The Dead Lifts
by Charles A. Smith (1949)
Let us start this article by considering the differences between two key power exercises – the Deep Knee Bend and the Dead Lift. The deep knee bend is a growing exercise, while the dead lift, in any of its many forms is a strength exercise. The novice should never practice these two exercises in the same schedule. It should always be one or the other. Each of these exercises demands so much energy output – results in such a breaking down of tissue, that to use both in the same workout period repeatedly would result in an overdraft of energy. You would experience a fatigue hangover.
Exercise with the deep knee bend and you will find it will translate to greater thigh power, a more spacious chest, more successful jerks and increased stamina. Perform the dead lift in any of its various styles and feel yourself developing power throughout the entire body. Feel your forearms strain to maintain their grip. Realize the powerful chain of events taking place from the base of your feet to the top of your trapezius. Experience the “lightness” of weights that previously seemed beyond your cleaning ability. And, strangely, see how easily you can curl weights which you had only dreamed of. Yes, the dead lift will even build up your curling poundage – one of the many byproducts of this wonderful weight movement.
The upsurge of American Competitive Lifting can be traced to the general practice of the deep knee bend and the hopper dead lift. The latter exercise is the brainchild of Joseph Curtis Hise. Brother Joe has some screwy ideas on certain subjects – ideas which might lead you to think he was filled with liquid enthusiasm – let’s you and I say “drunk” in case some innocent gets the wrong idea about what he is filled with – but when Joe speaks of the squat and the dead lift, then all take notice. Hise looked around for a method which would enable him to perform the stiff legged deadlift without the attendant discomforts and hazards – such as badly strained erector spinae and biceps of the thigh. He reasoned that there was less likelihood of sacro iliac trouble if the trunk did not travel beyond the formation of a right angle with the thighs. Or- to put it less technically, the trunk was parallel with the ground. He also recognized the need for a slight “rest pause” between each repetition. Resting the bar on a couple of 2 by 4’s – that is resting the plates at each end of the bar on the 2 x 4’s – Joe would deadlift the bar in the orthodox manner, and then, keeping the knees locked, would drop the bar on the wood beams a get a SLIGHT rebound. The rebound brought the angle of the trunk and the legs to that of a right angle and thus Joe was able to use an extremely heavy poundage without the risk of lower back sprain. The only drawback was the neighbors laboring under the delusion that another world war had broken out ahead of schedule, such was the racket attending the practice of the HOPPER DEAD LIFT. However, the great value of this exercise was that it taught and got the lifter to get used to MOVING QUICKLY with an extremely heavy weight. This ability to exert great force quickly is of utmost importance in developing strength, as can be evidenced in Olympic lifters. In research work with pupils I believe I have developed, out of the hopper dead lift, an exercise which has ALL its advantages MINUS the little faults which sent the folks on the block into conniptions and weakened the foundations of the neighboring houses.
Perhaps you will be tempted to ask why I have told the above yarn. The point I want to stress is that THROUGHOUT the entire practice of the two hands dead lift, or any of its offshoots, you MUST USE A WEIGHT WHICH WILL ENABLE YOU TO MOVE QUICKLY. SPEED MUST BE THE PRE-EMINENT FACTOR. It is an essential development for the Olympic lifter, a necessity for the bodybuilder and of extreme importance to the man interested in power.
Before we speak of the exercise, let’s consider a few minor points. I have found that the best starting poundage is one which can be used for 5 to 7 reps. NOTE that this applies ONLY to the various dead lifts.
As for the number of sets – the exercise is such an exhausting one that under no circumstances should you use more than THREE sets. MAKE EVERY EFFORT TO MOVE AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE and after each movement SHRUG the shoulders as high as possible. Work up from 5 or 7 reps to 10 to 12, three sets each.
As for the width of grip – the usual grip is the reverse variety and when using heavy dead lifts and the Smith version of the Hopper Dead Lift, this grip is advised – one hand with the knuckles to the front, and the other with the palm facing to the front. In using other forms of the exercise, or if the forearms and hands of the exerciser are stronger than average, the orthodox grip can be used, the one in which the knuckles of each hand are to the front.
The first exercise is the regular TWO HANDS DEAD LIFT. Stand with the shins well up to the bar. FLATTEN the back and DROP the buttocks. DON’T BEND THE ARMS. KEEP THEM STRAIGHT WHEN MAKING THE INITIAL PULL. Start your pull and at the same time throw the HEAD BACKWARDS. Pull the weight off the ground with everything you have and with ALL THE SPEED YOU HAVE. When you arrive at the upright position shrug the shoulders and DON’T drop the body forward to do this. SHRUG with the SHOULDERS ONLY. Return to the starting position, bend the knees and relax and then start the lift again. The important points to remember here are to pull with speed in mind and to throw the head back as soon as the pull is started.
The second exercise is one of the most valuable versions of the dead lift. For this style of dead lift you need two benches or boxes. In this exercise you can use about 50% more than the previous exercise. Load the bar while it is resting on the two boxes. At first you can lift with the BIG inside plates resting on the boxes. Later, as you become more powerful in this exercise, you can lower the weight until the BAR ENDS are resting on the boxes. In the first position – plates resting on boxes, you will find the bar is well above the knees and in reality you will be performing a HALF DEAD LIFT. Take your grip as described – a one palm facing forward, one palm facing back grip (reverse grip) – and flatten the back BEFORE you start your pull. Don’t try to shrug this weight. It should be heavy enough to be well nigh impossible anyway. As soon as you reach the upright position, count three and then lower the weight SO THAT YOU FEEL IT DOWN ALL THE WAY TO THE BOXES. The weight is taken OFF the boxes as RAPIDLY AS POSSIBLE, but it is lowered SLOWLY –CONTROLLED DOWN to the boxes. This is perhaps one of the finest exercises for developing all round strength. In fact one could use this exercise solely and gain quite a bit of strength and development from it. Not only are the back muscles involved, but the deltoids and even the triceps are stressed when using a great poundage. The latter muscles – the triceps, are worked mainly because the arms are pulled into a lock by the heavy weight. The lats and trapezius are also in for a great deal of work.
The third version of the dead lift is the stiff legged variety. The amount of weight is limited but the results obtained are none the less good. A safe standard is to NEVER use a weight more than your best clean. It is better to be safe than sorry. Use the overhand grip, knuckles in the front. Make your first lift an ordinary deadlift and then from the upright position perform all the rest STIFF LEGGED. From the finish position, drop forward, keeping the legs locked and the head pushed back and up. As soon as you feel the weight touch the ground, return to the upright position. DON’T DELAY the return and DON’T unlock the knees.
The fourth exercise is my own particular method of the hopper dead lift – except you DON’T use a hopper, you use a bench. Load up the bar to the poundage you use in the regular dead lift and place it on a single bench with he center of the bar resting over the middle of the bench, and across it. Stand astride the bench and grip the bar an inch from each side of the bench. KEEP THE KNEES LOCKED FROM THE COMMENCEMENT of the exercise. Use the REVERSE GRIP. Make your first lift and as you pull upwards and arrive near the upright position, make every effort towards pulling the bar as high as possible – as if you mean to clean the weight. Upon arriving at the finishing position, lower the weight getting a VERY, VERY SLIGHT REBOUND off the bench. In fact as soon as the bar touches the bench, return to the upright position at once again trying to pull the weight as high as possible. This version of the stiff legged dead lift is entirely and absolutely safe. It is a practical impossibility to strain the lower back using the Smith version of the hopper dead lift.
It is possible to gain considerable development of the lats and trapezius by varying the width of the arms. One can use an arm width all the way from touching the sides of the legs to right up against the inside collars. Another byproduct of this exercise – the type of dead lift quoted above – is increased snatching and cleaning power. In training for the snatch, the lifter can use an arm width corresponding to his snatching grip, and when clean-training, relative to his cleaning grip. The important point to remember here, especially when training for better cleaning and snatching, is to make every effort to pull the bar as high as possible when coming into the upright position. A rise on toes will be beneficial.