad in expensive gear, and looking like they might die.

I haven’t run a 400 meter sprint for time since high school (nearly 15 years ago). I’m sure it will be a painful and shaming experience, but it’ll be great to get a sense of just how slow I’ve become. If I remember right, as a sophomore in high school I ran just over a 50 second 400 at 5’10” and around 150lbs. With basically no sprinting in the last few years, and at 6’ 195lbs, I’m guessing I’ll be lucky to hit 1:05 on my first go of it. If I can break :55 by the end of Summer I’ll be a happy man.

Sandbag Bench Press

The more I find I can do with sandbags, the more enamored I become with them. Dollar for dollar, I don’t know if there is a more cost-effective form of equipment. For around $50 I have two military duffles and 300+ pounds of sand. The amount of movement options are staggering enough that I have to force myself to stay focused on the lifts in the current routine I’m working through. However, every two or three weeks I like to do a “freestyle” work-out. During this time I simply play around with the various equipment I have. I load up sand, or use a vest, or the TRX, or any combination of these and other tools and experiment with different ways of moving weight. Sometimes it’s a bust, but sometimes I find something that I really enjoy (or that really destroys me).

Recently, I found one such movement. While I’ve tried using sandbags for floor presses in the past, I wasn’t able to do it in a way that was satisfying. With light weight (sub-150 pounds) it was easy enough to get into position and perform the movement. As I started to increase the weight, the bag became too unwieldy and pivoting from a seated position to a lying position was crushing my tailbone. After watching a beast of a man perform 300 pound presses off a bench, I decided to try it on a bench myself.

In addition to using a bench, this video helped me realize the importance of having the bag packed as tightly as possible. Whereas previously I was more concerned with distributing the weight fully across the bag, I realized that I needed to pack it in as tight as possible and then tie up any loose material at the end of the bag.

The difference was night and day. I was able to put the loaded bag on the bench. Getting the bag in position for each set was significantly easier as well. The grinding on my lower back was a non-factor on the padded bench. The first time around I was super-setting with some high-volume bearhug squats. After warming up I performed six or seven sets at 170lbs, generally reaching 7-10 reps in each set. Between the press and the squats I felt pretty good (or horrible), but most importantly I finished the workout with a real sense of excitement for increasing the weight and focusing on the press in the future.

A few days later I performed a more focused workout. I had some issues with keeping the bag tightly packed, which forced me to cut a couple sets short and added to the “rest” time between a few sets. I’ve found this to be pretty common when working with sandbags, especially as I’m ironing out the wrinkles for a new lift. All told, my final sets were done at 200lbs. I did around 7 sets at that weight and varied between 5-8 reps per set. I’ll probably try bumping the weight up another 25lbs the next time I do it.

It’s definitely still in the experimental stage, but so far I think the movement has a lot of promise. As opposed to a traditional bench press, the movement places the hands in a neutral grip position which is easier on the shoulders. With a maximum dumbbell weight of 90lbs (180lbs total), my presses have been fairly limited. Perfecting this movement opens up a lot of potential weight.

Sandbag Deadlifts

Ahh deadlifts. On the one hand, these are my favorite lift. On the other, these have also been the most difficult lift to build into my current setup. My “gym,” as mentioned earlier, is little more than a small bedroom on the third floor of a multi-family home. For this reason, I’m not able to use traditional olympic weights. I have a number of RSS feeds that keep me updated on used gym equipment available on CraigsList. If I was able to piece something together, cheaply, I would jump on the opportunity. The only problem is that it would have to be used outside. The often cold/rainy climate of Boston would prevent this from being a year-round option, as well as likely causing significant wear and tear over time. Due to these reasons, I haven’t wanted to invest in more expensive equipment until I have the space for it.
I was recently referred to Rogue Fitness, a company based in Ohio that sells training equipment. Not only does their equipment look great, the prices are very competitive. As soon as I have the space (hopefully in the next year or two), I’ll definitely be spending my next $1k on some olympic equipment from these guys.
All that being said, I’ve tried to find a way to incorporate deadlifts (or at least something that resembles them) into my routines. Suitcase deadlifts with the Powerblocks are an option, but I’m limited to 90lbs per hand. In the past six months I’ve turned to sandbags, as these are the only option I currently have that can be used in the 300lb range. While far from ideal, I’ve been able to establish a routine with sandbags that is both taxing and has appeared to deliver appreciable results.
I have two different sandbags. Both are the same size, but one is sealed at the top with the use of rings and a clip. The second bag is a a more traditional, zippered style. I’ve found the zippered bag to be much easier to load and use. My initial fear was that the zipper would break under load, but I’ve found that the seams are much more likely to break before the zipper does. I perform lifts with over 300lbs of sand in the bag and there is no noticeable wear on the zipper. The side handles, on the other hand, ripped off around 220lbs.
To perform the movement, I start at 115lbs and slowly move up by performing descending sets (10-8-8-6-4-2-etc) at increasing weight. Five sets of 10 is the goal, but I’ve recently hit that point and now, without the ability to add additional weight, will have to adjust by either increasing the amount of sets or the amount of reps.I try to balance the weight as equally as possible across the bag and then grab the sides of the bag at the middle point. The trickiest part, once the weight is evenly distributed, is to shake the bag around until the interior sandbags are condensed at either end. This will open up (in the case of the bag/weight that I use) a slight amount of free space in the center that I can use as a grip. The free space also acts as a point for the bag to bend through the movement. Gloves of some sort are definitely needed for this lift. I tried for a long time going without gloves, but the the blisters that I would get on my knuckles would take too long to heal and would prevent me from training with the sandbags for 1-2 weeks. I just use a pair of running gloves that I bought in a different life. They’re light, have some grip, and breathe pretty easily.
This is definitely one of the most exhausting and hunger-driving lifts. I can hardly eat enough the day after I do these. However, I know that my current setup is not ideal and that this is the one movement that I am most limited in. I will continue to experiment, including trying to squeeze the Powerblocks into the bag (for an additional 180lbs), but a good deadlifting setup is #1 on my list of priorities for the day that I’m able to expand into a more accommodating space.

Foam Rolling, Stretching, and Complexes

One of the most important things I have learned over the years is the importance of a proper warm-up. In a lot of ways, the warm-up is more important and beneficial to long-term health than the actual work-out I perform. My warm-ups focus not just on “warming up”, but also on mobility, soft tissue work, stretching, and more.

I spend most of the day sitting at a desk, working on a computer. As has been expounded on ad infinitum, this is less than idea for posture, mobility, etc. Our ancestors moved around, lifted things, walked places, ran after things, and depended on their bodies in ways we never will. My completely non-scientific guess would be that the average office worker today spends 9 hours at a desk, followed by 4 hours on the couch or in front of a computer at home, followed by 7 hours in bed. That amounts to nearly 85% of a day spent completely immobile. Combine that with atrocious eating habits and it’s no wonder obesity rates continue to grow.

In an effort to counteract the realities of having a desk job, I perform roughly 30 minutes of stretching, mobility, and bodyweight exercises before every workout. In reality, these are probably things I should do every day.

Bodyweight circuit (repeat three times with little-to-no rest between sets):

  • 12-15 prisoner squats
  • 6-8 single-leg Romanian deadlifts (per leg)
  • 10 slow push-ups with a plus (serratus activation)
  • 8-10 pull-ups (or chin-ups)

Stretching and mobility work includes:

  • Hip flexor stretch
  • Side-lying hip flexion/extension
  • Hip Rockers
  • Hamstring stretches with a band
  • Shoulder mobility work (reach and lift, scapular wall slides, etc)
  • Kneeling thoracic rotation
  • Foam rolling (one of my favorite pieces of equipment)

By the time I’ve gone through this, I’ve touched on a number of issues (hip and shoulders) and I’ll also have worked up a sweat. I’ve really enjoyed the bodyweight circuit, which I added to my warm-ups a few months ago. In those three sets I’m able to do more and move more than most people do the entire day. It also aligns with the idea that “if something is worth doing, do it every day.” I’ve really refocused my lifts to the most basic and primary movements, and while I can’t do max effort compound movements every day, I can do bodyweight variations of them as a warm-up.

Weighted Pull-Ups

In the grand continuum of weightlifing, the vast majority of us probably get into the game with a similar mindset. You come to the realization that you’re too skinny or too fat. You buy a handful of Men’s Health, Muscle & Fitness, and any number of other options. Every magazine promises the latest and greatest in chest blasting, shoulder exploding, and bicep ripping routines. For whatever reason, our enthusiasm and naivety prevent us from reading through the BS (or even registering any concern over terminology more akin to a war than a gym). We then pull together a routine that looks something like:

Monday – Chest: bench press, incline bench press, decline bench press, butterfly press, and abz
Tuesday – Legs: leg press, leg curls, calf raises, and abz
Wednesday – Rest
Thursday – Arms: bicep curls, wrist curls, tricep extensions, skullcrushers, preacher curls, and abz
Friday – Rest
Saturday – Shoulder/Back: lat pulldowns, cable rows, military press, front dumbbell raises, side dumbbell raises, and lots of AAABBZZZZ
Sunday – Rest

You make some noob gains in the first six months, get real excited, and then plateau. Or worse, you get injured, pain builds up in your shoulders, etc. Maybe this period lasts a year, maybe more. For me, it lasted for three years. Then I saw the light and started to go big, switched to 5×5, zeroed in on the stuff that really “mattered,” and promptly dislocated my shoulder. I was still doing it mostly wrong. I was still focused on the mirror muscles.

By the time I got through therapy and recovery, I was clocking in at 170lbs soaking wet (at 6’ tall). However, sometimes a slap in the face, or in my case a dislocated shoulder, is what we need to refocus and figure out how to do things (mostly) right.

My new focus became getting things started right before each workout. Stretching, foam rolling, mobility work, and thorough warm-ups. My lifts shifted to a lot more pulling and a lot less pushing. Through that process I grew to love pull-ups. I worked my way up to sets of 30+ pull-ups. However, my back and lats were still really lacking.

It wasn’t until I put an emphasis on deadlifts and weighted pull-ups that I started to notice a difference in my back/lats. Today, I do pull-ups (supinated, neutral, and pronated grips) in two different ways.

Number one, I use them in my warm-ups. To paraphrase Dan John, if something is worth doing, do it every day. Doing three sets of 10 throughout the course of my warm-ups adds up to an additional 120-150 pull-ups per week.

Number two, I add weight to my pull-ups. Today, I use a 40lb vest. After my warm-up sets, I perform five sets of 10 (or as close to 10 as possible) with 90 seconds rest between sets. The first few feel easy, but the last two are a killer. As I get closer to 5X10, I’ll add more weight and start over again.

Bearhug Squats


You’re stranded on a desert island and can only do one lift the rest of your life. What would it be? I guess that hypothetical situation doesn’t really work as well for exercises as it does for movie selection, but you get the idea. My choice would be deadlifts, followed by squats. What’s the biggest limitation of a small room, home gym set-up? No squat rack and no olympic weights. This post will outline how I’ve managed to incorporate squats into my regular workout in a way that I have found to be meaningful and challenging.

Sandbags have been my saving grace in a lot of ways. In a future post I’ll expand further on the specifics of my sandbags (sounds dirty). For squats, I’ve found sandbags to be a great way to move weight without a rack or barbell.

When I first started doing squats at home, I tried doing a front squat movement with PowerBlocks. Without a barbell, the struggle was in keeping the Powerblocks (or dumbbells, if you will) into position on my chest. With only 180lbs total between the two Powerblocks, I also needed to start incorporating a weighted vest (+40lbs). It still felt awkward at best.

In the last four or five months, I’ve ditched the Powerblocks and started using a sandbag. I put three 60lb bags of sand into a duffle, put the weighted vest on, and bearhug the duffle. I’ve found this to be a great alternative to my failed attempt at front squats with dumbbells. There isn’t a single workout I do that gasses me more than this one. By the time I’m done with my 5 sets, I’m ready to call it a day. Usually I’m ready to die. And I almost always have to lay down for at least five minutes.

Warm-ups are pretty straightforward. After my normal routine of mobility, stretching, and a bodyweight circuit, I’ll perform a couple sets of 10-12 bodyweight squats. I’ll then put on the weighted vest and do two sets of eight and six reps.  I’ll then grab a 60lb bag of sand, with the vest on, and do two sets of six. As with all my warm-ups, I don’t time my rest periods, but the few times I have I find I rest around 45 seconds to a minute between each set.

I then pull my bench over to where I’ll be squatting, load up a duffle with 180lbs of sand, and place it on the bench (did I mention I love deadlifts?). This makes it significantly easier to load up for each set. Five sets of 10 is the goal, and I’m just a hair under that mark today. Once I reach it, I’ll put another 40lbs of sand in the duffle and rinse and repeat.

Neutral Grip Floor Presses

Even though I own an adjustable bench, it rarely gets used. There was a day when I used it all the time. For a variety of reasons, it acts as a weight stand more than anything else now.

Several years ago, I was performing single-arm military presses while sitting on the bench. At one point, my left arm must have moved too far back and the momentum of an 85 pound weight pulled my left arm out of my shoulder. Long story short, I had to go through nine months of physical therapy and orthopedic surgeon visits. Today I would say that my left shoulder is 90%. I am extremely cognizant of keeping my shoulder protected now. There are a few things I have done to protect, and strengthen, my shoulders:

  1. Increased my pulling:pushing ratio. My routines typically are now around a 3:1 ratio of pulling to pushing. When I first started lifting, 6 years ago, I did very little pulling work.
  2. More push-ups. I used to think push-ups were too easy to be effective. I’ve since learned that they can not only be an integral part of my training, but also do a lot to strengthen shoulders and promote healthy mobility.
  3. Floor presses. In the last three years, I have done a set of traditional bench presses exactly one time. I have grown to love neutral grip floor presses.

I currently perform single-arm, neutral grip floor presses. I have found this to be much easier (for lack of a better term) than two-arm presses. When I was doing two-arm presses, I found it difficult to get both PowerBlocks in position. I had to build a “platform” out of sandbag that I could rest one of the Powerblocks on. I then got on the floor, put the first Powerblock on my thigh, and then would grab the second, elevated Powerblock and shimmy it onto my other thigh. By doing single-arm presses, I’m able to use both arms to get the weight into and out-of position.

The single-arm press also forces me to use more core muscles for balance. I have a pretty strong core, but from what I’ve read it seems that people with weaker cores will often experience soreness in the obliques after performing single-arm presses, due to the need to use your core to keep stabilized.

After I complete my warm-up and stretching work, I start with a 50lb weight at 10 reps. I then move to 60lbs for 8, 70lbs for 6, and 80lbs for 4. I typically don’t time myself between these warm-up sets. When I have timed it, I find I usually rest for around 45 seconds to a minute. I then move into my workout with a 90lb weight. I perform 5 sets, with 90 seconds rest in between each set. I aim for 10 reps in each set and have been falling short in the last few sets by anywhere from 2-4 reps. Once I’m able to do 5×10, I’ll need to increase the weight. As of now, I don’t have the Big Block kit for my Powerblocks, which will take the weight in each block up to 130lbs. Fortunately for my training, but not my bank account, I’ll likely be needing the extension in the next month or so.

As a side-note, I’ve tried playing around with sandbag floor presses, but found the bags and weight to be too awkward. With 300lbs of sand at my disposal, I had hoped that sandbags would be an easy way to progress without having to invest in additional equipment. However, the bags I use allow for too much movement and shifting of sand.

Unconventional Training

Living in Boston has a lot of positives. But it also means a lot less living space. While I love being able to walk or bike to nearly everything I need, the one part of my life I don’t outsource is my gym. It seems crazy, even to me. There are probably half a dozen options within three miles of my place. I’ve even been a member of four different gyms at different points since graduating from college. However, I always come back to the home gym.

I love being able to train when I want to train, listen to what I want to listen to, and most importantly, to avoid the distractions of a commercial gym. I can sweat, grunt, and sometimes collapse on the floor. After a particularly draining day of squats I laid down on the floor thinking I was going to die. Thirty minutes later I woke up in a pool of my own sweat. Try doing that at Planet Fitness.

There’s also something about the inherent challenge of limited space and equipment that motivates me even more. It has forced me to make very deliberate and well-thought out purchases. I literally don’t have the room for mistake purchases. My current workout room, which I also share with my wife’s dresser and clothes, is about the size of a large bathroom. It also has a sloped roof. Did I mention that it doubles as my wife’s walk-in closet?

All of this means that I haven’t been able to equip myself with things such as a squat rack or olympic weights. Instead, I have 300+ pounds of sand, two 90 pound power blocks, a pull-up/dip station, a TRX system, a 40lb vest, and an adjustable bench. Other than foam rollers and some bands, that’s all I have. Over the years I have tried a lot of different movements, most of which didn’t stick, but many have become a staple.

For the last few months I’ve been keeping things very simple. No complicated rep schemes, no super-setting, no metcon. I was inspired by Dan John to break it down to the most fundamental movements. Four to five days a week I perform 30 minutes of warm-ups and soft-tissue work, followed by a single lift. I start out light and work through 4-6 sets before I “start” the lift. I then attempt to do five sets of 10. Once I reach that point, I up the weight and start all over again. The movements I perform are:

  1. Floor Press
  2. Squats
  3. Pull-ups
  4. Deadlifts
  5. Overhead Press
  6. Rows

Over the next few weeks I’ll walk through each of these movements. My focus will not be on the value of each (hopefully that goes without saying) or the technique. I’ll focus on the equipment I have found most useful, limitations, and how you can build a very efficient home gym that will blow away any Bowflex, Nordicflex, P90X, or any other infomericalX system.