The conventional deadlift is commonly considered a basic exercise and one of the Big 3 that everyone should include in their strength training routine, the other two being squats and bench presses. These three movements are the contested lifts in powerlifting, but are they all really the best choices for strength training and body building for the average trainee?
I have already given my opinion on barbell bench presses: I think they are way over-rated, and have a high risk to benefit ratio. I argue that the push up (on floor or rings, with band resistance) and the parallel bar dip are better, safer choices for upper body pushing. Dumbbell bench presses train the pectorals through a more complete range of motion than barbell bench presses, but they are hard to adequately load safely.
I also believe that single-leg squats such as 4-zone split squats or so-called pistol squats are for most trainees preferable to bilateral barbell squats because they reduce stress on the spine.
In this article I want to explain why I think the deadlift is overrated and most trainees – those who are not competitive powerlifters or Olympic lifters – should choose other, safer and more productive exercises to train the hips, hamstrings and upper back.
The deadlift has several important drawbacks. First, although it involves so many muscles, it does not train any of them optimally. Secondly, it has a high cost to benefit and risk to reward ratio.
The hips (gluteus maximus) are the prime movers in the deadlift. These are the strongest muscles in the body, but the deadlift requires holding the resistance in the hands, making the grip a weak link in training the hips. If you use a mixed grip, you put unbalanced forces on the shoulder girdle and especially the bicep of the hand taking a supinated grip; consequently many people have torn a bicep doing deadlifts. Therefore if you want to get adequate training for the hips and lower back from deadlifts, you should use a double overhand grip and straps.
However, even if you use straps, the conventional deadlift only trains the gluteus through a limited range of motion compared to a deep squat. The stiff-leg deadlift uses more hip hinge than the conventional deadlift. Research shows that the squat activates the gluteus to the same extent as the stiff-leg deadlift in terms of peak force production, and the squat takes the hip through a greater range of motion, without having the grip as a weak link. Moreover, the single-leg squat activates the gluteus and hamstrings more than either the back squat or the stiff-leg deadlift.[1, 2]
The barbell hip thrust also produces greater activation of the gluteus than the barbell squat or deadlift, without any loading on the lumbar spine.[3, 4]
Deadlifts do not provide good training effect for the quadriceps. Ebben et al found that the conventional deadlift was inferior to the machine knee extension, barbell squat, dumbbell lunge, and dumbbell step up to a 46cm box for training the quadriceps.
Conventional deadlifts may activate the hamstrings better than the bilateral squat and similar to the straight-leg deadlift, stiff-leg deadlift, Romanian deadlift, back arch ups, and any kind of leg curl. However, Tsakis et al found that subjects produced a maximum voluntary contraction of the hamstrings of less than 50% in unloaded single-leg straight-leg deadlifts, and were able to produce greater hamstrings contraction in suspension trainer leg curls, hamstring bridges on a chair, leg curls, Nordic (natural) leg curls, fit ball flexions, and slide leg curls on the floor. However, in this study the deadlifts were done with bodyweight only, reducing the potential muscle activation. Nevertheless, deadlifts have drawbacks compared to the other exercises tested in this study.
It is important to emphasize that back arch ups and leg curls provide similar or greater activation of the hamstrings, yet without any spinal loading. Morever, all of the tested exercises (straight-leg deadlift, etc.) involve lower absolute loads than the conventional deadlift, reducing injury risk. The suspension leg curls, slide leg curls, Nordic leg curls, back arch ups and machine leg curls eliminate spinal loading altogether, reducing injury risk further.
Also, straight-leg deadlifts load the hamstrings in the stretched position, which is not achieved in the conventional deadlift because performance of the conventional deadlift does not involve full stretch of the hamstrings.
Moreover, the suspension leg curls, slide leg curls, and back arch ups all involve a range of motion and simultaneous hip extension and leg flexion functions of the hamstrings (in back arch ups leg flexion occurs but is very limited in ROM by the apparatus) similar to running or sprinting. These exercises mimic the way we use the hips and hamstrings together in locomotion better than any type of deadlift and therefore may be the best choices if one is choosing only one hamstring exercise.
Some people do deadlifts to train the lower back. However, there are several exercises that build lower back strength at least as effectively as deadlifts, without the risk of lumbar injury posed by conventional deadlifts. Super slow straight leg deadlifts, reverse lumbar extensions ("reverse hypers"), and isolated lumbar extensions all provide training for the lumbar erectors with greater range of motion, less load and less risk of injury than the conventional deadlift. Reverse lumbar extensions and isolated lumbar extensions remove all spinal compressive loading and therefore are likely the best choices for the typical trainee who wants to maximize strength while minimizing injury risk.
Many people do deadlifts to build strength and size in the upper back. However, once again, deadlifts do not train any upper back muscle through a full range of motion. The deadlift only trains the upper back isometrically. The lats and lower traps can be trained better with a much reduced risk of lower back injury via chin ups, pull ups, front levers, and rowing on rings or suspension trainers.
If your goal is to overload the upper traps, there is no need to perform conventional deadlifts off the floor. If you aren’t doing handstands, and especially handstand shoulder taps, which may be the best way to load the traps (the traps are highly active in holding the shoulders in proper position in handstands), you can do barbell shrugs or static holds taking the bar from a rack set above the knee.
The trapezius evolved to support the head and shoulder girdle in an upright position all day long, and the upper trapezius holds the shoulder girdle in position while carrying loads in the hands (like farmer’s walks) for long distances. This function would favor a composition of type 1, fatigue-resistant fibers. Indeed, research suggests the trapezius has a high proportion of type 1 fatigue-tolerant fibers.
Most people train the traps with high loads and short durations, but given the evolved function of the traps it is likely that one will get the best results training this muscle with longer time under load, such as 60-90 seconds.
Since the upper traps have a short range of motion, a slow loaded shrug takes only ~1 second for concentric or eccentric phases, and if you add 1 second pause in contracted and stretched positions, you have ~4 seconds per repetition, which means you should use upwards of 15 repetitions per set. After you fatigue the muscle with shrugging to concentric failure, you can hold the resistance in the bottom position, stretching the traps under load for 15-30 seconds to deeply exhaust the fibers. Alternatively you can simply hold a heavy bar for 60-90s time under load (like a farmer’s walk but without the walking).
Perhaps because it involves so many muscle and the largest external loads of any multi-joint exercise, a set of deadlifts consumes a large amount of energy and imposes an extraordinary stress on the body. Consequently many people find that once they have advanced to using challenging loads for the deadlift, they need more time to recover from deadlifts than from any other exercise.
Evidently the deadlift drains recovery resources more than any other exercise, yet as already discussed it doesn’t provide the best or even good training stimulus for most of the muscles one must use to perform it. The deadlift can be so draining that regular performance makes it difficult to recover not only from the deadlift, but also from other exercises. Some people find that when they train the deadlift regularly, they stall in progress on their other training because the deadlift demands so much of recovery resources. Therefore, it has a high cost:benefit ratio. Removing the deadlift from your training will give you more recovery resources for making gains on better exercises.
Moreover, the deadlift probably has the highest injury risk of any major compound exercise due to the combination of acute forward lean, high degree of joint freedom, and high loads. It is easy and apparently common to sustain severe lumbar injuries doing the deadlift. In my experience, a lumbar injury can put an end to all other training for whatever time one needs to recover full function: several weeks to several months, if not longer. Therefore, I believe the reward in strength and hypertrophy for conventional deadlifts off the floor is not worth the risk of injury involved.
Gymnasts are known for their ability to deadlift double body weight or more without any formal deadlift training. They train their lower backs with reverse lumbar extensions, which are also part of planches and back levers. They build their hamstrings with back arch ups, floor slide leg curls and natural leg curls. They build their upper back and upper traps with front levers, front lever rows, and handstands. You don't need to do the conventional deadlift, and risk lumbar injury, to build the strength needed to do an impressive deadlift. And you don't need to ever do a deadlift to 'prove' your strength to anyone else. A back lever is at least as impressive without the risk of lumbar injury.
Therefore, unless you are a competitive powerlifter or Olympic lifter, I think you should avoid the conventional deadlift off the floor. You can build all the strength you would build with deadlifts with the following much safer exercises:
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