Around 1.500 words, estimated reading time: 8 min.
Once upon a time, dinosaurs ruled the earth and perky little mammals were their after-dinner snacks.
Then a meteorite or a giant volcano wiped their poikilothermic ass out of existence (or whatever else their ass was). Except for chickens. Soon the perky mammals evolved into puny humans and avenged their ancestors by enslaving the chickens, slaying them by the score and eating their flesh.
Eventually, some humans began to feast on their cholesterol-laden eggs, and in so doing, they built up testosterone and became capable of squatting, benching and deadlifting heavy-ass barbells. The other still-puny humans clapped their hands in appreciation and the memory of the chickens’ ancestors was mocked and there was much rejoicing.
Wait. There’s one shortcut too many in this story. Heavy barbell deadlifts, sure. Heavy squat and bench? Not so much.
What? No Squat?
Bench presses and squats (at least, heavy squats) are a fairly recent addition to the repertoire of gym exercises. The bench that makes the bench press, well, a bench press has been around for just over half a century. And the squat rack is not much older.
Sure, one can squat heavy-ass weights without a squat rack. German strongman Heinrich Steinborn (1894-1989) made a name for himself by doing just that. (If you have never heard of the Steinborn squat, you should definitely check this BarBend article.)
In fact, according to Jon Broz, the earliest description of a squat can be found in Eugene Sandow’s System of Physical Training and it is a dumbbell exercise. Sandow’s description is fascinating and deserves a little more attention than Broz gives it. But before I get to it, I can’t resist a bit of a build-up.
No chicken legs here
Sandow was immensely strong, known for it, and damn proud of it. Even past his prime. When Katie Brumbach visited New York in 1921 and claimed that she could outlift any man, guys in the audience knew better than take a chance. But not Sandow. Eventually, Sandow lost the contest, failing to press 300lbs (135kg) overhead. Brumbach succeeded, and later change her name to “Katie Sandwina” to commemorate the victory.
Still, Sandow was 54 at the time, the contested lift had been a one-arm bent press, and both contestants had ramped the weight up until 300lbs. So, Sandow was still a pretty strong dude.
Sandow was also really
easy on the eyes aesthetic, knew it, and was damn proud of it. When Sandow organized and judged the first-ever bodybuilding competition in 1901, the prizes were statues of himself — gold for the winner, silver and bronze for the runner-ups — executed by Frederick William Pomeroy. Pomeroy was not yet a member of the Royal Academy of Arts but was no small fry either, having been Sir Frederick Leighton’s assistant in the 1870s and worked on Leighton’s masterpiece, the Athlete Wrestling with a Python. The bronze trophy would later become the Mr. Olympia trophy, colloquially known as “The Sandow”.
Sandow could commission a statue of himself without risking ridicule because he had already turned himself into one, modeling his torso and legs after the Farnese Hercules. And in fact, he had come as close to Herculean proportions as humanly possible before Dwayne Johnson’s Hercules
AAS stack meal plan, as you can judge below.
By now, you’d probably expect that Sandow’s squat, whatever it was, must have been quite the leg builder.
Well, brace for impact.
Here is Sandow’s description of the exercise:
“Take a dumb-bell in each hand, and come to the position of attention, the body straight, the head erect, the chest thrust out, and the shoulders and hips held well back. By bending the knees, dip the body in a vertical line to the heels, keeping the back straight and the chin drawn in. Recover and repeat the movement until the muscles ache. This is a good exercise in poising the body and giving suppleness to the knee-joint. If the muscles of the leg and thighs have been well toned, their natural elasticity will render the movement easy.”
Yup. You read well. The legendary Eugene Sandow used to squat for the pump.
Given how strong the dude was in the bent press, he must have relied on other exercises to “tone” the legs and thighs. (I used to be quite pissed when I read about exercise toning” this or that, but from now on I’ll take it as meaning “looking like Eugene Sandow”.) So, what could have been Sandow’s secret weapon to build Herculean quads? Well…
Enter the deadlift
With deadlifts, most likely. Deadlifts could be performed with the heaviest barbells available at the time, without having to go through the trouble of Steinborn-ing them off the floor.
Now, I know what you may think: the deadlift is a hinge. Great for the posterior chain but the range of motion for knee extension is too short for the quads to be really involved.
That’s a good argument. But it’s not a great one.
First, the case has been made by no-one else than Richard “The Ant” Hawthorne that the deadlift is a push, not a pull. Hawthorne scored some really good points based on biomechanics, and there are some to be made from neurology as well (but it’s more tentative and I’ll leave it for another day). And if the deadlift is a push, the leg extensors matter more for performing a deadlift than the back erectors.
Second, irrespective of whether one disagrees with Hawthorne (I’ll come back to that) it is possible to extend the range of motion in the deadlift so as to emphasize knee extension relative to hip extension. Discounting aberrant motor patterns (I’ll come back to that, too) knee extension is performed by the quadriceps. So, a deadlift with an emphasis on knee extension becomes a quad builder.
Discounting (again) aberrant motor patterns, hip extension is performed by the gluteal group and the long head of the biceps femoris. You can’t neutralize the glutes in a deadlift because the bar has to clear the knees, which requires pushing back the shins. But having both knee and hip extension is a feature, not a bug. The bottom line is, a deadlift with exaggerated knee extension is a total leg builder.
In fact, Olympic weightlifters still practice the “floating snatch deadlift on riser” (a snatch-grip deficit Romanian deadlift) as leg strengthener.
(If you check the link, remember that Catalyst Athletics tends to draw Byzantine distinctions between close variations of the same lift. For instance, the “snatch deadlift on a riser” is presented a leg-strength builder and its floating variant as a postural exercise for the back. Still, time under tension surely improves postural awareness, but it’s also awesome for strength and hypertrophy. Voilà.)
Wrapping up (for today)
I have no direct evidence that Brumbach, Sandow, or anyone else in the golden era of strongpersons actually used deadlifts as leg builders, let alone floating deficit snatch-grip deadlifts. But it would not surprise me. However, if I really had money to bet, I would go to some variant or another of full Zerchers (like that one). All the arguments I’ve made about knee extension apply to it as well, and it requires less equipment (if not imagination) than the floating deadlift.
Now, I still prefer the snatch-grip variant because it’s easier to learn and to do right. I also have another reason, that I can only sketch here. I mentioned an earlier possible disagreement with Hawthorne and promised to return to it. I also mentioned aberrant motor patterns and made the same promise. Let’s fulfill both promises at once.
According to Hawthorne, the only function that the back muscles should perform in a deadlift is to keep the back straight, and using the back muscles in the deadlift as movers is dysfunctional. Hawthorne recommends keeping the mechanics of the deadlift as close as possible to the mechanics of a jump because jumping is how humans deliver power off the floor. Using the back muscles to generate momentum in a jump is possible but inefficient, and so is it in the deadlift.
But if the ‘power’ muscles of the legs (glutes and quads) are inhibited, other muscles will take over for performing movements in which glutes and quads should be the prime movers. And since glutes and quads tend to be inhibited from excessive sitting, using the back in the deadlift is the result of a motor dysfunction.
From my (admittedly limited) experience, the floating snatch-grip deadlift is the best exercise for repatterning glutes/quads function in the deadlift. Zerchers do not fare as well in that department. But more than experience, my preference for snatch-grip floating deadlifts over other deadlift variations (or accessories) is a matter of logic, or more accurately, deduction from well-established principles of exercise science. And since I’m closing in on 1500 words, logic will have to wait for another post.