4 Persistent Deadlift Myths That Are Holding You Back

By Elsbeth Vaino

Deadlifts are perhaps one of the best exercise you can do, not matter your age, size, or fitness level, and it pains me every time I hear someone say they don’t like to deadlift. It’s like they just said they don’t like kittens. Kittens! Admittedly, I like kittens more than I like deadlifts, but deadlifts are a close second.

Some people don’t like deadlifts because they feel like they can’t get into a comfortable position. For some, it’s the grip that keeps them from enjoying and benefiting from this powerhouse movement. Some don’t like deadlifts because they’re sure they’re going to hurt themselves, and for others, the idea that deadlifts are simply not for “someone like them” keeps them away.

Let’s look at some of those common reasons why people don’t like to deadlift. If you’re not loving deadlifting for any of these reasons, you might feel differently by the time you finish reading.

Myth #1: In order to get any benefit from deadlifting you must pull from the floor.

This might be my favorite topic when it comes to deadlifts. I've written about it, talked about it, and even drawn stick figure diagrams about it. In some circles, pulling from the floor is not only the gold standard, it is the only standard. The problem is that this concept is entirely based on the idea that it must be done this way simply "because that's the way it's done."

For those who are new to deadlifts, "from the floor" refers to setting up with Olympic dimension weight plates on either end of the bar. In most gyms this means you set up with at least a 45-pound plate on each end of the bar, which means the bar is always setup at the same distance from the floor (8.75 inches). Some gyms also have bumper plates, which are plates designed for Olympic lifting. Bumper plates all have the same diameter regardless of weight, unlike traditional weight plates, for which the lighter a plate is, the smaller it is.

The truth is that "from the floor" is a setup designed for Olympic lifters to prevent them getting their head bashed in if they miss a clean and jerk or a snatch. I think we can all agree this is a great design feature for Olympic lifters, as nobody wants to see a broken skull in the gym. But does it hold any relevance for the deadlift? You'd have to be doing something really wrong to put yourself at risk of getting your skull crushed while deadlifting, so from that perspective, it's not relevant.

Does it matter, though? Why should you care if "from the floor" is based on another exercise? You should care because you have unique dimensions. The relative length of your bones is not the same as the relative length of someone else's bones in the gym. When compared to others, some of us have longer or shorter thighs, torsos, shins, and arms. We also have differences in the shape, angle, and size of our pelvic bones. For some people, these differences make "from the floor" an undesirable starting point for the deadlift.

It's amazing how much better a deadlift can look and feel with such a simple adjustment.

If you find it difficult to maintain good deadlift form at the bottom of your deadlift, try putting a one-inch riser under the bar setup.For some people, starting even higher than that might be necessary. Is this cheating? In a word, no. It's recognizing that "from the floor" is a setup that is unrelated to deadlifts and thus adjusting it is merely a setup variation.

Put another way, you would never tell someone they have to squat to 8.75 inches off the floor, or that they have to squat from a rack set at six feet off the ground.

Instead, we squat from a starting position in which the bar is between chest and shoulder height, usually down to somewhere between the top of thighs being parallel with the floor and "ass to grass," which is the bottom of thighs touching the backs of the calves (like Jen Comas in the photo on the right), or as far down as a person can physically go in the squat position. How high off the ground is “ass to grass?” It's different for everyone, just like the bottom of the deadlift should be.

Myth #2: Using straps kills your grip strength.

Hardcore deadlift enthusiasts like to share memes like this one, extolling the manliness and virtuosity of deadlifting with your bare hands.

Mention in some circles that you use straps for deadlifts, and you’ll get your head bitten off. "Straps? No, no, no. You need to develop your grip strength!"

I completely agree that you do need to develop your grip strength. Where I disagree, however, is in assuming that the deadlift is the only tool you can use to do so. Deadlifts work a lot of different muscles. Like, a lot a lot. When clients ask me which muscle are working, my answer is either "yes" or "all of them.” Admittedly, this is a slight exaggeration.

Being that I'm an engineer, I like the idea of making my answer more precise, so I will probably start saying, “It works 29 muscles" when asked. That number includes the flexor digitorum, which is the muscle that allows you to keep your fingers around the bar. It’s also what people are referring to when they talk about grip strength.

If grip strength is the limiting factor in someone’s deadlift, they have two choices: Add exercises like farmer’s walks to your workout and add straps to your deadlift to assist the flexor digitorum and continue to challenge the other 28 deadlifting muscles, or go straps-free and challenge one muscle and limit how strong the other 28 muscles will get.

Grip strength is important, but there are other ways to develop it besides deadlifting.

If you do use straps to deadlift, I recommend adding a farmer's walk to your workout to work on your grip strength. This is a great exercise for developing grip strength that also provides excellent core and shoulder benefits. Not sure where to fit them into your program? You can use the farmer’s walk as a core exercise or as a conditioning tool (try it as a finisher for time or distance). Just don't program it right before or right after your deadlift, or your forearms will definitely speak to you.

Next time you feel that your grip is failing in your deadlift but your legs, glutes, back, and core are rearing to go, grab a pair of straps and get on with it. Or better yet, go with the best of both worlds: Go straps-free for the first one or two sets, and then add some weight and bring in the straps.

If you're going to use straps, watch this video for some basic tips, and this video for a close-up on how to properly wrap the straps around the barbell.

Myth #3: Deadlifts are bad for your back.

I'm going to share four things about deadlifts that I think might make you agree that this is a myth.

  1. Deadlifts strengthen your back muscles. This is a very simple truth that I doubt anyone would dispute. To date, zero people have come into my gym and said “I think my back is strong enough, so I don’t want to do anything that will make it stronger.” A strong back is something that interests most people, and to those people I say, “Deadlifts for you, and for you, and for you.”
  2. Deadlifts also strengthen your core muscles. Guess what is also correlated with reduced episodes of low-back pain? Yup, a strong core.
  3. Deadlifts strengthen your glutes, and strong glutes can help keep your back healthy. Strong glutes are capable of doing a lot of daily lifting, instead of your back having to do all the heavy work.
  4. Deadlifts require you to learn how to do a hip hinge. As it sounds, a hip hinge is a movement in which you bend at the hips. I am fortunate to train a lot of people who have never lifted weights before. I say I'm fortunate for this because it means I get to introduce people to this amazing world that will make their life so much better. Most people don’t know how to hip hinge. This is true regardless of gender. Once you learn how to properly hinge at the hips, you'll be able to do a lot of daily activities in a way in which you’re not using your back to do all the lifting.

Now that I have (hopefully) convinced you that deadlifts are not bad for your back, I want to add a qualifier: deadlifts may not be good if you are currently experiencing back pain issues. Yet. In addition to training a lot of people who have never worked out in a gym before, I also train a lot of people who have had chronic low-back pain prior to working with me.

None of these clients deadlift at first. I don't avoid deadlifts with them because deadlifts are “bad for their back.” I avoid deadlifts with them because I believe your back should be stable before you are ready for deadlifts. So if you currently have back issues, deadlifts are probably not a good idea until that is resolved. Once your back and core are a little stronger, and your hips and upper back are moving a little better, deadlifts may be a possibility.

That said, I do teach the hip hinge to clients with back pain, so that they can start learning how to use their hips and glutes (instead of their back) to help a bit more in their daily lives, and also so that when they are ready for deadlifts, they'll be able to hit the ground running having mastered the hip hinge.

Myth #4: Deadlifts are scary and only experienced lifters should do them.

It's true that massive deadlifts can be intimidating and even scary-looking.

Let's add some context and perspective to that idea. How about, a 900-pound deadlift is scary and only an experienced lifter should try that?

The truth is that deadlifts done by ordinary people look like any other quality movement done by ordinary people.

Does the deadlift in the video below look scary? (No way! Not only does it not look scary, it’s worthy of celebration!)

Let's move away from the idea that deadlifts are scary, and let's instead remember why they are awesome and why we should be deadlifting. Here are my top four reasons why you should deadlift:

  1. It works so many muscles that it’s an incredibly efficient exercise to use for virtually any fitness goal.
  2. The stronger you get, the easier lifting heavy things in your daily life becomes (luggage, boxes, pets, people).
  3. Because if you learn how to do it properly in the gym, odds are you'll use that technique when lifting heavy stuff outside the gym.
  4. Because deadlifting will make you feel awesome and powerful.

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About the author:  Elsbeth Vaino

Elsbeth Vaino is the owner of Custom Strength in Ottawa where she works primarily with clients over 30 who continue to perform at high levels in their chosen sport, as well as helping clients return to sports post-injury. Prior to becoming a trainer, Elsbeth had a successful career in engineering, which significantly influences her approach. She holds a CSCS, is FMS certified, and also has a wealth of experience coaching and teaching sports (hockey, ultimate, and skiing). Elsbeth shares her views and approach to fitness and nutrition at elsbethvaino.com. You can also connect with her on Twitter @customstrength.

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