Washington Nationals: Bryce Harper Makes a Big Lift – Or Does He?

Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper got publicity for a big lift this week. Was it really that big of a deal?

In video posted on MLB.com, Bryce Harper shows himself both squatting and deadlifting in his offseason program. Videos are at the link.

These videos got plenty of publicity, especially for those unfamiliar with lifting. His 505-pound deadlift was even noted in his Instagram post as having a “rounded back”, but from this power lifter (and many others that have weighed in online), the form had a lot more worry than that. We’ll get into that more later.

Harper was also posted squatting what one Nationals fan Twitter poster retweeted as a “ton” of weight (I could not find the Twitter post among the many posts on the topic). For reference, the amount on the bar he’s lifting is 335 pounds for five sets of three with a four-second pause on the bottom.

There are various schools of thought on the pause at the bottom of a squat and its actual effectiveness in any training. If he was using a low box and doing low box squats, that’d be one thing, but he’s holding his body at that point, which has a lot of debate in efficacy and some strong belief in actually further causing hip and upper leg issues than producing any sort of gains within the power lifting community.

The Deadlift

For a little background – I played football up to the collegiate level when surgery forced me to stop. I’m not exactly a naturally athletic guy, so I dove into the weight room with a tenacious appetite, reading and studying hard on proper form and effective movements, and that allowed me to have an opportunity as a collegiate offensive lineman. To this day, I still power lift for training and keep informed on research in the area of power lifting and weight training for sports.

The dead lift is a core lift for any power lifting program and certainly for any lifting program. For athletic purposes, the deadlift builds up explosive hip, lower back, and core strength required for explosive movements like jumping, making a tackle, or throwing/hitting a baseball.

Competitive power lifters use an Olympic bar when they lift, which is a straight bar. There are a variety of grips and stances that competitive power lifters use on the deadlift, but the bar used is pretty standard.

The “hex bar” or “trap bar” that Harper was using is one type of bar that a lifter can use when doing a deadlift. While a basketball player using a hex bar would certainly be preferential, and a football player using one would make sense, the research on the difference between the bars shows that the benefits gained from straight bar deadlifts are exactly what you would want in a baseball lift – hip and core work, in other words, developing strength in the area needed to drive a baseball.

The hex bar is also notorious within power lifting circles for adding as much as 50 pounds to a true deadlift of a competitive deadlift, and even more so if using what’s called a high-hex bar, a hex bar with handles lifted off of the bar, which Harper was using in the video.

So really, Harper was doing the lift with form that was already bad when using the bar that actually is wrong for a baseball player to use when doing deadlifts to build the muscles most needed for baseball activities.

Where Harper’s Lift Would Rate

I was also a little surprised at how much attention his raw number was receiving. A deadlift of 505 with a straight bar is really not a monster lift, but with a hex bar that could add 50 pounds of weight to a true maximum weight, it’s even more questionable.

Harper is considered a world-class athlete. To put him on par with world-class power lifters, I looked at the International Powerlifting Association (IPF) 2016 World Championships.

In the female division, at the 158-pound (72 kg) weight, two women pulled more than 500 pounds. In fact, both pulled at least ~530 pounds (240 kg). On the men’s side, only in the 130-pound (59 kg) weight class was any competitor UNDER a 505-pound deadlift.

At Harper’s weight (215 lbs listed, which would put him in the 105-kg weight class), the lowest number any competitor put up was 245 kg (~540 pounds). Of course, that competitor also put up a bench press of the same weight (245 kg, ~540 pounds) and a squat of 305 kg (~672 lbs). The top deadlifter in the competition this season was 380 kg (~837 lbs), lifting in the heavyweight division.

Of course, those competitors are also not “maxing out” on the deadlift in their competition due to wanting to save some energy for other lifts as well, so many of those competitors could actually go even higher in numbers if they were only focusing on the deadlift for a day!

That’s all to say that while it’s good to see Harper putting in the effort (as with any superstar), the numbers aren’t exactly monumental that he’s working with and are being quite a bit overhyped.

Here are a few videos I found on proper deadlifting (with more than 505) for your enjoyment:

Pete Rubish doing 920 pounds at 245 pounds (only a few hamburgers more than Harper!):

A collection of the top 5 deadlifts (at the time of the video):

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