I love the deadlift. It’s gone from the one big lift I neglected in high school to my all-time favorite. I have many thoughts and opinions on this classic exercise and like a nice room-clearing shotgun blast, they seem to fly apart in a disparate spray while all generally hitting the same wide target.
When I think of the most basic and brutal strength lifts that can be done in the gym, the squat and the deadlift stand next to each other as titans. There are many awesome lifts, but these two are on the short list for combining the greatest number of muscles in a full-range movement that serves as a true test of absolute strength.
The squat was formerly my favorite of the two. It’s such a classic lift, and done properly (more on that later) it has an incredible and punishing range of motion. Stand up with a load on your shoulders: killer! But there is debate and bullshittery that swirls around the squat. Did you get to full depth? What IS full depth? How wide is your stance? When I saw squat videos as a high school kid, it struck me as a lift that separates the wheat from the chaff in the weight room, and this is true if we’re being honest. Unfortunately, I see far too many guys using the squat as a vanity lift– trying to look and feel badass without actually attempting to BE badass.
You know who I’m talking about: the guys with way too much weight on the bar, dropping to half or even quarter depth to parallel (parallel meaning their upper legs parallel to the floor– rightly considered the minimum distance for a valid squat lift), leaning their bodies over. What is the point of this? To have a bigger weight on the bar? To anyone who truly appreciates the squat, these half-lifts look foolish. To anyone who doesn’t know the difference– most of them don’t know or care how much weight is on the bar anyway. Your larger weight numbers are fool’s gold, gentlemen.
Powerlifting, one of the only sports even on the athletic fringe to feature squatting as an event unto itself, does a poor job setting an example in this regard, also. Competitive powerlifters are crazy strong and crazy dedicated dudes, which makes the appearance of their event squats (especially in the heavy weight classes) a sad letdown for me. These guys penguin-walk to the rack trussed up in a ridiculous suit in which they can barely move, set their legs as wide as they possibly can, and lean far over as they push their hips back. To the casual observer, the bar looks like it barely moves. Check out this “world record” to see what I’m talking about:
Take a lighter athlete and put them in a squat rack where they stand with shoulder-width feet and go all the way down to “rock bottom”– the rep looks like it takes forever. It’s awesome! To my mind, it’s stronger-looking than that super-wide stance in that crazy suit. Former 1,000 pound squatter Jim Wendler said it best when he casually dismissed his competition days by saying he “wasn’t strong.” (!) “Sure, I could waddle up to the monolift and squat, but I couldn’t do anything else. Really, all I could do was squat, bench, and deadlift. Today I have different aspirations.” I think I know what he’s getting at. The point of all this strength work is to be something more capable, heroic, and inspiring: not less. Yes, I’m aware it works differently in “raw” meets and for lower weight classes– but that dilutes it even further. What does a truly inspiring squat look like? There are many different answers.
Deadlift, by contrast, is beautifully simple: did you pick the weight up off the ground and stand up? Ultra wide or narrow stances will make the lift more difficult, not less. You can execute with poor form if you like: on a max attempt, it will probably result in horrific back injury. Yes, there is support gear: belts, wraps, straps, suits, etc: you know what? The bar still has to travel from the ground to your waist in a standing position. Did you pick up the weight? At the end of the day, the answer is a simple yes or no that everyone (even the casual observer) can see. The strongest deadlifts all look the same.
On support gear: dudes, cool it.
I see too many belts being used in gym deadlifts. If you need a belt to complete an attempt, much less a simple work set, aren’t you just guaranteeing a weak link in the chain? What’s the point of strength if it’s useless without a belt on? I can understand for very high weights and/or max attempts, it’s a good “just in case” measure to support the vulnerable lower back, although even then, if you’re thinking your back has a high chance of being injured without the belt on, I don’t understand the desire to deadlift the weight in the first place. I think it’s another case of getting numbers on a weight bar confused with actual strength. Again, if you’re pulling several hundred pounds, I totally get it– but shouldn’t us more regular, non-lifting-competition folks be strengthening our backs enough to pull the weight? Anyone who needs a weight belt to pull 315 pounds needs to take the belt off, drop the weight down to 135, and work their way up.
The same is true for straps. For those unfamiliar, straps basically connect your hand to the bar on a deadlift attempt. The rationale is that the true weakest link in the chain is the hand with all its tiny little muscles. We don’t necessarily want to hold back the massive potential of our back and hamstrings with the relative weakness of our hands. For a 900 pound deadlift, this is all but essential. But 300 pounds? 400 pounds? Remove the straps and strengthen your grip. I see guys with 315 pounds on the bar carefully putting their straps on and they just look foolish– like a kid bringing out a really awesome mountain bike and then putting training wheels on it. Who do you think you’re impressing/fooling, gentlemen? If you’re deadlifting less than 500 pounds, you have absolutely no business wearing straps.
Failure does not look cool.
Another fine specimen I see from time to time is the guy who loads a deadlift bar to 500 pounds, stands around talking and “looking cool” for about 15 minutes, then finally settles into his attempt. By now, of course, everyone is watching out of the corners of their eyes to see how it goes. The bar moves about two inches and comes right back down. Invariably, there’s some “har-har, I guess it’s not my day, bro” nonsense, and then he spends the next ten minutes laboriously unloading all 465 pounds worth of plates.
I don’t know what inspires someone to attempt a lift they don’t have a chance in hell of completing. If you have any awareness at all of what your body is capable of doing, you know within yourself if you’ve got a shot at that 1 rep max you’re trying to hit. Any very basic heavy work in low repetition ranges will do a lot to give you an idea. The guys who do this (and I’ve seen it three times in the last couple of months) have to know it ain’t happening.
I know what you’re thinking: they think it looks badass to attempt a 500 pound deadlift.
No. No, it does not. It looks idiotic, delusional, and dangerous. Not “cool BASE jumper dangerous” but dipshit-in-a-youtube-fail-video dangerous.
And that, finally, is what I also love about the deadlift. With the various machines and dumbbells, it can be easy to put on a show– to play the vanity game with popcorn arm muscles and lots of huffing and puffing. “Look at me! I’m badass!” The deadlift does not allow this. It is, for lack of a better term, a “real” lift. No one has a defining “strength” moment with a large stack of weights on the tricep pulldown attachment. The deadlift bar is something else entirely: loaded heavy, it will teach you something about yourself, and that something will be unmistakably and coldly measurable.