Are You Afraid of Deadlifts?

Jun 22, 2022

"If in the last few years you haven't discarded a major opinion or acquired a new one, check your pulse, you may be dead."

- Frank Gelett Burgess

I have a confession to make. I have been afraid of deadlifts for the last twenty-five years. I am no longer afraid. Eric Cressey is going to love this article as Eric feels that the only two things in the world that are essential are deadlifts and fish oil. In the early 1980's I competed as a powerlifter. I can remember reading an old issue of Powerlifting USA and a writer saying "you will never see a good looking deadlift in a meet". Based on my experience the writer was correct. Competitive deadlifts are universally ugly. The goal of the competitive deadlifter is only to get the weight from point A to point B. There are no style points or technique requirements. Get the weight from the floor to waist level without a "hitch" and you get the lift. Flexed spines throughout the lift are the rule, not the exception. I have back pain to this day that I attribute to powerlifting meets and the workouts that led up to them.

Unfortunately my experiences soured me on a potentially valuable exercise for nearly thirty years. It took an article by track coach Barry Ross and some experience with de-conditioned personal training clients to change my thought process. Ross's point was simple. The deadlift provides more bang for the buck than the squat because the weight is in the hands. The muscles of the upper back are forced to work in a way that cannot be imitated in a squat. It was a point that was hard to disagree with and forced me to revisit my thought process.

My argument against adding deadlifts to the workout was always the same. I reverted back to my "you can't deadlift heavy and deadlift well" thought process. However as the debates raged on the forum I began to realize that I was in control of technique. Technique breaks were my problems as a coach but I was like everyone else. I was blaming the car for the car crash instead of blaming the driver. If we could do squats, we should be able to do deadlifts. Both require a great deal of teaching and attention to detail on both the coach and the athletes' part.

What about my previous reference to the de-conditioned personal training client and deadlifts? The Ah-Ha Moment for me in that case was realizing how easy a kettlebell sumo deadlift was to teach and, how hard it was to get someone to squat. Deconditioned clients and adults in general don't become great squatters right off the bat. However they all seem to conceptualize the sumo deadlift. Even funnier was the fact that what I found to be one of the best simple exercises ( KB Sumo Deadlift) involved two things (kettlebells and deadlifts) that I was not supposed to be a fan of.

Last summer we took this thought a step further. If it was easier to teach a personal training client to deadlift than it was to squat, it should also be easier to teach an athlete. In the summer of 2007 we inserted Trap Bar Deadlifts in our summer program as a priority lower body strength movement. I would have to say the results were fantastic. Athletes liked the lift and were able to learn faster and achieve higher loads sooner. With the squat, loading is much more limited by technique concerns, as well as ankle mobility and hip mobility. The Trap Bar Deadlift eliminates most of these concerns. The athlete can use higher loads and the intentional forward lean of the trunk makes it easy for any athlete to get in proper position. I like the Trap Bar or Hex Bar much more than the conventional straight bar. The Trap Bar is a great equalizer. In effect the bar is running through the body. The load stays centered and the movement is very much like squatting with a weight in the hands. Another benefit of deadlifts in general is that they are not as limited by "rules". We don't have to worry about depth in the deadlift. Everyone begins at the ground and comes up. As long as the back remains flat, injury is no greater a concern than in the squat and in my mind now, the concern is actually decreased.

Why decreased? With squatting there are two back concerns, a flexion and an extension concern. A loss of position can cause a round back and a potential strain on the erectors or a disruption of the SI joint. This is the same problem in the deadlift. However in the squat the position of the load (on the shoulders) and the arched position of the back at the start also predisposes the lifter to extension based disorders. In essence the squat is a battle between extension and flexion. In the deadlift. the load in the hands clearly produces a flexion force that must be countered by an extension force. Also in the deadlift the load is positioned at the center of mass rather than at the cervical spine. The balancing act is in effect eliminated. When I look at a squat and a deadlift through the eyes of a biomechanist the deadlift actually comes out ahead.

Just remember, change is good.

"If in the last few years you haven't discarded a major opinion or acquired a new one, check your pulse, you may be dead."