Are Deadlifts The Key To Building Heavy, Thick and Dense Muscles – Like a Powerlifter?

Images of the legendary powerlifter Roger Estep are often used to describe how powerlifting can build incredibly thick and dense muscles. Rumor has it that 5×5 zealots and permabulkers sleep with photos of men with similar build under their pillows.

I had a good laugh when a newbie posted the popular deadlift photo of Roger Estep and tried to persuade me that the guy in the image is actually the Prime Minister Of Permabulking, Mark Rippetoe. Nice try.

Lots of lifting addicts have been convinced that there is a large difference between the muscles of powerlifters and those of bodybuilders.


Powerlifters are thick as trucks while bodybuilders are soft kittens,” they say.

Of course, this is mostly nonsense supported by sleazy promoters of ”groundbreaking” 5×5 routines and self-proclaimed fitness oracles on steroids.

This is Roger Estep, not Rippetoe.

This is Roger Estep, not Rippetoe.

So, what the hell is thick/dense/heavy muscle?

The perception of thickness is created by compressing large amount of material in small volume. When it comes to muscle mass, that volume is your body/frame. The more muscle it can accumulate, the thicker it will look. Some believe that the muscles of professional bodybuilders are balloons (large volume with lots of free space – North American houses) while powerlifters have dense musculature (no space – compact European or Asian apartments).

What can the deadlift do in terms of thickness for you?

The deadlift builds your spinal erectors which represent a large muscle covering your whole spine. Many bodybuilders don’t give a lot of attention to this muscle group because you can hardly see it. I would even say that many bros in the gym cannot differentiate their glutes from spinal erectors. That’s how stupid they are. Also, the erectors are not part of the traditional bodybuilding muscle groups (arms, chest, lats, quads). Consequently, most builders rarely lose sleep over this body part.

When your spinal erectors are underdeveloped, you are leaving a lot of ”air” in your back. This will reduce your overall back thickness significantly. Since the deadlift is heavily dependent on this muscle group, powerlifters have very well built spinal erectors from top to bottom. The erectors and the traps create the ”thick powerlifting back” permabulkers lust over day and night.

The truth, however, is that you can develop your erectors without doing a single deadlift ever. Exercises like unassisted barbell rows and weighted hyperextensions will build that muscle group for you. The deadlift does not have monopoly on your spinal erectors, or at least I hope so.

I may be dreaming, but I think my lower back got thicker once I started doing heavy hyperextensions. I am not entirely sure, but here’s a story anyway.

Once I got really sleepy while patiently waiting for the metro to come. As you can probably guess, I hate the damn metro just like I hate most things in this world. I was just getting on the train when I felt something disgusting squeeze and stab my lower back. For a few short seconds I thought an alien is trying to drain my spinal fluid or something, but when I turned around I saw a bozo.

It was an angry guy in his mid 30s. He was apparently unhappy with my slow movements. I gave him the ”What the fuck, stupid bitch?” look. He immediately answered back with eyes saying ”I did karate as a kid. Mom was proud.

The guy was ready to fight. Sadly, his frame was pretty large for my taste. He was about 6’4” while I am about 6′. He also had something like 60 pounds on me plus a nice fat gut. In other words, the guy was from an upper weight class. I thought: ”So, typical of this pussy world – bigger people always try to fight individuals from the lower weight classes.” The guy was probably going home to his fat and ugly wife after getting owned by his boss at work. I guess he needed to feel like a man again. There are many people like that actually. Some beat their wifes while others squeeze strangers on the train.

At the end, nothing happened, but I actually did win the eye war despite knowing that he will win in a real fight. Anyway, I can tell you one good thing – hyperextensions turned out to be pretty functional for me because without them this motherfucker was probably going to drill a hole in my lower back.

There is no question in my mind that weighted hyperextensions build your lower back like nothing else. Thus, I don’t think the deadlift is irreplaceable at all when it comes to back thickness. There are many other ways to accomplish the same results. Examples: squats, hyperextensions, rack pulls…etc.

Is it true that powerlifters have thick muscles because they always lift heavy?

First, powerlifters don’t always lift heavy. Second, powerlifters do not look thicker than bodybuilders. If anything, bodybuilders have a granite/grainy look that is rarely matched by powerlifters.

Who is thicker – Ed Coan or Dorian Yates? Seriously, who? The first guy is much stronger overall, but does not look nearly as thick as Yates. The way I see it bodybuilders look ”harder” because they are lean and have tons of mass, while powerlifters appear softer due to higher body fat levels and exceptional water retention. I also think that the legendary powerlifting thickness is nothing but a myth started by the leaders of the permabulking cult, who idolize their barbell heroes way too much.

Which are the muscle groups that make you look thicker overall?

A developed back seems to be the most important element for the overall thick look. If the traps, lats and spinal erectors are developed, you will look like a thick mofo. Of course, all other muscle groups are important too, but the back is usually the place with the most space to fill.

So, will heavy low rep deadlifts make me a thick + dense + heavy motherfucker?

They will definitely add thickness to your frame, but you will not suddenly turn into an alien. You can replicate the exact same effect with higher reps and different exercises. There is nothing magical about deadlifts other than the mainstream attitude towards them. Problem is, most people are not so thick in their heads either and can’t see what’s the driving force behind results. Many individuals shut down their critical thinking completely and let the gurus be their navigators. They are taken.

3 comments

  1. Sumit kain

    In my 15 years of on and off (serious training, I never did and paid any attention to the deadlifts. Infact I disdained them and mocked with a passion. Once I was stuck with some very heavy plates which just what I had for training. I couldn’t do pull ups because no pull up bar. Could do push ups, bodyweight squats, but had nothing for back. Couldn’t even do rowing because the weights were beyond my capacity to lift. For the first time in life tried deadlifts, looking into youtube for guidance. Boy I was blown with the result of only one session. My entire back felt burned. I kept gaining mass (and strength, which I later discovered). It carved my abs esp the lower abs, my love handles gone and shredded obliques. My forearms popping like crazy and traps looked buff. All I did was 4 sets of them. 2 overhand and 2 underhand. Couldn’t do more. I looked transformed in the next 3 days. My quads and hamstrings got strong too. Point is, I wasted many years doing more while I could manage with less. I still do pull ups, rowing and back extensions + yoga for flexible back. Deadlifts just made amother animal altogether. I m not even suggesting everyone else too should do it but those who do will benefits greatly with lesser time. Try it !

  2. joe santus

    Deadlifts will certainly develop anyone’s back, but —– only to the limit of the person’s genetics. Bodybuilders and powerlifters with those “heavy, thick, dense” backs, especially well-developed spinal erectors, have them because they were born with superb muscle genetics in their backs.

    YES, they usually needed progressive heavy resistance exercise, such as deadlifts, (correctly-done) good mornings, and back extensions, to “unlock” their good or great back genetic potential, but — unless the genetic potential was already there, then regularly doing deadlifts until doomsday wouldn’t have built their backs to that point.

    Indeed, it may even be that guys are able to be great deadlifters because of great back muscle genetics, more than that deadlifting builds outstanding back muscle.

    Lesson is, sure, heavy low-rep deadlifts are a great exercise (I’m age sixty-one now and have been doing them for forty-five years); however, deadlifts are not some magical exercise able to change mediocre or poor back genetics into “heavy, thick, dense” back-muscle genetics.
    Use deadlifts in your routines. Try them if you never have. They’ll help build muscle. You’ll only know what you can build if you do them for at least two or three years.

    Just, don’t expect spectacular results unless you have great back genetics like Roger Estep or Dorian Yates.

  3. Dorian

    You provide great grounded info. But sometimes too pesamestic. Too much “your a slave to genetics”. All things being equal heavy compound movements do build a thinkness. In naturals and drug users. Deadlifts do increase thickness. By working the posterior chain. And are the best exercise for the Loewe back. Wanna build hamstrings thick lats or traps gotta deadlift. Kia Greene talked about losing to Skip LaCour and credited not doing deadlifts for the “Christmas tree” for the loss. They also build forearms. Deadlift is the king excercise. Your wrong on this one buddy.

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