How Many Sets of Deadlifts per Week? (Muscle Mass vs. Strength)

How Many Sets of Deadlifts Per Week

A deadlift is the one exercise that you can lift the heaviest you’ve ever lifted in your life. Because it’s a high-intensity power move, you either love them or you hate them. For those who love them, powerlifting competitions just might be your thing. If you’re already involved in this sport, great! Keep reading. 

What’s the difference? (Muscle Mass vs. Strength)

Like with any exercise, you can gain either muscle mass and strength, or just strength. What’s the difference, do you ask? Well, muscle mass is the amount of muscle you have, or the size of your muscle (hypertrophy); whereas strength is the amount of force your body can withstand. 

Difference Between Muscle Mass and Strength

Training Impacts Outcome

A bodybuilder has the muscle mass and strength they need to go on stage and look good. They also go through a “cutting” phase which sheds off the extra fat around the muscles to make them appear bigger. A powerlifter also has the muscle mass and strength to compete and perform well. However; if you compare a bodybuilder to a powerlifter, a powerlifter is going to perform better than a bodybuilder, because they were trained accordingly. You don’t have to be a bodybuilder or a powerlifter to do power moves like the deadlift. One can simply just train to have the strength they need to be able to lift heavier objects off the ground (this is definitely beneficial to those working in the postal service). 

Aside from just training, proper sleep, recover and nutrition are also vital to your program and goals and will enhance your performance to its max. Regardless of your goal, there are a variety of factors that come in to play in choosing the right program for you. Overall; sets, repetitions (reps), intensity, rest period, and frequency of your workouts all play a role in your ultimate goal.

Defining Muscle Mass

An article listed by NCBI states that there are a couple different ways of describing muscle mass. One is the amount of muscle fibers you have in your body that you were born with, this all includes skeletal muscle as well as cardiac muscle. The other is hypertrophy which is the physiological growth of muscle mass that happens during child development and puberty. Hypertrophy can also happen through training the right muscle groups doing the right sets and reps to increase muscle size.

NASM lists 4 building blocks of increasing muscle mass:

  • The Principle of Specificity: Adaptations specific to the stimuli (muscle action) provided.

  • The Overload Principle: In order for a tissue to adapt to the demand, it must be progressively overloaded (i.e. 3 sets of 10-8-6 reps, increasing the weight each set).

  • The Principle of Adaptation: The body will adapt physiologically to the demands we place on it. 

  • The Principle of Reversibility: Gains are progressively lost when training is stopped.

In order for our bodies to get the results that we want, the 4 principles listed must take place. For any goal, the training must be specific to that goal, training must include progressive overload to increase overall performance, adaptation will take place as your body trains, and once you stop training, the principle of reversibility then applies. 

How Many Sets of Deadlifts per Week to Increase Muscle Mass?

In order to increase muscle mass, the athlete must lift light to moderate volume (loads) of weight for many reps. A couple examples include: 3-6 sets of 10-12 repetitions at 60-80% of your 1 repetition-maximum (1RM) with a rest period of 30-90sec between sets, or 3-5 sets of 6-12 repetitions at 75-85% 1RM with 30-90sec rest between sets. Reps must be controlled. The faster you work through the reps, the less time your body has to adapt and therefore, progressive overload won’t take place. 

Your week could look like this:

Day:

Exercise:

Sets:

Reps:

Rest:

Intensity:

Monday

Deadlift

5

12

30-90s

75% 1RM

Tuesday

Upper Body

Wednesday

Active 

Rest (i.e. 1hr yoga, 3mile light jog…)

Thursday

Deadlift

4

10

30-90s

80% 1RM

Friday

Upper Body

Saturday

Deadlift

3

8

30-90s

85%

Sunday

Rest

In this week, specificity applies: the deadlift, increasing muscle mass size using a hypertrophy program. Progressive overload applies as the days go on, the volume increases while sets and reps decrease which in turn increases the intensity of the exercise. Your body will continue to adapt as your muscles may get sore (not used to the program), or stronger (intensity increases), and overall will increase in size. Reversibility will apply if you continue to stop training, and you will lose all you’ve gained. 

NOTE: This is just a rough week program focusing on deadlifting. I would include other lower body assistant exercises in your deadlift days as well as core. I’ll be discussing the benefits assistant exercises and core will have on deadlifting. Cardio can also be included in this programming. 

Defining Strength

Strength comes in a variety of forms. I’ll list some:

  • Muscular Endurance: increasing strength and toning up, but not the “gains”.  If this is you, you probably want to lift light weight for lots of reps. I would stick around 67% or less of your 1RM and rest 30sec between sets, doing about 2-3 sets of 12 or more repetitions. Make sure you use progressive overload and are increasing weight as the reps get easier otherwise you’ll just be maintaining. 

  • Hypertrophy is another way of increasing strength as mentioned above. Increasing strength while increasing muscle size.

  • Max Strength: This is where the gains are! Decreasing your repetitions and increasing your volume and rest periods. The rest periods increase because your volume is greater and your body will need more time to recover to give you the energy you need for the next set. Example of max strength is 3x4 at 90-95% 1RM with 3min rest between sets.

  • Power: For those sport athletes: working all muscle types to increase force and power. Gaining max strength by lifting as much as 80-90% 1RM for 1-2 repetitions, or as little as 75-85% 1RM for 3-5 reps followed by an endurance exercise consisting of 10-12 reps. An example is: 3x5 bench press at 85% 1RM followed by 10 plyometric push-ups (push-up jacks), with 2-5min rest between sets. 

How Many Sets of Deadlifts per Week to Increase Strength?

To increase strength, one must do 2-6 sets of 6 or less repetitions at an intensity greater than 85% 1RM. Rest period will increase to 2-5min between sets to allow your body enough time to produce more energy. For increasing strength, your week could look like this:

Day:

Exercise:

Sets:

Reps:

Rest:

Intensity:

Monday

Deadlift

6

6

2-5min

85% 1RM

Tuesday

Upper Body

Wednesday

Active 

Rest (i.e. 1hr yoga, 3mile light jog…)

Thursday

Deadlift

4

3

2-5min 

90% 

Friday

Upper Body

Saturday

Deadlift

2

2

2-5min 

95%

Sunday

Rest

Like with any exercise, you don’t want to work that same exercise every day. This could result in overtraining which can produce muscle fatigue and decrease strength gains. 

As mentioned at the beginning of this article, nutrition also plays a vital role in training. Nutrition gives your body the nutrients it needs to have the energy you need in training, as well as recovery. So make sure your nutrition and caloric needs match your training!

How Many Sets per Week to Compete in Powerlifting?

When preparing for any competition or event, you want an annual program (periodization) regimen that includes in-season, off-season, pre-season and post-season training. All quarterly training programs have different focuses to maximize and enhance performance in your competition. 

  • Pre-season Training: For a pre-season program, we want to warm-up our muscles and increase muscle mass in order to have an advantage for maximal strength gain. We will do this for the first 6 weeks, and then have a recovery week following another 6 weeks of max strength gain. Recovery week is important as it allows a nice long period for your muscles to fully recover and restore your body’s energy (ATP) resulting in increased strength gains. During recovery week, you will continue to stay active, but allow your muscles to rebuild and get stronger. For the second 6 weeks, we will transition into max strength. This is where the advantage of muscle size increase comes in. Because we increased our muscle mass, we now have a larger cross sectional area to allow more room for strength gains. 

  • In-Season Training: Now that we’ve prepped our muscle groups, we are in-season training for competition 12 weeks away. We want to mimic the competition during these 12 weeks. We will now focus on increasing our deadlift volume and technique. In increasing technique, you’re using variations of the deadlift movement to increase strength in different areas of your body that are used to deadlift an object. We will be using the max strength sets and reps scaling to accomplish the techniques and strength gains throughout all in-season training. 

Examples of techniques used to enhance deadlifting performance are the high block pulls. This is where you place the barbell on a high block, starting around your knees, and you lift it off the block like you’re performing a deadlift. This technique increases the strength of the upper legs and lower back. Another one is the deficit deadlift. This is when you stand on a small block (could just be a 45# plate for each foot) and deadlift the bar up from the floor. These two techniques targets areas of weakness when deadlifting. These techniques don’t have to be performed only for in-season training but others as well. 

Let’s look at this chart for a week’s example of preparing for competition:

Week 1:

Exercise:

Sets:

Reps:

Rest:

Intensity

Day 1:

High Block Pull

4

8

90s

75% 1RM

Day 2:

Deadlift

2

3

2-5min

90% 1RM

Day 3:

Deficit Deadlift

3

5

2-5min

85% 1RM

You always want to take a week off right before the competition to allow recovery time so you can do your best on competition day!

  • Post-Season: Take it easy for the next month or so. This allows time for your body to recuperate from structured workouts, and reduce stress from a competition mindset. Staying active doing different sports, swimming, or circuit weight training. Anything during this period should be done at low intensities with low volumes.

  • Off-Season: Time to set the focus back to preparing for competition season! This is the time to work on areas of weakness and run through fitness testing assessments to assess where you’re at and what to work on during this time. 

Periodization is important for any athlete in which their training is organized in a way to maximize peak performance in a safe manner. 

Fully Maximizing Deadlift Gains

Deadlifting is a multi-joint exercise that works primarily the glutes (gluteus medius, minimus, and maximus), hamstrings (biceps femoris), and quads (rectus femoris). Assistant muscles include (but not all) abductors and adductors of the leg, erector spinae and abdominals (core), some of your arm muscles such as biceps brachii and your deltoids. These all play a role in accomplishing the deadlift and therefore must all be strengthened. During the off-season is a great time for this. But don’t stop there! Continue through in-season and pre-season training as well, it just won’t be your main focus. 

You can program your workouts in a number of ways: upper body and lower body days, push and pull days, regardless of how you choose to program make sure you follow: Power first, then core, assisted exercises, then cardio/endurance (most fatiguing) exercises. This provides a safe way of accomplishing everything you need in your workouts. 

Quick Deadlifting Safety Tips

Deadlifting is one of the top lifts that result in back injuries due to improper form and technique. As the weight gets heavier, the more a lifter uses their back to lift the weight, and SNAP! Okay, not always snap, but you get what I’m saying? I just cringe talking about it. But yes, NEVER use your back to deadlift a weight up! Drive through your quads and hams, keeping your core tight. Following the 5 point contact principle: head shoulders and back in neutral spine, knees are out like your pressing against a narrow wall on both sides of you, and feet are a wider than shoulder width apart and flat on the ground. If you start to compensate your form, go down in weight. Better to be safe and continue to progress than sorry and now you have to stay off lifting for a while. 

Finishing Remarks

So there you have how many sets of deadlifts per week depending on whether you want to go for mass or strength. If you want to increase muscle mass, 3-6 sets of 10-12 repetitions of 75-85% 1RM with 30-90s rest between sets. If you want to increase strength gains, 2-6 sets of 6 or less repetitions of 85% or greater 1RM with 2-5min rest between sets. Getting a good sleep, taking rest and recovery when you need them, and eating the right amount of calories and food for your training, will all enhance and maximize peak performance for your deadlift. Powerlifting can be a rewarding and energizing sport, but having the right tools and training will make it worth your while. 

References:

Myol, Eur J Transl. “Muscle Hypertrophy and Muscle Strength: Dependent or Independent Variables? A Provacative Review”. 2020, Sep 30. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7582410/.

Smith, DeWayne. “Hypertrophy: Back to the Basics”. https://blog.nasm.org/sports-performance/back-to-the-basics-hypertrophy

Triplett, N. Travis; Haff, G. Gregory. NSCA: “Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning” -Fourth Edition. Copyright 2016, 2008, 2000, and 1994, Pages 439-470. 

Kevin Harris
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