For such a basic exercise that basically involves picking something up off the ground, the deadlift is actually a pretty controversial movement. There’s thousands of pages out there on the internet and hundreds of videos arguing for and against deadlifting.
To the new lifter, and even to those of us who’ve been at it for a while, this can all get pretty damn confusing. Many avoid deadlifting like the plague because they’ve been told it’s a “bad exercise,” and others have blind loyalty to the deadlift without really understanding why it’s beneficial to do it in the first place.
I personally love the deadlift, both for it’s benefits to strength and muscle mass, and simply because it’s a really fun exercise to do. Nevertheless, I’ve also seen some truly astounding examples of people doing the exercise horribly wrong. Such examples lend credence to the claims of the “I don’t do deadlifts” crowd.
So I think it’s important that we enlighten people on why they should do deadlifts, what the real risks are to doing or not doing the exercise, and best practices for including the deadlift in your own fitness regimen.
Classic Arguments for Why You Shouldn’t Deadlift
You’ll hurt your spine
Ok, we’ve all heard the argument that deadlifts “put too much pressure on the spine” and that “the spine should not be placed under such shear force.” When they refer to “shear force” they’re referring to stress that arises from the force vector component parallel to the cross section. In simple terms, think of a line going from your back to your belly button. Shear force on your spine is running in the same direction as that line as in the diagram below:
If you currently have a healthy spine, this argument is probably the least logical argument against doing deadlifts for a number of different reasons.
First, its important to understand that you’re quite possibly putting even more pressure on your spine at the moment, than you would be if you’re doing a deadlift with proper form. That’s because you’re probably sitting in a slouched position while you’re reading this, and you’ve probably been sitting there for a while.
Check out the Nachemson Chart below:
Note that the very last column on the right, sitting in a slouched position for prolonged periods, actually brings about around 275 kg of intra-discal pressure, while bending over to pick something up yields closer to around 210 kg.
Understanding this means that there’s actually a risk in not doing deadlifts for those of us with healthy spines. That’s because of Wolff’s Law and Davis’s Law.
Wolff’s Law states that bone in a healthy person will adapt to the loads under which it is placed. Davis’s Law is the corollary to Wolff’s Law, and it states that soft tissue will also model itself according to it’s imposed demands. This means that with increased regular stress, your bones and muscles will get stronger.
But it doesn’t just happen. To achieve these effects, there has to be a minimal effective strain (MES). The MES has to be great enough and repeated enough that osteoblasts are signaled to travel to the area and lay down collagen to strengthen the bone. This process is also similar to muscle hypertrophy, where micro tears in the muscles signal the repairing and growth process to begin.
The moral of this story is that regular deadlifting, done with proper form at strenuous but sub maximal loads, will actually help to strengthen your vertebrae and the muscles that help to support your spine. This in turn will actually prevent a back injury.
No other exercise, not even the squat, activates these muscles and loads the spine in this way. That means that if you aren’t doing deadlifts, you’re missing out on a heck of a lot of spinal protection.
I’m a bodybuilder and I don’t want my waist to get bigger…
Sigh… I’ve heard this one just a bit too much. There’s a lot of guys out there who will not deadlift because they believe that it’s going to lead to wider hips and bubble guts.
I’m not sure where this one came from, but it is completely wrong. Forget about the fact that some of the most proportional bodybuilders of all time, like Arnold and Franco, deadlifted regularly:
…or the fact that we see some of the smallest waisted fitness personalities of today doing them like Mike Rashid, Mike O’Hearn, and Jeff Seid.
Let’s honestly think about the anatomical logic here. As I noted above, the deadlift helps to strengthen all of the muscles supporting the spine, including the core muscles. Such strengthening allows you to contract the corps muscles more effectively. On the other hand, a weaker core leads to a more distended belly. To understand this better, check out the anatomy video below.
So that leaves open the question, why do so many current day pro bodybuilders and strongmen have giant bellies?
Well, one thing you should understand is that many IFBB pro bodybuilders do not deadlift. As a group, these athletes do tend to take drugs like Growth Hormone and anabolic steroids en masse, which can lead to internal organ growth, but I also would not underestimate the fact that these guys eat a whole lot of food.
Bottom line: there is no demonstrable evidence to suggest that deadlifts will grow your waist. Actually the opposite is probably true.
But I’ll get callouses on my hands
Only answer I got for this one:
I train at Planet Fitness and they don’t allow deadlifts…
Switch gyms. Seriously, I hear a lot of people complaining about Planet Fitness. Get this through your head: Planet Fitness doesn’t care about you and they really shouldn’t. They’re making a buttload of money catering to people who don’t like being around people who do deadlifts. You wouldn’t join a Crossfit Gym to do Nautilus workouts, then don’t go to Planet Fitness if you want to get stronger.
Additionally, there’s a lot of smaller mom and pop gyms in all parts of the country that would love to have you doing deadlifts in their gym. Go to them. They need the business more.
WHY YOU SHOULD DEADLIFT
Ok so I debunked a bunch of arguments against the deadlift, but here’s some solid reasons why everyone should deadlift.
It will make you stronger from head to toe.
I’ve already covered this one while debunking the “deadlifts are bad for your spine” argument. Deadlifts activate all of the muscles in your trunk and help to build denser bones. The result is better support for your spine and better ability to achieve thoracic extension, which is important for athletic performance in every sport.
It will help you get better at things you do every day.
Whether you’re a hardcore lifter or an 85 year old woman, we all need to pick things up and put them down. It is something our bodies are supposed to be able to do. Unless you want to live in an impenetrable bubble, then you’re going to need to do this some time, and deadlifts can help you to do it in a safer and more effective manner for the rest of your life.
Deadlifts will help you to burn fat.
Deadlifts help to activate every large muscle group in your body. As you activate more muscle fiber, your body depletes glycogen. This allows you to store glucose more effectively in your muscles, leaving you more sensitive to the hormone insulin. This means that you’ll produce less insulin in the long run, and that allows your body to mobilize fat for fuel more effectively.
Deadlifts will help you to build muscle.
Because you’re activating all of your large muscle groups, the deadlift itself can lead to muscular hypertrophy, particularly in your upper back, lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. That means that the deadlift will also help you to get better at other muscle building exercises like the squat, the overhead press, and even the bench press.
Deadlifts are probably the safest of all the big exercises
Unlike the squat or the bench press, if a deadlift isn’t going correctly you don’t need to complete the repetition. throw the weight off of you, or have someone lift the weight off of you to get out of a bad position. All you need to do is let go of the bar and you’re in the clear.
OTHER MYTHS ABOUT THE DEADLIFT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT
You need to deadlift if you want a well developed back
No you don’t.
Bob Chicherillo is a great example of someone who doesn’t deadlift but who has outstanding back development. As I wrote before, deadlifting can definitely help you to build muscle mass, but that’s not the only point to deadlifting. The real benefit is in building a stronger spine, better posture, and stronger bones all round. These are benefits that will last you for the rest of your life.
You need to go really heavy all the time.
While I want to encourage you to challenge yourself, I also want to encourage you not to be stupid. There’s plenty of stupid going around when it comes to deadlifting heavy weight with really crappy form. Deadlifting is not dangerous, but deadlifting a weight you have no business lifting with really bad form is very dangerous.
I am a former competitive powerlifter, and it is true that while you’re on the platform attempting your personal best, you’ll probably break your form. On the other hand, if it’s your first meet, you probably want the chance to compete in more meets and eventually achieve your genetic max total. That won’t happen if you injure your spine, so approach your first few meets conservatively.
If you’re not competing in powerlifting and you’re just training in the gym for no other reason than to get stronger, better, and prevent injury, you should not be approaching your max deadlift in a training environment. In this case, I would not handle a weight that you can’t do at least three repetitions at with good form. Following that guideline, you’ll hit the MES needed to get stronger while significantly reducing your chance of injury.
There is also lots of benefit just in performing the hip hinge movement as we’ll discuss below.
You shouldn’t do any variation of the deadlift if you have a bad back.
If you do have a back or spine injury, you should still learn how to do the hinging necessary for a good deadlift in order to protect your spine. This involves learning how to use your glutes and posterior chain to bend at the waist and pick something up with a straight spine. You can train the hinge with something as light as a broomstick or even with no weight at all.
VARIATIONS OF THE DEADLIFT
There are several variations of the deadlift that you can try and each of them has their own benefits. Here are some videos that will take you through them:
Before moving into doing actual deadlifts, you need to make sure that you know how to do a good hinge. This video will take you through what you need to do to perfect your hinge:
This variation is done with a shoulder width stance, and a grip just outside of your legs. The big benefits to this lift is that it will really work your posterior chain, your glutes, your core, your lower traps, your lats, and your spinal erectors. I suggest you learn how to do this one with proper form before moving on to the others.
This video will take you through the ins and outs of perfecting your deadlift form and it contains some cues you should know to hit a proper conventional deadlift:
This variation is done with a wider stance and a grip inside of your legs. In many ways, the sumo deadlift could be considered even more functional than the conventional deadlift because we normally pick things up from between our legs.
This video will take you through some cues for doing the sumo deadlift properly:
This variation really focuses on the hip hinge and places the most stress on the hamstrings and the glutes out of all the other variations.
This video will teach you how to do the Romanian Deadlift properly:
Snatch Grip Deadlift
This, in my opinion, is the hardest version of the deadlift because it forces you to lift from a lower position and it really focuses on your grip strength. Still it is an amazing strength builder and can really help you to improve on other deadlift variations.
Pay close attention to this video as form is extremely important on this lift to avoid injury:
Deadlifts are not and probably never will be without their controversy, and this article will definitely not be without its critics. If you have a bad back, or you’re scared of deadlifts because of risk of injury, please understand this: you need to learn how to do the exercise properly. That may require investing in a trainer or a coach, along with significant amounts of practice before diving into them with any intensity. My argument is that this, however, should not undercut their usefulness as an exercise.
I hope you got a lot out of this article and its associated video. If you have any questions, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and if you’re looking to learn more about how to include deadlifts in your own regimen sign up for our newsletter HERE.