Today I’m going to introduce a whole new category to ElderStrength: An exercise library. It’s purpose is to provide a thorough explanation of all the exercises I recommend in my exercise routines.
I thought there wouldn’t be a better option than to start with the king of all exercises, the deadlift. Deadlifts are one of the most functional movements of all strength training exercises and they challenge your whole body.
Any time you pick something of the ground, be it groceries, grandkids, sofas, car tires or anything with a substantial weight you are essentially performing a deadlift.
So a deadlift is a foundational movement pattern that we use daily. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you that most lower back injuries happen while lifting or attempting to lift something heavy off the ground.
If only there were a way to prevent your lower back giving out while lifting heavy (or even light) objects. Oh, wait! There is! It’s called doing deadlifts.
Of all the strength exercises the deadlift has the most capacity to improve because it involves the whole body on a relatively short distance.
When you learn the correct movement patterns to move a weight efficiently and the load that movement pattern progressively over time, you can become unbelievably strong.
Even average-size senior women can relatively easily deadlift over 200 lbs safely, which makes it the perfect exercise for improving functional strength in seniors.
The trick is to start light, use impeccable form and progress gradually. This way your body will adapt over time and grow much stronger than it was before.
The deadlift is also excellent for seniors because it challenges the whole body but doesn’t require exceptional mobility. Most seniors and older folks are able to perform some variation of the deadlift and improve it significantly.
What is a deadlift
Before we go any further I would like to clarify what a deadlift actually is. Let’s start by breaking the word. It’s a dead lift. And no, it doesn’t have anything to do with it being deadly or involving dead bodies.
The dead part of the word refers to the fact that the weight being moved will be at a dead-stop, i.e. laying daad on the ground when you lift it.
This is important because in many exercises there is a thing called stretch reflex that helps you change the direction of the weight after lowering it. For example in the bench press or the squat, you will lower the weight first before completing the rep. This helps to reverse the inertia.
In a deadlift, the weight is sitting still. This means that you will have to exert enough force to get the weight moving. This is typically the hardest part, except for some experienced lifters performing maximal lifts but that’s likely not who you are if you’re reading this.
Once you get the weight moving you can typically complete it. In a deadlift, this distinction is important, because the ability to produce force against an object without prior loading, as you would have in a squat, teaches your muscular and nervous system how to produce force efficiently.
Now that we got the whole “dead” thing out of the way, let’s look at the lift.
The deadlift involves picking a “dead” object from the ground, using:
- Your hands to grip the object
- Straight arms to transfer force
- A rigid upper back and middle section (“core”) to transfer force
- Your legs and hips to produce force
So your legs and hips are the actually main movers in a deadlift, they produce the force required to move the object. But your whole body will have to support the weight and transfer force.
Typically deadlifts are performed from a high hips position, meaning that you don’t squat the weight up. In real life, some objects might require you to be able to start from a squat, so it’s useful to master both movement patterns.
The deadlift (with a barbell) is performed as follows:
- The lifter positions him/herself so that the barbell is located right at the middle of the foot.
- The lifter grips the barbell with both hands, either using a double overhand or a mixed grip (or a hook grip)
- The lifter lowers hips into position and takes a big breath
- The lifter lifts the bar of the ground while keeping a neutral back.
- The lift finishes when the lifter is fully extended and the barbell is in front of the hips
The barbell in the above example can be replaced with a kettlebell, dumbells or real-life objects but the same principles apply.
The important part is that the hips and the legs do the lifting, the back remains neutral and the arms don’t assist in the lift.
Muscles involved in a deadlift
Because of the optimal high hips positioning the actual work in a deadlift is done by what’s known as your posterior chain. The posterior chain includes (from the bottom up) your hamstrings, glutes and back musculature.
The quads are involved, especially in the first portion of the lift where you get the bar off the ground. Once the bar reaches the knees, it becomes completely a hip dominant movement.
The glutes will be most active at this part of the lift, which is essentially a hip hinge. At this point, you shouldn’t think about moving the weight up but instead pushing your hips through the weight.
Even though the back muscles only serve as support to transfer the force of the hips in a proper deadlift, the forces exerted especially on the lower back muscles are great.
This is why the deadlift is the best exercise for improving back strength and even treating lower back pain. The upper back has to remain neutral as well and the large muscles of your upper back are responsible for keeping the weight close to your body so the deadlift also activates the Latissimus Dorsi or lats. The traps will also have to be very active to prevent your shoulder from caving in.
Your abdominal muscles will need to remain flexed throughout the whole movement to further support the spinal column. This will make the lift both easier and safer.
A heavy deadlift is something you really fell in your core. When you have the proper movement pattern in place you will automatically “brace” your abdominal muscles to tense up your middle section to support the weight.
One of the key muscle groups in a deadlift are the forearms. They are responsible for producing to force to grip the bar. If you can’t hold on to the bar, you can’t lift it. Doing deadlift will over time improve your grip strength better than anything else.
So the deadlift directly activates at least these muscle groups:
- The legs
- The hips
- The lower back
- The abdominals
- The upper back
- The forearms
As you can see, that’s a large percentage of your muscle mass. Deadlifts will also to a lower extent activate your shoulder, upper arms, pectorals and neck muscles so it’s no wonder it’s called the king of all exercises.
Are deadlifts good for seniors
Many older people are afraid of lifting anything substantial in fear of injury. This is a justified fear. But if you are otherwise healthy, there really isn’t any reason to avoid lifting (relatively, use common sense) heavy objects.
You just have to make sure you know the correct way and then train your body to be strong enough to perform it safely. If there is a single strength training movement I would advise you to do, it would either be the deadlift or the squat, depending on your background, health and mobility.
This is because they are both functional movements that make your day-to-day life easier but because they are also very efficient at training most of your muscle mass.
The benefits of strength training for seniors are so diverse that I won’t even go to depth here (check the link), but in short, it improves your odds of living a longer healthier life without osteoporosis and sarcopenia (old age frailty).
Deadlifts will also strengthen all the key muscles that are required for balance and it will also require you to balance the weight, giving you some balance practice. Maintaining your balance skills is should be one of your greatest priorities as you age.
There are a few risks you have to do your best to avoid. The deadlift is a relatively simple exercise that doesn’t require too much training but still many people these days can’t perform them correctly due to all the sitting around.
If you lose your stability in your lower back, it’s very easy to get injured while performing a deadlift. This typically happens when you don’t know how to use your hips appropriately and end up rounding your back and using the back muscles to lift the weight. They are not designed to do this.
Another common error is to overextend the lower back, or arching, which puts the spine in a compromised position, risking a herniated disc.
Now that all might sound dangerous, but remember that all these dangers are present even if you are just picking a sock from the floor (I’ve pulled my back at least twice doing that…).
But if you can safely lift 225 lbs in complete control at the gym, you can safely lift lighter objects in real life. That’s why the deadlift is so great for protecting your back from injuries.
There are a few variations to the deadlift. It can be performed with two different positions and with several partial ranges to learn the movement. You can also use a barbell, dumbbells or a kettlebell.
- Feet around shoulder width
- Hands outside of feet
- Leg and back dominant
- Longer range of motion
- Performed with feet wide apart
- Hands between feet
- Hip dominant
- Shorter range of motion
- Starts from the conventional deadlift ending position
- Is performed by lowering the bar by hinging the hips
- Teaches the “hip hinge” movement pattern
- Uses a special “trap” bar
- Allows a lower starting position
- Easier to perform because the bar doesn’t have to go around the knees
- Can be performed with one dumbbell between legs or two dumbells on the side
- Due to the low position of the handles, is more a mix between a squat and a deadlift
- Is performed using a kettlebell
- Resembles a sumo deadlift
I hope you found this information package about the deadlift useful and will incorporate some form of the deadlift in your own exercise routine.
If you want ideas on how to incorporate the deadlift, please download my free weight training routine for seniors. It includes the Romanian deadlift by standard but if you are already familiar with the movement pattern, you can substitute a regular deadlift.
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See you next time.