5 Lessons Learned From a Skinny Nerd Deadlifting 420 Pounds

I did it.

I proved somebody wrong on the internet!

I assume the internet will be mailing me a gold medal at any point this week, but until then, let me share the story.

I gave a TedX talk years ago, and I mentioned one of my long-term goals was being able to lift 400 pounds:

My first thought: “Ouch.”

My second thought: “Why am I reading YouTube comments!? No good can come of this.”

My third thought: “I’m gonna prove this person wrong.”

As a skinny nerd with chicken legs that couldn’t build muscle to save my life, this far-off goal suddenly seemed even further off.

Fast forward to last week: not only did I FINALLY reach my 10 year goal of deadlifting 400 pounds, I blew right past it. No straps, no belt. Just some chalk and “internet justice” rage to pick up 420 pounds at a bodyweight of 172 pounds.

Not bad for a skinny nerd with a crooked spine!

Below, I share the video and the 5 key lessons I’ve learned on this long, comical, painful journey.  

#1: Screw Your Genetics.

I have the genes of an elf, without the immortality or cool ears.

I’m naturally very thin, have very thin wrists and ankles, and will forever have chicken legs.

This would be great, if I wanted to be a runner. Not great when you despise running, and you want to pick up heavy things.

Determined to overcome that fate, I began my journey to heavy lifting, only to get knocked back.

6 years ago, I discovered my genes also contain a super fun condition called “spondylolisthesis.”

Don’t bother trying to pronounce it, I still can’t.

It means my vertebrae don’t line up. Essentially, my L5 and S1 are less structurally aligned than a deep-game Jenga tower (Read how I used the “Iron Man Technique” when I got diagnosed).

Jenga: fun for game night, not for spinal metaphors.

When I first learned this, I initially assumed it meant my short lived career as a powerlifter was over, and threw myself one HELL of a pity party.

After that party ended, I got back on the horse.

(Not literally. I don’t have a horse.)

I started working on my deadlift form and core strength. I checked my ego, established a new “square one,” and essentially started over.

Thank god I refused to accept my fate.

Now, obviously I’m not a doctor – I don’t even have pants on right now – so you’re going to need to work with trained professionals if you have a serious medical condition you’re working to overcome.

In my instance, I decided that I didn’t want my genetics to decide my fate: that chicken legs and a crooked spine could be managed. While I might never reach my 10-year goal of a 400 pound deadlift, I’d get started and adjust along the way.

Yup, I know plenty of people can lift WAY more than I can. That’s cool! I’m competing against the ghost of my former self (like a Mario Kart time trial), and that’s all I can do.

I know I’m fighting an uphill battle when I focus on powerlifting when I’m much more likely to be good at running or another endurance activity. That sounds like my personal hell, so I’m gonna play THIS version of life on expert difficulty.

LESSON LEARNED: If you don’t like the game you’re playing, pick a different one! Who cares what your genetics are. You can’t do anything about them. All you can do is play the hand you’re dealt.

If you are a big-boned individual built for strength, and you want to be a marathon runner, GREAT! Start training for a 5k today. Who cares if you’re slow as molasses!

If you are built to run and want to strength train because that’s what brings you joy, go pick up heavy shit! Who cares if the person next to you can lift more? Are YOU lifting more than you did the day before?

We can only blame our parents for so much. Thanks for the crooked spine and acne, DAD.

(Kidding, my dad is cool as hell. He taught me to play poker when I was 5).

#2: Fail You Will. Learn, You Must.

After figuring out my spine sucked, I decided to hire my friend Anthony to coach me via email.

Because I couldn’t lift heavy to start, I had to reallllly focus on my form. It gave all of my muscles and tendons a chance to get caught up to speed.

So I spent two years making steady progress, which was awesome.

And then I went on vacation, where I severely strained my conjoint tendon. 

Lesson learned: never go on vacation again.

My injury was so brutal that I was convinced I had a hernia. I ended up getting an ultrasound on my crotch from two female ultrasound technicians, which was in no way at all awkward.

Kidding. It was comically awkward.

Anyways.

After taking multiple weeks off from lifting anything heavy, I started rehab, checked my ego (again), and had to rebuild my form (again), going backwards by 250+ pounds and starting over again.

I felt like Sysphysis, rolling a rock up a hill only to have it roll all the way back down.

Or Charlie Brown trying to kick a football:

But I kept at it. I learned to improve my form. I changed my breathing technique for lifting. And I accepted that I had to go backward in order to eventually break through.

For reference, click through these images and videos below. The “Before” took place before my injury, while the “After” is just a month or two back:

 

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LESSON LEARNED: Always be learning, when you win or when you lose. Setbacks can be crippling, or they can be painful lessons learned that make you more powerful. I really didn’t have a choice.

You’re gonna get shin splints or plantar fasciitis when you start training for your 5k. Literally everybody does. Take it as a sign you need to fix your running form!

You’re gonna screw up on a lift. Take it as a chance to scale back and rework your form. Video tape your form and check with somebody

You’re gonna get sick and screw up and miss a lift or a hold or a thing. It happens. You can’t change the past (yet), so might as well learn from it and move forward. Rafiki gets me:

#3) Want to Reach a Far Off Goal? Use the Minecraft Strategy.

10 years ago, I had a goal I was racing towards: a 400 pound deadlift.

I’d get marginally closer and then have to back way off. This happened at least half a dozen times, a few of which were highlighted above.

I believe the reason I finally achieved that goal is because I stopped focusing on it! Instead, I just focused on the next workout, the next exercise, the next rep.

In other words: Don’t worry about the building you’re trying to construct. Instead, focus on putting the next brick in the right place, and then repeat. The building will take care of itself.

I call this the Minecraft Strategy.

As for my workouts, I train 4 days per week: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday. One hour per workout. Each day has a big boring lift attached to it that doesn’t change much at all from week to week.

For the past four years, here’s the deadlift portion of a training day (after many warm-up sets):

  • Week 1: Sets of 2, 2, 2 for 220 pounds.
  • Week 2: Sets of 3, 2, 2, for 220 pounds.
  • Week 3: Sets of 3, 3, 2, for 220 pounds.
  • Week 4: Sets of 3, 3, 3, for 220 pounds.
  • Week 5: Sets of 2, 2, 2 for 225 pounds.

And repeat. Every week. Every month. Year after year. Notice that each week I added just ONE rep. And once I hit 3 sets of 3, I’d go up by 5 pounds, and start back at 2, 2, 2.

That is boring as hell. And effective too. Every single week I’d be setting a personal best! I didn’t care about the far-off goal of a 400-lb deadlift, I instead put all of my focus into “Can I crush this next rep?”

This is also EXACTLY how one simply walks into Mordor: one step at a time.

Two weeks ago, my “slow cook” deadlifting workout had me doing 3 sets of 3 reps at 385 pounds.

My coach told me: “Let’s go heavy next week. And I won’t accept anything less than 415 pounds.”

This was a goal I’d have forever, and Anthony had already set my sights 15 pounds heavier to calm my nerves on the psychological challenge of seeing that much weight on the bar.

So after picking up 405 for a warmup, I went for 420 pounds:

 

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No belt, no straps.

Just some chalk and Walk the Moon’s “Portugal” on my headphones. Honestly, it was almost a letdown because it came up so quickly…but I was so damn proud to reach a powerful milestone, banish the monkey on my back, and actually feel strong.

Hence the quick fist pump to myself.

This week? It’s back to the boring stuff. Boring, consistent, progress where I just get epic results and feel really good about myself.

I’m okay with that. I jokingly talk about how I went from Steve Rogers to Captain America with this slow, small tactic.

LESSON LEARNED: Are you a shiny-object chasing “I need to be entertained and I change workouts every 3 weeks but I can never seem to get results” type of person?

Fall in love with the process and incremental progress, and you’re gonna go places kid.

Each week, just focus on being better than you did the week before. If you ONLY worry about this, you’ll look back at the end of the year and realize you’re a changed person.

Note: This means you need to show up each week, with few exceptions. Even when life is busy.

#4 – Track the Problem to Crack the Problem.

Fun fact: I currently have a folder in Evernote called “Kambsformation” (Anthony came up with it, and it just stuck).

In that folder, I have 1 note for every workout or progress photo from the past 5 years.

I now have 1159 notes in that folder:

As my friend Nick says, “You gotta track the problem to track the problem.”

I have tracked every single workout I’ve done since 2013 in this folder. I have them all in the same place, so I can quickly scan back to any date and time and see where I was, how I trained, and so on.

I know every week exactly what I need to do to be better than the week before. Using the Minecraft Strategy here, it just means I need to focus on ONE single rep heavier.

In addition to tracking my workouts, I’ve become diligent about tracking my calories too. I am not Paleo, or Keto, or Mediterranean.

Instead, I employ a “mental model” diet, with specific rules I follow:

  • Skip breakfast. I cover this in our guide on Intermittent Fasting.
  • Eat big after a workout. Adjust the rest of my calories based on goals.
  • Protein with every meal. Usually chicken.
  • Veggies with every meal. Brussel sprouts or broccoli.
  • Adjust carbs and fat to fit macro profile for that day.
  • A powerbomb shake to hit calorie goals. Water, oats, frozen berries, frozen spinach, and whey protein (I use Optimum Nutrition Vanilla).

Over the past 2 months, I’ve actually leaned out, from 185 pounds down to 172 pounds. I did that by adjusting my caloric intake very simply:

  • 2600 calories on training days
  • 2200 calories on non-training days.

For the first few weeks, I actually didn’t lose any weight despite “tracking my calories.” I still believed in thermodynamics, so I knew there was no nonsense like “metabolic damage” or a “slow metabolism.” Instead, I started weighing my portions (I like this food scale) and discovered a few key things.

Namely, that I was overeating without realizing it:

  • I was underestimating my oats portion by 50% when using a measuring cup instead of a scale. 1/2 cup of oats was more like 60g, not 40g.
  • My chipotle lunch contained 1.5 servings of rice by weight, not 1.

As soon as I made small adjustments to my portion sizes on these foods I ate consistently, my weight started to drop consistently.

So that takes care of my food, here’s how else I track my progress:

I take progress photos weekly and weigh myself each morning under the same circumstances.

I don’t freak out if the scale goes up or down. Instead, I take a 7-day rolling average and make sure the TREND is in the right direction.

Think of this like the bumper lanes in a bowling alley: As long as the ball is moving towards the pins, that’s good enough.

LESSON LEARNED: We pay attention to the things we track. So track the right stuff! This applies not only to health and fitness, but learning, personal finance, etc. Keep a journal, or an Evernote folder, or a Google Doc. Write down what you did, and what you’re going to do.

It’s valuable as hell. And I don’t care what kind of diet you pick: whichever one leads you to sustainable calorie management in a way that doesn’t make you want to punch a hole in the wall.

If the scale isn’t going down for you, it doesn’t mean that you have a slow metabolism, or that you’re broken. It means you are eating too many calories to induce weight loss. Track your calories more closely.  Use a scale if you need to, until you learn what actual portion sizes are.

Are you taking progress photos? They can be crucial for making sure you’re losing the right kind of weight!

Are you writing down your workouts or tracking them in an app? How else are you gonna know what you need to do this week to level up!?

#5) It’s Dangerous to Go Alone. Bring a friend.

I gotta give a shout out to my friend and coach, Anthony.

He’s been my online coach for the past 5 years and I truly consider him a valuable part of my success. He also has epic hair.

I’d say this is the best money I invest in myself each month – and I’m somebody that tells people how to exercise for a living!

When I’m traveling, or when I have busy weeks, my coach adjusts my schedule to make it work. When I am feeling good, well rested, and amped up, we crank things up. When I’m feeling overwhelmed he slows it down.

And most importantly, he doesn’t put up with my bullshit. You know what I mean – we all have excuses that we feed ourselves daily: too busy, I couldn’t because blah blah blah,.

I know Anthony doesn’t want to hear this stuff, so I just shut up and DO the work! It’s pretty awesome to have somebody else that’s invested in my success, somebody that I can bounce ideas off of, somebody that I know is keeping me accountable, checking my form, etc.

And maybe most importantly, I have the peace of mind to know that I’m actually doing the right stuff, and doing it correctly.

I feel confident saying I never would have lifted 420 pounds without my coach.

LESSON LEARNED: If you have the money to invest in yourself, hiring a coach who learns your story can be game changing. If you don’t, having a workout buddy in the trenches with you can be AMAZING too.

An accountabilibuddy, if you will.

We’re proud that we have an amazing online coaching program at NF, and we have an online community attached to our online course, the NF Academy.

I also know lots of people who work with trainers in person and they can be worth every penny (sometimes!)

  • If you want to take your fitness more seriously, invest in a coach if you can.
  • If you want to take running more seriously, join a running club.
  • If you want to bring a friend so you guys can lift together at the gym, do it!

You don’t have to go it alone on this journey, and oftentimes a coach or trusted friend can be an absolute game changer. It was for me.

I hope Anthony keeps me as a client for the next 5 years too.

I proved a troll wrong, now what!?

So I mentioned that I proved somebody wrong on the internet.

I mostly say this in jest.

The dude probably didn’t think twice about his comment, and hasn’t thought about it since.

Am I gonna try to right every wrong on the internet? Nope.

People say really nasty things about me all the time, that just comes with the territory. It hurts like hell. And I’ve become much better at ignoring it.

So screw the haters, I say. I don’t have time for them. I’m too busy helping people and writing about Star Wars and sometimes wearing pants (today is not that day).

So, although I jokingly say that “I owned that troll,” the reality is that it just.

doesn’t.

matter.

I’m really proud of this accomplishment, and I hope my recap can help you crystallize the goals you have floating around your head.

These days, my goals are tighter, and more focused on the process:

  • Work out 4 days per week, no exception.
  • Hit my calorie goals 6 days out of 7 each week.
  • Be better than the last workout.

I’m working on my handstands, mobility, and gymnastic rings stuff…but I’m gonna keep grinding on my deadlifts and squats too.

Considering how quickly that 420 pound deadlift came up, I wonder if I get a 500 pound deadlift…

No way, won’t happen. EVER. Not with these genetics 😛

(I’ll let you know in 5 years).

I’d love to hear from you: do you have a big “dragon slaying” goal you’re working towards in the future?

What can you take from this article and apply to your journey?

For the Rebellion!

-Steve

PS: We are hiring 2-3 certified coaches to join our NF Coaching Program! This is a 100% remote work-from-anywhere position. If you think you’d be a good fit, or know somebody that would, please check out our “work with us” page!

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All photo credits can be found in this very special footnote[1].

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92 thoughts on “5 Lessons Learned From a Skinny Nerd Deadlifting 420 Pounds

  1. Hi Steve!
    I’m literally an anti-Steve, in that I’m a female that accidentally discovered that can easily pack on muscle. In a couple of blog posts you wrote that “no worries, women don’t get bulky”- maybe that’s true, but not for me. My brother calls me the Meat Human 😉 and in my heart I dream about running marathons.
    Six years ago (!!) I signed up for pole dancing classes. I didn’t buy shorts for a year because I knew myself- I wasn’t the type of person who sticks with anything. I was lazy and easy to discourage. Somehow the stars aligned and next week I’ll welcome my anniversary on pole dancing classes. I suck at cardio and running is too hard for me, so I got myself a bicycle (actually, my husband got it for me, which is twice as awesome) and I ride it to work a couple of times per week. Baby steps!

    I read NF for five years now and somehow didn’t get to thank you for this. So- thank you Steve, may you lift long and heavy!

  2. First off, GREAT job.

    Secondly, You could probably hit 440, maybe even 450, based on how fast that went up. You had 2 left on 420. Try it 3 times next week, you’ll get it! And then reset your expectations to this levels because you got it and work those higher numbers! You’ve built a great base and can pull slower and heavier without getting hurt if done in moderation.

    500 won’t take that long based on what I see here. If you’re still I’ll doing the same routine, switch it up. Add some higher volume, higher rep weeks and keep your accessory work on point (RDLs, GM’s, upper back, rows, heavy carries, etc, you likely already are if you’ve made it this far).

    Anyways, sorry if I’m telling you thing your already know/do, but your form is great and you have built a great base..I think you can get to 500 faster than you think. 600, well, we can be realistic about genes and that might be really really tricky to get, but you look young and could mass up with your leaner frame now and it could happen eventually.

  3. Wtf 10 years to deadlift 400? Doing sslp or sl 5×5 you should be doing 330 in 6-9 months and it should only take another 3-6 months after that doing mad cow or 531 to get 405.

  4. Congrats on the PR.

    I get that you have very thin wrists and such, but you’re not and endomorph. No one is. The body types were made up for psychological purposes and even then the model failed miserably. Yes, some people have trouble gaining weight and others have trouble losing it, and that says more about habits than your genes. Somatotypes don’t predict anything and are useless. Mentioning them as if they are real, in my opinion, is as harmful as being a troll on the internet because they discourage people. Your intention isn’t to mislead the readers, so I’d advise you to ditch the concept.

  5. hey Fabrizio! I appreciate the comment – the reference to somatypes has been removed. It was added to make a point that most people would understand, though I definitely agree with you it’s not fair to box complexities of human existence into 3 categories, and nobody fits perfectly into any of them!

    In fact, I can absolutely see the problem of identifying as a certain type, and using it as a crutch. I certainly did for a LONG time – “oh i can’t gain weight because I’m an ectomorph, it’s my genetics fault.” The reality was: I wasn’t gaining weight and muscle because I wasn’t eating enough to induce muscle building.

    Cheers!

    -Steve

  6. Well done Steve! I remember reading your Iron Man post back when you wrote it, and I was heartbroken for you. It’s been a long time since then, and you persevered and stuck with it. Way to go!

  7. I was really hoping this was going to the end with you doxing the troll and doing the lift in front of him.

  8. Congratulations Steve, it’s awesome when you nail a goal, especially one so long in coming. 🙂 Well, as for my goals, I am aiming to get my 100m sprint time back below 13 seconds, and this time do it without an illegal tailwind! My genetics are a mixed bag. On the plus side, I did get the powerful fast twitch muscles, especially in my legs, but on the flip side, I also have some nasty coordination issues that really become significant at very high speeds (I was born a total klutz 😀 ).

    An additional challenge is age. I’m now 50, and when I did manage that 12.99 sprint, I was only 48 – each year that goes by adds roughly another 0.1 seconds handicap which has to be overcome in addition to everything else. But I’m not going to let that stop me.

  9. That was very impressive, I’m going to try “Stronglifts 5×5”. What do you people think about it?

    BUT… I wonder why your legs don’t look bigger. After all you’ve been doing squats too, right?

    NOT TROLLING, JUST CURIOUS. ;D

  10. Great work Steve! Form looked really solid and you did a double overhand grip. Very impressive! How tall are you?

    And kudos to sticking with that programming the entire time. It It goes to show that boring but consistent programming really works.

    I’m actually in a similar boat as you. I’m an ectomorph with a bad spine, but I strive to continue making slow progress. Hoping to get a 500 DL in my lifetime.

    What’s your next goal? Do you hope to hit 500 too?

    P.S in the beginning you wrote

    “If you’re familiar with body types, I’m an endomorph.“. I think you meant to say ecto

  11. Big accomplishment! The troll was just spouting broscience, confusing bodybuilding with strength training. However, I’m looking for a skinny nerd and all I’m seeing is a lean man here. My current goal is less ambitious, 225 squat.

  12. Hahaha, that would have been pretty funny – Jay and SIlent Bob style. I ring the doorbell, read his comment out loud, and then go deadlift in his front yard 🙂

  13. Just a comment about the part where you mention if you get a shin splint or plantar faciatis (however you spell that): Most of the time, pain is due to loading issues (running too much in this example, or lifting too heavy too often with respect to lifting), and not form.

  14. Congrats! That’s a great video of you lifting 400+ lbs. As for me, I started using your website this summer, and I have gone from a single push up to 3 sets of 8 push-ups on a 6-inch raised platform. Slowly and steadily I am working my way to the ground, and to 10+ push ups. And then…maybe a dead lift some day!

  15. Huge congrats to you! What a fantastic feeling it is to achieve a long term goal! I’m really proud of you!

  16. Thanks for understanding. And again congrats on the PR. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to keep deadlifting with a back like yours. You’re inspiring!

  17. Love fractional plates. i do that on some of my other barbell movements, and imagine once I run outta 5lb gainz on the deadlift, my coach will have me switching over to 1 lb increments. Depends on the lift, I guess!

  18. Grade 1 Spondy here! I didn’t realize you were a sufferer as well. That makes this lift even more inspiring, thank you so much for sharing.

  19. Stronglifts puts more emphasis in squatting, 3x week. Might be a good or bad idea, depending on how you manage your lower back, who knows.

  20. Thanks for your kind replies. And congratulations again! I’ll be gladly following your steps, hopefully without back injuries!

  21. Yep! I’ve had some big wins in the lower back pain department by upgrading the 3 things I spend the most time with:

    1) My desk chair
    2) My mattress
    3) My shoes!

  22. Good stuff man! One of my favorite programs Steve has mentioned on here in the past is PLP. I use it when I get off track (becaue it can be done anywhere, anytime) or if I change my focus to body weight training. It just stands for push-ups, lunges, and pull-ups. You simple do 1 push-up, 1 lunge (with each leg) and 1 pull-up on day 1. On day 2, you do 2, 2, and 2….I think you see where I’m going with this. The original program calls for the individual to do 60 days like that. However, I usually do it for 30 days 3-4 times per year. I think in your situation, doing it for 10-15 days would help your push-ups to skyrocket! You don’t have to do them all at once; you can accumulate them throughout the day.

  23. I just rethought your answer, and I came up with a better taunt/compliment/trolling:

    Your legs are OK, it’s your upper body that’s disproportionately big! LOL

  24. Hi Steve, I see you mentioned that you workout Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Saturday which are my only days available to workout as well. What is your workout split for those days or do you just do full body? Also what would you suggest with a workout schedule like this? (My goal is weight loss.) Thank You!

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