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Deadlifting: The King Of The Lifts?

By Tyler Woodward

Deadlifting an essential lift or criminally overrated? Is deadlifting bad for your back? Is it worth the injury risk? And most importantly how to customize the deadlift for you?

Key Takeaways:

What Is Deadlifting?:

What Is Deadlifting

The Deadlift is one of the oldest movements in the weightlifting world and consists of the act of lifting a weight off of the floor. When you initiate the deadlift, the weight is fixed or motionless on the ground, and is said to be lifting ‘deadweight’. It’s also rumored that the term came from the ancient Romans after lifting and carrying fallen comrades off the battlefield, literal ‘deadweight’ in this sense. 

Today, deadlifting involves lifting up a weight, typically a barbell or dumbbell, off of the ground and standing with the weight. The lift is complete once you have fully locked your knees and straightened your back so you are standing fully upright. Then you can either lower the weight back down to the ground or just drop the weight and allow it to settle on the ground before picking it back up again. 

Should You Deadlift?:

should you deadlift

Deadlifting is a posterior-chain dominant exercise meaning that it works just about every muscle on the back (posterior) side of the body in some way. The deadlift is a naturally very stable movement and provides a very efficient way of overloading and growing these muscles. Deadlifting can also help prevent back pain, improve posture and increase grip strength. Interestingly, grip strength has been strongly inversely correlated with all-cause mortality in older population, meaning the stronger your grip strength the less likely you are to diet from a variety of diseases.

Deadlifting is not dangerous as long as you execute it with proper form. Don't go in and load the bar up with heavy weights your first time doing the exercise and gradually increase the load over time. It's no different than any other sport or activity. If you decided to start running for the first time and went for a 5 mile run the likelihood of injuring yourself is extremely high. The same thing goes for deadlifting, start slow, maybe watch a few videos and record yourself doing the exercise and progress from there.

Muscles Worked In A Deadlift:

Synergists & Agonists

The muscles worked in a deadlift largely depend on how wide your feet are. The wider your feet are generally your knees will bend more, while the more narrow your feet the more you have to extend your hips behind your body (stick your ass out in a touch your toes fashion). Like anything else this is a spectrum, so we will categorize feet narrow as shoulder width and anything closer than this. And we will categorize feet wide as anything outside of shoulder width.

Following this, we’ll separate the muscles worked in a deadlift into two categories: Primer movers & synergists or helper muscles depending on if you deadlift with your feet narrow or feet wide.

The prime mover muscles are the muscles that actively undergo contractions during the exercise, meaning they physically shorten and lengthen throughout the movement with the exception of the grip muscles. The synergist muscles are isometrically contracted throughout the movement basically in order to hold yourself in place. The rhomboids, traps and lats have to contract to hold your arms in your sockets as you pull. While the erectors must contract to keep the spine stable and unmoving throughout the exercise. The calf muscles may be slightly active at the very bottom of the deadlift range of motion, but otherwise just act as stabilizers. Lastly, there are the antagonist muscles which contract in order to stabilize agonist or prime movers in the movement. 

Deadlifts are first and foremost a leg exercise. Yes, you can develop your upper back and erectors from performing them, but if that’s your goal there are better exercises to do so. There are also better exercises for improving grip strength and forearm hypertrophy, so I would only use deadlifts as a means of strengthening and growing the hamstrings and glutes. 

The Types Of Deadlifts:

types of deadlifts

As mentioned before, how wide your stance is (the width of your feet) in a deadlift determines the muscles worked in the movement. This is a spectrum, as the wider your stance the more your adductors and quads will work and the less your glutes and hamstring will work. Within this spectrum there are many different variations of the deadlift we can perform:

  • Conventional Deadlifts - Feet about shoulder width or less apart with a slight knee bend at the bottom
  • Squat Stance Deadlifts - Feet about 6 inches wider than shoulder width
  • Sumo Deadlifts - Feet about a foot wider than shoulder width, typically with your feet turned outwards to match the angle of your knees
  • Straight Leg Deadlift - A conventional deadlift that involves no knee bend and resembles a hamstring stretch. This can also be performed as a Romanian Deadlift.
  • Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs) - A conventional stance deadlift that utilizes a weight rack, so you don’t have to lift it from the floor, making it a pure hip-hinge movement (ass back, little knee bend). In an RDL you start from the top or lockout position and lower the weight down, depending your hamstring mobility you may or may not be able to touch the ground
  • Deficit Deadlift/RDL - Standing on an elevated plate to increase the distance the bar must travel, allowing you to get more of a stretch on the hamstrings
  • Snatch Grip Deadlift - A conventional deadlift or RDL with a wide grip like that used in the olympic snatch exercise
  • Rack Pull - Almost like the opposite of an RDL, starting in a rack typically at above knee level and pulling up to lockout.
  • Single leg Deadlifts - A deadlift performed with one leg off the ground

Within these deadlift variations there are a variety of ways we can load these movements:

  • Barbell
  • Trap Bar/ Hex Bar
  • Dumbbells 
  • Kettlebells 

For 99.9% of the general population I recommend utilizing a hex bar romanian deadlift for strength or physique goals. Hex bars allow you to centrate yourself within the weight and keep your shoulders in a neutral position out to your side. rather than hanging down in front of you like in a barbell.

The Romanian deadlift is king because it is a pure hip hinge movement and allows you to customize the exercise to your hamstrings active range of motion (if your lower back rounds then you have exceeded your hamstrings active range of motion). Additionally, if you want more hamstrings and less glutes than you can keep your legs completely locked out by doing a straight leg Romanian Deadlift. 

Sumo Deadlifts Suck

The primary advantages of Sumo Deadlifts is they allow you to lift more weight, but this is primarily through reducing the range of motion of the lift. In actuality, there is significantly less tension generated in a sumo deadlifts for these reasons it is a pretty poor choice for strength or hypertrophy of any muscles besides the adductors. Additionally, there are better exercises for strength and hypertrophy of the quads and the adductors that take them through a larger range of motion, unlike in the sumo deadlift.

Unless you are a powerlifter or olympic lifter there is no reason to perform a deadlift off of the ground or to perform a sumo deadlift. Deadlifting off of the floor requires much more technique than an RDL and is thereby much more prone to injury. If you have the option to customize an exercise to fit your mobility and structure 10X out of 10 it will be a better exercise for you. Why do we force ourselves to deadlift off of the floor? Who decided what height the plates should be? These are all tiny details that make a huge difference in the execution of the exercise. 

If you don’t have access to a trap bar deadlift then a barbell RDL or dumbbell RDL is the next best option. Dumbbells allow your arms, shoulders, and wrists to be in a more neutral position like the trap bar. The downside to dumbbells is that unless you are a beginner you will likely have to use wrist straps to be able to comfortably hold the weight for an entire set. But again, there are better exercises for purely challenging your grip than deadlifts and your grip will still get worked (although less so) when using straps. 

Single leg RDL’s can be great for challenging pelvic and single leg stability or to work on mobility. In this case kettlebells or dumbbells will typically be your best choice.

Deadlifting Do’s & Don’ts:

  • Do Perform RDL’s - Already covered this repeatedly, but this is by far the biggest bang for your buck movement within the choices of deadlifts  for strength, hypertrophy and minimizing the risk of injury
  • Keep A Neutral Spine - For 99.9% of the general population during a deadlift you will want to keep a neutral spine throughout the movement, especially at the lower back and neck. Many powerlifters will round their lower back, this is basically a strategy that they use to comfortably find the range of motion required to perform the lift off the ground. Again, unless you are a powerlifter or olympic weightlifter there is no reason for you to deadlift off of the floor, so there’s no reason for you to round your back in a deadlift. If you were to hold a broomstick along your spine it should have three contact points at the lower back, upper back and behind the head. 
  • Use Straps - Weightlifting straps are a great tool to subtract grip from the deadlift equation. The less things you have to focus on, the more you can focus on the main objectives of the movement which in this case are again, the hamstrings and the glutes.
  • Use Tempo - The name of the game for deadlifting is control. Deadlifting primarily overloads the eccentric or lowering action of the hamstring and glutes, so if you don't control the lowering portion of the exercise you're missing half the gains. I recommend pausing for a second in the bottom position to make sure you are getting the most out of the exercise.

Conclusion:

My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within this subject. Remember, I am not a doctor or medical professional. I just look at the science and put it into layman’s term, so anyone can understand it and are able to make more educated decisions on these topics as a result. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism, feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups (The Thermo Diet Community Group, The UMZU Community Group) or on Instagram @tylerwoodward_fit. Also, please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.

Thanks for reading!

Until next time… be good

~Tyler Woodward