How to deadlift 400 pounds for 20 reps

The above photograph is of John B. Patterson training in the Australian outback, in 1986. Note the concrete weight plates. This photograph was published on the cover of HARDGAINER issue #42.


This chapter on the deadlift is included in BEYOND BRAWN for five reasons:

1. To show that a typical hardgainer, if not restricted by age or structural problems, can build up to respectable weights—in my case bent-legged deadlifting 400 pounds for 20 consecutive rest-pause reps.

2. To explain the real-life, step-by-step practicalities of a training cycle, how a cycle is modified as it evolves, and how the ups and downs of life have to be accommodated.

3. To take you through the key lessons learned.

4. To confirm that I’m no armchair instructor.

5. To show that abbreviated, basics-first training works.

This chapter is a revised and expanded version of an article published in issue #21 of HARDGAINER magazine (November-December 1992). You’re not going to get just the positive side of the training cycle. You’re going to get the full story, to help equip you to avoid the mistakes I made.


The background

The first requirements for realizing a very demanding goal are lots of resolve, heaps of persistence, and tons of effort. Whether your demanding goal is 300 x 20 in the squat, 350 x 20 in the deadlift, 300 x 5 in the bench press, or whatever, you really have to want it. There’s no easy way to reach a demanding goal. If you don’t want it enough to pay your dues, overcome expected and unexpected obstacles, and give your pound of flesh, you’ll never get to your goal. The names of our game are effort and progressive poundages. While cycling training intensity doesn’t mean full-bore effort at every workout, you must deliver sustained periods of intensive workouts.

There are two crucial considerations to keep in mind when viewing my personal training achievements:

a. I’ve never taken bodybuilding drugs, and never will.

b. My overall genetic endowment is almost the opposite of what’s needed to develop outstanding muscle mass and strength.

While 400 x 20 is fine deadlifting for a hardgainer, it’s not much in today’s world where the genetically gifted elite grab the publicity and attention. But while some of these men are awesomely strong, more than a few of them are far less strong than their posed lifts (sometimes using fake plates) suggest. I didn’t use a lifting belt or any lifting gear other than grip support. I was 195 pounds—at 5-9—when I did the 400 x 20, so I was pulling over twice bodyweight. This was in July 1992 when I was 33 years old.

When appraising my genetics for lifting weights, there’s nothing to marvel at. Two areas come out as better than average, i.e., calves, and body structure for the deadlift and the stiff-legged deadlift. Everything else ranges from average hardgainer material to less-than-average.

I had extensive work and parental responsibilities during the deadlift cycle. These prevented my resting and sleeping as well as I should have in order to recuperate speedily from training. I’m a real-world person, not someone who can devote himself to his training with little or no thought for other aspects of regular life. As typical working hardgainers it’s not just our genes that work against us. There are other out-of-the-gym factors as well.


Reasoning for the deadlift focus

Until this 400 x 20 deadlift cycle I considered the barbell squat to be the exercise to concentrate upon. While my deadlift poundage can almost be depended upon to increase so long as I’m injury-free, train very hard and infrequently, and eat and rest enough, the same can’t be said of the squat. For years I tried to make the most of a relatively poor body structure for squatting (my legs are overly long in relation to the length of my torso), and I neglected to apply myself to an exercise I’m mechanically much better suited to—the deadlift.

As it was, I spent many years focusing on the squat while omitting the deadlift. The 1992 experience proved that while my back and knees would cave in from the squat, the deadlift could be kept moving.

I’m not in a minority of one on this point; and I believe that the minority is substantial among hardgainers. If you can’t get good results from the barbell squat despite training it hard and with persistence—and assuming that you know what correct squatting technique is—promote the bent-legged deadlift, especially using the parallel-grip bar, to at least equal status with the squat. (But not the stiff-legged deadlift, because it doesn’t involve the quadriceps.)

Beginners and early intermediates should give equal priority to the squat and the deadlift in their training. But once they have reached the intermediate stage—when they look like they lift weights—they should be able to see how they compare in the two exercises. Assuming the same degree of application to each exercise, if your squat is about the same or ahead of your deadlift, you have a squatter’s body structure. If your deadlift is well ahead of your squat, it’s the deadlift that’s favored by your body structure. At this stage, at least some of the time, you should have specialization cycles in which you focus on the exercise you naturally favor. Make the most of whatever natural bias you have. While the very gifted can do very well in almost every exercise, the rest of us may have to settle for finding just one or two exercises in which to excel, but without neglecting other areas.

I started weight training in 1973. I got little or nothing out of most of those years other than lots of experience of what doesn’t work despite single-minded determination and application. I never got into any variation of the deadlift in a serious way until about 1988. Until then it had been the barbell squat for my thigh, hip and lower back structure. I then got into low-rep deadlifting. After about three years of hard work on both the stiff-legged and bent-legged versions, but not both of them in the same cycle, I was capable of deadlifting 500 pounds. I was, however, still giving more focus to the squat, but wasn’t getting results proportional to my application.

During the deadlift-focus period I’m now going to describe I found I could progress on the deadlift akin to how the famous squatters did on the squat—train hard, rest a lot, eat well, and add weight to the bar almost every week, and do so for a long time. This was so satisfying and made me wonder what I might have done had I grasped this important reality early in my training life.

The above is an excerpt from Chapter 17 of BEYOND BRAWN. For all of the details of Stuart’s training cycle that culminated in the 400 x 20 deadlifting, and the many important lessons you can learn from this cycle so that you can boost your own bodybuilding progress, please see the rest of Chapter 17.

Please check out this book’s table of contents to discover the extent of the guidance provided in this famous bodybuilding guide.