The phase “less is more” couldn’t be a truer statement when it comes to the deadlift. In it’s most basic form it’s literally the ol’ lift heavy things and put them down stereotype, but there is nothing shallow about deadlifts. There is so much about them to disect, so much to gain from them, so many variations to try. To learn and master the deadlift is to investment in your health, but first you have to understand it.
There are no fields of fitness that can’t profit from deadlifts, or that are exempt from its benefits. The strength it develops in the glutes, hamstrings, core and knees are invaluable to athletes for explosive movements. They can be an essential tool endurance sports like running, cycling, and swimming. Deadlifts help fortify and strengthen the tendons around the joints of the lower body, increasing stability and protecting against potential injuries. I could go on but you get the idea; this exercise is the real deal!
If you’re looking to learn more about the deadlift, how to perform it, and its other variations-keep reading! With a little research, time, and practice you’ll be well on your way to reaping all the benefits of this amazing exercise.
Deadlifts And Hip Hinge Exercises
To master the deadlift it’s important to understand what classification of exercise it is. In the world of fitness there are 5 movement patterns that make up virtually all activities of daily living. Those 5 include push, pull, core rotation, squat, and hip hinge. These five classes form the basis of your average strength training program and all compound exercises. As fate would have it, deadlifts are hip hinge exercises and happen to work multiple muscle groups as you’ll learn later.
The posterior chain muscles are the main priority of hip hinge exercises, the deadlift included and all its many variations. This group of muscles is made up of the back of the leg, glutes, and spine. The hip hinge is simply about having a slight bend in your knees while your hips glide straight back. It’s almost like bowing while concentrating on the tension in your hamstrings and quadriceps. The emphasis of this movement is all about the hips.
Hip hinge exercises are indispensable for literally all forms of fitness; yoga, powerlifting, cycling, even the normal, everyday activities we don’t think about. This move is designed to take the stress off of your back as you use your lower body and hips to shift weight upward.
How one approaches deadlifting and hip hinge exercises all together is vital for success. One of the most important muscle groups to tackle first before going all in is the core. The core ensures the stability of the lumbar spine, and as the bridge between the upper and lower body, a lot is riding on the sustained health of your lower back. As you begin to develop core strength by fortifying the spinal erector and transverse abdominis, you’ll see your overall maximal strength improve with decreased risk to your lower back.
Deadlift vs Squat
When it comes to strengthening and building the lower body, few exercises are more effective than deadlifts and squats. While the average gym-goer knows there’s a difference between a deadlift and a squat, but it’s important to really recognize the distinctions.
The deadlift is an exercise where your hips hinge backward to lower down and pick up a weighted barbell or kettlebell from the floor. Your back is flat throughout the movement.
Looking at lower body exercises, you’ll find that most exercises fall into two categories- hip hinge and squats. Hip hinge focuses on the predominant movement of the hips, which you find consistently with deadlifts. Where squats have the hips and torso sit into the movement, deadlifts generally glide the hips backwards with limited range in the knees.
With this horizontal movement of the hips, the deadlift is better for firing the muscles of the posterior chain; the hamstrings, glutes, knee flexors, lumbar spine, and core.
Squats focus on bending the knees until the thighs are parallel with the floor, all while attempting to keep the torso fairly upright. This exercise is great for activating the thighs, quads, glutes, knee flexors and extensors, spine erectors and core as well.
Which Is More Effective?
As far as the deadlift vs squat debate goes, many have asked “which is better for training?” Fortunately we have a few studies that have attempted to shed some light on the subject.
One Italian study aimed at comparing the effect the two compound exercise (deadlifts or squats) had on maximal strength and power in resistance trained men. The results indicated that both deadlifts and squats result in similar improvements in lower body maximal strength and jump performance (2).
While for some this might not bring much closure in the case of deadlifts vs squats, it’s important to note that 3 participants in the deadlift group developed lower back pain. If this study implied anything beyond the similarities in strength progression, it’s that deadlifts may pose a threat to lower back health. It’s important that with any exercise, and particularly deadlifts, you perform them with proper form any any necessary equipment.
Types Of Deadlifts
Many people will find that in their lifting journey, conventional deadlifts are more than enough for what they need. However other (and maybe you) will need other moves in your arsenal. Whether because of past injuries, training plateaus, boredom or any other of the numerous reasons, it’s always nice to have options. Here are 4
Sumo deadlifts are a version in which the lifter’s stance is much wider (much further out than shoulder width) and lifts the bar from about hip width.
To perform the sumo deadlift you’ll want to take a wide stance with your feet pointed slightly outward. Where your stance lands is mainly based on your high and comfort level, but rule of thumb would be centered between your shoulder and the plates on either side of the barbell.
Your elbows should be inside your knees and your back should be straight (even in the starting position). It’s good to practice keeping your back and neck aligned to prevent any bowing throughout the entire movement (which could lead to injury).
You might find you’re stronger on the SD (sumo deadlift) than any other version, which is great, but takes time to execute properly. Here are a few steps to help master the move:
Step By Step
- When assuming the stance mentioned above, focus on bringing your hips and butt down towards the bar. The knees can drive outward to allow your torso ease into position, keeping your core tight and engaged in preparation for the lift.
- Once in position, tense your muscles from the top to the bottom of your kinetic chain; tighten your back, core, glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Imagine your entire body going rigid and tension building up each moment in preparation for the pull.
- The key to this next phase is pulling the bar at the same time you drive through your feet and explode upward.
- As the bar travels up your leg, it’s important to lock out at the top of the movement. At the top of the sumo deadlift your hips should be back to a neutral position, your glutes clenched, and your shoulders back to prevent the rounding of the upper back.
Conventional vs Sumo Deadlift
When it comes to the conventional vs sumo deadlift, it’s not just the form that’s different, but also the muscles activated. In an electromyographic analysis comparing the conventional vs sumo deadlift, researchers found that EMG activity was significantly greater in the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and tibialis anterior during the sumo deadlift opposed to the conventional deadlift. There was however more overall EMG activity in the medial gastrocnemius during the conventional deadlift vs the sumo (1).
So in essence the main difference between the two deadlifts are the primary muscles they activate. The muscles on you that need a little more TLC will likely determine which version you do, but honestly I say do both! Sumo deadlifts are also excellent for increasing power, and once that pulling strength and additional muscle mass develop, it will translate well to your conventional deadlift and other deadlift variations.
Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift
As you could imagine the kettlebell sumo deadlift is the exact same exercise, just utilizing the kettlebell. The kettlebell sumo deadlift is excellent for firing the muscles of the inner thighs, but it too has its trade offs. Because of the shape and size of the kettlebell, you won’t be lifting nearly as much as you could with barbells, and because of the wide stance the range of depth is pretty shallow. If you have two level, elevated surfaces I suggest using them for greater range of motion. I would also recommend performing the dual kettlebell sumo deadlift (gripping a kettlebell in each hand) to increase the intensity, but to each their own.
- Start with your feet a few inches wider than shoulder-width apart and pointed outward. Be sure to keep the kettlebell directly in front of your hips and hanging between your legs.
- Inhale deeply while tensing your core, then bring your hips as your torso leans slightly forward, lowering the kettlebell to the floor. Remember to keep your spine and neck aligned, and as you lower the kettlebell with both hands be sure to load your lats.
- Drive your hips back to the upright position for full extension, imagining squeezing the glutes tight on the way up. Breath out at the top with the kettlebell between your legs.
- With the tension still in your core, lays, and glutes, go back to the starting position by bringing your hips back and dropping the kettlebell to the ground under your hips.
Split Stance Romanian Deadlift
The split stance Romanian deadlift is a strong exercise for the posterior muscle groups (lower back, glutes, hamstrings, etc.) without adding too much tension on the lumbar spine typical of bilateral deadlifts.
Split stance RDLs are great for targeting and growing the hamstrings, but they serve quite a few other purposes as well. In addition to activating the core, they also aid in hip mobility, improve overall posture, and develop anti-rotational core stability.
Keep in mind that as a staggered stance exercise (one foot in front, the other slightly behind), the split stance Romanian deadlift is a progression from two legged deadlifts and requires advanced balance and coordination.
Now when it comes to single-leg deadlifts most people struggle with three things:
- They have a hard time balancing on one leg
- Some can’t keep their pelvis square to the floor
- Others struggle feeling the glute and hamstring work
Fortunately the split stance Romanian deadlift is a great intermediate variation to practice before going back to the more advance one-legged deadlift. If you’re not used to this exercise I recommend starting with body weight or light dumbbells. This will give your body enough slack to master the movement pattern with just enough of a challenge to develop essential muscle fibers.
Step By Step
- Take a step back with one foot. Bringing the back heel off the floor, this will allow you to load into the front glute and hamstring. You’ll want to shift the majority of your weight onto the front leg (about 80%).
- Push your butt and hips directly back, lowering the dumbbells directly in front of your knees. At this depth you should really feel the stretch in your hamstrings.
- Thrust your hips forward until your body returns to a standing position, all the while keeping your glutes clenched
Tempo training in general is all about being methodical with your time under tension (TUT) during a given exercise. Instead of mindlessly repping out deadlifts, tempo deadlifts intentionally alters the amount of seconds you lift in the eccentric phase (stretch), the concentric phase (shortening) and the isometric phase (one at the top and bottom of the move). Each phase is given a number according to the number of seconds each portion will take.
So generally the format for tempo exercises looks like this- (E P C P) E for eccentric (the descent), P for pause (the top and bottom of the lift), and C for concentric (the ascent). Keep in mind that every exercise doesn’t start in this order, so for tempo deadlifts you would start with the concentric phase first, and then progress in order.
How Would It Look Practically?
Ex: if a tempo sequence is normally written like this 1-2-3-1, when performing tempo deadlifts you’d start with 3, the concentric phase, and continue from there. So really it’s interpreted like 3-1-2-1, but with the same phases assigned to the same numbers.
So let’s say you usually deadlift 315 pounds for 10 reps, and each rep takes you around two seconds to complete. By the end of the set you would total 20 seconds of tension. On the other hand, if you do tempo deadlifts, taking three seconds going down, pausing two seconds at the bottom, and then exploding to the top of the movement, a single rep will take you about five seconds. Even with half the reps (5 total) it would still put you at an extra 5 seconds under tension compared to 10 reps.
Don’t let the fewer reps fool you- tempo deadlifts are intense. You will feel every second of every set, which is why it’s great for breaking through plateaus.
Benefits Of Tempo Deadlifts
If you needed more reasons to give tempo deadlifts a try, here are a few more for your consideration:
Improved Mind-Muscle Connection
Slowing the movement down at key points forces muscles and the synapses of your brain to fire in ways that were previously unnecessary. Temp deadlifts require a completely different level of awareness along with mental and physical discipline. The new neurological pathways developed from this exercise will only help improve your other compound lifts.
Sharpens Movement Patterns And Improves Control
After a while, performing most lifts become like second nature, but there’s a lot more happening with each rep than we realize. During a deadlift we don’t take note of the proper hinging of the hips, or how knees track over the joints, etc.
However lifting with a tempo slows things down. That time under tension makes us familiar with how the body feels at any given point. And that feeling will allow us to course correct if there are errors in our form- this in turn protects us from future injuries.
Advances Strength Gains
As people progress further into their lifting journey, it becomes more difficult to progress- inevitably reaching a plateau. Most try the conventional route of adding more weight or reps, but tempo training may serve as a better option. Adjusting the time under tension is a simple and powerful tool for creating new strength gains in any lift.
So let’s say you’ve been stuck at a 315lb deadlift (3 sets for 3 reps) for months. Try taking two seconds to lower the bar before returning to the starting position. Then, the next week, try increasing the count to three seconds. The following week, make it four second. While you aren’t increasing the weight or adding additional reps, you’re building strength and adapting to muscle-building tension.
Landmine deadlifts are a great option for beginners or anyone with issues in their lower back when performing conventional deadlifts.
Step By Step
- Take a shoulder width stance with your toes pointed slightly outward
- Hold the sleeve of the barbell with interlaced fingers
- Keeping your neck and back aligned, roll your shoulders back and engage your lats in a standard neutral position. You’ll want to maintain this form through the entirety of the movement to prevent bowing in the back or potential injury.
- Driving through your feet, lift the weight up by driving your hips forward and straightening your knees until your body is in an upright position. Be sure to squeeze the glutes at the top and continue to feel tension in the lats.
- Hold position at the top for a second or two and then slowly return to the starting position. Simply lower the weight by sliding your hips back and sitting into the movement with a slight bend in the knees.
How Often Should You Deadlift?
This is a tricky question to answer. Tricky because the answer may vary depending on who you talk to. As far as resistance training and strength gains go, volume (sets x reps) is what needs to be adjusted, not so much the frequency (days per week). When researchers calculated for training volume, they found resistance training frequency had no significant effect on muscular strength increases (3). Researchers over the years have determined that;
“Greater training frequencies can be used for additional resistance training volume, which is then likely to result in greater muscular strength gains.”
If you want a safe bet, the majority o f professionals believe that training a muscle twice a week is optimal for muscle growth. Deadlifting twice a week is likely often enough to deliver the strength gains and hypertrophic response you’re looking for.
I truly hope this article helps you along your journey. This is really just the tip of the iceberg as far as deadlifts are concerned, let alone functional resistance training. But the first step to every journey is getting familiar with the basics, so I hope this will set you up for success. Until next time, BE WELL!!