The other day I had a dream that someone told me deadlifting was bad for your back, and that I shouldn’t do them.
I woke up angry.
On another occasion (this time in real life) a friend of mine, who has some lower back and sciatic pain issues, overheard me talking with one of my clients (also has back pain flare-ups from time to time), about our goals for her deadlift- aka, lift more. He then told me that I shouldn’t let someone with chronic back pain deadlift because “deadlifting pinches a nerve in your back”…
I wanted to say so much, but the non-confrontational being that I am, I just said with a huge smile “not if you’re doing them right”, and walked away before we got into an argument.
No- Deadlifting does not pinch a nerve in your back. Pinching a nerve, by the way, is a garbage term used to describe many types of pain that don’t even involve a nerve being “pinched”.
No- deadlifting is not bad for your back. Rather, deadlifting is an excellent exercise to teach you how to NOT hurt your back, and make it less likely that, if you do have chronic back pain, like I do, it’ll flare up.
So, be it resolved that dancers are notorious for injuring their backs, I would like to argue FOR the case that dancers should indeed deadlift. When they are ready for it.
Nothing gets me stoked quite like deadlifts do. Is my first client of the day scheduled to deadlift? Then I’m off to the start of an awesome day. Do I get to teach someone their first ever deadlift today? You bet I’m excited. It’s impossible to be around deadlifts without getting a buzz.
I just did some today. And I feel awesome!
While there will always be those who think that deadlifts will hurt their backs and knees, making them not worth the risk, I think they’re wrong. Well, in some cases, they’re right- There are some people who I’m sure it would be a good idea not to deadlift. At least initially. But seeing as everybody picks things up, puts them back down (eventually), and sits on the toilet, it’s a good idea to learn to hinge from your hips (aka- deadlift).
Some good reasons for dancers to deadlift:
1) Deadlifting teaches you to use your glutes as the prime mover, over the back. A common imbalance in dancers, is to overuse their lower back muscles (from the constant demand to be in lumbar hyperextension) rather than use their glutes. It’s also pretty common for people to not bend from the hips, but to bend from the spine, putting all the load on the lower back.
Story from the gym today, these two dudes were doing multiple sets of 50 sit ups. Dude 1 says, “Man I can really feel the burn in my lower back!”. Dude 2 agrees enthusiastically that this is awesome. They proceed to do at least 5 more sets, while I foam roll and stretch, observing in close proximity, shaking my head and face-palming internally. Again- I could have said something, but I choose to avoid
rationalizing with lost causes unnecessary confrontations like this. Besides, it was Sunday- My only day I don’t HAVE to talk about gym stuff and biomechanics if I don’t want to.
So anyway, back to this important point- The deadlift teaches you to use your glutes as the prime mover, with the hamstrings and lower back as secondary. The glutes are one of the strongest muscles in the body, but also one of the most commonly weak ones. Deadlift and your glutes will get strong, helping with a lot of things from injury prevention, to alignment, to technical performance of dance moves, etc.
Another common thing that dancers do that kind of screws things up for them, is that they use their glutes (glute max, which also externally rotates the hip) to turnout, instead of using them to jump, balance, and other things involving hip extension. Deadlifting, and glute strengthening in general, can help you learn to use the part of the glute max which extends the hip, not just rotates it. Addressing this can aslo help you to prevent overuse injuries to the hamstrings and lower back and hips. Yay!
2) Deadlifts make your whole body strong. Not just your glutes. If you like multi-tasking, then you’ll love deadlifting.
Most strength coaches would agree that the deadlift is paramount to developing full-body strength. I don’t think there’s a single muscle that you don’t need to have engaged to do a deadlift properly. Glutes, abs, back, legs, arms… Sometimes even the arches of my feet are sore after deadlift days, because my foot posture is excellent.
Deadlifts teach you to transmit force from the floor, through your whole body- Everything, from your feet to your hands, has to work to get the bar up, making it one of the most efficient exercises to build strength.
And the German blood in me really, really digs efficiency.
3) Deadlifts build upper back strength. Continuing on the same lines as the above point, if you aren’t bracing your upper back as you lift the bar (or other heavy object of your choosing), then you will probably hurt your back. Just one of the reasons deadlifting gets a bad rep. By engaging the muscles of your upper back (lats and friends), you strengthen the crap out of them.
I think something that sets one dancer apart from another is their ability to dance from their backs. If a dancer is just flapping her arms and legs around, it doesn’t look quite right. But when you can initiate the movement from your back- magic happens.
Fun fact: Those who don’t strength train can only use about 70% of their available motor units, so it’s really amazing the difference you will see in your dancing in just 4 weeks of strength training, during which time increase in strength is due to the fact that now you are actually using more motor units.
4) Deadlifting strengthens your core and neutral spine position. Again, to deadlift properly, and not hurt your back, you need to have a stiff core in a neutral position. Considering most dancers don’t focus much of their time on being in neutral spine, it’s good for them to practice it once in a while. By deadlifting.
5) Deadlifting strengthens your grip. Dancers of many styles will benefit from improved grip strength. If you ever need to lift somebody, hold onto somebody, or climb something (I’m looking at you silks and circus peeps), then you’ll probably need a certain degree of grip strength.
Grip and rotator cuff strength are correlated, making grip strength an important factor for injury prevention to the shoulder. There is also evidence that weak grip can be associated with pain in the elbow, shoulder and other stuff you might not think it would be linked to. The body is just kinda crazy like that.
Deadlifting is also proven to make your handshake way more intimidating. It will help you impress at your next audition or interview.
7) Deadlifting improves your confidence. You’d be surprised at how many dancers actually tell me how little confidence they have in themselves. Part of performing is knowing how to fake confidence I guess.
But tell me, how could you NOT be empowered having the ability lifting something that weighs your own bodyweight and then some? One of my key philosophies, that the DTP thrives on, is that time spent training in the gym should be used to create positive memories of success, to boost confidence, and make the trainee feel good about what they’ve accomplished in each session.
By working on improving strength, and the dancer seeing the numbers of her/his lifts going up, it gives them something positive and tangible to focus on. Rather than dwelling on the negative aspects of their dancing, or what they need to improve on, they get instant gratification, a flood of adrenaline, and the sense of accomplishment associated with a successful lift.
I’ve seen dancers blossom as people as they see themselves becoming stronger, and stronger. They look forward to deadlift day, because it is another chance to improve themselves as people, not just as dancers.
The confidence a dancer can build through mastering their bodies, and learning the mechanics of lifting heavy is something I think will help them immensely when they are performing, and in daily class. A stronger, more confident, more empowered person is a better dancer than a weak, insecure and tentative person, would you not say?
8 ) Deadlifting has real-world, functional applications. My dancers are surprisingly strong, and like to show it off at their jobs:
This dancer (weighs, like, 115 pounds MAX) works as a server at a popular restuarant, and told me this story: “The other day, we had to move the big crates of cutlery from the floor onto the counter, and no one else wanted to lift them up cause they weigh a ton, not even the dudes. But it was no problem for me, I was just like, ‘I’ll deadlift it up’.”
This dancer works at a popular hardware/houseware store and told me this one: “At work this week, I helped a man lift an apppliance he bought into his car. He looked concerned and went to help me as I [dead]lifted it up into his trunk, but then he was like, ‘Oh… you’re really strong, you didn’t even need my help’. No big deal”.
High. Freakin’. Five. These ladies are killing it in life, at the gym, and on the dance floor.
Thank you deadlifts. Thank you for improving the quality of my life in more ways than I could possibly imagine.