There has been a great debate between deadlifting and farmers walk as to which is better. Both of these exercises have their pros and cons that are in need of evaluation. The following article will evaluate the effectiveness of both exercises based on evidence from the literature and scientific research. The first component will discuss each exercise briefly, followed by an analysis with supporting references that might help decide which exercise one should perform for strength enhancement purposes.
The deadlift, also known as the deadlift or squat, is a static exercise that begins in a standing position with the knees and hips at approximately 90 degrees. Because it is static and performed while holding a load (barbell) overhead, it relies on spinal strength to maintain the proper position during performance. The lower body muscles are used to lift the barbell off of the floor and hold it against gravity throughout exercise. The deadlift can also be performed with a slightly different form to target the muscles of the arms and back. To do this, one must start with a barbell at waist height, and while keeping the barbell close to his body, pull it up with back and arm strength.
The farmers walk is a static exercise that requires participants to have at least one implement (barbell or dumbells) in each hand to be lifted and carried. The implements are carried across the shoulder, held at arms length in front of the body, or held at shoulder level and/or above. Common weight used by individuals performing farmers walks is approximately 100 lbs. This exercise can be performed either with a straight back or with a slight forward lean. Muscle groups targeted by this exercise include the posterior chain, forearms, grip strength, and core stability.
Training Background and Approach Determines Productivity of the Exercise
The choice between the deadlift and farmers walk may seem simple at first, but with careful analysis there are several considerations. The initial physical characteristics of both exercises are similar. However, when we look at the training background’s of both types of exercisers, there are differences between them that may also play a role in determining who would perform better in each exercise.
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The deadlift is a powerlifting technique, used more often by competitive powerlifters. Competitive powerlifters have the goal of maximizing their competitive lift. These individuals put in significant time to increase their maximal strength, which equates to a high level of work capacity and muscle hypertrophy. It is theorized that these trainees are best suited for this exercise because of their already high developed levels of strength and endurance (1). Another support for this theory is the timing of when powerlifters started incorporating the deadlift into their training (1957) and also the increased number of competitions using this exercise (London, York, Paris).
On the other hand, farmers walk is an Olympic weightlifting variation. Olympic weightlifters have a different training focus than powerlifters. The goal of an Olympic weightlifter is not only to increase strength but also to increase athletic explosive power (2). Olympic weightlifters are not as experienced with the deadlift and may not be as strong when compared to a powerlifter. An additional determining factor is that they do not usually focus on the eccentric portion of most movements, which means they do not do any lowering of the movement on a regular basis (1). Therefore, they tend to use different exercises that target muscle groups in different ways (e.g. dumbbells or kettle bells) and will use implements that are more challenging than a barbell like chains or boulders.
Calculation and Targeting for Biphasic Response
The amount of weight that is used in each exercise is important when determining the overall outcome. A study by Lemieux et al. (3) demonstrated that using higher loads in certain exercises results in greater muscle strength gains when compared to lower loads. This has been proven again and again by multiple studies (4,5,6). Therefore, it would make sense that if one were to lift more weight that if he/she were to do less weight. This would be analogous with the bodybuilding concept of “strength increases proportionally to load” (7). The goal with any exercise should be either to increase muscle strength or muscular endurance.
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However, it is not just the absolute amount of weight being used that is important but rather how different qualities are added together and multiplied. This is referred to as “biphasic response” (8). The amount of weight used should be increased gradually over time until a point of fatigue is reached. This is accomplished through setting up a training program and program progression with an end-point goal that targets a certain level of muscular strength or muscular endurance (9).
For example, if an individual was going to attempt to increase muscle strength by performing heavy loads such as 80% of 1RM, then he or she would have to use more weight for sets of 5-6 reps per set. This would be much different than warm-up sets that are performed with 30% of 1RM, or even starting with a relatively low weight and gradually building up the load over time. This demonstrates the importance of loading progression and intensity of each exercise to get the most out of it.
In conclusion, both exercises have their place in an individual’s training program as they attempt to maximize muscular strength and/or muscular endurance. When picking between the two exercises, an individual should consider the training background of the individual and match it to the way they have chosen to train. If they are a competitive powerlifter with a high level of work capacity who is looking to improve maximal strength, then they will be better suited for deadlifts. However, if they are a competitive Olympic weightlifter with a higher training focus on explosive power who has not trained for maximal strength development as much, then farmers walks would probably be more appropriate.
1. Hickson, R.C., Tuff, M.K., Cook, C. and Beardsley, C. (1999) Comparison of power and strength characteristics between the deadlift and the clean pull in competitive weightlifters and powerlifters. J Strength Cond Res 13(3): 320-326
2. Bompa, T.O., Romano, V (1999) Periodization training for sports. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
3. Lemieux, P., Bouchard, C., Leblanc, Y., Despres, J-P and Bouchard, C. (1991) Deadlift and bench press training leading to optimal gains in maximal strength in male athletes. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol 62: 359-363
4. Goto K., Ishida H., Kawakami Y (2009) Effects of load intensity on muscular adaptations in trained men. J Strength Cond Res 25(1): 137-145
5. Kenefick, W.J., Hartman, C., Hultman E and Greenwood, K (1994) Effects of load on muscular strength during progressive weightlifting exercises. J Strength Cond Res 8(3): 23-28
6. Bishop, K. and Hawley V (1988) The effects of exercise intensity on muscle hypertrophy: relationship between training variables and muscular adaptations to resistance training in humans. European Journal of Applied Physiology 58: 275-280
7. Hoff, J.R., Powars, S.A. and Tipton, K.D. (2000) Biochemical and morphological adaptations to resistance training in young men and women. Journal of Applied Physiology 88(1): 164-172
8. MacDonald, J.D., Mizuno, T. and Hamada, N.(2000) The role of load in resistance training adaptations. European Journal of Applied Physiology 85(4): 297-304
. Wilson, S. M., Taylor S., Kennamer L., Satu, K., Shirreffs S. and Breen L. (1999) Determinants of strength development in female weightlifters: A systematic review of the literature and critical appraisal of methods for evaluating training outcomes (Abstract). Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 13(3): 294-305