4 Deadlift Variations For Building Awesome Back Strength

Introduction | Benefits of deadlifting | 4 Deadlift Variations | Deadlifting FAQ

A muscled weightlifter performing a deadlift on an Olympic barbell.

If you want to build superior back strength, then you absolutely must include deadlift in your training regime.


This article brings you 4 deadlifting variations. These variations will allow you to target a wider range of muscle groups, enabling you to build a broader spectrum of strength.


In addition to actively engaging more muscles, the 4 deadlifting variations below will also freshen up your training routine.


Including new and exotic exercises in our routine can rekindle dwindling motivation while enhancing our lifting skills and expanding our exercise repertoire.

Strength benefits of deadlifts

Of all the compound exercises, the deadlift is by far the best at building strength in the lower back and glutes. Yet, contrary to misconception, the deadlift is more than a one-trick pony.


While the deadlift certainly is a back-developing exercise par excellence, it has been shown to increase whole-body strength.


As Delavier, author of Strength Training Anatomy, says, in addition to working ‘virtually every muscle’ the deadlift also ‘builds terrific hip, lower back, and trapezius muscles mass.’

Improved posterior chain

The posterior chain refers to the group of muscles that run from your lower back to your hamstrings. But the posterior chain also includes the trapezius and posterior deltoids.


This group of muscles is activated in pretty much every sport imaginable. Furthermore, strengthening the posterior chain can improve athletic performance.


You might have guessed that the deadlift helps forge a stronger posterior chain. When you execute a deadlift every posterior muscle, from your hamstring to your trapezius is engaged.

Deadlifting can improve sports performance

But the benefits of regularly performing this power-packed exercise do not stop at developing superior strength, size, and posterior chain.


Deadlifting can also improve your physical performance in other fitness and sporting disciplines. For example, one of the staple exercises of professional rowers is the deadlift. And that’s not because the deadlift is essentially a vertical row.


Deadlifting develops immense pulling power which enables the rower to apply more force during each row stroke.


Besides enhancing rowing performance, deadlifting could do the same for contact sports like rugby, wrestling, and MMA.

What equipment do I need for deadlifting?

The great thing about deadlifting, other than the fact that it works a huge range of muscles, is that it requires minimal equipment.


Typically, the deadlift is performed on a standard Olympic barbell. But an even better piece of equipment is the hex bar. A hex bar, as the name implies, is a hexagonal frame on which weights can be stacked.


The hex is better than an Olympic bar for deadlifting because you can stand inside the frame which enables you to adopt a more natural position. With an Olympic bar, the weight is in front of you thus outside your centre of mass.


When you deadlift with an Olympic bar the weight pulls you forward which can force you to hinge at the hip. By doing so excessive emphasis is focused on your lower back. This unnatural position has resulted in many lower back injuries.


With a hex bar, by contrast, the weight is situated at your sides. This subtle change in position reduces over-hinging at the hip. Moreover, you are able to maintain a more upright posture when deadlifting with a hex bar which takes much of the pressure off the lumbar region of the back.

 

4 Deadlift Variations

 

#1: The traditional deadlift

A weightlifter about to perform a deadlift as part of  back strengthening routine.

deadlift teaching points

When deadlifting for the first time it is advisable to have an experienced trainer coaching you through the movement. If you don’t have such luxury make sure that you use a super light bar! Also, to help you perfect your technique, either use a mirror record yourself.


  1. Firstly, then, begin by organising your weight and engineering your environment so that you will in no way be impeded whilst performing the exercise.

  2. Start with your feet under the bar adopting a stance slightly over shoulder width.

  3. Bending at the knee and ensuring to keep the back perfectly straight grasp the bar: the palms should face toward you and your hands should be spaced slightly wider than your feet so as to prevent your arms and knees from clashing.

  4. Before executing the lift take the slack out of the bar by applying force against the load.

  5. Looking forward and slightly up fire through the quads and glutes pushing the hips forwards as you stand.

  6. Once you are fully erect there should be a slight bend in the knees – not locked out. Also, from a side angle, a vertical line could be drawn from your shoulders down to your heels. A common mistake is to lean back. DO NOT do this! All you will succeed in doing is compressing the intervertebral discs in the lumbar region.

  7. To conclude the exercise simply return the bar to the start position making sure to retrace your steps.

Dos

  • Make sure you are in a comfortable position before executing the lift

  • Select a weight commensurate with your current strength

  • Keep the muscles of the core actively engaged throughout the lift

Don’ts

  • *Do not, under any circumstances, round your back!*

  • Do not snatch the bar from the floor – take up the slack prior to lifting

  • Do not lock out the knees in the topmost position

  • Do not arch your back at the top position

  • Do not ratchet the bar up your quads – the movement from start to finish should be smooth and continuous

  • Do not hold your breath

  • Do not use bar wraps!

#2: sumo deadlift

A man performing a sumo deadlift on an Olympic barbell.

The sumo deadlift is in many respects the same as the standard deadlift. There’s a couple of slight positional differences which serve to shift the focus to the upper back, primarily the trapezius.


Also, with a sumo deadlift you can engage the quadriceps more. This variation of deadlifting is like a quasi-squat. Thus, the quadriceps are involved making the sumo deadlift a good leg developer.

Sumo deadlift teaching points

  1. Firstly, then, set up your lifting platform: organise your bar, drop mats (if you’re not using bumper plates), and create a safe space.

  2. Stand in front of the bar ensuring to adopt a 1.5 shoulder-width stance. Remember, you’re adopting the stance of a sumo wrestler right before they bulldoze their opponent.

  3. Grasp the bar taking a narrow grip. Your hands should be inside your shoulder frame.

  4. Before lifting: fix your eyes forward and slightly up, take a deeper than normal bend at the knee, push the hips forward, and take the strain.

  5. Now, execute a deadlift but ensure to assist by firing through the quadriceps.

  6. When you’re fully erect, either drop the bar or lower under control.

Dos

  • Make sure you are in a comfortable position before executing the lift

  • Select a weight you are capable of lifting

  • Keep the muscles of the core actively engaged throughout the lift

Don’ts

  • *Do not, under any circumstances, round your back!*

  • Do not snatch the bar off the floor

  • Do not hold your breath

#3: single leg deadlift

A woman performing a single leg deadlift with a kettlebell.

Typically, the single-leg deadlift is performed with a much lighter weight – for obvious reasons. Also, when single-leg deadlifting, you can dispense with an Olympic bar and instead use a pair of dumbbells or, as you see in the image, a kettlebell. But this is a preference thing and is not mandatory with this exercise.


This version of the deadlift is more technical. The objective is not so much centred on building strength as it is on improving lifting technique and enhancing coordination.


Also, because your lifting platform has been reduced by 50% (to one leg as opposed to two), you will likely struggle to maintain balance. Generally seen as a negative to avoid, lifting from an unstable base forces you to maintain focus and engage your core.

Single leg deadlift teaching Points

  1. Select a light pair of dumbbells – just why you’re mastering the technical application.

  2. Standing with both dumbbells at your sides, hinge forward at the hip.

  3. As you do so simultaneously raise one leg posteriorly off the floor. The leg acts as a kind of counterbalance and, for best effect, must remain straight.

  4. While you are learning the single-leg deadlift it is advisable to stop when your torso is at a 45° to the floor. The full range of movement requires that the torso is at or very near 90°.

  5. To complete the exercise, slowly reverse the hinge until you are standing erect.

  6. Either repeat on one side for the desired number of repetitions, or, alternatively, swop legs each rep.

Dos

  • Make sure you are in a comfortable position before executing the lift

  • Select a light pair of dumbbells – actually, it might be worth having a couple of practice runs without any weight

  • Maintain active core engagement throughout the exercise

Don’ts

  • *Do not, under any circumstances, round your back!*

  • Do not over-excessively hinge at the hips

#4: stiff leg deadlift

A woman performing stiff leg deadlifts with a pair of dumbbells.

It goes without saying that you should maintain the strictest of form and focus on the movement when deadlifting. However, this is more of an imperative when performing the stiff leg deadlift.


Not to put the scarers in you, but you must exercise caution when attempting this version of the deadlift.


The consequence of stiffening the legs is to place the entirety of the resistance on the lower back. And while this is absolutely fine if you apply excellent technique with a light weight, the opposites could result in a catastrophic lower back injury.


So, before stiff leg deadlifting with weight, practice with an unloaded bar or, better still, a wooden broomstick.


Once you’ve got the technique down – and by that I mean perfect! – then gradually and incrementally increase the resistance.

stiff leg deadlift teaching points

  1. Go get yourself a broomstick.

  2. Standing in an upright position, holding your broomstick at your front, organise your position so that: your feet are shoulder-width apart, the broomstick is resting against the upper quadriceps, your hands are on the outside of your shoulders and evenly spaced.

  3. Before executing the exercise ensure there is a slight bend at the knee.

  4. Keeping the legs stiff – but not locked out! – hinge forward at the hip until the bar is level with or just beneath your knee cap.

  5. Under control return to the erect position.

Dos

  • Use an unloaded bar or broomstick

  • Master the technique before adding resistance

  • Look forward and fix your eyes on an indefinite point to your front

  • Do seek professional guidance if performing this exercise for the first time

Don’ts

  • *Do not, under any circumstances, overload your bar!*

  • Do not perform the exercise quickly – take your time

  • Do not lean back in the upright position – just stand nice and straight

 

Deadlifting FAQ

Instead of boring you with a pointless conclusion about how great the deadlift is and how, if you’re desirous of building whole-body strength, you ought to include it in your training routine, I’ve instead chosen to conclude this article with a few FAQs.


If after perusing the deadlifting FAQ you have a question of your own, pop it in the comments box below and I’ll endeavour to answer it.

Where do deadlifts work?

The deadlift truly is a whole-body exercise and pretty much every muscle from your trapezius down to your calves are in some way stimulated when executing this towering giant among strength movements.


The primary muscles engaged, however, include the quadriceps, gluteus maximus (aka the extensor muscle of the hip), erector spinae (a group of muscles that run the length of the vertebral column), and forearms.

Who deadlifted 500 kg?

Eddie Hall, winner of the World’s Strongest Man in 2017, was the first human ever to deadlift 500kg.


Eddie achieved this immense show of physical strength during the 2016 Europe’s Strongest Man competition.


Watch Eddie heave half a car off the floor!

Will deadlifts make me bigger?

While deadlifting won’t make you any taller or more handsome, it has been shown to be a highly effective muscle mass developer.


If you include more deadlifting in your training routine, you should begin to notice an increase in muscle size.


However, the extent of muscle growth is, of course, dependent on other key factors. For example, your age and body type – the older you are the harder it is to increase muscle mass (naturally!).


Also, nutrition plays a crucial role in promoting the process of hypertrophy – the technical term for the increase in muscle density and size.


And finally, to encourage hypertrophy you have to overload the muscle. If you’re unfamiliar with this term it is defined generally as ‘a training effect [that] occurs when a part of the body is worked harder than normal,’ (Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance). Put more simply, without compromising safe lifting protocol, overload is about increasing resistance.

Are deadlifts bad for you?

Though all strength exercises pose a significant injury risk factor, in comparison, say, to calisthenics or light weight resistance muscular endurance movements, the deadlift is arguably one of the riskiest of them all. Why?


Well, as identified above, when we deadlift the back endures extreme forces. This of course increases injury risk, especially if poor technique is applied.


However, if you apply safe lifting techniques, warm-up thoroughly, and don’t overload the bar, you should avoid injury and instead reap the many benefits deadlifting can confer.


In this text box it says: (As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)    Blog Author Adam Priest, former Royal Marines Commando, is a personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.

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