Why Deadlifting Is Way the Fuck Overrated
A few days ago, I sent an email that resulted in some response. I knew that it would, of course, since I was set to explode a sacred cow (the deadlift) with the dynamite of, well, what I thought was everyday knowledge. It wasn’t that I was proposing anything way the hell out there. Essentially, all I said was the deadlift was “not only not indispensable”, to use the words of Thoreau, but that life could go on, and that fitness could, in fact, even prosper without it. So I knew one thing, right off the bat: No response in retaliation to this could be a reasonable one.
The point of my email–or, how about this: I’ll go ahead and post the email, and then we’ll discuss.
Alright, here we go.
Subject: My beef with deadlifting
“Don’t get me wrong, with what I’m about to say.
None of this is to say I don’t *like* the deadlift. None of this is to say you *shouldn’t do* the deadlift. All this is meant to say, is that no exercise is indispensable.
People are weird about this. They form emotional, almost religious attachments to exercise. You see it a lot with people who preach such high philosophical notions as ‘deadlift or die.’
I think psychotherapy is a great thing, for people like this. Most of them don’t think they need it, of course, and don’t like having it recommended to them. (Whenever I recommend psychotherapy to a person, like my sister Bridget, say, she goes into one of her “spells”, as I call them. I don’t know why people go into “spells” when having psychotherapy recommended to them; I’m only trying to help.)
But unreasonable obsessions with AN exercise are something the sanity of generalism is battling against. For the generalist sees exercise as a tool, something to be used to advance toward a goal, and nothing more. Certainly not something to be worshiped at an altar, or cuddled in a broom closet.
The problem with people becoming exercise-obsessed is they get locked in to using the tool for the sake of the tool itself, rather than moving toward something outside the tool itself. They’ll wind up using that exercise where either the exercise is not needed, or where a better exercise could have been chosen; or another activity entirely.
I know quite a number of people with a good sized deadlift who are also a size or two overweight, and ugly, and stupid. Now, I don’t think there is any evildoing in being ugly or stupid, and have many friends who are powerfully so, like Tom, for example, whose wedding is next month, which I’m very excited about.
The problem is people will reach a high number on a lift and wonder why they haven’t reached any of their actual goals–like leaning out, or adding muscle to their chest, arms, back, etc. They assume, somehow, by way of avoiding the dragging encumbrances of logic and reason, they just need to reach a higher number on that lift. More deadllifts, they say!
But let me tell you something: If you have a double to triple bodyweight deadlift, and are flabbergasted as to why you’re still thirty pounds overweight, or have high cholesterol, or searing back pain, then deadlifting, we can assume, is not your problem–probably never was your problem.
Maybe it’s time to work on the diet, a bit? Or, maybe it’s time to do some conditioning and mobility work? You don’t even have to stop deadlifting, you just have to stop deluding yourself that deadlifting is the answer to everything.
Again, this problem isn’t exclusive to deadlifting, only common to it. You see the same thing with other exercises.
Just remember: No exercise is indispensable. Lots of strong, lean, muscular, well-balanced people with functional brains who hardly deadlift, or never deadlift.
Some people also *can’t* deadlift. Bothers their back, or, in some cases, they just don’t have access to a barbell. Should such people be scoffed at, ridiculed, abandoned to Satan? I certainly shouldn’t think so. I should think they just need to find another exercise, perhaps.
The point of all this is? The deadlift is a fine exercise, a wonderful exercise, and a lovely exercise, and does a great job at all the things the deadlift is useful for, and not a great job at all the things the deadlift is not.”
(Note; You can join my email list, HERE.)
Bravo, Pat. An airtight argument. That is, when not conflated or misconstrued. But people often have a way of getting something out of writing that was never actually said.
One person, for example, replied to say he didn’t agree, because he deadlifts *almost* 3x his bodyweight. (Sort of like how I *almost* have a PhD in quantum theory, having barely finished high school.) I said (and this was in all sincerity) that I was very happy for him, but that’s not an argument.
Another person replied to say he also didn’t agree, because if you do 5 x 5 linear progression deadlifts, you’ll put on a lot of muscle. I said that’s a bit simplistic, but OK. It’s still not an argument. At least not for any of the points I’ve made.
To make an argument for the points I made (just to help some of you out)–and not the points you think I made (because there is *technically* a difference)–you would need to provide evidence that a person COULDN’T add strength or muscle by NOT deadlifting. This, obviously, is not something any straight thinking person would ever advance. Because it’s so obviously not the case. So no surprise a lot of people decided to disagree.
So, let’s take a few more examples of what I didn’t say, just so we’re clear:
- Unlike what somebody thought I said, I didn’t actually say the deadlift, for many people, wasn’t a useful exercise. (“The deadlift is a fine exercise, a wonderful exercise, a lovely exercise…”). Again, I think in the context I’ve defined, it’s just way the fuck overrated. It is not only not indispensable, but often a hindrance when over-emphasized.
- Unlike what somebody else thought I said, I didn’t actually say the deadlift, for many people, doesn’t build strength or increase muscle size. It absolutely can, and very often does. But again, not indispensable. (Also, two things can be true at once: The deadlift can be a great exercise, on the one hand, and way the fuck overrated, on the other.)
- Unlike what somebody (a third person) thought I said, I didn’t actually say the deadlift couldn’t be, or often isn’t, seen in many effective training programs. Of course it is. It’s seen in many of my own, including Strong ON! But that’s not to say these programs rely on the deadlift, or wouldn’t work without the deadlift. They would. (All of this is assuming, of course, the goal isn’t just a bigger deadlift; a point I will soon address.).
- Unlike what somebody (a fourth person) thought I said, I didn’t actually say you should avoid deadlifting. I only said you don’t *need* to deadlift. By all means, deadlift, if you want to deadlift. Just don’t marry the deadlift; don’t submit your life to the deadlift.
- Unlike what somebody (a fifth person) thought I said, I didn’t actually say the idea of becoming religiously obsessed with an exercise was exclusive to deadlifting. In fact, I expressly stated that emotional attachments to exercise are “not exclusive to deadlifting, only common to it.”
So to propose a more formal (and, for sure, far less entertaining) statement of the argument: Deadlifting can help, but is not indispensable. Or, to offer one further piece of clarification around the argument: Deadlifting can help, but UNLESS YOUR GOAL IS TO BUILD A BIGGER DEADLIFT, it’s not indispensable.
But what if your goal IS to build a bigger deadlift? Very well. For that, the deadlift is no longer way the fuck overrated. And certainly I have no problem with people wanting to lift heavier loads in any capacity; I think it’s an honorable thing, just like eating a ham sandwich is an honorable thing. It’s even been my own goal, from time to time–that is, the ham sandwich. But to delude yourself into thinking the deadlift is some essential artifact, that it would be a sin akin to turning your back on God to dis-include it, is silly. Be reasonable. It’s only an exercise.
PS – You might be wondering why I even brought this up? Why is deadlifting being non-essential worth making a fuss about in the first place? And here’s what I would say to that, because it’s a fair point. I really do enjoy deadlifting, from a personal standpoint. (I even have a podcast episode on how to increase your deadlift.) But I also coach people and can tell you there’s a lot of folks who can’t or shouldn’t deadlift, either at all, or without modification. So it’s not only wrong, but irresponsible, to be an idiot about things when you aren’t an idiot in general. If you’re an idiot in general, then I have no reason to hold you accountable. But if you’re not an idiot in general, then all three of you need to do a better job.
A lot of people have to come me in a confession of negligence, having hurt themselves seriously badly, because somebody told them they *needed* to deadlift. So while saying “deadlift or die” may get you some likes on Facebook, that doesn’t make you worth listening to. You’re triggering a confirmation bias; not actually helping people. A coach–that is, a person who’s job is improving the lives of others–must be willing to say things that aren’t popular, because a coach is in the business of improving the lives of others, and ignorance and arrogance are not what does it.
I want people to feel included, even if they can’t deadlift, even if they don’t want to deadlift. And I want people to feel included, even if they can deadlift, even if they love to deadlift. It doesn’t have to be this way or that.