That metal bar on the ground has a whole lot to teach you, if you listen.
The deadlift and I first met during my senior year of high school. I’d been boxing for years and as my goal was to be a mixed martial arts fighter I knew I needed to learn the art of wrestling. So I joined the wrestling team. And was thrown to the wolves. Many kids on the team had been wrestling since they could put on shoes. The takedowns and transitions they’d drilled thousands of times I was now learning the hard way. They’d snap my head down and when I instinctively pulled my head up it threw me off balance and they’d shoot in, pick me up and slam me to the mat.
Ego bruised even more than my bony 135-pound body, I’d often spend the evenings researching workout routines that could help me make up for my total lack of technique. I figured if I knew one move, and had the physical strength to actually do it, maybe I could pick up a win or two. Time and again my research brought me to the deadlift. Many people call it the “King of Exercises,” and the more I worked with it the more I loved it. My legs, back and grip became strong and I actually did win a few matches during the year (maybe 3, tops), but it was thanks in part to this single exercise.
The deadlift is perhaps the most primal of all traditional barbell exercises: There’s a bar on the floor and you pick it up. It’s as simple and complicated as that. Here’s what it taught me:
(1) Don’t expect something that looks easy to actually be easy.
– Strength coaches, athletes and even scientists have devoted their lives to perfecting this movement. Though it appears simple – pick up the bar – there are seemingly infinite articles and instructional videos about how to do it correctly. When a task in my life seems like it will be a breeze, I always come at it with a neutral attitude. The burnt out lightbulb might be a pain in the ass to fix. There’s a chance.
(2) The breath centers you, but it also protects you.
– When performing the deadlift, especially when going heavy, it’s important to perform what’s called the “Valsalva Maneuver.” This means you take in a breath and attempt to exhale while keeping your nose and mouth closed (yes, it’s basically what we do when we’re on the toilet). This brief breath protects and stabilizes your entire core and prepares your body for the big lift. Likewise, coming back to the breath during daily routines helps to center us and can help protect us from getting lost in the world’s rush and distractions.
(3) Sometimes you need to be the change.
– It’s easy to pace around the bar, to sip water, chalk your hands and try to get all psyched up before the deadlift. But most of this is all procrastination. There’s the bar on the floor. It’s not going to move unless you move it. Change is constant in this life. It happens and is happening whether or not we want it to. But sometimes we need to be the changemakers. Sometimes YOU making the change is the only way change will come.
(4) Consistency is king.
– Perhaps more than any other exercise, many find that their deadlift dramatically decreases after weeks or even months without training or training it. After traveling throughout Asia for three months I came back to find that my maximum deadlift was nearly cut in half. The lesson here applies to so much in life. Whether you are trying to be a better businessman or father, poet or musician – staying consistent will bring you far greater results than will the cycle of going hardcore and then getting burnt out.
(5) There’s more beyond the surface.
– The deadlift is perhaps the antithesis to the kind of beach body exercises that are always on television. It will not give you full-bodied pecs. It will not get you shredded for summer. But it taps into the deepest muscles of the body, forces them all to work together in unison and is one of the greatest ways to truly get strong. I’ve applied this lesson to my thoughts on hot-button political issues, on family relationships and even with my colleagues at work. There’s usually more beyond the surface and, if there is an answer, that’s often where you’ll find it hiding.