Deadlifts – The Ultimate Back Exercise
Deadlifts are one of the oldest documented weight training exercises…and for good reason. They have stood the test of time and are still classed as one of the most important exercises to include in any routine. On the surface deadlifts may just appear to involve lifting up a bar and placing it back down again but in reality there is so much more than meets the eye.
Deadlifts are actually a powerlifting exercise (along with Bench press and Squat) and are also classed as a compound movement. These are exercises that utilize several different muscle groups at once, as opposed to isolation exercises such as biceps curl. Deadlifts actually involve all the major muscle groups which makes them invaluable to anyone looking to gain overall size or strength.
Can Anyone do Deadlifts?
One of the most common misconceptions when it comes to deadlifts is that it is an exercise for experienced lifters only. In truth not enough people do deadlifts! It should be a staple exercise for all lifters who are serious about progressing towards their goals. Lifters should learn deadlifts from Day 1 no matter what their age.
The Importance of Technique
One of the most important things when it comes to deadlifts is proper technique. Despite what people think, deadlifts are an incredibly safe exercise but can actually be dangerous if not done with proper form. The best way to learn deadlifts is from someone who is experienced in them. There is no substitute for experience. If you can’t find anyone however, there are many video tutorials on sites such as YouTube. Unlike olympic lifts, deadlifts are fairly simple and can be learnt very quickly.
As there is no substitute for learning deadlifts from an experienced lifter (don’t be scared to ask random people – they will be happy to guide you) or at least from a good video, I will not attempt to describe the technique as that would be the wrong way to try to learn. I will however list a few key points for deadlifts to help you ensure what you are doing is correct.
- Keep your back straight throughout the movement – if it starts to bend you are probably going too heavy and run the risk of injury.
- Keep your neck in a neutral or partially extended position at the start – do not look down as this will make your back bend.
- When standing, straighten your legs in tandem with your back. Don’t make the mistake some people do during deadlifts and stand up then straighten your back – it should be a fluid movement.
- Drive upwards throughout the movement – commit to the lift and execute. Never jerk your way up – it means the weight is too heavy.
- Lockout at the top but don’t hyperextend the back. There is nothing to be gained from executing deadlifts in this way but injury.
How Often and How Many Reps?
People doing deadlifts usually have one of two goals, strength or size, and this determines the training structure that should be used.
Strength – The goal of strength training is to lift more weight – period. Believe it or not the human body is only capable of using a small percentage of its muscle at once and the limiting factor here is the nervous system. By training the nervous system you can teach the body to use more of its muscle and thus lift more weight. A typical example of this in action is the rapid increase in strength seen in people starting out in weight training. This is due to the nervous system becoming more efficient an NOT due to an increase in muscle size.
The best strategy for deadlifts to increase strength involves
- Low repetitions (reps) – somewhere in the 1-5 rep range
- Long rests – at least 2 minutes between sets as the nervous system needs time to recover
- Several sets – long rests and low reps means you can usually do anywhere from 4-10 sets!
The best strategy for deadlifts to increase size involves
- High repetitions – somewhere in the 6-12 range
- Short rests – typically less than 2 minutes
- Limited sets – up to 4 – anymore than this is likely counterproductive as the muscle will be too fatigued
Deadlifts place a lot of strain on the nervous and musculoskeletal system and for this reason should be done no more than once a week. Without proper recovery you will not be making the gains you are capable of.
Belt or no Belt?
This is an age old question but the answer is simple – No Belt. Weightlifting belts have slowly made their way into gyms but the truth is they have no place there. The only people that need weightlifting belts are competetive weightlifters when they are lifting near maximum.
The only thing lifting with a belt achieves is ensuring that you have a weak core. The body actually has a built in ‘weightlifting belt’ consisting of the abdominal and back muscles. When developed these are extremely strong and can handle huge pressures. Wearing a belt during deadlifts takes all the strain off these muscles and means that they never develop into the ‘iron core’ they should be.
If you want to develop a strong core you need more than deadlifts alone and should follow a program such as linked here.
When you take your belt off you will find you are simply not capable of lifting what you can with one – and this can be very embarrassing if you find yourself in a real life situation where you need to lift something but don’t have your trusty belt to hand.
To Drop or Not to Drop?
After you get to the top of your deadlift you are faced with the question of whether to let the weight down slowly or simply drop it to the floor. Lowering a weight down slowly actually requires a different muscle technique than lifting – eccentric contraction. This is lengthening of a contracting muscle and places significant stress on the muscles.
This stress is manageable at lower weights but when you start to get serious it can be very hard to slowly lower the weight due to muscle limitations. If you watch professional lifters they simply drop the weight and then start the next rep. This is much easier on the body at high weights and allows you to train more effectively as you are concentrating on the lift not the descent.
The main problem with this, however, is in modern fancy gyms where they are not used to people lifting serious weights, never mind deadlifts. You will often be faced by an employee asking you not to drop weights – this is often a red flag that you are in the wrong gym for your needs!
Variations on Deadlifts
Deadlifts are an incredible exercise for many muscles including the lower back, but by varying the technique of the lift different muscles can be targeted preferentially.
Also known as straight leg deadlifts – These deadlifts involve keeping the knees almost locked straight throughout the exercise and emphasize the hamstrings.
Involves a wide leg stance – used to increase the weight that can be lifted as there is a reduced distance from the ground to the top of the lift.
A one-legged variant for more advanced lifters.
Deadlifts are amongst the most important and effective exercises you can do in the gym and should be part of any weightlifting program. Ensure correct technique from the beginning and you will enjoy great benefits with no increased risk of injury compared to other exercises.
Add Deadlifts to your program today – there is no reason not to!