Q: My deadlift is great and my squat sucks. I want to continue squatting 3×5 more and more weight while I keep my deadlift where it is. What’s the best way to maintain my deadlift strength with a minimum of training time and recovery resources so I can focus efforts on my squat?
I’m male, 5’10” tall, and weigh approximately 170-175 pounds, though I’m working on moving up to 180 or 185. I keep pretty good food quality but occasionally under-eat at lunch.
I recently PR’d my deadlift at 385×2, and can hit a hard set of 5 in the mid-300s. My front squat is primary: I am not currently working on my back squat because of form issues and because I think it’s not necessary, but for background I can back squat 225 for reps, probably 240 or so for a max. My front squat has progressed nicely from ~165 to 215 by doing 3 sets of 5, increasing weight every other workout. Once or twice I’ve been forced to do a 3×3 workout before graduating to 3×5. Those misses were due to poor recovery combined with foolishly adding weight as scheduled.
I lift two or three times a week, with two to four days a week of judo, moderate hiking and swimming, sprints, or Ultimate. Lifting sessions currently go as follows:
- Front squat, starting at 45 or 95 and taking steps of ~50lbs up to 3×5 at the work weight
- Deadlift, starting at 145 or 215 and taking steps of ~70lbs up to a set of five in the 315-350 range or a double or triple in the 350-380 range
- One-arm overhead kettlebell presses, 50 pounds, 3×5 or 5×5
- Other stuff that varies and isn’t too strenuous
What I’m looking for is a program, preferably with references or an explanation, that describes maintaining the deadlift or other major barbell exercise at a given level while working on other lifts. My goal is the minimum amount of deadlifting in order to still lift in the upper 300s, so that my body can use more recovery resources towards squat strength. However, I’m asking this because I think that maintaining my deadlift as-is will make it easier to improve my squat. If I’m wrong on that, tell me, and tell me what to fix instead.
A: The deadlift isn’t really a super-specialized movement and your deadlift max is going to be governed by a combination of things: core stability, hip and leg strength, grip, etc. If you continue strength training, eating at maintenance or more, and get good recovery your deadlift is unlikely to fall behind. Even if it does, after a few sessions you’ll be back at 100% or more.
Here are some strategies to maximize your Squat and Deadlift gains.
- Develop your anterior chain: This means more single leg work such as step up/lunges, planks/pallof presses/sit-ups. I’d also add overhead squats if you’re comfortable with them to really get that core/upper back stability going.
- Use Chalk/Straps for deadlifting. One of the reason the deadlift is so taxing on the CNS is due to having to grip so hard. So reducing the grip load while maintaining overall load will help improve recovery.
- Do smart assistance movements. Things like good mornings, trap bar deadlifts, stiff-legged deads, deficit deads. A good assistance movement will challenge you while not strain your recovery needs. Speed deads also would work great.
- Improve your recovery. If you want more resources going to the squat then just having more resources will do that. Sleep better. Eat high quality food. Make sure you are eating enough calories. Do active recovery stuff like stretching, moving, foam rolling.
- Do regular deadlifts only once every 2-3 weeks. Stick to 2 to 3 rep range, not singles. You can try working on a more upright posture – it might be your regular dead is closer to Romanian now.
- Hammer down your technique. Getting good numbers isn’t just about pure strength but also maximizing leverage, muscle activation and coordination. I’m 100% confident you can get more pounds without getting any stronger just by increasing your proficiency in the lifts. Speed work and frequent training is best for that.
Some personal thoughts
You are really overthinking this imo. If you want your squat to get better, just squat more. Start squatting 2 or 3x a week. Do a lot of squat accessory lifts. And your squat will go up.
I’m also not a fan of caring about numbers for number’s sake. Some people are just not as suited for certain lifts as others from a bio-mechanical perspective. Yeah there are ways around it — like doing super wide squats — but I think that misses the point.
My personal advice is to have a sound, periodized strength training program and adequate recovery to back it up. I believe that will yield overall gains to your squat and deadlift at the same time — doubly so if you are in a bulking phase.
Good luck in your efforts!