Bodyweight Exercises for the Deadlift

The Iron Cross. So simple, such brutal strength to acomplish.

I do a lot of bodyweight exercises, from full on yoga routines to your meat and potatoes pushups/dips/pullups, to attempts at more extravagant and ‘metabolic’ moves that could be lumped under the ‘animal flow’ category.

Funny how a lot of that stuff looks like break-dancing. Funnier still how much it kicks my ass.

Now I know, you’re going to say that there is only so much strength you can build with your own bodyweight, and how does this apply/carry over to powerlifting or something like strongman competitions?

It’s simple. Core strength and endurance. A strong core leads to greater stability, support and foundation   in your lifts, in whatever sport or activity you do. Core endurance is vital as well, just imagine your stomach muscles failing during a heavy lift. Gymnasts not only have strong abs and core muscles, but by necessity, they can maintain that strength over extended periods of time.

When asked what two body parts he would focus on if he had no time for anything else, Pavel Tsatsouline replied, “grip strength and core strength.” Given an otherwise active lifestyle, that’s not a bad answer.

Back to the deadlift. How do I use bodyweight exercises to improve my deadlift? The following routine is an example:

  • Push-up & or Elbow Planks
  • Spider or Bear Crawls
  • Good Mornings with the hands/arms in different positions

Now I could add things like Supermans, or the Table Top exercise and many others, but most days I keep it simple.

How could these exercises possibly affect my deadlift numbers? Or anything else involving weights you ask?

Planks: These are done in the hardest way possible. This means that once in position, you contract everything. Lats, glutes, abdominals, fists, etc. As a result, nearly everything else contracts as well, including your quads, hamstrings and even calves.

This is a concentrated effort that is hard to maintain for more than 10-20 seconds. Chances are, if you’re going much longer than that, you’re doing it wrong.

So this is intense isometric contraction. and what is one thing we do a lot of when lifting heavy weights, especially in the squat and deadlift? You got it, isometric contraction of the core musculature. Not only does this build strength, but it makes a great warm-up before going into heavy lifting.

Spider or Bear Crawls: Spider Crawls, or Spiderman Crawls, are sheer torture. Alligator crawls may be a more appropriate term, because you are striving to keep your torso flat and as close to the ground as possible while you move your opposite arm and leg at the same time to ‘crawl’ forward.

Try it. Get in the bottom position of a pushup. Now, raising yourself just enough to get your body off the floor, extend one arm, bend the opposite leg and move forward one step, ‘catching’ yourself with the movement of the opposite arm and leg. Yeah, it works your core, and everything else.

Good Mornings: I once did 100 repetitions of good mornings, moving down and to left, right and center, sometimes reaching forward with extended arms, and I had a sore back for the next 3 days. Ah, that lactic acid buildup.

Granted, I don’t see much point in doing this many repetitions of the exercise anymore, but it illustrates how effectively it targets the lower lumbar, and if you do them right, glutes and hamstrings.

As with planks, I flex. For one thing, I have injured myself doing these in sloppy form. For another, it makes it harder. So I place my hands either behind my head, on my hips, or extended over my head, and I contract my abs, glutes and hamstrings as I lower my torso to parallel.

To increase the work, you can pause at the bottom position. Extending your arms also makes this more difficult, and for some variety, you can twist up to the left and right.

Done as a circuit, these 3 simple bodyweight exercises will get your heart pumping as well, and are a great substitute for a free weight or similar resistance workout. Vary the intensity and use this as a light day when you can’t lift heavy, or a great core travel workout when you can’t get to the gym.

Max Deadlift and the Preexhaustion Principle

My 4-Faced Onnit Mace

It’s week 3 of my journey to a 405 lb. deadlift, (starting from 265, if you missed the first part of this, you can read it here.) and while the deadlift poundage has improved, I seem to be weaker in other areas.

Maybe this is my nervous system telling me to stop sprinting so much with the dog, maybe its the 100 degree heat, I don’t know.

I train on with careful attention to how my body is feeling, pushing just enough, slowing down/stopping when necessary.

Today, however, I felt fairly recovered. This, despite the fact that I’ve been working out everyday. A good sign.

I like to think of it as an intensity wave. You don’t always have to stop completely, but you have to slow down, recover, adjust.

Anyway, enough of the banter, today’s workout reminded me how much fun swinging clubs and maces can be.

It also reminded me of a very ‘bodybuilding-esque’ training principle called pre-exhaustion. Basically, fatiguing a muscle group with one exercise (usually something that isolates the muscle group) before doing another (usually compound) exercise.

The result should be obvious, pre-exhausting makes the second, compound exercise, more difficult.

You can probably see where I’m going with this, so let’s lay it out:


BW Box (chair) Squats: 2×10-20

Pushups/Sun Salutations: 2x10ish

*(I was already up and moving for a while before I started, thus the brief warm-up)


3 rounds of,

  • 15# Mace swings (10-2’s and 360’s, for those who care.)

*25# on 3rd round.
*Probably some 15# clubs in here as well.

  • 1 hand and 2-hand KB swings @55# for 20ish reps. (At some point you don’t care, you either can’t stop swinging or you have to put the damn thing down.)

  • Dbl KB Deadlifts @70# each x 6-8.

There may have been an extra round of one of the exercises thrown in, but I’m not sure. When in doubt, I tend to do one more of something rather than feel like I shorted it.

That’s it, that was the workout. But it was more than enough. It got my heart beating out of my chest, provided enough resistance to make me push a little (not too hard today) and it sent me into that Zen-like afterglow, the euphoric calm you get after a good workout.

The Wrap Up

So the bottom line is, although I’m feeling weaker than usual (haha! making fun of myself,) performing the KB swings before deadlifting the heavier ‘bells made 140# feel more like 200…ok let’s say 185.

This principle could have been further tested by doing something more lumbar/glute/hamstring specific, such as good mornings or hyperextensions. However, if I had chosen that exercise, I don’t think the KB swings would have been a good idea. No injuries necessary, thanks.

So give pre-exhaustion a try on your next workout, or revisit it if it’s been a while. If you do it right, your muscles are working just as hard and the results may surprise you.