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Back Development with Deadlifts

The term 'deadlift' when uttered in the gym is synonymous with dread and trepidation. Those who have incorporated deadlifts in the past know about the intense effort that is exerted on this single exercise. From the difficulty and time setting up to perform the exercise to the exercise itself, many trainers have simply forgone this exercise altogether in favour of performing other exercises targeting the same muscle groups. Some people have even reported that the deadlift is dangerous. However many of these claims are unsubstantiated and are more likely due to poor form than actual biomechanical reasons. The deadlift, when understood and performed correctly is able to provide similar benefits as other compound exercises such as the squat and bench press.

Compound Exercises For Strength Gains

Compound exercises like squats, bench presses and deadlifts are termed so because they employ a variety of muscle groups in order to complete the exercise. To observe the benefits of compound exercise, all you have to do is observe powerlifters who during competition are focused on these 3 exercises and whose strength is unsurpassed in the sporting community. In the extreme case of powerlifters, they often forego muscular size and endurance for strength, however, incorporation of compound exercises to your workout can be beneficial to achieving well rounded results in all three areas of strength, size and endurance. Compound exercises are also known for its ability to affect functional strength. Most activities that we do throughout the day aren't single joint exercises and incorporate a large range of muscles. Simple things such as rising out of bed and walking are good examples. Use of compound exercises builds up functional strength which is more relevant in terms of long term health benefits than single joint exercises which are used for definition and muscular symmetry. Two primary benefits of compound exercises include:

  • The recruitment of a greater amount of more muscle fibres through activation of more motor neurons
  • The release of increased amounts of testosterone and growth hormone - more so than single joint exercise1

Famous Supporters of the Deadlift

  • Terry Hadlow was the only non-communist-bloc weightlifter ranked in the top eight in the World in the eighties. He attributed his strength, particularly in his lower back, to the deadlifts he performed under the supervision of his coach in his teenage years.
  • Gustavo Badell, an IFBB professional bodybuilder who placed 3rd in the 2004 Mr Olympic after placing 24th two years previously is a strong advocator of deadlifts and his exceptional back, glute and hamstring development can be attributed to this compound exercise.

Anatomy of the Deadlift

The prime muscles involved in the deadlift are the:

  • Leg Posterior Muscles - Calves
  • Thigh Posterior Muscles - Hamstrings
  • Gluteus Maximum (Butt)
  • Lower Back Muscles
  • The hamstrings, glutes and lower back muscles act as hip extensors during the concentric phase of the exercise, while the calves are activated as a stability mechanism.

Deadlift Technique Tips

  • One of the common mistakes of performing deadlifts is not keeping a straight/neutral back. Because of the nature of the exercise with contributions from the weight, forward flexion of the trunk can occur which is hazardous as it places extreme forces onto your spine and veterbrae. Without getting into the specifics of what happens, the general idea is that flexion of the trunk during the down phase can cause a violent movement of the discs on the up phase of the exercise. As a result of this, a herniated mass can develop leading to a herniated disc, an extremely debilitating condition which may affect your ability to work out drastically.

  • Another tip for performing a perfect risk-free deadlift is to keep the barbell close to your legs. This ensures that your arms are not so far in front of you that it causes your trunk to flex which as specified above could have drastic consequences on your spine. In addition, it is important to contract your diaphragm and the deep muscles of the torso to increase the intra-abdominal pressure. This has been shown to reduce the forces on your erector spinae (back muscles) and also the compressive forces on your verterbral discs. However, it is important to note that many trainers resort to the Valsava manouevre which is where one is holding their breath. While this method can also increase the intraabdominal pressure, it also leads to negative effects on the blood vessels leading to dizzyness and even fainting. Therefore it is important to know how to contract the muscles to increase the intra-abdominal pressure rather than use of Valsava.

  • How Can I Improve My Range of Motion With Deadlifts? By widening your grip, as well as standing on a platform, you can increase your deadlift range of motion. The use of this exercise in this manner has helped many Olympic level athletes in sprinting and bobsledding drastically improve their results.

Deadlifts For Muscle & Strength

As mentioned previously, deadlifts are a sure fire way to increase your strength, especially your functional strength. Because of the exercise's ability to recruit more muscle fibres, you are able to activate and work out these muscles. As extra force produced is directly related to greater muscle recruitment, by working all your muscles, you are able to lift more and produce more force and therefore have greater strength. By utilising more muscle fibres, you are also able to generate more muscle damage which translates to increased muscle size. Coupled with the increased testosterone and growth hormone release due to the increased exertion on the body, these anabolic hormones are crucial for activating the processes for muscle protein synthesis.

Deadlift Benefits

Deadlifts is a powerhouse in working some of your three of your biggest muscle groups including you glutes, hamstrings, lower back and one minor but very important muscle - the calves. So if you seek increased muscle growth or functional strength, which this author believes most bodybuilders are, the addition of properly performed lower-range deadlifts to your repertoire may well be the trick to get the gains you've been striving for.

1 Kraemer WJ, Gordon SE, Fleck SJ, Marchitelli LJ, Mello R, Dziados JE, Friedl K, Harman E, Maresh C, Fry AC.'Endogenous anabolic hormonal and growth factor responses to heavy resistance exercise in males and females.' Int J Sports Med. 1991 Apr;12(2):228-35.

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