Perhaps the most feared and revered exercise to take place in the gym, the deadlift is one of only two exercises I deem to be vital if you’re wanting to see big-time gains in strength and size (the other is… you guessed it… the squat).
Don’t let the name scare you off from this exercise, it’s only called a deadlift because it’s the closest gym interpretation of lifting a dead weight up off the ground. It’s an extremely functional exercise, meaning any strength gained from doing deadlifts will translate to being better able to do things in every day life (think lifting a heavy suitcase out of a trunk, moving furniture, playing a practical joke on your best friend by moving him somewhere ridiculous while they’re still sleeping – “The Hangover” style).
In all seriousness, there are many things for which to praise the deadlift. From it’s uncanny ability to turn a weakling into the envy of his/her friends, to it’s positive affect on all the other exercises you do, its benefits are plentiful. Below, i’m going to go through and list the most important benefits of the deadlift. Enjoy.
- Works Every Major Muscle. The deadlift is pretty lonely when it comes to being on a list of exercises that work nearly every major group of muscles on the body. If you’re running short on time and looking for an exercise you can do that will give you the most bang for your buck at the gym, the deadlift would make a fine choice.
- The Posterior Chain. The Posterior chain involves the glutes, hamstrings, adductor magnus, and lumbar erectors. Combined, these muscles make up for one of the most important areas, functionally speaking, in any high performance athlete. There is no single exercise out there that better develops and strengthens the posterior chain than the deadlift.
- Improve Posture. Deadlifting naturally strengthens your lower back better than anything else. A weak lower back has been shown to dramatically increase the likelihood of poor posture. By strengthening this area, you’ll naturally improve the positioning of your spine and you’ll be less likely to develop or continue a slouch.
- A Real Life, Functional Lift. Think about the bench press for a moment. You’re laying down flat, and pushing the weight upwards with your chest towards the ceiling. Does this movement mimic movements that you routinely do in every day life? Not at all. The deadlift however – that’s a different story. The deadlift involves simply picking something up from ground level and moving it up to waist level. This is an extremely common movement amongst humans from all cultures, and is perhaps one of the best pure tests of overall strength around. By routinely deadlifting, you actually make it easier on your body in these real life situations, and also reduce the chance of injury at the same time. Moving furniture around doesn’t seem so daunting after a few months of regular deadlifting. Promise.
- Grip Strength. Deadlifts are renowned for their ability to build massive amounts of grip strength, and for good reason. Your fingers are literally the only things connecting you to the weight of the bar. Your forearms have to work incredibly hard as you progress in weight to keep the bar from falling out of your hands. Subsequently your grip strength grows by leaps and bounds.
- Testosterone and Growth Hormones. The deadlift is an exercise which sparks muscle growth on a body wide scale, and it rivals the squat in it’s effect on your entire body. Not only does the deadlift promote muscle growth in the legs and lower back, but it also makes it easier for you to put on muscle any place on your body. Due to the fact that the deadlift hits so many muscles all at once, it causes the body to release a great deal of these hormones that promote muscle growth like nobody’s business – so long as you’re working above 75% of your 1rm for 8-10 reps.
- Preventative and Rehabilitative Benefits. Due to the fact that the deadlift hits the entire back and all connecting muscles, it is often prescribed as an exercise to prevent injury – particularly among athletes. On the same token, it’s used to build up strength in those who have suffered serious injury. It has been hypothesized that the moderate to high hamstring activity elicited during the deadlift may help to protect the Anterior Cruciate Ligament during rehab.
- Core Strength. Arguably no exercise develops the core the way the deadlift does. If abs and a rock solid mid section are goals of yours, you’d be unwise to leave this exercise out of your workout program. With the abs, waist, hips, backside, and lower back working like crazy to keep your spine where it should be throughout the movement, your balance and strength in your core will benefit greatly.
- Safety. This might be a bit of an odd thing to bring up when it comes to talking about the deadlift, but it’s worth noting nonetheless. Some exercises, including presses and squats, are best done with a spotter present when you’re lifting heavy and going to failure. The deadlift on the other hand can be done safely by yourself, without fear of getting trapped under a bar when you’re going for max. Which brings me to my next point.
- Minimal Equipment. All you need is a single bar with some weights on it. You don’t need a bench, a rack, a bunch of dumbbells (though you can use dumbbells as a variation of the deadlift), or anything else to do a deadlift. When compared to other exercises, for the amount of benefits the deadlift provides, you spend very little for what you get from them.
- Cardiovascular System. When performed correctly and with sufficient effort and intensity, the deadlift will severely tax the cardiovascular system during a normal set. You’ll really get that “out of breath” feeling immediately after a set. Your break time is well needed, as your aerobic system plays catch-up before you muster the courage to lift up that bar for another set. The benefits of working your cardiovascular system are numerous and far-reaching, but that’s another article.
- Stability Control. Doing the deadlift is a little like doing a shrug, a leg press, a full back extension, a crunch, leg curl, and a straight-armed pulldown all at once. It’s far different from isolation exercises in the sense that it involves so many muscle groups and multiple joint movements, subsequently recruiting massive amount of stabilizer muscles that otherwise wouldn’t get much stimulation. These little stabilizer muscles are virtually ignored by many in the gym, but they’re critical (in my opinion) to achieving a balanced and functional physique.
- Variation and Versatility. There’s a surprising amount of variations of the conventional deadlift. Some will put more emphasis on the front of your body and the quad muscles, some will put more emphasis on the back half of the body and the hamstrings, but they’re all useful in providing new and necessary stimulus to your body from time to time. From the Romanian Deadlift to the Stiff-Legged Deadlift, they’re all beneficial and worth trying. Not only are there different types of deadlifts, but the deadlift is also unique in that there are variations in training approaches that all have their merits. For example, you can train for speed strength by using light weights (approx 30% of your 1 rep max) at higher velocity. You can train for size and strength using mid-range loading (between 45-70% of your 1 rep max). Or, you can train for maximum power and strength using 1 rep pulls at 90% or more of your effort. All of which are incredibly useful for achieving a wide range of differing goals, making the deadlift an extremely versatile lift.
- Upper Back Mass. This benefit is more from personal experience of myself and my clients. You’ll just have to take my word for it when I say that the deadlift has an unparalleled ability of putting slabs of lean muscle on your upper back. It’s more effective at this than anything else, without doubt. This has the effect of making you look wider, thicker, and more powerful.
- Rate of Force Development. Rate of Force, also known as explosive strength, is an important aspect of athletics and performance. It essentially dictates how quickly someone can develop tension in their muscles. Big lifts that start from a dead stop are superior in training to increase your rate of force, and the deadlift is arguably the best overall exercise that starts from a dead stop.
*Note* – It’s critical that you master proper form when performing the deadlift. Start with low weights, perfect your form, and only then start adding more plates. For tips and advice, have a peek at my post on proper deadlift form.