Why Should Climbers Deadlift?

Rock climbers and boulderers should deadlift because the deadlift is a weight lifting exercise that increases whole-body strength, hip drive, body tension, and increases the “fall-absorbing capacity” of your back. Moreover, the deadlift can often be done while you’re recovering from injury too. Thus making it an excellent exercise to help you train climbing specific movements even when you’re not able to.

Before I explain all the advantages of the deadlift for rock climbers in detail, I explain what the deadlift is and how to do it correctly.

Are you ready?

Let’s discover the deadlift!

1. What is a Deadlift?

A deadlift is a strength exercise that is part of the 3 exercises making up the powerlifting sport. The deadlift is a hip-dominant exercise. Meaning that the majority of the movement comes from the hips by making a hinge; you move your butt back to activate the muscles of your back, glutes, and back of your legs.

With proper deadlift technique, you’ll be able to lift heavy quickly resulting in many advantages as I will discuss later in this article.

1.1 How to do a Deadlift?

Here’s how to deadlift correctly in 8 steps:

  1. Load your barbell with a small amount of weight or put it on top of two boxes so that you can place your feet underneath

2. Place your feet so that the barbell crosses the middle of your foot

3. Grab the barbell (don’t worry about your form yet) 10 centimeters beside your legs

4. Straighten your back and bring your butt down and back – your lower legs should be as vertical as possible

5. Press your feet through the floor

6. “Hang” on the barbell by leaning back a little

7. Once you feel tension throughout your entire body, lift the barbell by pressing your hips forward through the barbell, squeezing your glutes hard

8. When your hips touch the barbell squeeze your shoulders back together to “lock-off”.

9. That’s the deadlift from the ground up.

There are many variations on the deadlift but in this article, we’ll focus on the conventional barbell deadlift (as shown in the video).

1.2 Which Muscles are Trained with a Deadlift?

The main muscles you train with the deadlift are the muscles of the “posterior chain”. These are your calves, hamstrings, glutes, erector spine, lats, and trapezius muscles.

The main working muscles are your forearm muscles for holding the bar, your traps for stabilizing your shoulders, your erector spinae for stabilizing your back, and your hamstrings and glutes to drive your hips forward and lift the weight.

2. 9 Reasons Rock Climbers Should Deadlift

The 9 reasons why rock climbers should deadlift include the fact that the deadlift develops hip drive, trains body tension, strength, and when part of a proper training plan also speed.

This brings me to my parenthesis regarding the deadlift, even though I do believe that just training the movement will bring benefits to your climbing. If you don’t include it into a proper strength training plan your missing out on most of the benefits.

In the case of the deadlift, I recommend you use the movement for maximum strength development. To do that use the following set and repetitions ranges:

  1. 2-5 sets
  2. 3-6 reps
  3. With +-80% of your 1 repetition maximum (1RM; the weight with which you can do at max 1 repetition)
  4. Resting 3 minutes after 5-6 rep sets and resting 4-5 minutes after 3-4 rep sets
  5. Deadlift 1-2x/week on-season and deadlift 2-3x/week during off-season

So, now you have an idea of how to do the deadlift and how to train it.

Let’s have a detailed look at what benefits the deadlift will bring to your climbing.

2.1 Hip Drive

The deadlift is a hip-driven movement, meaning that the majority of the movement happens around the hip. In climbing, hip movements are important too. They help you generate speed, position your body right and stay close to the wall.

The hip movements in climbing are more complex and you use a larger variety than with the deadlift, this doesn’t mean however that you don’t benefit.

A motor learning concept called variability dictates that your nervous system can transfer skills from one movement to another.

2.2 Body Tension

Body tension is essential for climbing. As things go it’s easier to lift something solid (like a stone) than to lift something that moves (like a loose bag of potatoes). The same holds for your body. With proper tension, you’ll be lifting a stone. And without it, you’re lifting a bag of potatoes.

There are many ways to train body tension:

  • Moving slow(er) while climbing
  • Static moves on the climbing wall
  • Isometric exercises like planks, side planks, and front levers
  • Static holds in any position you can think of
  • And of course: deadlifts

Before you lift the weight with the deadlift it lies “dead” on the floor. There’s no way you can use any momentum during this exercise, which in turn forces you to generate tension throughout your body to lift the weight efficiently.

The more weight you lift the more tension you need. This is different from isometric exercises like planks and side planks that increase duration instead of intensity. Take into consideration that a proper front lever takes time to learn and the deadlift is a great alternative to quickly teach the body to tense hard.

2.3 General Strength Development

The deadlift technique is the perfect way to lift. You protect your back by tensing the muscles around and you make the majority of the movement from the hips which forces your glutes to do most of the lifting. This is great because your glutes are the biggest muscles in your body.

So, if you’re used to lifting heavy stuff, lifting things during your everyday life will become significantly easier. Which in turn will save you energy. The energy you can then use to climb harder.

Furthermore, the strength you develop while deadlifting transfers to your climbing as well.

2.4 Hand and Forearm Strength

When you deadlift with a conventional grip without the aid of chalk, straps, or anything else which enhances your grip, your hands will have to work hard.

By training the deadlift you develop hand strength. The beautiful thing is that you do this without stressing your finger joints. This is especially good if you started climbing in the last 2 years or if you’re climbing below 6b or 7a. Because these are the grades that are commonly seen as the moment it makes sense to train your finger strength on a hang board. So, are you climbing less than 2 years or below those grades? Then the deadlift is a great option to still train your hands and forearms.

2.5 Longevity & Climbing at Higher Age

When you develop a solid strength foundation with the deadlift, you’ll develop more than just strength. As things go, strength training increases bone density, increases tendon and ligament strength and therefore positively affects your longevity.

And with longevity, I don’t just mean living to be old. I also mean climbing at a higher age.

2.6 Injury Prevention

Injury prevention is something to aspire to but in reality, it’s impossible. That’s why it’s better to do everything you can to reduce the chance of injuries.

Nevertheless, just training the deadlift won’t prevent climbing injuries by itself. But, making the deadlift part of a solid training plan does help. For the same reasons that deadlifting will aid in a long climbing career. Stronger muscles, tendons, bones will reduce the chance of injuries.

2.7 Protecting Your Back when Falling

Even though “preparing your back to absorb “climbing fall-shocks” is a form of injury prevention, I think it helps when I discuss it separately.

When you fall during a lead climb or when climbing a boulder problem your back has to absorb a part of the impact. This axial compression force (a force that comes down from your head down through your spine pressing everything together), is absorbed by your back muscles and intervertebral disks.

Now, think for a moment about how the deadlift is done. Which forces are present in your back?

The majority of the force is axial compression.

Thus, the better you are at the deadlift, the better you prepare your back for climbing falls. I especially want to mention here that this axial compression force when falling is a “reactive force”, as your body has to respond to the impact, which requires a high amount of maximum strength.

Why does reactive force require a high amount of maximum strength?

Because of the velocity component to a fall. The higher the fall, the faster you fall, the higher the impact, the more energy your muscles have to compensate.

A little by the way here, if your main goal is to protect your back against lead climbing falls, make sure to have a belayer that knows how to give you a soft catch. No deadlift in the world will be more efficient than that.

2.8 Speed

Speed may be essential for dyno’s, it isn’t for climbing. Yet it might be an advantage to climb through hard cruxes and to increase the distance you can dyno.

Speed, just like reactive force is built upon a base of maximum strength. The bigger your strength surplus the more speed you can generate. Because the faster you want to propel your body upwards, the more your body weighs.

2.9 Training Tension when Injured (Below Shoulder Level)

Shoulder injuries are common in climbers. Depending on the origin of your shoulder injury you might not be able to climb or do any overhead movements at all. Luckily, with the deadlift, you have to hold weight below shoulder level and you keep your arms close to your body. In most cases this allows you to continue deadlifting even though you’re injured.

Are you currently suffering from shoulder impingement syndrome or shoulder instability? Then start lighter than you think with the deadlift. If you’re deadlifting already, reduce the weight first. If you have never done it before, start with a stick to learn the technique correctly.

3. Should all Training for Climbing Mimic Rock Climbing?

Not all training for rock climbing needs to mimic rock climbing exactly. This is based on a motor learning principle called “variability”. Variability means that your brain and nervous system is able to transfer skills and strength gains from one exercise to another. The opposite is called “specificity” which dictates that in the case of climbing, climbing is the best exercise.

However, the more you engage in a single activity the more prone you become to overuse injuries as a result of it. So, if you want to train often and develop a resilient body it’s best to find a balance between specificity and variability. Somewhere around 2/3-3/4 specific training and focus 1/3-1/4 of your training on supportive exercises.

The deadlift falls into the latter category.

4. Are Deadlift Variations Good for Climbing?

If you’ve ever done any form of weight lifting or been to the gym you might’ve noticed people doing different varieties of the deadlift.

A couple of variations are:

  • Sumo Deadlift
  • Stiff-Legged Deadlift
  • Romanian Deadlift
  • Single Legged Deadlift

And there are probably a couple more I couldn’t think of right now.

The question is, are these variations also beneficial for climbing?

Yes, I think these variations are also beneficial to climbing. I believe that any compound weight lifting exercise that trains your strength will benefit you in some way.

However, are they as beneficial as the conventional deadlift?

I think not. Because with the conventional deadlift you need to generate most force from the hips and you lift the weight “dead” off the floor. This requires you to activate more of your muscles and nervous system for a single movement. And allows you therefore to lift heavier.

5. Important Take-Away’s

The deadlift is a hip-dominant weight lifting movement that will benefit every rock climber. As for me personally, here are the most important advantages this exercise has for climbing:

  • It’s a safe and efficient way to develop body tension
  • It’s an excellent way to train hip drive
  • Doing heavy deadlifts will prepare your back to absorb the shock of lead climbing and bouldering falls

If you’re excited to go deadlifting now, I recommend you focus this excitement on learning to do the deadlift correctly rather than throwing a load of weight on the barbell.

I think the best way to learn the deadlift is by watching a bunch of videos about it, then making videos of yourself doing it. Furthermore, if you’re in a gym with a weight lifting coach, ask him/her.

Have fun deadlifting!

Joël Broersma

Hey, I'm Joël, a Dutch Physical Therapist living & working in Switzerland. I'm an avid rock climber and sports & movement lover in general.

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