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How the Deadlift Reclaimed Its Rightful Spot at the Gym

The barbell on the ground in front of me is loaded with every bumper plate I own (585 pounds in all). It’s a rare day for such a heavy feat — heavy for me anyway. And so, I grip the bar with my right hand turned overhand and my left underhand. The plan is to complete five good pulls. A single pull involves moving the barbell and all those attendant bumper plates from the ground to well past my knees (via my brawn, naturally). After each, I’ll pause, reset and reassess.

The pull, of course, has a name: The Deadlift. And anyone who has ever seen it about to be attempted has some basic sense of what will happen next. Whether it was early deadlift stars Hermann Goerner and George Hackenschmidt lifting bars or other mechanical contraptions like health lifts during the heyday of vaudeville strength performances or modern deadlift record-holder Eddie Hall yanking 1,062 pounds’ worth of enormous tires off the ground at the 2015 Arnold Classic, deadlift spectators more than get it: This shit is heavy; this shit is hard.

“It’s one of the few lifts we still see occuring in nature,” says Andy Galpin, a professor at the Center for Sport Performance at California State University, Fullerton, who has conducted extensive research related to the deadlift. “We don’t frequently have to do pull-ups or press things off our chest, but everyone has to bend down to pick stuff up. It’s an uncomplicated movement that’s part of blue-collar jobs — companies are always running ‘safe-lifting’ trainings for legal reasons — and part of the life of anyone who has moved from apartment to apartment.”

The deadlift, however, is as unforgiving as it is uncomplicated — the movement either happens or it doesn’t. Aiming for the former, I take a deep breath to tighten my core and attempt to pull the barbell from the floor. It surges upward. I pop my hip, lock out my knees and put the barbell back down. When it comes to the deadlift, I can’t fake it, I can’t half-ass it, I can’t trick someone else into doing it for me. There’s no gray area. I wanted to lift something heavy, and then I did.

Simplicity itself.

“When you think about a low learning curve and productive efficiency, no other exercise offers as much bang for the buck,” Galpin explains. “And it has only one point of error — the position of the spine, which has to be kept neutral. For trainees, it’s a Day One, Exercise One movement.”

“The first thing you ever do in your life is lift weight off the ground,” adds champion bodybuilder and powerlifter Stan Efferding. “How does any strong person get started? You pick something up, engaging your body to accomplish it. Over time — and it takes a lot of time and effort to get not just strong but mechanically sound at moving things — you feel how every part of your body moves when you’re performing a lift. But it starts with picking something up. That’s where everyone starts.”

In Efferding’s opinion, the history of the deadlift can be told in two stages: the time before legendary powerlifter Ed Coan deadlifted 901 pounds despite only weighing 220 pounds, and everything since. “Coan’s rise through the powerlifting ranks in the 1980s and 1990s coincided with a period when records fell across the board — in every lift and every weight class,” Efferding explains. “The deadlift was no different. Through the 1970s and 1980s, you’ve got big strong guys achieving lifts in the high 700s and 800s. Then Coan does his 901. As the internet made it possible for people from all over to research Coan’s methods, we began seeing more people than ever before participate in a golden age of strength. That means records will keep being set for the foreseeable future.”

But even in this so-called “golden age of strength,” complaints of weakness or pain in the lumbar spine are common for people working desk-bound white-collar jobs. The same for blue-collar workers who don’t properly recruit the muscles in their legs and back while lifting awkwardly-shaped boxes.

Again, that’s where the deadlift comes in. More than anything else, it’s a perfect antidote to these modern ills, fully capable of shaking us free from the slouched-back, rounded-shoulder doldrums of late-capitalist complacency. “Sitting and leaning forward all day are killing you,” says Efferding. “Your endocrine and nervous systems adapt to the lack of strain. Your body atrophies. You need to reboot those systems; you need to rebuild from the ground up.”

Weakness and pain became so unbearable for economist Nassim Taleb, author of the best-selling book The Black Swan, that he began heavy barbell training in late middle age. “An optimal exercise would need to work, in addition to every muscle in your body, every bone as well, by subjecting the skeleton to weight stressors in order to remind it that the external world exists,” Taleb wrote in the foreword for noted powerlifting coach Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength. Here, too, we return to the deadlift as Taleb concluded that nothing was as economical since it maximizes the amount of stress and number of muscles utilized while minimizing the amount of exertion, and maybe more importantly, time in the gym. Loads of “bang for your buck,” as Galpin says.

That said, for most people outside of the powerlifting and weightlifting worlds, deadlifts and back squats were long thought to be dangerous — the former could hurt your back, the latter could hurt your knees. Hoary old men at gyms pushing and pulling on the ropes of universal machines would holler over at youngsters to refrain from such nonsense, and Planet Fitness even installed a “lunk alarm” to prevent the activity.

Then CrossFit, the so-called “sport of fitness,” incorporated deadlifts into various workouts, often at ludicrously high paces, and suddenly all the Johnny-Come-Latelys to the fitness world were, in the words of a musclebear friend, “total lower body queens.” The less said of CrossFit deadlift form — particularly CrossFit Games Director Dave Castro’s horrifyingly bad attempt at a personal best — the better, but suffice to say that churning out repetitions of an exercise meant to be done in economical doses is stupid at best, dangerous at worst.

Simple as the lift is, it isn’t painless, and serious deadlifters develop seriously good, if personal, habits that are partly intended to keep themselves safe while moving heavy loads. Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that I used to laugh at people who used a weight belt, believing that if you needed a belt to help tighten your trunk, you were already approaching the danger zone. Now, however, I understand it’s necessary whenever I’m deadlifting above 600 pounds. Others, like Eddie Hall, are obsessed with straps, which have been used in pretty much every deadlifting record of note.

Form-wise, though, everything else is pretty fungible. (Again, except the number of reps — those need to stay as low as possible.) “All that matters with the deadlift is maintaining a neutral spine, so unless you’re training for some specific strength sport, you can modify the lift in a multitude of ways,” Galpin says. “You can change the spacing of your feet, the position of your hands, the speed of the pull, whatever. For instance, my recent work has demonstrated that you can achieve extraordinary results with the use of resistance bands.”

“Novices can build an entire routine out of variations on the deadlift,” he continues. “They can vary the pace, the intensity, the frequency. You can get cardiovascular training from a deadlift workout that’s programmed appropriately; you can build flexibility from a deadlift workout that’s programmed appropriately. And the appeal for novices is that picking weight up off the ground is very hard to screw up, in terms of deriving a tangible and immediate benefit.”

Most of all, there’s nothing that satisfies the deadlifter like increasing the load. Over a particularly fruitful two-year period at the MetroFlex Gym in Arlington, Texas, I watched my numbers soar skyward: 575 pounds, 600 pounds, 625 pounds, 650 pounds, and finally, a somewhat suspect 675 pounds that I herky-jerked up over my knees.

“You might call those numbers advanced-intermediate, but they’re not advanced,” says Efferding, a world record-setting squat specialist who has a raw deadlift personal best of 837.5 pounds. “Nevertheless, the deadlift — this phenomenally impressive lift from a visual standpoint, because you’re moving a vast amount of weight from a dead stop — isn’t something advanced trainees can do very often, and it’s something I’m especially careful about overdoing.

“The more you load that spine, the more rest you’re going to need. Those huge numbers you’ve seen me and other people doing — they can’t be done all that often. The greatest powerlifters in the world train deadlift about once every three weeks, and they don’t lift more than 90 percent of their max more than twice a year.”

When I press Efferding about what it’s like to move an insanely heavy load off the ground, he answers in a way that helps me better understand my own approach to the lift. “You keep calling it a pull, but it’s not really a pull,” he says. “Think about it, it’s a press, a leg press. On these heavy loads, you’re driving the heels through the ground, pressing through the ground while keeping your upper body stable. In my head, whenever I’m initiating the deadlift, I’m visualizing pressing the bar through the floor. Now, with that in mind, try to imagine moving 800 pounds this way. Imagine the shock, the strain, the impact. Imagine how you’ve felt coming down from 600 pounds, for example. You cannot train to deadlift 800 pounds by deadlifting sets of 700 pounds every week. It can’t be done. Eight hundred pounds is a rare and amazing event, and you have to plan methodically to be ready for it.”

Efferding prefers that his attempts at heavy deadlifts be unaccompanied by any lengthy head-slapping motivational sessions or smelling salts. “It’s all so routine for me now, I don’t need to inhale any ammonia or get slapped on the back,” he says. “But you do need to understand why guys do it. They do it because the sharp hit from the smelling salts or from your buddy is so intense that all that’s in your mind is that tingling — plus the thought of moving the heavy weight in front of you. The form is simple, as I said, but as the weight goes up, the mental strain and the self-doubt increases by a proportionate amount — for some people at least.

“For me, after years of following my carefully planned routines, my mind is already clear when I’m getting ready to do a deadlift. I might get excited afterward, but what I’m doing when I approach the bar is always the same: I’m trying to execute a technically perfect lift. If I don’t, all the preparation was for nothing, at least until enough time has passed when I’m safely prepared to do it again.”

In the end, that’s what brings together all of the extremes about the deadlift — the beginner and the powerlifter; the fact that we’ve been pulling shit off the ground forever and yet are in the worst shape of our lives; the light lift and the 800-pound one; the CrossFit mania and the deliberate pulls that take place once a month (at most). The essence of that message: A clear mind is a necessity as the weight increases — both on the barbell and in life.

Because again, it will reveal everything. “It’s an extraordinary thing to press your feet into the ground and elevate 800 pounds right off the floor,” says Efferding. “It takes everything you’ve got and then demands even more. And you have to clear your mind to answer that call. Pick up that barbell, and show us what you’ve got.”