Deadlifting Through Time
Article by Trey Isom
“The deadlift can be considered as one of the best tests of overall body strength. It is a multi-joint movement that in simple terms involves picking up a barbell from the floor and standing to the erect position. The movement includes the recruitment of the muscles of the hip, lower back, upper back, quadriceps, hamstrings and abdominals.” – Martyn Girvan
“There is no reason to be alive if you can’t do deadlift!” Jon Pall Sigmarsson shouted out this proclamation while holding a 1005lb axle in his hands at Pure Strength 1987. The deadlift has been called the ultimate test of strength by many. Fitness industry terms like “functional” don’t even begin to encompass the full benefits of this pull. As basic an act of bending over and picking a weight up, the deadlift is a movement so primal that is seems almost silly to try and trace its history.
Instead, we’ll look at the barbell variation. While yes there have been centuries old tests of prowess such as the Manhood Stones of Scotland that one could identify as being a similar movement to a deadlift, our attention will have to focus on the plate loaded variety to help keep things on point.
While the barbell deadlift has likely been around since the barbell itself, the first time the movement was brought to attention outside of the gym was with stage strongman Hermann Goerner in the early 20th century. Goerner was known for his odd acts of strength such as wrestling an elephant, juggling 50kg kettlebells and snatching a barbell with arms crossed.
What we remember him most for though were his incredible early feats in the deadlift, some of which still stand as records to this day. Goerner is unofficially credited with an 830lb conventional deadlift, but his main love was in training various grips. These records include a 728lb double overhand pull, a 595lb pull using only two fingers on each hand and the most famous of all a 727lb deadlift using only one hand that still stands as a record today. Strength historian David Willoughby called this lift, “the greatest documented feat of bodily power ever performed.”
Records of deadlifts by peers of Goerner are hard to come by. At the time what would become Weightlifting was only in its infancy and the performing strongmen that Goerner represented tended to stick to a few show lifts each. Out of professional courtesy most would completely avoid a lift that another strongman was known for. This situation was the norm until after World War I, when Weightlifting leagues started to become more standardized. During this time the deadlift was seen as an assistance exercise or at very best part of the collection of “odd lifts”.
Between World War I and the inauguration of Powerlifting in 1964 if a strength athlete wasn’t quite flexible or technically skilled enough for Weightlifting their only chance to compete was in locally held meets using the odd lifts. These were any number of lifts that the sponsors’ crew was probably especially proficient in with almost no standardization between contests. During this time any sort of weight training was seen, according to author Ken Leistner, as a cult activity and therefore there wasn’t much of a push for standardization. Therefore the deadlift languished in obscurity with the other non-Weightlifting movements until the late 40s and the introduction of a farmer from Tennessee to the world of the pull.
In 1949, at the age of 40 and a bodyweight of 180lbs Bob Peoples broke his own world record with a 725lb deadlift. This amazing feat came at the end of Peoples almost decade long dominance of the lift, establishing and then breaking his own world records time and time again. Peoples is also proof that strength is born primarily of hard work and dedication. His form would be laughed at today, with his overly round upper back and his preference for pulling with what he described as “empty lungs.” The implements he trained with were almost exclusively hand made by himself on his farm. His training was often interrupted by seasonal work. When he could train his frequency would be almost unheard of in the modern day. In the lead up to his lifting contest against William Boone he simply squatted, pressed and deadlifted to a heavy top set every single day. Yet despite these conditions most modern trainees would scoff at his name is always foremost in any conversation about great deadlifters.
In the early 50s weight training began to slowly lose its cult status thanks to the efforts of early bodybuilders. Lifting for strength was still not widely accepted in America, but the public appreciated the physiques that weight training made possible. Deadlift feats were few as these were the early days of isolation training and body sculpting, but the movement still found its place as a base builder for the bodybuilders of the day. In one example a young Steve Reeves was challenged in the famous York Barbell Club to prove whether he was actually strong or not. Without a word he loaded a 7 foot Olympic barbell with roughly 400lbs and, stretching his arms to their limits, pinched the 45lb plates with only his fingertips as the grip, he deadlifted the weight. The demonstration is said to have silenced his doubter immediately.
In 1964 Bob Hoffman and the York Barbell Company held the first national powerlifting meet as we would recognize it today. Britain began a concurrent competition but they replaced the deadlift with the strict curl, so we’ll ignore them for now. Peoples’ reign stayed largely unchallenged until the end of the decade when Don Cundy became the first man to break the 800lb barrier at a bodyweight of 275. Cundy was joined in the 800lb club by Vince Anello in 1975 who’s greatest lift could be his 809lb pull at a bodyweight of only 198. Superheavyweight and future World’s Strongest Man Don Reinhoudt capped the decade off with a massive 881lb deadlift.
From the 80s onwards deadlifting became an entrenched part of strength culture. Records continued to fall with Dan Wohleber breaking the 900lb barrier in 1982. Lamar Gant, widely considered one of the greatest deadlifters of all time, set a record 683lb pull in the 132lb class (that still stands today) and established himself as the first man to pull over five times his bodyweight. 1980 also saw the wide acceptance of a new form of displaying strength, Strongman. Bill Kazmaier won the World’s Strongest Man this year for his first time, setting down the deadlift as a Strongman standard with a 956lb Silver Dollar Deadlift (deadlifting with a bar height of 18″). Strongman has embraced a wider variety of pulling, with a more libertarian attitude towards support equipment such as lifting straps and a wide variety of implements to be hoisted.
He may have been built to deadlift, but remember Gant’s first world record was for the bench press before reaching for your excuses.
The deadlifting silver age was capped off by the man many have called Powerlifting’s Greatest of All Time, Ed Coan. He famously utilized the wide legged Sumo style deadlift, where the hands are kept inside the feet and the back is kept more upright during the pull. This style has been disallowed in Strongman but many great Powerlifters swear by the movement. Coan has held 71 various world records in Powerlifting, including beating Bill Kazmaiers’ record total with 2463lbs, despite being over 100lbs lighter than the former superheavyweight. In 1991 at the Senior Nationals in Dallas, Coan accomplished a feat that is still seen by many as the greatest powerlift in history. Only wearing a singlet and belt, Ed deadlifted an incredible 901lbs at a bodyweight of only 220.
In 1983 John Inzer invented the first supportive bench shirt, starting a slow rise in supportive gear which would lead to a decline in the deadlift as a total maker in Powerlifting. In equipped Powerlifting special gear is allowed to be worn which helps store the elastic energy of the eccentric portion of a movement, allowing for greater weights to be moved safely. As the deadlift starts “dead” on the ground, there is no eccentric portion which means deadlift suits make a much less noticeable difference than squat or bench suits. This led to the squat and bench being seen as the driving force behind the powerlifting total, with the deadlift left as an afterthought. In Strongman, the World’s Strongest Man contest began trending more towards moving and high rep events, leaving the static deadlift present but nowhere near as popular. This is not to say that there were no great pullers from this time, just that the lift itself had lost prominence.
1997 saw amateur Strongman start to rise with the establishment of the NAS Amateur US Nationals. In 1999 100% RAW established itself as the first American Powerlifting federation to back off of the use of supportive gear in competition. The Arnold Strongman Classic in 2002 reestablished limit strength as the primary measure of a Strongman. These forces started the resurgence in deadlifting we’re experiencing today. I’d like to think we can thank Andy Bolton for finalizing the reawakening to the awesome potential of this movement when in 2006 the Englishman became the first man to deadlift over 1000lbs!
The deadlift has now reestablished itself as the ultimate test of strength. Raw powerlifting has caused a resurgence in the deadlift as an important component of the total, giving us more great pullers at one time than we have possibly ever experienced. Names such as Dan Green, Konstantin Konstantinovs, Richard Hawthorne, Stan Efferding, Andrey Malanichev, Jesse Norris, Vince Urbank and the Lillibridge family all come to mind as potentially legendary pullers who are currently active at the same time. Strongman holds Zydrunas Savickas, Brian Shaw, Mark Felix, Vytautas Lalas, Terry Hollands, Eddie Hall and many others who could all be counted as among the best deadlifters of all time. We could truly be living in the Golden Age of the Pull.
Zydrunas Savickas setting the world record in the Hummer Tire Deadlift
The king of both worlds right now is Benedikt Magnusson. Benni has firmly established himself as the King of deadlifting, and has set a high bar for any who wish to claim that title in the future. He holds the overall powerlifting record with a 1015lb pull while only wearing a belt, and recently narrowly beat out Eddie Hall for the Strongman deadlift world championship with a 1016lb deadlift using a suit and straps.
It’s easy to imagine our earliest ancestors testing their strength by trying to lift the biggest rock off the ground. The press may be the lift best known by the general public, the squat may forever be known as the king of all lifts, and the Olympic lifts may be the only lifts recognized across the world, but the deadlift supersedes all such labels. The simple act of bending over and picking up impossible weight will never be replaced as the most basic display of human performance.