The Deadlift: King of Exercises

I recall certain deadlifting workouts that have become memorable. It is those in particular that re-fuels my heart, motivates me, and gives me fortitude. What makes these workouts memorialized is that I ceased being aware of things around me. The everyday world receded into the background. My concentration focused more intently when I involved myself with the results I desired from the weight of each rep of every set until my whole body was burning!

My Deadlifting Inspiration

In the later part of the early 80s I recorded my first deadlift workout at the university gym in Riverside, California. I did three sets with 205: the first two sets for eight reps and the third set for six reps. The following week I wrote down my second deadlift workout. I did five sets: the first two sets with 205 for eight reps, the third set with 255 for five reps, the fourth set with 305 for three reps, and the fifth and last set with 345 for a one-rep max. A Samoan, by the name of Tali said, “Iron Randy is back!” 

By the following month I was deadlifting over 300 pounds on a consistent basis for reps. After my first year of doing deadlifts, and on my twentieth birthday weighing 170 pounds, I could deadlift 405 pounds for three reps. I attempted 455 pounds but couldn’t get the bar past my knees. This was at Wallworks Gym in Missoula, Montana. Since then I had always felt that my lower back was my strongest part on my body and deadlifts was my lift. Twenty-four years later at the age of 44 and weighing 190 pounds at Giorgio’s Gym in Spokane, Washington I pulled (on separate days) 435 for 8 reps, 455 for 5 reps, 465 for 4 reps, and 485 for 3 reps. I attempted 510 pounds but like twenty-four years earlier with 455 pounds I couldn’t get the bar up passed my knees.

I have discovered for myself that doing multiple repetitions (what Bruce Berezay calls “marathon reps”) in the deadlift rather than a single rep max is what works best for me, is safe, and boosts my confidence. Nearly fifteen years later, deadlifting workouts such as these inspire me to keep pushing forward as I near 60 to maintain a strong mind through performing deadlifts to keep my body strong.

Deadlifts Stimulate the Whole Body

Unlike squats, deadlifts stimulate both the lower and upper body. Deadlifts engage the glutes, upper thighs, hamstrings, lower back, upper middle back, traps, and chest. Paul San Andres writes in Romanian Deadlifts that it is primarily a “hip dominant exercise” and “one of the best hip extensor exercises available” that works the thighs, hamstrings, and butt. Curtis Dennis Jr. writes in The Importance of the Deadlift that it “hits the back, the lats, the quads, the glutes, the arms and forearms, and even the abs, which proves that the deadlift produces more results than the bench press and squats.” Deadlifts is the king of exercises for expending great amounts of energy and wasting calories!

Performing the Deadlift

Bruce Berezay deadlifting 510 pounds (start)

Bruce Berezay deadlifting 510 pounds (start)

I recommend using a 10, 8, 6 rep scheme warm-up before doing your three sets that really count towards muscle growth. Take a “Romanian” close stance and a shoulder width grip.  Grasp the bar with an over/underhand grip outside of the thighs as seen with Bruce Berezay. I strongly recommend you alter your over/underhand grip with each hand every so often so that muscle imbalances can be avoided which can cause injuries. You might want to take off your lifting gloves and chalk up before you pull the weight up off the floor. Wearing gloves can prevent you from wrapping your hands all the way around the bar for the nice tight grip that you need and chalk does wonders for maintaining a strong grip!

Bruce Berezay deadlifting 510 pounds (finish)

Bruce Berezay deadlifting 510 pounds (finish)

While leaning forward over the bar with your hips flexed grasp the bar with your knees bent (not in a squat position). Now ignoring all that your parents told you to do (i.e., to lift with your legs and not your back), keep your head up, chest up, shoulders back, back arched, shoulder blades together, butt out and pull the weight up, stand erect, extend the hips and shrug your shoulders back! Return the weight to start position. Yes, tap the floor, but do not bounce the weight, as this can be dangerous to the lower back. Do an 8, 10, 12 reverse pyramid system scheme. Do 8 reps for your first set. Lower the weight and do 10 reps for your second set. Lower the weight for the third and final set and do 12 or more reps.

Deadlift Articles: Praise and Criticism

Surprisingly some authors who feel themselves an authority on the subject advise against doing deadlifts off the floor, but rather off a power rack where the bar is either:

  • “Just above the knee” (Paul San Andres)

  • “Knee height, maybe slightly higher” (Todd Blue)

  • Or “below knee level” (Francesco Casillo)

Curtis Dennis Jr. believes in doing deadlifts off the floor or off a power rack as does Paul San Andres, Todd Blue and Francesco Casillo. Todd Blue makes the excuse for not doing deadlifts off the floor because it involves “too much leg” and imagines his own authority admitting without knowledge of the facts in his mere 300-word article.

Francesco Casillo contradicts himself on the one hand, when he says to start deadlifts with the torso erect (hips extended) rather than the torso prone (hip flexed) as in the case of starting in a power rack or off the floor, and, on the other hand (near the end of his lengthy article), he speaks of the flexion of the hip for a greater degree of “stimulation.” He emphatically states that if the trunk or hips have a lesser degree of flexion (beginning at knee level or slightly below) then the trunk when it is extended (finishing the deadlift in an erect position) has a lesser degree of stimulation. And this is true. However, if this the case and it is true it is the case, Casillo is confused where to begin the deadlifts: either just below knee level starting with a lesser degree of trunk flexion, and therefore, lesser stimulation of hip extension, or further down with a greater degree of trunk flexion, and therefore, greater stimulation of hip extension “during the upward phase.”

If Casillo is not confused where to begin deadlifts, then he believes both ways (like Curtis Dennis Jr.) are beneficial but favors the one starting below knee level. One cannot have both. It’s either one or the other. However, teaching a novice how to perform deadlifts, thus, teaching safe execution, is in most cases best taught in a squat rack, and having the floor as the starting point something to work towards for greater flexion to effect greater stimulation, and therefore, release greater testosterone levels (Casillo). This is how I read Casillo’s article: it is more educational than dogmatic. So, I applaud Casillo for his fine and educational article. Since these authors advocate starting deadlifts above or below the knee they essentially support doing partial rep movements. Read my Partial Reps for Building Muscle? article on this site regarding my criticism of this type of training.

Deadlift form styles

Sumo deadlift (start)

Performing the deadlift has two form styles: the Sumo deadlift and the Romanian deadlift. In the Sumo deadlift the stance is wider and you simply grip the bar on the inside of the legs with an under/over handgrip and stand erect. This form primarily involves the hips and quads. The weak link with this form is the quads. The Romanian deadlift is shown by Bruce Berezay and described above. The weak link with this form is the lower back. Both styles have their advantages and disadvantages. The advantage of the Sumo deadlift is that you are standing more upright and not as close to the floor as you are as with Romanian deadlifts, and therefore, have a lesser range of motion in hip extension to stand upright than Romanian deadlifts.

smodead2.jpg

The disadvantage of the Sumo style is that it can be more hazardous, especially if one has the tendency to cave their knees in toward the floor like when one does wide leg squats or leg presses. A person with long legs like myself might be more suitable bio-mechanically for doing the Sumo style than the Romanian style. But I prefer the Romanian style because I can keep my joints more aligned and more stable, which causes me to have more leverage for strength. It is important that you feel comfortable and safe with a particular style.

The advantage of the Romanian deadlift is that the joints in your knees and hips are more stabilized because they are centered at the core of your body and also because of better joint alignment with the knees, hips, ankles, and shoulders. The disadvantage is that there is a strong tendency to round the lower back, i.e., curve it, and therefore, invite injury. Thus, the weak link in the Romanian deadlift is the lower back. Since I do the Romanian style I am always telling myself: “Chest up, blades together, back arched, butt out – pull up and sit down!” Do the style that best suits you physically and psychologically, and one which allows you to generate good form.