The conventional barbell deadlift is a fundamental gym exercise for anyone looking to increase their strength, size, or improve in any strength-related sport. It’s one of the best and most important exercises to do in the gym, and there are many different deadlift variations.
Contrary to popular belief, deadlifting isn’t just for your back muscles. The exercise works and trains your whole body. It’s a heavy compound lift that involves many muscles across your body, some more, others less.
The primary muscles that work while deadlifting are your back and leg muscles, although the main focus and effort will fall on your back muscles. In order to keep your back neutral and tight, pretty much all of the muscles in your back (both upper and lower) will have to contract.
In your legs, the main muscles that do all the work are your glutes and hamstrings. They are used to lift the bar from the ground and straighten your hips.
Also, your core plays a large role in the exercise. Your abs have to contract and help support your lower back while your stabilizer and other smaller core muscles have to keep you balanced.
The exercise also trains your arms. In order to grip and hold the bar, while you lift the weight, your forearms, hands, and gripping muscles have to work extremely hard. Also, throughout the movement, your biceps and triceps are trained isometrically.
The deadlift is a good exercise for multiple reasons. I have already stated that it’s a heavy full-body lift that works your entire body. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Here are some of its main benefits:
- It Increases your core strength.
- It Increases functional strength.
- It increases hip mobility.
- It improves posture.
- It will make your muscles grow!
- It increases both your pulling and overall strength.
I could go on and on because this exercise has dozens of positive effects on your body. The lift has literally too many benefits to list in this article. And that is exactly the reason why it’s such a popular exercise, and why there are so many different types of deadlifts out there.
Different Deadlift Variations
The classical lift isn’t for everyone. Some people might have trouble deadlifting due to an injury or other medical problems, and some people need a more targeted and specific approach to the lift. So the deadlift has many different types and variations that are each designed for a specific purpose.
What are the benefits of using different deadlift variations?
There are many reasons for using a modification of the original exercise. As I mentioned, some people will have trouble with the classical lift because of existing injuries. For example, if you have a bad lower back, you might want to look for a variation that stresses your back less, etc. For others, it might be to increase their functional strength or focus more on a specific muscle group. But there are many more benefits for using deadlift variations such as :
- They help you build specific functional strength.
- They will increase your conventional deadlift and help you break any plateau you might have.
- They can make this exercise more suitable for you.
- They can help you fight muscle imbalances.
- Injury recovery.
1. Sumo Deadlift
The sumo deadlift is probably the most well-known variation of the conventional deadlift. In fact, it’s so popular that it’s looked at as an equal to the classical exercise, and for many, it’s a much better fit than the conventional DL. It is even used in some weightlifting and powerlifting competitions and meets.
So what’s the difference between the sumo and the conventional DL? The difference lies in the stance. In the classical version, you stand with your feet about hip or shoulder-width apart, but in this variation, you stand in an extra-wide stance. The width of your leg position can vary from person to person and from personal needs. Depending on the person, it can vary from outside the shoulders, up to a stance that is as wide as the inside of the barbell (your feet next to the plates).
Because of the wide leg position, the distance you have to pull the bar is a lot shorter. This, together with the fact that you have a much more vertical upper body position turning the starting point (compared to the classical DL), means the exercise places less stress on your lower back. That makes it an ideal substitution for the conventional DL, for people with bad backs.
Also, because of the wide sumo stance, the exercise targets more of your hips, adductors, hamstrings, glutes, and upper back muscles.
How to do:
- Approach the barbell and take an extra-wide stance. The stance should be wide enough so you could grip the bar from inside your legs.
- Position the barbell over the middle of your feet.
- Your toes should be pointing outwards at about a 45-degree angle.
- Bend a little from your knees. Your knees should be pointing in the same direction as your toes.
- Bend at the hips and grab the bar.
- Grip the barbell at about shoulder width.
- Engage your hips and bring them closer to the bar.
- Brace your core and straighten your back.
- Push your feet to the ground and lift the barbell up until your body is completely extended.
- Lock your hips.
2. Trap Bar Deadlift
This deadlift variation is done with a specific type of barbell called the trap or hex bar. The bar differs from the barbell because of its shape. The trap bar is built so the athlete could stand in the middle of it. And the bar is designed to go around him. These bars differ a little depending on the manufacture, but overall the idea and the design are the same.
The main benefit of using this deadlift type is that the weight is at your sides, not in front of you. That allows you to be in a much more upright position compared to the conventional lift. Which again puts much less stress on your spine and back and lets you target more of your lower body. Meaning it’s a safer form of deadlifting for your lower back and a decent replacement for people with existing lower back issues.
Overall the exercise targets all the same muscle groups as a regular DL. It just places more emphasis on your lower body rather than your upper body because of the upright starting position.
How to do:
- Stand into the center of the trap bar.
- Place your feet about hip-width apart with your toes pointing forward.
- Reach down and firmly grasp the handles of the trap bar.
- Bring your hips back and bring your chest up.
- Keep your back flat and head in a neutral position.
- Brace your core.
- Stand up! Push your feet to the ground and straighten your hips and knees. Once you are up, lock your hips.
- Bring the bar back down in a slow and controlled manner.
3. Snatch Grip Deadlift
The snatch grip deadlift is another popular variation of the conventional deadlift. The lift is a fantastic posterior chain exercise and a great tool to increase both functional and overall strength. It’s mostly used by weightlifters and by athletes competing in strength sports.
How does it differ from the classical deadlift? The main difference is in the width of the grip. The snatch grip variation is done whit an extra-wide grip that mimics the Olympic weightlifting exercise called the snatch (hence the name). The width of the grip can vary from anywhere outside the shoulders up to the ends of the barbell.
Because of the wider hand position, the snatch grip dl has a lot lower starting point than the original exercise. That means there is an increase in the overall range of motion. So you will be generating more power and stressing your body a lot more throughout the lift. Also, you can engage your back, hips, and legs much more deeply.
The main muscles worked in this variation are pretty much the same as in the original exercise. The only difference is that because of the wider hand position, it will focus more on your upper back muscles rather than your lower back. And because of the lower starting point, there is a lot more hip involvement. The wider grip is also quite harsh on your forearms and gripping muscles because it’s a lot harder to hold the barbell.
How to do:
- Stand behind the bar with your feet about hip-width apart and point your toes out slightly.
- The bar should be directly over the middle of your feet.
- Hinge your torso forward and grasp the bar in a wide grip. You should grasp the bar somewhere around the last ring of the barbell with an overhand grip.
- Drop your hips down until your shins touch the bar.
- Make sure your shoulders are directly above the bar. Then brace your core, keep your back straight and tight, your chest upwards, and your head in a neutral position.
- Drive your feet to the ground and rise up with the bar.
- Lock your hips.
- Slowly bring the bar back down.
4. Deficit Deadlift
The deficit deadlift is a challenging and more advanced type of deadlift. It is performed off an elevated surface, usually either wooden blocks or plates, so you would be pulling the barbell from a so-called deficit.
This deadlift type has many benefits over the original exercise because of the longer range of motion and the deeper starting point. It will increase your conventional DL and your overall strength like crazy. It will improve your lifting posture because of the increased time under tension. Also, it will place a lot more emphasis on your posterior chain and your lower back.
This deadlift variation is a little controversial. There is a large number of coaches and athletes out there that say that it’s too dangerous, and the risk of injuring yourself is too high. Yes, the deficit DL does have a little higher chance of injury because you start pulling from a lower starting point, and the range of motion is much longer than the regular dl. But just like with every other exercise, the key is to perform it with proper form and technique. And it’s nowhere as dangerous as some people make it out to be.
The deficit deadlift can be done in a few different ways. It’s usually done just like the conventional DL, but you can do it with a sumo stance as well. Also, you can play around with the width of your grip. A popular way to do the deficit deadlift is to use a snatch grip. It will lower your starting point and increase the range of motion even more.
How to do:
- Set up your elevated surface. You can use either mats, plates, or blocks for it. Usually, the elevation is between 2 and 4 inches (that is around 5-10 cm). Make sure it’s firmly on the ground and sturdy.
- Step on the surface and bring the bar over the middle of your feet.
- Take a hip-width stance (depending on your surface, your stance can be narrower as well).
- Next, come down and grasp the bar. The grip should be shoulder wide.
- Brace your core and keep your back straight and tight. It’s important to focus on this to avoid any possible injuries.
- Now just like with the normal deadlift, push your chest up and keep your head in a neutral position. Then push through your feet and pull the weight up. When you have extended your knees and hips and are upright, lock your hips.
5. Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift is a great posterior chain and lower back exercise. So, how does it differ from the original? Well, there are two main differences. First, in the RDL, you don’t start the lift from the ground. Well, initially, you have to pick it up, of course, but other than that, you never let the weight touch the ground. Secondly, you do this exercise with almost straight legs.
It is very similar to the stiff-leg deadlift variation, and they are often mistaken for each other because they are both done with straight legs. The difference being that in the RDL, you don’t let the bar touch the ground (you keep constant pressure on your body throughout the exercise), and you can bend your knees slightly.
Because your legs are almost straight, the RDL focuses more on your lower back and hamstring muscles. It’s a great way to really target and strengthen those muscle groups. Also, the exercise increases both hip and back mobility and flexibility.
There are a few different ways you can perform the Romanian deadlift variation. For example, you can do it by using dumbbells or kettlebells instead of the classical barbell. Or you can do it with a single leg.
How to do:
- Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart with the bar in front of you.
- Hinge forward from your hips and grip the barbell at about shoulder width.
- Lift the barbell up just like you would in a conventional DL.
- Bend your knees slightly.
- Now, keep your core braced and back straight and slowly lower the bar by bending at your hips. Lower it as low as you can without the weight touching the bar. How low you can go depends on your flexibility and mobility. Remember to only keep a slight bend in your knees throughout the lift.
- Once you are down, pause for a second, then bring the bar back up by driving your hips forward and standing back up.
6. Single-Leg Deadlift
The single-leg deadlift is a variation of the conventional DL that is performed while balancing on a single leg. It is a great exercise to strengthen your posterior chain and work your core and stabilizer muscles.
Just like any kind of deadlift, it’s a full-body compound movement that trains almost all of your muscles. The main effort going on your posterior chain muscles and your core.
What makes this single-legged deadlift variation so great, is that it can be done both with your bodyweight or with weights. Either way, it’s an effective full-body exercise.
When trying this lift out for the first time, I would recommend practicing without weights at first and then gradually add weight. You can use pretty much any type of equipment for it, such as a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, or even just resistance bands.
How to do:
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart. They should be parallel to each other.
- Hold your weight in front of your body. You can use either a barbell, a kettlebell, or dumbbells.
- Engage your core and plant your supportive foot on the ground (brace it).
- Start leaning forward from your hips and shift your weight on a single leg.
- Hinge forward from the hips while the other leg extends behind you and lifts up.
- Go down as far as you can. Pause at the bottom for a second.
- Reverse the movement and bring yourself back up.
7. Reeves Deadlift
The Reeves deadlift is another one of those variations of the conventional deadlift that you don’t see too often in the gym. It’s more of a functional strength training exercise than an essential gym lift. Although in recent years, it has gotten a share of attention and has become a bit more popular again.
This exercise is actually very challenging because, in the Reeves deadlift, you grip the bar from its plates rather than the barbell itself. It’s very tough on your hands and forearms, and the overall weight you can lift depends a lot on your gripping strength. There are a few ways to make it less challenging on your hands. The simplest would be to use plates that have holes or handles and grasp the plates from there.
Because you are holding the bar from its plates, you will have an extra-wide grip. Thanks to the wide grip, the exercise will focus more on your upper back and trapezius muscles. Also, thanks to the wide hand position, your starting point will be a bit lower than in the conventional exercise. That makes the overall length of motion longer and increases the time you are under pressure.
The main benefits of this type of deadlift are that it will increase your functional strength, increase your grip strength, it will target more of your upper back, and it will improve your hip mobility (thanks to the lower starting position).
How to do:
- Take a hip-width stance.
- The bar should be over the middle of your feet.
- Push your hips back and bring your torse forward.
- Grasp the barbell from its plates with a pinch grip.
- Bend your knees until your shins are nearly touching the bar.
- Engage your core muscles.
- Drop your hips and bring your chest up.
- Lift the bar using your legs.
- Fully extend your body in an upright position.
- Lock your hips.
8. Rack Pull
The rack pull is a great deadlift variation that is used to increase pulling strength and build insane amounts of muscles in your back. Outside its overall strength and mass increasing properties, it’s mostly used either to improve your classical deadlift or even to teach proper deadlifting form.
The rack pull is basically a deadlift that is performed from a high elevated surface. Usually higher than the lifter’s knees. It’s done off a rack (like in the squatting cage or power rack) or from high blocks.
The biggest advantage of using the rack pull is that it has a shortened range of motion. In this variation, the starting point is much higher than in the original exercise. That means it can be done using significantly heavier weight, which means you can load and stress your muscles much more, which again means increased strength and muscle gains.
Also, because the lift has a much higher starting position, it places much less stress on your lower back and spine, and it will work more of your upper body muscles.
How to do:
- Set up the rack or blocks you are pulling the barbell from. Set the height as high or low as you prefer.
- Place the bar on the rack and load it.
- Stand in front of it with a hip-width stance.
- Grasp the barbell with an overhand grip.
- Engage your core and keep your back straight.
- Lift the weight with your feet and extend your hips and body.
- Lock your hips.
9. Dumbbell Deadlift
This is another popular modification of the original exercise. In this variation, the lifter uses a pair of dumbbells (or a single dumbbell) instead of the barbell.
The main benefit of using dumbbells instead of a barbell is that you will have more control over the exercise. You can easily change up the way you perform this lift, either by changing your reps, load way, or your body position. Also, dumbbells are a much more accessible piece of workout equipment compared to a barbell. Dumbbells are a great at-home alternative to the barbell dl. Also, they are a much safer alternative for both beginners and people with back issues.
There are quite a few different types of dumbbell deadlifts. There is the conventional dumbbell DL, where you keep the dumbbells in front of your body, just like you would with a barbell. This pretty much mimics the conventional barbell version.
Then there is the two-handed suitcase version, where you keep the dumbbells on your sides. Keeping the weight on your side will let you have a much more upright body position. That will place a lot less stress on your lower back and focus more on your legs, hips, and the upper portion of your back.
There is also the sumo dumbbell deadlift. In the sumo modification, you use an extra-wide stance and a single dumbbell. You place the dumbbell on its side between your legs. Then you grip one of the ends rather than the middle part and continue doing the lift just like you would in a regular sumo dl.
Both the conventional and the suitcase dumbbell deadlift variations can be done just like the original Dl, with straight legs, or even by balancing your whole weight on a single leg.
How to do:
- Choose two dumbbells with appropriate weight.
- Stand with a hip-width stance holding the two dumbells in front of yourself. They can be resting on your thighs. And your palms should be facing you.
- Next, brace your core. Keep it tight and engaged.
- Hinge your upper body forward from your hips while your hips move back. And start lowering the dumbells down in a straight line.
- Keep your back straight and tight and your head in a neutral position.
- While you lower the weight, bend your knees to allow yourself to go deeper.
- Lower yourself until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings or until your body is nearly parallel to the ground. Then pause for a second.
- Then pull the weight back up and return to your starting position by driving your hips forward and straightening your body.
10. Landmine Deadlift
The landmine deadlift is a much easier and athlete-friendly deadlift variation. It is great for beginners who are just starting their lifting journey and for people who have existing back issues that don’t allow them to use the conventional barbell DL.
In this variation, one barbell end is rested in a corner or on something. Or a specific landmine socket is used. Then the other end of the bar (the sleeve) is loaded up with plates. You stand in front of the weighted side and grasp the end of the bar and then perform the DL.
The landmine variation is great for learning deadlifting and improving both your technique and form. It is because this exercise has a predefined motion and the bar always follows the same path. So you cant move forward or backward with the bar and lose tension in the back. Nor can you hurt yourself like that.
Also, your upper body and back are in a much more upright position for the entire exercise compared to the classical barbell version. That places a lot less pressure on your spine and your lower back, which minifies the risk of injury even more.
How to do:
- Rest one end of the barbell in either a corner or the specific landmine socket.
- Load the opposite end of the bar with however much weight you plan on using.
- Stand in front of the loaded end with a shoulder-width stance.
- Grip the bar at its sleeve (the end of the barbell, where the weight is at). For that, bend from your hips (hinge forward) and your knees until you can reach it. Don’t curve your lower back. It should be flat, and your head should be in a neutral position.
- Brace your core and abs.
- Push your feet into the floor and extend your hips and body until you are in a straight upright position.
- Lower the bar and repeat.
11. Jefferson Deadlift
The Jefferson deadlift is another good example of a strange-looking deadlift variation that is actually very useful and an overall great exercise.
The exercise is truly a strange sight for anyone who isn’t familiar with it. Why so? Well, it looks so strange because of the position of the lifter. The athlete basically “mounts” the barbell. You start the lift with the bar between your legs. One of your feet is in front of the bar and the other behind it. Then you deadlift the weight from there.
There is actually nothing new about the Jefferson deadlift variation. It’s been used for ages and is a popular strongman lift.
It’s a multiplane compound lift that will increase your overall and functional strength, and at the same time, it will increase your asymmetrical and anti-rotational strength. Also, your core activation is increased during the exercise, which makes it great for your core and stabilizer muscles.
The exercise places less stress on both your lower back muscles and your spine compared to the conventional deadlift. So it’s a great alternative for people who have back issues.
How to do:
- Start by mounting or “saddling” the barbell. So one of your feet is in front of the bar, and the other behind it.
- You should be in a shoulder-width stance, and the weight is centered between both of your feet.
- Grasp the barbell with an overhand grip.
- Keep your back straight and in a line. Your head should be in a neutral position.
- Brace your core.
- Start pulling the weight up with your legs (push them through the floor). Make sure your knees don’t collapse or start pointing inwards.
- Extend your hips and body and lockout.
- Hold for a second, and then lower the weight back down.
12. Zercher Deadlift
The Zercher deadlift is one of those lifts that just looks strange and very uncomfortable. Well, it definitely is an uncomfortable lift to perform, but it’s also so much more. The Zercher grip variation is actually one of the most challenging types of deadlift anyone can perform, and this exercise is usually reserved for the gym beasts.
This DL is performed by using the Zercher grip. I’m sure a lot of you have at least heard of Zercher squats because the Zercher grip is a lot more popular as a squat than it is as a deadlift. In Zercher exercises, you basically keep the barbell in the crooks of your elbows. It’s held with your forearms just above the elbows. This very unorthodox way of holding the barbell is also one of the most painful and uncomfortable ways you can hold the bar and takes a lot of willpower to maintain.
Now, what makes this deadlift variation really challenging and a little dangerous, if not done with proper form, is the exercises starting point. The lift is usually done straight off the floor, which means you have a really low and a very difficult starting position. You need to have a good amount of flexibility and mobility in your hips, legs, and lower back to assume the initial starting position, let alone safely lift the bar from it.
The Zercher DL is a full-body exercise that trains your whole body, but the main focus will go on your posterior chain muscles, especially your back muscles.
How to do:
- Stand with a shoulder-width stance with the bar just above the middle of your feet.
- Squat down as low as you can.
- Hook your elbows under the center of the barbell along the insides of your legs.
- The bar should rest on your forearms just above the crook of your elbows.
- Keep your back as straight as possible (a little rounding is normal in this exercise). Brace your core.
- In a controlled and slow manner, lift the bar off the ground.
- Push your feet to the ground. (Drive through them)
- Stand up into an upright position and fully lock your body.
There are many deadlift variations to choose from, each meant for different purposes. The best deadlift type depends on your own specific needs and goals, what muscles you want to target, and your body specifics such as pre-existing injuries and body type, for example.
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