Hopefully, you never have to choose only one exercise, but let’s pretend for a moment you do. The gods of exercise tell you that you must select only one exercise to get stronger, preserve muscle mass, and stay in shape. What’s your top choice? You might choose squats. Not a bad choice since it works multiple muscle groups, but it doesn’t work the muscles in the upper body. You could also choose push-ups and their variations. Push-ups hit the upper body and core, but your lower body gets neglected.
You need an exercise that works the muscles in your upper and lower body. What about deadlifts? If you can do only one exercise, this is your best bet. Regardless of your fitness level, you can do a deadlift. If you’re new to the exercise, you can start with no weight until you learn proper form. Once you master the basic move, you’ll need a barbell and weight plates to add progressive overload.
The reason deadlifts stand out is how many muscles this multi-functional exercise works. When you deadlift, the muscles in your back, core, and lower body get a workout, but so do your biceps and forearms. In fact, almost every muscle in your body gets worked when you deadlift. Few exercises target so many muscle groups at one time. Plus, the deadlift is a functional exercise that helps improve how your muscles function together. Who doesn’t want to function better? Think of how many times you bend over to pick something up deadlift style. Deadlifts help you develop the ability to pick up things safely.
Deadlifts for Back Health
You may have heard that deadlifts are bad for your back. If you do them with good form, it’s quite the opposite! When you do this total body move, it strengthens and hypertrophies the muscles that support your spine. This added strength reinforces your spine and helps to protect it against injury. In fact, research shows that deadlifts can help with lower back pain.
In one study, researchers asked a group of individuals with lower back pain to take part in a resistance training program. The study included a variety of exercises, such as deadlifts and squats, two exercises that people believe are harmful to the back. The participants performed reps at their 6 and 10 rep maxes. The results? The participants enjoyed a 72% reduction in pain and disability. Strengthening the muscles in the back also helps with alignment and posture.
Other Benefits of Deadlifts
Deadlifts are a compound exercise. In fact, they work more muscle groups than any other exercise. So, it isn’t surprising that they’re a real calorie burner. In fact, an hour of deadlifting can burn up to 500 calories. You probably wouldn’t want to do an hour of deadlifts, nor do you need to. But, it’s nice to know you’re burning lots of calories when you do them.
Deadlifts and Their Strength Training Variations
With the conventional deadlift, your feet are about shoulder-width apart and your hands are just past shoulder level. Toes are pointed slightly outward. The standard deadlift places more stress on your back then the two variations that follow. If you go too heavy or use bad form, you risk lower back injury.
If you have a history of lower back pain, the safest way to do a deadlift is to use a hex bar. A hex bar is a hexagon-shaped bar with an opening in the middle and hand grips on each side. To use it, step into the middle and hold the barbell by grasping the handgrips on each side before executing the exercise. Doing deadlifts with a hex bar distributes the stress of deadlifting closer to your body so that your spine sustains less stress during the movement. Compared to a standard deadlift, this variation targets the quads and glutes more.
Another more back friendly deadlift variation is the sumo deadlift. With the sumo deadlift, you place your feet wider apart and don’t have to go down as low. The wider foot position also allows you to hold your back and pelvis in a more upright position and keep the bar closer to your pelvis. This takes stress off the back. So, the two safest variations if you have a history of back pain is the hex bar deadlift and the sumo deadlift.
Stiff Leg Deadlifts
Stiff leg deadlifts are a variation to avoid if you have lower back pain. That’s because this approach requires the most forward flexion of your back and torso and this can aggravate back pain. However, this variation also targets your hamstrings better than other variations.
Preparing to Do Deadlifts
Before adding deadlifts to your routine, build up a baseline level of core strength. Doing so will lower your risk of injury when you do serious deadlifts. Planks are an excellent exercise to help you get primed for doing deadlifts safely. When you first start use a light barbell or no weight at all until you learn the mechanics of the movement.
Developing core strength and mastering deadlift form with little or no resistance will help you avoid the biggest pitfall that can damage your back – arching or rounding it. Practice keeping a neutral spine when you do the movement. Have someone critique your form to make sure your spine is staying straight.
The Bottom Line
Chances are, you’ll never have to choose only one strength-training exercise, but if it happens, deadlifts are a good choice! Don’t shy away from this exercise. It works every muscle group and helps you get leaner and more functional. If you have a history of back pain, learn correct form and do a back-friendly variation, like the sumo deadlift.
· BMJ Open Sport Exerc Med. 2015; 1:000050. doi:10.1136/ bmjsem-2015-000050.
· J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Jul; 29(7):1803-11. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000837.
· J Strength Cond Res 25(7): 2000-2009, 2011.
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