The exercise that we today know as the deadlift, has in fact evolved overtime. The archaic "dead weight lift" or "dead weight lift with lifting bar", involved a T-bar with weight loaded on it while the lifter stood on sturdy chairs or other such platforms. An unbelievable amount of weight could be lifted in this manner due to its short range of motion. The main limitations are in the grip. This lift is similar to the modern day rack pulls, where a heavy amount of weight is lifted deadlift style a short distance in a power cage or squat rack.
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