01 Oct Why Deadlifts Are Overrated For Muscle Building
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 natural 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 Stretch Component
When you deadlift, there’s no stretch. In bodybuilding, the movements that can offer the most loading in the eccentric portion of the lift are the ones that’ll provide most growth potential.
That’s why the Romanian deadlift works so well at building the posterior chain. With the deadlift, most of the work is done in an isometric manner with no real eccentric loading.
2) Low Time Under Tension
The deadlift is often labelled as a great muscle builder because of the amount of muscles it trains at once. But in my view this makes it a limitation.
Given how many muscles are involved in the traditional deadlift, the time under tension is spread so far across the body that no specific muscle receives a lot of direct work.
If bodybuilding is all about providing progressive tension to specific muscles through a full range of motion, surely we could be doing something better instead of deadlifting?
3) The Back Works Isometrically Only
For all the guys adding deadlifts onto their back days to get bigger lats, 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.
And if you did want to add deadlifts into a back routine, put them at the end – so you can push the fatigued back muscles further after the productive full range of motion work preceding it.
4) It Ruins Your Workouts
Following on from the above, if you kick start your back workouts with deadlifts, it’s unlikely that you’ll have enough fuel in the tank to give to the back movements after. Deadlifts are hard, and they’ll tax your system to the point of making exercises that will work your back in a full range of motion – like bent over rows, heavy chins etc.- almost impossible to perform with any real intensity. So if you do want to put them in, do them last.
5) Weekly Recovery
The recovery factor is also an important consideration. A heavy deadlift session can leave your nervous system shot for days, with very little muscle building potential given back in return. If your goal is bodybuilding, is the dent into your systemic recovery (that’ll effect your other training sessions in the days after) worth the trade off? I don’t think so.
6) 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 poor form that is.
The risk/reward trade off of the deadlift isn’t worth it. Not many have the requisite flexibility or leverages to pull safely off the floor. And if this is you, a rack deadlift is a safer and more productive exercise.
So What Are The Alternatives To Conventional Deadlifts?
If you deadlift, you’re probably doing it for two reasons: to build a bigger back, or to build bigger legs. For either goals, there are better options. Here’s what I recommend:
1) Romanian Deadlift
This is the best and most bang-for-your-buck exercise for building up your posterior chain. You get a stretch, you can work the negative hard, and you train the muscles through a full range of motion. It’s a winning combination.
2) Rack Deadlift
I always favour a rack deadlift over pulling from the floor for a few reasons. 1) It’s safer. 2) It’s less stressful on the nervous system because of the shorter range of motion. 3) It overloads the back muscles hard.
If you want a deadlift variation for back development, rack deads are more optimal. When you deadlift off the floor, you essentially have two components of the lift: the ‘push’ from the floor as the bar travels to the knee (which is leg dominant) and the ‘pull’ from the knee to the finish (which is back dominant). When you rack deadlift, you reduce the leg component and overload the muscles in the back instead.
3) Bent Over Rows
Any back exercise where you’re holding a static bottom position while rowing is an ideal choice for muscle building in my eyes.
You get the spinal stabilisation benefits of holding the lower back in an isometric position, and you can take your lats and upper back through a full range of motion.
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 full range of motion back exercises like chin ups and bent over rows.
I’d like to finish by emphasising that I don’t think deadlifts are useless. I just think they’re overrated if maximum back and posterior chain development is your goal.