The Deadlift: A Gritty History

Pick it up, and put it down.
The deadlift is perhaps the simplest lift we practice, but we celebrate it for what it represents: pure strength. Power. Triumph over heavy rocks before time was measured; over heavy grocery bags just last weekend. Deadlifting is required from the first time we stand as toddlers to the eccentric motion of lying down to die. The inability to bend and straighten under load is one of the most crippling conditions we know, and the deadlift is often the solution to that very problem.
The earliest tales of progressive overload – Milo of Crete, Hercules, Samson – all involved feats of strength where a heavy object was lifted from the ground. For our purposes, let’s fast forward to the modern era.
Though weightlifting was part of the first modern-era Olympic Games in 1896, circus strongmen were performing the deadlift from various heights in the early 1800s. In one popular manifestation, the ‘Silver Dollar Deadlift,’ members of the audience were invited to out-lift a circus strongman to win money. Boxes on each end of a bar were partially filled with silver dollars, to the strongman’s satisfaction; he’d lift the boxes, then challenge spectators to match his lift. If they did, they’d win the money. Those familiar with carnival games will recognize the odds of winning.
Some of these circus strongmen and sideshow powerhouses competed in the Olympics. Paul Anderson of the USA was one: he won the gold medal in weightlifting in 1956, but made a living traveling around to circuses and fairs to demonstrate his immense power.
In early competition, weightlifting focused on raw strength. The 1896 Olympiad had two weightlifting categories: one-handed, and two-handed. The two-handed lift was won by Viggo Jensen of Denmark, who managed 111kg from ground to overhead, a feat accomplished hundreds of times every day in CrossFit gyms worldwide now.
Over the decades, the Olympics refined their rules, first banning the Continental clean, and then the Press. With the removal of the Continental clean, in which the bar is ‘caught’ at waist level and rolled up the torso, the first pull of the clean became more important, and the deadlift became a more regular part of training for Olympic weightlifters. When the Press was removed in the 1970s, the strength of a lifter’s first pull became more relevant, since medals would now ride on two lifts: the clean and jerk, and the snatch.
The heart of the strongman is still alive and well in the gym, and ‘gym lifts’ – unrefereed, spur-of-the-moment challenges, have always been part of the camaraderie in athletic training. You may be stronger, or faster…but I can pick this up, and you can’t.
Since weightlifting carries such a technical component, and skill became even more important every four years, ‘powerlifting’ events began to grow in popularity. Though the bench press, back squat and deadlift were born out of necessity for Olympic lifts, they grew to eclipse the clean and snatch in popularity because of their relatively low skill required for mastery. Most strength coaches have seen a ‘natural’ deadlifter or squatter; none have ever seen a ‘natural’ snatcher.
The components of the clean and jerk thus devolved into their own sport, and those components have since been split smaller still – grip competitions, for instance, were the fastest-growing strength sport before CrossFit began its takeover around 2007.
As interest – and record-keeping – grew, so did the demand for supportive equipment and other performance edges in the deadlift. Inzer made its first deadlift suit in the 1980s, and belts have been popular for over a century. Modern Strongman exhibitions raise the bar further from the floor to help its athletes make heavier lifts:
Locally, the deadlift has a strong history: members of the infamous Diodati’s Gym were renowned for their deadlifting prowess. Primarily made up of young steelworkers, Diodati’s coaching produced a few lifters in the 600lbs category. Karl Hult, of Searchmont, was ranked 8th worldwide among powerlifters in his weight class in 1979. I’ve personally seen a 700lb deadlift inside Kinross Prison.
No one in Sault Ste. Marie has produced more female deadlifters than Catalyst, a statistic of which we’re VERY proud. On record, we’ve had 14 different women successfully lock out 300lbs+, with our current best coming from Aryanna Henson (365lbs at age seventeen.)
It’s not a glamorous lift, but it may be the most important. The ability to bend over and right yourself will be sorely missed when it’s gone. Train it hard. Use it, and respect it.

Current Deadlift World Records

  • 114 Pound Class – E. Sajeeva Bhaskaran: 573.2 pound deadlift
  • 123 Pound Class – Lamar Gant: 639.3 pound deadlift
  • 132 Pound Class – Lamar Gant: 683.4 pound deadlift
  • 148 Pound Class – Dan Austin: 705.5 pound deadlift
  • 165 Pound Class – Oleksandr Kutcher: 793.7 pound deadlift
  • 181 Pound Class – Giovanni Brunazzi: 793.7 pound deadlift
  • 198 Pound Class – Ed Coan: 859.8 pound deadlift
  • 220 Pound Class – Ed Coan: 901.7 pound deadlift
  • 242 Pound Class – Yuriy Fedorenko: 892.9 pound deadlift
  • 275 Pound Class – Konstantin Konstantinovs: 948 pound deadlift
  • 308 Pound Class – Konstantin Konstantinovs: 939.2 pound deadlift
  • 308+ Pound Class – Benedikt Magnusson: 1015 pound deadlift