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For some guys, it’s the king of all exercises. For others, it’s a ticket to pain and suffering. Find out if the deadlift is right for you
I REMEMBER THE EXACT MOMENT I DUMPED the deadlift. It was a Tuesday in March 2016. I was three months into a six-month programme to hit my goal of deadlifting 160kg. Fourth set, 85 loaded on the bar.
My first and second reps: clean. Third rep: I noticed a tiny, unnerving shift in the right side of my lower back.
Then the hurt began. It spread across my lower back like a toxic puddle of pain. Kicked-by-a-mule, knife-sharp, what-the-hell-just-happened pain. That’s it, I vowed as I curled into a foetal position on the gym floor. I don’t care who says this is the king of all exercises. I’m a certified trainer and movement specialist, and I just can’t pull off this friggin’ exercise without hurting myself. I’m done with it.
That was the fourth time in 10 years the deadlift had me flat on my back for a day or longer. It wasn’t serious; a doctor found no herniations or major trauma. But given my history, he said, perhaps I should consider easing up on deadlifting. It was the same suggestion I’d gotten from other doctors after my past injuries.
Finally I was ready to heed the advice of the experts. It felt like breaking up with the gorgeous but crazy girlfriend. Our long love affair with this borderline abusive move is a storied one: on the Greek island of Santorini, a 480kg stone bears the inscription “Eumastas, son of Critobulus, lifted me from the ground.” The words are said to be 2 500 years old. Today, inspired perhaps by heavy-lifting-based training methods like powerlifting and CrossFit, some 2 million aspiring Eumastases have paid tribute to the art of the #deadlift on Instagram.
Make no mistake: if you can perform it safely, the deadlift is a terrific move. Trainers classify it as a “hip hinge” exercise. It targets your glutes, lower back, and hamstrings, but in truth it hammers nearly every muscle in your body, including your upper back, quads and traps. It also strengthens your grip.
Pulling all that muscle mass at once has systemic benefits as well. “Anytime you use that much muscle in one movement, you’re working your cardiovascular system and burning a ton of fat too,” says Ben Bruno, an LA-based trainer. As the morbid name suggests, however, there’s a dark side to deadlifting. According to exercise physiologist Dean Somerset, some people just don’t have the anatomy to do deadlifts without risking injury.
One limiting factor, says Stuart McGill, the author of Back Mechanic, is the thickness of your spine. That’s a trait you inherit. The thicker your spine, the heavier the load the bones in your back can handle, while a thinner spine is more flexible but can’t handle heavier loads consistently. Another critical factor is hip structure. Some people have thigh bones that sit farther back in their hip sockets, Somerset says, so when they try to hinge forward, the sockets essentially act as doorstops. “That makes it harder for them to get into the correct setup position for the deadlift,” he says. It also greatly increases the lifter’s odds of straining, pulling, or herniating something when he performs the exercise. It’s hard to definitively verify spine thickness or hip structure without an MRI. But either trait can help explain an unusual and stubborn deadlifting handicap.
Based on factors like these, Somerset concludes, “10 to 20% of the population may not do well with the deadlift no matter how you coach it.” That’s a pretty hefty slice of the weight training population who can’t – or shouldn’t – tangle with this so-called essential exercise. My years of courting deadlift-related disaster have led me to conclude that I’m probably in that 10 to 20%. Here’s how you can figure out if you are too.
If your back gets cranky when you do deadlifts, the first step is to check your form and mobility: It’s entirely possible that a few minutes of self-coaching or a few weeks of stretching could pay off in big numbers for you. But suppose your form and mobility check out and you still can’t deadlift from the floor or from a rack without pain. In that case, your problem may be anatomical. That’s significantly tougher to solve. If you do decide to throw in the towel, there are lots of great alternatives, says Craig Rasmussen, a competitive power lifter. “There’s no reason to be heartbroken just because you can’t do one exercise.” Somerset agrees. “When you’re chasing one exercise, there’s a point of diminishing returns. You could spend six months trying to figure out what’s going on with your deadlift, or you could spend six months training hard using other exercises that don’t cause you pain and suffering.”
I’m going for the second option. Sure, I could get an MRI and a full physiological workup. I could go for counselling with a sports performance psychologist in case the problem is in my head, another possibility Somerset mentions. But why go to all the trouble? I’m as interested in exceptional fitness as anyone, but I’m not a power lifter. For me, the deadlift is just a tool and not an end in itself. Now that I know this particular tool doesn’t work for me and actually hinders my progress toward better health and more strength, it’s easy enough for me to throw it away and use different tools that work better.
If an exercise doesn’t work for you, move on. Sometimes discretion in the weight room is the better part of valour.