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The Deadlift: 3 Reasons Why Just Picking Up Heavy Things Replaces Most of Your Gym

The easy-to-learn movement that strengthens everyone's everything.

by
Mark Rippetoe

Bio

March 13, 2014 - 10:00 am

Seatlle Starting Strength Seminar

The deadlift may be the simplest and easiest exercise to learn in all of barbell training. You pick up a loaded barbell and set it back down, keeping the bar in contact with your legs the whole way. There are a few subtle complications — the bar should move up and down the legs in a vertical line over the middle of the foot, the bar should start from a position directly over the mid-foot, and you should keep your back flat when you pull. But that’s really about all there is to it. The deadlift is one of the basic movements of which strength training is composed.

Pulling things off the ground is a part of your human heritage, and bending down to pick them up is what your knees and hips are for. With the bar in your hands and your feet against the floor, your whole body is completely involved in the exercise, which means the deadlift makes the whole body strong. It would be very difficult to invent a more natural exercise for the body than picking up a progressively heavier barbell.

“Kinetic chain” is an exercise term that refers to the musculoskeletal components (the “links”) of an exercise between the load (the barbell) and the base of support (your feet against the floor). The kinetic chain in the deadlift is essentially the entire body, and everything between hands and floor is doing its anatomically-determined proportion of the work of moving the bar. This means that your legs, hips, back, lats, arms, and grip contribute the fraction of the lifting that their individual positions on the skeleton and their relationships to each other permit.

Here’s the best part about barbell training: if you use good technique, your anatomy sorts out each bodypart’s contribution so that you don’t have to.

These large exercises — essentially normal human movement patterns loaded with a barbell to make them progressively heavier — eliminate the need for dozens of smaller exercises, and the strength you obtain is directly applicable to your job of being an active human.

Deadlifts are important, and you should be doing them. Here’s 3 reasons why…

seattledeadliftc

1. The deadlift is one of the contested events in the sport of powerlifting.

If you look it up on YouTube, you will see large hairy men yelling loudly as they pull enormous weights from the floor. The current record in the deadlift is in excess of 1,000 pounds, the women’s record is over 600, and both lifters walked safely and proudly away from the platform. So, calm yourself. Be not afraid. The same movement you see at the powerlifting contest can be safely used by anyone to develop a stronger back and legs. You just have to start with a lighter weight.

The barbell deadlift is safer than picking up a three-year-old kid, because the bar can be placed directly over the middle of the feet, the body’s center of balance. The ability to keep the barbell balanced directly over the mid-foot as you pull it from the floor up to the lockout position enables very heavy weights to be safely handled. And heavy weight is what makes people strong.

A barbell is 1.25 inches in diameter, is engraved with a knurled pattern, and the weight plates slide onto sleeves on the ends of its seven-foot length. It therefore fits nicely in the grip, and can be centered directly above the middle of your foot, the natural balance point against the floor. Kept in this position during the movement, the load exerts no net leverage on your balance while the bar travels up and down. The deadlift is therefore a mechanically efficient, safe way to lift a weight.

A correct deadlift is performed with the back in “extension” — the normal anatomical position of the spine, which looks “flat” from the side during a deadlift. It is held rigid in extension by the back muscles, the abdominals, and all the smaller muscles that lay between the ribcage and the pelvis that form what is essentially a cylinder of muscular support around the spine. These muscles get so much work during the deadlift that most people have no real reason to do situps or any other back exercises.harperdeadliftc

2. The muscles that extend your knees and hips operate the knee and hip joints, which in turn apply the force to the bones of your legs that overcomes the load on the bar and moves it up.

Your back, held rigid and tight by your back muscles and abs, transmits that force up to the arms, then down to the hands and the bar. The leg segments and the back segment are the levers that move the load, the muscles are the motors that move the levers, and the arms are the chains hooked to the bar.

The fact that the bar leaves the ground means that the muscles have generated more force than the gravity holding the bar down. The vertebral segments of the spine can wiggle, while the thigh and shin bones are rigid, so when you pull a heavy weight while keeping your back solid, rigid, and flat throughout the pull, your back muscles have done the job of making your wiggly spine a solid lever. This makes the deadlift the best exercise for the back muscles in existence.

Think with me here: Exercise strengthens muscles. If an exercise requires that you use certain muscles to perform the movement, and the movement is performed correctly, then the exercise strengthens all the muscles used in the movement as you lift progressively heavier weights. Doing it wrong doesn’t count, because poor technique means some part of the kinetic chain didn’t do its job — it failed to do the work, and therefore didn’t get strong. The use of less-than-perfect technique allows some of the muscles to weasel out of doing their job, then they fail to get strong, and then they cannot do their job.

This is an extremely important point, because the fashion now is the use of lots of different exercises for each of the little pieces of the kinetic chain of the movement. For example, you don’t stop deadlifting and start doing isolation lower-back work to fix the back muscles if they cannot hold the spine flat — you stop deadlifting incorrectly by taking off enough weight to permit the back muscles to do their job correctly, and then slowly get heavier.

Done with perfect technique, the deadlift is a perfect example of why the use of major multi-joint exercises is superior to a collection of smaller exercises.

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3. An exercise that uses all the major levers in the body works the majority of the muscles at the same time.

In addition to allowing the use of heavy weights, this spreads the work over the whole system, thus keeping the majority of the stress off of any one single joint or muscle. As a multi-joint barbell exercise, the deadlift can gradually increase in weight over a very long period of time. Starting with a light weight you can do perfectly and going up slowly from there, it is possible to improve your deadlift strength for years. This is not possible with smaller muscle group exercises, which tend to stall in progress rather quickly and which therefore lack the deadlift’s potential to make you stronger.

It took quite a while for the 1000-pound guy to get that strong, but his process is the same as yours — a few pounds at a time. You may have no interest in pulling 1000 pounds, but a stronger deadlift makes for a stronger you.

Mark Rippetoe is the author of Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, Practical Programming for Strength Training, Strong Enough?, Mean Ol' Mr. Gravity, and numerous journal, magazine and internet articles. Rip was a competitive powerlifter for ten years, has coached many lifters and athletes, and has given seminars to thousands around the country.

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Top Rated Comments   
Keep at it! 3 years ago I fell off a roof breaking both my legs. Was supposed to spend the rest of my life in either a wheelchair or behind a walker. 2 years ago I decided I was not going to waste away and I started Rip's Starting Strength program - at one point I was so weak I had to use plywood weight plates my neighbor made in order to even deadlift. One year ago I pulled 503 lbs in my first ever powerlifting competition and then just this morning I my top work out set was 490 lbs x 3. You absolutely can do this - -patience...and a little more each day. Get strong brother!
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
If you are lifting for hypertrophy (building muscle tissue and mass) then time-under-tension is a huge factor. But if you are lifting for strength/ power, it's not relevant, so don't worry about how long to hold. I think your work sets should be 3 sets for 3-5 repetitions, with perfect form -- don't fake it. Having a coach or anyone watch your form is helpful. If your form isn't perfect, drop weight and start again. Most important in lifting is to be honest, bc cheating gets your nowhere. Leave your ego at the door, and progress comes much faster.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
Why would you need a spotter for a deadlift? You just set the bar down if you can't finish the rep.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (69)
All Comments   (69)
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Mark,

I have your books on strength training which is something I have always believed in more so than some of the "fad" type exercises. At the age of 70 and after shoulder surgery, back surgery, and surgery for trigger finger, my routine is varied to include cardio, treadmill, deadlifts (working up on weight), bench presses, and curls. I use a BOSU ball for my sit-ups and also use it for balancing. Recently, I have been looking to see if there are any benefits to introducing kettle ball into my regular routine. What is your opinion?

Yes, I absolutely agree, overall proper strength training is the key to better physical and mental health. I still work full time in my small consulting business and after sitting all day, a good night's rest and a workout in the morning works for me. And, being a diabetic, I can attest to the fact that strength training is definitely of great benefit in helping control diabetes.

Thanks for sharing.
38 weeks ago
38 weeks ago Link To Comment
MARK

Thanks so much! Will do.

HUDSON BEAR,

I used to have the same problem. What I have been doing for some years now is SPINAL DECOMPRESSION. Cheaply, at home. What happens is that we squeeze - compress - our discs all our waking time. Standing, walking, lifting, pushing. They flatten out. Sometimes so much that a nerve gets pinched.

We also actually get shorter. When we stretch the spine out, the dkscs can begin to expand again.

I decompress by hanging by my hands from a cheap chinning bar, screwed in tight in my bedroom door, placed high enough not to bump anyone's head.

I'm not athletic about it. I just hang there, counting seconds. Add a second or 2 every few weeks. About once a week I measure my height and mark it on that same door post. I actually get a little taller when I do it more.
Grew up to one inch taller during a time when I did it a lot more (Went from 5'5" to 5'6". Lost the inch when I stopped awhile.) And - no more sciatica for years now.

Best wishes.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks Mark, for your quick response. So glad that I'm not ruled out!

Another question then: I live between Baton Rouge and Lafayette, Louisiana. Do you know of any good coaches in or near them? If not, in New Orleans? Or anywhere in Louisiana? Or even in Jackson, Mississippi? I would drive some distance to get a good coach. At my age, I hope not to make any bad mistakes!
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
I know a couple of great coaches in Houston. Contact me on my website and I'll put you in touch with the one who's closest.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
From my late 20's on, I had a lot of issues with low back pain, and had to be very careful when lifting heavy stuff. As a result, I tended to avoid exercises like the dead lift, because my back just never felt very stable or strong when I tried to do them.

As I hit my late 50's, my back problems had largely gone away (or were better managed?). Inspired by programs like Starting Strength, I decided to give dead lifts a try. So I started very light, and slowly added weight. At first, I did OK. But once I got up to 200+ lbs, damn if my back problems didn't come back.

The problem does manifest differently now, than when I was younger. In my 20's, my back muscles would spasm, and lock up, and I'd just have a lot of pain. These days, the progression is different. My first symptom is sciatica: I get an uncomfortable tingling sensation on the outside of my left leg, next to the knee, and my little toe on the same leg starts to feel numb. If I ignore this, and continue lifting, then eventually the muscle spasms and the pain will show up. Not fun. The first time I went through this cycle, I had to lay off of lifting for more than 6 months before the sciatica went away. Now, any time I try deadlifts with even baby weights, the sciatica starts to come back.

These symptoms suggest nerve impingement rather than muscle weakness as the cause of my problems. About 15 or 20 years ago, when I was still visiting a chiropractor to help with back pain, I had X-rays taken, and was told that the the spacing between my lower vertebrae (S1-L5, L5-L4) was quite small, likely due to significant compaction of the disks. So I suspect that there may not be a lot of space in certain places for the nerves to pass through.

I get the argument that if your back pain is due to weak muscles, then progressive loading of the dead lift, starting with very easy weights may be an excellent way to build up the strength of the muscles, and cure yourself. I'm not sure the same argument applies if the problem is nerve impingement. I'd be curious as to whether or not people with nerve impingement issues can also work through them with progressive loading.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
My first comment would be that having not seen you deadlift, I don't know if you're doing it correctly. Deadlifting incorrectly can hurt your back. Doing any lift incorrectly can hurt you. Your form should be evaluated before we decide you can't do the movement, because you may actually not be doing the deadlift anyway.

That said, everybody our age has some loss of disc thickness. That is just a function of having not died yet, and it may or may not be the cause of your symptoms. Many people with thin discs have no symptoms, even at heavy weights, and many people with normal disc thickness have back pain.

An MRI might be diagnostic for this problem, and it might not be. You can get one and see, but the cheapest way to investigate the situation is to get some coaching on your deadlift technique and make sure this is not a simple thing that can be correctly by a change of bar position or back angle.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mark,
I'm female, 82 with 2 knee replacements. A health nut as to nutrition, employed full-time and enjoying it. I walk a mile a day, do 2 flights of stairs a day, and sprints on my stationary bike. Plus some stretch exercises.
With the knee replacements, do you think it would be OK for me to do deadlifts? How about other barbell exercises? (I'm concerned about squats, because of the knees. Also my knee surgeon said no high-impact anything.)

So great that you are writing here. Thanks so much!
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
I'm a 68-year-old female with a TKR (2008) and started deadlifting with a trainer a few months after finishing rehab. I squat as part of the training but do not go as deep as a competitor would. I do compete in the deadlift. It is low impact and has really strengthened my legs/knees/back. A lady 85 has started deadlifting with my trainer. My orthopedist comments on how strong my muscles are and what a help it is for my knees. Use a trainer and learn correct form and start gradually. All my docs have encouraged me to keep going. (I'm also a 2x breast cancer survivor & deadlifted shortly after and through treatment with docs' approval) I think you'll love how much stronger you feel!
37 weeks ago
37 weeks ago Link To Comment
Deadlifts are not high impact movements. They'd be fine if you can do them with correct technique. A coach would be your best approach to learning them.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank you Mark for taking the time to answer questions.

That is really cool.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Awesome article and comments.

Regarding working the kinetic chain for the bench press motion. Would it not be more functional training this motion while standing? Also allowing better uninhibited movement of the collar bone, scapulae? Or maybe this would not be a desirable thing?? Just really got me thinking about how closely a deadlift does match lifting heavy stuff outside the gym.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Since the bench press also depends on gravity, it cannot be performed at 90 degrees to the body while standing. The press is the movement you have in mind, the subject of the next article.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Looking forward to the next acticle Mark. I have been enjoying them.

Just to be clear. My thinking was regarding the motion of extending the hands away from the body while standing. The arms parallel or somewhat parallel to the floor. Granted I know you can't supply resistance this motion with a barbell. You would have to use cables or something that redirects the resistance. My thinking is wouldn't this better duplicate the motion of pushing something in front of us. When pushing something in front of us we are most likely standing. Yes I have indeed done bench presses many times and I know bench presses are very readily available. Just something I had thought about.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
I don't see why it's necessary to make every exercise that produces a general strength adaptation look like a motion you occasionally do. I don't know about you, but it's been a while since I bench-pressed something in front of me, and if I needed to I could manage to figure out how to get it done.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Mr Rippetoe,
I have neuropathy and because of that very week feet. Squats and dead lifts are critical for me to keep my good muscles strong. Because I have poor balance I no longer feel safe with a heavy barbeel on my back. I switched to goblet squats. I love them. Am I working out the same muscles as I was barbell squatting? Regards, Johnny
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
In Mark's book he has plans for a cage for doing squats and other lifts. I feel a lot safer using the cage, and give it my hearty endorsement.

Good luck, I'm rooting for you Johnny Red Ten.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
You're working the same muscles at a slightly different angle, but since the weight is lighter you're not keeping them as strong. Get a coach, or at least a spotter, and go back to the barbell, gradually adding weight. It's more beneficial, and you'll feel better about spending the time.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
Can pregnant women do these? Or something similar? My lower back in particular has been rebelling & I'd put money on more strength helping, but the only advice people give when you're pregnant is to stretch & take warm baths. I love stretching & warm baths, but I'd rather fix the problem than put a band aid on it.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
The rule when PG is that you don't START doing anything hard you're not used to doing. Had you been training, it's just fine, and pregnant women train up until 2 weeks before delivery all the time. I've seen a 205 x 5 personal record squat done 2 weeks prior to delivery with absolutely no trouble, in an experienced lifter. It's your decision, and it will probably help, but be very careful about pushing too hard.
39 weeks ago
39 weeks ago Link To Comment
I am becoming seriously intrigued by this series and have a couple of very basic questions.

How high up the body does a person go with one of these deadlifts, and what would be a reasonable amount of weight for a beginning female who has never lifted anything very heavy on a regular basis (other than for lifting a 50 lb. sack of bird seed up and out of the trunk and hauling it--actually, staggering with it is probably more accurate--across the garage to the storage can every month or so--a taxing feat but one that I confess does make me inordinately proud of myself)?
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
The top position of the deadlift is shown in the photos above. As for the weight, I have never encountered a mature female novice who could not deadlift 55 pounds for 5 reps the first day, unless there was an injury or other profound physical problem, or advanced (80+) age. The barbell permits the optimum positioning of the body over the load, and is BY FAR the best way to improve this most basic of all human physical attributes -- back and hip strength. Your birdseed feat of strength indicates that you have the basic tools to start much heavier than this, if you'll give yourself permission to know that you can, and should.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
The idea of such a huge health and strength payoff all in one exercise that I can realistically expect to continue for the rest of my life is pretty exciting, so thank you very much, Mark. Getting such customized advice from someone of your stature in your field means a great deal to someone like me (i.e., clueless non-athlete in a tiny burg). I will investigate getting a set of barbells and see what I can do.
40 weeks ago
40 weeks ago Link To Comment
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