Should You Deadlift For Sports Performance?
We are asked all the time if the deadlift should be used in training to enhance an athlete’s sports performance capability. People ask us over DM, text messaging and email. A lot of these questions are based around the fact that Robert Oberst said on the Joe Rogan podcast that this movement should not be utilized if people are sports performance athletes. The gist of Oberst’s argument is that the deadlift will beat the athlete up too much and, as an athlete, there are other movements that can be done to replace the movement.
Let’s start by defining the movement of the deadlift. Essentially, the deadlift is pulling as much weight as possible from the floor to a hip and knee extended position at a lockout at the top of the lift. It is very simple. It is the trademark of strongman and powerlifting. Pick something heavy as possible up and put it back down.
But the movement can be performed in different ways. Athletes can have a conventional stance, a little bit wider than shoulder width. Athletes can have a sumo stance. Both will target the posterior chain, the lower back, the spinae erector, even being slightly rounded in the upper back at times, and really hammers the hamstrings when trying to finish the lockout so the hips can extend and come through. It is a movement that can dramatically improve the strength of the posterior chain.
The deadlift is a phenomenal exercise. But does that mean it should be used when training athletes for sports performance?
Let’s take a look at the good and the bad aspects of utilizing the deadlift to improve sports performance.
The Good: Strengthens Posterior Chain, Absolute strength, Grind
We already showcased how well the deadlift will strengthen the posterior chain. In complete repetitive seriousness, the deadlift can really, really strengthen the posterior chain, light up the lower back and light up the hamstring. Looking for someone to improve their absolute strength, or looking for a lighter athlete to improve their relative strength, the deadlift does a great job in this department.
The task is simple: pick up something really heavy and put it back down on the ground. Not complicated at all. The movement screams, “SHOW US HOW STRONG YOU ARE!!!” With that in mind, the deadlift is great exercise for improving absolute strength in athletes.
Everyone has seen video of a lifter fighting to lock out a deadlift. Knees shaking, body convulsing, and still, they persist and fight to finish the lift. Their quads and hamstrings are trying to recruit at the same time, cocontract to coordinate as effectively as possible to hit lockout. The grind is real in said moments.
It is hard to lockout a deadlift. It takes a lot of intestinal fortitude, push and mental capacity to zero in on the goal of locking out all of that weight. That monkey in the back of the head starts saying, “Hey!! You’re about to blackout; you’re getting light headed; you got tunnel vision.” Not a great spot to be in; however, when trying to train mental toughness and learn how to grind things out, the deadlift can really enhance that aspect of athletic capability. There are sports that demand such mental states of being.
The Bad: Internal Rotation, Tight Hips, Low Back, Rounded Position
Performing a really well executed deadlift, world class type of deadlift, athletes should be lifting with a slightly rounded back. A lot of guys try to lift with a big arch in their lumbar spine. We recommend reading Stuart McGill to learn more about it.
It is important that we see that having a slightly rounded position doesn’t carry over very well to many sports. In most sports it is going to be more effective to have lumbar extension. That slightly rounded back can lead to a lack of mobility and cause internal rotation. Not the best thing for sports performance.
Also, from that slightly rounded back, athletes hips can tighten up and get stuck in a constant pulling position, especially if the athletes are performing a lot of presses. Now to counter that, people will say that as long as athletes are doing their mobility work and recovery work, they’ll be fine. It shouldn’t be a factor.
BUT. It still creates significant problems, especially in consistencies seen in younger athletes. Younger athletes tend to yank, have a rounded back that is not properly set and will lead to injuries. And then, almost without fail, they will struggle to apply that pulling motion to other areas.
Transfer Of Training
It comes down to this: what is the transfer of training to sport behind the deadlift?
People who are diehard powerlifters, diehard deadlift proponents, will say that if athletes are using chains of accommodating resistance, “It doesn’t matter, we’re accelerating through that finish.”
We call bull crap! It does matter. The positions don’t effectively transfer. The deadlift doesn’t transfer well to other movements, to other lifts, or to other sporting movements.
One of the easiest ways to break down transfer of training is to see how one movement transfers to another movement. For example, the incline bench transfers to the flat bench, but the reverse isn’t always the case. That is an easy way to think about it.
Now we want to talk about accommodating resistance to accelerate weight speaking about the clean. The movement starts with a static position, has dynamic muscular contraction, force absorption and then recruitment of absolute strength to stand it up. Quite the demanding movement.
Here at Garage Strength, we have a pretty talented thrower named Sam Mattis. Sam has cleaned 200 kilos. In his program, we have him clean, snatch, front squat and high bar back squat with an ass to grass range of motion. Sam does not deadlift in his program. More specifically, Sam never deadlifts. Here is the, “Gotcha!” eureka moment: a guy who never deadlifts, who had never deadlift in over three years, pulled 700 lbs. His best prior was 615 lbs. His deadlift increased 85 lbs with never performing the movement, indicating that the transfer of training from the movements of cleaning, snatching and front and back squatting had quite the results.
On the flip, take a deadlifter who squats low bar and does plyometric work, what is the transfer of training to the olympic lifts? Nothing. Zero. Why? Because the technical lifts, the olympic lifts, require a static contraction, a dynamic contraction, force absorption and requires rapid recruitment through absolute strength. There are four key contractions behind the technical coordination of the movement. The deadlift and low bar back squat do not transfer to the olympic lifts. It is almost completely negligible.
But what does this have to do with sports performance?
When working with athletes who are in the gym for maybe an hour, it is paramount to get the most bang for investment. Optimizing training so that it transfers very well is where the deadlift reveals its limitations in sports performance training. The deadlift is a movement that is very precise in a very specific area.
The deadlift doesn’t give the bang for the investment needed to include it in programming. There are better movements to utilize in training for sports performance enhancement.
When To Use The Deadlift
We will use the deadlift. But there are stipulations. First, we will utilize the deadlift by using a variation of the movement using a fat bar working with wrestlers who have posterior chain issues. The fat bar forces the load of the pull to be quite a bit of lower. We also want quite a bit of lumbar extension; not a ton, but more than typical. And we use the fat bar to train the grip.
We also like to utilize variations of the deadlift like Romanian deadlifts, stiff legged deadlifts and single legged deadlifts as supplementary movements to other main lifts. We love using variations to supplement the big time lifts.
We also use trap bar jumps; occasionally we will utilize trap bar deadlifts. We like to use these variations to cater towards certain weak points in various athletes.
The underlying problem with the deadlift, in our experience, is the exposure to the lower back, especially with younger athletes, because of lack of ability to control and brace their trunk. For some reason, when young athletes do movements like a clean or a snatch at a higher speed, they are a little bit more aware (even if by accident). On top of that, so many mobility issues arise--hips and internal rotation--through pulling that the movement doesn’t create and mold the specimen of a physical athlete we want to see. Finally, the transfer of training is simply not there when talking about the deadlift, especially in comparison to the other big time movements.
The verdict: don’t use the deadlift for sports performance training.
Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.