The underappreciated art of the deadlift

In July 2016, Britain’s Eddie Hall deadlifted 500 kg (1102lbs) at the strongman World Deadlift Championships. The equivalent of a half metric ton, this incredible feat of strength added 35 kg/77 lbs to the previous world record. Once deemed impossible, this lift shook the earth in the strength community. And yet, this astronomical lift went unnoticed in the wider world. 

So, what is the deadlift? Put simply, to deadlift is to pick up a loaded barbell off the ground, and stand at full lockout with the shoulders, back, hips and knees locked out straight. It is the truest test of strength known to strength sports. Contrary to what I’ll refer to as “gym bro rhetoric,” the bench press is indeed not the metric by which we ought to judge the strength of a lifter. Unlike benching or even squatting, the deadlift engages every muscle in the body. Furthermore, an extra element of strength is contributed by the inoptimal location of the weight in front of the body. This ensures the movement requires the lifter to maintain their balance throughout, neither falling forward with the sheer force of the barbell pulling down in front of their center of gravity, nor falling backward by trying to offset the weight’s location by leaning too far back. One must have exceptional core, leg, back, arm and even grip strength in order to rip an excessively loaded barbell off the ground, and maintain balance and correct spinal and hip positioning to avoid injury and complete the lift. This puts some context to the insane effort Hall managed that summer of 2016, to pull a barbell loaded to the weight of around five and half times the bodyweight of the average adult American man (197.9 lbs)

Yet, despite the complexity of the lift and inhuman strength necessary to lift massive weight like Hall, I’m all but certain no more than five to ten Lawrence students and faculty will have ever heard his name, much less what he’s achieved. I put this down to the lack of flashiness associated with the event itself. For starters, the physique of the elite deadlifter is not that idealized by mainstream society. Last I checked, power bellies and dad bods were not the fitness influencer standard. If one were to google the aforementioned Eddie Hall in 2016, he may even appear to the naked eye as morbidly obese. In reality, the physiques the media sells us-toned abs, tight waists, defined arms and legs-are not functionally strong. Much as we may not like it, peak performance is a protruding gut of monstrous abdominals, arms and legs like trees, and a body fat percentage too high up the BMI scale to see muscular definition. All that extra fat and water maintained on the body allows the muscles to work under ideal conditions-fully hydrated, and always with a surplus of carbohydrates available to work with when fibers are pushed to their breaking point. While it may look like Hall and his compatriots simply aren’t fans of cardio, in reality they simply don’t have the capacity to do so with the toll their training takes on their bodies. 

Nowadays, the strongman world record stands at 501 kg after Iceland’s Hafthor Julius Bjornsson, also known as “The Mountain” from Game of Thrones, broke Eddie Hall’s record by a single kilogram, or 2.2 pounds in 2020. While it may seem this record could be quite untouchable, standing at 1104 pounds, this is far from the case. At the moment, several men stand a realistic chance of reaching the 500+ kg marker in the near future. 

First up is Iran’s Peiman Maheripour. A lesser-known name in strength sports, Maheripour has progressed extremely rapidly in recent months. On March 25th, he was able to pull 492 kg in a training session, while in prior weeks he had managed 455 kg and 477.5 kg each for two reps. A the rate he is currently progressing, it is fair to predict Peiman to break 500 kg by the end of the year. A lift with the magnitude of 492 kg requires substantial recovery, so much in the same way a marathoner takes a substantial portion of time to recover from and work back up to the marathon distance, so too will Maheripour require several months before pulling so heavy in the future. However, watch this space; big things seem to be on the way by 2022. 

Next is Estonia’s Asko Karu. The newest of the contenders, Karu has only burst onto the scene in the last few months or so. His best lift to date is a 482 kg pull, also done on March 25th. While this may seem rather less impressive as compared to Maheripour, it is worth considering that Karu completed this lift on a stiff bar, and without a deadlift suit. For a bit of context, both Hall and Bjornsson completed their lifts with a deadlift compression suit, and on deadlift bars. The significance here is that the deadlift compression suit, which looks similar to a wrestling or powerlifting singlet, aids in the lift by essentially acting as a spring. The more contorted the body from an upright, standing position, the tighter the suit becomes, essentially helping to push the body back into a locked out position to finish the lift. In terms of the bar used, a deadlift bar flexes far more than a stiff bar, so when pulling the weight off the floor, the distance is essentially lessened by using a deadlift bar. When pulling on the bar, the outsides of the weight stay on the floor longer on account of the added flexibility, so the lift becomes easier. Karu had neither of these advantages, and yet still pulled 1063 pounds. Additionally, his max lift has risen 40 kg from 442 kg within the last month. Much like Maheripour, I don’t foresee him breaking the record in the immediate future, but Karu is definitely a top candidate to unseat Bjornsson’s record. 

Last but not least, Estonia has a second candidate in the form of my personal favorite lifter, Rauno Heinla. Heinla’s best lift to date is 470 kg, much below his compatriots, making him perhaps the least likely to challenge the record. However, he is the current world record holder for most reps with 400 kg, with 6, outstripping other world class athletes like Jean-Francois Caron, Konstantin Janashia, and Jerry Pritchett, all while weighing just over 300 lbs-over 100 lbs less than Bjornsson at the time of his record in 2020, and significantly less than both Maheripour and Karu. These are unprecedented strength levels, so I would not be surprised if Heinla was to make a run at 502 kg in the coming year or so. 

It’s easy to overlook the monstrous levels of strength the deadlift requires. It may not carry the flashiness of the bench press or allow for the ripped physiques that draw the eye, but those who dedicate themselves to pushing the human capacity for strength by ripping massive weights off the floor deserve the same respect as the influencers we see all over the internet. And for what it’s worth, give it a try yourself-safely, with the correct technique, of course-you might just fall in love with the process as countless have before you.