Everyone has a man-crush on deadlifts these days. While ten years ago it was articles on bench presses and biceps curls that ruled the bandwidth, now every thing you read is extolling the virtues of heavy pulling.
I have to confess, I’m skeptical. How many of these zealots truly understand and appreciates the benefits of deadlifting as opposed to just trying to look like one of the cool kids?
To that end, one of my favorite questions to ask coaches and lifters who wear their love of deadlifting on their sleeves is, “Why do you deadlift?”
I always learn a lot from the responses – from both the very smart coaches that deadlift for the right reasons and from the misguided souls who shouldn’t be deadlifting at all!
Reason #1: Deadlifting Makes Me Strong
Many use the deadlift as their measure of strength. However it’s important to first define what “strength” is.
For the typical gym rat, strength is usually load-based, or simply how much weight they can lift. In this context, the deadlift makes perfect sense, as it’s a stable, predictable, and easy to groove movement.
But in athletics it isn’t nearly as cut and dried. How many times have we seen wrestlers, gymnasts, martial artists, etc., that are strong in their chosen sport, yet can’t pull to save their lives?
To that end, if you’re strong in your sport and dominating the competition, does your deadlifting prowess even matter?
Before we can establish a correlation of strength to a given activity, we need to assess how accurately it challenges our body in specific measures relevant to that activity. The problem with using the deadlift is that it’s easy to mask and compensate for deficiencies in many areas. Therefore, we must question if it’s truly an accurate measure of “functional” strength, which brings us to reason number two.
Reason #2: Deadlifts ARE Very Functional
Coaches often say the deadlift carries over to many daily functions. The truth of the matter is that the deadlift has many holes in its translation to most sporting and daily functions.
The deadlift, while a free weight movement, is movement in only one dominant plane, sagittal. However, most daily and sporting activities require us to move and stabilize in many planes of motion.
Furthermore, according to back expert Stuart McGill, the majority of low back issues are not due to maximal strength issues, but rather poor strength-endurance and bad motor patterns. Because the deadlift is such a stable and grooved exercise, it’s easy to build compensation patterns that could actually be detrimental to our low back health.
Finally, concerning sporting performance, legendary biomechanics expert and one of the first U.S. coaches to spend time with Soviet sport coaches, Dr. Michael Yessis, states that the Russians found two main causes of injury:
- Extreme range of motion
- Eccentric load
Leaning too hard on the deadlift for “sport performance training” can be misleading as neither of these two variables are addressed. Fact is, many coaches remove the eccentric component of the deadlift altogether.
Reason #3: It Works the Posterior Chain
The synergy of the hamstrings, glutes, and low back to produce power and strength is an extremely important component to many sports. Yet there are many ways to accomplish this other than just performing deadlifts.
The basic hip hinge component of deadlifting is vital to learn for both performance and low back health. But as we continue to add load, this basic point of deadlifting could be potentially lost.
The term “optimal strength” refers to the point in loading where the chosen lift ceases to provide a carryover to the performance goal.
This is extremely important when training athletes as trying to make an athlete go from a 450-pound deadlift to 500 pounds may come at a significant cost to their movement skills, but have little benefit to their performance.
For the non-powerlifting lifter, the same decisions need to be made in programming. Can we get the same or similar effect but with less spinal compressive movements?
Reason #4: I Like Lifting Heavy Stuff
I won’t argue this point – heck, it’s fun to lift big loads off the ground. I used to enjoy it as well, but I noticed that the heavier my loads got, the more time I had to spend warming-up, pre-habbing, doing corrective exericse, etc. It seemed as though more time was spent preparing and healing from the lift than actually training.
As a coach it can be a trap to make our clients perform the methods and drills we love to do ourselves. Yet if we start to look at our programs with a critical eye, we may be able to develop far more effective programs and still move well and be strong!
What Do I Do?
The deadlift can serve as a great base for teaching the hip hinge and developing some general strength. However, we should look to progress after we establish these patterns at appropriate loads. Progressing doesn’t mean loading the deadlift to Elite proportions, but moving to more complex patterns of movement, speed, and body position.
The Influence of Single-Leg Training
I know, no one ever wants to wear the “90-pound dumbbell single-leg deadlift club” T-shirt, but these movements may take your training and performance further than joining the 600-pound deadlift club.
At a certain point the bilateral lifts have diminishing returns. As loads get heavier, shearing forces and spinal compression diminish movement quality, not to mention increase the risk of injury. This is where single-limb movements start to really shine.
Interestingly, here the benefits of single-leg training have little to do with promoting “symmetry” but rather providing a form of asymmetrical loading.
Asymmetrical loading exercises effectively train trunk and spinal stability. As McGill notes, “Though the spine remains upright, it’s subject to enormous compressive, bending, twisting, and shearing loads.”
While we’re seeing some of these drills appear in more training programs, their versatility, progression, and complexity have yet to be maximized. The following exercises are a very good start. (I’ve also included a video at the end of the descriptions that shows how to do each of these movements.)
Ultimate Sandbag Deadlifts and Front Loaded Good Mornings
What is so great about how we see deadlifts in DVRT is that we have the option to change many variables to get different results, add progressions, and get so much more out of the same Ultimate Sandbags. After we learn the RIGHT way to deadlift with the Ultimate Sandbag, it isn’t a barbell after all, we can go to the Front Loaded Good Morning. This creates so much more activation in the core and lats and helps us connect the chains of the body that work with the glutes!
Progressing Instability with Deadlifts
Front Loaded Good Morning Progressions
Did You Try Them?
I hope that you’ll try some if not all of these lifts before forming your opinion. In my case, implementing and prioritizing these lifts was some of the most humbling training I’ve ever performed, but also the most rewarding.
In the end, I’m not asking you drop your deadlifts – I’m asking that you execute good programming, starting with cycling movements and determining if deadlifts are even the answer to your training goals.
Remember, the really cool kids aren’t the ones hitting deadlift PR’s – they’re the ones achieving their training goals.