Eighty percent of my time at the gym is spent loading and unloading weights on the bar, making sure the right weights are available, and making sure the bar is loaded correctly. This is to ensure that the 20% of the time I actually spend lifting weight or getting limber is as effective as can be.
The reason I’m writing this post is so that you can get a better idea of the necessities for starting to train strength. Plan ahead, scope out your gym when you do something new, and commit to doing the work. You will earn the benefits from your sweat.
Here are four ways to minimize waste of time and energy on deadlift bar loading:
Starting deadlift bar height
With 45 lb. plates
I recommend following the 5×5 progression powerlifting if you are beginning your barbell strength training for the first time, or returning to it. The deadlift will always be at the end of your strength training session. Because it is one of the more powerful lifts, you will benefit from going into it already warmed up from your other lifts.
When you are lifting 135 lb. for the deadlift, you can start with that weight. I would recommend a warmup if you are feeling stiff or cold, with 25 lb. plates on each side. With 45 lb. plates loaded on each side, the bar is at mid-shin level for most people. You won’t need to make any adjustments for the height of the bar when you start with 45 lb. plates. This is the official starting height for the deadlift in powerlifting competitions.
With 25 or 10 lb. plates
But what if you’re a beginner, when you’re not lifting at least 45 lb. on each side? Like 25 lb.? or 10 lb.? Or just the bar? Good question.
For deadlift training, you want to keep things as consistent as possible. That includes bar height. Even if you’re using smaller or no plates, practice with the bar at the standard height.
To find where this should approximately be, stand a 45 lb. plate up next to your legs. Observe where the hole in the center of the plate measures up to your shins. Use this area on your shins as reference for bar height.
If the largest weights on the bar are 10 or 25 lb., you can use 10 lb. or 25 lb. plates underneath the weight to bring it up closer to standard height:
Barbell height with no weights
If you are using the bar alone, find a squat rack with pins on the sides. Adjust the pins so that when the bar is resting on them, it is at mid-shin level. This will be pretty close to the ground.
If you do not have pin holes low enough, or no squat rack available, use the largest plates you can find – 45 lb. bumper plates should do the trick. Or you can always stack smaller plates to get to the right height. It should only take two or three 25 lb. plates on each side.
I know this can be a major hassle. It’s especially hard in the beginning because everything is new, you may be embarrassed about lifting small weight, and it might be tiring to just set everything up. However, you’ve got to do what is necessary to train correctly.
Do not take short cuts just because you can’t find an easy way to do things. The struggles are all part of the learning process. Just think, at least you’re doing this when you have light weights to train. As you progress, you’ll be more skilled at this, and the hard work will have paid off when you can allot your energy to form and technique on heavy lifts.
Loading the empty bar
When you start your deadlift session you will have an empty bar. It might be racked on a power frame, or stacked with other barbells. Once you get it onto the deadlift platform or training area, you’ll need to load plates onto it. It can be tricky, because the bar will want to roll, the plates can be heavy and hard to deal with at first, and you’re going to be bent over doing all this. You’ll save a lot of energy once you learn to do it effectively.
With a power rack or stand
Before loading weight onto the bar, rack the bar at mid-thigh level. Only do this if you have a rungs that face outside of the rack, so that you can easily unrack the bar once it’s loaded and place it on the ground for your deadlifts. For most squat rack frames, you won’t be able to do deadlifts inside. Just be sure you will be able to easily lift the bar and place it on the ground where you can deadlift.
This beats having to load the empty bar while it’s on the ground, which is a bit more difficult. It’s also better than having to unrack a heavy bar from too high up. Mid-thigh is ideal, or wherever your hands hang by your sides.
With barbell on the ground
- Gather the weights you are about to load, near the ends of the bar.
- Stand the largest weight plate you’re using up right next to the barbell. Hold it up with one hand. Pick up the end of the barbell with your free hand and insert it through the plate’s hole. It’s easier if you slant the plate away from the barbell. This lets you insert the bar at a slightly lower height. Anchor the plate down and feed the bar to it, instead of vice versa.
- Load the largest plate onto each side first and then add additional weight. A level bar is easier to load than an angled one.
Compact and clamp
Once all weight is placed on the bar, before inserting the clamp, tighten the plates up. Stand at one end of the barbell facing in toward the center. Grab the end of the bar with one hand, keeping the arm straight. Place the other hand on the bar right up against the plates. Using good form, deadlift the bar slightly off the ground with the straight arm, and with the other hand push the plates in tight against the collar.
Or, stand just inside the weights of one side of the bar, with feet on either side of the bar. Facing outward, reach down to grab the plates around the sides near the bottom. Do a slight deadlift while pulling the weights in against the collar, compacting them. Compact the weights one side at a time, readjusting the clamp as you go. This will keep each side secure while you adjust the other end.
Changing weight between sets
If you’re using a squat rack and pins for your deadlifts, you can simply keep the bar on the pins and change the weights from there. Only use pins before you have 45 lb. plates on the bar. Once you have the 45 lb. plates, you can rest the bar on the ground.
When the bar is resting on the ground or on top of stacked plates, you can keep the bar down there and change weights one side at a time. Keep things efficient:
Before you begin your session, make sure you have easy access to all plates that are needed. You can stack weights on the nearest weight rack. Do this before you start your warmups. You don’t want to go hunting for plates midway through your sets.
Calculate weights before you get to the gym
How many 45’s, how many 25’s, how many 10’s, etc. Don’t try to do math while you’re panting from your last set. Write down all weights for all sets and reps before you get to the gym. Waste no time in between sets figuring this out.
Always use clamps
Never let your plates loosen up during your sets, which will happen without clamps when the weight repeatedly touches the ground and lifts off. It will screw up your training. Keep good clamps close to you before you start warming up with the bar.
Compact the plates
Same as loading the empty bar. Compact the plates together against the collar and clamp securely.
Replacing the heaviest plate
When your largest plates on the bar need to be replaced by the next weight up, you will need to unload all the weight before adding the larger plates. Do this one side at a time. For example, if you are taking off the 25 lb. plates to put on 45 lb. plates, do one side first. The plates on the other side will anchor the bar while you unload and load the other side. If you unload both sides, it will be difficult with the bar loose and rolling around. Remember, we’re talking about a deadlift session when the bar is on the ground. For squats with the bar on the rack, this will be a little different.
Adding a second or third 45 lb. plate
If you already have a 45 lb. plate, it may be difficult to load another one because the bar height is the same. You may be pushing the weight on as it rubs against the floor. Roll the weights of the side you are loading onto a 2.5 lb. plate, and this will give you room to easily slide on the 45 lb. plate.
Unloading weights and racking the bar when you’re done
- Leave the bar on the ground while unloading, until the last plate on each side remains.
- Use good deadlift form when sliding the weights off the bar. Stand on one end of the barbell, facing the weights. Reach down and grab the plate on either side, slightly toward the bottom. Lift and slide out, toward you. If you need to, carefully step backward until you have the weight free of the bar. Deadlift the weight up, walk it over to the weight stand, and store it away.
- Rack all weights, starting with the smaller ones first. Don’t know why but this makes clean up easier.
- With the last plate remaining on each side, deadlift the bar up, walk it forward to the rack and rack it at mid thigh level. Remove remaining plates.
- If you do not have a reasonable height at which to rack the bar, leave it on the ground, and remove the plate from one side first.
- For the last plate remaining, if it’s a 45 lb. plate you can just lift the empty end of the bar until it’s vertical, and pull the bar out of the plate when it’s flat on the ground.
- If it’s a lighter plate, grab the end of the bar that has the weight, lift it up slightly as you remove the weight with your other hand. Use good form here too.
- Picking up the empty barbell from the ground involves bending over pretty low. This requires good mobility. Try to do this without rounding your back.
Above all else, you want to maintain good form while loading and unloading weights. Your gym may not have ideal equipment, racks, rack heights, or weight increments. Think ahead and do the most sensible things, in the most effective order possible. Prepare before you step inside the gym. You’ll save time and energy for the lifts.
Copyright © Steve Ko 2017. All rights reserved.