Long before I became a diehard deadlift diva (how about that for alliteration), I was doing nothing but basic deadlifts. A conventional pull here, a dumbbell RDL there but nothing wild.
It got a little stale, and even though I was hitting PRs (I was still a beginner, so that was no surprise), I felt like my goal of deadlifting 200lbs was far, far away.
Once I started Powerlifting training, I experienced all types of beneficial ways to build up my strength in the deadlift, some of which I’ve written about HERE.
Deficit deadlifts in particular made a frequent appearance in my program, and while I wouldn’t program them for all my clients, there are benefits to this variation that might be worth experimenting with depending on you.
A deficit deadlift is performed while standing on some kind of platform, like a step or plate(s) 1-4 inches high. It’s a great accessory exercise for serious deadlifters because the increased range of motion (ROM) means more muscle fibers in the posterior chain are engaged and it’s perfect for building up your back, glutes, and hamstrings.
Some other perks include:
- Improving your overall deadlift strength
- Increases leg strength and drive
- Recruits your quads, hips and posterior chain a lot more than a traditional deadlift might
- Develops maximal tension in the body at the end range (at the bottom of your deadlift)
- Increases your body awareness, technique, and athleticism in a barbell sport
For beginners, the deficit is primarily used to clean up technique and teach the lifter to maintain tension in the core and lats in the start position.
For more experienced lifters, the deficit produces more leg drive for a bigger pull.
With that said, I’m not a fan of using deficit deadlifts for beginners. Some coaches have argued that we not program them at all because it’s too dangerous, too risky, and might get you pregnant.*
So when you consider adding this to your training, you must ask: Is it right for me?
As always, using deficit deadlifts depends on where you’re currently at right now, and what your goals are. This variations requires a crapload of hip mobility, hamstring flexibility, knee flexion, and ankle dorsiflexion – things that many lifters lack even if they have years of training under their belt.
Some people will find deficit deadlifts a lot easier depending on their build. A person with long arms, for example, is at a mechanical advantage because she/he doesn’t need as much hip flexion to reach the bar as someone with shorter arms might.
Trainees with tight, shortened hamstrings might struggle with the start position, especially in a deficit. If that’s you, be sure to focus on foam rolling and stretching your hamstrings before getting to this exercise. If that doesn’t help, deficit deadlifts might not be right for you right now. Choose something else.
You must attain mastery in the hip hinge and the barbell deadlift conventional style before jumping into this variation, which is also why I don’t program this exercise all that often.
A Few Rules of Thumb
Start slowly: If you haven’t deadlifted from a deficit before, don’t start with 3-4 inches high. Start with a 1” platform and gradually increase. If you can maintain that neutral back in the start position each time, you’re good to go!
Take pics/videos of your start position: I’m a huge fan of filming my lifts, and I require that all my 1:1 BarbellSTRONG coaching members do so to check technique. Neutral spine? Check! Good hip flexion? Check! Maintains lat tension throughout the lift? CHECK!! If you see in your video that any of those things don’t check out, the deficit is too high and/or you’re better working on it from the floor.
Not all deficit heights will work for you: To piggy back off the previous point, you may find that not all deficit heights work for you depending on your body type or mobility. For example, if you see that a 4” plate causes you to have less hip flexion at the start position than a 3” plate, then stick with 2-3” plates.
Rotate them into your training: Deficit deadlifts are meant to build up your strength for the standard deadlift. The best way to use them is to rotate them into your program every 3-4 weeks. For example, for the first 4 weeks of training you work strictly on conventional deadlifts. Then for the next 4-week cycle you replace that with deficit deadlifts 1x a week. Then maybe after that you switch to speed deadlifts from the floor.
Are You Ready For the Deficit?
Deficit deadlifts are a tool for power development, strength, and athleticism. It’s not just a sexy exercise for social media. Before adding it to your workouts, work on improving mobility, motor control, technique, and core tension.
It’s very unlikely that my client Jane Smith, the attorney, will ever need to train with a deficit because she might not have enough mobility or motor control to do the exercise or even care to get brutally strong in the deadlift.
However, if you do end up using this advanced variation, stick to weights around 60-70% of 1-RM. If you’re unsure what your 1RM is, then you are likely not ready for this variation or you simply don’t need it…yet.
Far too often, people get carried away with exercise variations because they’re bored or want something more challenging. The deficit deadlift should address technique flaw in your standard deadlift, and be used sparingly because it is an aggressive variation that can do more harm than good if you’re unprepared for it. Use it sparingly, wisely, and work on keeping your form flawless.