There’s something about the deadlift that makes me turn into Master P and say UGHHHHHHHHHH!
It’s powerful, strong; it’s Big Pimpin’ like Jay-Z before he married Beyonce.
As much as I love barbell deadlifts, it’s not necessary for every body. There are plenty of variations out there that still work, but if you want to work your way up to barbell deadlifts, then this is what you need to know.
“Grease” the movement pattern first
Barbell deadlifts are not for beginners. There are lot of mobility requirements needed to deadlift safely and correctly, and it’s important to master the hip hinge way before the barbell comes into play.
Here are 6 hip hinge domination exercises to get you started.
With that said, the hinge is a foundational movement pattern, so if you’re still unsure how to do it now is the time to learn.
Grease it, groove it, and practice without load first. Doesn’t matter if you were out crushing WODs or powerlifting 10 years ago; you earn the right to barbell deadlift no matter what.
Which deadlift is right for me?
When I talk barbell deadlifts, I am referring to the conventional, sumo, Romanian and trap bar deadlifts. They all have a purpose and they all work, but choosing which style is best for you depends on your goals, mobility needs, and experience level.
Is your goal strength? Fat loss? Hypertrophy?
What are your limitations and strengths regarding mobility and technique?
What muscles do you want to focus on?
In short, know your purpose before choosing which deadlift is right for you, because in reality, all the deadlifts are right as long as it aligns with your purpose and goals.
If you’re a powerlifter, you’ll be training either in sumo or conventional because that’s what you do in competition. I made the mistake of switching between both during my powerlifting training. Now, there’s nothing wrong with this; I really wanted to see what felt more comfortable. However, the only way to find out which stance is right for you is to train only one for 8-12 weeks before switching.
For strength, fat loss or hypertrophy, you can use all the deadlift variations, as long as your set/rep schemes coincide with the goal. In brief:
- For strength: >5 reps
- For hypertrophy: 8-12 reps
- For fat loss: 10-15 reps *
As a coach, I don’t recommend doing 15 reps on a deadlift with a heavy load. The technique starts to break down no matter how proficient the lifter is, and the cost-to-benefit ratio just isn’t worthwhile. However, if technique is solid and we’re using a trap bar, I’m comfortable with high reps.
Mobility restrictions will play a much bigger role in what kind of deadlift you choose. Thankfully, you have a few options until you address those weak points:
- For the trap bar: Lifters who have shown aptitude for the hip hinge can move to the trap bar. By stepping into the bar instead of behind it, you can keep a more upright torso, which reduces stress on the lumbar spine, making it safer and easier to learn. This is especially beneficial for anyone that struggles to keep that natural spine during the pull. You can load up the trap bar for strength or hypertrophy purposes, so for some people they may never need to move to straight barbell variations unless their goals call for it.
- For sumo: Best for lifters with adequate hip motion, groin and adductor flexibility. This is also a lot easier to learn than the conventional stance. Also a great stance to reduce shear forces on the back.
- For conventional: Best for lifters with adequate ankle mobility, anterior core stability and strength, and know how to load the hamstrings and glutes well. This variation also places more shear forces on the back, so someone with acute back injuries or struggles to maintain a neutral spine might want to skip this one for the short-term.
- For Romanian deadlifts (RDL): The RDL starts at the top of the deadlift instead of the floor, and is a great learning tool for loading the hamstrings and glutes more effectively. I like to use this for hypertrophy purposes or as an assistance exercise in powerlifting. It’s also a nice progression from the trap bar deadlift.
Muscle group focus
Are you looking to hammer the quads or wake up the glutes and hamstrings? Ideally, you learn to activate all three in the deadlift but many of us desk jockeys have “dead ass” syndrome and struggle to activate the posterior chain. This is where exercise selection, plus effort and focus come into play.
The RDLs do a great job of loading the posterior chain, as does conventional and sumo. However, in conventional one can easily hike the hips up too high and pull with the spinal erectors too much.
This is like throwing a grenade and then standing there to watch it blow up instead of running as far away as possible.
If this is you, unload that bar and start practicing pushing the floor away with your feet/heels to feel the glutes and hamstrings more.
The sumo is also great for building and activating the posterior chain, along with the adductors, quads and lower back.
Finally, the upright positioning of the trap bar allows more load for the anterior chain (i.e. quad domination). You’ll still get some posterior chain work but know that your quads will get more love.
When it comes to barbell deadlifts, technique is paramount. Sprinkle in consistency, and a dash of patience and effort and you’re likely to get stronger than ever. Ideally, you’d only deadlift heavy once a week unless you’re on a powerlifting program in which case you may have a lighter day with speed and pause-focused deadlifts to drill down technique.
Deadlifts are 10000% worth the hype and worth the effort. You’ll get a lot more bang for your buck pulling from the floor with a barbell then doing isolation exercises for your arms, back and legs. Not to mention, it carries over into everyday life so I guess that makes it “functional.”
Know your goal, train for the goal and as Dan John would say “keep the goal, the goal”.
What’s your favorite barbell variation? Name one (or all) of them in the comments below.