Breath new life into your strength and muscle gains with quite possibly the best exercise every invented — THE BARBELL DEADLIFT!
Still looking for that elusive “magical” exercise?
You know…the one move that holds the key to building maximum muscle?
As a beginner you probably spent time scouring muscle magazines and querying longtime gym rats, only to find a tremendous difference of opinion as to what works best.
But if you were to ask champion bodybuilders and the world’s top strength coaches, they’d agree that the barbell deadlift is, in fact, among the top exercises you can do to pack on size. In terms of adding quality mass, it’s the one move you can’t afford not to do.
Texas pro Johnnie Jackson, winner of the 2006 Montreal Pro Classic and considered one of the sport’s strongest men, credits the barbell deadlift as the definitive key to his densely muscled physique.
says Johnnie, who deadlifted more than 770 pounds before he became a pro bodybuilder. “I developed so much thickness in my back, legs, and even my chest and shoulders through deadlifting.” It’s a total-body exercise. “I think it’s the single best move for building size, and it can’t be duplicated by other exercises,”
he continues. “Many trainers tend to overlook the barbell deadlift because it’s a difficult exercise in terms of both technique and effort, but it’s the toughest test of strength you can do–a real strain that challenges your willpower as you try to keep correct form.”
Former competitive powerlifter David Sandler, MS, CSCS, a strength coach on the faculty at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and president of StrengthPro Inc., agrees.
“Although it’s a technical lift that takes time to master, you’ll definitely see dramatic strength increases in your legs, hips, and back. It’s one of the absolute best moves you can do overall in terms of building explosive strength, especially from a sports perspective.”
Another compelling reason to include the barbell deadlift in your training has to do with the anabolic hormones testosterone and growth hormone. Research shows that exercises utilizing the most muscle groups create the highest release of these two critical compounds, both of which are key for prompting muscle growth.
Along with the squat, the barbell deadlift is an optimal choice of exercise if your goal is to recruit the maximum amount of muscle at one time in a synchronized effort.
All For One
From a simplistic point of view, the barbell deadlift is nothing more than one of life’s most basic tasks – squatting down and picking something up. But on a physiological level, it’s far more complex.
Sandler, who deadlifted more than 620 pounds himself during his competitive days, says the move requires several large muscle groups to work in a coordinated fashion. In fact, the deadlift is almost the same as doing leg presses, back extensions, lying leg curls, calf raises, ab crunches, gripping exercises, straight-arm pulldowns and shrugs–all at the same time.
“You have to keep your midsection tight throughout the move so it brings in the abdominals and low back, and focuses mostly on the hips and legs–glutes, hams, low back, quads, even calves,” Sandler explains.
“While I wouldn’t call it my first choice in the lat movements, just hanging on to the bar and keeping your torso tight also works your rhomboids and lats, and your grip strength is going to increase tremendously as well.”
Unlike the other two major lifts, the squat, Romanian deadlift and the bench press, the deadlift movement starts from a purely concentric position, meaning you don’t get a pre-stretch of the working muscles that effectively increases total force output. “since you aren’t preceding the move with an eccentric movement, that in and of itself takes some good strength and quick muscle-fiber recruitment to pull the weight,” Sandler says.
Don’t underestimate the importance of using good form. “The technique’s not as difficult as the squat, but people will commonly start rising up with their hips first instead of simultaneously extending their hips, knees and trunk,” Sandler says.
“Concentrate on keeping the bar tight to your body, and maintain an upright torso position even when you’re bent over. This means your chest is out, your abs are drawn in and your elbows are locked the whole time so you don’t lose force in the extension phase. Practice it over and over again until it becomes second nature.”
Sandler says what inevitably happens is that individuals try to load up too much weight too quickly. “When you pile on the weights, you’re no longer able to focus on technique.
Keep those light weights on the bar and really work at it until you get good.” Since barbell deadlifts already put tremendous strain on the low back, including the discs, you may not be able to include them in your routine if you have low-back problems.
Even though variations of the barbell deadlift focus on various muscle groups, the moves do have a number of commonalities.
“The differences relate to body position–how far apart your feet are, and how much your hips and knees are flexing–but that doesn’t change basic lifting technique,” Sandler notes. “The variations simply affect which muscles get worked.”
Each version requires you to keep your chest way up, shoulders retracted and abs tight. Bar position is also important. The bar has to stay close, literally dragged up your shins to your quads.
“For every inch the bar is away from your body, that much more force is multiplied onto your spine and other areas. Biomechanically, you could be talking about tremendous additional force on you body the farther away the bar is, and that ratchets up the risk of injury.”
Ultimately, doing deadlifts is a measure of how badly you want to put on size. Sandler says, “The serious lifters are doing them, but you’ve got to start with a light weight to really get the technique down, and there are a lot of guys who don’t want to be seen using very light weights.”
If you’re willing to put in the hard work and have the discipline to stick it out–and we’re confident that you do–you’ll be using your new deadlift knowledge to bring new muscle gains to life.
Love the conventional? Try the Romanian deadlift for added variation.