The deadlift is known as the King of Lifts. Known for being the one that makes you feel the best, makes your mom the most nervous, and makes old people complain about the noise – even though they can’t hear their kids on the phone.
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The deadlift can be used for hypertrophy and muscle growth, but here’s a little secret for you… It’s not the best hip hinge exercise for those. Let me show you why.
What Is the Deadlift?
If you’ve been in the gym a few times or follow fitness accounts on Instagram, then you already know what the deadlift is. You pick some weight up, and you put it down. Revolutionary.
This is as simple as strength training goes since this is a motion most of us will do multiple times a day, whether you’re picking up groceries, dog poo, or that one grain of rice – because you’ll be damned if you waste a single gram of carb!
Looking at the world of sports, every sport will require you to do that type of motion (just maybe not chess).
The History of the King of Lifts
The history of the deadlift is a rather tricky one to pinpoint since it’s so incredibly common.
Today, there are various kinds of deadlifts, and we’ll get into those a bit later. But the first resemblance to this movement is earlier than you might think.
Back in 6th-century B.C., there were a few weightlifters named Bybon and Eumastas living in Greece. Archeologists found a stone 315 pounds (143.5 Kg) with the inscription “Bybon son of Phola, has lifted me over his head with one hand.”
Another stone was found, 1056 pounds (480 Kg), that had the inscription “Eumastas, the son of Critobulus, lifted me from the ground.” That is a lot of weight.
This is probably the earliest history of a deadlift-like exercise. That said, there have been various feats of strength in a similar fashion around the globe:
- Iceland lifting stones: It’s not technically just a deadlift, but you sure have to lift that dead weight off the ground before you can start carrying it around. In order to work on fishing boats, a man would have to pick up the hálfdrættingur stone. The most famous of these is the Hussafell stone, weighing in at 410 lb, which you would have to carry around as well. (Fun fact – the Hussafell carry is still an event in Strongman competitions today.)
- Mythical feats: From mythical feats by Samson and Hercules to tearing the skin off a lion and carrying the world on your shoulders, strength has always been a fascination of mankind.
- Scottish Highland Games: In these games or events held to prove the worthiness of men, they had to carry around stones weighing more than 250lbs, throw weighted poles or kettlebell-like weights, and accomplish various other feats of strength.
- Silver Dollar Lift: Back in the 1800s, circus men would simply pick up two barrels filled with silver dollars. The two barrels were connected with some kind of metal bar.
It’s safe to say that – in various places around the world – men have been battling the forces of gravity to see who can pick up the heaviest stuff they could place their hands on.
More About the Modern Deadlift
So, when did the real barbell deadlift come into the scene?
For that, we have to go back to the early 1900s to visit one particular man: Hermann Goerne.
Hermann was one of the first men to really do heavy (and precise) deadlifts. This means that there was an exact amount of weight on the bar, which he’d deadlift off the ground. Mark Berry was also popular at this time for doing the same.
Somewhere in the 1950s, a rule was set into place. In order to hold or attempt a record in the deadlift, you would have to do so at an Olympic lifting competition. This is how strength sports, such as powerlifting and strongman, evolved into what they are today.
Today, the world deadlift record is held by Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson at 1104lbs, narrowly beating Eddie Hall’s previous record at 1100lbs.
While the deadlift is still the ultimate measure of strength, it’s also still a tool used by those looking for hypertrophy, which is different from pure strength…
What Is Hypertrophy & Muscle Growth?
When zooming in on Hypertrophy, we have to realize that it is different from strength. Hypertrophy is the growth of muscles in size, whereas strength is the increase of muscle strength. While these two can influence one another, they’re actually quite different.
Hypertrophy is driven due to something called mechanical tension. Mechanical tension can be easily described as the time you spend in a set that’s actually challenging the muscle.
Have a look at these two sets, and guess which one has more mechanical tension:
- Set 1: 20lbs bar for 30 reps, getting to around 65% of failure
- Set 2: 120lbs bar for 12 reps, getting to around 85% of failure
The second set is far more challenging than the first, and the body will have to adapt at a far greater rate due to this. The muscles have to work a lot harder because both the load and reps are significant.
But this gets even more interesting…
Time under tension also plays a role. For instance, if you did a sumo deadlift compared to a regular deadlift, the sumo would have far less time under tension. This means the muscles have to produce far less torque, and that will lead to less mechanical tension, meaning less growth.
There are, of course, other factors – such as nutrition and recovery – that play a role, but we’ll get into those a bit later.
For now, we just need to understand the following about hypertrophy and muscle growth:
- The main driver behind hypertrophy is not time under tension or muscle damage but rather mechanical tension.
- Time under tension does play a role when choosing exercises, especially when looking at moment arms and torque.
- Another key factor will be progressive overload. You have to increase the mechanical tension over time in order for muscles to adapt and grow.
Now that we have a firm grasp on what deadlifts are and what hypertrophy is, I’m going to confuse you by quoting Robert Oberst, one of the strongest men on the planet:
“By the way, a little tip, if you’re deadlifting to be a better deadlifter – fine. If you’re not doing that for deadlifts’ sake, then don’t f***ing do it. The risk-to-reward ratio is a joke, for deadlifts.”
“It’s so hard to be a great deadlifter and to not risk your lower back and to be using your upper back properly. There are so many little chances for you to get hurt.”
Bold words from a man that has won multiple international strongman competitions and has a deadlift of more than 800lbs himself…
Why would he even say that? Because it’s true.
Step 1 – Do You Even Need to Deadlift?
Before we even delve into how to deadlift for hypertrophy, we first need to ask the big question: do you even need to deadlift in order to gain muscle mass? Can we replace it, and if we can, why would we even do that?
To add to what Robert said, deadlifts can be dangerous. In fact, it’s probably one of the exercises people mess up the most, yet they’ll always be pressured to use the most amount of weight possible. Look, I understand. I love me a one-rep max deadlift party, but if you look like a dog taking a sh*t… that’s bad news.
Your form will dictate so much when it comes to the deadlift. In fact, it dictates way more than just the chances of you becoming a gym meme (like so):
- Injuries will happen easily if the form isn’t kept A+. The reason is that the deadlift will use pretty much every muscle in the body, and failing to maintain form could hurt any of them – especially the back.
- Which muscles work will also be determined by your form. If you shoot your hips up before even getting the bar off the ground, your quads will not be doing anything – RIP lower back.
- Muscle imbalances and other genetic components can be revealed when you start deadlifting. Most men, for instance, struggle with the lockout due to men rarely training their glutes.
Okay, but why would you even deadlift? Seems like a good exercise, but why do I need to do it?
You Do Not *Need* to Deadlift
There’s no law stating you need to deadlift. There’s also no gym rule book saying you need to deadlift, especially if you’re someone older.
That said, the deadlift or a deadlift-like movement are both excellent when it comes to building a particularly perfect posterior chain (the backside of the body).
The deadlift is amazing for this because it’ll train:
- The glutes
- Lower back
- Upper back
That’s a long list, which is great! But, there is a drawback.
What are you actually targeting in regard to muscle growth? Muscle growth means you can see the specific muscles you’re targeting and want to grow, but with so many targeted here… which is it? Which ones are your weakest links? Where are you looking to progress?
Deadlifts are like tanks. They blow up everything in sight, which looks amazing, but it’s not particularly accurate or precise. A single shot from a pistol could still get the job done, but with far less carnage and excessiveness.
What’s the pistol in this situation? Deadlift variants.
Alternatives like a Romanian deadlift, a banded RDL, a stiff leg deadlift, etc. These will all allow you to overload specific muscles while potentially leading to fewer injuries as well. This is where you need to start looking at your goals, your genetics, and what you enjoy doing.
Step 2 – Identify Your Goals
Failing to plan is planning to fail. This is incredibly true, and you need to make sure you have the right tools in your corner to grow the most amount of muscle mass without causing injuries.
We have to pick the right deadlift for the goal. So, let’s look at the different kinds of deadlifts (and deadlift alternatives):
- The normal deadlift has already been somewhat discussed. This exercise is great as a baseline and is vital if you’re looking at strength sports. For hypertrophy, there are better options. However, it’s still a viable option.
- RDL (Romanian deadlift) is the next step. This one will remove the quads from the lift entirely as well as place all the tension on the glutes and back. If your form is perfect, this could be the lift that builds the most amount of muscle with the smallest risk of injury.
- Stiff leg deadlifts are quite often butchered when it comes to forming. Again, another great glute and back builder. However, it removes the elasticity from the RDL. It’s also slightly more dangerous and only for lifters who are experienced.
- Banded RDL with Dumbbells is probably the best option and the best Romanian deadlift alternative, especially for a beginner or someone who’s doing the deadlift to build big legs. The band will make the shortened position a lot harder when a normal RDL is the easiest.
These are the best options you have at your disposal. There are, of course, a few others – such as a deficit deadlift. However, this list should do you just fine.
Now that we have the tools, let’s design a program that actually has different deadlifts in it!
Step 3 – Choose (or Create) a Program
There are a million and one different programs you can use – different lifting schedules, reps, schemes, etc. I’m going to provide one example for someone looking to build the most amount of muscle mass possible.
This person will be following a lower volume approach with a greater load, training 80 – 90% to fail every set. This seems to be the best mix for the most amount of mechanical tension.
Monday: Chest, Triceps
|Movement||Target Muscles||Sets and Reps|
|Cable Flyes, Seated||Chest||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 12|
|Incline Barbell Press||Chest, Shoulders, Triceps||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 12|
|Dips, Weighted||Chest, Shoulders, Triceps||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 12|
|Single Arm Cable Extension||Triceps||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 121x 8 – 12|
|JM Press||Triceps||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 12|
When choosing exercises, you’re better off choosing ones that are stable while still allowing for progression and overloading the muscles.
Tuesday: Back, Biceps, Glutes
|Movement||Target Muscles||Sets and Reps|
|Single Arm Pulldown||Lats, Biceps||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 12|
|Neutral Pulldown||Lats, Traps, Biceps||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 121x 8 – 12|
|Chest Supported Rows||Traps, Lats, Biceps||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 12|
|Banded RDLs with Dumbbells||Glutes, Hamstrings, Core||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 121x 8 – 12|
|Side Knockouts, Cables||Glutes||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 12|
|Preacher Curl||Biceps||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 121x 8 – 12|
|Barbell Curl||Biceps||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 12|
We’re programming RDLs with bands here because it loads the back (which is already fatigued at this point) less than the other deadlifts. Keep in mind it still overloads the glutes, though.
Thursday: Quads, Hamstrings
|Movement||Target Muscles||Sets and Reps|
|Adductors||Adductors||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 12|
|Leg Extensions||Quads||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 12|
|Leg Press||Quads, Glutes||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 12|
|Deadlifts||Quads, Glutes, etc||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 12|
|Seated Hammy Curl||Hamstrings||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 12|
The deadlift might be a bit much for some on this day, but it can be done. The overall volume is low even though the intensity is quite high. You could switch the leg press and deadlifts in order – it shouldn’t make too much of a difference.
|Overhead Press, Barbell||Shoulders, Triceps||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 121x 8 – 12|
|Lateral Raises, Cables||Shoulders||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 121x 8 – 12|
|Rear Delt Dumbbell Raise||Shoulders||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 12|
|Decline Barbell Press||Chest, Shoulders, Triceps||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 121x 8 – 12|
|Plate Loaded Chest Press Machine||Chest, Shoulders, Triceps||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 12|
Saturday: Posterior Chain, Arms
|Movement||Target Muscles||Sets and Reps|
|Single Arm Across the body Pulldown||Lats, Biceps||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 12|
|RDLs||Glutes, Hamstrings, Core||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 121x 8 – 12|
|Dumbbell Rows||Lats, Traps, Biceps||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 121x 8 – 12|
|Lying Hamstring Curl||Hamstrings||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 12|
|Overhead Cable Extension||Triceps||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 121x 8 – 12|
|Dumbbell Curls||Biceps||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 121x 8 – 121x 12 – 15|
|Close Grip Bench||Triceps||1x 6 – 91x 8 – 12|
There’s a rather large amount of volume here, so you might want to make sure you eat and sleep a lot on this day. You might need longer rest times and some stretching afterward as well. It would be a good idea to do some cardio, such as walking, to aid in recovery.
Also, all the reps are in that scheme because it seems to be the best when it comes to growth. Yes, more does work. However, this is marginally better.
I’ll take every margin I can – thank you very much.
Things to Keep In Mind
Overall, this is how you would program deadlifts into a program. You choose the right deadlift variations for the right days, which will allow for recovery while still allowing for growth.
There’s technically no need to do regular deadlifts, but they do have their place. And they’re quite fun if we’re being honest.
Obviously, you need to make sure you eat and sleep enough to follow this plan. You might need to remove volume if your stress levels are high or if you are a beginner, too.
Of course, you can obviously follow other plans. Just remember the deadlift is known to destroy recovery if you do too much too often – so be careful.
Also, wear a belt – a good one. Spend the extra $200 and get a good quality lifting belt; it might just save you years of pain.
While going for a one-rep max is fun, try not to do it too often. Remember, growth is the goal, not strength. Yes, stronger people are bigger, but people stronger at 6 – 12 reps are the biggest.
Deadlifting for Muscle Growth Conclusion
So, do you have to deadlift? No. You don’t “need” to do anything specific in the gym.
That said, it’s one of the best bang-for-your-buck exercises out there. When looking at the amount you can progress on it, there are very few like it.
It overloads the entire body, and when you start doing specific deadlift variations, you can target specific muscles!
That means you can overload your glutes until they give out, not your lower back. The only other exercise that can do that is… maybe cable kickbacks? And then you run into the issue of the machine being capped with a certain amount of weight.
If you want to deadlift, do it.
Wear a belt and make sure your form is on point. Don’t do it too often, don’t only go for one rep maxes, and make sure you continue to make progress. More weight, more reps, more everything.
And when (not if) the staff complains that you make too much noise, you simply say you’ll make an effort to be quieter. Then load another two 40s on that bar, and make all the noise you can.
Because deadlifts, that’s why.