The deadlift is a relatively straightforward but extremely rewarding strength training exercise, targeting several key muscle groups and growing to include various stylistic variations (code for sumo isn’t cheating). The exercise is emblematic of old-school grit and spectacle, yet it has become one of the most famous lifts in modern strength training. It’s hard to imagine any high-level lifting regimen without some form of deadlifting; it is truly the king of all lifts.
But unfortunately, it wasn’t always like that. I can remember when I wore a younger man’s singlet and the lift took place in a back room or some dusty corner of the gym. I can even remember being asked bluntly, albeit politely, to “Stop doing that lift,” or being told, “We don’t allow that here.” Yeah, I get it, I bent a few bars, and maybe I got chalk on some things, but the bars were cheap, and I always cleaned up after myself. As it turned out, however, things were about to change.
I don’t think it was one moment in time or one specific person – no disrespect Mr. Coan, but it took a series of events aligned in a perfect motor unit storm to bring the lion back and push the hyenas out. Here’s how I watched it unfold, one lift at a time.
For historical context, my 670 raw deadlift in 2009 ranked 7th in the world for the 198 weight class:
Ten years later, in 2019, that would have ranked 174th!
So what changed? How did the world get so much stronger in 10 years?
My personal belief is that four things drove a higher number of stronger athletes to participate in the lift:
- The CrossFit phenomenon. Love it, hate it, or leave it, CrossFit helped bring the deadlift into the public eye. At the inaugural games at the Ranch in 2007, there were only three events comprised of 7 exercises – the deadlift being one of them; this got the plate rolling, and my phone hasn’t stopped ringing since.
- The raw movement. Up until now, powerlifting was dying as multi-ply lifters with very supported suits dominated the sport. Huge totals with heavily supported gear were the flavor of the day, but that changed with RAW Unity I in 2008. The spectacle of massive lifts done without layers of polyester captured the imagination of athletes across the world, and the execution of the lifts returned to a standard with which they were familiar. Plus, the deadlift, unlike other lifts, wasn’t enhanced by apparel as much, so the raw deadlift was hitting big numbers.
- Social Media. Social media outlets are commonplace today, but not as much as in 2008. No athletic endeavor can match how amazing a bar-bending, soul-scorching massive deadlift looks, and outlets like Instagram, Twitter, and Youtube have opened up the community to a whole new generation of athletes. Plus, it’s the only lift where you see… God (check the video below!)
- Strongman’s popularity. Strongman lived in obscurity for years, usually only seen on network TV on Wide World of Sports. The newfound interest promoted by cable outlets has made Brain Shaw and The Big Z household names (well, at least in my household). Every Christmas Day after the present opening, The World’s Strongest Man’s Marathon on CBS Sports is the day’s most anticipated event. No Christmas would be complete without it – truly a gift that keeps giving!
Or maybe people just realized how beneficial the movement is – be it for strength training, athletic purposes, muscle building, or fat burning. The lift has many purposes; it took me to a lot of cool places, and I got to meet a lot of great people. As far west as the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines; as far east As The Last Man Standing in Flatbush Avenue; Brooklyn; and everything in between to Night of The Living Deadlift in Johnson City, Tennessee to the Guinness Book of Records in Cornelius, North Carolina. The memories are endless and the calluses are forever.
As the deadlift continues to grow in popularity and new records are set each year, I will always reflect fondly on the days when a dude with Zubaz pants and a mullet would say, “Kid, you’re gonna hurt your back doing that! Now move over; you’re blocking the mirror.”