6 deadlift variations to try
Continuing on our series of lift variations, we’ve come to the deadlift. While this at first glance might seem like it’s aimed specifically towards powerlifters that’s not really the case. All the information here can be used for any athlete or anyone who wants to get stronger. Sumo or conventional? These are for both.
Deadlift from blocks
I much prefer deadlifts from blocks over from pins. The feeling is different due to how the energy is transferred. With blocks the weights are connected to the blocks, essentially the ground is raised. The same is not true in regards to pin pulls as it’s the connection between the barbell and pins, this also causes the barbell to flex less. There’s nothing specifically wrong with pin pulls, I just prefer to prescribe block pulls.
It’s of great importance to use blocks that are low enough for the the barbell to be below the knees. A good place to start is around 10 cm high blocks. In this exercise we will sometimes go very heavy, higher than a maximum deadlift from the floor, but it will depend on the person and their strengths and weaknesses, and if the goal is to train the motor units or ingrain a movement pattern (train the skill). If you want to get into sumo deadlifting but don’t quite have the flexibility yet you can start with this variation and gradually lowering the blocks over the course of a few weeks.
Deficit deadlifts are commonly prescribed by me and the deficit is typically 5 cm although we occasionally do up to 10 cm. It’s important to understand the goal of this exercise and why to implement it. For me it’s mostly to increase leg drive but also to build the lockout. The latter may surprise you because most people think of it as an exercise to build the start but think about it – a longer ROM means longer time under tension and therefore more strength endurance training, exactly what’s needed for a better lockout.
Unless it’s a special case I want to see the lifter squat down further to get into the start position instead of bending more forward. This ensures that more stress is placed on the legs as opposed to the lower back. While they will occasionally be told to max out, the majority of deficit deadlift training for my lifters is with moderate weights for 3-4 sets of 3-4 repetitions. Also keep in mind that some people are actually not weaker in this lift compared to the regular deadlift.
Deficit deadlift hold
This is an exercise I use with sumo deadlifters who have trouble getting the barbell off the floor. The start is identical to the deficit deadlift (typically with a sumo stance) but as soon as the barbell breaks a few cm’s from the floor the athlete is to pause and hold the bar statically for 2-3 seconds before lowering the weight down again. Subsequent repetitions are performed in the same way until the very last one where they will finish the lift as they normally would. Typically I will prescribe 3-4 sets of 3 repetitions with the third being the one that is actually locked out. For some lifters this is a game changer.
Deadlift with bands
You can of course add bands to deadlifts. Ideally you will use two bands strapped over each side of the barbell. If you don’t have a setup like that you can take one band, put it over the middle of the barbell and stand on it.
The primary reason I prescribe deadlifts with bands are if the athlete has very strong and well working legs but a lower back that’s lagging or if they’ve gotten a bit mentally burned out by doing regular deadlifts (they need a change of pace, so to speak).
As with most other deadlifts the sets and reps are 3-4 and it’s not trained more than once per week. What about chains? Sure, you can use those but for many the lifting path isn’t very long and the chains don’t add much or they add too much abruptly so bands are easier in the deadlift.
Stiff leg deadlifts
Let’s make one thing clear: stiff leg deadlifts are performed with the barbell starting on the ground every repetition like a regular deadlift. Romanian deadlifts are performed from the hang, that’s the difference between the two.
Contrary to what the name implies, I actually don’t advocate completely stiff legs, but rather the knees just shy of being locked out. Some people will be very strong in this exercise, almost as strong as in the regular deadlift. Others will lift ridiculously light weights compared to their deadlifts. More often than not because they feel that their lower back is working and they’ve fallen for the idiotic idea that it’s so fragile it shouldn’t be used. Build this lift and push it – without being stupid – and you’re sure to see your deadlift improve. This exercise will target the posterior chain to a greater degree than the regular deadlift. And yes, it can even be done sumo style.
In the stiff leg deadlift I prefer higher repetitions most of the time. Around 4-8 for 2-4 sets.
For Olympic weightlifters the snatch deadlift is obviously a staple but it can be a useful exercise for just about anyone. To perform this lift you take a very wide grip, like you would in the snatch. A simple way to find it is to hold a broomstick, have one of your arms straight up and the other straight out to the side. Now bring the stick down in front of you, that’s the width you should start with. Do not under any circumstances use a mixed grip unless you want to tear your bicep, instead use a hook grip or straps.
What’s the benefit of this exercise? First the lift will be longer. Since the grip is wider you will have to sit further down, similar to a deficit deadlift. Secondly it will work your upper back tremendously if you make a point of keeping it in proper position without rounding. I use all kinds of repetition ranges in the snatch deadlift, from one rep maxes to sets of ten.
Peculiarities with training the deadlift
At the present time deadlift training in my group of athletes is significantly different compared to the training of say the squat and the bench press and it has been that way for years. The reason is that I feel it’s a different animal and for most highly qualified athletes it will take a much greater toll on their bodies than other lifts. The weights are therefore not as high most of the time and we also use less variations when it comes to the main exercises for the day.
There’s quite a bit of variety in assistance exercises however and we rely quite heavily on exercises such as Romanian deadlift, good morning, stiff leg sumo deadlifts and more. I’ve also devised specific ways of doing rows to build the deadlift. Everything must get stronger for a bigger deadlift but more deadlifting is not always necessary and can even hinder progress, which is why we build it piece by piece.