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Deconstructing the Deadlift

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Knowing the difference between deadlift variations is imperative in a strong bodybuilder’s arsenal. Do you know which to use for a given muscle group?

By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS; Photography: Paul Buceta; Model: Morris Mendez

It’s time to set the record straight: Not all deadlifts are created equal, or rather, performed equally. Too many weightlifters and bodybuilders aren’t on the same page on the subject, and it’s time to square all bets and answer questions surrounding the three most popular versions of the deadlift. The conventional deadlift, the Romanian deadlift and the stiff-legged deadlift are the moves in question. Think you know how they differ, or don’t know the difference at all? Well, this month we’ll quickly analyze each version’s targets, function and purpose so that you can decide which dead is the one you should be focusing on from one week to the next.

DEAD END

We think it’s appropriate to begin sifting through the variations by heading straight to the conventional deadlift, the granddaddy of them all. The big difference with this one is that the conventional deadlift is a full-body move, requiring the lifter to pull with his back and arms while pressing through the floor with his feet. This is arguably one of the best full-body exercises because it hits the legs just as much as it does the back. In fact it’s called a deadlift because you begin the concentric (positive) contraction from a dead stop (no bouncing off the floor), separating it from its deadlift brothers.

Why is that point critical? Simple: It’s the fact that you begin each rep without the help of what’s called elastic energy, or the stretch-shorten cycle. In other words, you start each rep from a dead stop (also a reverse movement). If you look at the squat as an example, after you unrack the bar, you lower your body (and loaded bar), which we know as the negative portion of the repetition. It’s during that downward descent that energy is built-up so in the bottom portion of the lift, you’re better able to explode upward back to the start. That elastic energy is very real and it’s one reason you’re able to power your body upward during the positive portion of the lift.

WHEN IN ROMANIA

The second most-popular version is the romanian deadlift. While we call it a deadlift, you actually begin this move from a standing position and the first half of the move is actually a descending (negative) contraction, which allows you to build up elastic energy. But nonetheless, it’s a deadlift. However, there are some key features that distinguish it greatly from the other two. For one, it’s an isolation exercise that targets a specific region of the upper hamstrings and glutes. Many people see this as a compound (multijoint) move, since your knees are bent and the action is at the hip joint (your butt stays high throughout the move; in the conventional deadlift you lower it to the floor). But since no complete flexion or extension occur at either joint, it’s safe to call it a single-joint isolation move.

Second, your knees remain slightly bent throughout the exercise but you don’t necessarily press with your legs. Rather, the slight bend in your knees is to allow you to shift the focus to the upper hams. Then when you add the fact that your lower back is flat or even arched, and the bar remains very close to your legs throughout, it removes the emphasis from your lower back forcing all the focus upon the lower glutes and upper hams even more.

STIFF COMPETITION

The stiff-legged deadlift is by far the most underutilized and misunderstood deadlift in the arsenal of deadlifts. Probably because if you do it right, many people will tell you you’re doing something wrong. Don’t ever let anyone tell you different, but the stiff-legged deadlift is a low-back exercise, period. Here’s why. To perform the SLD correctly, you have to straighten your legs, keep the bar away from your body and, here’s the kicker, you actually want to round your lower back. Now, most trainers gasp at that thought, but it’s true, you want to round your lower back during the SLD. It’s probably the only exercise in which we’ll ever recommend you to remove the arch from your lower back, but of course, it should be done with caution and with very light weight, especially if you’re new to it or if your low back is weak. Because your legs are straight and your back is rounded, your hams and glutes are virtually removed from the exercise. We must say that this move should always be done last in your routine, because your lower back will be completely fatigued after doing it and you don’t want to perform more exercises that’ll require lower-back stability.

Quick Summary:
Conventional Deadlift
Targets: Back, Legs, Shoulders, Arms, Grip, Core
1–5 Difficulty: 5

Key Features: Begin each rep from a dead stop without the benefit of built-up energy; you actually drag the bar up the body on each rep.

Do it Right: With your feet flat beneath the bar, squat down and grasp the bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Allow the bar to rest flush against your shins.

With your chest up and back flat, lift the bar by extending your hips and knees to full extension. Be sure to keep your arms straight throughout, as you drag the bar up your legs till you’re in a standing position. Squeeze your back, legs and glutes and then lower the bar downward along the same path till the bar touches the floor. Allow the bar to settle before beginning the next rep. Make sure you get your butt down at the bottom of the rep.

Quick Summary:
Romanian Deadlift
Targets: Glute-ham tie in
1–5 Difficulty: 3

Key Features: Knees stay slightly bent, lower back is arched, bar stays close to the legs, plates don’t touch the ground.

Do it Right: 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 your 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 and 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.

Quick Summary:
Stiff-Legged Deadlift
Targets: Lower back
1–5 Difficulty: 4

Key Features: Legs stay straight, bar is away from the body, lower back is actually allowed to round so don’t go too heavy.

Do it Right: Stand erect holding a loaded barbell with an overhand (pronated) grip. Keeping your legs and arms straight, bend forward at the waist to lower the bar toward the floor keeping the bar away from your body. Allow your lower back to round as you bend toward the floor. When the plates reach a few inches from the floor, reverse direction, rise up to the standing position and repeat.

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