Should we see the death of the Deadlift?
While the intentions behind the deadlift may be spot on, we should always ask questions about how we might be missing the mark with its application
The deadlift is one of the holy grail exercises to many modern day strength and conditioning specialists. Some even go as far as referring to the deadlift as the king of exercises. Oftentimes deadlifting is described as a “total body movement” and promoted for its ability to promote “general strength”. Some people who aim to be more objective with their approach to lifting may incorporate deadlifts in an attempt to improve posture, reduce back pain, improve activities of daily living, and maybe even help undo what some would call anterior chain dominance in the body.
While the intentions behind the deadlift may be spot on, we should always ask questions about how we might be missing the mark with its application.
In this article we will discuss the physics of a deadlift, discuss its transferability into everyday life, briefly discuss some research findings on the deadlift, and offer some perspective on properly training the posterior chain.
The Physics of a Deadlift and How it Impacts the Body
While the deadlift certainly recruits muscles on the posterior chain, this does not make it an ideal exercise for doing so. In fact, the argument can be made that the deadlift is highly inefficient and mechanically inconsiderate of the posterior chain.
The problem is not the hinging phase of the deadlift, the major problem occurs as the weight is lifted and the torso approaches a vertical position. While tension is somewhat distributed in the posterior chain during the hinging phase of the deadlift, this tensile force transitions into compressive force as the torso becomes vertical and the center of mass (the bar) remains close to the body.
As the body becomes vertical, there is no longer a counter force for the posterior chain the activate against. Because the bar is so close to the body, there is an almost purely vertical compressive force instead. To make up for this, some coaches will cue a squeezing of the glutes in order to keep the posterior chain engaged. What should be considered, however, is that if the motion itself isn’t promoting that muscle contraction to occur, then it may not be an ideal exercise for stimulating that muscle contraction.
Additionally, the posture that can often be observed at the conclusion of the lifting phase of a deadlift is extremely problematic when vertical compression is being placed on the spine. As many people reach the upright position at the end of the exercise, they will often shift the hips forward, hyperextend the lumbar spine, and flex the thoracic spine.
One outcome to consider about this is how excessive shearing force will be applied to the lumbar spine right at the phase of the exercise where posterior chain engagement is lowest and compressive force is highest.
While not all aspects of a deadlift are bad, there seem to be some major flaws in the exercise itself that cannot be fixed with “better form”.
While we at FP do not claim to have the perfect posterior chain exercise completely nailed down, we want to call the general consumers of the health and fitness industry to begin asking better questions about their training.
An exercise designed to better optimize the function of the posterior chain would likely keep the muscles of the posterior chain fully engaged while reinforcing a neutral standing posture and minimizing spinal compression forces.
A quick experiment to perform on your own:
Pick up a weighted object nearby such as a bag, box, pet, child, or dumbbell. You will only need about 20-40 lbs. of resistance to notice the effect here. First, try picking up the object while it remains close to your body. Next, try picking up the same object while keeping your arms fully extended in front of your body. Observe the muscle engagement in your posterior chain and see which variation of this lift seems to recruit more muscles along your posterior chain.
What you may notice is that lifting the object while it is further away from the body requires a higher amount of muscle recruitment along the posterior chain of the body.
The implications of this experiment are NOT that you should carry every object around while holding it away from your body. This would simply be inefficient. The implications are that we could be wasting energy and potentially missing muscles when it comes to posterior chain strength training. As fitness professionals we should be aiming to find training techniques that mimic the demands of reality as closely as possible.
While the exercise outlined in the experiment above may not be an ideal stimulus for the posterior chain, it is likely a better representation of one.
If you have had a chance to try out the FP 10-week online course or the Functional Training System, you have experienced several different exercises that target the entirety of the posterior chain while conditioning the body into a more upright posture and more efficient movement.
Between the online course material and our practitioners around the world, we have consistently showcased reductions in pain, improvements in posture, and muscle mass gains by putting our assertions to the test.
Some Conclusions from Recent Research
Let’s take a look at some research and point out some important observations to consider about the deadlift.
Electromyographic studies have generally shown that deadlifts target the quads and lumbar erector muscles more so than the hamstrings and glutes (S). This provides some support for the assertion that deadlifting is not particularly useful for targeting the posterior chain in its entirety.
While additional cueing during the exercise itself may be able to recruit more muscles along the posterior chain, this does not change how the majority of the posterior chain will progressively disengage as the torso becomes vertical.
Another study found that deadlifts provide minimal improvements in low back pain and may not be beneficial for individuals who have poor lumbar extension capabilities (S). Essentially, this study concluded that deadlifts were somewhat helpful at reducing back pain in people who already had good engagement in their back extensors and who also began with a low indication of pain. On the other hand, someone who has poor lumbar extension capabilities may not experience any benefit.
At the same time, training the posterior chain in a targeted manner is certainly important for reducing back pain. One meta-analysis found that exercises targeting the posterior chain (thoracic extensors, lumbar extensors, and hip extension musculature) were more effective than a generalized fitness routine at addressing lower back pain in adults (S).
Evidence suggests that maintaining proper contraction in the posterior chain muscles is important for mitigating and avoiding back pain. As we previously discussed, the deadlift is not particularly effective at engaging most muscles of the posterior chain.
While some may be inclined to combine deadlifts with other posterior chain exercises in an attempt to create a more balanced training routine, simply implementing more efficient exercises may be the true solution.
The Importance of Using the Posterior Chain to Reinforce a Standing Neutral Posture
As we discussed previously, the vertical position of a deadlift often resembles a kypho-lordotic posture more so than a neutral spine position. This predisposes the spine to more shearing force in the lumbar spine. While there is very little scientific research on the prevalence of the deadlift and its direct causation of injury, the little research that has been done shows the injuries tend to occur in the lower back (S).
With each rep, the body is being conditioned to hit this posture. This will likely have peripheral consequences as the body slowly adapts away from a neutral posture.
At FP we’ve tested the utility of a neutral spine for over 12 years. Stimulating musculature in order to facilitate a more neutral posture consistently reduces pain and helps to address old injuries in the spine.
While the deadlift does have some beneficial aspects to it, it seems likely to have an overall negative impact on posture and movement with time.
Still Planning on Deadlifting? Here’s a Challenge
Exercises that are beneficial for the body tend to create a better posture and decompression in the lumbar spine. Below are some before and after results of people who have put on muscle in a way that has created a more neutral spine and decompression of the lumbar.
We challenge you to take a standing posture photo like the ones shown below from the front, side, and back. Take one now and another after 6 months of deadlifting and observe any changes you see in yourself.
At the end of the day, we all want to find the best way to exercise that builds attractive muscle and keeps the body feeling young as long as possible. Using picture evidence Is one great tool we have to keep ourselves honest and accountable for our decisions in this regard.
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