Surviving Hack Squats and Deadlifts on Leg Day

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I survived another leg day and I’d be impressed except for just one thing: hack squats and deadlifts still knock the stuffing out of me. I’ve decided to make 90 seconds rest between sets the standard for my workouts for the foreseeable future, not only to give myself more recovery time, but to see if it assists in building more lean muscle.

For deadlifts and hack squats, I have been resting for 90 seconds between sets, even when I was resting only 60 seconds for every other lift. They’re just that brutal.

Before you say it, I don’t think I’m lifting all that heavy. In fact, during the actual set, I feel pretty good and could lift for more reps or lift a heavier weight for the same number of reps.

But the instant I set the barbell on the floor, I’m huffing and puffing like a steam engine and my heart is pounding in my chest. 90 seconds rest between these sets is barely enough for me to reasonably catch my breath. By the end of three sets, I don’t have another one in me…

…and I do hack squats and straight leg deadlifts back to back.

Earlier this morning, I read an article at called Big Lou on Making Leg Day Count. After all of the work I do on leg day, I certainly want it to count. I don’t want to think I’m losing my breath, revving up my heart rate like an aging high performance sports car, and dripping sweat all over the floor for nothing.

Unfortunately, the article didn’t address my specific concern. I did ask about it in the comments section below the article, but I have no idea when or if anyone will answer.

So since I don’t like to wait around, I used my favorite research tool, Google, to try to find the answer on my own.

There aren’t a lot of articles on this topic but a ton of discussion forums talk about it.

For instance, at the discussion forum at, “Yogurt” asked:

Everytime I do deadlifts, it kills me. It is one of the most exhausting things ever, for me at least. Anyways, after each set I feel like throwing up a little and really lightheaded and feel like I could possibly faint. It is also hard for me to breath (sic) afterwards, I have to catch my breath even though I breathe correctly while doing reps. Same with squats, I have to catch my breath for a couple of minutes.

What the hell is wrong with me?

To which “nickortego” answered:

It just sounds like you are human. Deadlifts and squats can do that to everyone. If it feels more extreme than what other people experience, maybe get checked out by a doctor. I trained a kid who had a similar experience. It turned out that he had an underlying, undiscovered heart condition. He could exercise with intensity, it’s just that the valsalva maneuver used in heavy squats and deadlifts caused a temporary rise in diastolic blood pressure, and his heart couldn’t handle it.

A number of people mentioned that heavy compound moves like deadlifts drop the blood pressure considerably, even to the point where some people are afraid they’re going to pass out (more on this at the end of this blog post). I had a medical exam several months ago and I know there’s nothing wrong with my heart, so that can’t be it.

On the same forum, “bode” made the following comment:

Deadlifts are a huge core lift. You work practically your entire body. I love doing them. I do get a bit light headed at times as well. It may be you’re pulling for too much weight. Take it easy. I don’t know how much weight your pulling or the intensity you’re doing it at, but I was personally trying to pull too much weight. And my form became poor. Once I dropped it down a bit I didn’t experience the same problem. I recommend 5×5’s on deadlift and squat.

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So I started to wonder if I was being foolish treating hack squats and deadlifts like any other resistance training move. Maybe heavy compound movements should be at lower reps with more sets by design.

Oh, I had to look up “5×5” and found the answer at (where else?)

To begin with, the principal of 5×5 is obvious, five reps each set for five sets.

I don’t know if I want to incorporate 5x5s into everything I do, but they might make sense for really heavy (for me) barbell lifts.

This opens up the possibility of going even heavier than I have since I’ll only be lifting the weight five times per set for five sets total. I think I’ll want to sneak up on this one gradually. I upped the weight on today’s deadlifts to 130 pounds, which is the heaviest I’ve gone (and which is pathetic compared to what most people do for deadlifts).

The 5×5 program recommends about 90 seconds rest between sets and a huge 3 minutes between exercises. Given the amount of weight this overall body program involves, I can certainly see why, but I can also see I’m nowhere near ready to warm up (as the article mentions) for the incline bench press at 200 pounds, let alone add any more weight for my working sets.

I don’t get dizzy, feel like passing out, or want to vomit when doing hack squats and deadlifts, but, and specifically a recreational powerlifter named Dave Troiano, listed some reasons why people might have these experiences. Click the link just above to read about them.

Tolan Fursuho also said:

I believe its a combination of a drop in blood pressure due to exertion coupled with the standing maneuver itself.

Abhinav Thakur added:

When deadlifting big weights, a lot of blood flows from the areas where it is not needed to the areas which are under exertion. It is only natural that the brain loses some blood this way and people can pass out. That said, it depends from person to person and if you gradually increase the weight you deadlift, you wouldn’t pass out; might just feel light headed which is perfectly okay.

So suddenly demanding that my quads, hams, and glutes work to lift (for me) a great deal of weight means those large muscles have an abrupt need for a lot of oxygen to do the work, taking it away from other parts of my body. No wonder I’m out of breath and my heartbeat is so fast.

The topic “Deadlift/Squats make me feel like I did cardio for 40mins” at Reddit’s Fitness sub-reddit contained the question:

I mean I’ve never been exhausted so fast in my life before. I’m not talking about muscle pain or my muscles giving up.

It’s just I run out of breath and feel like I’m going to collapse.

Is this lack of food? Lack of overall fitness or what is it?

The first response was:

Welcome to Squatting and Deadlifting.

And the second reply was:

What he means is, this is pretty normal when you first start out.

But then someone else wrote:

It’s normal whenever. I’ve been lifting for years and if you don’t see stars you’re not working hard enough.

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From all this, I have to conclude that it’s fairly normal, even for people much younger than I am, to experience exhaustion and worse while doing squats and deadlifts. Big muscles just require a lot of resources to perform those lifts.

I did find one relevant article at Tabata Times called Deadlifting Will Not Get You Laid But It Will Make You Awesome: 8 Common Deadlift Mistakes.

The author, Dan Runion, a coach at CrossFit 77 says:

For 1-rep max attempts or heavy singles, the lift starts before I even approach the bar. I start to take some deep breaths and get myself moderately hyperventilated. Not to the point of passing out or feeling light headed, but just enough to have a slight excess of oxygen in the bloodstream. This insures that I’ll have enough air in my body while performing the lift without having to take a breath until I’m complete. Only then do I approach the bar and get set.

For sets of multiple reps I follow the same breathing method as above, but since the weights are lower I allow myself to take a breath at the top of the lift only. You can take a breath at the bottom if you want, but I feel that takes too long and increases the likelihood of resting too long.

So this is another tip I can employ to see if it helps me “endure” squats and deadlifts better.

The icing on the cake was:

One last thing: don’t max out all the time. Deadlifts stress the central nervous system so much that if you don’t give the body enough rest you’ll just go backwards. Train smart. Don’t try to be a meathead everyday. You’ll just get hurt and not make progress anyway.

So even though, from a powerlifter’s point of view (or even a younger person’s perspective), I don’t lift particularly heavy, I’m still demanding a heck of a lot out of my body. Deadlifts (and I’ll include hack squats here in my case) put a great strain on the heart, lungs, blood pressure, and central nervous system, so these routines are supposed to be exhausting.

I guess this goes along with what I said yesterday about don’t be stupid.

But another problem presents itself. Adding 90 second rest periods between all sets and performing 5x5s for hack squats and deadlifts is going to extend the time I’m actually lifting, which takes away from cardio time. The solution is to remove my cardio session for leg day and just do cardio a max of five days a week. That way, I’d have plenty of time and could even add another type of calf raise to my workout, since I’m only doing between 3 to 5 sets of seated calf raises now.

Since I do bent leg deadlifts on back day, I suppose I’ll change that up to 5x5s as well to see how it works out.

I’m actually looking forward to next week’s leg day to see how these changes affect my squats and deadlifts. I’ll let you know what happens.

Oh, I promised to talk more about passing out and deadlifts. Turns out there’s a video on YouTube called “ORIGINAL deadlift passout video 329”. I was tempted to laugh when I saw it but as far as I can tell, this is a real person who pushed himself way too far and suffered the consequences. Speaking of “don’t be stupid.”

Strength does not come from winning. Your struggles develop your strengths.

Arnold Schwarzenegger


4 thoughts on “Surviving Hack Squats and Deadlifts on Leg Day

  1. What are you doing ‘cardio’ for? 5 heavy reps will put a heck of a demand on your heart and lungs. There is your cardio.

    I like the 5 X 5 program, but it’s really for beginners. If you are as old as I, you will find most of these programs do not leave enough recovery time. Unfortunately, we need more time off.


    1. Cardio is defined as a light to moderate exercise that’s roughly 25 to 35 minutes long. Intense exercises such as deadlifts don’t really burn fat since burning fat is oxygen intensive. I find that a balance between resistance training and cardio takes care of multiple requirements. And as far as a 5×5 program being for beginners, in a very real way, I am a beginner. Please don’t judge. The only person I’m trying to impress in the gym is me. I have no idea how old you are but I’ll be 61 in July.


  2. Doing squats, deadlifts and other heavy compound exercises for legs engages a large group of muscles to work. So yes, that means there is a higher demand of oxygen to those muscles. But sometimes I see people doing one big mistake when lifting heavy: holding in their breath. So I can imagine people passing out because the much needed oxygen is rushed to the muscles and their brain has a lack of oxygen. Make sure you breathe in when you lower the weights and breathe out when lifting the weight up (instead of holding your breath!).
    Between your sets, take big breaths and don’t sit down of just stand but walk around a bit. Let your heartrate and breathing go down as much as possible and maybe you then have more more energy for your next set.
    Don’t leave cardio out but as you already said, James, if your weight lifting routine takes a bit more time leave cardio out for that day or reduce the days on which you do cardio but do longer cardio sessions on your “cardio days”.


    1. I everything I’ve read, the big warning is to not hold your breath. I try to be mindful of my breathing during deadlifts and squats, inhaling on the upward motion and exhaling on lowering the weight. I’ll have to incorporate some deeper breathing before lifting and between sets.

      I don’t sit down between sets but for the first 30 seconds or so, I grab onto the weight rack to steady myself. After that, I stand and walk a bit while trying to get my breath back.

      Currently I do cardio six days a week. Monday through Friday, I’ve only got an hour max at the gym. For the first half, I’m lifting and for the second half, I do cardio. On Saturday, I go in to do concentrated core work and to do a slightly longer cardio. If I skip cardio on leg day, that still leaves five other days, so I’ll only be down one 25 minute session. I tend to favor shorter cardios, 25 to 35 minutes per workout. Much more than that, especially on a day when I’ve also been lifting, results in a long recovery for my heartrate. What I’m doing now definitely works me, but I don’t have to crawl out of the gym and the end of it feeling like a wrung out dishrag.


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