by John Grimek (1962)
In spite of some opposition to the deadlift by a few authorities in the past, the deadlift is still one of the finest exercises for any barbell man to include in his training. But the name "deadlift" has a strange, ominous ring to all who are not familiar with weight training, although many comedians have kicked it around here and there and gotten some laughs with it. In spite of its name being the butt of an occasional joke there are many varieties of this exercise that exert tremendous influence upon the body when employed regularly, either as a muscle and strength developer or a remedial exercise.
For some reason the importance of this exercise over the years has been overlooked, and today only a small proportion of all weight lifters include this movement regularly in their training. The few who employ it do so primarily as a back strengthener and conditioner. Many bodybuilders have the impression that it has no particular value for them. This conclusion is wholly unjustified. Those who share this conclusion are foolishly depriving themselves of a fine exercise. However, when this exercise, the regular deadlift, is used faithfully it has exceptional merits in keeping the back strong and the spine flexible . . . something we all need.
Actually the deadlift is one of the oldest exercises known in body culture. At one time this exercise appeared in all training courses, most of which proclaimed it to be the finest all-round exercise for the body, putting greater emphasis on it as a back conditioner and overall power builder. And even today among the better informed this opinion still exists; only actual lifting movements are comparable. When this exercise is worked regularly it serves to develop those two cable-like muscles, the erector spinea, that run along each side of the spine (from the head down to the hips) better than any other exercise except, and I repeat, the quick lifting movements. All these movements and exercises, such as the deadlift, serve to develop and strengthen the entire back. This is important since this is the region where weakness is first felt by most persons. Yet this region can be kept strong and flexible throughout life with proper training, and especially with some of the exercises mentioned here.
The real truth of the matter is that very few people give their backs any consideration. It is only when they get "laid up" with a backache that they begin to realize the necessity of keeping the back strong and flexible. Exercise is always thought of by the uninitiated as a means to fight off accumulated weight to which most of us are so easily susceptible in this society, but exercise is just as important in keeping the muscles toned up and strong so they can oppose the pull of gravity upon the body. Once the muscles lose their tonicity they are subjected to many injuries, and the muscles of the back seem to be the most prone to injury when we choose to allow them to weaken. This weakness is reflected in the numerous cases of ruptured disks we so frequently hear about these days. But if the muscles along the spine and sides were kept strong such back conditions would be much less frequent. And when there is weakness in the lower back the pressure between the vertebrae is increased, thus breaking down the disks and resulting in what is commonly known as a "ruptured disk." Confinement with traction usually follows, augmented by heat, massage and medication. When improvement fails, surgery is often called for, with varying results.
Most people are unaware that the spinal column is made up of approximately 33 vertebrae and arranged in such a way as to provide maximum bending movement in all these segments except the coccyx region. Each vertebra is bound and kept in place by strong ligaments. Through this column passes the spinal cord, the nervous system of the body, with nerves passing through this column to every section of the body. Any subluxation of the spine can cause pain, making any movement very uncomfortable. Strengthening the muscles in and around this area will help to keep the back in better condition and thus prevent future backache. As pointed out earlier this can be accomplished with the deadlift variations given herein, all of which work these muscles and will safeguard you from back miseries.
Naturally the question of body proportions and structure governs anyone's ability to perform a commendable deadlift. A fellow with proportionately long arms, regardless of height, will always outlift the shorter armed fellow if both are of approximately the same strength (and determination). His longer arms allow him to get into a better position to pull on the weight; neither does he have to lift the weight as high, but just barely above the knees. For a time many were of the opinion that fellows with shorter legs and longer upper bodies would make the ideal deadlifters. I always doubted this. Instead I felt that a man with longer legs and a shorter back would be better suited for lifting heavier poundages in this lift. My reason for this conclusion, and you'll probably agree with me if you analyze the movement, is that most of the lifting is done with the legs, and a shorter back with longer legs permits a better position to be assumed for making a heavy deadlift. And because the torso is shorter less strain is placed on the back in straightening up. A fine example of this was the featherweight lifter John Terry. At a bodyweight of slightly over 130 pounds he deadlifted around 600. Terry wasn't a tall man by any means - around 5'2" - but his legs were long for his height, as were his arms. His arm span equaled that of the average 5'10" man, and when he completed the deadlift the weight was only an inch or two above his knees.
In fact, most men with longer backs are more flexible than those who are shorter in this region. This explains why so many longer legged fellows are unable to touch their toes (unless they have unusually long arms) as the shorter men can do. Many long legged men are unable to lower the weight past their toes in the stiff legged deadlift, while those with longer torsos can do this without too much trouble. Consequently, body mechanics do help to make it easier for one individual to do the stiff legged deadlift, while another finds the regular style of deadlifting easier and more appropriate.
Some bodybuilding authorities in the past had the opinion that too much stretching and stiff legged deadlifting help to overstretch the spine and the ligaments that bind the vertebrae. Personally, I don't think this is a serious as it may sound. Actually, all the muscles, tendons, and ligaments become stronger with use, and if this is ever overdone an injury is likely to result, not merely an overstretching of these parts. Nevertheless, there is no point in overdoing any exercise. The object of regulated training should be towards the improvement of the body, and not to injure or debilitate it!
Let us analyze some of the methods of deadlifting exercises and learn which muscles such exercises activate.
Regular Deadlift: in this lift the back, legs and hips bear the brunt of the movement. Also activated are the shoulders, trapezius, biceps, abdomen and the grip.
Stiff Legged Deadlift: All the muscles mentioned in the previous lift, plus the buttocks and all the muscles located on the rear of the legs from the buttocks down to the heels.
Bendover or Good Morning Exercise: This one is similar to the stiff legged variety so far as similar muscles are concerned, but less weight is used to accomplish this. Because the weight is held on the shoulders behind the neck the leverage is vastly increased. Certain individuals prefer this variety to the stiff legged deadlift. Both are good developing exercises.
Deadlift by Holding Rims of Plates: A fine novelty of the regular deadlift that requires strong fingers and an exceptional arm span. Affects almost the same muscles as the regular deadlift, though the latissimus dorsi is involved somewhat. Grip and arm span remain a big factor in this lift.
Straddle Deadlift: Some men can do more in this variety than in the regular deadlift. You begin in exactly the same way as you would in doing the straddle (Jefferson) lift, except the weight is lowered until it touches the floor and the back is rounded. Although the upper and lower sections are strongly involved, the legs and trapezius are vigorously involved.
Isometric Deadlift: All muscles as described above in all varieties.
Now, which exercises among this group should you do? That's entirely up to you and what you wish to accomplish. You may have noticed that most lifters use either the regular deadlift, the straddle type of deadlift, and isometric pulls for power building. Bodybuilders, on the other hand, favor the stiff legged variety because it reacts favorably upon the muscles and is an excellent conditioner. In any case, if you want to keep your back strong, flexible and free from annoying misery, now and in the future, this is the time to start and continue to exercise your back regularly.
It's always a good idea to finish off your deadlifting with an extra strong pull on the power rack, or to handle a weight that is near your limit. However, and I want to emphasize this point, always warm up your back before attempting anything that is near your limit. The powerful muscles of the back respond best, for bodybuilding purposes, when 8-10 repetitions are used, even more in some cases. But for strengthening purposes and building overall power, 1 to 5 reps with limit poundages and repeated for 3 or more sets should be used.
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