Programming Notes | Deadlift

crossfit_west_ames_26The deadlift is a surprisingly controversial movement in much of the CrossFit community. While the benefits of a movement where we train to pick heavy objects off the floor seem fairly straight forward, there also exists a school of thought that states there are significant enough drawbacks to the deadlift that it should be largely eliminated from the programming. These reasons are:

  1. The occurrence of or potential for injury is higher in the deadlift than pretty much any other lift. In a deadlift, you have a large amount of weight being supported in a cantilever fashion from the low back in a much less “stacked” position common with our squats and snatch/clean pulls. This puts stress on our core and erector muscles to keep the spine stabilized or disaster can occur.
  2. Many Olympic Weightlifters do not use deadlift in their programs as it teaches faulty mechanics for the first pull in the clean and the snatch. A properly performed deadlift is all about creating huge amounts of tension and force through the hamstrings and posterior chain which generally results in a position where the upper body is in a more horizontal position. On the initial pull of the olympic lifts, it is important to stay in an upright position that will allow for an explosive and efficient second pull without imparting too much forward momentum into the bar. This results in the “butt down, chest up” position you hear us harp on so much.
  3. As discussed in point one, the deadlift places a huge isometric load on the lower back. Done in sufficient volume and weight this will lead to stiffness and soreness in the low back for the next couple days, even if performed correctly. A stiff lower back will mess up the mechanics of pretty much any of our movements – be it a squat, overhead press, or even something as simple as running. Many people do not believe the benefits of the deadlift outweigh the potential to compromise a day or two of training.

While the deadlift does not feature as prominently in our programming as our squats, cleans, and snatches for lower body strength they certainly do make a semi-frequent appearance as we feel their benefits outweigh their potential drawbacks. You are always going to need to pick items of varying weight off the ground and building strength and muscle control patterns that allow you to do this safely and effectively will benefit you throughout the rest of your life. Our counter-arguments to the above would be as follows:

  1. The deadlift, as with pretty much any athletic movement, only becomes dangerous when proper form and technique is eschewed in favor of ego. We keep the loads light until the athlete has developed a level of proficiency in the lift, then keep a close eye on all athletes while we are increasing weight. We train ourselves as athletes to be aware of compromised positions and our group settings ensure there are sufficient eyes around to let each other know if the form is beginning to falter.
  2. While we may deadlift once every two or three weeks, we are cleaning and snatching at least once a week each. This will help develop our separate motor patterns that are required for the two different types of pull. While the high-level Weightlifters will develop sufficient pulling volume by adding in clean and snatch pulls, high pulls, and shrugs, they are also doing these at weights of three or four hundred pounds fairly regularly. For the athlete that is limited in their clean weight due to form, flexibility, squat strength, and so on we may never reach a pulling stimulus that approaches this effect without doing some good old fashioned deadlift.
    On top of this, we need to keep in mind that these weightlifters are training to be proficient at exactly two lifts – the clean & jerk and the snatch. While not everyone’s goals include participation in CrossFit competitions, enough of us participate in some form (be it a full-fledge competition, a local throwdown or charity event, the Open, or just bragging rights between friends) that we need to be prepared to pull some weight should it be asked of us.
  3. We have a few approaches to combating the soreness that typically accompanies deadlifts. First, we modulate the volume. While we typically do five work sets of increasing weights in our squats and presses, we will generally only do three work sets with deadlift or we may take a relatively short amount of time to work up to a heavy set then back off to 90% or so of it and hit our work sets there. Ultimately, the goal is to do enough volume that the legs and hips are getting stronger but we’re not smoking the back in the process. In the days following the deadlift, our coaches are trained to spend extra warmup and mobility time aimed at restoring motion in the lower back that will ensure we have range of motion necessary to complete the day’s work. Finally, we prevent this soreness by deadlifting with more frequency. Just like any movements from pushups and pullups to weighted squat, the more often you do it the less of a negative effect it will have on you. By performing the deadlift every two or three weeks we help mitigate the result soreness much more so than if we simply saw a random deadlift workout every four months.