Nobody is lukewarm on deadlifts. You either love them or hate them. In fact, a lot of people love them and hate them while many others love to hate them.
Let’s face it, they challenge you in ways that no other exercise can. Deadlifts don’t care what college you went to (or whether you did,) who your daddy is or what kind of car you drive.
Their entire reason for existence is to wreck you and make you feel inadequate. At least, that’s how it often seems.
In truth, deadlifts are there to make you stronger, faster, more powerful, leaner and even sexier. Let’s not forget to mention tougher and more resilient. They’re hard. There’s no denying or sugarcoating it. However, deadlifts come with so much payoff that they may very well be the one indispensable exercise for people who want massive fitness, performance and physique results.
Conventional, sumo and even trap bar deadlifts are all effective deadlift variations. Which type you choose is dependent on your lifting experience, mobility and strength levels and personal preference (or avoidance – if you deadlift, you know what I mean.)
What you should remember regarding the type of deadlift you choose is the biomechanical impact of each type. Trap bars, or hex bars, offer the ability to lift larger loads. This is due largely to the distribution of peak load across more joints and the centration of the weight around the axial spine, rather than in front of the body. Straight bars, however, are a better choice for maximal recruitment of the posterior chain, especially the lower back muscles of the erector spinae and the glutes. (1)
Trap bars also offer the ability to move more explosively with lower risk, making them an excellent choice for athletic deadlift variations like jump lifts. Straight barbells, however, are the barbells of choice for competitive lifters, as they are the only ones used in powerlifting competitions.
Most of us, though, are not competitive powerlifters. The deadlift, however, should still be the centerpiece of our training program, or close to it.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love squats – front or back, bilateral or unilateral – for building strength in both the lower body and the core. The side benefit from squats is a general thickening of back and trunk muscles in response to the barbell load, but that’s a topic for another day. Deadlifts simply pack the biggest punch in your fitness programming.
What’s that? They’re bad for your back, or too risky if you’ve had back issues in the past. Au contraire, my friend. Deadlifts are part of the solution for back pain. Mind you, you and your achy back may not be ready for heavy barbell deadlifts right now, but there are deadlift variations that will help strengthen your core and body and help lead you down the path to a stronger, more pain-free back.
While we often think of the deadlift as the realm of the ginormous, knee-wrapped, chalk-laden, grunting and possibly Eastern Bloc bear type, even your frail granny can deadlift – and get huge benefits! So without further ado, let’s dig in on the benefits of deadlifting for virtually everyone. Yes, including you.
Let’s start with the ways deadlifts help with injury prevention, corrective exercise and posture.
1.Deadlifts help establish a hip dominant (i.e., glute dominant) pattern of lower body movement – Many people with knee and low back pain have a knee dominant (i.e., quadriceps dominant) pattern of movement for squatting motions. This includes things like sitting on the toilet or chair, walking up and down stairs and, of course, squatting and lifting things off the ground or from below. Knee dominant pattern means the knee flexes forward prior to the hips moving back. This leads to an anterior translation of the tibia (the big bone in the lower leg,) with the knees almost always moving out beyond the knees. This is where the squatting fallacy of “keep your knees behind your toes” came from.
In the loaded squat pattern, this leads to lumbar rounding, creating significant stress on the lower back (2.) As the lifter attempts to get lower in the squat and weight shifts back at the last moment, hip flexion and lumbar lordosis increases, reversing the rounding, just making the whole problem worse.
A hip dominant pattern means we have far more involvement from the gluteus maximus and medius, along with other hip extension muscles. While the tibia tends to stay more vertically aligned, as long as we have proper and effective function of the glutes, we’re not too worried about it.
There is still considerable action of the part of the quadriceps, since the knee is flexing and extending under load, however, the hamstrings are active and contributing to the movement as well. The action of the glutes and contributions from other muscles, along with the more advantageous tibia position reduces the stress on the anterior knee. (3,4)
With the greater activation of prime movers (glutes) and stabilizers in the hip, lumbar lordosis is better controlled. The extensors of the trunk are better able to function. This provides better stability for the spine and eliminates rounding of the back.
2. Deadlifts can help reverse an anterior pelvic tilt – Cued and executed correctly, the high level of glute recruitment and activation during deadlifts can counteract an anterior pelvic tilt. While some coaches use a cue to “arch” the back during deadlifts, particularly at lockout, teaching the deadlift with a neutral spine and progressively loading good form is a better path for those with an anterior pelvic tilt.
As far as cues for form go, I’m preferential to “chest up,” as I think this tends to place the thoracic spine in a relatively neutral position. The effort to maintain that position through the lift seems to keep the spine stacked and neutral as well. After that, “push the floor away through your heels” is one of my favorites, as it seems to help with both glute activation and overall leg drive.
3. Deadlifts help prevent injury – We covered some of this earlier, but let’s get more specific. Deadlifts train the back to be strong and straight. That helps prevent the kind of chronic injuries and pain associated with postural deficiencies. For women, this strengthening and straightening of the back can reduce headaches and neck pain.
Women have heads that weigh about the same as a man’s, at least as a percentage of total body weight. However, research has confirmed that women have less muscle volume in their necks. In fact, they may have as much as 45% less muscle in their necks as men do. (5)
I already mentioned the strengthening of trunk muscles and the positive effect on the spine. Worth mentioning is the strengthening of the shoulder girdle and upper back that occurs with virtually all forms of deadlifting. These muscles are not only important postural muscles, but are important in activities like barbell squatting, bench press, sprinting and a variety of sports movements and skills.
Last, but certainly not least (and also previously mentioned,) is the huge impact on knee stability via improvements in the pattern of lower body movement, glute strength and stability strength. By using hex bars, dumbbells or even kettlebells, a variety of stance and body positions can be used to vary the stimulus used to strengthen the glutes and muscles important to knee stability and prevention of some pretty terrible injuries.
4. Deadlifts are the true measure of total body strength – No other exercise uses more muscle groups. Period. Not only that, it’s dead simple (pun intended.) You pick a heavy thing up, you put it down. Boom!
5. Deadlifts are a foundation lift – Get good at barbell deadlifts and you’re preparing yourself for other lifts. Power Cleans, Snatches and other exercises requiring you to pull a weight from the floor will benefit from your improved deadlift strength and technique.
6. Deadlifts improve a wide variety of athletic and sports skills – Want to sprint faster? Deadlifts can help. How about better first-step quickness? (A practically undefinable currency among most sports coaches. They have no idea what it really is or where it comes from, but they “know” their athletes need more of it.) Deadlifts can help. Want a bigger vertical leap or broad jump? Deadlifts. More throwing or shooting velocity? Deadlifts. Want to tackle or check harder? Go ahead, take a guess.
7. Deadlifts can be used for a variety of training types and desired outcomes – Low reps with low to medium set counts for power and absolute strength development. Medium rep sets in progressive loading for strength foundations. Lighter weight, high reps sets for strength endurance and even conditioning.
8. The booty – Deadlifts will definitely improve the booty. Not just how it works, but how it looks, too. You can’t do all that positive stuff to the glutes, hamstrings and quads and not expect your butt and legs to look great!
9. Deadlifts are good for your mental and emotional health – No other exercise stimulates endorphin release like heavy, challenging deadlifts. The only thing that might compare to it is the “runners high.” But you’ve got to run, like, 15 miles to get that. Ain’t nobody got time for that!
Deadlifts also do a great job of stimulating the release of testosterone, human growth hormone and even help women regulate their hormones.
When you lift heavy weights, you naturally become more confident about handling the rest of your life. You just start to develop an “I’ve got this” attitude. You learn that you have an inner reservoir of confidence, strength and fortitude that will serve you well day to day.
10. Deadlifts are the best, most versatile strength & conditioning and fitness exercise ever devised – If you disagree, go back and check out what’s already been said here. Better yet, go to the gym and deadlift for about 6 weeks. Any way we’ve discussed here. Then come back and tell me what you think.
There’s my 10 reasons to deadlift. There may be others. You may have others. But if these aren’t enough to make you want to go hoist a heavy one, I’m not sure what might get you to the bar. Not that bar, silly, the deadlift bar.
Go deadlift. Because then you can legitimately say “I pick things up and put them down!”
Keep the faith and keep after it!
- Swinton, Paul A., et al., A Biomechanical Analysis of Straight and Hexagonal Barbell Deadlifts Using Submaximal Loads, Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, July, 2011
- Cappozzo A, et al., Lumbar spine loading during half squat exercises. Med Sci Sports Exer 1985
- Bolgla L, et al., Hip Strength and Hip and Knee Kinematics During Stair Descent in Females With and Without Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome. JOSPT 2008
- Ireland ML, et al., Hip Strength in Females With and Without Patellofemoral Pain. J Orthop Sports Phys Ther. 2003
- Zheng, Liying, Sex Differences in Human Neck Musculoskeletal Biomechanics and Modeling, Washington State Univ PhD dissertation, May 2011