First published on February 11, 2012
Somebody recently implied that I try to sell pure strength training to everybody. The idea being, I suppose, that I want to convince everybody to engage in maximum strength training and think it is “bad” if they don’t, or, by extension, fail to follow my advice. Well, those who have read my blog extensively, of course, know better, since the “selling of strength” training is something I adamantly oppose and often complain about.
See also: How to Do Deadlifts
Still, I would understand if someone got the idea, for example, that I think everybody should do deadlifts and seek to lift up to 500lbs or more. I absolutely adore the lift, after all, and I tend to align myself with Gray Cook and say “Train the deadlift, maintain the squat”. Not that I agree on the reasons. My reasons are not as high-minded and scholarly, although I think that the deadlift has a much better chance of carrying over to your everyday activities than the squat does, I think that the deadlift is just more awesome and less contrived than the squat. Yes, I know, I blasphemed.
But not only do I not care if you or anyone else deadlifts or not, I am forever amused by some of the “selling” tactics, in the form of deadlift myths, attached to the lift, most of which concern muscle mass. I could get very specific such as “deadlift is the best trap exercise” but that would make for a crazy long and boring list. Here are some of the top related myths:
Deadlifts are Great for Building Big Legs
First, let’s be clear on the language. When we say “legs” we mean upper legs or thighs. Let me tell you straight. If your goal is to have huge wheels, building a big deadlift, or even doing high volume deadlifts, is not an efficient way to do it! Dedicated deadlifters, quite often, have skinny looking legs. Sure, their legs may be bigger than yours but the thighs are all out of proportion to the tremendous back.
Deadlifts contribute to leg development, especially to hamstring, and to some extent, calf development (although that is not what we mean by big legs). But should you go on a deadlift spree, foregoing other lower body exercises, hoping to come out with huge thighs, you are likely to be severely disappointed. No worries though as most would realize before long that things were not really working out.
Big legs require a good bit of volume and workload, so even if the leg musculature was emphasized, it would be difficult to get this through deadlifting alone. And you need much more knee-dominant work, plus auxiliary posterior chain work, to get the job done. So don’t deadlift for big legs; deadlift for a big deadlift. Any other benefits come along as part of the prize. This leads us to a second, broader, statement, that is not as much a myth as an instance of poor reasoning.
See also: Where Should You Feel Deadlifts?
The Deadlift is the Ultimate Muscle Mass Builder
I’ll keep this simple. It makes no sense whatsoever to say that ANY lift is a great muscle mass builder. Basically, saying that the deadlift is a great mass builder, or, as is more often stated, a “superior mass builder” is like saying that one deadlift with 50 pounds on the bar will build more mass than a squat with 50 pounds on the bar. That is, neither will build any mass at all if you don’t progress them. And if you expect prodigious mass, the training parameters you use must be aimed at prodigious mass. There are too many variables that determine whether you will gain mass other than just exercise selection to say that any one lift is better for mass gain.
Sure, you cannot get to a big deadlift without having gained an appreciable amount of muscle. I certainly am not saying that the deadlift is not good for muscle building at all! That is another myth altogether, albeit a rarer one (this article is about “positive” myths). Some will look apparently more muscular than others, after having built a big lift. But let me, once again, be straight with you. If someone has told you that you will look like a huge bodybuilder, or Strongman, by virtue of ONLY building a huge deadlift..they have sold you a bill of goods. It’s a load of crap. Many people can have a big deadlift without people mistaking them for a bodybuilder on the street. Hell, sometimes they may never even realize you lift at all. Everybody is different. So while there are some who tend to grow muscle like it’s grass every time they look sideways at a barbell. Others…not so much. You must be clear on your goals. If your goal really is solely mass related, then by the time you get a 500 pounds deadlift you will likely have wasted a lot of time. However, I would predict that many would have fallen in love with lifting heavy and forgotten all about the mass gaining aspirations along the way. Because that is another little-known reality: People rarely stick to mass building goals for the long haul. It takes a special kind of dedication all its own.
I know what you’re thinking: Deadlifts use the most muscle! Well, see, it takes more than that. Why would a deadlift be different than a full body bodybuilding style program, in terms of “using all the muscles”? You have to attach a special significance to them being used all at once, in a coordinated fashion, in one movement. I will discuss that but understand that I am not saying that big lifts, using bigger muscles and stimulating more muscle per rep is not a very efficient way to gain muscle. What I am saying is that the effect of the deadlift alone has been overstated a great deal, much due to selection bias and some scattered research by biased strength training organizations.
Bodybuilders MUST Deadlift to Get Big
That is BS propaganda. The deadlift is a great addition to a bodybuilding program and it makes for a very efficient one-stop shop, as long as you don’t go on a deadlifting only diet, as stated above. But a pure bodybuilder absolutely is NOT required to do it. What’s funny is that the deadlift, properly performed, is probably more important for helping to protect the bodybuilder from all the other back busting (especially lumbar busting) stuff he/she does than it is to build muscle. Their role in teaching hip drive and keeping the glutes and hamstrings in top working order makes them worth the effort even if you don’t think they add mass. But even then, neglecting the deadlift is not an automatic ticket to back or knee injury.
Growth Hormone (GH) Release
Now, you may have read the stuff about how deadlifts (and squats) cause a greater Growth Hormone release. There is so much more to gaining muscle than transient increases in GH. Again, you have to be clear on your goals and what is needed to reach them, so pay no attention to overstated claims about GH release as while you’re concerning yourself with how much GH a lift is “producing” you are not concerning yourself with lifting, or even exercising. The idea that a deadlift session is like injecting yourself with GH (or Test) is so silly it borders on the ludicrous. The tiny transient increases in circulating hormone are insignificant and mean little in the big picture. Leave biochemistry to the roid junkies and the biochemists, not necessarily in that order.
Also, beware, should you peruse studies on this subject, of just what is meant by ‘significant’. For instance, to say that anabolic hormone release is significantly greater after the deadlifts than after biceps curls is not saying that it is significant overall.
The Deadlift Will Increase Your Strength in Other Exercises, Such as Bench Press
Okay, so you may think that the progression on the deadlift will directly transfer to your squat and help you get stronger on it. While the deadlift perhaps has a better carryover to squat than vice versa, I would not rely on it if your priority is to build your squat and I’ve never understood the motivation for strength trainees to want to do one completely different lift to build another. But this is not the myth I’m talking about. The myth I’m referring to is that, by virtue of increasing GH/Testosterone production, the deadlift will directly make you stronger across the board and you will see this strength demonstrated in other exercises, even the bench press.
Can you imagine how anyone could ever disprove such an assertion? That would be impossible. I don’t mean that can’t disprove the notion that the deadlift increases strength on other lifts without ever performing those lifts. I mean the assertion that when you do increase your various lifts during a strength training program, the deadlift and its anabolic hormone boosting effects have a major role in these increases. Now, go one further. Try to think of a counter-argument against this myth. Even that is hard to do because of the assumption that this hormone release is so very powerful. You have to remove the assumption. This in fact, is one of the more amazing benefits attributed to the deadlift (and the squat), amazing that anyone would believe it! You can never be sure of what exact details leads to an increase in strength in one exercise, except of course, for the performance of that exercise itself. You may be less into fairy tale explanations and like to believe that the deadlifts work your traps and so that will help your bench press. Well, whatever floats your boat but don’t state it as if it is a fact, because you have, like, NO evidence to support your conclusion except for the fact that at one point you lifted x amount on the bench and now you lift xx amount, which the majority of us can say who have bench pressed, whether or not we deadlifted. You can extend that to all exercises, even ones that are direct cross-training.
Sure, other varieties of exercise have a cross-training effect, to some extent, and we rely on this effect, to some extent. But it gets ridiculous when you tell someone that they should perform a punishing exercise like the deadlift because it will give them a bigger bench.
I think these are enough myths for this particular post. I know that many will adamantly disagree, perhaps even be enraged by these statements. Well, these individuals, undoubtedly love the deadlift and will defend it tooth and nail. So I say Rock On, because I love the deadlift too. However, I’ll just bet that some of this will start to get a current flowing in your brain, and you may question whether you want to keep on doing the deadlift. If you ask the question, that could cause you to think harder about your goals and how you hope to achieve them. You might decide that you still love the deadlift and that, my friend, is a good reason to do it. As good as any, I think. Or, you might decide that…You know what, the truth is, I doubt very much that many people would be dissuaded from doing the deadlift by this article because as I hope I’ve made clear, it is just as valuable for mass gaining as any other exercise but simply does not really deserve to be called ultimate, as no exercise does. The main goal of this post, is to lend a balanced perspective and to show that the possibility of other perspectives exists. Before I leave you, I need to touch on what I mentioned above: selection bias.
Selection Bias, Deadlifting, Olympic lifts, and Muscle Mass
Most of the time, when people call up an image to support their stance that the deadlift and the Olympic lifts (and squat) are mass building machines, they will mention big powerlifters or very muscular Olympic lifters. Another tactic is to use the reverse of a few pro bodybuilders with respectable deadlifts. Then they will make a broad generalization based on these populations. When I say powerlifters, I mean those who compete and presumably, are successful enough to have pictures of their big old selves on the internet. And of course it would be the heavy-weights, not the lower weight classes. When I say Olympic lifters, I mean people who do weightlifting in the Olympics! I’m not talking about some guy who calls himself an Olympic lifter because he does power cleans. With the Olympic lifters, all weight classes might be called upon, as long as it’s not one of the upper heavy weights who sport a bit of extra fat. Or more than a bit.
These populations are, obviously, not the general population. But you have to realize that they do not represent the general population either. Looking only at the physiques of elite level lifters, whether Olympic or Powerlifter, creates a bias based on an inadequate “sample”. A great deal of the strength training population is not included, and this would be called a selection bias caused by under-coverage.
Genetic Ability, and Hard Work
Related to this is the question of genetics versus hard work. Many people think that such top-level athletes get to where they are because of genetics instead of hard work. Partly, this is because ability is often confused with skill. Ability has to with the individuals innate aptitude to gain high skill in a particular activity. Ability does not negate the need for hard work, it simply channels the hard work into a more productive and successful outcome. The same can be true of the apparent muscle mass of these athletes. Their genetics allow their bodies to gain a great deal of functional lean mass and this ABILITY to gain such mass may be another factor in their success. You may work just as hard as an elite athlete but never rise to championship status, nor ever display the kind of “natural” muscle mass these champions sometimes do. Yet you and many others are not included in the representative sample that leads people to believe that pure strength training leads to a bodybuilder’s physique.