Why Aren't You & Your Grandma Deadlifting?(!)
Typical top position of a standard over-under grip barbell deadlift
Full disclosure: this is not an article intended to instruct a proper deadlift. I find that I have too much to say about why it’s important first, so the how will follow at a later time. Even more frustrating, I don't even scratch the surface in regards to all the benefits deadlifting can offer. The list is varied, extensive, and unique to each person. Below are a few simple reasons, stemming from one main argument.
Still interested? Read on.
This is one of the very rare (alright, maybe not so rare) occasions where I will be very close to directly contradicting myself. I am a firm believe that you don’t need to do anything (in fact, I will likely have another articles about that in the near future). But guess what? I’m about to tell you something you actually probably do need to do. I know: irony, hypocriticism, annoyance, etc. Hear me out. This is one of those actually rare messages that applies to nearly every person out there reading this. So here it goes.
You need to deadlift.
Better yet, you need to learn to deadlift properly.
You might be thinking to yourself,
“Deadlift? I’ve heard of it… but I don’t think I know what it looks like.”
Let me illustrate with a few examples. Remember when you woke up today walked outside and picked the newspaper from your driveway? Or when the caveman picked up that boulder, rolled it down that hill, and got the idea for the wheel? (Sounds accurate). Or when you moved last June and made your boyfriend come over to help you pick up 364 boxes of your stuff from the ground and move it to the truck? You all just deadlifted (sort of).
The typical deadlift is one of the exercises that tends to be intimidating, especially for new or inexperienced lifters (even more so for cardio gym-goers who “don’t even lift, bro”). It’s generally practiced, or at least perceived, as a barbell exercise that huge strap-wearing, chalk-gripping dudes do with primal grunts and aggressive hip thrusts… Or back when the World’s Strongest Man competitions were popular on ESPN, the things massive Nordic beefcakes did by picking up actual cars. And yes, more often than not, the multiple hundreds of pounds that these he-men are lifting come crashing to the ground louder than a thunderclap of Thor’s hammer after not just each set, but each dang rep.
Joe K showing us the Single-leg Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift, a great unilateral deadlift variation
I get it. It can be annoying. It can also lead to a wonderfully terrible “Holier than thou” attitude from both parties: Deadlifters can exude an air of greatness and superiority because, in their eyes, they’re working hard and doing things nobody else is doing. (This is a bit pompous and clearly subjective; however, I can tell you personally that deadlifting a heavy weight truly is one of the most satisfying feelings you can get in the gym). Non-deadlifters can walk around with the same sense of snobbery; telling themselves how rude it is to drop those weights so loud, or how “this young man is going to hurt himself!” (This is equally pompous and subjective, but understandable given how much noise pollution the weight dropping causes).*
Beneath the superficial cynicism, though, we must be honest with ourselves and admit that we are likely just scared as hell to try to do anything like what we see in the deadlift. Maybe it’s the crashing iron. Maybe it’s the extreme intensity we see on the faces of deadlifters everywhere as they so excruciatingly fight against gravity and metal. Or, maybe even worse, it’s some anecdotal “evidence” you may have heard over the years that provides you comfort and a sense of “I knew it” righteousness in your decision to avoid this move:
“You know, my (Uncle Bob/boyfriend Paulie/mom’s friend’s hairdresser/son’s teacher’s mother-in-law/etc ad nauseam) just threw his back out trying to do one of those silly weight-lifting things in the gym. Serves him right for trying to be a freakin’ superhero!”
And here’s my first caveat- this cannot be understated and hopefully will not be misunderstood- the deadlift can be ridiculously harmful… if done with faulty form. If you try to heave-ho and pull heavy weight from the ground with a weak core, rounded back or unstable joints, you are asking for trouble.
Yet, I say you should do it. Yes, I’m advising that you do one of the exercises that could potentially cause great harm. But guess what? Poorly performed pushups, planks, or even gait patterns while long-distance running can cause chronic, sometimes irreversible damage. You name an exercise, I say it can do harm if done incorrectly.
What’s more, every single one of my clients learns to deadlift. Young-buck athletes for strength development. Older clients for daily independence. Arthritis-ridden joints can strengthen, stabilize, and increase functional range of motion. People looking to lose weight can add a new insanely neuromuscularly-taxing move to ignite big muscle fibers and thus burn more calories (I hate talking about burning calories, but sometimes it has its place). I’ll also draw your attention back to my advised statement at beginning of the article, and repeat it here for good measure:
“Better yet, you need to learn to deadlift properly.”
“Better yet, you need to learn to deadlift properly.”
This time with some specific emphasis.
“Better yet, you need to learn to deadlift properly.”
No, your arms will not pop out of your shoulders. C'mon, Mr. Potato Head!
At this point you’re likely in one of three very general camps:
"Ok dude, we get it! You like the deadlift. Tell me why it’s important.
“I don’t care. I have my preconceived notions based on something I’ve heard before from a probably non-credible source, and I’m cool with it because I really don’t want to possibly radically change this belief I already accept, because change is hard and I have too much other crap going on right now.”
“Wow, fella! You have rocked my world and I have never thought of these things you’ve said before… Tell me more!”
Alright, so Contestant # 3 might be an exaggerated positive response. And if you’re in basecamp 2, you probably aren’t reading anymore because this isn’t 140 characters of sexy (and if you are still reading, then you might be just a tad more interested than you want yourself to believe). And that’s totally fine and understandable. So here is where I tell you what I haven’t told you yet: why we all need to learn to deadlift properly.
Why the Deadlift matters in your life, your grandma’s life, and everyone in between
My attempts to keep this article generally short have failed. Go figure. Here's the issue, though. As I stated in the beginning, I can't even get close to naming all the specific reasons you should deadlift. I'd run out of time, space, and mental energy trying to compile a completed list. So I'm going to try to keep this as simple and succinct as possible. My dad always said (and still says, over and over and over…) to ask questions. So here are a couple questions for you to ponder:
Do you ever pick things up off of the floor?
Do you ever have knee, back, or other joint pain when picking things up off the floor?
Do you ever feel weak? Like you can’t lift certain things because they’re too heavy? (i.e. do you have others help you with your groceries, laundry, books, etc out of necessity?)
Have you gotten to a point where you’ve had to abandon this small act of independence and enlist help from others to lift your things off the floor for you?
Would you like the feeling of being stronger, safer, and more able to improve this multi-daily act?
Have you accepted that “this is just the way things are at my age”?**
If you answered “yes” to any of the above, the deadlift is for you.^ Because here’s the short truth. Want to learn things in life? Ask yourself questions. Reflect. Think. Ponder. Wonder. Be curious. Then Re-reflect, repeat and re-repeat the process. If your opinions and beliefs don’t ever change, you will never change, grow, or improve.
So… what, in its essence, is a deadlift? Sure, it’s a complex, complicated movement that can take many reps, days, weeks and months to learn and perform correctly.
But isn’t it also just picking something up and putting it back down?
Don’t you do this dozens of times a day? Wasn’t our body, with our hip, knee and ankle ranges of motion and relatively stable and very strong torso designed to be able to bend down and pick stuff up? I’m pretty sure that yes, yes it was. Here is a list of things you might bend down to pick up every dilly day:
Grocery items on the lower shelves
Boxes that need to go back on their shelves
That stupid piece of bread you dropped in the kitchen that you now have to throw out (unless, you know, 5 second rule)
Your cat or dog
Your laundry. Errant ping-pong ball. Broken glass. One end of a couch you’re begrudgingly moving with a friend. The dog’s poop.
Good golly, the list goes on and on. And on. I hope my point is fairly clear. Doesn’t it make sense to learn how to properly execute a movement we do dozens of times a day? Shouldn’t we learn the right way our bodies are intended to move in this way so we can prevent injury? Don’t we deserve to have confidence in our body’s ability to do such basic, fundamental things? Can we really reverse years of bad habits and regain our evolutionarily-designed independent movement? I certainly think so.
I can hear Frank and Susie Everyman now:
“I’ve been bending down to pick things up my whole life, I think I know how to do it!” And I can hear the career deadlifters: “EXCUSE ME! THERE IS SO MUCH THAT GOES INTO A PROPER DEADLIFT! YOU CLEARLY KNOW NOTHING OF ITS COMPLEX INTRICACIES! HOW DARE YOU!” The former group may be right, to an extent. You have been bending down and picking things up your entire life. And, thankfully, you probably haven’t seriously injured yourself doing it. But maybe you have, and maybe you don’t quite realize it. (Maybe it’s also prudent to remember it just takes one straw to break the camel’s back). The latter, our lifters, are also correct. The deadlift is not as easy as picking up and putting down. And that’s fine. I’m not trying to minimize the high skill it takes to master this move. But I’m also not mis-guiding you about its simple origins and important everyday application. There are dozens of checkpoints to perform the deadlift successfully. But there’s even more ways to mess it up and cause harm.
As a last thought, here’s what I am not telling you to do:
Go and try to deadlift a heavy weight without experience. Do I think every able body can benefit from the deadlift? Yes. Do I think every able body should deadlift heavy (i.e. 5 rep max or less)? No, at least not necessarily. That’s a conversation that can only be explored with you and a qualified coach.
Come back for more on how to actually do the deadlift properly. Until then, do the exercise I mentioned above. Reflect, think, repeat. Re-repeat. Is there maybe some truth here? You've already taken a good first step in reading this. Ask us how we can make you more functional with the deadlift today.
*This phenomenon is not unique to the deadlift. Any move where heavy weight is lifted, like the back squat, often follows the same pattern. The deadlift is just a bit more special due to the weight being slammed to the ground so often.
**Do not misunderstand me. If you have a legitimate medical concern or spinal issue, or have a clinically limited ability to move in your full range of motion due to serious injury, surgery, genetic precondition or otherwise, I am not saying the deadlift can or should be attempted and practiced by you. Always be smart and know your body. This statement was made for those who are otherwise generally healthy and without chronic or acute limitations.
^By the way, these are just a small number of the numerous benefits to deadlifting. All of these examples come from the practical movement of picking things up from the floor, but there are many more benefits that carry over into other aspects of life, such as athletic performance, core stability, overall lower body strength capacity, bone density, and spinal stabilizer muscle strength, for example.