The argument against deadlifting
The dead weight. The elevation of the ego of the lower part of the body. Big numbers and big weights can go up pretty easily for most athletes when practicing this lift. Like everything, with success comes rush, and with rush comes declines in quality and diligence. For any athlete who uses the deadlift regularly, CrossFit, powerlifters or traditional athletes, it is a movement that must be used with care. This article will talk about why you don’t need to deadlift for max weight, their replacements, and specifically how this applies to CrossFit athletes.
Do not misunderstand. As a coach and athlete, I will argue that the deadlift is an invaluable strengthening tool for the posterior chain. Not many lifts use so many large muscles that they allow us to lift such a large amount of weight. It’s not that unusual to see an athlete training with deadlifts for just a few months to get to the point where he can lift 1.5x or even 2x body weight and more. With more accessory training and time, a 3x bodyweight deadlift can be achieved for more highly trained and better trained athletes. For this and other reasons it is a lift that needs to be done very often in the training cycles.
The reason I am careful with the deadlift, both in my own training and in the training of the athletes I work with, is that it is extremely taxing when fully trained, both on the CNS due to the high amount of stress. weight being held, and on the posterior chain. In reference to the former, if an athlete is training max (and max refers to working at max weight for a 3 rep scheme or less) every week or more than once a week, they are most likely that the body is using drops more than it is worth, which greatly affects the following days of training. In reference to the latter, any coach or athlete who is relatively well schooled in strength training will tell you that training lifts to the max will sometimes cause a lifter to lose perfect form. Some coaches may even argue (including myself) that it’s okay to lose form to some degree during a max lift because he trains the body to come out of a less than perfect lift safely and successfully. However, with the sheer amount of weight lifted in the deadlift, less than perfect form can lead to strain and pain in the lower back, hips, and hamstrings, and can even lead to injury. Like the problem with CNS taxes, this leads to athletes missing training days. No matter what sport you are training for, this is not good.
So what other options do we have?
The Soviets were onto something with their weightlifting studies back in the Iron Curtain days. The reason so much good information, not just about lifting but strength development in general, comes from that time is because they had such a large population participating in the sport of powerlifting. With so many people training for strength, Soviet trainers were able to come up with some very tried and true theories on how to get stronger by maintaining a very high level of volume every day.
The key ingredient: speed.
Speed is king. This philosophy has been adopted by training methods all over the world and in all different sports. Louie Simmons took this idea and created an entire training template based on moving the weight as fast as possible and keeping the muscles under tension during these high speed lifts. It has been proven time and time again that the best way to gain strength is to apply maximum force on a bar as quickly as possible.
This speed is all relative. Obviously, the speed at which you squat which is your 1rm is going to be much slower than the speed at which you squat 50% of that on your dynamic squat days. But exerting as much force as possible to lift that weight is equivalent to moving a lighter weight with explosive speed, allowing you to engage different/bigger motor units and muscles than a lighter load/slower lift. What is important is the number of times you can activate these motor units.
The motor units are what cause the muscle to contract. You want to lift something, the brain sends a signal to the muscle, the motor units fire, it makes the muscle contract, we lift it. However, their motor units are ordered from small to large. Smaller ones fire the easiest and first, bigger ones are harder to recruit and fire last. You may have guessed that smaller motor units are connected to smaller muscle fibers while larger motor units are connected to larger muscle fibers. So what we have here is a neat little order that dictates how and when we access the largest muscles in our body. This is called the Henneman Size Principle. Use small motor units to lift loads that are below maximum and only take advantage of larger motor units by lifting maximum loads…or lifting with maximum speed. Small motor units are more sustainable, meaning you can use them repeatedly more easily, while large motor units tire faster and take longer to recover. Remember this, later.
Think of it in terms of the fight or flight mentality. In the past, I’m talking about a long time ago, fight or flight meant being eaten by a saber-tooth tiger or not being eaten. The peak of this fighting mentality is when you are getting out of that cave faster than the tiger, or even ripping the tooth out of the tiger’s mouth and using it to kill the beast. It is at this peak that you are recruiting everything, including the largest muscles and motor units in your body. It’s how/why you can achieve uncanny feats of strength under pressure.
How do you simulate this situation during training? Making your body exert the greatest amount of force and therefore speed possible on a load. So let’s take a look at the deadlift. It takes a ton of force to lift a 500# 1RM, right? It may not be super fast, but you’ve definitely flipped that fight switch and gotten into those larger motor units during the lift. So why not just lift a 1rm once a week?
Think about how often you can lift that 1RM deadlift in one session. Then think about how often you can safely lift it. This is where we get into efficiency of use. What Elwood Henneman discovered, the Soviets experimented with, and Louie Simmons applied is that we can get bigger and stronger by not just raising highs here and there, but raising sub-maxes as fast as possible over and over again. If you can recruit the same large motor units that you do doing a 1rm, the same ones that are connected to the largest muscles in your body, lifting 50-70% of that multiple times in one session, what do you think is more beneficial? to build strength? If you can tap into those large motor units/large muscles multiple if not 10 times in one training session, you will train those nerves (motor units) to be able to shoot more often without fatigue and therefore you will be able to train those muscles more bigger/stronger more often.
For example, instead of lifting that 1RM deadlift weekly, think about doing Olympic lifts in variable percentages almost every day. Not only is this done to improve your Olympic lifts, but explosively pulling off the ground (exerting maximum force and speed on a load) takes advantage of those larger motor units. While you may not always be recruiting the biggest and strongest, you are training him to harness those larger muscle groups and units on a repetitive basis. Not only applicable to strength, but also specifically applicable to CrossFit. To perform at the highest level in this sport, you must be able to move the weight very quickly and over and over again. In other words, you need to be able to recruit those high-end motor units, the largest muscles in your body, over and over again. If you only train them once at a time, you train them to fire/recruit once at a time.
To replace the lack of heavy loading, he also performs heavy but explosive pulls once a week. By putting more than your maximum load or snatch into your pulls and doing them as fast as you can, you’re taking advantage of the larger, harder-to-reach motor units. By doing them for repetitions, you are forcing/training them to fire repetitively. So not only are you mentally training yourself to be able to pull a weight heavier than ever before, but you’re physically training yourself to actually be able to do it. This correlates to a higher deadlift because regardless of the load on the bar, you’re training the largest and most powerful muscles in your body MULTIPLE TIMES per set, not just one at a time. Build muscular strength and endurance in a variety of ways.
Where Louie Simmons helped most was in convincing the masses of the benefits of accommodating resistance. The bands and chains used for vertical lifts mean that even when using a sub-maximal weight, an athlete has to shoot through the entire lift. This is made possible by accommodation resistance which adds weight/resistance as the lift (generally) becomes easier. Think top deadlift, bench, squat. This results in an athlete having to be explosive not only during the hard “sticking point” of the lift but throughout the entire exercise, making the aforementioned high-level motor unit recruitment happen even at a “lighter” weight.
Note your speed on each lift. Lifting aggressively and quickly allows him to get stronger. You don’t have to always use a max charge to get stronger using the above science. That’s why with The ProgramWOD and at CrossFit Lando we do squats with specific percentages and reps and why we do a lot of dynamic lifting. If you can move it faster, do it.
Elite athletes need to train efficiently. This refers not only to time, but also to the tension in the body. It doesn’t do an athlete any good to train on the ground or get injured. The goal is to be able to train at a high level all or most of the time. Deadlifting isn’t necessarily “bad” for you, but it certainly strains the CNS and causes a lot of pain and injury. If we can avoid this, why not do it? Of course, the stimulus of pulling a deadlift several times should still be used because it is a very different and specific stimulus. But movements like dynamic pulls, box squats, and lighter deadlifts with adaptive resistance can be used in place of multiple days of max deadlifts in a training cycle. This allows an athlete to continuously build strength throughout waves of training without taking extended rest time due to exhaustion or injury.