Deadlifts are a great exercise. Pretty obvious. Everyone knows it. It’s cool. It’s hip. Everyone wants to pick heavy shit up off the ground. I could end this article right here but I’ll talk just a little bit more about the lift.
There are a few ways to deadlift. All of them are effective but they all have their unique characteristics and particular ways to execute. Let’s go through them to gather a better understanding of when and why you should use them in your program.
The OG of deadlifting. This is probably the first way many people learned how to deadlift because a barbell is the most common piece of equipment and one of the first exercises learned in most traditional gym settings. Brace. Bend over and pick it up however you can. Or “grip it and rip it!” as some say. There are nuances but ultimately the brutal simplicity of the lift is what makes it such a foundational exercise. This lift builds the posterior chain of the back, glutes, hamstrings, and even the quads to some extent. This lift can really tax the spinal erectors, lats and low back. So, don’t kill yourself with too much volume as the lats are the biggest muscles of the upper body and will need ample time and resources to recover after being beaten down by conventional deadlifts.
Walk up to the barbell in a stance that is your normal walking gait. Each person will stop a certain distance away from the bar unique to them. You will find this position by bending down and grabbing the barbell. Your shins should make contact with the bar at the very bottom of your set up position and not before that time. You should not bump the barbell further away from you as you set up either. If you do this, you are too close or bending too much at the knees. Grab the bar with a double overhand grip or mixed grip (one overhand, one underhand) if the weight is heavy. Your arms should be extended and stretched down as long as you can along with the scapula naturally falling in a semi-protracted position. With a conventional deadlift DO NOT try and force your shoulder blades together (retract). This will increase range of motion the bar has to travel by shortening the length of your upper limbs. Squeeze the lats down to your side as if you were pinching a news paper in your arm pit. Look up or forward ahead with your gaze. Slowly build up tension on the barbell creating upward pressure and pull all the slack out of your body and the barbell, turning the athlete and the bar into one. Once you’ve pulled every ounce of slack out between the two systems and become one then drive all your force production into the ground and stand up with the bar.
This deadlift is the most technical of them all. With the feet positioned out wider than the torso the leverages change around a bit. The hands are on the inside of the legs and the legs are out wide, like a sumo wrestler beginning a match, hence the name. This change in feet placement makes the athlete more upright and allows the utilization of more leg strength and less brute back strength, making it similar to the trap bar in this regard (more on this later). The back is still a major player in this lift but not the star of the show as in a conventional deadlift. Some athletes will keep the shins at a totally vertical angle relative to the barbell (walk up with shins touching bar and then sit hips back) and some will allow the shins to travel forward a little bit over the bar similar to a conventional deadlift (stay an inch or so off the barbell and when you squat down to the bar the shins contact the bar at your bottom position). I’ve seen both styles work well on different lifters. The first is more of a slower start but it but helps maintain an advantageous position throughout the lift. This lift will also build the glute medius quite well from the wide stance and hip abduction via the cue “spreading the floor” which is the athlete creating lateral pressure from the hips to their feet and then activates the glute medius. The quads will be taxed more during this lift as well compared to other deadlifts and hip hinges. So if you need a lift that builds up the legs, hips, glutes and back then this variation is for you.
Walk up to the bar. Take a wide stance with your feet outside of your arms. Make sure the shins are directly touching the bar and you sit the hips back and down without pushing the bar forward or start an inch off the barbell and sit down and back until the shins touch the bar at your bottom start position. Brace. Bend down and grab the barbell with hands inside your legs. Grip should be close to the smooth part of the bar and maybe some fingers on it for narrow shoulder lifters. Same cues as conventional deadlift pulling the slack out from you and the barbell BUT your hips are going to be closer to the barbell with a position similar to a half squat and with that your torso is going to be more upright. With an upright torso the arms are still going to be as long as possible but naturally the scapula will be able to be more retracted than in a conventional deadlift (for most lifters). Again pinch the lats down as if you were squeezing a newspaper in your armpit, look up, no slack, build up tension, this tension will mainly be felt as lateral tension through the hips to the feet and into the floor. All your force production should be distributed here and not just straight down into the ground. Stand up and bring your hips to the bar.
Trap or Diamond Dar Deadlift
This is one of the simplest ways to teach someone how to deadlift. There’s no barbell in front of the body blocking the shins from traveling forward. Many people are not aware of where their hips are in relation to the rest of their body so when you add the variable of a barbell in front of them, they aren’t sure what exactly to do with their back, hips and knees. The open space created in a trap bar can allow the athlete to play around with different positions and find what feels natural to them. The second benefit is most trap bars have high handles as an option you may use. This will reduce the range of motion and again allow the lifters to feel more comfortable. For experienced lifters the trap bar benefits can range from increasing leg drive because of the ability for them to go through extra forward knee travel (knee flexion). Improved ability to keep the spine straighter via a more upright posture. This may allow a lifter who is having back pain to feel more comfortable pulling by placing them in a better mechanical position for the spine if they’re flexion intolerant (bending forward at the spine). Finally, they may use the high handles with the said reduced range of motion which allows them to use more weight on the exercise and overload the lift and the skeletal muscular system with a weight they typically would not be able to handle.
Brace, bend down at the hips and knees, while keeping a relatively straight spine. Grab the handles with a neutral grip and lift.
The Romanian Deadlift (RDL) is a great exercise for the hamstrings, glutes and back. This exercise and the straight leg deadlift (SLDL) often get confused and become used as one in the same when in fact they are very different. The RDL was created by Nicu Vlad, a Romanian gold medalist weight lifter from the 80s and 90s. Originally it was used with the clean grip (wide grip pointer finger on the power rings) but mainly now a days the RDL is used with a normal grip and the clean grip RDL is another variation. The lift is performed with a slightly bent knee, a flat or arched back (I prefer to cue arches on most lifters, but not ones with natural excessive lumbar extension). The bar should not make contact with the floor and the back should not go into flexion. You should only bring the bar down as low as your hamstring flexibility allows and should not gain that extra range of motion from the spine by bending it down. Bending at the spine and bringing the bar down further does nothing more for the hamstrings and now begins to incorporate more back which isn’t the main target of this lift. So if you need some hanging hams, improved hip extension or static strength in the back then this is your lift. Hit these hard and heavy or for higher reps with a barbell or dumbbell. Snatch grip will increase workload on the upper back by keeping the scapula in a static retracted position.
Brace. Deadlift the barbell off the floor or un-rack the barbell from a rack with your chosen grip and take a shoulder width stance. Arch the low back (arching low back will place pelvis in anterior tilt and lengthen hamstring giving it a pre-stretch), push the hips back as far as you can while keeping a soft bend in the knees. Go as far down as your hamstrings flexibility allows. Upon reaching the end range of motion for the hamstrings come back up.
Straight/Stiff Leg Deadlift
This variation is similar to the RDL but the difference here is the barbell starts and stops on the floor and there may be slightly more spinal flexion than the RDL. The back and erectors will be working hard here and the range of motion will be greater than the RDL. The hamstrings and glutes will still be challenged but the back takes on more of a prime mover role compared to an RDL where it is more of a static stabilizer. The straight leg deadlift is essentially a conventional deadlift with no assistance off the floor from the quads pushing and creating leg drive. It is a pure hip hinge.
For the SLDL I prefer starting on the floor with the barbell because it forces you to get into a proper position from the first rep and you have no elastic rebound starting without an eccentric portion of the lift. This helps the SLDL transfer over to strength in the deadlift in my opinion. Walk up to the bar shoulder width stance. Brace. Bend down by shoving the hips back as far as you can and keeping a slight bend in the knees and trying to maintain a flat-ish back. Grab the bar. Head up and push your hips through to the barbell without utilizing leg drive and “push” off the floor. Again you can go hard and heavy and work with triples all the way up to 10s for the majority of training. Some sickos may go to 12 and 15 reps. Going with weight that’s too heavy for the rep range can make this lift look like some weird ugly hybrid of a conventional DL so don’t forget how and why you’re doing this and start bending your knees more and more to assist in getting the weight moving.
Staggered Stance Deadlift
This is a version of the deadlift that will mainly train one legs hamstring/glutes/ glute med/QL while the other leg lightly stabilizes and really just hangs out. The back will be slightly curved towards the working leg since the pelvis will be off set to one side. This lift reduces the amount of weight on the bar by increasing stability demands with its unilateral nature but also increases demand on the working leg. This balances out the lighter load that must be used by forcing the working leg to do all the mechanical work performed in the exercise. This is a great deadlift variation done with a BB or DB’s and can be used during deload periods or as an accessory lift during a training session somewhere in the middle or end of a workout. I recommend performing 6-12 reps per leg as unilateral work takes a longer period of time per set since you have each leg to train.
With a barbell or dumbbell standing with your feet together, take a step back with one leg. At minimum your rear foot toe can line up with your front foots heel. You may need to take an even bigger step but this is going to be based on each individual. The rear foot will probably be flared out laterally in what some refer to as a “B” stance. I prefer to be on the balls of my feet on the rear leg “kick stand” stance but this will be dependent on the lifter as well. This will improve lateral stability by increasing the surface area “width” wise of the feet since the front leg will basically be facing forward. Now from this stance all of your weight should be on the front leg and you will hip hinge back on the working leg. You will not hinge straight back, you will hinge backwards at a slight angle towards that same side working hip. This will be when the glute and glute medius shine and work to stabilize that lead leg. Now performed as an RDL or SLDL hinge down and stretch the ham and reverse the weight when needed depending on whether you are performing an RDL or SLDL.
Now that we’ve gone over several deadlift variations, we’ll change our focus on different ways to perform them.
Normal Sets X Reps & Letting the Weight Settle On the Floor
This would consist of 3×10, 3×3, 5×5 etc. You pick the deadlift up off the floor and perform continuous reps. Continuous means you do not let go of the bar and you do not take 5-10 seconds shimmying and resetting to pull the next repetition turning a set of 4 reps into a 1 minute ordeal (some powerlifters). AT the opposite end of the spectrum you also do NOT BOUNCE reps off the floor like you’re dribbling a damn basketball. You’re lifting weights not seeing how hard you can bounce rubber or metal plates off of a rubber floor and then grind some ugly ass excuse of a deadlift up your leg as you tremble and quiver under a weight you shouldn’t be lifting (some bodybuilders). The entire point of lifting weights is to make the muscles work. Produce muscular force against an object and move it through time and space in order to provide sufficient stimulus for the muscles, tendons and ligaments to grow bigger and stronger. When you remove muscular force and replace it with kinetic energy from bouncing weights off the ground, you’re literally robbing yourself of gains. Its kind of similar to an Olympic lift where you’re only performing the concentric portion of the lift and then dropping the bar except worse because you’re dropping the bar quickly and maybe even pushing it down in some instances then getting little to no eccentric contraction in AND THEN reducing the amount of concentric contraction you need to move the weight off the ground. So anyways… please stop bouncing the damn weights.
As you may have seen some powerlifters do, they break each repetition up into its own single rep and perform all of these reps in what is known as a cluster set. For example, let’s say we are going to do 3 cluster sets of 3 repetitions. What that means is the lifter will get set up and perform 1 rep. Let go of the bar fully. Either stand up or walk around or grab the bar again depending on the length of the cluster sets prescribed break time (5, 10, 15, 30 seconds are all common). Then set up again, perform another single rep. Let go of the bar again. Reset up again and perform one last single repetition. That would be ONE set of a 3 x 3 cluster set. You can play with rest periods intra cluster set, between the clusters, reps, taking one set to near failure which is similar to Fortitude Training “Muscle Rounds” of 6 x 4 + cluster reps with 10 second rest. I wouldn’t advise muscle rounds for deadlifts, though, unless you really hate yourself so maybe leg curls after deads instead.
Touch & Go Under Control
The caveat to the above bouncing reps off the floor is not bouncing the weight off the floor but not letting it totally settle either and instead keeping a form of constant tension on the bar. With this, you’re letting it slightly graze the ground yet the weight remaining under 100% of your control. What I mean by this is if I asked you to reverse the bar at any given point during the lift you should be able to do so immediately. If you can not do this then you are not in control of the eccentric phase of the lift and the weight is coming down via gravity and maybe some guidance from you. So bring the bar down under your steady control, ever so gently touch the floor and reverse the bar powerfully. This keeps constant and steady tension on the body and the weights so there is no loading/unloading of the spine and joints at any given point of the lift (usually the bottom). This will increase total muscular time under tension and allow the lifter to own the barbell throughout the range of motion.
These are the main variations of deadlifts I program for my clients and for Body Blueprint, Team LoCoFit’s monthly subscription training program. Deadlifts are a great exercise and should be a staple for everyone, regardless of your goals. Start light, nail your technique and progress from there.