Deadlifts Are Good!

In this monthly series of articles, Mike will discuss the science and practice of physical training for Water Polo.  Strength, flexibility, Water Polo science, rehab and other areas of interest with respect to the physical development of the Water Polo athlete will be covered.

Deadlifts get an undeserved bad rap for being a dangerous exercise that can seriously hurt your back.

How can this possibly be when it's original name used to be “the health lift”. Somewhere along the way we took a wrong turn ... but I will leave that discussion for another time.


In this article I will show you a safe way of learning the deadlift, key points for safety, performance and variations so that you can start training deadlifts even if you do not have access to a weight room.

Benefits of Deadlifts

  1. Improved Grip Strength

  2. Shoulder Stability

  3. Upper Back Strength

  4. Trunk Stability

  5. Leg Strength

In most if not all combative/contact sports, grip strength is very important. In Water Polo just think of all the clutching and grabbing that goes on and how a really strong grip would benefit in many of those situations. Particularly when playing the center forward position; grip strength is important for not only keeping your defender at bay but also to control the ball while being tackled and pursued by usually more then one defender.

There is another reason for developing a strong grip and that is shoulder health. Research studies (1-4) have shown that increased grip strength translates into increased muscle activity of the rotator cuff muscles of the shoulder. The shoulder being the most commonly injured joint in Water Polo players, a strong grip can go a long way in improving performance and health.

Deadlifts strengthen your grip by virtue of the fact that you must hold onto the weight! Using a weight implement that has a thick handle (e.g. Kettlebells) or is awkward to hold (e.g. sandbag) will place added stress on your grip and hence make it stronger. Also, using heavy weights is never a bad thing as long as your form is solid.

The upper/mid back is also worked extensively to hold an effective and safe posture. A deadlift can be considered a pulling movement which all Water Polo players need to do more of. As I outlined in earlier articles, Water Polo athletes should focus more on developing the pulling muscles as opposed to the pushing muscles (e.g. Bench press or push ups). By using a ratio of 2:1 to 3:1 of pulls to pushes, you will develop a very strong and healthy shoulder girdle.

When you look at a well performed deadlift, the trunk should be one solid piece and when appropriate loads are used this activates a large proportion of the trunk musculature. It even out performs other exercises that are meant to solely target the trunk, like the “side-bridge” pictured below (5).

You gotta have good legs for Water Polo and yes there is no substitution for performing leg work in the pool but some on land leg strengthening is all good in my mind. In a well executed deadlift, the legs are the prime movers, not the back as many people think. Pull with your back and you will have a sore back.

Really Bad Deadlift Demonstrating Lifting with Back (viewer beware, NEVER try this!!!!))

In the video below, I discuss some key points on performing the deadlift effectively and how to start getting stronger even if you do not have access to a weight room.

Video Link:

Programing the deadlift is the same as any other strength training exercise.

  1. Learn the movement with very light or no extra loading. In this case you will start with the hip hinge with the wood pole on your back. Do not go onto step 2 till you can perform this very well. This can be usually be accomplished in 1-3 training sessions but like a lot of things ... it depends.>

  2. Progress to a light (easy) load where you can perform very good technique. Usually a kettlebell or sandbag will be the easiest way to learn. Stay with this weight till you have very consistent technique. 2-5 sets of 5-10 or more reps; but it doesn't matter to much at this stage but the technique needs to be spot on during all the reps.

  3. Begin adding load, either with more weight or by performing single leg deadlifts. E.g. 3 x 5; 5 x 5; 8, 6, 4 ...

How much weight you use will depend on a lot of factors like training age, chronological age, medical history, equipment available and so on.

This next video is an demonstration of a barbell sumo deadlift. Note that all the key points are the same regardless of what kind of implement you use for load.

Video Link:

For more programing of the deadlift and how to implement it with out over taxing your body I highly recommend the book “Power to the People”. It is written by Pavel Tsatsouline, a Russian strength & conditioning coach who is now living in the USA. You can also check out this great article with some more tips and tricks on deadlifting: “Deadlifting Tips”.

Enjoy the strength and power of the deadlift!

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  1. Budoff JE. The prevalence of rotator cuff weakness in patients with injured hands. J. Hand Surg Am. 2004 Nov; 29(6):1154-9.

  2. Mandalidis D, O’Brien M. Relationship between hand-grip isometric strength and isokinetic moment data of the shoulder stabilisers. Journal of Bodywork & Movement Therapies (2010) 14, 19e26

  3. Nicholas T, Keir P. Effects of posture, movement and hand load on shoulder muscle activity. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology 20 (2010) 191–198

  4. Sporrong H, Pamerud G, Herberts P. Hand grip increases shoulder muscle activity, An EMG analysis with static hand contractions in 9 subjects. Acta Orthop Scand 1996 Oct;67(5):485-90.

  5. Hamlyn N, Behm DG, Young WB. Trunk muscle activation during dynamic weight-training exercises and isometric instability activities. Strength Cond Res. 007 Nov;21(4):1108-12.

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