The adrenaline's running. Music is blaring in your ears.
Tingling sensations are coursing throughout your body as you approach a peak level of: "I'm jacked up and ready to lift this shit."
Like a bull just waiting to be released, you take this build up of energy and focus it all into one moment, one effort, and rip the weight off the floor.
People who deadlift and squat heavy can relate to this experience, and they're probably hooked on it as much as I am. In all honesty, it's the only thing I've found that even remotely compares to the rush you get when you make a big play in a game.
Unfortunately, a lot of people miss out on this rush because they never lift lift anything heavy.
It tends to get attacked in the media for being dangerous, and you often hear statements like:
"Oh, whatever you do don't squat and deadlift heavy. You'll probably blow a disc out of your back and shoot it across the room."
Granted, this statement carries legitimacy if:
You don't know how to perform the lift correctly
You don't move well enough to perform the lift correctly
You use too much weight because you're stubborn and don't know how to check your ego.
I'd be willing to argue this holds true for just about anything though. If you go out for a run and have poor running form, are obnoxiously tight, or run for too long, you will probably injure something. Yet we see people running with poor form all the time, and complaining because they have knee or low back pain.
Remember, structure dictates function, so if something is off with your structure it'll carry over to your function. With all of this in mind, I'm here to tell you everyone should aspire to squat and deadlift heavy because it stimulates a myriad of health benefits.
1. They Are Functional Movement Patterns
The squat and deadlift are perhaps the two most functional movements we know as humans. Just think about how many times you do the following over the course of a single day: sit down, stand up, bend over to pick something up off the ground. I'm willing to bet it happens a lot. As Gray Cook discusses in his book Movement, these are not simple tasks. Instead, they are complex patterns of movement requiring symmetry and coordination across multiple joints. As our position changes throughout the movement so does muscular activity. A muscle active during one portion of the movement may give way to another muscle or stabilizer during a separate portion of the movement.
Luckily, we don't have to consider all of these intricacies when we decide to move. We simply think about movement as a whole and our brain/bodies will tap into however we have programmed ourselves to do it. This is why practicing the squat and deadlift correctly is so important. Our body recognizes patterns of movement, and the more we can practice good movement patterns the better off we will be.
On a related note, many of the faults you see during squatting and deadlifting carry over to other movements as well.
For example, take an athlete who squats and their knees fly forward and collapse in (also known as valgus). What do you think happens when this same athlete has to jump, land or sprint in their sport? He or she falls back on the same exact pattern they've become familiar with because that's what they know--that's how their brain has learned to move.
Yet we say it's okay for them to go play their sport but not squat and/or deadlift? I couldn't disagree more. This athlete needs to learn to move well, and then be able to perform those movements with a load because that's what their sport will demand.
2. Learn to Generate Large Amounts of Force
The next few paragraphs are going to get a little wordy, but stick with me because it'll all make sense in the end.
So, strength is the ability to generate force, and no it has nothing to do with being a Jedi. Although that would be legit.
But we know athletes generate force in similar movements in two different ways: peripheral factors and central factors. Peripheral factors relate to the force capabilities of individual muscles, which depends on how big a muscle is (also known as its cross sectional area and often talked about as hypertrophy), while central factors relate to the coordination of muscle activity by way of the central nervous system.
If we were to look just at central factors, we can subdivide that category into intramuscular coordination and intermuscular coordination (I promise this all has a point, so stick with me). Intramuscular coordination is the extent to which individual muscle fibers in a particular muscle are activated during a specific movement (think muscle fibers in your biceps during a curl) While intermuscular coordination, on the other hand, deals with movement as a whole and reflects how well your muscles are working together to generate force (think about all the muscles that have to work together in unison over the course of a squat). The logical next question is how do you maximize these factors? Luckily, I have an answer: the maximal effort method aka lift heavy things
The maximal effort method entails lifting a maximal load. In other words, it means finding a one rep max in your backsquat or deadlift (you can realistically use any rep scheme for this but I prefer staying in the 1 to 5 rep range). Quick side note: The reason I'm focusing on the backsquat and deadlift is twofold. First, they are functional multi-joint movements. Second, you can lift very heavy weights in both movements, which is key to developing large amounts of force because you cannot develop force against a small resistance.
Now to get back on track, according to Vladimir Zatsiorsky, performing these maximal effort style lifts is the most efficient way to improve both intramuscular and intermuscular coordination: "the method of maximal effort is considered superior for improving both intramuscular and intermuscular coordination."1
At the end of the day, your ability to generate large amounts of force depends significantly on central factors, and the maximal effort method is the best way to develop them. Conveniently, developing these central factors will also help bolster the quality of the movement pattern I discussed above.
3. Strength is the Base for Power Development
What is power? In its simplest since power = force x velocity. Thus, the combination of force and velocity in a movement determines how powerful a movement is. In fact, "maximal strength is regarded as a prerequisite for high movement speed."2 It would appear then that strength is going to be a key factor in your ability to develop power because it has major impacts on both force (remember...strength is simply the ability to generate force) and velocity (speed of movement).
Granted, just because you can generate a large amount of force doesn't mean you can do so quickly, which is why rate of force of development has to be trained separately.
Think of it this way though, if you can't generate a large amount of force in a slow movement you will never be able to do so in a fast movement. You first have to learn to generate large amounts of force (strength), and then transfer those gains into speed of movement (velocity).
If you think back to the equation it's not complicated. In order to maximize power you must generate large amounts of force at a high velocity (in case you are wondering this is incredibly important in basically every sport ever).
4. Optimal Hormonal Response3
Let's quickly go over three of the primary anabolic hormones and a few of their benefits. If you don't feel like reading all the sciency stuff below, just skip to the end of the section and you'll get the gist of the it.
Impacts the nervous system by interacting with neuron receptors, increasing the amount of neurotransmitters, and causing structural protein changes.
Interacts with skeletal muscle directly to induce protein synthesis (build muscle). Can promote growth hormone responses in the pituitary.
- In a nutshell, all of these things help to increase strength and build muscle.
Decrease glucose utilization
Decrease glycogen synthesis
Increase amino acid transport across cell membranes
Increase protein synthesis
Increase utilization of fatty acids
Increases lipolysis (fat breakdown)
Increases availability of glucose and amino acids
Increases collagen synthesis
Stimulates cartilage growth
Enhances immune cell function
Stimulates release of insulin-like growth factors
- If you don't know what any of above means that's okay. It's basically saying growth hormone helps burn fat, build lean muscle and keep you healthy.
Insulin-Like Growth Factor
Helps drive protein anabolism in a big way (thinking big picture this means muscle growth)
To summarize: testosterone, human growth hormone, and insulin-like growth factor all play a major role in your bodies ability to fight off catabolism. That is, they help you not become weak, old and decrepit.
Hopefully you're thinking to yourself: "Okay James, I get that these are important. Now how in the world do I get my body to secrete them, so I can start reaping the benefits?" If you've picked up on the theme of this article you should know the answer is to lift heavy things. In fact, the greatest hormonal response comes from the following recipe:
Use large muscle group exercises like the squat and deadlift.
Use heavy resistance. We're talking 85-95% of your 1 rep max.
Use moderate to high volume. In other words, do multiple sets with a low rep scheme.
Keep the rest intervals shorter. If you are going really heavy (over 90% of your 1 rep max) that will be in the 2-5 minute range. If you are going moderately heavy (70-85% of your 1 rep max) that will be in the 30 second to 2 minute range.
5. Bone growth and joint stability
Having strong bones and stable joints is essential to your health and well being, and performing heavy squats and deadlifts can help improve both of them.
When considering joint stability, you have to think of it on a continuum from being hypermobile to being super tight. The ideal place to be is somewhere in the middle. So if you are super tight you need to spend more time "loosening up," and if you're hypermobile, you need to spend more time doing things like squatting and deadlifting to provide some much needed stability to your obnoxious amounts of range.
Now...what about bone growth?
Well bones, like everything else in your body, respond to the stimulus placed on them. They will either get weaker, stay the same, or get stronger. Hopefully, you want your bones to get stronger, or else you're in the wrong place.
In order to initiate bone growth several things have to occur.
First, some form of mechanical loading has to be present. Second, the load must be greater than a previous stimulus (known as the minimal essential strain) in order to deform/stress the bone. Lastly, once the bone has been stressed, osteoblasts will migrate to the stressed region and begin forming new bone.
As you can see, the key factor in this sequence of events is the magnitude of the load. If the load isn't great enough, no adaptation will occur because your body has nothing to adapt to. Once again, you need to squat and deadlift heavy things.
Some Closing Thoughts
I feel it's necessary to conclude by emphasizing GOOD FORM. All of the benefits I've described above go right out the door if you compromise your form, so please do not attempt to squat or deadlift heavy if you have bad form. I guarantee you will hurt yourself in a bad way. Always tell yourself that FORM COMES FIRST. If you have the form, go get after it. If you don't have the form, then find a quality coach who can help you acquire it.
1. Zatsiorsky, Vladimir M., and William J. Kraemer. "Maximal Effort Method." Science and Practice of Strength Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2006.
2. Zatsiorsky, Vladimir M., and William J. Kraemer. "Power Performance."
Science and Practice of Strength Training
. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2006. 156
3. Baechle, Thomas R., and Roger W. Earle. "Primary Anabolic Hormones."
Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning
. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2000. 52-61.