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The Argument Against Deadlifting
Deadlift. Lower body ego buoyancy. Big numbers and big weights can go up fairly easily for most athletes when practicing this lift. Like anything, with success comes haste, and with haste comes sacrifices of quality and diligence. For any athlete who regularly deadlifts, CrossFit, powerlifters, or traditional athletes, this is a movement that must be used with caution. This article will talk about why you don’t need the deadlift to max out, its replacements, and specifically how it applies to CrossFit athletes.
Don’t get me wrong. As a coach 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 to allow us to lift such a large amount of weight. It is not uncommon to see an athlete 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 training with accessories and time, a 3x bodyweight deadlift is achievable for more experienced and better trained athletes. For this reason and more, it is a lift to watch carefully in your 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 I am training at my max, both on the CNS due to the heavy load. and on the back chain. Regarding the first, if an athlete is training at maximum (and by maximum refers to working with maximum weight for a repetition scheme of 3 or less) every week or more than once a week, he is most likely carrying the body down more than it stands, which greatly affects the following training days. In reference to the latter, any coach or athlete who is relatively well-educated in strength training will tell you that training lifts to the max will sometimes cause a lifter to lose perfect form. Some trainers may even argue (I’m one of them) that it’s okay to lose form to some degree during a max lift because it trains the body to come out of an imperfect lift safely and successfully. However, with a lot of weight being lifted in the deadlift, imperfect form can lead to tightness and soreness in the lower back, hips, and hamstrings, and can even lead to injury. Like the CNS taxing problem, this leads to missed training days for athletes. No matter what sport you practice, it’s not good.
So what other options do we have?
The Soviets were on to something with their weightlifting studies during the Iron Curtain. The reason so much good information, not just about lifting, but about building strength in general, comes from that time is because they had such a large population participating in the sport of weightlifting. With so many people training for strength, the Soviet trainers were able to develop very tried and true theories on how to be 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 different sports. Louie Simmons took this idea and created an entire training template based on moving the weight as fast as possible and keeping the muscles under tension during these high-speed lifts. It has been proven time and time again that the best way to gain strength is to produce maximal force on the barbell as quickly as possible.
This speed is relative. Obviously, the speed at which you lift the squat that is your 1rm will be much lower than the speed at which you lift 50% on dynamic squat days. But using as much force as possible to lift that weight is equivalent to moving a lighter weight with explosive speed, allowing you to hit different motor units and different/bigger muscles than a lighter load/slower lift. What matters is how many times you can engage these motor units.
Motor units are what make the muscle contract. If you want to lift something, the brain sends a signal to the muscles, the motor units fire, twitch the muscles, we lift. However, your motor units are ordered from small to large. The smallest are the easiest to shoot and the first, the biggest are harder to recruit and shoot last. You may have guessed that smaller motor units are associated with smaller muscle fibers, larger motor units are associated with larger muscle fibers. So what we have here is a neat little rule of thumb that dictates how and when to access the biggest muscles in our body. It’s called Henneman’s size principle. You use small motor units to lift loads that are submaximal, and you only hit the biggest motor units by lifting max loads…or lifting at max speed. Small motor units are more sustainable, meaning you can more easily use them repeatedly, while large motor units tire faster and take longer to recover. Remember that, more later.
Think of it in terms of a fight or flight mentality. Back in the day, I’m talking way back when, fight or flight meant either getting eaten by a saber-toothed tiger or not getting eaten. The pinnacle of this fighting mentality is when you drag him out of a cave faster than a tiger, or even rip a tooth out of a tiger’s mouth and use it to stab the beast to death. It is at this peak that you recruit all, including the largest, motor units and muscles in your body. It’s about how/why you can achieve insane feats of strength under duress.
How do you simulate this situation during training? By making your body develop the maximum possible strength and thus also the speed on the load. So let’s look at the deadlift. A ton of force was used to lift a 1RM of 500#, right? It might not be super fast, but you’ve definitely flipped the fight switch and gotten into the biggest motor units during the lift. So why not withdraw RM1 once a week?
Think about how often you can deadlift 1RM in a session. Then think about how often you can safely lift it. This is where we get to efficiency of use. What Elwood Henneman discovered, what the Soviets experimented with, and Louie Simmons used, is that we can get bigger and stronger not just by lifting maxes here and there, but by lifting submaxes as quickly as possible over and over again. If you can recruit the same large motor units that you do in 1 class, the same ones associated with the largest muscles in your body, by lifting 50-70% of it multiple times in a session, what do you think is more beneficial? to build strength? If you can hit these large motor units/large muscles multiple times, if not 10 times during training, you will be training these nerves (motor units) to be able to fire more often without fatigue and thus train. the bigger/stronger muscles more often.
For sake, for example, instead of deadlifting 1RM on a weekly basis, think about doing Olympic lifts at a different percentage almost every day. Not only is this done to improve your Olympic lifts, but the explosive pull from the ground (exerting maximum force and speed to the load) engages these larger motor units. While it may not always recruit the biggest and strongest, it trains you to hit these larger units and muscle groups repeatedly. This applies not only to strength, but also specifically to CrossFit. To perform at the highest level in this sport, you need to be able to transfer weight very quickly and over and over again. In other words, you need to be able to recruit those high motor units, the biggest muscles in your body, over and over again. If you only train them once per time, you only train them to shoot/recruit once per time.
To make up for the lack of heavy lifting, also do heavy but explosive pulls once a week. By putting more than your max on your pulls and doing them as fast as you can, you tap into the biggest, hardest-to-reach motor units. By doing them for repetition, you are forcing/training them to shoot repeatedly. So not only are you mentally training yourself to be able to pull a heavier weight than you ever have before, but you are also physically training yourself to actually do it. This correlates to an increased deadlift because regardless of the load on the bar, you are training the largest and most powerful muscles in your body MULTIPLE TIMES in a set, not just one at a time. Building strength and muscular endurance in a variety of ways.
Louie Simmons helped even more by persuading the masses of the benefits of friendly resistance. The bands and chains used for vertical lifts make it so that even when using a submaximal weight, the athlete must shoot through the entire lift. This is made possible by adaptive resistance, which adds weight/resistance as the stroke is (usually) simplified. Think deadlift, bench, squat. This leads to the fact that the athlete must be explosive not only during the hard “stuck point” of the lift, but as a whole, so that the recruitment of the above-mentioned high-end motor units occurs even with a “lighter” weight.
Pay attention to your speed with each stroke. Aggressive and quick lifting will allow you to get stronger. You don’t always have to max out to get stronger with the above science. This is why with The ProgramWOD and 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 need to train effectively. It does not only concern time, but also the burden on the organism. It doesn’t do athletes any good to train into the ground or into injury. The goal is to be able to train at a high level all or most of the time. Deadlifts aren’t necessarily “bad” for you, but they definitely stress the CNS and lead to a lot of pain and injury. If we can avoid it, why not? It is true that the multiple deadlift stimulus should still be used because it is a very different and specific stimulus. But movements like dynamic deadlifts, box squats, and lighter deadlifts with adaptive resistance can be used in place of several days of maximum deadlifts in a training cycle. This allows the athlete to continuously build strength during training waves without taking extended breaks due to burnout or injury.
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