Why Deadlifts Are Overrated For Muscle Building

Why Deadlifts Are Overrated For Muscle Building

There are other exercises better suited to muscle building.

01 Oct 2017

Training Intermediate
9 Mins

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I haven’t done a traditional conventional deadlift off the floor in 4 years, and I don’t plan to again.
 
And guess what? My glutes, hamstrings and back have all continued to grow – and at a faster rate than they have before.
 
Now don’t get me wrong, the deadlift is a great movement to build overall strength. But for muscle building? Not so much. I think there are better alternatives if your sole focus is body composition.
 
Unless you plan to compete in powerlifting, there’s no compulsory requirement to deadlift.
 
No exercise is indispensable, and if your goal is body composition, you need to find the exercises that work for YOU if you want to make a real change to your physique.
 
And for most people reading this, deadlifts probably aren’t doing as much for your back and leg growth as you think they are.
 
I used to love to pull off the floor. Before bodybuilding, I used to train like a powerlifter. Of the three lifts, the deadlift came most naturally to me as I’m built with a short torso and long arms. While I’ve never been super strong, I did manage to get up to 3x bodyweight a few times.
 
So why do I think they’re the most overrated exercise for muscle building?

1) No Dynamic Contraction

Research shows that for optimal muscle growth, dynamic contractions which can be defined as an “eccentric contraction followed by a concentric contraction” are superior to concentric only, eccentric only or isometric contractions. This simply comes down to the fact that a muscle is able to produce more force during the concentric phase when it is superseded by an eccentric contraction.
 
More force produced > more mechanical tension on the muscles > more potential for growth.
 
For example, you are more likely to be able to lift more weight during a squat when you have lowered yourself down under control vs starting your rep right at the bottom. 
 
When you deadlift, you are starting each rep from a complete deadstop and even if you were to control the eccentric portion, you run into the issue of “bouncing” the bar off the floor which can make it really tricky to gauge your progress. Are you getting stronger or are you just bouncing more?

2) Range Of Motion

For everyone adding deadlifts onto their back training days to get bigger lats, I am compelled to ask, why? The upper back and lats only work isometrically when deadlifting, and never go through a full range of motion. While you may get some overall back mass, you’ll never build a complete back by prioritising the deadlift.
 
Surely it takes the glutes and hamstrings through a full range of motion right? Not so fast. 
 
Due to the nature of the hamstrings being a “biarticular muscle” that crosses the hip and the knee, one joint must remain relatively fixed as the other joint moves to allow the hamstring to lengthen and shorten under load. 
 
When you deadlift, both the hips and the knees extend together meaning very little change in length occurs. This also happens when we squat and we know that squats are terrible for growing the hamstrings.
 
That’s why the Romanian Deadlift works so well at building the posterior chain, especially the hamstrings. You are able to take your hamstrings through their full range of motion as you keep the knees slightly bent throughout while moving the hips back as far as possible.
 
They also take advantage of the “dynamic contraction” principle mentioned in point 1 as each concentric contraction is superseded by an eccentric contraction.

3) Stimulus To Fatigue Ratio

For decades, deadlifts were thought to induce the most fatigue out of any exercise you could do in the gym. I am sure most of you have heard that “deadlifts fry your central nervous system (CNS)” and that “you should only train them once per week at most”. 
 
This has recently been debunked as there doesn’t appear to be any difference in feelings of fatigue or performance decrements when comparing deadlifts to other heavy compound exercises, such as back squats. In fact, effective lifting NEEDS to induce some level of fatigue otherwise we aren’t giving the body a reason to change or adapt.
 
The thing is, we want our fatigue to eventually lead to something productive which is where the concept of the “stimulus to fatigue ratio” plays a huge part when selecting exercises for muscle growth. If we compare the RDL and deadlift, we would argue that they both induce similar levels of fatigue but because the RDL takes the hamstrings through a larger range of motion it’s safe to say that the stimulus was worth the fatigue or in other words, “the juice was worth the squeeze”.
 
The above is a very important concept when it comes to muscle building in general as we always want to be looking for the exercises that not only give us the best results, but also come with the least amount of fatigue. Granted, every effective exercise implemented with high levels of effort will come with a relatively high recovery cost but there are better ways to direct our efforts which will be discussed next.

A Better Way?

If you want to maximise all the muscle groups that contribute to the deadlift without inducing the unnecessary recovery burden, we would recommend making sure your program has the following:
  • A hip hinge dominant exercise such as the Romanian Deadlift for the glutes and hamstrings while hitting the spinal erectors isometrically.
  • A vertical pulling exercise such as chin ups or lat pulldowns for the upper fibres of the lats and lower traps.
  • A horizontal rowing exercise such as single arm DB rows, cable seated rows or machine rows for the mid traps, rear delts and lower fibres of the lats.
In our opinion, if you are incorporating all of the above exercises with high levels of effort for multiple sets, adding in deadlifts will not lead to any further muscle growth.

What About Rack Deadlifts?

Even though rack deadlifts may be safer for some people as they do not require as much mobility to get into position, the exercise still runs into the exact same issues regarding:
  • Dynamic contractions.
  • Short range of motion.
  • High levels of fatigue (potentially even higher due to the capacity to hold more weight in the hands).
If a lifter was to modify their technique so they are pulling each rep with a more “stiff legged” or “higher hip” set up, then an argument could be made for implementing them as they would be training the hamstrings through a larger range of motion while also teaching the lifter proper hip hinge positioning at the bottom of each rep.

4) Injury Risk

I’ve seen more injured backs from deadlifts off the floor than any other exercise. The exercise isn’t to blame. It’s usually the inherent ego people bring to the exercise that results in trying to lift too much weight in comparison to their capabilities along with suboptimal technique. 
 
From a muscle building perspective, the risk/reward trade off of the deadlift may not be worth it for most people. There are no “must have” exercises, especially when the goals are purely to look and feel better but if you have suffered a back injury from deadlifting in the past, there could be some merit in implementing it within your program for factors that go outside of just muscle building such as: 
  • Teaching good lifting mechanics from the floor.
  • Regaining confidence in your own body, as the psychological aspect of lower back pain can be debilitating even after the injury has healed.
  • Loading the skeleton which is great for bone health, especially in older populations.

Why Do Some People Swear By Deadlifts?

You may be reading through this and thinking but what about the guys that deadlift huge weights and have massive backs?
 
Well ask yourself this; did their back development come from the fact that they pull huge weights from the floor all the time, or is it because they were genetically predisposed to having a great back that it made pulling big weights easy?
I’d venture to say it was the latter. I see so many guys now pulling huge weights with average back development to say the least.
 
And I know I’m not the only one. So many successful bodybuilders have abandoned the traditional deadlift for the exact reasons I’ve discussed above. Instead, their focus is on progressively overloading exercises like RDL’s, chin ups and bent over rows.

Conclusion:

I’d like to finish by emphasizing that I don’t think deadlifts are useless. I just think they’re overrated if maximum back and posterior chain development is your goal.

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