Is three heavy sets of deadlifts too much? Why do I include three sets of deadlifts when other programs include just one heavy set of 5 reps? Do compound lifts in general cause central nervous system (CNS) fatigue?
I’ve written and recorded a lot of evidence-based content over the years on just about everything you can imagine related to building muscle, losing fat, and getting healthy.
I’ve also worked with thousands of men and women of all ages and circumstances and helped them get into the best shape of their lives.
That doesn’t mean you should blindly swallow everything I say, though, because let’s face it—nobody is always right about everything. And especially in fields like diet and exercise, which are constantly evolving thanks to the efforts of honest and hardworking researchers and thought leaders.
This is why I’m always happy to hear from people who disagree with me, especially when they have good arguments and evidence to back up their assertions.
Sometimes I can’t get on board with their positions, but sometimes I end up learning something, and either way, I always appreciate the discussion.
That gave me the idea for this series of podcast episodes: publicly addressing things people disagree with me on and sharing my perspective.
Think of it like a spicier version of a Q&A.
So, here’s what I’m doing:
Every couple of weeks, I’m asking my Instagram followers what they disagree with me on, and then picking the more common or interesting contentions to address here on the podcast.
And in this episode, I’ll be tackling the following . . .
- “3 heavy sets of deadlifts is too taxing. It should be 1 set of 5 like Starting Strength.”
0:00 – Try Fortify risk-free today! Go to buylegion.com/fortify and use coupon code MUSCLE to save 20% or get double reward points!
4:08 – What is the central nervous system?
7:01 – What are the effects of deadlifting on your central nervous system?
8:23 – What does research say about deadlifting and central nervous system fatigue?
11:54 – Why do the most proven strength training programs only include one set of deadlifts per week?
13:21 – What are the deadlifting recommendations in your program?
Mentioned on the Show:
Try Fortify risk-free today! Go to buylegion.com/fortify and use coupon code MUSCLE to save 20% or get double reward points!
What did you think of this episode? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
Oh, hello there, and thank you for joining me today. I’m Mike Matthews. This is Muscle for Life, and this episode is a new installment in my says You series where I ask people primarily, On Instagram, but sometimes this is via email to share something they disagree with me on. And then I pick ones that are particularly interesting or that I haven’t already beaten to death and I address them here on the podcast.
And so today’s challenge comes from, I do not have a note, but uh, I do believe it came from somebody who follows me on Instagram at Muscle for Life Fitness. If you wanna come, follow me. And they said that three heavy sets of deadlifts is too taxing. It should be one set of five, like starting strength.
Before we wade into it, many people say that you are as old as you feel, and there’s definitely some truth. There, but for us physically active people, for US fitness folk, it’s probably even truer to say that we are as old as our joints feel because healthy, functional, pain-free joints make our workouts more enjoyable and more productive, as well as everything else we do really.
And that’s one of the many reasons to be a stickler about eating right, about training properly, about getting enough rest and recovery. In some ways, your joints are a reflection of how well you take care of your body on the whole. And supplementation can help as well. And that’s why I created Fortify.
It is a 100% natural joint supplement that reduces joint pain and enhances joint health and function. And in people who already have. Healthy joints. It is not just for people with joint problems. And the reason Fortify is so effective is simple. Every ingredient is backed by peer reviewed scientific research and is included at clinically effective levels.
And those are the doses used in the studies that found benefits and all That is why I’ve sold over 90,000 bottles of Fortify, and Wyatt has over 904 and five star reviews on Amazon and my website. So if you want healthy, functional, and pain-free joints that can withstand the demands of your active lifestyle and even the toughest training you want to try fortify today, go to buy legion.com, b u y legion.com/fortify, and use the coupon code muscle at checkout, and you will save 20% on your first order.
And if it is not your first order, you will get double reward points. So that is 10% cash back. And if you don’t absolutely love fortify, just let us know and we will give you a full refund on the spot. No form and no return is even necessary. So you really can’t lose. Go to buy legion.com/fortify now. Use the coupon code muscle at checkout to save 20% or get 10% cash back and try fortify risk-free and see what you think.
Okay, so in case you skipped the intro, I’m gonna be talking about deadlifting and I’m going to be addressing a disagreement that somebody has with me, which is that three sets of heavy deadlifts is too taxing. It should be one set of five legs starting strength. And the reason why they are saying this to me is in my bigger, leaner, stronger, and thinner, leaner, stronger programs, they call for three sets of deadlifting per week.
And in my beyond, bigger, leaner, stronger program, it’s four sets of deadlifting per week. So, This would also apply to that program. So let’s talk about this. This is something that is also generally going around this idea that deadlifting is extremely taxing. It causes a lot of central nervous system fatigue.
And the same thing with squatting. And this is why you shouldn’t do too much of these things or maybe any of these things. And maybe you should. Do other exercises instead. Or maybe you should only train two or three times per week if you are going to do those things. And so let’s start there. When people say that an exercise is too taxing, they are typically saying that it causes too much central.
Nervous system. C n s is the acronym fatigue. Now, c n s fatigue is to just define it. It’s fatigue that occurs in the central nervous system. Shocker, and that’s the spinal cord in the brain. And that then affects your entire body’s ability to produce force. How does that work? Well, I don’t want to get too much into the weeds and sidetrack us, but basically the nervous system, the central nervous system, it controls force generation by recruiting what are called motor units, which are the smallest functional.
Unit of the nervous system. And so you have a, a command from the nervous system and then you have that as the final output. And uh, a muscle fiber, for example, can have anywhere from one or two to a thousand of these little motor units. And so the central nervous system is sending the command. To contract a muscle and it is going via this motor unit that is in the muscle fiber, and then muscle contraction can occur.
And so then if the central nervous system is fatigue, if it is not operating at, uh, 100% efficiency, for example, you can understand why that would reduce your performance, and in that case, your muscles may be capable of producing force, but they’re going to be hindered by the fact that your c n s is not sending them instructions as effectively or as powerfully, so to speak.
And central nervous system fatigue can be caused by anything that’s physically demanding. And most people assume that the most physically demanding exercises cause a lot of C N Ss fatigue, and that’s not exactly correct, and that’s something I will come back to in a minute. Now, central nervous system fatigue is different from peripheral fatigue.
That’s the term, or localized fatigue, that’s another technical term, um, which is simply the fatigue that you feel in a muscle after doing a hard set, for example. Uh, or after doing a workout, your muscle feels. Tired. It is weaker than normal, and peripheral fatigue is caused by muscle damage and a buildup of substances known as metabolites that then prevent that muscle from contracting as hard as it normally can.
And peripheral fatigue happens within the muscles that you’re training. It’s not systemic, it’s not affecting your body as a whole. Uh, it’s just affecting. The muscles that you’re training. So think about doing biceps curls. Your biceps become fatigued, but your quads are fine. You could go squat after.
Right now, many people are concerned that compound exercises, squat, deadlift and presses and so on that. Involve a lot of muscle tissue that involve big muscle groups and that involve heavy weights are not just causing a lot of peripheral fatigue, the muscular fatigue that we feel, but are also causing a lot of central nervous system fatigue, a lot of systemic whole body fatigue that affects performance of every muscle group and that.
Can sound reasonable and we’ve all maybe felt that way after doing, let’s say, a set of heavy deadlifts for 10 reps. I just did that today and that is the most difficult thing that I do in all of my training. The sets of 10 on the squat are number two, but the sets of 10 on the deadlift, and of course those are taken close to muscular failure.
I’m not going to muscular failure on the deadlift. I would never do that. Risky. It’s not worth it. But I’m ending my fourth set with probably one, maybe two good reps left, and then I would be at muscular failure and I. It’s hard, and you do that and then you hear about central nervous system fatigue and it’s, it’s easy to buy into it because you certainly feel fatigued after four sets of that.
However, research shows that it’s wrong for a couple of reasons. Firstly, studies show that high intensity exercise causes less c n s fatigue than long duration. Exercise. So doing a low rep set of he heavy deadlifts. Uh, think about, you know, fours or fives that is likely less fatiguing than doing say, a 50 mile bike ride, at least, at least in terms of C N Ss fatigue.
Secondly, studies show. Weightlifting in general causes very little c n s fatigue, if any at all, even when the workouts are intense. For example, in one study conducted by scientists at North Umbria University, researchers had elite athletes do two workouts designed to increase strength and power, and during their strength workout, which is the one that we’ll focus on here, because it involved lifting heavy weights, the participants performed four sets of five reps on the back squat, split squat, and.
Push press. And to give some context here, these were strong dudes and duets. These were strong people. There were men and women in the study. The average squat one rep max for men, 420 pounds strong. The average one rep max, uh, on the squat for the women, 240 pounds. Strong. So these workouts involved lifting heavy weights, and what the results showed is that the central nervous system activation didn’t decrease from pre to post-workout and was stable 24 hours after they trained.
In other words, these people experienced no c n s fatigue. Whatsoever. The fatigue they did experience was peripheral fatigue. That said, other research shows that it is possible to experience c n s fatigue from heavy weightlifting, but it takes a lot to cause it, and it has a much smaller effect than you might think.
For example, in another study that was conducted by scientists at Massey University, researchers found that 30 minutes after doing. Eight sets of two reps of deadlifts. At 95% of one rep max people only experienced a five to 10% reduction in C N s output. Eight sets of twos with 95%. That’s tough. And if you compare that to what I was doing today, four sets of 10 on the deadlift, taken fairly close to muscular failure with fairly heavy weight.
At least for me, I was using 325 pounds. I don’t know of any research that has looked. At that or something like that, and the C N Ss fatigue that, uh, is caused by it. But I would not be surprised to see similar results. A small reduction in c n s output, a small temporary reduction that reverses in 24 to 48 hours.
Now if all of that is true, if heavy weightlifting, including heavy deadlifting and squatting and pressing causes, negligible amounts of c n s fatigue in a, in a worst case scenario, really, unless you are doing something like, I don’t know, training for the CrossFit games, and you are blasting yourself and you’re on a lot of drugs and blah, blah, blah, and.
If you’re listening to this podcast, that’s probably not you. You’re probably doing something like what I’m doing, three to five, one hour intense weightlifting workouts per week, maybe a little bit of cardio. And in that context, we do not have to worry about c n s fatigue. Now, if that’s true, why then do several of the most well-known and most time proven strength training programs like Starting Strength five by Five Texas Method and others?
Why do they only include one set of deadlifts? Per week. Well, the reason is they also include a lot of heavy squatting, at least three sets of heavy squats at least three days per week. And remember that squats and deadlifts train many of the same muscles. They train the lower back, the glutes, the quads, the hamstrings, and if your program contains too much of both, You are going to run into problems and systemic fatigue will be one of the smaller ones.
You’ll also have a lot of peripheral fatigue, so those muscles are going to probably be always sore. So if you’re doing too much just squats and deadlifts, for example, your posterior chain, all the muscles in the backside of your body are going to be. Perpetually sore and that soreness might actually just generally get worse over time.
You’re generally just sore and sore. You’re going to be pushing your body too hard. Too often you are probably going to fall behind in recovery. And then that increases the risk of injury and increases the risk of acute injury, of repetitive stress injuries, which are the little nagging problems that just get worse and worse over time.
And so, Something has to give with those programs and that something is deadlifts, not squats. It is deadlifts. Now in my bigger lean, stronger, thinner, lean, stronger beyond bigger lean, stronger muscle for life as well. Muscle for Life has deadlifting, at least in the intermediate and advanced routines.
Those programs only include squats. On one day, you’re only doing three or four sets of squats per week. You’re doing a little bit more of lower body work, but you’re getting underneath the barbell for just a few sets per week, and that means you can afford to do more than one set of deadlifting. I. Per week, especially since your squats and your deadlifts are also separated by a couple of days, and that was done intentionally.
So if you stick to the rep ranges, if you stick to the volumes, if you stick to the intensities that I give in the programs, if you follow them. More or less by the book, you certainly can make changes that make the programs better for you or maybe just better in general. I am doing my best, but there are a lot of other people out there who know a lot about this stuff too, and those programs have evolved over the last, I mean, Stronger.
The first edition I published 10 years ago actually now. So that program has evolved. The fundamental principles haven’t changed that much, but the execution has changed quite a bit as I’ve continued to learn, and I would expect that to be the case 10 years from now. I’d expect to look at my programming today, and maybe I won’t hate it, but I would expect.
It to be better 10 years from now. And so my point is, if you follow the programs as I’ve laid them out, or if you follow some version of them, that’s better than I’ve laid them out or maybe better for you than I’ve laid them out. Um, but is is a productive variation, a positive variation of them. You are not going to run into issues with c n s fatigue, period.
You will not, but if you feel that doing three sets of deadlifts per week is too much, maybe you find it hard to complete the rest of your workout after deadlifting, like maybe it just wipes you by the end of that third set, or on beyond bigger lean or stronger if you’re cutting in particular, which I’ve been doing now for a couple of months.
I took like a one week break because I was out of town and it was my wife’s birthday. We’re going to restaurants and I’m, I’m not gonna be asking them to. Make me the, the tilapia and the asparagus and go light on the oil, and I’m just gonna enjoy myself and get back to it. But I, I’ve been in a deficit pretty consistently now for a couple of months, and four sets of deadlifting, heavy deadlifting in a deficit.
I do fine with it, but I understand. I do hear occasionally from, from some people asking if they can reduce the volume on B B L S when they’re cutting because it starts to get a bit rough. And the answer is yes, absolutely. You could drop the fourth set, for example, you could do three sets of deadlifting or you could do.
Fewer sets than that, and this would also apply to any of my other programs, even though there are just three sets in those other programs, if doing those three sets kind of wipes you and then you just drag yourself through the rest of the workout, or if you feel particularly run down the day after, you can adjust that.
One adjustment you can make is taking your first set close to muscular failure, not pushing too muscular failure, not on a deadlift. I wouldn’t recommend doing that on a squat either. Save that for the accessory exercises and don’t do it all the time. But let’s say that first set is with two good reps left, two good reps left in the tank.
That’s what I like to see in my first set. I find that if I have. Two, maybe three good reps left in set one, I will have probably one good rep left in, set four. And so you could do that in your first set. And then what you could do is you could make your, let’s say you’re doing like. Bigger, lean, stronger, A thin, lean Stronger or Muscle for Life, or some other program that calls for, let’s say, three sets of deadlifting.
That first set is, is your intense set, and then the next two sets, you could make them less intense. You could end those sets with three or four good reps still left in the tank, and you could do that with the same weight. Or you could reduce the weight. So what I would do personally is if my first set was with, let’s say about 85% of one rep max, and that would get me around four or five, maybe six reps with, let’s say two good reps left, and I would then.
Reduce the weight, and I would also do four to six, but maybe that would be with 75% of my one rep max, or maybe 80, depending on how I was feeling. Again, I would be going for those reps in reserve targets that I gave. I would want the weight to allow me to do no more than six reps, so I’m still working in the same.
Rep range, but those next two sets are a bit easier. Instead of having just one, maybe two good reps left, I would wanna feel like I could have done three or maybe four more, so that that’s one way to make the deadlifting less taxing. Another way would be simply reducing the volume. So do two intense sets, so two sets where you have maybe one or two good reps left.
Then skip the third, or if you are doing my Beyond bigger lean or stronger program, do three sets and skip the fourth and see how you feel. And if that doesn’t do it for you, then maybe go down to just one set. In the case of a three set. Program or go down to two sets in the case of a four set program.
And another way that some people like to go about this is they use reverse pyramid training where you do your heaviest sets first and then you work into lighter sets because generally speaking, lighter sets, uh, are less fatiguing. That said, my personal experience is. Yes, if you’re doing dumbbell side raises or if you’re doing anything for a smaller muscle group, that that tends to be true.
The harder, uh, sets are the ones that involve lifting heavier weights. But coming back to what I was doing today, sets of 10 taken fairly close to muscular failure on the deadlift, on the squat, even on the bench press and on the overhead press. Those feel a lot harder. To me then the sets of four or five with a lot more weight.
And again, I don’t have any research, uh, at least I haven’t been able, been able to find any research to lend some insight there. But if I’m going by how I feel, the reverse pyramid approach would not work well for me because the sets of four on the deadlift, even with the heavier weights, feel a lot less fatiguing than the sets of 10.
But I do know that some people do like to use reverse pyramid training for this specifically. They find that doing three or four sets of four reps of deadlifting with 85% of one rep max is a lot more fatiguing than doing say, one set of four to six with 85, and then doing. A set of maybe six to eight with 10%, so with about 75% of one rep max, and then reducing that weight by another 10%, so going down to 65, maybe 70% of one rmm, and doing a final set of eight to 10 reps.
And one final note on reducing the volume, the number of hard sets of deadlifting you are doing per week. If you are following one of my programs, again, you can do that, but I would recommend. Increasing the number of sets that you do, uh, for other pulling exercises, uh, that train similar muscles. So if it were me and I were going to be doing fewer sets of conventional or trap bar, I don’t sumo deadlift, it’d be a conventional or a trap bar deadlift.
If I were gonna drop those sets from four to. Two, I would probably replace those with a Romanian deadlift, which is not nearly as difficult. It is not as taxing as a, as a conventional or a trap bar deadlift, or maybe something like a barbell row could make sense if I want to give my lower back a break or if I don’t want to do R DLS for some other reason.
Well, I hope you liked this episode. I hope you found it helpful, and if you did subscribe to the show because it makes sure that you don’t miss new episodes. And it also helps me because it increases the rankings of the show a little bit, which of course then makes it a little bit more easily found by other people who may like it just as much as you.
And if you didn’t like something about this episode or about the show in general, or if you have, uh, ideas or suggestions or just. Feedback to share. Shoot me an email, [email protected], muscle f o r life.com and let me know what I could do better or just, uh, what your thoughts are about maybe what you’d like to see me do in the future.
I read everything myself. I’m always looking for new ideas and constructive feedback. So thanks again for listening to this episode, and I hope to hear from you soon.