Those in the iron game are usually adamant that the squat is the king of exercises. Popularized by legendary strongman Paul Anderson, the squat has become a staple in the training of any athlete interested in developing strength and power – it’s even a competitive event in the sport of powerlifting. But allow me to throw a wrench into this discussion: the deadlift.
I’ve written about how Anderson popularized the squat, performing feats that to this day could only be matched by a few and some that may never be equaled. He was that good, and although his records have been broken, his legacy as one of the strongest men of all time will endure forever. And just as Anderson popularized the squat, there is one person who popularized the deadlift. His name is Bob Peoples.
Born in Northern Tennessee on August 2, 1910, Peoples grew up admiring strength. Peoples did not have an inspirational story of being a weakling and having to overcome that adversity, as he was always strong. And although he grew up on a farm living a modest life and didn’t have a gym, he made do at first with a few dumbbells his father had. Later Peoples improvised, making homemade resistance training equipment that included a set of 50-gallon barrels that he filled with rocks and joined with a pipe. Using this awkward apparatus, Peoples would position the pipe across his back (as you would do with a Super Yolk strongman device), and take a walk – using as much as 500 pounds of resistance. He would also use this device for deadlifting, standing on platforms of various heights so that he could perform partial movements – sort of a power rack without the rack.
Peoples’ legacy was earned in the deadlift. His technique for the lift was radical. When he lifted, he didn’t wear shoes; he just wore socks, as he found they gave him better leverage. Further, rather than filling his lungs and arching his back, he exhaled and rounded his back. But it worked. When he was 25, Peoples could deadlift 500 pounds and he just kept getting better. In 1940 he established a Southern record of 600 pounds in the deadlift, and in 1946 he lifted a world record of 651-1/4 pounds at 175 pounds bodyweight.
On October 4, 1947, Peoples became the first man to hit the big 7-0-0 – at least, he thought he did, as the lift was officially weighed at 699. What’s especially amazing about this lift is that when he learned that the local photographer had failed to get a photo of the achievement, he hoisted it again. But the lift Peoples was most remembered for occurred on March 5, 1949, when he did 725-1/2 pounds at 178 bodyweight at a competition in Johnson City, Tennessee. This deadlift record stood for over two decades.
Although known for his deadlifting, Peoples was strong all around. He squatted 530, benched 300, and could alternately press 110-pound dumbbells for 10 reps. He also competed in weightlifting, and using the split style of lifting he did a 225 press, a 230 snatch, a 271-pound clean and jerk, and a 290 clean. As an example of his conditioning, Peoples once deadlifted 500 pounds for 20 reps.
Peoples was a master of the deadlift, and his accomplishments secured his legacy in iron game history. But here’s a question we could ask: “Just how valuable is the deadlift?”
Battle of the Powerlifts
Since the squat is considered the king of lifts, let’s look at how the deadlift stacks up against it.
. Because you can squat more weight than you can lift from the ground to overhead, to use enough weight in the squat you need to have a power rack or a pair of squat racks. And although weightlifters use bumper plates and will simply dump a squat onto the platform if they miss a lift, this technique takes some skill. It’s better to have spotters. With the deadlift, spotters are not necessary – you just lift the weight off the floor.
The deadlift is much easier to master technique-wise – after all, it is a more natural movement to bend over and pick up an object than to squat down and lift it. Yes, there are some athletes who lack the body awareness (proprioception) at first to arch their lower back to get into the proper set position for the deadlift, but this problem usually is easily corrected by a competent coach. Those who find arching the back a major issue can use a hex bar that positions the hands at the sides, making it easier to arch the back. Also, with the squat, those athletes who are relatively tall or who have tight calves often have trouble mastering the lift.
Just as there are many types of squats, there are many types of deadlifts. A hex bar enables greater emphasis on the quadriceps, and long-range deadlifts (such as the snatch grip and standing on platforms) increase the involvement of the hamstrings and quadriceps muscle known as the vastus medialis oblique (VMO). And as with the squat, you can use a wider stance to provide greater work for the muscles that adduct the thighs. It’s also relatively easy to perform eccentric contractions with the deadlift, because when you finish the last repetition of a set you can simply lower the bar slowly – a practice that is not a good idea to do in the squat without competent spotters.
Muscle Group Stimulation.
The deadlifts works the same muscles as the squat, although the range of motion for the quads is less in the deadlift. However, because you hold the bar in the deadlift, you are working more on the upper body muscles, especially the traps and the muscles that provide a strong grip. Yes, upper back strength is needed to squat, but supplementary structural balance lifts are often needed because the squat often doesn’t adequately develop these muscles.
By performing the deadlift in a power rack, you can easily overload all areas of the strength curve. And after the finish of the last rep of a set of deadlifts, you are in a perfect position to lower the bar slowly to focus on eccentric contraction. Negatives can certainly be performed in the squat, but it’s not as convenient and should be performed with spotters.
It’s much easier to perform higher reps in the deadlift. The squat causes breathlessness, especially the front squat as the bar compresses the rib cage.
To develop the “core” oblique muscles, try a one-arm deadlift, placing the bar at your side. With the squat you could also work these muscles by adding adding slightly more weight to one side of the bar than the other, but this is a high risk exercise due to the compressive forces on the disks this may not be advisable.
It’s easier to go all out in the deadlift – again, you just lift the weight. With the squat, you have to guess how much you can lift, and the chances are your guess will be a bit off.
One thing that attracts people to the deadlift is that it is a pure test of strength, as assistive gear does little to help the lift – and the use of gear is one reason that world records in the squat occur more steadily than world records set in the deadlift. But with the use of gear, and also individual differences in judging depth, it’s difficult to determine just how strong an athlete is in the squat. With a deadlift, you pretty much either make it or you don’t.
The biggest advantages of the back squat is that it works the VMO better than the deadlift, and this is a big deal. It also put a greater stretch on the piriformis. But the bottom line is that the deadlift is a valuable exercise that can help an individual enjoy significant gains in overall strength and muscle size. Yes, the squat may always be considered the king of lifts, but as Bob Peoples would suggest, the deadlift runs a close second.