The Neuroendocrine Response, Or Why Everyone Should Learn to Deadlift

The deadlift. A sinister-sounding word for “how to lift something heavy off the ground without your knees exploding or spine snapping in half.” The deadlift is a simple motion requiring sound technique, highly practical and extremely effective at improving total body strength. An inexhaustible amount of instruction on deadlifting is available from a variety of sources, so I’ll just cover the basics here in brief.

To begin, position the object to be lifted under your center of mass. If you’re performing a classic barbell deadlift, the barbell should be over the middle of your feet. If you’re picking up a stone or box or prize-winning pumpkin, the object should be between your legs. Squeeze your glutes and draw your belly button inward and upward to engage your core. Keep your back flat, push your hips back, and hinge at the waist. Bend your knees but keep your shins vertical and spine neutral as you grab the object with your hands directly under your shoulder blades. With your core engaged, back flat and elbows straight, begin to push the ground down with your feet and drive your hips forward to stand up. Your hips and shoulders should rise at the same rate until your hands pass above your knees. Then push your hips all the way forward and stand up. Do not allow your back to round as you stand. If you want to set the object back down, complete the same motion in reverse.
The effectiveness of the deadlift as an exercise lies in its capacity to generate a neuroendocrine response, which is exactly what it sounds like: a reaction involving the nervous and endocrine (hormonal) systems of the body. In a stressful situation, the endocrine system induces secretion of cortisol, which in turn influences production of epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine. These latter two hormones are part of the sympathetic nervous system, the system responsible for preparing the body for action.[2] The stress required to generate a neuroendocrine response may be physical or emotional in nature. Large muscle-mass exercises such as the Olympic lifts, deadlifts and jump squats produce a neuroendocrine response.[3] So do sexual arousal and orgasm.[4] Biceps curls and channel surfing do not.
Not surprisingly, complex decision-making tasks induce the neuroendocrine response in the form of increased adrenaline secretion and elevated heart rate.[5] Adolescent male students who performed better in school than predicted by their intelligence levels showed higher adrenaline secretion in achievement-demanding situations than did their underachieving counterparts.[6] No wonder training for intellectually stressful situations such as public speaking or standardized testing often calls for mimicking those very situations. These simulations allow the individual to adapt to stressors in preparation for the actual event.
Physically, the acute neuroendocrine response produced by large muscle mass exercises like the deadlift stimulates the production of the body’s anabolic hormones. This response proves critical to tissue growth and remodeling and leads to subsequent strength gains.[7] Simply put, generating a neuroendocrine response is a vital component of getting stronger, improving intellectual performance under stress and enjoying sex. If you want to get the most out of life, you should absolutely seek out this reaction in all its manifestations. This statement should not come as a surprise. The sentiments of “carpe diem” and “live life to the fullest” are frequently bandied about as proverbs on a successful existence. The neuroendocrine response appears to be a fancy scientific term that links a physiological reaction with the rush of doing something frightening, thrilling, challenging, invigorating, and doing it well. Isn’t that feeling what we all should strive to achieve?

Within that context, I view the deadlift as a microcosm of the significance of the neuroendocrine response. And while an exercise like the snatch produces the same reaction, rarely do most people have the need to hoist an object from the ground to arms’ length overhead in one fluid movement. Yet in order to be a functional human being (in the absence of some debilitating physical condition), one should be able to safely lift a relatively heavy object off the ground, just as one should be able to perform simple arithmetic and interact peaceably with fellow humans. Thus, the deadlift accomplishes two significant purposes: it serves as a key component of human functionality and produces a physiological response critical to self-improvement. At this point, the premises that one should desire to be a functional human and should strive for a meaningful, ever-improving life are merely assumed. I will offer arguments for these assumptions in forthcoming pieces. In the meantime, in the spirit of Sisyphus, carpe saxum: seize the rock and lift it!

[1] “Child-physical-development-03.jpeg.” Image. Quality Before Intensity. Heatrick Strength & Conditioning. 12 Sept. 2012. Online. 11 Jan. 2012.
[2] Miller, Diane B. and O’Callaghan, James P. “Neuroendocrine aspects of the response to stress.” Metabolism – Clinical and Experimental, Volume 51, Issue 6, Part B. June 2002. Online. 25 Nov. 2012.
[3] Kraemer, W.J. and Ratamess, N.A. “Hormonal Responses and Adaptations to Resistance Exercise and Training.” Sports Medicine, Volume 35, Issue 4, 2005. Online. 25 Nov. 2012.
[4] Krüger, T.H.C. et al. “Specificity of the neuroendocrine response to orgasm during sexual arousal in men.” Journal of Endocrinology, 2003. p. 57-64. Online. 25 Nov. 2012.
[5] Collins, Aila and Frankenhaeuser,  Marianne. “Stress Responses in Male and Female Engineering Students.” Journal of Human Stress, Volume 4, Issue 2, 1978. Online. 25 Nov. 2012.
[6]Bergman, L.R. and Magnusson, D. “Overachievement and catecholamine excretion in an achievement-demanding situation.” Psychosomatic Medicine, Volume 41, Number 3, 1979. Online. 25 Nov. 2012. 
[7] Kraemer, 2005.