Anyone that has been following my training in the past year knows that I’ve become something of an “axle-holic”. Ever since I purchased the Ironmind Apollon’s axle, I’ve been inclined to use it with pretty much any movement I can. Axle curls, axle presses, axle bench, axle front squats, etc etc, yet the most controversial movement will of course be the axle deadlift with straps. Many people mistakenly believe that the only real attribute of an axle is the increased diameter compared to a barbell, making it a grip training implement. Operating under this paradigm, using an axle with straps makes no sense, because you’ve now removed the grip training element out of the equation. However, those operating with this understanding are severely underestimating the more significant contributing factors the axle has to the deadlift: lack of flex, and putting the weight further out in front of you. These two factors radically change the deadlift into an incredibly effective and brutal movement, and provide a strong argument for why YOU should include this movement into your programming.
You may have to drop something from your program to fit it in
Powerlifters love to brag about the stiffness of their bar when it comes to a deadlift, as though it’s some sort of badge of honor. “Oh, you pulled 600lbs? But it was with a whippy deadlift bar. I pulled 500lbs with a squat bar, so it was WAAAY harder.” You know what has zero whip? A 2” axle. World’s Strongest Man will occasionally use the Ironmind S cubed bar (stiff, strong and straight) for deadlift competitions, and once things get up to 900+lbs even THAT bar will start to whip a little, whereas the Apollon’s axle still doesn’t budge. Now, imagine the effect of such a ridiculously stiff bar when you try to pull a deadlift. I’ve equated it to making every deadlift a deficit deadlift, because the bar will NOT move from its starting position. Whereas a deadlift bar might give you 2” of wiggle room, and a regular/stiff bar might give .5”, you are pulling a LEGIT deadlift here.
This ALSO means you can’t use the bumper plate trick like you could with a normally barbell. For those uninitiated with this concept, it’s another way to take advantage of the slack in a barbell. If you load a bar in such a way that you have occupied all of the space on the sleeves, it makes it so that, at the start of the pull, you’re actually deadlifting LESS weight than at the end. Basically, you pick up the middle of the bar, it bows upward, and then the plates closest to the center of the bar start picking up off the ground. The plates at the end of the sleeves will actually stay on the ground for a lot of the initial pull until the bar finally whips back up and you’re finally carrying the full load. The hummer tire deadlift event at the Arnold REALLY showcases this phenomenon. It’s a surefire way to add some poundages to your pull, and there is absolutely no dice trying this with the axle. Load the collars all the way to the end, find the fattest bumper plates you can, it doesn’t matter; you ARE pulling all the weight on the bar, no question. For those of you weak off the floor, this is the answer to your problems.
A more extreme example
Now we get onto the topic of diameter and its influence on the deadlift itself; not just your grip strength. Since the axle has a wider diameter than a barbell, this means that, in turn, the weight on an axle deadlift is further out in front of you than it is with a barbell. Any decent deadlifter knows that you want to minimize distance between you and the weight as much as possible, as the further out the weight is in front of you, the harder it is to lift. This is why the scraped and bloody shin is such a prized mark amongst deadlifters; it means you were keeping the bar close to your body and dragging it up, getting as much poundage as possible. Well the axle gets to rob you of this pleasantry, because even WHEN the axle is scrapping up your shins, the weight is STILL out in front of you. That increased diameter makes it so that, even when the axle is pulled as close as possible, it’s still like pulling a barbell deadlift with the bar about an inch in front of your body. Just try to visualize that and you will surely understand the hell that is an axle deadlift.
This is a BRUTAL deadlift compared to pulling with a thin barbell. It is far more taxing on the lower back, because the lower back gets called in more to try to correct the barpath and support the weight. Then, let us consider that the lack of whip means that all of your hitching is going to be pretty useless, because you can’t try to oscillate the bar up your body. You either get the pull or you don’t, and you can fight all you want, but if the strength isn’t there, neither is the rep. This is an HONEST deadlift, with no tricks or skill saving you. You’re pulling the weight dead off the floor, far from your body, with a legit lockout.
So help me if you pull sumo with an axle I WILL find you
For personal anecdotes, ever since my ACL injury I’ve only used the axle for my deadlift training. About a month ago, I finally broke out the Texas Deadlift Bar, and ended up hitting the smoothest 615lb deadlift in my life. I did this first thing in the morning, off of 2 pieces of toast on a bad day. There was no need for any hitching, hyping or theatrics. The carryover between this to your competition pull is insane.
Not the absence of hitching, ramping, shaking, dramatics, magic, smoke and mirrors
Before we conclude, let’s discuss straps real fast, since it’s imperative to this topic. You don’t want grip to be the limiting factor on this sort of pull, as it defeats the purpose. Sure, some unstrapped axle deads are awesome for building up some grip strength, but for maximizing the benefits of this brutal deadlift, you NEED a good set of straps that won’t fail you and will allow you to move maximal poundages. I HAVE used a set of Ironmind Strong Enough Straps for axle deadlifts in a competition before, and they’ll work for a single, but for getting in multiple reps without slipping, you owe it to yourself to pick up the Why Our Way straps. For those of you up to speed on internet sensations, these are the same straps Chris Duffin uses for 1000lb deadlifts and 675 for sets of 20, and they will absolutely not fail you. They have some sort of top secret maximally effective way to set up that are supposedly amazing, but I use them like regular straps and they work just fine. I own the Ironmind Black axle straps and honestly haven’t been too impressed with them, so try not to cut costs here if you can.
Quick recap here: axle with straps is a different animal than axle without straps, and SHOULD be included in your training. It’s a stiff and brutal pull with no parlor tricks that will make you stupid strong. Get a good set of straps.