Keep On Deadlifting

A History of the Deadlift and How the Deadlift Benefits You

The deadlift… a combination of hip extension, lumbar erector isometrics, static grip strength, and intestinal fortitude. Is it the king of all movements or an over-rated exercise in futility? Does this lift deserve the awesome reputation it’s been given, or will it ruin your back?

A few years ago, while I was at the tail-end of my years-long stint of injuries, I decided to pick up kettlebell training. The writings of Pavel and other kettlebell gurus had me in awe and wonder. I thought kettlebells were the holy grail. “Ballistic training” and “maximizing tension” seemed like the ultimate ways to improve fitness. So, a grivevoy enthusiast is what I became.

Not only were none of those “benefits” actually true, I hurt my back training with kettlebells. It wasn’t the fault of kettlebells, per se, but I was still let down by the unnecessary hype. Not long after, I went gung-ho with barbell training and used deadlifts to improve to strengthen my back.

Despite what most lovely medical experts say, deadlifts are an excellent lift that will not only improve your strength and athleticism, but reduce the risk of back injury. That’s right – deadlifts aren’t actually bad for your back. But before I explain why, let’s get into the history behind the deadlift.

The History of the Deadlift – from Ancient Times ’til Now

The story of this beloved lift is an interesting one. The deadlift as we know it currently – using a traditional barbell – was not seen until recent times.

In ancient and post-ancient history, stone lifting was the equivalent of the modern deadlift. Just as it is today, it was a test of brute strength. Many sculptures of ancient Greeks depict stone lifting (Team USA), which may allude to the notion that the act was an admired physical feat in that time period. Chikaraishis were lifting stones used historically in Japan. The practice of Japanese stone-lifting dates back to the 8th century (Japan Union of Sports Sciences, 546–547). In the Basque Country, harri-jasotzaileah is the name of a popular stone-lifting competition, with no known date of origin, but is still performed today. (Wikipedia).

Also, there is the Husafell stone, or the Kvíahellan, which was created by an Icelandic priest from the village of Husafell in the late 1700s to once again test the strength of men. The Husafell stone was 186 kilograms, or 410 pounds, and was not only to be picked up, but carried for a distance (Húsafell). The Husafell stone carry is actually still in practice today, as seen in modern strongman competitions.

The era of the “old-time strongman” is when we began to see the “barbell deadlift”. In the mid-1800s, a French-born strongman by the name of Hippolyte Triat founded a gymnasium in Paris that utilized lightweight barbells for its group classes. Triat’s gym also had a set of heavy dumbbells and barbells.

“How heavy these large barbells might have been and how they were loaded is unknown, although Triat reportedly had a dumbbell at his gym weighing over two hundred pounds.”

Thanks to people’s general fear of heavy lifting, America didn’t see wide-spread use of barbells – or heavy dumbbells – until the turn of the century. It was when the Milo Barbell Company patented and sold the shot-loaded barbell in the early 1900s that barbell training – and the deadlift – took off in America (Todd).

And the 1900s were a grand ol’ time for the deadlift, both in America and elsewhere. Herman Goerner, German strongman and all-around badass, deadlifted 727 lbs, or 330 kilograms, with one hand (Webster). Doug Hepburn of the Great White North deadlifted 800 lbs (O. Smith). American weightlifter/powerlifter/strongman Paul Anderson deadlifted 820 lbs (Murray). Franco Columbu, the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia from Sardinia, deadlifted 750 lbs. at a height of 5’3″ (Columbu). As you can see, some famous mother-effers had some impressive deadlifts in their time.

history of the deadlift

Herman Goerner one-hand deadlifted more than most people can ever deadlift with two hands. How do you feel?

With the founding of powerlifting federations and immense popularity of the sport, the world witnessed even more impressive deadlifts, and the race continues to set higher and higher records. The deadlift surely would not have enjoyed such a substantial historical record had it actually presented substantial danger to the lifter.

Under the same token, if this movement is performed correctly, it is quite safe to perform. Unlike what conventional wisdom tells us, the deadlift offers us a number of benefits.

Benefit #1: The Deadlift Strengthens Your Back (Deadlifts are Bad for You? Not Quite)

The number one fear associated with deadlifts is that they are bad for your back. People who forgo deadlifts before even trying it, despite having a healthy back, often do so because they falsely assume that the deadlift is bad for their back. Yes, it is indeed stressful on the spine, but that is only an issue if: a) your back is already injured, and b) you don’t know how to deadlift properly.

It is logical that tissues respond to stress. One study shows that manual laborers have higher rates of collagen synthesis than sedentary workers (Kuiper et. al). How much movement, and at what intensity, is a damn good indicator at how tough your musculoskeletal system is. There’s not much to argue against this.

Getting back to deadlifts… performing deadlifts will strengthen and injury-proof your back, similar to how any other exercise strengthens and protects your body. If you’re back is already injured, your spine’s ability to handle stress is diminished. Basically, that means a much lesser load is required to force an adaptation in your spine WITHOUT injuring it. So, heavy deadlifts would be simply too much to handle for an injured spine. Still, this doesn’t discount the deadlift as dangerous. It just proves that progressive loading is important. Start light, and slowly add weight.

Technique is another important thing here, as how you perform the deadlift affects how much stress your spine experiences during the lift. In Stuart McGill’s famous book, Ultimate Back Fitness, McGill points out how research indicates that a neutral spine is much more resilient to load than a flexed spine is (McGill, 89). This is why we deadlift with flat backs. It’s simply the safest way to perform it.. Additionally, it drills it in our muscle memory to automatically force our spine into a neutral position before lifting something.

Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance by Stuart McGill.

Do yourself a favor and get this book.

Deadlifts, when performed correctly and in a progressive manner, are the ultimate back-builder.

As a side note: I recommend everyone pick up a copy Dr. McGill’s book Ultimate Back Fitness, which you can get from Amazon. Ultimate Back Fitness covers everything you’d ever need to know about preventing and recovering from back injuries while training for performance. You can check out a review I did for it in this article.

Benefit #2: The Deadlift is the Greatest Builder of Strength

The deadlift involves essentially every muscle in the body, from the neck all-the-way down to the feet. It is a true total-body exercise. Not only that, it allows the lifter to move an awesome amount of weight. Regularly training with the deadlift strengthens all of these muscles, and being that a huge amount of weight is used, its impact on the body is second-to-none.

Dare I call it the best exercise in functional training?!

deadlifts are bad

“Functional training”: the practice of scantily-clad women doing useless exercises.

Some may argue that the squat is the true king in strength-building, but I beg to differ.

There is no cheating or questioning the authenticity of a solid deadlift. It starts off the ground and ends in a lockout with zero hitching. The squat, however, needs to be examined more closely to ensure the lifter isn’t half-assing the lift. It’s quite easy to stop just above parallel in the squat, whereas with the deadlift, you either lock it out or you don’t.

Also, the deadlift begins at a dead-stop, whereas the squat has the advantage of our muscles’ stretch reflex to rebound out of “the hole”. Elasticity is also why powerlifters can squat higher weights using powerlifting gear. There’s essentially no difference in the raw and geared records for the deadlift in the 181-weight class, while there is an approximate 260-lb difference in the squat record between raw and geared (Powerlifting Watch).

The good ol’ deadlift uses essentially every muscle in the body, moves crazy amounts of weight through a large range of motion, and is not the easiest lift to “cheat”. This makes is it the best strength exercise.

Benefit #3: The Deadlift Improves Power and Athleticism

The majority of athletes require fast, powerful movement from the hips (think: sprinters, runners, throwers, footballers, American football players, etc.). Anything that would increase the power and speed of the hip extensors should be used by athletes without a doubt.

Our lovely deadlift is awesome at strengthening hip extension. Now, the deadlift isn’t an amazing display of power, simply because it is a slow lift. Power cleans display much more power than deadlifts do. Does this mean that PCs are better than DLs for athletes?

Not quite. One study has shown how strength training transforms type IIx muscle fibers into type IIa fibers. Basically, they go from “explosiveness” to “strength-endurance”. However, after strength training is ceased, the muscle fibers revert back to type IIx, but in an even greater number than before (Andersen JL).

So, strength training makes you more explosive when used cyclically. Deadlifts make your hips more explosive. Deadlifts improve athleticism. Boom.

Appealing to Authority: Awesome People Who Deadlift Heavy Weight

We all want to be strong. Many strong people deadlift heavy weights. To be strong, we must deadlift heavy weights. (That’s how logic works, right? Haha, just kidding!)

Regardless of how bad that reasoning was, you can’t deny that strong dudes have deadlifted really heavy weights. Check out this list of modern deadlifting feats.

The deadlift and toughness are synonymous.

deadlifts are bad

All these guys make Franco Columbu proud.

Conclusion: the Deadlift is an Amazing Lift, and Naysayers Need to Man Up.

The deadlift is a lift with an awesome history and a nice set of benefits. Aside for those with really bad backs, people who belittle the deadlift for “being too dangerous” need to keep their mouths shut. The deadlift strengthens the back when performed properly and loaded progressively, strengthens the rest of the body, and develops athleticism and power.

Pick up heavy stuff. Do it now.

References:

1. History of Weightlifting. Team USA.  USA Weightlifting. Web.

2. Japan Union of Sports Sciences. Proceedings of the International Congress of Sports Sciences. Kato, Kitsuo, ed. 1966. Print.

3. “Harri-jasotzaileak.Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web.

4. “The history of Husafell.Húsafell. The Húsafell Travel Service. Web.

5. Todd, Jan. “From Milo to Milo: a History of Barbells, Dumbbells, and Indian Clubs.Iron Game History 3.6 (1995). Web.

6. Webster, David B. The Iron Game. Irvine Press. 1976. Print.

7. Hepburn, Doug. Interview with the 1953 World Weightlifting Champion and Pioneer of the Powerlifts. By Robert O. Smith. Viking Athletics. PSU Weightlfting. 2006. Web.

8. Murray, Jim. “Paul Anderson: Superman From the South.” Iron Game History 3.5 (1994). Web.

9. Columbu, Franco. “About [Franco Columbu].” Columbu.com. Web.

10. Kuiper JI, et. al. “Serum markers of collagen metabolism: construction workers compared to sedentary workers.Occupational & Environmental Medicine. 62 (2005): 363-367. Web.

11. McGill, Stuart. Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance. Waterloo, Canada: Backfitpro, 2009. Print.

12. “All-time world historical powerlifting records.” Powerlifting Watch. Web.

13. Andersen, J. L. and Aagaard, P. “Myosin heavy chain IIX overshoot in human skeletal muscle.” Muscle & Nerve 23.7 (2000): 1095–1104.Web.

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2 Comments

  1. Do you think it’s worth doing high repetitions for deadlifts if I want faster/stronger hip movement for grappling?

    I do Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and having good hips would really pay off.

    • High reps would be better if you need hypertrophy or if your deadlift simply needs extra work (i.e. 5×10 deadlifts in 531 boring but big). I would err on the side of intensity, then taper it into power cleans to actualize the increased power you get from training deadlifts.

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