Deadlifts are a staple in the exercise world. They can help just about any goal. Deadlifts are a compound exercise, meaning they use many parts of the body at once which is a great calorie burner and time-saver for those looking to get a full body workout with just a few exercises. They can also help someone build great functional strength to help decrease chances of injury from picking up heavy loads in the day-to-day. For most of the clientele I see, I love teaching deadlifts because, when done properly, they can counteract some of the damage done to posture by sitting at a desk from 9-5, five days per week.
However, deadlifts are also known for being the destroyer of backs. I know that I’ve seen and heard many stories of people severely straining their backs or, worse, ending up with a bulging/herniated disc. So, what gives? Are deadlifts a good guy or a bad guy in the gym?
I think any good coach will tell you: It depends. It always comes down to weighing the risk vs the benefit. If someone doesn’t have any risk factors, can demonstrate good form consistently, and follows a safe, gradual progression – then sure! Why not?
However, if they present risk factors, don’t have good form, and really don’t have any goals directly related to deadlifting – why would you bother? If it’s not safe or recommended for you, it’s just not worth the risk when there are plenty of other exercises that can work the same muscles while sparing your back.
So how do you know if YOU should deadlift? Here are the things I look for when I make this decision with my clients:
1. Do you experience back or hip pain?
This can actually also include any other injury that might be aggravated with the motion of a deadlift. Basically, if you have a low back injury – there is no way I’d start you with deadlifts. If there is hip pain, you may struggle with the hip-hinge and using the muscles about your hip joint. This is definitely a scenario where I would find some safe alternatives.
ALSO, this is where I’d refer you to a clinical professional if you’re not already seeing one about your pain. I know life is busy and crazy and health insurance sometimes totally sucks, but if you’re able to see a doctor or physical therapist and communicate their guidelines with your trainer or coach – you will greatly improve your outcomes in the gym!
2. What’s your skill level?
This one is not to make anyone feel bad but if you’re new to strength training or you have difficulty with body awareness, I probably won’t go near deadlifts with you for a while. Deadlifts – while good ones look seamless, smooth, and simple – are actually a very complicated exercise where are all of your muscles and joints need to be working together in a specific pattern. If you’re brand new to the gym or don’t have much experience, this may be too advanced (for now!)
Instead, I would work on the pieces of the deadlift with a new gym-goer. This would include exercises that work on core stability, glute strength, good ankle and hip mobility, upper back strength, grip strength, hamstring strength, and good hip-hinge patterning. (Like I said – there’s a LOT that goes into these!) Once the pieces have a base, and all mobility requirements are met, we may work on deadlift-like exercises to progress you to the real thing!
3. What’s your leg-raise look like?
This is the main “clearing” screen that I use when figuring out if someone should be deadlifting or not. This active straight leg raise screen is from Functional Movement Systems and I’ll demonstrate it in the video below.
In short, you want the heel of your straight leg that you are raising to be able to pass the line perpendicular to the middle of your kneecap WITHOUT cheating to get there. Cheats include: lifting the other leg off the floor even a little bit, bending your knee of the moving leg, and rotating your hip so that your toes stick out to the side. (I show you these in the video).
Why does this one matter? This test may seem like a simple hamstring flexibility test but there’s more too it. This test shows how far a person can move their leg at the hip without changing spine or pelvis position. This is important because if you can’t move at the hip without moving at the spine with enough range of motion on the floor – that means you’re likely not going to be able to hip-hinge with a neutral spine with enough range of motion to safely deadlift.
If you don’t pass this screen, I would suggest working on the “pieces” of the deadlift first. That will include mobility and strengthening exercises. I would also suggest working on this particular pattern. NOW, this is where I’m going to leave you for Part 1 of this series but DON’T FEAR!
If you qualify as someone that shouldn’t deadlift just yet – I’ve got some more stuff coming up to help you out!
In Part 2: I’m going to tell you all about some drills and exercises to help you fix your leg raise.
In Part 3: I’m going to tell you what exercises you can do without deadlifting to work on the same muscles, patterns, and – hopefully – build you up to be ready for deadlifts!
In Part 4: I’m going to give you some suggestions for types of deadlifts and drills to safely progress your deadlifting form.
Each part will be coming out on a Wednesday to give you some time to work on exercises from each in between this four-part series. To make sure you don’t miss out – get on the email list here! If you haven’t already signed up, you’ll also get my free “How to Build a Workout” guide.
I hope to see you on the list for Part 2! Happy Training!