Forgotten Exercises: English Style Deadlifts


Admittedly this is an exercise for your physical culture purist. Stemming from the early origins of physical culture in the late nineteenth-century, English style deadlifts are unlikely to be seen in your gym any time soon. Nevertheless, this style of lifting was hugely popular amongst British and European lifters of yesteryear. Used by Goliaths like Herman Goerner, this style of deadlifting was seen as inherently strict and the greatest measure of a lifter’s power.

That being the case, today’s short post will be addressing three simple questions. What is the history of the lift? How does one deadlift English style? And how can we incorporate it into our routines?

A Brief Overview

So without further ado an English style deadlift is quite an easy thing to explain, which is lucky for me as it’s early in the morning at the time of writing. It’s just like your normal deadlift except that the feet or at the very least the heels are together throughout the lift rather than the traditional shoulder width or sumo stance. While this may seem like a trivial change, it results in a much more difficult pull from the floor. Now unfortunately I can’t find any Youtube videos demonstrating this form, but if you want a brief idea of how it feels I’d recommend mimicking the movement without a bar. Safe it say it’s different from your average deadlift.

My own personal interest in this lift was peaked during a reading of Edgar Mueller’s highly readable biography ‘Goerner The Mighty‘, which noted Goerner’s two handed 296.5 kilograms deadlift and one handed 273.75 kilograms deadlift both performed in England in 1927 with the heels touching. Far from a trivial stance, the feet/heels together lift was seen by British weightlifting officials as the only fair way to determine Goerner’s strength. The logic behind this rule takes up back to our previous post on continental versus military pressing, which noted the strict guidelines applied to the military press by weightlifting associations. Unlike the continental style press, popular in mainland Europe, lifters in Great Britain performed their military presses with heels together and a straight back. It appears then that the English style deadlift marked another iteration of this philosophy.

Intrinsically this style of lifting makes sense if you want to determine which lifter is strongest in the desired muscle group. A heels together military press with a straight back is going to isolate the shoulder muscles far more than one which allows the use of momentum and a back bend. Similarly a feet or heels together deadlift targets the posterior chain in a way which for me, traditional or sumo deadlifts fail to do. While it is difficult to ascertain exactly when this style of deadlifting fell from the mainstream it is likely that the mid-twentieth-century, a time when stricter military pressing diminished, is our key point.

Incorporating the English Style Deadlift

Beginning with the proviso that deadlift mechanics are unique to each individual lifter, I have found that low rep, heavy deadlifts in this style work my lower back and glutes far more than any other deadlift stance. I’m perfectly certain that there is a biomechanical explanation for this just as I’m perfectly certain that I have no idea how to explain it. But from personal experience, I’ve found that substituting English style deadlifts for traditional and sumo deadlifts every couple of months helps to keep training fresh and work the muscles from a different angle.

If you’re feeling particularly masochistic, I recently experimented with high rep English deadlifts in the Peary Rader style. After two days walking like John Wayne, I realised I was onto a winner.

As always… Happy Lifting!

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