Deadlift - A Practical Human Movement
Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici /

In Part I of this series “Is Functional Training a Myth?“, I challenged the conventional wisdom on strength and conditioning routines, and argued that training programs based around free weight exercises such as power lifts, Olympic lifts and other functional exercises do in fact have little transfer to other activities and sports.

In short, squatting for example is a relatively time consuming and high risk exercise that could have little impact on your performance in other physical activities.

Having read Part I, many people have come to the conclusion that I have turned my back on free weight training all together – This is not the case however.

In part II of Primal Fitness 2.0, I am going to argue the case that pretty much everyone could benefit from the use of some free weight based resistance training, regardless of their individual goals!

The focus of Primal Fitness 2.0 is movement. This movement should have a purpose, and should be efficient.

Picking up a weight from the floor is a fundamental human movement. In Hunter Gatherer times, this could have been picking up a fresh kill to carry home, or moving a rock or fallen tree, today it could be moving a piece of furniture or carrying your children.

In the world of strength training, picking up a weight from the floor is called either a deadlift (if lifted to hip height) or a clean (if lifted to shoulder height). On the one hand these are resistance exercises, but on the other they can easily be considered natural, practical movements.

In Part I, I spent some time criticising the Olympic lifts, of which the clean is one. So am I not contradicting myself by saying that most people could benefit from practising it?

The difference lies in the intention, application and expectations behind practising the lift.

Do I think that becoming an accomplished Olympic lifter is an efficient or effective way of increasing your vertical jump, sprinting faster, hitting harder or throwing further? No, I do not.

What it will do is two things:

1) Reduce your risk of injury

Providing you train with good technique, don’t go too heavy, and don’t over-train, I believe the hip hinge movement found in the clean, the deadlift and all the kettlebell swings is a fundamental human movement pattern that many people have lost through their sedentary lifestyles.

By training these movements and reinforcing good movement patterns, you will strengthen your posterior chain, and reduce your risk of back problems. Though these movements may not directly affect your performance in other sports or activities, a bad back could seriously negatively affect them!

2) Make you better at picking things up from the floor

Despite the tendency for there to be an automated machine for everything nowadays, chances are that at some point you’re going to have to lift and carry something heavy. Why not be prepared? Not only will being strong in the weight room make lifting outside easier, it will again reduce your risk of injury. Blow out a disc moving a sofa and that could put an end to your sporting days for good.

Free weights vs Odd Objects

There is an affinity within Primal/Paleo circles for training with rocks, barrels, sandbags and other odd objects. The argument being that these are more challenging to the grip and core (plus it just looks cool on youtube doesn’t it…)

Don’t get me wrong, I love all these tools, and train with them regularly myself, the sandbag being one of my all time favourites, but the fact remains traditional free weights, whether they be barbells, dumbells or kettlebells do have some advantages:

1) Progressive overload

With a standard Olympic bar you can begin practising deadlifts and cleans from as little as 20kg, and progress upwards in increments as little as 2.5kg. Unless you happen to live in a very boulder strewn area, it is unlikely you are going to have the same range available to you. More than likely you are going to end up with a rock that is either too light or too heavy.

2) Accessibility

Pretty much every gym should have barbells and dumbells, plus if you’re lucky kettlebells. In my area, however, there seems to be a distinct lack of conveniently sized rocks and boulders!

Though it may be true that deadlifting with a bar may not make you a champion stone lifter, if you ask two people to try and lift a rock, one of which has a 2 x bodyweight deadlift, the other who has never lifted weights, my money would be on the former.

In an ideal world, I think that the optimum situation would be to train with both conventional free weights and odd objects. Learn good technique and build up progressively in the gym, then go outdoors and play around with rocks, kegs and sandbags.

If you only have access to one or the other, however, I don’t think it really makes too big a difference what implements you use.

How much, how often?

So we’ve established that including deadlifts and cleans into your regimen is likely a good idea, but how should one go about programming these movements? How often should they be practised, what kind of volume is necessary, how much weight does one need to be able to lift?

The answer, as always, is going to depend on the individual. We all have different goals, genetics, schedules and personalities, but here is a rough guide:

  • Practice a pull from the floor 1-2 times per week.

In The Purposeful Primitive, Marty Gallagher documents how Power-lifting legend Mark Chaillet developed a 400kg deadlift from training the movement just one day per week, so for most people’s purposes this should be more than adequate! Personally I’d recommend one session in the gym with free weights, and another session outside with odd objects to be a great combination.

  • Keep reps low

In the real world, when would you ever repeatedly pick up and put down a weight on the spot? Never! If you do pick up an object it is either to carry it somewhere or to throw it.

In the gym, keep deadlifts and cleans to sets of 5 reps and below. In your outdoor training, use your deadlift/clean to lift objects before you carry or throw them.

  • How heavy?

If I had to pick a range, I’d probably say that a deadlift in the range of 1.5 to 2.5 x bodyweight is probably more than adequate for most people’s purposes, though to be honest I’d say that it is movement quality that is of paramount importance.

If you don’t have access to a barbell set, training the movement pattern with a sub-maximal kettlebell, rock or other such implement will convey the majority of the benefits.

If you do have access to a barbell, my personal preference is an auto-regulated max effort protocol on an undulating rep scheme.

This basically means that once per week I will practise a pull from the floor, performing sets in the 1-5 rep range, increasing weight each set until it feels as if any further increase would result in some degradation in form. More often than not, I’ll perform a movement for a 3 week cycle, performing a near 5RM week 1, 3RM week 2 and 1RM on week 3, I’ll then either repeat the cycle or switch to a different pulling movement.

I’ll then drop the weight by around 5%, and perform some additional back-off sets until I again feel that form could become compromised by any additional volume, at which point I’ll call it a day. (This is very loosely based on applying Mike Tuchscherer’s Reactive Training System protocol to a Max Effort version of Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 program)

The key is that you’re building up to a max for that particular workout – Sleep, stress, mood, nutrition, your other activities that week, will all have an impact on your day to day performance. You can’t expect to get a new record every time you step up to the bar, particularly when you’ve got into that 2x bodyweight + range of strength.

In the past I’ve been a proponent of recording every workout, and diligently tracking progress in the weight room, but I now realise that in some cases this may not only be unnecessary, but could even be counter productive – This is a post in itself however, which I shall get to in the near future.

Until then just bear in mind that the goal is not to become a champion power-lifter or Olympian, just to be practically strong and resistant to injury.

Coming soon, in Part III, I ask the eternal question: “To Bench, or not to Bench – The Benefits of Un-Functional Training?

Stay strong, and keep moving!

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