A Bodybuilder Is Born: Episode 18 - Back To Basics!

Deadlifts should be a part of your routine if you are looking to build a thick back. I did not start them until I was 34...

Back | Home | Next

At first there was the nagging voice in the back of my head (no, not the one that says, 'Kill! Kill!) that said I was a slacker for avoiding full deadlifts. Then there was the nagging voice of IFBB pro Johnnie Jackson on the other end of the phone accusing me not only of being a slacker, but of shortchanging Randy of the back he was capable of building. Johnnie himself is no slouch in the back department.

Fellow pro Victor Martinez remarked of Jackson's back, "I never seen oatmeal that lumpy." Apparently Vic never tried using a little less water and stirring in some Parrillo Hi-Protein powder. I think I actually made a good 3-D map of the Hawaiian Islands like that one morning in my bowl. Johnnie is also a competitive powerlifter, and thus strongly feels that the three big lifts need to be included in every bodybuilder's routine if he is to grow to his maximum potential.


Doing some heavy deadlifts in the gym.

"The one thing I hate," he told me with real scorn in his voice, "is when pro's and other advanced bodybuilders tell young kids they don't need to squat and deadlift just because they don't anymore. They are cheating those kids out of so much overall muscle on their bodies I feel like slapping them."

"Yeah, those jerks," I agreed, all the while thinking Johnnie would probably slap me if he got the chance.

You see, though I had been diligently forcing Randy to squat except for the few weeks after he hurt his lower back a while ago, I had never so much as shown him how to do deadlifts. Sure, we did rack deadlifts from the knees up sometimes, but lately I had been starting to think those were about as close to full deads as second base was to intercourse. After having figured out finally from looking at contest pics from last spring that my back could definitely stand to be thicker (I had to admit it couldn't always simply be bad stage lighting), I began to look at the guys with the best backs and what they did for them.

The best back in the world for the past few years has belonged to Ronnie Coleman, and we all know from watching his video that he is capable of full deadlifts with over 800 pounds. Johnnie Jackson is another back freak (his traps actually do touch his ears), and he has deadlifted 825 in an official USPF meet. Even Martinez, last year's Night of Champions winner, does full deadlifts in every back workout. I asked him about half or rack deadlifts, but he dismissed them as wimpy.

"I like to get my money's worth when I deadlift, not half the exercise."

It was settled. I hadn't done full deadlifts except for a brief period of a few months back around 1998 when I had trained with a powerlifter and former Army Ranger named John Lamphiere. To be brutally honest with myself, I didn't even know how to do them right anymore, if I ever had. It sure isn't like riding a bike. Luckily I had been e-mailing back and forth with a personal trainer from Massachusetts named Mike Westerling, and from his Bodiesbymike.com web site I knew he was a big believer in deadlifts. Maybe he could teach me, and I could turn around and pass on the correct technique to Randy. Luckily, Mike was willing to come to my gym one day when Randy and I don't train together anyway and show me how it's done.

The session went very well, though my ego had to be left outside in the freezing cold while I practiced the deadlift with moderate weights. Mike patiently kept reminding me to pay attention to little things like keeping my back flat, my butt up, and pushing with my heels. His description of the correct form feeling like 'falling backwards' helped a lot. Prior to this, my deadlifts had unwittingly been nothing more than squats, just holding on to the bar instead of setting it across my shoulders.

That's why I had always felt the first half of the lift only in my legs and glutes and had concluded that only the top half of the exercise's range of motion worked the back. How wrong I had been! Now I was hardly bending my legs at all, but my back was working like crazy the whole time. My lower back in particular was pumped for about an hour after the deadlifts, and sore for a full five days.

Exactly one week later Randy and I met up to train back, and it was confession time.

"Randy, we are going to start doing deadlifts today."

"Huh?" He was clearly confused. "What do you mean... don't we deadlift all the time?"

"Not really. We have been faking the funk and it's all my fault as the leader in this dynamic duo. It's time we started doing deadlifts from the floor."

"I thought you said we only had to do them from the knees up to work the back, didn't you?"

"Well," I carefully chose my words, "I have reconsidered and now I think we will actually get more benefit from using a full range of motion. All those powerlifters with their thick-ass backs must be on to something."

Randy thought a minute. "To be honest, I always wondered why we weren't doing them that way. I watch that Ronnie Coleman video at least once a month for motivation and he is a monster on deadlifts. My back has come up a lot, but I still feel like something is missing." That last part sent a fresh pang of guilt twisting in my gut.

"Okay, don't rub it in. At least you're not starting these at age 34 like me, Sparky."

Randy's form was even more awkward than mine had been, and I wouldn't let him go any heavier than 135 that day. But by the end, he had it pretty much down. The rest of the workout was just chin-ups, one-arm dumbbell rows, and shrugs. We were going to stick purely to the basics for a while to beef up our backs.

The room where we do our deadlifts and squats is wall-to-wall mirrors, and at the conclusion of the workout, Randy peeled off his tank top and started maneuvering around to see his back as he hit some poses for it. Seeing as his skin hadn't seen the sun or a tanning bed since Labor Day, his pasty complexion was almost blinding. Apparently Randy was convinced the deadlifts were already working their magic.

"Yeah, baby!" he exclaimed as he his a lat spread. "Blockin' out the sun!"

"It's been overcast for days, there is no sun," I countered.

"Ronnie Coleman is gonna be in big trouble soon!" was his next proclamation.

"Why, has he been claiming each limb as a dependent on his tax returns or something?"

Randy's enthusiasm could not be diminished. He was fired up, because even though he had only been deadlifting for one day, he already knew instinctively as I did that big changes were soon going to be taking place in his traps, lats, and spinal erectors. He crunched into a rear double biceps and squeezed the knotted muscles together with all his might. When he spoke, it was between gritted teeth and while attempting to hold his breath.

"Whaddaya think of that?" he grunted. I paused.

"I ain't seen vomit so lumpy. At least not since New Year's Eve in 1987 when I was eating nuts and drinking tequila."