The deadlift is one of the most effective exercises that you can learn. Working the vast majority of your muscles and helping you to burn calories, and increase strength and power. But many people dislike deadlifts and would rather train without them. Do bodybuilders deadlift? If so, why? Is it possible to become a successful bodybuilder without deadlifting?
The vast majority of bodybuilders will deadlift. It is too effective an exercise to ignore. However, there are many successful bodybuilders who avoid deadlifts. As the main goal of bodybuilding is hypertrophy, it is possible to avoid deadlifts completely and still hit all of your goals.
In this article, we will take a look at why bodybuilders deadlift, and why some avoid them. We will also be looking at why deadlifts are so effective, and how they can fit into a bodybuilding program.
Spend time in most gyms and you may be surprised at how few bodybuilders deadlift. It seems that the biggest guys in the weights room spend most of their day bench pressing, and leg day is spent on the leg press (usually followed by walking lunges).
But walk into an Old School bodybuilding gym and you’ll find the biggest guys deadlifting, and going as heavy as they can. Successful bodybuilders deadlift. This has been true since Eugene Sandow. It stayed true during the Golden Age, and it continues to be a huge pillar of bodybuilding to this day.
Not only does the deadlift help you to improve your strength and power, but it is also a wonderful exercise for bringing out a competitive edge amongst your buddies. It was that competitive edge, that desire to beat rivals, that is what made Arnold Schwarzenegger so successful.
Any bodybuilder who grew up watching Pumping Iron (or Generation Iron if you’re younger than 30) would not dream of omitting deadlifts from their program.
That being said, deadlifts are still quite a difficult exercise. If you have ever been in a commercial gym at 7 pm then you will know how impossible it is to deadlift. There is barely room to curl a dumbbell. Let alone set up a barbell in the middle of the gym floor.
Famous strongman Robert Oberst recently stated that most people shouldn’t deadlift as the exercise is often performed badly and the risk to reward ratio is unbalanced. This is a pretty contentious remark. But considering the goal of bodybuilding is aesthetics, it could be argued that the risk to reward ratio may not suit bodybuilding in the same way that it would suit more athletic sports.
Incidentally, check out my article on whether Bodybuilding should be classed as a sport or not.
Deadlifts can help with building muscle, but they are not essential. Deadlifts can increase overall strength, boost testosterone levels, improve grip strength, and increase your core strength. All of which is useful for someone who wants to build muscle. But you can build muscle without deadlifting.
Each one of these benefits can be gained via other methods. You can increase your grip strength with shrugs and farmer’s walks. You can boost testosterone by sleeping longer and eating better. Adding core-specific exercises to your training can strengthen your core. And overall strength can be improved with squats, presses, and pulling exercises.
But deadlifts provide all of that within just three sets!
The best way to think about deadlifts is that they function as foundations. To build a beautiful house, you need strong foundations. Once you have them, everything becomes slightly easier. Deadlifts are not exciting in the same ways that bicep curls are, or overhead presses.
They represent the hard graft that can separate the best bodybuilders from the rest.
Deadlifts are useful if you want to build mass, as they make it easier. But the exercise is not the best mass builder. Deadlifts can be used for hypertrophy, but they are better suited to strength training (low reps, heavy weight).
Deadlifts can make building mass easier by:
This can help you to perform other mass building exercises. Squats are probably the best mass builder around, with bench pressing or overhead pressing being the best upper-body mass building exercises.
If you’ve read my article on powerlifting vs bodybuilding you will find that there are many bodybuilders who can lift some serious weights. Ronnie Coleman has deadlifted 800 lbs (363 kg) before, while Franco Columbu (who was 54 kg lighter than Ronnie) lifted 750 lbs (340 kg).
The truth is that every bodybuilder is different, and there is no specific weight. Bodybuilders who also powerlift will often have much heavier deadlift records as reaching your genetic potential takes a lot of strength training.
There will be bodybuilders who don’t deadlift due to back injuries, or personal preference. It’s a “how long is a piece of string” question, but generally, the answer is A LOT.
The minimum that a grown man should be able to deadlift is 10 bags of shopping! Just kidding. But the question is a bit silly when you think about it. It stems from the insecurity that most of us have at one point in our lives.
The truth is that unless you’re lifting 300 lbs, nobody cares!
But if you are looking for a good target, then 1.5 x your body weight is not a bad thing to aim for. Sure, double your body weight is often mentioned as the desired target, but how useful is that in day to day life?
Being able to lift 1.5 x your body weight means that you can lift most people up off the ground if you needed to. That seems like a decent target to me. It’s also a lot more realistic for the general public.
A bodybuilder should aim for 2 x their body weight, a regular bloke in the gym can aim for 1.5 x and then build up from there. But if you are currently struggling to deadlift half your body weight, don’t feel bad. Just focus on your technique and be patient. The more efficient you get, the more you will be able to lift.
A common argument for deadlifting is that it can raise your testosterone levels, which can then lead to increased muscle growth. I’ve mentioned it in this article as one of the benefits. But the reality is a little less black and white.
There have been studies that found increases in testosterone after deadlifting, but there have also been studies that failed to find an increase in testosterone. A 1989 study found that testosterone levels did increase after deadlifting, but not significantly. While a more recent study that compared squats and deadlifts saw no increase in testosterone after either exercise.
That being said, there is a lot of evidence that building muscle using resistance exercises can lead to increased testosterone. Either through reduced body fat, better sleep, or directly from the workouts themselves. Deadlifts are an integral part of most workouts, and would theoretically contribute more than most.
If you think that deadlifts are going to make a significant contribution compared to performance-enhancing drugs, then you are mistaken. But it feels fairly safe to say that deadlifting can contribute to raised testosterone levels.
If you are planning on adding deadlifts into your workout program, then it is important that you learn how to perform them safely and effectively. Here is a step by step guide to performing a barbell deadlift.
Now that you know how to perform a barbell deadlift correctly, let’s discuss some quick tips for elevating your deadlift and hitting that new personal record.
The deadlift works a large number of muscles, and any weaknesses in these muscles can affect your ability to deadlift big weights. But one area where most people struggle is their grip. A weak grip can prevent you from reaching your potential.
To improve your grip you can perform exercises such as Farmer’s carries, shrugs, rack pulls, or you can use equipment such as Fat Gripz, which are designed to improve grip strength. Building bigger forearms with exercises such as hammer curls or reverse bicep curls may also help, but not as much as you might think.
You can also improve your grip in the short term by using chalk or lifting straps to prevent your hands from slipping. If your hands get sweaty easily, then this can also affect your deadlift. Lifting straps are a little controversial as overuse can prevent you from strengthening your grip.
Shoulder-width is the standard advice for deadlifting, but there is a better way. Step away from the barbell and prepare to jump straight up in the air. Before you do so, look down at your feet. You will have subconsciously set your feet at the ideal distance for jumping. This also happens to be the ideal distance for deadlifting.
Practice a fake jump before any deadlifting set to find your perfect stance.
Plyometrics is incredibly effective at increasing power and is used by athletes to give them a competitive edge. Deadlifting is a powerful exercise and can benefit from certain plyometric exercises. Standing broad jumps, depth jumps, box jumps, and squat jumps can all help to boost your deadlift when programmed correctly.
Very flat weightlifting shoes are a great choice, lifting straps or chalk (see above) can help with your grip, and a weightlifting belt can also help. Sweatbands may also be a good idea, particularly if you have long hair, or are prone to sweating a LOT.
If you want to improve your deadlift, then you need to prioritise it. Don’t put it at the end of a tough workout, don’t add it into a circuit workout. Warm-up properly (seated leg curls to warm up the hamstrings, followed by some goblet squats and practice deadlift sets) and then complete your deadlifts first, before any other exercises.
The number of successful bodybuilders who avoid deadlifting is very small, and most of them will have a good reason (bad back, for example). Deadlifts are too useful to ignore, and they are ingrained in bodybuilding culture.
You don’t need to perform them, there are many alternatives out there. But on balance, the pros outweigh the cons, and I’d personally recommend fitting deadlifts into your training program. They will upgrade everything else you do.
Matt Smith is the owner of Beer N Biceps. He has a degree in Sports Science, 10 years of experience working in the fitness industry, and has written for hundreds of fitness websites. He is a lover of good quality beer and believes that drinking in moderation can form part of a healthy lifestyle.