By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
If you’ve been around the gym long enough you’re bound to agree that the deadlift is arguably one of the toughest — and best — full-body exercises you can perform. Perhaps the proof is seen less in how many different muscle groups it works and more in how few people actually train with it from one week to the next. Let’s be honest, it’s brutal and more rare than it should be.
But can you improve on something that’s already near perfect? If you’re either a faithful deadliftee or someone who’s tried it only a few times, you might be pleased to know that there are some variations of the conventional deadlift — each with its own benefits that in some cases make them better than the original — that can fit nicely into anybody’s routine.
We’ve assembled four exercises that are variations of the basic deadlift that all have the essential elements of the dead but with striking differences. Because the deadlift is a full-body move, being as much of a press as it is a pull, you can insert these variations into a mixed routine that hits different bodyparts on the same day.
1. One-Arm Dumbbell Deadlift
The obvious place to start when talking about great alternatives to the barbell deadlift is with dumbbells, or more precisely, just one. But before you allow your eyes to drift to No. 2 on the list, we strongly encourage you to keep reading. In fact, picture a strongman competition and the farmer’s walk.
Someone probably named Magnus stands inside two torpedoes with handles. He squats down, keeping his feet flat, abs in, back flat and belt strapped tight. He stands up with both and proceeds to walk up and back along the course. Well, just imagine that same scene but with Magnus needing to pick up only one from the floor. The same form is necessary as the two-handed version, but imagine the stress and strain on the opposite side of the body along with the working side as they both work to lift the weight. Welcome to the one-arm dumbbell deadlift.
The single-arm deadlift has its advantages, because with few exceptions, you can produce more force on each side of the body than you can produce when using both sides together. Not only that, but the resting side of the body receives nervous stimulation as increased blood flow heads to the opposite side. And while the next point isn’t sexy, the single-arm deadlift will stress the core musculature beyond belief, making you stronger for the conventional deadlift, not to mention all other exercises in your weekly routine.
Be sure to give yourself ample rest between each side, taking 2–3 minutes between sets. Lastly, from one workout to the next, begin with the opposite side than you began with in the previous workout.
Stand with your feet spaced about shoulder-width apart. Place a dumbbell on the floor outside one foot. Squat down to grasp the dumbbell with a neutral grip, keeping your back flat, chest up and eyes focused on the floor a few feet in front of you.
Take a deep breath as you begin powerfully pressing through the floor with your legs, extending at the knees and hips and pulling the dumbbell up until you’re in a standing position. A slight lean away from the dumbbell side at the top is natural and recommended. Reverse the motion along the same path, allowing the dumbbell to settle on the floor before starting the next rep.
2. Sumo Deadlift
Chances are good that you’ve seen a sumo wrestler in action on television; the wide stance, the erect torso, the horrible uniform. Well, that stance is where we get the sumo-style deadlift. With the sumo dead, you take a very wide stance with your toes pointed out to help alleviate knee discomfort. Much like the conventional deadlift, your arms remain as straight as possible throughout the move. The last thing you want to try and do is lift the barbell using your arms. If you start trying to bend at the elbows and hoist the barbell upward, you’ll lose the lift and the bar won’t budge. The key during the sumo is to let your arms act as hooks, attaching you to the bar. From there you push through the floor with your feet and legs to drive the bar upward, dragging it up your body. The closer the bar stays to your legs, the better your mechanical advantage, allowing you to perform more reps with more weight.
As far as the target musculature, the sumo dead still hits the entire body, from the quads, hamstrings, glutes, back, shoulders, arms, core and even the chest to a certain degree. However, the sumo dead involves slightly more upper traps as well as quads and inner hamstrings when compared to the narrower stance of a traditional pull. As far as the upper traps, that emphasis is likely due to the much more erect torso you have during this style. Because the weight is directly below, the line of pull hits the upper traps straight on.
And finally, no matter what you’ve been taught or told, always take a staggered grip on the bar (one hand supinated, the other pronated). Research shows that a staggered grip allows you to maintain control of the bar for more reps as compared to having both hands pronated (overhand). The alternating grip counterbalances the bar as it rolls out of the fingers in both hands.
Stand over a loaded barbell resting on the floor so your shins touch the bar. Your feet should be much wider than shoulder-width apart, toes pointed outward. Squat down to grab the bar using a staggered grip (one hand overhand, the other underhand) with your hands spaced inside shoulder width. Your torso should be bent at about 45 degrees over the bar with your arms tensed and pulling on the bar; your thighs will be slightly higher than parallel with the floor.
With your arms straight, keeping your abs pulled in tight and tensing your entire body, drive through your heels to straighten your knees and bring your hips forward until you’re in a standing position. Once standing, bring your shoulders back slightly and pause. Lower the barbell along the same path (keeping it close to your body all the way down) to the floor. Touch the plates to the floor, allowing the bar to settle, then begin the next rep.
3. Rack Pull
Whereas the first two moves on the list are almost completely different deadlifts, the rack pull is indeed a very close match, but just less of one. Let me explain. The rack pull is essentially a partial range of motion deadlift. The fraction can be anything you choose it to be. The rack pull is performed inside a power rack, where you have varying levels at which to position the safety bars. Typically, the safeties are placed at a level in which the bar hits just below your knees. Your stance, grip and form remain constant, making sure to stay safe, with the bar hugging your body throughout. You even begin each rep from a dead stop, exactly like the standard, allowing the bar to settle quickly between each rep.
For some, the rack pull is a great way to finish off a deadlift workout. After you’ve fatigued pulling from the floor, that doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have any more gas in the tank, so the rack pull allows you to continue the heavy lifts in partial fashion. Such intensity techniques (doing partials after full-range reps) can take your conventional deadlift to the next level.
If you don’t have the hip and ankle flexibility or the lower-back strength to complete the full range of motion necessary for the deadlift, the rack pull helps train for it. From week to week, you can drop the safety bars down a level until you’re working from the floor. And finally, sort of an intangible benefit of the rack pull is that it’s a confidence builder. For beginners or those coming off a layoff or injury, the partial rep of the rack pull calls into play all of the major muscles of the standard deadlift, and immediately the neuromuscular system begins to strengthen and support the mental desire to pull heavy weights off the floor. So whether as a stepping stone to the floor deadlift or as a standalone move in your routine to increase intensity, the rack pull can be invaluable.
Inside a power rack, place the barbell on the safeties just under knee level. Grasp the bar just outside your legs, making sure it’s flush against them.
Keeping your abs tight, back flat, arms straight and chest up, press through the floor with your legs to raise the bar, dragging it up your quads until you’re in a standing position. Lower the bar along the same path, allowing it to settle on the safety bars, then repeat.
4. The Romanian Deadlift
This last entry was the subject of much debate, mainly because the romanian-style deadlift has one very apparent difference compared to all the other variations including the conventional deadlift. Can you name it?
Before we get to the kicker, let’s examine just how great this exercise is and how important it is to your overall growth and progress. First the romanian deadlift, with your knees slightly bent and back arched, zeroes in on the upper hamstrings, where the hams meet the glutes. No other exercise targets the area better — none! And similar to the traditional deadlift, you want to keep the bar extremely close to your body for mechanical advantage and safety.
Also, few people realize that the romanian deadlift is not a compound move, to be exact. Yes, the hip joint and knee joints are involved, which might qualify it as a multijoint exercise. Dare we say, few people would even catch it if we called it a compound move. However, you have neither full hip nor knee extension occurring at any point, because the motion of the move occurs at the hips. For that reason, physiologically, it’s absolutely an isolation move. But that’s still not the biggest difference between it and the traditional deadlift. Ready for it? Here it is.
The romanian deadlift, as opposed to all other variations discussed, doesn’t begin with a positive (concentric) contraction nor does it begin from a dead stop. See, you start each rep from a standing position, and your first motion is a negative contraction in which you build up elastic energy prior to the positive upward movement. During the other variations, you don’t have the luxury of having that stretch-shorten cycle, which actually is extremely helpful because it pre-loads a positive contraction.
Stand upright holding a barbell in front of your upper thighs with a pronated (overhand) grip. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and a slight bend in your knees.
Keeping your chest up, abs tight and the natural arch in your lower back, lean forward from the hips, pushing them rearward until your torso is roughly parallel to the floor. As you lean forward, keep your arms straight and slide the bar down your thighs toward the floor until it reaches your shins. At the bottom, keep your back flat, head neutral with the bar very close to your legs. Flex your hamstrings and glutes and lift your torso while pushing your hips forward until you bring the bar back to the start position.