The deadlift has been lauded as the king of back builders, with a most impressive list of bodybuilding champions crediting it for building their killer backs. Mr. Olympia winners Franco Columbu and Samir Bannout were both adept at pulling prodigious amounts of tonnage from the floor, and Lee Haney and Dorian Yates included it in their recipes for wondrously thick wingspans. But it wasn’t until Ronnie Coleman came along and made the move legendary with his 800-pound deads just weeks away from the ’01 Mr. Olympia contest in his watershed training video “The Unbelievable” that bodybuilders everywhere suddenly rediscovered what had previously been the least popular of the three powerlifts, behind bench presses and squats.
Many take as fact the idea that outstanding back development cannot be achieved without deadlifts. As we all know, however, whenever there’s a rule, someone will come along who proves to be an exception. At the ’07 NPC USA Championships, a relative unknown named Ben White dominated the superheavyweight class en route to sweeping the overall title, putting him in company with past USA champs like Flex Wheeler and Chris Cormier. White was packing loads of thick muscle all over, but his back in particular spelled “game over” for his competition.
His has all the qualities that bodybuilders strive for in a back: width, thickness and crazy detail. The shocker came when White started getting some press and revealed that deadlifts played no part whatever in building that amazing back. “I tried it a couple times, and it felt like a very dangerous exercise to me,” he says. A former bench press champion with an official lift of more than 700 pounds, White also met his share of powerlifters who had chronic lower-back injuries they attributed to deadlifts, and that cemented his decision to avoid the movement. Ask him if you can build an awesome back without deads, and White is quick to affirm that you certainly can. “Hard work on chinups, barbell and dumbbell rows, cables and machines will give you all the back development you need,” he asserts. “It’s all about stimulating the muscles, and there are many ways to do that besides pulling a bar off the ground.”
You could argue that White was able to construct his cobralike back without deads thanks mainly to his exceptional DNA, but if that were true, you’d also have to concede that someone like Ronnie Coleman is just as genetically gifted. So if White could build an awesome back without deadlifts, odds are that Ronnie could have too.
Should you deadlift? If it’s a safe movement for you, by all means do it. Not all of us are structurally suited to deadlifts. Dave Henry, who has a hell of a back himself, never felt he was built for them. I know that every time I’ve reached any reasonable amount of strength on deadlifts, inevitably my lower back has gotten hurt.
If you’ve been stubbornly continuing to deadlift despite injuries just because you believe it’s the only path to a better back, maybe it’s time you stopped blindly heeding that directive. If deadlifts aren’t a safe and productive exercise for you, go ahead and lay them to rest. IM