If you ever wondered how to get more bang out of an exercise you already know and love, the deficit is where it’s at.
Long before I became a trainer, deficit training wasn’t even on my radar. The only way I knew how to progress an exercise like the squat or lunge was to make the weight heavier or more intense.
While those are some ways to progress a movement or workout, doing only these two things will eventually backfire as it did for me in the form of training plateaus and injury.
Knowing how and when to add deficits to your workouts gives you the option to progress an exercise and make more gains without crushing your body with more weight or intensity.
What is Deficit Training Anyway?
The whole point of creating a deficit in a certain exercise is to increase the ROM of that movement, recruit more muscle fibers, and up your muscle building capacity.
In other words, you can grow more muscle and get freakishly strong in certain movements without having to change the load of that exercise. Sounds amazing, right?
It’s worth pointing out that not all exercises in a deficit will be appropriate for you or your client, so you have to use a little trial and error and be selective in which exercises you use a deficit for.
Here’s an example:
The Deadlift vs. The Single Leg Hip Thrust
In the deadlift, the deficit is used strategically to:
- Improve your start position and help you lock those lats in throughout the entire exercise
- Increase awareness of your body/movement in space (where do you lose lat engagement? Are you using those hamstrings?)
- Accelerate loads from a closed joint angle and improve force production
- Increase posterior chain strength, which is essential if you’re planning to deadlift heavy
However, the deficit deadlift requires a significant amount of flexibility to execute correctly. Most people won’t do well with this so I personally don’t use it with any one unless they are training for weightlifting or powerlifting.
In the Single leg hip thrust, the deficit is used strategically to:
- Progress from a loaded single leg hip thrust when you’ve maxed out the weight you can comfortably hold on your hip
- Enables you to feel the glute and hamstring even more because of that increase ROM
- Great for people that can’t tolerate the barbell hip thrust just yet because they start feeling it too much in their low back
The Top 5 Mistakes to Avoid
Before you start adding a deficit to every single workout, make sure to avoid these mistakes.
Mistake #1 Platform starts too high
I always advise my clients to “start conservative.” Some exercises like the deadlift don’t require too high of a platform (1-3″ tops), while another like the reverse lunge or push-up can depending on the person. For most exercises, 3-6″ is the sweet spot.
Mistake #2: Not using full ROM.
If you don’t go deep then there is no point to using the deficit. I tend to find that most people new to deficit training will avoid hitting full ROM because it’s friggin’ hard! If it’s just a matter of discomfort, stop being a wuss. Hit the full depth. If you can’t use the full ROM due to pain or another restriction, that’s another story (see #5)
Mistake #3 Going heavy
As mentioned earlier, going heavy is one way to progress an exercise, but due to the increased ROM, you actually want to decrease the load or ditch it altogether for the majority of exercises using a deficit.
Deficits are typically used as accessory exercises, so there’s no need to work to failure or PR the movement. In fact, work around 60-70%, decrease the reps by 1-2, and just focus on hitting that full ROM. You’ll get more out of that than trying to hit ROM with a heavy weight.
Mistake #4 Moving too fast
Given that the increased ROM makes any given exercise harder, I often see clients try to move fast to “get it over with”. The problem with this approach is that it causes you to butcher the exercise. For example, a reverse lunge from a step is incredibly tough on the glutes and hamstrings. Trying to move fast means you likely don’t hit that ROM, use your core, and you don’t spend enough time under tension. Slow it down by adding a pause or use only your bodyweight until you feel more comfortable with the deficit.
Mistake #5 Ignoring Mobility Restrictions
We all have a mobility restriction somewhere, and deficit exercises will reveal those to you in a pinch. Do not ignore them!
One of my clients has very limited dorsiflexion in her ankles and mobility in her hips. She’s short, strong, and sits in a chair 10-12 hours a day. While she can safely execute a split squat from a deficit, pulling from the floor is out of the question for her. It puts her back in a very compromising position and she loses her start position after 1-2 reps.
If mobility restrictions are hindering your ability to execute a movement safely, you’re better off ditching the platform and doing the exercise another way.
There are plenty of ways to add a deficit into your training, you just have to be creative. My favorites include:
From Reverse Lunge to Reverse lunge from a step
From Conventional or Sumo Deadlift to Deadlift from a plate
From pushup to Pushups with hands stacked on a step or yoga block
From Hip Thrust ——> Hip Thurst from a deficit
In BarbellSTRONG coaching 2.0, there is an entire phase featuring deficit training to improve your strength and build up your physique and performance. Get on the waitlist here to find out when it releases 48 hours before the public.