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Try These Deadlift Variations To Find What Works Best For You

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 04 June 2019
Hits: 9131

Without a doubt the Deadlift is one of the best exercises you can ever use in the gym. Whether you are a keen sporting athlete, someone recovering from injury, or even an 80 year old looking to maintain quality of life this exercise provides amazing benefits and is something we use everyday in life. Outside of the gym it is simply known as "bending". For this reason we tend to refer to this as a foundational movement pattern first and an exercise second. As much as the benefits from learning and developing your skills with deadlift are amazing it also comes with high risk if performed poorly. Injuries such as herniated discs are so common with this movement with many of these occurring outside of a gym and from daily activities like picking up a pen off the floor. There are so many versions of this exercise it is important to know which one is best for your body right now. This article we will explain everything you need to know about deadlifts and which version works best for you.

Step 1: Work On Your MOBILITY First

Before jumping right into the exercise it is important to spend some time working on any mobility restrictions that may prevent you from achieving the ideal positioning required.

The main areas to focus on are the posterior chain of the glutes, hamstrings and thoracic region. Having worked with hundreds of cases of herniated discs I would say in over 80% of all cases, loss of hip and thoracic mobility accompanied with dysfunction was the biggest contributing factor relating to the pain. Without adequate hip mobility your lumbar spine has no choice but to bend and flex during movements that it should remain stable and in neutral.

Below are two videos showing you ways to improve your mobility in the hips and thoracic regions.

Another great tool to use in addition to stretching is foam rolling. Weakness and instability can develop several areas within the body that have severe tightness known as trigger points. And while stretching & mobility drills are great for helping to correct your problem, they do not help much in the initial stages of releasing these nasty hot spots. A much more aggressive approach using massage or small tools that get into the trigger point are what is needed. A foam roller is a great way to begin releasing these hot spots.

(insert video)

Okay so now you have started to improve your  mobility it is time to learn how to move correctly.

Step 2: Learn How To Hip Hinge

Before standing up I will often teach people who to execute a good hip hinge in a kneeling position first. I will also use a rubber band to assist them in getting used to using their hips and not their spine. Some people will get this straight away whereas others may take some time. If a person fails the standing exercise with the kettlebell featured in step 3 I will revert back to this exercise for a bit longer and continue working on mobility until they can eventually master the position.

This exercise obviously is amazing for the person coming back from back pain as it reduces the risk of injury and pain but teaches them the necessary basics they are missing in the bending movement. If you are someone dealing with back pain at the moment you will find all the specific exercises we use in our online program you can download by clicking here.

Step 3: Romanian Deadlift Using A Kettlebell

We are finally up to the standing versions and this is my "go-to exercise" on the first day with a new client as it is the best way to teach them how to bend correctly. The kettlebell provides great visual feedback cues to help the person see where it is they are moving poorly. The Romanian Deadlift is more about moving the hip and bending from the top-down instead of from the bottom up! The person with mobility restrictions will often feel this as a massive hamstring stretch!

The most important part here is to maintain the natural curve of the lumbar spine by keeping an anterior tilt of the pelvis. Again critical for anyone who has back pain.

Instructions:

1. Position the kettlebell on the floor between your legs so that you cannot see your shins in a mirror from the side.
2. Standing with feet a comfortable width apart. Reach down keeping the natural arch in your low back, and neck tucked. Touch the kettlebell keeping good posture.
3. Inhale and engage your core before you begin to stand to the top position, exhaling and when at the top and gently rolling your shoulder down and scapula apart
4. At the top repeat the inhaling process before lowering to the ground.

Sets / Reps: 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps with control tempo

* TIP: If you are struggling to keep the curve in your lower back you can also add some tape to your lower back. We use this very effectively with disc bulge clients to teach them how to keep the extension in their back muscles. This is a critical point in getting the glutes to fire.

Step 4: Stability & Bracing Technique

The mistake often made after learning the last exercise is to progress quickly to heavy loads. Before doing this it is important to understand exactly how to activate your stabilizers for if you do not have the ability to provide stability to your lumbar spine there is a very good chance injury is not far away!

There is three important parts to creating good stiffness in the deadlift and they are breathing, grip strength and activating the lats. The breath is the real key as this will activate your inner unit prior to the lift and protect your lumbar spine from damage. The heavier the load this will usually happen automatically as you will find that you stop breathing just as you begin to lift the load because as the nervous system senses the threat to the spinal cord. This is when the diaphragm switches from a respiratory role to a stabilizer role. The diaphragm creates what is known as intra-abdominal pressure. As much as your other stabilizer muscles like the TVA are involved, they are very dependent on the diaphragm for creating pressure. This muscle also connects to most of your ribs and helps to stabilize the body which is why grip strength and lat strength are a crucial part in assisting this to work.

In the video below I show you how to do this.

Step 5: Trap Bar Deadlift

We are now at the point where we are going to lift from the bottom up! This is where the legs will now be heavily involved and a key component of the lift. I will always start with a trap bar deadlift before a traditional bar deadlift and the reason is very simple. It provides the best leverage.

For a beginner it is all about perfecting the technique and movement and this version out of all the heavy lifts is the easiest.

Always remember the deadlift is all about minimizing any levers the weight can generate by keeping the load as close to you as possible. You only have to look at the shins of an Olympic weightlifter to see what I mean, as they constantly drag the bar up against their shins to keep the load close to them. Many actually wear shin guards for this reason. The trap bar is unique in that it allows you to stand effectively inside the bar! This is why it provides the best leverage and also why many can lift much bigger loads with this version.

What Height Is Best To Lift From?

Before moving on it is important we cover one of the biggest problems we see with deadlifts which is people trying to lift from the floor.

A bit like the squat where at times you hear people say "you must squat to parallel" or "you must go ass to grass", as if there is a blanket rule that covers every human. We are all very unique and there is no one size fits all and with deadlifts this is so true.

Who determined that the size of the weight plates is the height we all should lift from?

This is a manufacturing specification that has nothing to do with anatomy and does not take into account all the various differences in body shapes and sizes, hip structures, flexibility and strength. We know that hip mobility is massive for this movement and without it you will struggle to maintain good position. Sometimes it may even be poor coordination and understanding of what to do that is the problem. But sometimes mobility and stretching work or technique tips are not enough. Some people just do not have adequate hip mobility to lift this exercise safely from the floor.

And in this case we have to modify the exercise by using blocks. In the video below I show you several ways in which we might do this. We can continue to work on the factors that may be contributing to poor form, but in the meantime blocking up the barbell or kettlebell is a great way to still develop the exercise without the risk of a herniated disc.

For tons of ideas on functional training techniques and workout ideas using the deadlift make sure you get the Free Report below on Functional Training. Click the image below to download.

Step 6: Sumo Deadlift

This version is a great alternative for people with hip stiffness and SIJ compression. It can take some time getting used to the grip but some may find this much more comfortable with the wider stance allowing for less compression into the sacroiliac joint and simultaneously providing increased glute activation.

Again the rules of keeping the bar close and basing it up if required is very important.

Step 8: Traditional Deadlift

Very much the same instructions as the trap bar however you may need some blocks or even weight plates to base it up a bit if you cannot achieve the natural curve in your lower back.

Instructions:

  1. Position the block or box height such that it allows you to keep a natural arch in your low back at the lowest point of the exercise. It is very important to keep the natural arch!
  2. Standing with feet a comfortable width apart. Reach down keeping the natural arch in your low back.
  3. Grasp the bar a little more than shoulder width apart (clean grip).
  4. Pick the chest up, look forward inhale drawing the belly button inward.
  5. Bend forward slightly until the bar is at knee level; lift the torso to the top position, ex-haling through pursed lips through the most difficult point of the movement. Imagine trying to push the ground away from you with your feet.
  6. At the top repeat the inhaling process before lowering to the ground.

Sets / Reps: 3-6 sets of 4-6 reps with control tempo.

Note the sets and reps now change to much lower reps. I very rarely do more than 6 reps as the chance of fatigue is very high. I prefer to use multiple sets to achieve my desired volume and not compromising the intensity of my form.

Step 9: Hang Cleans

Lastly we can look at the faster versions of the deadlift which as you would expect come with high risk. If your technique is great with all the various deadlifts and you have no injury in your lower back then this can be a real challenging exercise. However I very rarely use this with people for the risk versus the reward is not worth it. I can usually achieve the same desired outcomes of improving power without this risk.

Below is a video that explains this concept and also quickly looks at the technique.

Summary

I hope you have enjoyed this article and got some great ideas of how to develop your deadlift technique. The main point of this article was to show people there is many ways to work on this exercise and that you may need to make some modifications to either your mobility or using blocks to find the best version for your body. We are so different that it is impossible to have a one size fits all approach to this movement.