Deadlifts and Danger?

Sorry for being totally MIA these past few days. I have been sick and I become less than useless when I’m sick. But I think I am getting better now.

I just got a text from my Dad saying that he almost did a full deadlift! My Dad is a very strong man but has struggled with back problems for a long time and back problems + deadlifts = bad things. That made me think of all the information around deadlifts saying that they are terrible and you will get injured. It’s kind of true… but only because most people 1) don’t know the correct form and 2) don’t have the hip flexibility to do it properly.

I have been trying to teach my friend how to deadlift on leg days because, well, I ❤ deadlifts. And I realized that even though it’s probably one of the most natural and functional movements a body can do… it’s really hard to teach. I started off teaching a regular deadlift, but quickly found that if you aren’t used to the motion you curve your back. This is why everyone and their grandma thinks deadlifts are dangerous.

So when I realized that something wasn’t computing I moved on to stiff-legged deadlifts. These are less powerful, but they are much easier to do from a form perspective. It’s a simple hinging motion from the hips and you only go as low as you can with you back 100% straight. As soon as you feel it curve to compensate for inflexibility, you stop! So that’s easier to learn.

But why is a move that should be innate, so bloody difficult?


The full squat is a natural movement

Let’s back track: Have you ever seen a toddler play with something? They usually look like this –>

That is a perfect full squat position, from which the child can easily stand without throwing out his back.

Now you do that.

I’ll wait…

Did you fall over? Did you even get past perpendicular? Did you heels come off the floor? Did you notice, perhaps, that the main issue is you have no flexibility in your hips?

Most of us don’t have the requisite flexibility in out hips to allow us to get into a full squat. It requires out thighs to sit alongside our bodies with our knees pretty much in our armpits. And if you can’t do that… you will throw your back out doing a deadlift.

Regular deadlift (bending the knees) - note the position of my back.

Regular deadlift (bending the knees) – note the position of my back.

Deadlifts don’t require the same range of motion, or so it would seem, but they do require complete control over keeping your back in proper alignment. Proper alignment means chest up and lower back straight. If you don’t have the ability to keep your back straight while you reach down for the bar, you will get hurt.

I was talking to a guy at the gym who commented on how much I was lifting and wasn’t I concerned about hurting myself? After a few exchanges he said “but I thought that deadlifts were purely a back exercise!”. AHA! So here is the confusion, yes you will work your back, but you are lifting with your legs, just like you’ve always been told to do – lift that computer with your legs, otherwise you’ll hurt your back! Why would we do the opposite on purpose for an exercise?

So here’s what it comes down to, if you can’t do a full squat, please work on your flexibility BEFORE you attempt a deadlift. But if you can do a full squat and you have good mobility and strength in your back, the deadlift is one of the best exercises out there. It works almost every muscle in your body – rear deltoids, upper back, lower back, glutes, hamstrings and quads. Plus it’s the lift that you can lift the most weight with, which is always encouraging. Being able to say “I can lift over 200 pounds” or whatever your goal is, can be extremely motivating and empowering.

I will never encourage someone to do something that is dangerous, but make sure you understand WHY something is dangerous before writing it off. It might be that the pro’s outweigh the con’s for some things, and in my opinion, the upside of mobility, strength, power and functional movement are worth the patience required to do a deadlift properly.

Happy lifting!


11 thoughts on “Deadlifts and Danger?

  1. I love seeing it done but keep getting told my knee will keep me from ever doing it. Actually I just envy anyone who can go down into a full, correct squat. I used to love squatting but my knee won’t go past a 45 degree angle without pain. Trainer’s working on strengthening all the surrounding muscles but doubts I’ll ever get a full squat. But I’m determined to prove him wrong. 🙂
    By the way, have you ever seen the great chiropractic photo of the little boy doing a squat? I love this photo and it’s part of my motivation in wanting to take back control of my body:

    • That’s an awesome photo/description. I remember watching my brother play as a toddler and not understanding how they could get into that position and just stay there for ages. Keep working at it. It’s amazing what the body ca do, but remember that it takes a loooooooong time to recover from an injury. Try asking your trainer about stiff-legged deadlifts. You can’t lift quite as much, but it’s still a powerful move and since your legs stay in a neutral position the whole time, it shouldn’t aggravate your knee. Good luck!

  2. Nothing better than deadlifts! I was going to say, but then you went onto say it, was that the only people who say you shouldn’t do deadlifts either don’t know how to do them properly or have something physically wrong with them where they shouldn’t!

  3. Good comments about mobility. I would recommend the exact same things. Everybody should actually be able to squat to full depth, its all the sitting we do in today’s day and age…

  4. Great post! I always forget about regular dead lifts, I usually always do stiff-leg ones…but not nearly as much weight as you I am sure! 🙂

  5. I’d like to add one thing:

    MY OWN SQUAT is limited by poor ankle flexion, rather than my hip flexibility. No one ever thinks about the ankles! Light ligaments are a bitch.

    There’s more to it than flexibility, of course, but I love the pic. Throw in a bunch of folks on the Asian continent peeling vegetables and ask readers if they suffer from so many back problems!

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