Deadlifts are one of the best exercises available for building strong legs and a strong posterior chain.
It has all the ingredients to be a great lift for athletes. It’s a compound exercise training the hamstrings, glutes and both the lower and upper back. It’s performed on the feet which is always a bonus for training athletes. You can also load it pretty heavy which is great for building strength.
However, as great of an exercise as Deadlifts are, I never use them in my programming for football players.
A couple of different reasons.
Posterior Chain Movement Overload
There are many exercises that can cause a strain on the posterior chain. Olympic lifts, Squats, Deadlifts, RDLs and Bent Over Rows are just some of the examples of exercises that will cause stress on the posterior chain.
A proper amount of posterior chain work is hugely beneficial for building a strong foundation for athletes. However, too much stress and strain on the posterior chain can cause it to be overlooked and potentially lead to injury.
You have to pay close attention to how much posterior chain work you implement into your programming or you run the risk of absolutely smoking your low back. This is both for each individual training day and over the course of your entire training cycle.
This means you need to pick and choose which movements you want to include in your training and which ones you have to leave out.
Deadlifts are one of the most (if not the most) stressful exercises for the low back you can include in your training. This is one of the reasons I don’t include it in my programming, but it’s not the whole reason.
Strength vs Power
Improving absolute strength is very beneficial for a football player, but it’s not the most important thing. Otherwise, offensive linemen would look more like powerlifters – large and very strong, but also not exactly athletic and explosive.
Given the choice, I’ll always choose training for power over training just for pure strength when working with athletes.
With that in mind, there is one exercise that looks very similar to deadlifts but with more benefits and less downside.
Clean Pulls are a variation of the full Clean. It’s a partial movement that eliminates the catch and focuses purely on the explosive triple extension of the hips, knees and ankles.
They’re basically an explosive version of the deadlift. Same setup, same movement pattern – just done at different speeds with a different emphasis.
While deadlifts are done at heavier weights to improve strength, Clean Pulls are done with submaximal weights and are more focused on developing power.
Also, because they’re done with submaximal weights, they also create less overall stress on the posterior chain – specifically the low back.
This combination is why I prefer incorporating Clean Pulls instead of Deadlifts into my training programs with football players.
Deadlifts As Part of Teaching Progression
At the beginning of this article, I stated that I never use Deadlifts with football players and I have to admit that’s not entirely true.
I will use deadlifts with new athletes as part of my teaching progression for Olympic lifts. Deadlifts work great for teaching the starting position and the movement pattern but at a more slowed and controlled pace.
This part of the teaching phase usually lasts a couple of weeks depending on how quickly each athlete picks it up. Once they feel comfortable with Deadlifts, we’ll start to progress to Clean Pulls and eventually to full Cleans.
For younger athletes, Trap Bar Deadlifts may be an even better place to start the teaching progression. Using a trap bar makes it easier for most lifters to achieve a good starting position and stay balanced through the pull.
It’s not that I don’t like Deadlifts. In fact, I think Deadlifts are one of the best exercises you can do to build lower body strength.
It’s simply the fact that the posterior chain can only tolerate so much workload in a workout and over the course of a training cycle. When you start to implement Snatches, Cleans, Squats, RDLs, Lunges, etc into your programming, something has to be left out.
And considering Clean Pulls are very similar, but with more of an emphasis on developing power, Deadlifts end up getting left out of my programs for football.
Finally, does this mean you should leave Deadlifts out of your football training program? Not necessarily. If you value the benefits of Deadlifts over other potential options, then by all means, make them a part of your program.
Just make sure that you keep your program balanced and pay close attention to how your athletes (or yourself) are responding and recovering from each workout.
Finally, if I don’t use Deadlifts to build lower body strength, then what exercises do I use? Well, here are my ten favorite lower body exercises for football players.