Before caveman was ever able to construct a bench or squat rack, there was the deadlift. The deadlift is the most basic of functional movements. Any time you’ve ever picked something up from the floor, whether its a basket of dirty laundry, or trying to help your lazy friend move his sofa, you have done some variation of a deadlift. So while it is a staple of powerlifting, it is most certainly not limited to the sport.
But if you are a powerlifter, interested in improving as a powerlifter, or you are like me and just use powerlifting programming as the backbone to a different training goal, what are some methods to improve your ability in ripping massive weight from the floor? The easy answer is “just deadlift more,” as frequency and volume does seem to be a good general answer to a lot of questions. But the unfortunate realities of muscle imbalances, different body shapes and limb leverages leave some of us searching for extra methods to hammer out weaknesses in our performance.
Conventional vs. Sumo
Depending on who you ask, these might not count as variations, but rather “the ideal way to deadlift.” But for every person who thinks their way is best, that automatically makes the other a variation.
Conventional Deadlift: Probably the most ideal exercise for developing core and posterior chain strength. These muscles support good posture and movement in just about the entire range of positions.
Sumo Deadlift: The sumo stance shortens the lever arm that is your back. The more upright back will allow the bar closer in towards your hips, and make the movement more hip and hamstring dominant. This can help as assistance work if you are back strong/leg weak as a deadlifter, or if you are trying to increase volume and frequency without putting as much strain on the back.
Deficit Deadlift vs. Rack Pulls
These are movements to address common weaknesses in a deadlift, from opposite ends of the movement. The most common failing points one sees with a deadlift is an inability to utilize good leg drive to break the weight off the floor, or a failure to complete the lift to an upright, locked out position.
Deficit Deadlift: If you find yourself with trouble breaking the weight from the floor, or if you know that you are back dominant/leg weak in deadlifts, a deficit deadlift might be good work for you to incorporate. A deficit deadlift is performed while standing on an elevated surface. This extra distance will require an extra range of motion to set up on the bar, which forces more leg drive, and strengthens your body throughout the weakest part of your lift.
Rack Pulls: On the other half, if you struggle to lock out heavy weights that you can bring to knee level, you need to apply a similar strategy to focus on the failing point of the lift. A rack pull (or a block pull) is performed with the bar elevated off the floor by means of the rack or blocks. You’ll want to set the initial bar height at the sticking point, and work on accumulating volume with achieving lockout.
Straight Legged Deadlift vs. Romanian Deadlift
These two terms are often used interchangeably, but they are specifically different in their design. Both are effective tools to develop strength in the hamstrings and glutes for their role in a proper hip hinge motion. Both are also effective teaching tools to work on flexibility and thoracic bracing, while using less weight than a standard deadlift. It is also important to note that despite their different set up and movement, both can also be done in a deficit fashion, while standing on an elevated surface for an extraordinary stretch of the glutes and hammies.
Stiff Legged Deadlift: Like a traditional deadlift, this movement is to be started from the floor. From a dead stop. This unloading and reloading of the body will typically result in less weight handled than a Romanian Deadlift. Though it may use less weight, this is a very effective tool to practice setting up on a bar, and bracing before a pull.
Romanian Deadlift: This movement begins upright, standing with the bar in a hang position. The bar is then lowered down the front of the body and stopped by the lifters own power. Being that the weight doesn’t stop on the floor, the lifter can utilize some stretch reflex of their leg and butt muscles. This can typically result in being able to handle heavier loads.