By Derrick Price, MS, Vice President of the Institute of Motion
It’s 2am. Your 3-month-old son is screaming out of the top of his tiny, yet powerful lungs, waking
up everyone in the household. You lie still, pretending to be asleep, knowing it’s your turn to get up and
console your little one. Your partner gives you a nice solid thump in the back because they know your
little game and they’re not playing.
Begrudgingly, you get out of bed, and zombie walk over to your son’s crib in the next room. Your
body aches, you haven’t slept in days and now you have to bend over to pick up a squirming child in the
dead of night. Unfortunately, your son not’s a great Strength Coach and doesn’t allow you the necessary
warm-up time to prepare your body for a Deadlift. You bend over awkwardly over the edge of the crib,
grab a hold of the 12-pound mass to lift him up, and then zap! Your lower back spasms, vice gripping
your spine and bringing you to the floor in agony.
What’s interesting about this scenario is in the gym, you can Deadlift over 300 pounds. Yet, when
you go to lift your relatively light son out of his crib, your body couldn’t tolerate the demand. This is a
great lesson of the SAID Principle (Specific Adaptation to an Imposed Demand) (Hawley, 2008).
In the gym, the task of Deadlifting is performed repetitively in the same bilateral stance with the objective of
lifting as much mass as possible to thigh/hip height. The problem is in many life and sporting endeavors,
we rarely need to “Deadlift” a maximal load while often needing to “Deadlift” a light load from various
odd-positions to accomplish various tasks. The key word here is “Variety”. Our training may lack the
variability required to meet the variability that life throws at us.
In this article, we’re to going define the Deadlift and address the need for Variable Deadlifting,
introduce the Deadlift’s forgotten cousin the “Deadshift”, and provide solutions on how we can use
Deadlifting and Deadshifting in a well-rounded Strength and Conditioning program for life or sport
As a Strength Coach or Personal Trainer, when you think of the Deadlift, you might envision the
act of lifting up a really heavy barbell off the ground to hip height before putting it back down or letting
it drop before your next rep.
This multi-joint, compound strength exercise has numerous science-supported benefits:
1) High recruitment of Type II Muscle fibers based on Henneman’s Size principle (Henneman et
al 1965, Kompf et al 2017)
2) Posterior Chain Strength (Hamstrings, Glutes, Erectors) (Kamara et al, 2016), Quadriceps
Strength and Core Stability (Hamlyn 2006)
3) Metabolically very taxing, stimulating muscle building hormones like HGH and Testosterone
(Rietjens et al 2015, Kraemer et al 2005)
4) Neurologically condition an individual to safely pick up mass off the ground (Vecchio et al
5) Improve power and vertical jump performance (Thompson et al 2015)
But what exactly is the definition of Deadlifting? Well, “Dead” refers to a mass’ resting inertia
(remember a mass at rest wants to stay at rest!). “Lifting” refers to moving a mass up and down relative
to gravity. Thus Deadlifting means overcoming a mass’ resting inertia to move it up and down. Nowhere
in the definition does it say “how much” to lift, what position to lift from, how high to lift the mass nor at
any specific speed. What this means is we have freedom to Deadlift variably to challenge our body with
these different variables. Thus picking up a really heavy Barbell SHOULD be included in a strength
protocol. But equally important is the idea of picking up variable mass from variable postures, to various
heights and at various speeds. Variable Deadlifting! (Piper et al 2001)
Barbells, Dumbells, and Kettlebells are convenient to lift, affording us the opportunity to lift a
large amount of mass. However, you can probably attest on moving day that deadlifting a large box or
your couch is anything but convenient (even when they’re light!). Not only do we have to lift objects with
unique shapes, we often find ourselves in odd postures: postures that we typically don’t train in the gym.
Resiliency is often thought of as “Bending without Breaking”. In regards to movement or
performing chores, a resilient body has the capacity to tolerate the unique demands of any specific task.
The task of “Deadlifting” outside of the 4 walls of the gym comes in many forms, whether it’s picking up
a resting child, lifting up furniture or boxes on moving day, or something as simple as picking up our
clothes off the ground. These common tasks demand variable deadlifting, which means we should look
to train variably if we want to become more resilient. So how does our body become more resilient with
variable training stimuli?
Our focus shifts to 2 main factors:
1) A smart nervous system
2) Tissue tolerance
A nervous system that has been exposed to variable motor tasks develops motor intelligence.
With repeated exposure to performing a given motor task in variable ways, the nervous system learns
how to coordinate the given task in the safest and most efficient way possible, even with all of the
variations to the given task (Stergiou 2006, Hikosaka 2002).
In other words, you become more well-rounded to perform a given task in many different ways. So in the case of the parent who threw out their back picking up their son, you have an individual who only learned how to Deadlift in one particular manner: holding a convenient object (the barbell), keeping the object close to the body, and lifting the
object from the same posture/stance. To complement the parent’s Deadlifting program, it may be wise
to introduce some variable Deadlifting patterns to make them more coordinated and resilient at 2am!
Tissue tolerance is the ability of our soft tissues (fascia) to have enough tensile strength to
accommodate a given task. For example, compare a conventional barbell deadlift with a Turkish get up.
Both are Deadlifts, but the tissue tolerance for each (as well as the coordination demand) are both very
different. In the conventional deadlift, our body develops a sagittal plane tensile strength but with the
Turkish Get Up, our tissues must be compliant to the multiplanar demand of getting our body off the
ground to a standing position while loaded.
Davis’s Law states that our soft tissues remodel along lines of stress, an adaptation principle
based on the concept of Mechanotransduction: how our bodies convert a mechanical stimulus
(movement) into chemical activity (cellular adaptation)(Kjaer 2004, Schleip et al 2012). This relates to the SAID Principle as our tissues will only develop tolerance depending on the direction of force placed on it.
In other words, our bodies need variable, multiplanar force to be resilient. Conventional Deadlifting is
only a small piece of the puzzle!
Have you ever seen someone struggle with getting their luggage out of the overhead bin on an
airplane? Or how about that box that needs to be dragged out of the back of an SUV trunk? In both
cases, the task demands a unique “Deadlift”. With the overhead bin, you’re initiating the lift with the
mass overhead. With moving a mass out of the trunk of a vehicle, the mass is very far from midline,
putting your body in an odd-position to accomplish the task. Not only is the posture odd in both, the task
demands that we “shift” mass rather than “lift”.
If lifting is defined as moving a mass up or down relative to gravity, Shifting can be defined as
translating a mass through a field of gravity. In other words you’re moving mass perpendicular to gravity,
not just against it. In our examples above, these would actually fit in the “Deadshifting” category as you
have to overcome a mass’ resting inertia and then move it horizontal through space.
What’s interesting about the Deadshift is how rarely it is ever considered in an S&C program, based
on the fact there is little to no research that has explored this idea. Yet we have to perform “Deadshifts”
quite often in life and sport. Whether it’s shoveling snow or dirt, a first responder having to move an
unconscious body or grabbing groceries bags out of the trunk of our car and moving them into the
While there may not be specific evidence in the literature, we can certainly be led by research to
infer some potential benefits of Deadshifting including:
1) Tensile Strength as we have to stretch under load to accomplish a Deadshifting task
2) Positional Strength as we must learn how to optimize muscular force production from an
3) Whole-body Starting Strength which is the type of strength needed to Deadlift or Deadshift a
4) Multi-planar mobility through the ankle, hips and T-spine
5) Core Strength and Stability as we have to engage a mass when it’s far from our midline (Core)
6) Improved Coordination as we learn a complex, multiplanar, whole-body, task-specific exercise.
Not bad for just one exercise! You can find a library of Deadlifts and Deadshifts in IoM’s Program
As you can imagine, the tasks of Deadlifting variably and Deadshifting require some boundaries to
minimize injury potential and optimize adaptation. Please consider these points when implementing
Deadlifting and Deadshifting into your practice:
1) Lighten the load! While we might be able to Deadlift hundreds of pounds the conventional way,
many variable Deadlifts and Deadshifts demand multiplanar movement from various postures.
That means we need to use much lighter load to explore 3-dimensional movement to keep the
exercise safe and effective.
2) Initiate all movements from the hips while keeping a tall spine, regardless of the starting position.
3) Master the fundamentals firsts, i.e. you need to be willing and able to squat, bend, lift, rotate
and lunge well in any direction before introducing Deadlifts and Deadshifts.
4) Mobility through the big 3 is a must before engaging in these dynamic movements: Ankle, Hip,
5) Bring the ground closer to you for a regression. If our body doesn’t have the prerequisite
mobility to bend and grab a mass off the ground, elevate the mass onto a platform (like a box or
step) so less bending is required to accomplish the task.
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physiology, 586(1), 1-2.
2) Henneman, E., Somjen, G., & Carpenter, D. O. (1965). Excitability and inhibitibility of
motoneurons of different sizes. Journal of neurophysiology, 28(3), 599-620.
3) Kompf, J., & Arandjelović, O. (2017). The sticking point in the bench press, the squat, and the
deadlift: Similarities and differences, and their significance for research and practice. Sports
Medicine, 47(4), 631-640.
4) Camara, K. D., Coburn, J. W., Dunnick, D. D., Brown, L. E., Galpin, A. J., & Costa, P. B. (2016).
An examination of muscle activation and power characteristics while performing the deadlift
exercise with straight and hexagonal barbells. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning
Research, 30(5), 1183-1188.
5) Bezerra, E. S., Simão, R., Fleck, S. J., Paz, G., Maia, M., Costa, P. B., … & Serrão, J. C. (2013).
Electromyographic activity of lower body muscles during the deadlift and still-legged
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6) Hamlyn, N. (2006). Trunck muscle activation during dynamic weight lifting exercises and isometric
instability activities(Doctoral dissertation, Memorial University of Newfoundland).
7) Rietjens, R., Stone, T. M., Montes, J., Young, J. C., Tandy, R. D., Utz, J. C., & Navalta, J. W.
(2015). Moderate intensity resistance training significantly elevates testosterone following upper
body and lower body bouts when total volume is held constant. International Journal of
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8) Kraemer, W. J., & Ratamess, N. A. (2005). Hormonal responses and adaptations to resistance
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