Monday, May 11, 2015


The deadlift is constantly touted as one of the most essential exercises for any trainee to perform.  It has been crowned many pithy titles such as “the king of exercises”, “the single greatest exercise of all time”, “the only exercise you ever need to do”, etc etc.  Any trainee that does not include the deadlift in their program is mocked for being a wimp, whereas those who DO the deadlift talk about how it’s their favorite exercise, bragging about how primal they felt while pulling heavy weight off the floor in their commercial gym while letting out a roar.  As we have learned with most things, increased popularity tends to be an indication of decreased effectiveness, and it is with this observation that it becomes time to dissect the shortfalls of the deadlift.  Specifically, we need to address the reality that the term “the deadlift” is meaningless, for though we may think that we are all meaning the same thing when we use the term, the reality is that most trainees have completely different and unique experiences with this movement due to a variety of specific variations for equipment type and set up.

The primary issue in any claims regarding the “essential” quality of the barbell deadlift lies in the completely arbitrary nature of the movement itself.  Specifically, I am speaking to the starting height of the bar, which is determined by plate diameter of a 45lb/20kg plate.  Said plate diameter derives from Olympic weightlifting, wherein a certain diameter was determined to be of adequate height such that, should a lifter fall backwards with a weight, the bar would not crush the skull of the lifter.  A noble endeavor most definitely, but in NO way was this design meant to indicate an ideal starting position for a pull of any variety.  The height of the bar could have been any other height in the world, thus, to consider the deadlift proper superior to any other modification in terms of starting pull position (ie: deficit deadlifts or block/mat/rack pulls) is merely an appeal to tradition.  The sheer odds that the starting position of a barbell deadlift is the most optimal starting position for the majority of the training population is statistically insignificant.

Image result for silver dollar deadlift
I would actually watch weightlifting if they used this...and if it was Kaz

On the above, the waters get even muddier when we consider the reality that very few trainees actually even get to train with competition size/spec plates in the first place, which just confounds the issue of discussing “the deadlift”.  There are dozens of weight plate manufacturers, and while some are interested in building plates to the exact specs of those used in weightlifting, others are interested in building ones that are easier to hold onto with handles cut into them, while others simply want to build the cheapest 45lb plate (to the point where plate weight can vary by 5lbs give or take), and even some others are interested in building plates that DISCOURAGE deadlifting with a hexagonal design.  This information needs to be considered when even discussing “the deadlift”, as two trainees could be using the same name and yet discussing completely different movements.  One trainee might be saying “you need to deadlift”, and in his mind he is envisioning Olympic spec bumper plates, but the trainee he is speaking too is training with hexagonal plates that are shorter in diameter, meaning that he is effectively performing a deficit deadlift compared to the first trainee.  We witness in this case that, in most instances, we cannot even really begin to discuss “the deadlift” among most trainees, because equipment type variation can in turn result in movement variation.

Image result for bumper plateImage result for hexagonal weight plateImage result for golds gym weight plate
Your mileage WILL vary

Oh geez, wait a minute, I haven’t even brought up weight plate material have I?  Surely you want to use bumper plates, right?  I mean, they’re made of rubber, so you can drop the deadlift from the top without harming the equipment, plus the plates are wider so it looks super cool when you have the sleeves totally loaded even when it’s only 495lbs.  HOWEVER, you actually create a slightly different pull compared to thinner metal plates due to this very effect.  Since the plates are further away from the center of the bar, when the barbell flexes in the middle at the start of the pull, it means that some of the plates will actually still be in contact with the floor while others will be picked up at the initial pull.  Technically, you’re lifting less weight at the start of the pull with bumpers than you are with metal plates.  You can see an extreme example of this when analyzing the hummer tire deadlift.  And hell, even if you decide to go all metal plates to avoid this issue, some manufacturers make use different types of metals/metal blends which result in varying types of thickness of plates.  Hopefully you took that into consideration.

STRAPS?!  Doesn't count

In regards to equipment variation, let us discuss the barbell aspect of the barbell deadlift.  Just as there are dozens of weight plate manufacturers, such is the case for the barbell.  If we are using an Olympic weightlifting style plate (the bumper plate), then surely we would use an Olympic barbell, no?  However, many “purist” argue that the whippy nature of said bar is “cheating”, because it means that, though one initiates the pull from the same height as normal due to a standardized plate diameter, the bar flexes and the weight breaks off the floor later in the pull compared to if one were to perform the deadlift with a stiffer bar.  Combine this with a bunch of bumper plates, and you’re practically not even lifting any weight, right?  But in this case, we’re talking about a barbell that was built by design to flex.  In other cases, barbells flex simply because they are cheaply manufactured for a mass market, and it’s more a flaw than a feature.  The odds that two people training at separate commercial gyms are using the same bar are slim, and as such the odds that they are even speaking about the same movement when they say “deadlift” is in turn, small.  Once again, we witness the meaningless of the term “deadlift”.

I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of variations that can affect what it means when we say “deadlift”.  Is your barbell 28mm, 31mm, or is it an axle?  Is the knurling diamond sharp, or barely there?  Is there center knurling?  How far apart is the knurling?  What kind of shoes are you wearing?  Is there an incline on the floor?  Are you pulling from rubber mats that compress under the weight, or is it concrete that has no give?  With all this to consider, we realize how absurd it is to claim any value to “the deadlift”, as your “the deadlift” can be completely different from another person’s “the deadlift”.  In turn, we must also understand that it is foolish to critique modifications made to A deadlift in order to make it a more viable training movement.  Some may need to raise or lower the starting pull position, some may need to use bumpers while others need steel plates, some may need a flexing bar while others need a stiffer one, etc etc.  It’s insane to believe that modifications to the deadlift are deviations from the intended “perfect state” of the deadlift, because there is no perfect state.  We like to deceive ourselves into believing that the deadlift is a simple exercise, where you just “pick up the bar”, but the reality is that it is anything but.

Image result for Incredible hulk
Keep in mind, in order to become The Hulk, Bruce Banner had to be a genius first

Don’t misunderstand me: picking heavy stuff up off the ground is a great way to get bigger and stronger.  However, being an elitist about it is just stupid.  Some folks might pick things up off an elevated ground, while others might elevate themselves.  Some might pick up stones, sandbags, or kegs.  And hell, some folks just might skip this part of the training.  Just understand that, as much as you might criticize them for not performing “the deadlift”, you are most likely just as guilty.  

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