Why Strongmen Are the Best Deadlifters

Strongmen are better deadlifters than powerlifters are. 

This is a point I’ve made in passing a few times while having a broader discussion about different training variables and why certain activities are so good for strengthening your posterior chain and improving your ability to pick things up off the ground.

  I never thought it was that controversial. After all, strongmen are known for having a dozen or so athletes who are capable of deadlifting 1000 pounds from the floor within several hours of  performing Yoke carries, bag loading and log pressing. Powerlifters are known for missing their second deadlift attempt and blaming it on the fatigue from their bench attempt from 4 hours earlier.

 After so many posts on the subject, I’ve come to expect the voice of dissent in the comment section every time I make this point. I can talk about the massive lifts that are done with many different implements through many different movement and rep ranges. I can talk about how the feats performed by the world’s best strongmen are out of arm’s reach of the world’s best powerlifters. Like clockwork, a powerlifting sycophant (likely someone who has had no exposure to other strength sports and likely isn’t very competitive themselves) will imply that powerlifting holds the rights to the one true deadlift because they don’t use straps and they hitch. 

And let’s not forget about those dirty, dirty suits.

 Now, I found a certain irony in all this, especially since some of the most vocal opponents were, themselves, equipped lifters. I got into an online argument with one Billy Mimnaugh,  an aging multi-ply lifter who is quite the accomplished athlete in his own mind. In his own words, “I identify as a national champion!”. Billy took issue with one of the videos I had put out that made a few critiques of the hallowed Westside Barbell Club and tried to reinforce his case, not by addressing the complaints, but by pointing out that he was stronger, smarter and made more money than I did. 

I didn’t need to hire a private detective to find out that none of those things were actually true. 

In the comments of one of my deadlift videos (where I hit my first 700 lb pull and did it for a double) his contribution was this: “the day I need straps to pull 700 lbs is the day I use them to hang myself!”.

I chuckled for two reasons: 1.) because it was legitmately funny and 2.) because Billy was a multi-ply lifter. This lack of self-awareness is, in some way, at the heart of every delusional claim that credits powerlifting and it’s arbitrary rules as the only real and legitimate test of strength. 

As much as I like to talk about the toxic nature of the internet that selects for performative anger and exaggerated opinions, I, too, like to play “stir the shit” from time to time. So, these are my 3 points as to why Strongmen win the deadlift.

  1. Despite what many powerlifters think, powerlifting as a sport does not own the deadlift.

 This is the first hurdle I have to get over  in order to get something that looks like real critical thinking out of a born-again powerlifer. Powerlifting  was not the first  strength sport and isn’t the most popular.  Officially having been created in 1965 (80-odd years after Oly lifting) the sport enjoyed its role as the sole competitive platform for deadlifting for a period of time that lasted about 12 years. Then, in 1977, the first World’s Strongest Man took place. Ever since that day, Strongman put deadlifting ability at the center of competition instead of as an afterthought. 

As the sport grew over the last 10 to 15 years, records were pushed higher and fans who had come from different training backgrounds were all glued to the race to the next world record. This attention led Rogue to give  a $50,000 cash prize to whoever broke the existing world record at that year’s Arnold Classic. World Ultimate Strongman followed that up the same year with a $100,000 cash prize; to my knowledge the biggest single cash prize for any event, let alone one lift, in history. It was certainly bigger than anything that has ever been offered in the sphere of powerlifting.

 Not only has the sport given more attention to the lift, mandating that strongman athletes be able to deadlift insane amounts of weight while fatigued from several other taxing events, but it has been able to market the event as a spectacle, something that deserves the attention of spectators. It is not a sport that gives trophies to people for showing up and it certainly doesn’t reward the common excuses that pop up when a lifter “miss-grooves their lift because the bench press made them ty-ty”.

 CrossFit is largely to credit for bringing people back to the barbell and, later on, for funneling many of its converts into satellite barbell sports such as weightlifting, powerlifting and strongman. It made the barbell popular again and also gave people an appreciation for being well-rounded. These people voted with their attention and their dollars and the result was that the deadlift was repurposed. 

I think of it as a child being granted custody to the father because the mother was negligent. 

Great powerlifters typically have the biggest showing of strength in the squat and bench press, especially in equipped powerlifting where the suit can be exploited for many hundreds of pounds over the deadlift. For those serious about having the biggest totals, the deadlift usually becomes an afterthought and the amount of stress that the body has to take on in order to develop expertise in it is often lessened so that more attention can be given to the other two lifts. Strongmen athletes just simply do not have that luxury. The sport cares about the lift and it shows.

  1.  Straps, hitching and suits chip away at the authenticity of the deadlift as a foundational feat of strength. 

With regards to grip, I’ll only say that the deadlift is not and should not be treated as a feat of grip strength. It flies in the face of what the deadlift actually gets used for by the rest of the population. Bodybuilders, Olympic lifters, recreational lifters, strongmen, athletes and so on, all use straps when they deadlift because the purpose of the movement is to test/train the legs, hips midsection and upper back. When it comes to the biggest pulls in history, the hand will almost always be the limiting factor…. we aren’t built like chimpanzees. 

Add into that the increased likelihood of torn bicep from regularly mixed-gripping deadlifts with 900+ lbs and it becomes silly to insist that unassisted grip is a big concern when it comes to determining who can pick up the most weight off the ground. It’s fine as  an arbitrary rule in one particular sport but the viewers (and most athletes)  just simply don’t care about straps.

 Hitching is another story.  The spirit of strongman is to move weights from point A to point B by any means possible and hitching is one possible means of doing that. In my experience, hitching actually helped my strict lockout ability because it taught me to scoop my hips faster. But that doesn’t even matter because most of the biggest deadlifters in the history of the sport don’t use much or any hitch when they lock out their lifts (when they do, it’s usually on a rep event). 

Watch any video of Jerry Pritchett, J.F. Caron, Biz Z or Brian Shaw standing up with 1100 to 1200 lb in the Hummer Tire Deadlift and notice the  complete control of the bar and smooth extension of the hips. There is no powerlifter on the Top 20 list that can walk on and match this feat. Dominating your sport requires specialization and tricking out your deadlift by exploiting your top end strength is completely non-specific to powerlifting. The sport of powerlifting simply does not reward lockout ability that exceeds what you can budge off the ground. 

 As far as the suits go, their role in Strongman is overblown. Many of the best deadlifters in the sport forego suits when they compete as the benefit from them only applies to some lifters and is extremely diminished in elevated or rep events. The best pullers might get 40 to 50 lb on their raw pull but that only applies to lifters who are specifically weak off the ground and have very, very strong lockouts. Because Strongman requires so much versatility, much of the training is done without the suit. In case you haven’t been in one, a tight suit used in an all-out set that goes double-digits will prevent you from opening up your rib cage so you can breathe. The result is a dramatic blackout and face plant that will go viral on Instagram before the minute expires. 

In side handle and elevated deadlift events, they are generally worn for increased support around the spine (like a soft under-belt is) and doesn’t correlate to a tangible increase in weight.  Many of the deadlift events you’ve seen from some of the best lifters happened without a suit. Eddie Hall pulled his 500kg deadlift with the straps down, which adds about as much pop to a deadlift as an old pair of ace-bandage knee wraps might add to a squat.

  1. Performance.

Strong man is a deadlift decathlon. The sport loves the deadlift and rewards those who demonstrate excellence in every one of it’s iterations. To someone who smugly claims in the comments that powerlifters being the better deadlifters is a no-brainer, I typically respond by saying, “Gee, if only there was a contest where we could adequately test  deadlifting ability over a variety of movements and rep ranges. Then that would surely put this debate to rest!”

And there really isn’t a barrier to competing; you don’t even need to be a strongman to engage in these types of deadlift contests. There are routinely record-breakers and World Deadlift Championship events that give invites to the best pullers around. Literally anybody who thinks they are a threat to the prize money can contact the promoter and walk on.

But they don’t. 

It’s not because they are of such high virtue that they don’t want the dirty prize money that comes from using unclean practices to lock out the weight. It’s because they can’t.

 You can take a stroll down the Openpowerlifting.org page if you want some more insight. I recommend looking at the all-time rankings by deadlift and then again at the all-time rankings by  total. The best rankings by total shows the absolute best powerlifters in the history of the sport; it reinforces my point about the best powerlifters putting deads on the back-burner. There are only four 900 lb deadlifts in the top 25 totals (heaviest is 914) and some of them are pulled sumo.

If you look at the all-time ranking by deadlift, the pulls are much higher but the field is populated by lower totals. These are one-trick ponies who excel at the deadlift either by exploiting freakish leverages or mastering the Sumo deadlift. Even the list of these deadlift specialists is lacking anyone who would be in contention for a podium spot if they decided to head to the World Deadlift Championships. They certainly aren’t a threat to the prize money that was offered by Rogue and WUS, no matter how much supportive gear and ugly, cheating hitching they use to lock the barbell out. 

Nearly 30% of the top 24 deadlifts in powerlifting are held by career strongmen (Red), with the highest spot going to Strongman Benni Magnusson. 9 of the top spots are populated by sumo pullers or those with relatively lower totals (Yellow). The rest are those with big totals along with a high conventional deadlift (Green).

On the other hand, there are half-a-dozen career strong men who make up the top 20 list of all-time deadlifts in the sport of powerlifting. Shivlyakov, Pritchett, Urbank, Hafthor, Mark Henry and, of course, the number one spot in all of powerlifting, Benedikt Magnusson (1015 completely raw). Given the long, productive career Benni had in the sport, I think it’s fair to say that Strongman had more influence on his deadlift capacity than his participation in the occasional powerlifting meet.

Of the top 24 all-time totals, only 4 have a 900lb+ deadlift (4-way tie at 903.9, oddly enough). Mid-pack on this list are strongmen Hafthor Bjornnson and Graham Hicks.

 I also like to point out that five of the top seven deadliest of all time in the sport of powerlifting were from 220/242/275 lifters who pulled sumo. That simply doesn’t exist in other lifts because strength benefits from increased body mass. The mastery of the sumo deadlift gives such a big edge to those who were built to exploit it that they can take the top all-time spot at extremely light body weight. I don’t point that out to disparage sumo pullers, but rather because it begs the question, “Where are the other thousand pound pullers in powerlifting? Where are the guys who are 380 lbs the way Benne was, who are capable of hoisting these massive weights to powerlifting standards?”

 The answer is that they are all competing in strongman.

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