The Deadlift is not a Deadlift and Other Infectious Aphorisms

Posted on 21 Feb 2012 18:54

Popular strength coaches as well as bodybuilding coaches who talk about strength training are always inventing little aphorisms and catch phrases designed to get across some central philosophy or concept inherent to their way of viewing training for strength. Problem is with catch slogans and aphorisms, is that they are designed to sell a concept rather than to teach a concept. An aphorism is only as good as the qualifications you give it when you explain its underlying rationale. With most of these statements, it is the style that sells them, more than the content. One of our members called this type of thing a fallacy by slogan and this is an apt way to put it. A good aphorism is catchy like an infectious rash: Everybody spreads it around and it does more harm than good.

When you encounter these statements, the question must be answered: Does this change our perspective towards strength training or its components? If so, how? Also, there must be one central criteria met. Call it the validity/fact criteria. If the slogan or aphorism is not an absolute statement of fact about the physical world, then the underlying premises that lead to the statement must make it a valid statement. In other words, you need a good reason for saying it, as I explained above. Otherwise you just create confusion. If, however, your statement can be taken as a statement of fact about the physical world or our biological makeup and functioning, it needs to be in line with our knowledge of those things. You can't just make stuff up to suit your agenda because it sounds cool. Yet, it's done all the time.

For instance, to sell the idea that strength training was just oh so superior to say, jogging, Fred Hatfield, aka, Dr. Squat said that "Life is NOT aerobic". Now, should this be taken as a statement of fact concerning human metabolism, or simply a clever turn of phrase? Well, it is misleading and based on a personal value system rather than a message about fitness. As a statement of fact we could assume that he meant that a good portion of your life is spent operating in a mode of anaerobic metabolism. Is this true? Absolutely, positively, not! We work very well and the most efficiently in an aerobic mode. In fact, given proper fueling, human beings can go on moving at a low intensity, "aerobically" for an astounding period of time. Right now, as you read this, your life is definitely aerobic and you cannot operate at intensities that require anaerobic respiration for very long at all, comparatively, no matter how hard you train in this fashion. The statement, as one of fact, would liken us to some bacterium living under a pile of dung, in an oxygen scarce environment. We, as human beings, obviously favor an oxygen-rich environment and life, therefore, is very aerobic. So, as a statement of fact, Hatfield's statement is absurd.

What about if he is just being clever about how great strength training is? Well, why should one need to be clever or sell strength training by inventing absurd statements? If it is meant to be clever, and not a direct reflection of "truth" it still overstates greatly the purpose of strength training and the value of it in our lives. Strength training can help you live a more healthy and fit life. But is is NOT life itself. Don't strength train because of ideals. Strength train because you want to..because it has intrinsic value to you. And because you want to enjoy external benefits. Not because its the meaning of life. That's just plain stupid.

That example was a bit philosophic, I know. What about some more specific and applicable ones? Well, I was just this morning treated to a link to a Christian Thibadeau video. For some reason, I actually clicked on it. I try to avoid this kind of thing because I intentionally avoid things that will only serve to irritate me. So I figure, well, I'm going to open my mind, relax, and be non-judgmental. Problem is, I'm not a person who can open my mind quite so wide that my brains fall out. So I clicked and lo and behold, the very first statement was:

The Deadlift is not a Deadlift and the Squat is not a Squat

Now that sounds catchy like it's going to lead into to all sorts of fascinating insights. Well, to be honest I never got so far as the squat part after hearing the rationale about the deadlifts. Turns out, the deadlift is not a deadlift because there is like, all these different methods and positions to do it.

No, no. He didn't mean deadlift 'variations' like the Romanian deadlift and the Stiff-Legged deadlift. For both of those, if you wanted to get all technical, you could support the statement that they are not actually "dead" lifts. But no, he meant that there are various methods and positions for performing the conventional deadlift depending on what part of the body you wanted to emphasize. NO, he didn't emphasize the word 'dead, as in, the deadlift is not dead, it's alive and well, blah blah. He meant it, at least somewhat, literally. Okay, I'll give you a moment to remove your palm from your face and we can move on.

We can probably extrapolate that if you do a "butt down deadlift" maybe you are emphasizing the quadriceps more. Because it's like a squat with the bar in your hands? And maybe a hips up deadlift emphasizes the hams or something. I don't know, maybe a bodybuilder can explain it to me so it makes sense. Anyway, the fact that you can arbitrarily if you so desire, initiate the deadlift from alternate positions, means that the deadlift is not a deadlift.

Is this meant as a statement of fact? I'd say so, yes. I'd say it is an absolute statement of fact and it means that the deadlift is not a discrete entity. Do you know what I mean by a 'discrete entity'? A discrete entity is something that has definite parameters by which we define its existence. That is, it has a measurable beginning an end, and up and a down. You can look at it and say, "there IT is," as opposed to something else. I don't know about you, but claiming any lift is not a discrete entity does not seem to me to be conducive to getting strong.

There is One Most Efficient Position From Which to Perform the Lift

The deadlift is not a deadlift? I beg to differ. You can quibble about the name if you want but it is most definitely a discrete lift. The fact that you can arbitrarily assign different positions to it, despite their lack of appropriateness, does not make it something else than what it is.

Scratch that. It does make it something else. It makes it a deadlift done wrong. There is ONE most efficient position from which YOU should perform the deadlift and there is absolutely no reason why a strength trainee should want to emphasize one body part over another. The second you do that, you are no longer strength training and performing the deadlift but you are a bodybuilder playing at training for strength. Strength is an aspect of performance. You train to perform the best. Strength, as we define it here, is the expression of muscular force. We deadlift to lift the heaviest weight possible from the floor to waist so that we can express the maximal muscular force possible. As with any activity that is designed to enhance a certain aspect of human performance, there is a technique that is the most efficient and if you do not train with that technique you will never be able to perform to the utmost because of the inefficiencies you create. As humans beings, we already have poor leverage for lifting a heavy bar off the floor. You don't need to make it worse by inventing different positions! Start from the best mechanical position possible and then train to exert the most muscular force possible within those inherent mechanical limitations.

A Bad Program Done Well Is Better Than a Good Program Done Poorly

Even highly respected coaches can sometimes coin some less than well thought out quotes. The above quote is from Mike Boyle in "Designing Strength Training Programs and Facilities". Taken out of context this is like saying "banging your head against the wall well is better than banging it against the wall poorly". That is, context is EVERYTHING to this attitude about the trainee's role in the success of a program. You cannot, in reality, perform a bad program well, because it is a bad program. Pedantic quibbles such as "it's about the exercise technique" make no sense because exercise technique is a prerequisite of training, not of programming. You already know how to do the exercises and should know how to monitor your performance. The program tells you what to do with those exercises, and how to progress them. If the program doesn't fit, no matter how "well" you do it, it will still suck.

How do you do a program poorly? What exactly does that mean? Is it a failure to follow the rules set forth in the program? Is it a failure to have the right attitude? Is it a failure to bring the right "intensity" to the workout? At the heart of this idea seems to be nothing technical, but rather a "feel-good" bit of psychobabble about positive attitudes and enthusiasm. It seems essentially to be about your commitment. Why should a trainee commit to a bad program? Why should you commit to a tool at all, but rather be concerned with the results it garners? And, how the heck is a trainee supposed to respond to the demand to do a bad program well? Bad programs make you feel bad, on more than one level. You will do them badly because they ARE bad. A good program will not just work, it will bring out the best in the trainee because it fits his/her needs, goals, AND attitude towards training.

This one, obviously, should not be viewed as an absolute statement of fact but rather as an aphorism. What premises, then, could we use to come to this conclusion about bad programs? I can think of none. There are too many variables to consider for such a statement to be valid. If I were to guess, I'd say that these kinds of ideas are an extension from the fat loss world, where the problem with diets are not the diets themselves but people's refusal to stick to them. But why do they not stick? Because the diet does not fit. This is circular thinking and if there is one thing I am constantly reminded of, it's that circular thinking is pervasive in the strength training world.

Let's break this down a bit further. How much you commit being more important than the program comes down to this: It's all about commitment. Which is the same thing as saying "it's only commitment". Which, furthermore, is saying: It IS commitment. Think further. Even if you consider the "program" to be a word that encompasses all aspects of training, this quote is claiming that proper motivation is more important than the actual training undertaken. Why would someone want to think about an aspect of performance enhancement that is more important than another (broad) aspect? Well, the strength training world is bent on reductive thinking. Reductive thinking, related to the "fallacy of reduction" is the need to boil things down to that one missing ingredient or, more precisely, to find its origin or essence. The statements that come out of this thinking, once you boil THEM down, usually become some sort of circular definitional statement. Notice, in all three of the examples I have given, a definitional statement is implied, but one or more very important rules of a good definition are not adhered to.

  • The deadlift is not a deadlift: We do not know what the state of "not being a deadlift" means in this context. Once we do know what it means, is it acceptable to us?
  • Life is not aerobic: Although we should not take this statement seriously, defining something by what it is NOT, like above, is quite a useless exercise.
  • Strength training is commitment: If you try the inverse, does it still work? Commitment is strength training. Nah, that sounds like a crappy definition.

I am exaggerating the motivations for making the statements, sure. But I am not exaggerating the effect. Such statements by those perceived as experts are passed around in the strength training world as if they are gospel.

Trying to boil things down to one really cool sounding statement always results in the same type of really uncool implications. Yet this reductive thinking is ubiquitous in the strength and conditioning world. I could never say why exactly this happens but I recently hit on one reason that may explain the phenomenon, which I explain in one of my posts on this thread concerning Chad Waterbury, who seems to be quite given to this thought process. I think that some people have a need to reduce things down to an "irreducible simplicity" because they somehow believe that if this is not possible, the thing itself just makes no sense. This need is irrational but it does seem be a common cognitive trap.

This page created 21 Feb 2012 18:54
Last updated 21 Mar 2018 03:20

© 2020 by Eric Troy and Ground Up Strength. All Rights Reserved. Please contact for permissions.