by Robert Maxwell
“During my career, I’ve run approximately 90,000 miles in training and competition,” the seasoned marathoner told me proudly. I was suitably impressed. “You’re quite an athlete!” I said with enthusiasm. It was true. Not only had he run a lot – he’d won a lot too, all the way up to the national level. This guy was the real deal. “Thanks,” he replied, “but now that I’m retired from running, I want to focus on improving my strength. I’m too skinny, and I don’t want my muscles and bones to shrivel away. I know you’re into weight training – what exercises would you recommend?” I thought for a moment, wanting to give the right advice. “I’d start with 4 barbell movements,” I said eventually. “The squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press.” I noticed he grimaced at the mention of the third exercise. “Really, deadlift? I had back surgery several years ago. I’m all good now, but maybe I shouldn’t go straining my back with something like that.” This was a good many years ago, and although I had an excellent base of knowledge on strength training, I didn’t have the confidence in explaining it that I have now. The conversation petered out from there, and as far as I know, my friend never did any deadlifts. It’s too bad. It was probably exactly what he needed. In this article, I’ll share with you what I wish I’d told him about this classic exercise. If you’d like to get stronger, this will be of help to you. If the word “deadlift” fills you with fear, then it’ll be an education, too.
Understanding the Deadlift
I should start by explaining what deadlifts are for those of you, like my friend, considering strength training for the first time. Simply put, the deadlift is a pull. A loaded barbell sits on the floor in front of you. You bend over, grab it, then stand up with it. Then you lower it back to the floor, and do it again. There are two main deadlift styles – conventional and sumo. Conventional deadlift involves planting your feet in a narrow stance, with your arms and hands outside your legs as you reach down and grab the bar. Sumo deadlift involves a wider foot stance, with your arms between your legs as you pull the weight. It’s crucial in both styles to keep your core braced and your back flat and neutral throughout the movement. Rounded backs are never a good thing when deadlifting, or doing most other exercises, for that matter. When it comes to getting strong, it’s hard to beat the simplicity and effectiveness of deadlifts. Done properly, they strengthen your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors, abdominals, lats, traps, hands and forearms. Because they work so much of the body at once, they’re pretty taxing, but that doesn’t make them dangerous. As with most barbell exercises, the danger with deadlifts usually comes when they’re done wrong.
Who Shouldn’t Deadlift
Properly done barbell resistance training is the best way for the vast majority of people to get stronger. If strength is your goal, you should be deadlifting regularly. That said, there are a few people who shouldn’t deadlift. If you’re currently injured in a way that affects your ability to safely do the exercise, don’t. At least not until you’ve healed. My brother Joseph is a champion shot put thrower, and a large part of his training involves lifting heavy barbells. Several years ago, he started having back pain that didn’t go away. He eventually discovered that it was a herniated (bulged out) disc in his back. No deadlifting for him. Not until over a year later, when the last of his pain disappeared and he got the go-ahead from his doctor. Another group who shouldn’t deadlift are those who aren’t injured, but experience sharp back pain during the movement, even when they start extremely light, are coached on proper technique, and try every possible variation of the exercise. If you’re new to lifting, you almost certainly can’t decide for yourself if this is you. You need an experienced lifter to watch you and make sure your pain isn’t your fault, because of poor form. If you do everything right and it still hurts, don’t deadlift. Backs are sensitive, and some people just aren’t built to withstand the pull on their spines deadlifts involve. These folks are rare though, so don’t dismiss deadlifts just because you’ve got a chronically achy back or other body part. You’re probably just weak, and need to start deadlifting.
Who Should Deadlift
Everyone who wants to get stronger and doesn’t fit into one of the categories above. Yes, that includes you, even if you’ve been told you have a “bad” back. If you’re not currently injured, there’s no such thing as a bad back. Just a weak one, which is probably what you have. Deadlifts will make you and your weak back stronger. It also includes guys who’ve been told for years by their mothers and later wives not to “strain themselves” as they move a piece of furniture or retrieve a box of Christmas decorations from the closet. If you’ve had a bonafide back injury in the past but are now healed, you should deadlift. If your back hurts when putting on your socks in the morning, you should deadlift. You’re probably rounding your spine when putting on the socks, further weakening an already weak area. Don’t make it worse by not deadlifting. Everyone whose body allows it can benefit greatly from the strength regular deadlifting creates. If your body lets you deadlift, don’t waste it.
Sidebar: You SHOULD Lift With Your Back
I know I’m going against the grain here, not to mention every well-meaning warning you’ve ever received since you were a child to “lift with your legs, not your back”. Thing is, this advice sucks. It makes no physical sense at all, and has caused way more confusion and anti-weight lifting bias than almost any other piece of advice. When you pick any object up from the ground, both your legs and back are always involved. You can’t avoid lifting with your back any more than you can avoid lifting with your legs. Your back is the interface between your legs and the object in your hands. It MUST be involved. The trick is to lift with your back safely. That means keeping it tight and braced the whole time you’re bearing the load, and not letting it round. A rounded spine under load is a recipe for injury. Avoid this, and you’ll have no problems lifting things with your back, whether a parcel at the post office or a loaded barbell.
Robert Maxwell is an online strength and fitness coach and founder of The Man Factory. Are you a man 50 or older? Become your best self at www.manfactorytraining.com/strength-north-of-50