The conventional deadlift is like coconut oil, chia seed, bulletproof coffee in the realm of exercises. It is widely believed to be a MUST DO exercise, which we widely believe is far from true.
Let’s explore why.
Before adding an exercise into your routine, several questions have to be asked.
Q1: “What is the purpose of this exercise in relation to my training goal?”
To Build Muscle? The conventional deadlift is not the best leg (hamstring), back (latissimus dorsi, rhomboid) or butt (gluteus maximus) builder. It is a decent exercise for these muscle groups, but there are superior movements:
Back: Bentover rows, chin Uus and pulldowns.
Hamstrings: Romanian Deadlifts, lying leg curls and stiff legged Deadlift.
Butt/ Quads: Squats, hip thrusts and leg presses.
These exercises train those muscle groups for their a) specific anatomical function, b) stress those muscles through a larger range of motion, and c) provide a much longer time under tension compared to the conventional deadlift.
To Get Stronger? Via the deadlift mechanics, the body is capable of moving a lot of weight (more so than other compound movements), true that.
But strength goes beyond how heavy you lift off the floor. Getting “stronger” can be achieved with any properly coached movement; being able to jump higher, run faster, toss further, curl heavier, curl more reps, curl with fuller range of motion equates strength gain (I’m a big fan of curls).
A beef I have with the conventional deadlift: The movement subjects everyone to lift off 211mm (bar height from floor), which makes no sense for a 6’6″ basketball player who has poor deadlift leverages compared to a 5’8″ soccer player.
In this case, a Romanian deadlift, or a Stiff-legged deadlift would reign supreme.
The shorter athlete with better success in the lift would be deemed stronger compared to the taller athlete but we’re not only comparing unjustly, but fitting everyone into a preset mold.
Just because the body is designed to mechanically lift heavy off the floor, it shouldn’t be viewed as the be all end all for strength gain. Specificity matters a lot for strength gain and it that’s when the next question can help:
Q2: “What do I need to get stronger for?”
If your goal is to get stronger in deadlift for the purpose of powerlifting, the conventional deadlift, lifted off the floor in a dead (paused) position, is the KING for that goal.
However, if your goal isn’t solely powerlifting related, not so much.
Specificity matters and I encourage everyone to discover that by revisiting Questions 1 and 2.
You don’t have to go extremely heavy
The meteoric rise of deadlifts came with the meteoric rise of Powerlifting.
Which is amazing: Periodization, accessory exercise variations, activation exercises, mobility work, proper technique are all brought into the spotlight.
Unfortunately, it came along with the meteoric rise of heavy lifting. I’m sure we’ve all seen the beginner who lifts one rep, with said rep taking more than 5 seconds, with form that resembles a fishing rod.
Don’t get me wrong. For advanced powerlifters, heavy singles or triples have their place in training. but it shouldn’t be something you do 4 times a week if you’ve merely been deadlifting for 2 weeks. Benefits from the exercise can still be derived from much lower intensities at higher repetitions (4 to 6), a far better options for beginners dialing in technique.
4 sets of 6 reps for 24 total reps facilitates learning better than 6 sets of 1 rep, even more so if you’re executing the movement with proper form with a more manageable weight. I don’t find many fitness maxims to be true, but in this case – leave your ego at the door, the gym, your lower back, the commercial plates not designed for slamming will thank you for it.
At Healthworks, we analyze the mechanics of every exercise, even movements as straight forward as the deadlift. Details matter, and how you preform a movement can be the difference between leaving the training session better, versus leaving a training session feeling like a wreck.
Optimize your movement patterns and start exercising to improve your life, not set it back.