The question is often thrown around:
“If you could only do one exercise, what would it be?”
My Answer: The Deadlift!
An argument could be made that the deadlift is the best
exercise around. This argument is often made for the
squat, which I circumstantially disagree with.
Reasons why the deadlift is better than the squat:
1) Gross amount of muscle mass used
If you’ve ever deadlifted relatively heavy, you know that
the deadlift is one of the most taxing exercises out there.
Specifically, the deadlift works muscles from your calves
through your forearms, including the hamstrings, glutes,
Latissimus dorsi, and posterior shoulder muscles. No
wonder a few heavy reps are so tiring! While the squat
uses a significant amount of musculature as well, it
involves few working muscles in the upper body. Why is
this important? The deadlift is a frequently overlooked
exercise. If you want to put on muscle, performing an
exercise that works a significant amount of muscle groups
and can be loaded heavy is a great way to go about it. If
you want to lose fat, performing an exercise that utilizes
more muscle mass burns a significant amount of calories and
creates a great metabolic disturbance.
2) The specific muscle mass used
The anterior side of the body is too frequently stressed in
many programs. Think about what you see in the gym: Leg
Press, Squats, Bench Press, Biceps Curls, and Crunches.
What do all of these exercises have in common? They all
work muscle groups that can be seen by standing in front of
the mirror! The less respected back-side of the body is
extremely important for athletic performance and daily
functioning. A program focusing on what I like to call
‘Beach Muscles’ (especially in those that spend a
significant amount of time in the car or in front of a
computer) can lead to the shortening of these muscles,
creating a hunched over posture. Furthermore, these types
of programs create a total body imbalance that will
inevitably manifest itself as pain somewhere. Why is the
deadlift different? While some quadriceps work is evident
in the deadlift, the majority of the movement is produced
by movements on the posterior side of the body.
Strengthening these muscles will help begin to correct any
imbalances, allowing you to feel better and play better.
3) Development of force from a standstill
Most exercises involve an eccentric contraction preceding a
concentric contraction. In other words, the ‘negative’
precedes the ‘positive.’ Think of the squat and bench
press. You start at the top, lower the bar under control,
and then explode up. Exercises that work in this fashion
allow for a quick stretch at the bottom of the exercise,
allowing the lifter to take advantage of the elastic
properties of muscle and the stretch reflex (the nervous
system’s response to a quick stretch). This is not the
case in a deadlift. The bar is on the floor and is not
preceded by any loaded negative contraction. This forces
the lifter to produce force at a rapid rate. A slow
production of force will result in a tired lifter and a
sleeping bar! Rate of force development is important for
all athletes and for activities of daily living (walking up
stairs, getting out of a chair, etc.).
4) Core Strength!
Core strength is essential for proper deadlifting. The
majority of the muscles producing the movement force are in
the lower body. The bar is held by the upper body; the
upper body muscles are mostly worked through isometric
contractions(no change in total muscle length). If force
isn’t effectively transferred from the lower body through
the core (all muscles that attach to the pelvis or spine)
to the hands, the bar doesn’t move. Included in these
important core muscles are the spinal stabilizers, which
are often neglected due to the majority of the exercises
being performed sitting or lying down. Lock your back into
a flat position with your shoulder blades pinned back, take
a deep breath in through your belly, squeeze your core, and
If you aren’t deadlifting, consider adding it into your
program. In fact, try replacing the squat with the
deadlift for a few weeks. You may find when you return to
squatting that your strength has improved! The old adage
of your only as strong as your weakest link holds true with
lifting and athletic performance. Strengthen your weakest
link and everything else improves as well!
Kevin has rapidly established himself as a leader in the field of physical preparation and sports science for ice hockey. He is currently the Head Performance Coach for the Boston Bruins, where he oversees all aspects of designing and implementing the team’s performance training program, as well as monitoring the players’ performance, workload and recovery. Prior to Boston, Kevin spent 2 years as an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach for the San Jose Sharks after serving as the Director of Performance at Endeavor Sports Performance in Pitman, NJ. He also spent 5 years as a Strength and Conditioning Coach with USA Hockey’s Women’s Olympic Hockey Team, and has been an invited speaker at conferences hosted by the NHL, NSCA, and USA Hockey.