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The truth about deadlifts and program design


When discussing the most difficult resistance exercises to do… well, there's no doubt that squats and deadlifts are at the top.

Both movements are complicated to master, and both create a specific systemic intensity that cannot be matched by other exercises. The deadlift is a particularly complicated exercise. Because the traditional deadlift begins from the floor it is very easy to perform incorrectly, and there is no “pre-load” to it. This invites injury.

And what's more: doing max load traditional deadlifts makes it tremendously easy to overtrain – so scheduling the max-load deadlift in a program takes skill and know-how.

In fact, max-load deadlifts are known as the most difficult exercise to recover from. Where and how they fall in a program becomes key to their effectiveness.

Deadlifts done too often and with max efforts can kill an otherwise effective program as well.
Moreoever, it’s not just the question of the ‘inclusion’ of deadlifts in a training program, but their proper ‘execution’ as well. Max effort/max load deadlifts will sap recovery and strength. And if you are still doing other intense exercises such as squats, rows, and so on in a program with a max load deadlift focus – these other exercises will suffer as well. This produces a cascade of negative effects that can lead to overtraining, injury, or both.

If you are going to include the deadlift in volume-based programs (not strength programs) then in terms of execution the deadlifts should never be done anywhere near close to failure.

In fact, I advise most of my clients to leave a 3 or even 4 reps window of how to gauge load and intensity.

That is to say – when I assign deadlifts in a program I caution my clients to choose a weight for the prescribed reps where they “feel” they could have at least done 3 or even 4 more reps: And that is the correct way to approach loading parameters when using deadlifts in volume-based training protocol. The traditional deadlift is not the exercise where you want to test “how much you can lift!”

That will lead to disaster.

The proper execution and use of the deadlift

And let’s talk actual execution of the deadlift itself: specifically hand positioning and grip.

Now I'll put forth something totally heretical:

Anyone able to do the deadlift well will likely need lifting straps to do so; actually, I highly recommend them for the deadlift!

But pay attention here: almost all of you who will use the deadlift in a program are NOT powerlifters, so the double-overhand grip is all you need for deadlift training.

You do not need to execute the deadlift as powerlifters do!

The competition powerlifting grip style for the deadlift means one supinated hand position and one overhand grip position while deadlifting.

This simply isn’t necessary for getting the most out of the deadlift within training protocol. Supinating one hand for grip puts one shoulder in internal rotation and the other in external rotation. This produces an imbalanced asymmetrical position and creates specific shoulder joint strain that some trainees just don’t tolerate well. I know: I was one of them.

This competition grip just isn’t necessary or required or beneficial to accrue full training benefits from utilizing the deadlift in your training. So, unless you are a competitive powerlifter then the double overhand grip is all you will ever need for executing the deadlift.

In strength-training based programs or powerlifting programs the systemic “toll” the deadlift takes on the body is readily acknowledged. In most of these types of programs deadlifts are therefore usually done right after squats. And the systemic toll deadlifts have on the body in terms of demand and recovery is so respected that often one single “work set” is considered to be enough “stimulus” when working the deadlift in a program. Of course here I am referring to the traditional deadlift which means lifting from the floor – not from the standing upright position as in the RDL version.

However, if a trainee is not using deadlifts in a strength-based program and never going to failure either – as in leaving that 3-4 reps window of range of success I discussed above (recommended) – then a “weights constant” approach can also be used in the deadlift as long as the deadlift is not “overused” in a program. It’s important to embrace that there can be tremendous metabolic and kinetic chain benefits to performing deadlifts and its variations – beyond just attending to it as a “powerlifting” or “strength training” exercise. To think of deadlifts only with this “strength-training” mindset is just nearsighted and incomplete. (for more on “weights constant” see my book The Abel Approach

If we break these effects down then it begins with acknowledging the inner influences on the movement. Just like the traditional squat the traditional deadlift has a main effect with the involvement of the hip extensors -> namely, the glutes, the hamstrings and adductors. As I’ve always lectured the “alphabet” of the biomechanics of training is 1) the ground, 2) gravity, and 3) the body. What is different between the traditional squat and the traditional deadlift is the “gravitational” pull – and the second difference is “the body” working the deadlift from the floor and overcoming inertia to do so. But the most “involved” muscles are still those of the hip extensors and the proprioceptive demands within the movement itself.

What all this is saying is that the deadlift and its variations can have many benefits in a well-designed training protocol. HOWEVER – what this is also saying is that not every trainee “needs to” do max load “heavy” deadlifts. This is just another one of those “myths” reinforced by “tradition” that keeps getting repeated decade after decade in training lore. And in terms of utilizing the deadlift in a program designed for muscle development and NOT for pure max-load strength – then the RDL deadlift, starting from the full stand-up position – is preferred over the traditional standard deadlift from the floor in the Sumo position. And in terms of utilizing the deadlift “motion” for general fitness benefits – Dumbbell Deadlifts – with DB’s hanging at the sides and not in front – still offer the benefits of the metabolic effects and kinetic chain effects of the deadlift “movement” without the spinal compression and lower lumbar risks of injury of the traditional barbell deadlift from the floor.

The Hard Gainer’s Solution as Example


So while there are many benefits to including the deadlift in various training protocols there are many considerations and caveats as well. To reiterate – the recovery demands of the deadlift (especially max-load deadlifts from the floor) are far more extensive and systemic than all other exercises.

And this needs to be considered in program design as well as in instruction for application as well. Outside of strength-based programs – application and execution of the deadlift should be always performed well short of failure. But this still doesn’t mean the deadlift should be “required” in all programs. Because it is so easy to overtrain the deadlift – it is one reason I excluded it entirely from my Hard Gainer’s Solution project.

Complete recovery is a major concern for the hard-gainer demographic – and since the traditional deadlift is the most difficult exercise to recover from, then including it in the Hardgainer Solution's program design simply doesn’t pass the risk/benefit assessment for long-term progress.

Furthermore, since The Hard Gainer Solution also advocates consecutive daily training if possible, then this consideration also compounds leaving the deadlift out of this program. Remembet, the major effects of the traditional deadlift are  systemic. The traditional deadlift does not isolate and load any specific bodypary very well. The Hard Gainer Solution program is about developing the physique, so systemic overload – like in traditional deadlifts or like in a Power Clean etc. — are “secondary concerns.”

And I need to also reiterate here that because of these intense recovery requirements – if rows, squats, presses etc are all included in the training for the Hard Gainer, then also including the traditional deadlift into this mix could produce an overtraining/lack of recovery cascade I mentioned previously.

Furthermore, because of the kind of direct spinal compression and loading from the deadlift on the lower lumbar – and because The Hard Gainer Solution advocates daily workouts – this is yet another “intelligent” reason not to include the traditional deadlift in such a program. Tiring out the lower lumbar area – and directly overloading it this way would just create unnecessary risk in such a program.
Now – is this to say that if someone identifies himself as “a hard gainer” then that trainee should never do deadlifts? NO! That is NOT what I am saying at all. What I am saying is that in the Hard Gainer Solution “program” – deadlifts are not included because of the design and targeted effects of that specific program. A hard-gainer who graduates from this program could of course find the deadlift to be useful and applicable in other programs.

So while the deadlift can be a vital and viable exercise – it doesn’t mean it “has to be” included in every program.

It is an even bigger mistake to perceive the deadlift through the eyes of max-load traditional strength-training Sumo-style “lifting.”

Just because an exercise is “great” doesn’t mean it must be included in every program.