The deadlift is my least favourite exercise. I know it’s good for me. It hits every major muscle, and yet…
Part of it is physical. I have really small hands, and this makes for a weak grip. My hands fail me long before my legs and back. Part of it is psychological. It is hard to muster all those useful emotions that help with other lifts, such as anger and fear. There is no adrenalin that the barbell will crush you on the bench or that you will be trapped in the hole with the squat. In the deadlift, the barbell is just on the floor, minding its own business until you upset it. Why not let dead barbells lie?
This year I have been training for my first strong woman competition which involves a “last man standing” deadlift event, where competitors will have to perform a 90 kilogram deadlift every 30 seconds until they can’t. In order to train for that, I have recently been lifting 100 kilogram deadlifts every 20 seconds. I’m sure I’ve done more deadlifts this year then I have in my entire training life. And it has changed my attitude to deadlifts.
When I am asked by people who do not do so much weight training about the events, many puzzle on the word “deadlift”. Why is it called that? Yes, of course, because you are lifting a dead weight off the ground. But is there more to it than that?
I have read on many fitness blogs that the history of the deadlift goes back to ancient Rome from soldiers lifting their dead from the battlefields. But no sources are ever cited and I am a bit dubious. It’s also not a universal term. In Swedish, the deadlift is sensibly called marklyft or floor lift and in French soulevé de terre, elevated from the ground. These words reflect the English meaning of picking up dead weight without assistance of any kind. While the deadlift as a particular kind of weightlifting exercise does not have such a long history, the concept of picking up a dead weight from the ground and lifting it, surely does not need an origin story.
Yet the deadlift has a rich history of more figurative meanings. I am very sympathetic to an earlier meaning of deadlift recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary that was apparently common in the 17th Century: “A position or juncture in which one can do no more, an extremity, ‘a hopeless exigence’.
Deadlifts also crop up frequently in the 19th century. Artist William Morris describes the neglect of art appreciation as requiring a “deadlift”, the historian Thomas Carlyle explores various “deadlift efforts” in history, and novelist F. Anstey talks about “the burden of a conversational deadlift”. And then, I came across this gem from the Transactions of the Michigan State Teachers Association of 1877:
“It is not true that mental exercise is useful only when it is repulsive and distasteful, needing a deadlift of the will; but it is true that a good many ‘lifts’ have to be made, and the child must be got ready for them by lifting. It is true that no subject is good for the training of a child in which the child is not capable of achieving something, and of enjoying the achievement; but it is not true that a subject is always good for him in the long run, in proportion to his present capacity and liking for it. Sometimes it is the case that a child, or older pupil, who has small capacity for a subject, and finds little pleasure in its pursuit, develops, through application and study, great capacity and pleasure.” (my emphasis)
I am going to take that as sage advice from a 19th century writer who would likely be shocked to learn of its application to a strong woman competition in the 21st century. When it comes to deadlifts, I am that child, but slowly through increased application and study, the deadlift is growing in capacity and pleasure.
Virginia is an associate professor of literature and a powerlifter.