Vail Daily column: Alternatives to the deadlift
Last week, I discussed why I believe the deadlift is the quintessential strength developer for the lifting enthusiast. I received numerous phone calls this week from individuals who wanted further explanation. I was asked two very revealing questions. First, “my doctor said deadlifts were without question dangerous to my spinal condition, what do you think of this opinion?” Second, “are there alternative exercises that had similar benefits?”
I thought it would be appropriate to dive into these questions as the controversy prevails. And yes, there are alternatives to deadlifts, so don’t panic. Let’s investigate the first question. Are deadlifts really dangerous? Very simply, no they are not.
The misunderstanding stems from a naive fitness culture and a medical community that perpetuates the idea that deadlifting weights is dangerous and damaging to your joints. Pavel Tsatsouline once said that “heavy weights aren’t dangerous, it’s our attitude toward them.” Deadlifts don’t hurt people; people hurt themselves from not knowing the proper techniques involved in lifting. Do me a favor, stop right now and walk over to the nearest wall. Place your hands against the wall, your feet against the floor. Bear down hard. Push the wall as hard as possible as if your life depended on it. Did you hurt yourself? Of course not. Is this exertion so different from lifting a heavy weight off of the floor? Wait, it is because you’re bending over and it stresses your back. Not so fast.
SHEER FORCE MEASUREMENTS
A paper prepared by Tony Leyland investigated the compressive and sheer forces exerted on the low back during the conventional deadlift. The University of Waterloo ergonomic research group has suggested 500 newtons of sheer force as a safe limit, and 1,000 as a maximal permissible limit for occupational safety and health. During investigation, during a neutral lumbar spine position with a 300 pound deadlift, the sheer force was a mere 699 newtons, well below the 1,000 newton upper limit (for regular John Q public working at the local grocery store). However, during lumbar spinal flexion under this load, the shear values reached 3,799 newtons! The force values were so high the graph literally went above the chart. Of course deadlifts can hurt you, even permanently if you lose the ability to control your low back position.
But, even when the investigators loaded the subject with a whopping 600 pound load under optimal lifting mechanics, the shear values were only 1,200 newtons, only 200 above the upper limit — values set for average couch potatoes who work at the post office. By the way, 600 pounds is far out of reach and question from what I’m recommending for any of you who I’m suggesting could benefit from occasional deadlifting.
Listen, I’m not telling you to avoid the advice of doctors. However, general doctors and even surgeons are professionals with specific skills; understanding the mechanics of lifting and how external forces interplay on the human anatomy isn’t necessarily one of them. For example, I understand how the knee functions. I would be out of my element by telling you to “just strengthen your butt and leg muscles and your pain will go away.” Doctors are doctors, and professionals who coach movement understand the difference. Choose advise wisely.
I will gladly accept that there are those who cannot deadlift. I mentioned before that some trainees lack the appropriate range of motion or otherwise cannot assume the proper position because of other motor ability insufficiencies. There are alternatives.
First, realize the most important function isn’t the amount of weight lifted, but the position the trainee is assuming. Individuals must practice movement first and foremost. From this point of view, for folks who are at risk, try the same movement with two lighter weights such as small kettlebells, standing on one leg. Even though single leg deadlifts are a progression of the traditional two-footed stance, the sheer forces are often half; single leg stance improves the recruitment of the deep stabilizing muscles to avoid the twisting torque that one-limb training provides causing a reduction in spine stress. Single leg deadlifts require far less external resistance because you’re off balance and using half of your available leg drive. This combination further reduces spine stress.
There are other deadlift alternatives such as using bands or performing kettlebell swings. But let’s not go there today as kettlebell swings are even more controversial than deadlifts.
I hope this clears up the confusion. Have a great week!
Ryan Richards has a B.S. from Ohio University and is a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. He is the personal trainer at the Sonnenalp Golf Club and the owner of R2HP, an athlete consulting and personal training company. Richards’ passion comes from overcoming childhood obesity and a T1-L3 spinal fusion. Contact him at r2hp.com or 970-401-0720.