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The Argument Against Deadlifting
The deadlift. Lower body ego lift. Large numbers and heavy weights can go up quite easily for most athletes when practicing this lift. Like everything, with success comes haste and with haste come the victims of quality and diligence. For any athlete who regularly uses the deadlift, CrossFit, powerlifters, or traditional athletes, this is a movement that should be used with care. This article will cover why you don’t need to deadlift for max, replacements for it, and specifically how it applies to CrossFit athletes.
Do not mistake yourself. As a trainer and athlete, I will argue that the deadlift is a very valuable strengthening tool for the posterior chain. Few lifts use so many large muscles that allow us to lift such large amounts of weight. It’s not uncommon to see an athlete train with the deadlift for only a few months to get to the point where they can lift 1.5x or even 2x their body weight and more. With more incidental training and time, a 3x bodyweight deadlift is achievable for more skilled and trained athletes. For this and other reasons, it is a lift that needs to be watched closely in training cycles.
The reason I am careful with the deadlift, both in my own training and in the training of the athletes I work with, is that it is extremely taxing when trained to the max, at both on the CNS due to the heavy amount of weight held, and on the posterior chain. In reference to the first, if an athlete is training at maximum (and maximum refers to working at maximum weight for a rep scheme of 3 or less) every week or more than once a week, they are most likely wearing the body down more than it is worth, which greatly affects the following training days. In reference to the latter, any relatively well-educated bodybuilding coach or athlete will say that training lifts to the max will sometimes cause an athlete to lose perfect form. Some trainers may even argue (me being one of them) that it is okay to lose form to some degree during a max lift, as it trains the body to come out of a less than perfect lift safely and successfully. However, with the large amount of weight lifted in the deadlift, less than perfect form can lead to tightness and pain in your lower back, hips, and hamstrings, and can even lead to injury. Like the issue of taxation on the CNS, this leads to missed training days for athletes. It doesn’t matter what sport you train for, it’s not good.
So what other options do we have?
The Soviets were onto something with their weightlifting studies during the Iron Curtain era. The reason so much good information not only about weightlifting but about bodybuilding in general has come from this era is because they had such a large population participating in the sport of weightlifting. With so many people training for strength, Soviet trainers were able to develop some very proven theories on how to get strong while maintaining a very high level of volume every day.
The key ingredient: speed.
Speed is king. This philosophy has been adopted by training methods around the world and in all sports. Louie Simmons took this idea and created a complete workout model based on moving the weight as fast as possible and keeping the muscles tensed during those high-speed lifts. It’s been proven time and time again that the best way to gain strength is to apply maximum force to a bar as fast as possible.
This speed is all relative. Obviously, the speed at which you lift a squat that is your 1rm will be much slower than the speed at which you lift 50% of it on your dynamic box squat days. But exerting as much force as possible to lift that weight is equivalent to moving a lighter weight with explosive speed, allowing you to get into different motor units and different/bigger muscles than a lighter load/lifting slower. What matters is how many times you can engage these motor units.
Motor units are what make the muscle contract. You want to lift something, the brain sends a signal to the muscle, the motor units pull, do muscle contractions, we lift. However, your motor units are ordered from small to large. The smaller ones shoot the easiest and the first ones, the bigger ones are more difficult to recruit and shoot last. You might have guessed that smaller motor units are connected to smaller muscle fibers, larger motor units are connected to larger muscle fibers. So what we have here is a neat little order that dictates how and when we access the biggest muscles in our body. This is called Henneman’s size principle. You use small motor units to lift submaximal loads and only tap into larger motor units when lifting maximum loads…or lifting at maximum speed. Small motor units are more durable, meaning you can use them repetitively more easily, while large motor units tire faster and take longer to recover. Remember this later.
Think of it in terms of a fight or flight mentality. Back then, I’m talking back, fight or flight meant either getting eaten by a saber-toothed tiger or not being eaten. The pinnacle of this battle mentality is when you pull it out of that cave faster than the tiger, or even pull the tooth out of the tiger’s mouth and use it to stab the beast to death. It is at this peak that you recruit all, including the biggest, motor units and muscles of your body. It’s how/why you can perform bizarre feats of strength under duress.
How do you simulate this situation during training? By making your body exert the greatest force and therefore the greatest speed possible on a load. So let’s look at the deadlift. A ton of force used to lift a 500# 1RM, isn’t it? It might not be super fast, but you definitely flipped that combat switch and got into those bigger motor units during the lift. So why not just lift a 1rm once a week?
Think about how often you can lift that 1RM deadlift in a session. Then think about how often you can safely lift it. This is where we come into efficiency of use. What Elwood Henneman discovered, what the Soviets experimented with, and what Louie Simmons applied is that we can get bigger and stronger not only by lifting maxes here and there, but also by lifting sub-maxes. as fast as possible again and again. If you can recruit the same large motor units that you do doing a 1rm, the same ones that are connected to the biggest muscles in your body, by lifting 50-70% of that multiple times during a session, what is do you think is the most beneficial? to build strength? If you can tap into those large motor units/large muscles multiple times, even 10 seconds, in a workout, you will train those nerves (motor units) to be able to pull more often without fatigue, and therefore be able to train . these bigger/stronger muscles more often.
For example, instead of lifting that 1RM deadlift on a weekly basis, consider doing Olympic lifts at varying percentages almost every day. Not only is this done to improve your Olympic lifts, but explosively shooting from the ground (exerting maximum force and speed on a load) taps into those larger motor units. While it doesn’t always recruit the biggest and strongest, it does train you to tap into those larger units and muscle groups repetitively. Not only applicable to strength but also applicable specifically to CrossFit. To perform at the highest level in this sport, you need to be able to move weight very quickly and over and over again. In other words, you need to be able to recruit those high-end motor units, the biggest muscles in your body, over and over again. If you only train them once at a time, you train them to shoot/recruit once at a time.
To replace a lack of heavy lifting, you also perform heavy but explosive pull-ups once a week. By putting more than your max clean or rip on your pull-ups and doing them as fast as you can, you’re tapping into the biggest and hardest-to-reach motor units. By doing them for reps, you are forcing/training them to pull repetitively. So not only are you training mentally to be able to pull heavier than ever before, but you’re training physically to be able to actually do it. This corresponds to an increase in deadlift, because regardless of the load on the bar, you’re training the biggest, strongest muscles in your body MANY TIMES per set, not just one at a time. Develop muscle strength and endurance in different ways.
Where Louie Simmons helped even more was by convincing the masses of the benefits of accommodating resistance. The bands and chains used for vertical lifts ensure that even when using submaximal weight, an athlete must pull through the entire lift. This is made possible by the accommodating resistance which adds weight/resistance as lifting becomes (usually) easier. Think top deadlift, bench, squat. This forces an athlete to be explosive not just during the hard “stuck point” of the lift, but as a whole, making recruitment of the aforementioned high-end motor units even at “lighter” weight.
Be aware of your speed on each lift. Lifting aggressively and quickly allows you to get stronger. You don’t have to always use max load to get stronger using the science above. That’s why with The ProgramWOD and at CrossFit Lando, we squat with specific percentages and reps and why we do a lot of dynamic lifting. If you can move it faster, do it.
Elite athletes must train effectively. It does not only refer to time, but also to the pressure exerted on the body. There is no point in an athlete training in the ground or in an injury. The goal is to be able to train at a high level all or most of the time. The deadlift isn’t necessarily “bad” for you, but it definitely strains the CNS and causes a lot of pain and injury. If we can avoid this, why wouldn’t we? Certainly, the stimulus of repeatedly pulling a deadlift should always be used because it is a very different and specific stimulus. But moves like dynamic pull-ups, box squats, and lighter deadlifts with accommodating resistance can be used in place of multiple days of max deadlift in a training cycle. This allows an athlete to continuously build strength throughout training waves without taking extended time due to exhaustion or injury.
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