ARE DEADLIFTS WORTH THE RISK?

Accomplished strongman Robert Oberst made the comment on Joe Rogan’s podcast (one of the most popular podcasts in the world) that deadlifts that are not worth the risk.  Here is his exact quote:

 “If you are deadlifting to be a better deadlifter, fine.  If you are not doing that for deadlift’s sake, then don’t f*cking do it.  The risk to reward ratio is a joke.”

Here’s a clip of the interview, this quote occurs around the 1 min mark:

To be fair to Robert, the point of this podcast wasn’t purely to debate the merits of deadlifts.  He was talking about his experience as a strongman and tossed that statement out there as an aside.  But he still said it, and the words are pretty clear.  Let me offer what I feel is a more nuanced analysis of this statement.

First, the term deadlift itself is quite broad and technically it involves simply picking up something off the floor.  Later in the podcast Oberst goes on to suggest that power cleans are a better option and of course the movement of a power clean involves first performing a deadlift so that points out an inconsistency of thought.  Second, there are many types of deadlifts: Conventional, Sumo, Romanian, Stiff-Legged, Single Leg, Rack Pulls, Trap Bar, and Deficit Deads are among the more popular types.  Each of those lifts would have its own risk vs reward ratio and its own purpose for being included in a specific exercise program. 

 Taken as a direct statement, his quote: “if you are not deadlifting for deadlift’s sake, then don’t do it.  The risk-reward ratio is a joke,” is – in my opinion – a gross overstatement. 

To me it would be a real shame if a trainer, coach, or athlete heard that statement without any context, took it at face value, didn’t proceed to think about the concept in more depth, and simply eliminated all deadlifts from their programs or the programs of their clients/athletes. 

In order to properly analyze any exercise, we really need to know two things:

  1. the exercise itself and the form/load it will be performed with
  2. who is doing that exercise and what their goals are. 

Oberst tried to do this in his short snippet by saying “powerlifters and strongman can do deadlifts, everyone else should avoid it” but as with the case in most overgeneralizations, his words present a far from complete picture. 

Obviously we can’t talk about every single individual, so instead I am going to break those individuals who might be using a deadlift down into one of four categories.

Sedentary: These individuals don’t do any formal activity/exercise

Health: These individuals move/exercise with the primary goal of staying healthy

 Fitness: These individuals move/exercise with the primary goal of improving their physical fitness

 Athlete: These individuals move/exercise with the primary goal of performing better at a sport or an activity(s) of their choice

I want to take a moment to talk about the general risk reward ratio of each of these four categories. 

Sedentary

This is a high-risk category to be in.  In the short term staying inactive may not produce much risk, and being inactive in your 20’s and 30’s may not cause many issues at that present time.  But being inactive long term poses great risk to your overall health. 

The good news is that most people are now aware of this.  The bad news is that America is still primarily made up of sedentary, overweight individuals.  The surgeon general made the statement that being sedentary causes equivalent harm to your health as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day.  Read that again.  I know many people would never smoke but those same people often ‘can’t find time to exercise’. 

Since our discussion is going to primarily focus on joint health, it is very important to realize that being sedentary is also not healthy for your joints. 

I’ll share an example I use frequently in the classes I teach.  If you wanted to ‘save’ your shoulder so that it would be good later on in life, would it be smart to put your arm in a sling 24/7 for 10 years straight?  Would your shoulder feel brand new in 10 years once you take the sling off?  Of course not.  If you literally didn’t move your arm for 10 years, your shoulder would be ruined beyond repair.  Regular movement is necessary for joint health. 

Those individuals in the sedentary group should make an effort to modify their daily lifestyle and exercise more so they can move into the “health” group.

Health

The goal of this group is to increase their health.  In most examples, individuals are moving up from being sedentary and now they are looking to implement a consistent exercise program. 

As a personal trainer these are typically the clients I see 1-2x week that don’t do much other exercise on their own.  This goal is extremely common in clients that are turning 60 or 70 and their physical health suddenly jumps to the forefront of their priorities. 

With proper, sensible exercise prescription this category has a low risk of suffering from a joint-related injury and any pre-existing conditions can improve greatly after exercising regularly for several months. 

This group typically needs to stay focused and compliant so they don’t regress into the sedentary classification.

Fitness

The goal of this group is to increase their physical fitness.  They typically engage in reasonably vigorous training that focuses on improving some or all of the 5 classic components of fitness (strength, muscle endurance, flexibility, cardio, and bodyfat). 

These individuals often want to ‘do’ something physical such as: be good at push-ups; run a 5k in a respectable time; complete an obstacle course; look good naked, pull 4 plates, etc.  These individuals are typically training 3-5 x a week.  Assuming proper exercise prescription is followed this group is low risk, however this group does have to watch doing too much activity/exercise and they want to avoid overuse injuries. 

One of the benefits of having a coach or a trainer is hopefully that individual should be able to guide one to the goals of higher fitness levels while simultaneously avoiding the overuse injuries that can come along with training hard.

Athletes

This group typically works the hardest and completes the most demanding physical training.  They often have a very high level of fitness and performance compared to the other groups (at least in certain aspects of fitness). 

However, athletes do need to be aware that prolonged performance at a very high level does increase the risk of joint issues.  The good news is over the last several decades the pendulum has swung to promote high levels of fitness among individuals.  The bad news is that many people adopt a “more is better” mentality and fool themselves into equating current physical fitness with long term health.  This is not correct. 

To return to our example, if someone said they wanted to have the healthiest shoulders possible, would the goal be to enter and train that person for a bench press competition every month for the next decade?  That level of activity would increase one’s risk.  Playing professional sports (for almost any sport) is not ideal for one’s joints.  While there may be a greater reward, one should simply be aware the risk is increased as well. 

Once these athletes retire they should look to move into the health or fitness category long term. 

A much better way to view the risk-reward ratio of most activities is to think of as an inverse bell curve.  See the image below:

The sedentary group (red) does not engage in enough activity and they have a high risk of joint issues particularly as one gets older.  They also have a much higher risk of developing other health issues such as heart attack, stroke, diabetes, etc. 

The health group (green) exercises enough to stay healthy but not so much as to place undo stress on their joints.  Their risk is low. 

The fitness group also exercises regularly without overdoing it.  Their risk is low. 

The athlete group must exercise so much they run the risk of overuse issues and degenerative joint problems.  Their risk is medium-high, although their risk of heart attack, stroke, diabetes, etc is generally low (this depends a lot on body size – huge athletes are at increased risk to develop these conditions later in life). 

A recent study highlighted the inverse bell curve nature of activity and injury.  They followed 115,000 runners for an extended period of time and looked at their chance of developing arthritis in their hip and knee. They found the following:

Sedentary Individual: 10% chance of arthritis

Recreational Runner: 3% chance of arthritis

Competitive Athlete: 12% chance of arthritis

Source: https://www.jospt.org/doi/pdf/10.2519/jospt.2017.0505

We started this discussion by talking about deadlifts.  Let’s return to that topic now.  Oberst said one shouldn’t do deadlifts, their risk to reward ratio is a joke.  Really?  For all of the populations we just discussed – for people that are sedentary trying to become healthy, for those that want to stay healthy, for those that want a high level of fitness – deadlifts are a bad choice for them?

Let’s quickly analyze a deadlift.  A deadlift motion involves lifting something from the ground up until one is standing straight and the arms are your side.  The primary motions involved are trunk, hip, and knee extension.  The main muscles working are the Erectors, Glutes, Hamstrings, Traps, Deep Core, and Forearm Flexors (for more detail go HERE). 

The deadlift is often referred to as hip hinge.  Most individuals can lift a very high amount of weight on the deadlift compared their strength on other exercises.  It is the most functional of the powerlifts if one defines functional as matching activities that we do in real life.  The deadlift has been shown to transfer over to sprinting speed and jumping ability.  The deadlift also gives one an idea of their strength limit.  If you can’t deadlift something, then you can’t clean it, curl it, row it, farmer’s walk it, kettlebell swing it, among other things. 

If you know a person’s maximum deadlift is 200 lbs, you now have a reasonably good idea of what that person can and can’t do in the gym on all sorts of exercises.  If that person had a 400 lb deadlift, their abilities and options for training would be greatly increased. 

Let’s look at the deadlift for each of our four groups:

Sedentary: Should sedentary people deadlift once they start working out?  As a trainer for over 20 years I have worked with lots of these people.  The deadlift certainly can be included as a part of their program.  You may not include it on day 1, but as one’s health and fitness improve that person should be able to perform a reasonably proficient deadlift – it is so important because it matches what we have to do in real life.  The deadlift teaches you how to pick things up. 

Deadlifts I find useful for beginners include conventional, sumo, trap bar deadlifts, dumbbell/kettlebell deadlifts typically off of blocks (1 dumbbell in a vertical position) and rack pulls. 

I use the latter two if someone is able to keep their lower back flat for most of the movement but their back tends to round at the bottom.

Health: To have reasonable health one should be able to perform all of the basic human movements against a light to moderate resistance.  The deadlift is great at building up back strength (upper and lower) which hopefully can reduce the incidence of back injuries later on in life. 

The deadlift is a structural exercise which means it effectively loads the spine & hip enabling it to help build bone density and prevent osteoporosis.  Being able to perform a good deadlift particularly as one ages increases one’s independence and autonomy and it allows one to be able to go on vacations, travel, etc as desired. 

The deadlifts I would have most clients perform to improve their health include conventional, sumo, trap bar, rack pulls, DB/KB deadlifts, and RDL’s (Romanian). 

Fitness: It is hard to envision someone that has a high level of fitness that can’t perform a deadlift reasonably well.  For the under 50 crowd, being able to deadlift their own bodyweight is a simple starting point. 

For women, deadlifting 1.5 x bodyweight or 185 lbs is pretty solid, for men deadlifting 2 x bodyweight or 405 lbs is a good mark to aspire to.  Once a female can deadlift 250 lbs or a male can lift 500 lbs at any weight I would consider that person strong in that movement (not necessarily strong for a powerlifter but strong compared to the general population). 

Deadlifts have a great transfer to many other fitness qualities: sprinting speed, jumping ability (long, broad, and vertical), they make KB swings seem easy, they make lifting/dragging other obstacles seem light.  They are one of the best expressions of power.  They are also the initial part of more complex exercises such as the clean and the snatch. 

Almost any variation of deadlifts can be used when one is attempting to increase their fitness level. 

Now I could be wrong, but I would speculate that in a more in-depth conversation Robert Oberst would agree with me on those points.  I would assume he would agree that most people who are trying to be healthy and fit and who are trying to avoid being sedentary should include some type of deadlift movement in their program.  If he would disagree with that statement then we would have a lot more to discuss.

My guess is what he was really trying to say is that for athletes that don’t compete in powerlifting or strongman, once you are already strong then you should consider the risk-reward ratio of continuing to train the deadlift intensely.  Returning to a previous example, if you are a male and you can already deadlift 500 lbs, what is the purpose and what are the risks of continuing to increase that number? 

Since my audience is mainly powerlifters I feel this is an important point to expound upon.  Of course as powerlifters our goal is to lift as much as possible, kick ass, and dominate the competition (the three things that are good in life).  However, I believe that athletes should go into a situation eyes wide open.  I do believe there is an increased risk of injury (both acute and chronic) taking your deadlift from 500 to 600 lbs compared to taking your deadlift from 200-300 lbs.  And going from 600-700 lbs will incur more even risk.  As you get stronger and stronger and lift progressively heavier weights the risk goes up.

Now an increased risk doesn’t mean injury or overuse is a guarantee by any means.  Eating bacon regularly is suspected to increase your risk of colon cancer, from about a 5% to about a 6% chance of developing cancer.  Is that worth it?  Only you can decide. 

If someone came to me and said I want to be fit (because let’s be honest, being fit is simply awesome) but I also want to be healthy and protect my joints long term, this is what I would tell them. 

Workout hard with the goal of increasing strength, muscle endurance, and improving body composition for about 3 years consistently (training at least 3x week every month for 3 years straight).  After this point you should be very fit and your risk of either joint issues or other health issues should be quite low.  From this point on you can decide to either:

Continuing to work hard to improve fitness – your gains will come slower; you’ll have to work long and hard; your chance of joint damage increases; but this is likely the only way to become an athlete or to become the uber-fit bad ass that many people wish to become.  Just know that this path does increase one’s chance of joint injury/issues long term down the road compared to the second option.

Ease off of the intensity, still train 2-4 x week but focus on movement quality, muscle balance, flexibility, joint health, and cardiovascular health.  Essentially the goal here is to maintain the strength and muscle you have built and to stay as healthy as possible long term.  The good news is these workouts aren’t that hard to do but sometimes it isn’t very motivating to simply ‘maintain’ what you have. 

Are deadlifts worth the risk?  In my opinion probably 90% of the population at large would benefit by including at least some form of deadlift into their exercise program – assuming the lift could be completed with good form.  The other 10% will have to decide for themselves.

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