The deadlift is a great exercise for building ,mass and brute strength. It uses just about every muscle in your body: from your posterior chain to your abs, lats and grip muscles.

Because it’s so effective — and powerful — it is easy to overdo it with deadlifts.

While you can bench press three times a week and squat twice a week on most strength training programs, you should deadlift at high effort no more than once a week. The reason is that the deadlift is a huge stressor on your central nervous system.

It takes the average person about a week or so to recover from the CNS stress that a hard deadlift session dishes out. If you get in the habit of deadlifting more often than that, you’ll likely see your performance start to decline rather than improve.

How training impacts CNS stress

Training works because it is stressful. Whether you’re running wind sprints or crushing some heavy bench presses, you are imparting a stress on your body that it isn’t used to. Your body is programmed to respond by adapting and improving the systems that were stressed.

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In other words, it isn’t the exercise that makes you stronger or faster. It’s the time afterward — the sleep, nutrition and hydration you get.

Of course, you have to train hard and push yourself, but if the recovery aspect is missing, you are going to sabotage all of that hard work you just did. Your strength will never bounce back up from that depressed “stress” zone, and your performance will slide.

How to incorporate deadlifts into your training program

Deadlifts are a great exercise to incorporate into your training program. For most people, it’s perfectly fine to deadlift with high volume or high intensity once a week. 

High volume training sessions (lower weight, more reps) cause your body to adapt by building more muscle, and high intensity sessions (higher weight, fewer reps) improve your strength. It’s often easiest to put “deadlift day” at the end of the week, so you have extra days off to recover.

People on advanced strength training programs will sometimes schedule high effort deadlift days every other week, because they’re so hard to recover from.

If you are doing strength training to prepare for a sport like football, hockey or rugby, deadlifts are a great exercise for your offseason training. Double check with your coach, but deadlifts usually aren’t a good idea during the season. You are putting your body through a great deal of stress playing your sport already, and deadlifting can hamper your performance on the field.

How do I know if deadlifts are interfering with my training?

Training is stressful, and people who are good at it are good at ignoring the discomfort that it causes. But how do you know if your deadlifts are interfering with your training?

The first sign is decreased grip strength. Head over to the dumbbell rack in your gym and test one of the heavy ones. If it feels secure and tight in your hand, your fatigue level likely isn’t that high. If you’re struggling to hold it, your real lifts are likely going to feel heavy.

You’ll know you’re dealing with more serious fatigue if your training numbers stall or start to move backwards, or if you start to experience disruptions in your sleep, lack of appetite or mood changes. These are all signs that your CNS has fallen too far into the “stress” state and hasn’t bounced back. 

If this is happening, scale back the CNS stress. Drop deadlifts from your training, or go light for some time. Focus on sleep, hydration and eating right.