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Deadlift Variations for Added Challenge and Better Form

Reading Time: 6 minutes 15 seconds


DATE: 2023-04-12

The deadlift is a common favorite among many weightlifters. It’s a compound, multi-joint movement that, when done correctly, is an effective exercise for the hamstrings, glutes, quads, and back. Ultimately, it’s a fundamental movement that is great for the posterior chain but it can also engage the adductors, core, and forearm muscles. 

There are several variations to the deadlift. Each deadlift variation is typically just a small modification to the conventional movement. Like most exercises, the modifications can provide a new challenge for the muscles, a better position for an individual’s body, or a safer movement for a client. To understand different variations of the deadlift and how to do them, it is important to first understand the form for a conventional deadlift. For all deadlift variations, proper form is essential throughout the entire movement. If done incorrectly, the deadlift can cause injury. 

The Conventional Deadlift

The standard deadlift is a compound exercise that targets several muscle groups throughout the body:

  • Lower back: The erector spinae muscles in the lower back are heavily recruited during deadlifts to maintain proper spinal alignment and to help lift the weight.

  • Glutes: The gluteus maximus, the largest muscle in the buttocks, is the primary hip extensor during the deadlift.

  • Hamstrings: The hamstring muscle group is located on the back of the thigh and helps to extend the hip and bend the knee. They play a significant role in deadlifts, especially during the eccentric (lowering) phase.

  • Quads: The quadriceps muscles, located on the front of the thigh, assist in extending the knee during the deadlift.

  • Core: The core muscles, including the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and obliques, help to stabilize the spine and transfer force from the lower body to the upper body during the lift.

  • Forearms: The grip strength is also worked during the deadlift as you must maintain a tight hold on the barbell throughout the movement.

Overall, the traditional deadlift exercise is a highly effective exercise for building strength and muscle mass in the entire body.

How to Deadlift

The client’s feet should be flat on the floor about shoulder-width apart. Grip the bar slightly wider than the legs, using a closed, normal grip (both palms facing backward) or an alternate grip (one palm facing forward and one palm facing backward). The weights should be resting on the ground with the bar close to the client’s shins. Flex the knees, putting the body in a squat position with a straight back. 

The client will begin with the shoulders above or slightly in front of the bar. They will push through the heels and extend the knees, keeping the torso straight and the head up. Hips will extend along with the knees. At the end of the extension of the knees and hips, the client will press the hips forward and abduct lats. To complete the repetition (rep), the client will flex the hip and then the knee joint to slowly lower the bar to the floor, keeping the torso straight and the bar close to the shins and returning to the starting position. Use control throughout the entire move. 

Learn more: How to Perfect Your Hip Hinge

5 Key Deadlift Variations

There isn’t necessarily one deadlift variation that is right for every client. Each client’s goals, body, injuries, limitations, and mental state can all play a part in helping decide which variation is best. Although there are several ways to modify this exercise, some of the most common deadlift variations are the sumo deadlift, the deficit deadlift, the single-leg deadlift, the Romanian deadlift, and the trap bar deadlift. 

Sumo Deadlift (Wide Stance)

The sumo deadlift has a much wider stance than the conventional deadlift. Point the toes slightly out (about a 45-degree angle) and grip the bar on the inside of the legs (as opposed to outside the stance like in the conventional deadlift). 

Much like a conventional deadlift, the client will start with knees bent in a partial squat position with a straight torso and the weight resting on the floor. They will press their heels into the floor and extend the knees and then the hips in one fluid motion. They will press the hips forward at the top of the lift. When lowering the weight, clients should hinge the hips first and then bend the knees as they lower back into the starting position to complete the rep. 

Why use this variation: Helps protect the lower back and puts a bit more tension on the legs. 

Deficit Deadlift

The form for deficit deadlifts is very similar to the conventional deadlift. However, the main difference in the deficit lift is that the feet are slightly elevated off the ground (typically no more than a couple inches) while the weight rests on the floor. Utilizing a platform, the client will complete a conventional deadlift allowing for a slight increase in the range of motion of the movement. 

Why use this variation: Helps increase the range of motion and increase the muscles’ time under tension. 

Single-Leg Deadlift

In a single-leg deadlift, all or most of the weight shifts to one leg. The movement can be completed without weight or with a variety of different types of resistance (dumbbells, barbell, kettlebells, etc.) depending on the skill level of the individual. 

The client will either balance on one leg or shift the bulk of the weight to one leg with the toes of the opposite foot resting lightly on the ground. Keeping the hips square and the knee soft, the client will slowly hinge forward at the hips until the torso is almost parallel with the ground while the opposite (supporting) foot comes off the ground. The client should focus on keeping their shoulders back, hips square, and their torso straight throughout the movement. To complete the rep, the focus should be on utilizing the glutes and hamstrings to hinge the body back to the starting position. 

Why use this variation: Not only does the variation help build stability but the unilateral movement can also help prevent one side of the body from dominating the movement. 

Romanian Deadlift (Stiff Leg)

The ideal starting position for this lift begins with the bar off the ground. To protect the back, it may be helpful to lift the bar off the ground utilizing the conventional deadlift form. However, once off the ground, the weight typically does not touch the floor between reps. The client should begin standing up straight with a normal or alternate grip on the bar, just slightly wider than their stance. Knees should be straight with shoulders back, a straight torso, and the head up. 

With the bar close the legs, the client will slowly hinge at the hips, keeping the knees soft but slightly locked, and lowering the bar until they feel the stretch in the hamstrings (usually when the bar is just below the knees). With a straight torso, tucked chin (straight spine) and soft knees, they will push through their heels and raise back up while pressing the hips forward at the top of the movement.

Why use this variation: Transitions the weight to the hamstrings and glutes throughout the movement.

Trap Bar (Hex Bar) Variation

Clients will step inside the center of the trap bar and stand with feet about shoulder with apart. Hinging at the hips and then bending at the knees, the client should squat down to grip the bar keeping the spine straight. Pressing through the heels, the client should extend the knees and then the hips in a fluid motion and press the hips forward at the top of the lift. They will slowly lower the trap bar back down to the ground by hinging very slightly at the hips and then bending the knees.

Why use this variation: Helps protect the lower back and prevents clients from shifting the weight too far away from their body.

Additional Deadlift Variation Options

Is your client still learning the regular deadlift? There are still some variations beginners can try: kettlebell deadlift, dumbbell deadlift, or a staggered deadlift.

For the training clients interested in even more variation, you might also consider options such as the axel bar deadlift, suitcase deadlift, Jefferson deadlift, clean deadlift, or dumbbell Romanian deadlift. The choices are almost endless!

Tips to Prevent Injury

All the variations of the deadlift can cause injury if not done correctly. Here are a few tips to help support proper form:

  • Keep movements fluid and controlled. 

  • Keep the spine straight (neutral) throughout the movement

  • Keep the bar close to the body throughout the entire repetition

  • Use the appropriate weight

  • Properly warm up the body before lifting

  • Gloves, weight belts, chalk, or hand straps can all be used to help support the movement, when appropriate.

As a trainer, having a good understanding of the proper modifications to vary this exercise can make you an asset to your clients. Although this can be a valuable movement to add to many clients’ routines, it isn’t for everyone. If a client is new to exercise, has back issues or other medical concerns, they should get approval from a doctor before attempting. 

Are you interested in learning more about how to create effective workouts using proper exercise technique and helping others reach their goals? Check out ISSA’s Personal Trainer Course and get started today!

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