Strength-training exercises are quite possibly the most important type of exercise to keep you fit. The older you are, the more important they become because without them your muscle tone and strength will decrease with each passing year.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of Americans over the age of 45 (75 percent) do not engage in any strength-training exercises at all, which puts you at an increased risk of weakened bones (osteoporosis), age-related muscle loss (sarcopenia), limited range of motion, loss of functional movement, aches, and pains.
If you’re like most people, you want to stay strong and agile… and you certainly want to continue to live independently, doing things you might now take for granted (like shopping for groceries and climbing the stairs) even when you’re in your 80s and beyond.
So I have a simple (albeit challenging) exercise for you to try: deadlifts. Like squats and lunges, deadlifts are a functional exercise that should be a regular part of your workouts. Remember, strength training isn’t just for your upper body, it’s important for your lower body, too, and deadlifts offer a phenomenal lower-body workout.
Deadlifts Improve Your Ability to Perform Dynamic Movements
A recent study examined the effects of 10 weeks of barbell deadlift training. The exercise was done just twice a week and lead to significant improvements in torque capacities in both the knee extensors and flexors.
This, in turn, was associated with improvements in vertical jump height, which suggests the deadlifts helped participants gain more speed and power while performing explosive movements.
This is useful if you’re active in sports or do plyometric exercises, like box jumps, but it’s also important for maintaining your body’s capacity for functional movement.
The study’s lead author, Matt Stock of Texas Tech University, noted that deadlifts help you to work the series of muscles that include your low back, your glutes, your hamstrings, and even your calf muscles (known as the posterior chain), which are often overlooked:
“It [deadlifting] is particularly useful because it relies heavily on our often forgotten about muscles of the ‘posterior chain’—the hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors. Ignoring these muscles within an exercise program has potentially dangerous consequences, particularly as we age and for knee health during sports.”
Safety Matters: How to Perform Deadlifts Without Hurting Your Back
Anytime you lift a large amount of weight, you run the risk of hurting your back if it’s not done properly. Deadlifts are incredibly effective – just twice a week can give you results – but it’s imperative that you use proper form to avoid injury.
To protect your spine, be sure your abdominal muscles are engaged (i.e. pull in your belly button). This engages a muscle in your lower spine called the thoracic lumbar fascia, which will help protect your back.
You may also want to use a pair of wrist straps once you use heavier weights. The strap can help prevent your wrist from being pulled into excessive extension, as well as help you keep proper form and avoid injury or a failed lift.
Ideally perform deadlifts with a qualified personal trainer. Unlike some other exercises, your trainer shouldn’t hold onto the bar, because if you need to stop the deadlift you can simply drop the bar. However, performing deadlifts with a personal trainer can help you stay motivated and he or she can encourage you to keep proper form.
How to Master Two Common Deadlift Exercises
Two of the most popular deadlifts are traditional and stiff-legged. The former, traditional, works your hamstrings, glutes, and core muscles, while the stiff-legged version puts more emphasis on your hamstrings and core. You can try both, but if you’re new to deadlifts, start with traditional. The American Council on Exercise (ACE) gave an excellent description of how to perform each below.
These descriptions use a barbell. If you don’t have access to a barbell but still want to benefit from deadlifts, dumbbells are an option. They may be better for beginners, and if you have your own set you can use them right from home.
However, a barbell allows you to lift much heavier weight than you would be able to with dumbbells. So as you progress, you’ll probably want to switch to deadlifts with a barbell.
Starting Position – Start with the barbell on the floor. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your toes under the bar. Squat down and lean forward slightly, keeping your spine in a neutral position.
Grasp the bar with hands slightly wider than your thighs. Pull your shoulders down and back so your chest is sticking out, keep your chest lifted and your head in line with your spine. Brace your core to help stabilize and protect your spine during the movement.
Upward Movement – With your core engaged, push through your heels to start the lift. Engage your back and keep your shoulders pulled back to avoid rounding the shoulders. Stand and pull the bar so your hips and the bar rise at the same rate, keeping the bar close to your body as it moves upward. Finish with a glute squeeze at the top of the lift, almost pressing your hips forward against the bar.
Downward Movement – Slowly lower the bar toward the ground, while hinging at your hips (shifting them back and down) and simultaneously bending your knees so the bar and your hips lower at the same rate. With the bar in front of your legs, it forces you to push your hips back, keeping your weight on your heels, further engaging your glutes and hamstrings. Finish with the bar on the floor over your toes, with your chest up, shoulders back, core muscles engaged and back flat.
Starting Position – Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your hands neutral. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip or, if lifting a heavy weight, you may opt to switch the grip with one hand over and one hand under. This locks the bar into position and prevents it from spinning.
Downward Movement – Slowly lower the bar, keeping a very slight bend in your knees. Do not lock out your knees. Keep the bar close to your legs during the whole movement, with your weight on the center of your foot or your heels, but never on your toes. Push your hips back and engage your core to stabilize your spine. Lower the bar until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
Upward Pull – Once you feel the stretch in your hamstrings, engage your glutes and pull the bar back up. Keep the bar up close to your legs and continue to keep your back straight and shoulders pulled down and back. Pull the bar until you are completely straight, and finish with a glute squeeze at the top of the lift, almost pressing your hips forward against the bar.
Deadlifts Can Be Beneficial for People with Low Back Pain and Even Beginners
Deadlifts are one of the simplest yet most effective exercises you can perform, and their benefits extend to many different populations. Among people with low back pain, properly performed deadlifts have been found to decrease pain intensity and increase activity levels. A separate study found that both men and women improved their strength by performing deadlifts twice a week, including those who had not done them before.
Those who benefitted the most during the study were women who were new to deadlifts. The take-home message is this: while deadlifts might seem intimidating, they’re an exercise that even beginners can, and should, take advantage of. As with all exercise, start out slowly with a manageable amount of weight and gradually increase it as you grow stronger.