The subject of this article is the amount of deadlifts you can do, or, as some would have it, that you should be allowed to do during one workout. Specifically, it is often stated that you should only ever do 1×5 deadflits, that is, one set of five reps. Here, I’ll be discussing why only one set of deadifts is so often recommended and whether this recommendation is a good one. Is one set of deadlifts really enough to get as strong as possible on the lift?
I’ve been complaining a lot about the idea that nobody except competitors “should” ever lift max weights. I think you know why I put the word should in quotes: Because it speaks of values. What you can do is much different than what you should do. Should overlay’s a set of values on what you do. You CAN do many things that perhaps you should not do, according to this set of values. On the other hand, some people’s values should be kept to themselves. The prevailing opinions about how many deadlifts you can do per week or per day have everything to do with values!
One Set of Deadlifts and 5×5 Programs
Over and over and over again people repeat a silly little myth about deadlifts. It stems primarily from what people do on 5×5 programs and all the variations of 5×5 programs but it has found its way past the needs of one way of programming full-body workouts into a general statement about deadlifting volume for all trainees…pretty much regardless of circumstances. It is not only given as a recommendation but stated as an absolute rule.
Why is Only One Set Recommended?
I cannot sum up all the reasons for this belief about deadlift volume but most of the time, no credible reason is given. When the perpetrators of this myth don’t just quote their favorite authority figure they usually stick to a number of common premises which I will refute in the paragraphs to follow.
To start, let’s deal with the authority figure. If someone says “so and so says you can only do 1×5 and they know more than you” or some such thing this is an “appeal to authority.” It is a non-argument. Ignore it and ask the person who made the statement to provide some well-reasoned explanation to back up their statements based on the circumstances at hand. You are not saying their authority figure is wrong, you are only saying that appeal to authority in an of itself is not a strong argument (it’s not always a fallacy) unless the claimant can actually explain the reasons for the statement convincingly.
Given this, here are the common premises those authority figures, at least to my knowledge, generally give:
Deadlifts Deplete the CNS So It is Unsafe to Do More than One Set (of 5 reps)
In full, the argument is that deadlifts, by virtue of the weight you lift and the number of large muscle groups that come to play, “deplete the CNS” and thus must be kept to one set. It is unsafe and/or unnecessary to do more than five reps. So, where’s the proof that deadlifts do something dramatic to the CNS? There is no proof because there is no concrete explanation of what it means to “deplete the CNS”. What are we depleting? What substance? ACH?
This concept of depleting the CNS is very often referred to as neural fatigue. What is neural fatigue? Is it some change in the central nervous system (CNS) motor drive or a failing neuromuscular transmission? How do you measure it and monitor it? How is it affected by other exercises, volume, frequency, overall intensity, etc.? While there are proposed definitions of “neural fatigue” there nothing based on a direct observance of what it is or, in other words, the definitions are not really descriptive of the underlying physical process.
Always keep this in your back pocket. When someone throws terms at you without explanation, as for explanation. If they can’t provide it then they have failed to argue their case. Terms mean nothing without a clear understanding of what they stand for. Neural fatigue, central fatigue, CNS burnout, frying your CNS, and all the related nonsense is something I’ve discussed, and debunked, again and again in various articles. Here, I’ll sum it up by saying that our evidence to date seems to show that even the highest intensity protocols you can imagine produce strength decreases due to changes in the peripheral musculature and not due to changes in central neural drive to the muscles.
Deadlifts Hurt the Lower Back Unless You Only Do One Set
Deadlifts are murder on the lower back, we are told. Too many deadifts are so harmful to the lower back that if you do more than one set you are guaranteed a lumbar injury.
All this is based on NOTHING but anecdotal evidence and circular thinking. Deadlifts seem no tougher on the lower back than squats to me, and to many others, but then again, I know deadlift. This is a case of “speak for yourself”, I think.
You must realize that deadlifts are the bastard child of strength training. They tend to be viewed in a vacuum without any consideration of the training that surrounds them. People are always, for instance, finding that deadlifts are bothering their back during their 5×5 program and thus the myth, but nobody seems to consider the squats they did twice that week with much higher volume. Not to mention the weighted Goodmornings or any number of exercises that place stress on the lower back.
Weight room injuries and tweaks are rarely a one-off thing. They are usually a result of cumulative trauma. I know we have seen some pretty gruesome and scary injuries due to out-right technical failure, too much weight, etc. and I know these stand out, but they are relatively rare.
Some, of course, when they make the statement above, just mean deadlifts “over-train” the lower back. But, if you dig deeper you will almost always find these are people who view the deadlift as a “back” exercise. And you can surmise how, then, they are “over-training” the back since the back, although very strong, is not good at being the prime mover of heavy weights over a long career of living. For some, not even over a short career of lifting. Note that some people’s back may seem to hold up over decades under the strain of a deadlifting style that is centered on the lumber, but this does not mean the same is true of everybody, or that they couldn’t lift more with a more efficient style. Others big-time lifters have had to switch over to a more conventional style after years of success, due to injuries finally taking their toll. Phil Phister is an example of such a lifter.
Another aspect of this perception that the deadlift is centered in the back and makes the back feel over-fatigued is that the prescription itself, ridiculously low exposure to deadlifts, can cause this very symptom! It may seem counter-intuitive, but it should make more sense after you read Why Should I Feel Deadlifts?
Deadlifts Just “Take a Lot Out of You”
I don’t know how to argue against such an unscientific and imprecise statement except to point out that it is unscientific and imprecise.
Deadlifts are a demanding exercise but they are still part of the whole training interchange with overall stress and recovery. Deadlifts have become the bad guy to people who don’t even have a decent deadlift (relatively speaking). There are only a handful of really big deadlifters who do “no deadlift” deadlift training. Most people with big deadlifts get there by pulling their butt off. That being said, I’ve had a lot of success using a modified goodmorning exercise to improve my deadlifts, but I still have to do a lot of deadifts to really appreciates the fruits of this method.
Regardless, it makes no sense that the deadlift is the crook even though it’s programmed as part of either high volume or moderate volume with aggressive loading. Why is this?
Squats are the King So Deadlifts are the Fool?
Because the people who trumpet the one set of deadlifts myth think that the back squat is MAGIC and that you always must prioritize it and hit it like it’s a congo and that it will just give give give because it, apparently, is handed down from the Gods.
Logically, as long as one is not willing to program the squat, and others, any other way, the deadlift may be seen as the “bad guy” in the equation. Training is always a set of compromises and risk assessments based on priorities.
Frankly, there are many trainees obsessed with squatting, thinking it will make them super strong, super big, and super athletic ad infinitum while giving them 1919-inchrms through some kind of osmosis. These people of course, have a vested interest in believing the deadlift to be a bad guy. They do deadlifts grudgingly out of some misguided sense of duty but to make room for real deadlift training in their programming would simply challenge their entire belief system. To use a favorite analogy, the squat is an important card in their house and to jiggle it would cause the whole thing to crash down.
This is not to say that the squat is the only other exercise in the equation. It’s just one of those lifts that people refuse to compromise on. You cannot always progress all the lifts. That’s what it really comes down to. If you want to deadlift heavy at some points in your training you will need to give the lift priority and this will entail placing other lifts on “maintenance”.
There is a wide range of volume and intensity that is used successfully to train the deadlift. Although there are many ways to do something it is like the saying about skinning a cat: Unless you want to use your teeth you should at least bring a knife! No offense to cat lovers. I like cats. Really…
Deadlifts hurting your lower back is one thing. What about the claim that they cause biceps strains? Is there any truth to that? Read my post Biceps Strains from Deadlifts to find out.