The Deadlift – One Exercise to Rule Them All

What if I told you that there was an exercise that could increase your technical skills, make you sprint faster, explode out of the gate, bunny hop higher and get more ladies? Well, the deadlift may not be able to get you more ladies (washing your pads every once in a while might, though) it can do all of the other things I mentioned and more. In fact, if there was one exercise that I would say every serious mountain biker MUST be doing, it is the deadlift.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you can not deadlift properly then you can not ride your bike properly.

Just as a quick refresher the deadlift is that exercise where you walk up to a bar, or other implement, squat down, grab it and stand up with it. The deadlift is a rare exercise (in fact it is banned in some commercial gyms) and I know that the squat and leg press are more popular lower body exercises. However, when you look at the mountain bike specific advantages unique to the deadlift you’ll see why I think it is a far better option for us.

For starters, the deadlift will work your grip strength, something the squat and leg press do not. In fact, the deadlift is one of the best ways to build MTB specific grip strength (sorry, but wrist curls just don’t cut it). A stronger grip will equal less forearm pump, better control through the rough and stronger braking.

Another unique advantage the deadlift offers is the specific position you are in at the bottom. A good MTB specific deadlift has you push your butt back behind your heels as you come down, resulting in your chest lowering down to the floor. This butt back-chest down position is almost a mirror image of the “attack position” you want on your bike when railing down the trail. Talk to any skills coach and they will tell you that the better you know this position the better you can do just about anything on your bike.
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The squat actually teaches you to drop your butt down which leaves your chest more upright. While this is proper squat form it is not what you want to have happen on your bike. While squats definitely need to be in your program, by emphasizing the deadlift you ingrain the proper attack position with every rep.

Another unique advantage is that performing a rep works full hip extension which is required for out of the saddle pedaling efforts. If you are weak with full hip extension then you can not pedal as well standing up as you can while sitting down. For the DH and 4X rider this is extremely vital – you NEVER want to sit down during a race so the need to be strong with the action needed to pedal while standing can not be overstated.

Add it all up and you have the best mountain bike specific exercise on the planet. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you can not deadlift properly then you can not ride your bike properly. You may be able to ride your bike, and ride it well, but you are doing so with a lot of compensations that are robbing you of performance.

So, how do you get the most out of this exercise? Well, I’m glad you asked. Here is a breakdown of this lift and how to properly execute it:

The most important thing to remember with the deadlift is to start light, ingrain your form and then start to get strong on the lift. Going too heavy too fast will result in breakdowns in your core which can lead to injuries down the road. Remember that simply lifting a lot of weight off the ground will not make you a better mountain biker; using the deadlift to practice the positions and movements you need on your mountain bike will.

Few exercises can promise as much as the deadlift can. For too many years mountain bikers have been told that the leg press (which sucks) and the squat (which is good but not great) are the way to train your lower body in the weight room. Learning and incorporating the deadlift into your program will open a whole new world of performance gains that simply are not possible with any other exercise.

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  1. Robert says:

    Hey James, thanks for the informative clip. Love your programs! Question/comment: So for a 180 lbs rider your looking at 360 lbs target. That’s 3 plates plus a 25 on each side and the bar. That seems like a lot and a far way off from where I am now. Does that sound right? Cheers, Robert

    Reply • March 18 at 6:53 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Yeah, they would be a double BW deadlift for you. If you weight 180 pounds I would suggest being able to lift between 270-360 pounds. You can also do this as a 3 rep max test, which is safer than a true 1 rep max. Your 3RM is roughly 90% of your 1RM so pulling 325 for 3 reps would meet the goal as well.

      Reply • March 19 at 10:02 am
  2. Dave Leslie says:

    Hi James,

    Just read up on the dead lift. I was curious, you mention that you didn’t like the leg press. Can you elaborate? The leg press targets the quads which seems would be good for cycling.

    Thanks, Dave

    Reply • March 18 at 8:06 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Check out his article I wrote explaining the problem with the leg press. BTW, the hips are the powerhouse for mountain bikers, not the quads, which is another reason that deadlifts are much better.

      Leg Press = The Devil

      Reply • March 19 at 10:00 am
  3. James says:

    Hi James,

    How many reps and sets would you recommend?


    Reply • March 18 at 11:58 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      So much of it depends on your goals and training history. I usually recommend between 3-6 reps and no more than 25 reps in a workout.

      Reply • March 19 at 9:58 am
  4. Mike says:

    Great information James, I’ve wondered if there was a differece between the classic method and the MTB method of doing the deadlift. Thanks for clearing that up for me. I have one question though… If you don’t have access to a barbell, is it possible to do deadlifts with kettlebells instead?

    Reply • March 18 at 12:30 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      You can use other implements and deadlifting variations but at some point you will need to pull some weight so the barbell deadlift will have to make its way into your program at some point.

      Reply • March 19 at 9:56 am
  5. Gavin says:

    Hi James, interesting piece as ever. I echo Mike’s question too. Is that staggered one leg dead lift with a singular kettle sufficient if you dont have access to a barbell?

    Keep up the good work!

    Reply • March 18 at 1:19 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Glad you liked the article and yes, you can use other deadlifting variations but at some point you will need to pull some weight so the barbell deadlift will have to make its way into your program at some point.

      Reply • March 19 at 9:56 am
      • Gavin says:

        Thanks, when do you think would be a good time in my MTB KB conditioning program to start introducing this?

        Thanks again!

        Reply • March 23 at 8:41 am
        • bikejames bikejames says:

          The deadlifting movement is in the program through Stagger Stance and Single Leg Deadlifts plus the swings. If you want to do Barbell Deadlifts I’d finish the KB Program and then switch to a program that uses them in it. Programs are like recipes – adding an extra ingredient into it, no matter how great the ingredient is by itself, will change the intended results.

          Reply • March 24 at 10:10 am
  6. wILL says:

    Hey James. Did you know that the red bar at the bottom of your site with you and your bike and the mountain range makes your site unusable on a tablet? Yes, I can’t get rid of it and it blocks everything. I can only use your site on my lap top. Not a big deal, I guess. But it would be nice to be able to close that bar since tablet use is becoming more and more common. just saying.

    Reply • March 18 at 1:40 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Appreciate the feedback, I will pass it on to my web guy and see if we can get that fixed.

      Reply • March 19 at 9:55 am
  7. James says:

    Great breakdown of the exercise. I have always struggled with getting the technique right for dead lifting but tried it out following your advice it felt so much better. Just working on the technique first before increasing the weight.

    Should I substitute the dead lift for the TGU?

    Reply • March 19 at 3:50 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      No, you should be doing both the TGU and deadlift in some form at all times.

      Reply • March 19 at 9:55 am
  8. BB says:

    I generally substitute trap-bar deadlifts for conventional deadlifts because they are easier on my back. However, the trap-bar deadlift movement is kind of a squat-deadlift hybrid. Would I be better off just doing traditional deadlifts?

    Reply • March 19 at 6:57 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Yeah, you would. I do not like the trap-bar deadlift, it tends to be a crutch for people who can not perform a good hip hinge and coaches who don’t get the difference or are able to coach a good hip hinge. There is a specific movement you need to focus on, not simply “pulling weight off the ground”. If you can’t hip hinge then don’t worry about deadlifting – fix the hip hinge, learn to do a proper deadlift and leave the trap-bar alone.

      BTW, this is a pet peeve of mine and nothing personal – there are some well known coaches who fall back on recommending it because they don’t get the idea of “movement vs. exercise” and this leads a lot or athletes down the wrong path.

      Reply • March 19 at 9:54 am
  9. Washington Irving says:

    Great article! I have heard a lot about the benefits of the deadlift, but I have never been able to get the technique right myself and have just sustained from doing that exercise. I always get the problem that when I have grabbed the bar and prepare to stand up, my shins hit the bar and “blocks” the upward movement with the bar. If I move the bar further away from me I have to go so low that I bend my back, and I don’t believe that to be proper form either. I think I have pretty long legs and that might be the reason for my shins hitting the bar. Is it possible to have problems doing a deadlift because of long legs or is my technique just badly mangled?

    Reply • March 19 at 11:11 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Long legged people are actually set up better for deadlifts than short legged people. If you notice in the video my shins remain vertical and do not push forward over my toes. You just need to get your butt back more and let your chest come down to the bar more – you are probably trying to keep your chest up too high and it is pushing your toes forward, which puts the shins in the path of the bar.

      You just need to practice the movement more, right now you are doing the deadlift as an exercise and not as a way to practice the hip hinge movement pattern.

      Reply • March 20 at 9:00 am
      • Washington Irving says:

        I always thought your shins was supposed to angle forward. Thanks for clearing that mistake up! This seems like very useful advice.

        Reply • March 20 at 9:40 am
  10. paul aston says:

    Hi James

    I am away travelling at the moment and don’t have access equipment
    all the time. I have been doing exercises from your no gym no problem workout.

    Does this routine have an equivalent exercise to the deadliest? Or is there something else I can add to the program??

    Thanks Paul

    Reply • March 21 at 10:17 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      I look at the Bridge as the bodyweight equivalent of the deadlift, plus you have some single leg deadlifting in the program as well.

      Reply • March 22 at 10:53 am
  11. Mick Warren says:

    Hi James nice info in your article on the dead lift as an endurance xc rider ie 1 to 8 hour multi lap racing and 100 and 160 kilometer racing, does the 2 x body weight still apply or should it be say 1.5 x body weight and more reps? keep up the good work cheers Mick

    Reply • March 25 at 6:47 pm
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      You can shoot for a 1.5 X BW Deadlift but you don’t need to do more reps, it just needs to be your 1RM.

      Reply • March 26 at 9:55 am
  12. Mogens Fogh says:

    Been doing the deadlift for 2 months now, and my fingers can’t keep up. Got to 1.5 x BW and my fingers can’t hold their grip. Any suggestions ?

    Reply • May 9 at 12:26 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Patience. Your grip will be the limiting factor. However, keep in mind that your grip is a window to your core so I’ll bet that there are some areas you aren’t keeping as tight as possible in your lats and core and that is affecting your grip strength.

      I’d also recommend getting the book Deadlift Dynamite by Pavel and Andy Bolton. Andy is the only guy to deadlift over 1000 pounds and Pavel is one of the brightest minds in strength training. They do a masterful job of breaking down the deadlift and giving you advanced tips to help you improve your technique and strength.

      Reply • May 9 at 8:53 am
  13. Mogens Fogh says:

    Thank you, i will give patience a try 😉

    Reply • May 9 at 10:08 am
  14. Leonard says:

    If I’ve been biking for a couple of years already (as far as pedaling experience is concerned), and I want to augment it with off saddle training such as deadlifts, how can I determine my starting point in terms of weight/reps?

    PS: I’ve never gone to a gym to lift weights ever

    Reply • July 16 at 1:04 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      How much you should lift depends on a lot of factors. The main thing to focus on is your technique and let that be your guide. If you feel that you can not maintain good technique and focus then it is too much weight. At first I’d rather you lift a little bit too light and be able to really focus in on technique than too heavy in a rush to “get strong” and end of forming bad habits.

      A good place to start is with a simple 5 sets of 5 reps approach. That will get you plenty of total reps to help ingrain the technique while keeping the reps in each set low enough so you can focus on each one.

      Reply • July 18 at 12:31 pm

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