The deadlift is one of the very best exercises you can do for putting on strength and size. However, not everyone’s body structure and strength curve lend themselves to being proficient deadlifters. Luckily, there are various deadlift variations you can experiment with so that you can still include this highly beneficial movement in your program. Six deadlift variations are discussed below.
The most common of all deadlift variations, the traditional deadlift is one you’ve most likely done before. Done with a roughly shoulder-width stance and an over/under grip putting the arms outside the knees and hands just wider than the feet, this movement places stress on the hips, hamstrings, and glutes, but mainly the back. The upper back and traps are hit especially hard in the top part of the movement.
Lifters with longer limbs will have more leverage, therefore will perform better with this deadlift. Shorter trainees can still use it to build muscle, but are best picking a different style if pulling max weight is the goal. Be sure to really work on form in the beginning. You especially want to not shoot your butt in the air when you first start to pull the bar off the floor, as this will put all the emphasis on the lower back and could lead to injury.
Sumo style deadlifts are pretty much the opposite of traditional deadlifts in that your stance is as wide as possible and your grip, while still over/under, is usually fairly narrow. The idea here is to maximize leverage and minimize range of motion so as to be able to pull as much weight as possible. This is why this is one of the more popular deadlift variations among powerlifters.
The difference in setup also means a difference in how the body is worked. Way more emphasis is placed on the hips, hamstrings and glutes, as well as the inner thigh. The back as a whole isn’t hit as hard, but the upper back and traps are in the top end of the movement. However, if your form is done right, you’re able to minimize lower back involvement. This lets you pull even more weight still, as the lower back is most lifters’ weak link.
Legendary powerlifter Ed Coan was known for using a sort of a hybrid between traditional and sumo deadlifts. He ended up pulling so many record-setting weights with this technique that it actually ended up being named after him in certain circles.
You start off with a sumo-style stance with your feet outside your arms, but not nearly as wide. In fact, your stance isn’t that much wider than if you were doing traditional deadlifts. This allows you to engage the hips and glutes, as well as limit lower back involvement like you can with sumos. However, you’re able to use much more of the overall back and posterior chain, just like you are with traditional deadlifts.
What you’re left with is a sort of “best of both worlds” approach that gives you the benefits of both traditional and sumo stance deadlifts, while greatly diminishing the drawbacks of each. Just ensure that your hamstrings are fairly strong before going heavy with these, as they’ll be put under quite a load in the stretched position. This can lead to a pulled muscle if you’re not careful.
Traditional stance is the best of the deadlift variations for muscle building. However, lower back issues prevent many lifters from doing them. At the same time, shorter trainees with poor leverage can have a hard time really maximizing muscle growth as they’re limited to what they can pull off the floor.
However, if you do rack pulls, you’re eliminating the bottom few inches of the movement. This obviously isn’t a good choice for lifters looking to compete in powerlifting, but for trainees who want to mainly build size and overall strength, this can be a great option. This is because you’re able to pull more weight while eliminating the part of the movement most likely to result in injury.
To do rack pulls, you’ll need a cage style power rack or a half rack with spotter stands that can be adjusted just above the floor. Set the pins such that the bar is just below your knees, and pull in traditional deadlift style from there. You can start a tad lower than this, but not too much as you’ll end up involving the lower back too much. However, also don’t start much higher than this as the limited range of motion will lead to a lot less development.
Like the Coan Deadlift is a sort of hybrid between traditional and sumo, trap bar deadlifts are a sort of hybrid between squats and deadlifts. This is because by putting your hands at your sides, you’re able to keep your torso much more upright. At the bottom of the lift, the hips, glutes, and legs are loaded much in the same way they are when doing squats. However, once you get to around the mid-portion of the rep, the back and posterior chain take over as if you were doing traditional deadlifts.
While there are numerous advantages to trap bar deadlifts, the two main ones are minimal lower back involvement and how easy it is to learn proper technique. Since the bottom of the range of motion is similar to a squat, the lower back is minimally loaded when compared to traditional deadlifts. At the same time proper technique is very easy to learn.
Other deadlift styles take a lot of time to perfect, as you need to ensure you keep your hips down, don’t bend only at the waist, and other such cues. However, the trap bar deadlift is much simpler. Get into starting position with your hips down, head up, and shoulders back. From that point, act as if you were trying to jump as high as you could, only you’re holding onto the bar.
Doing this gets you near ideal form right out of the gate as you’ll end up extending at the hips, knees, and ankles all at the same time, which is what you’re after. You’ll load legs and glutes at the bottom, and by the time, you reach mid-point of the rep, your back has already taken over. It really is the easiest of all deadlift variations to learn how to perform properly.
There are really only two big drawbacks to the trap bar deadlift. The first is that pulling with a straight bar is what’s necessary for powerlifting and / or many deadlift “records”. So if you’re planning on competing, this is probably not the style for you. And the other big drawback is simply that many gyms just don’t have a trap bar.
However, if you’re not going to compete and your gym does have a trap bar, this very well could be the best lower body movement you do. In fact, given that the rest of your routine was programmed properly, it could even replace both squats and deadlifts in your workout.
While the other deadlift variations discussed thus far have been big strength and muscle builders, the romanian and / or stiff-legged deadlift should be treated a bit more gingerly. While any other time you don’t want to keep your legs straight, shoot your butt in the air, or bend only at the waist, all those are exactly what you’re doing with these variations.
This is because the romanian and / or stiff-legged deadlift aren’t as much about building strength or overall muscle as they are stretching and targeting the hamstrings. Everything else above could easily be done for sets of 4-6 reps and done as explosively as possible to boost performance. However, that would injure you with these two styles. Instead, keep reps slow and rhythmic, sticking to sets of 8-12.
If strength and size are among your goals, you need to be deadlifting. Using a trap bar or doing rack pulls are both good ideas if you’re not competing. However, if you are, you’ll need to go with traditional, sumo, or “Coan” deadlifts. Romanian and stiff-legged options are good too, but remember that you use them for a different set of goals. Regardless, deadlifts being in your program is almost sure to improve your results.