The deadlift is a compound lift that’s ideal for growing your hamstrings, hips, traps, forearms, and spinal erectors. However, depending on how you deadlift, you can choose to emphasize either your lower or upper body.
The deadlift is one of our Big 5 bulking lifts, and in this article we’re going to go over the best strategies for integrating the deadlift into your bulking routine. This article has nothing to do with powerlifting or even powerbuilding, just with using the deadlift to build muscle and gain general strength.
In this article, we’ll cover:
- How to bulk up your entire posterior chain with the deadlift.
- Whether you should deadlift with a sumo or conventional stance.
- How to figure out where you’re weak and fix it.
- Deadlift accessories, such as the power row, RDL, and squat?
- Deadlift assistance lifts, such as hip thrusts and good mornings.
This article is still bulking: It will grow over time. Occasionally we’ll trim off some fat.
The deadlift is the high king of all exercises. It strengthens your body from your fingers down to your toes, bulking you up from your forearms down to your calves. Most of all, though, it will help you build a thick back, a sturdy spine, and tall traps.
The deadlift is one of the only lifts that’s a staple of both powerlifting and strongman training. It’s also one of the best lifts for improving your overall aesthetics.
However, most powerlifters and strongmen deadlift with the goal of developing their max-effort strength. If your goal is to build a bigger, stronger, and more generally badass body, we can modify the deadlift a bit to be better for building muscle, improving your appearance, and giving you better longevity.
Deadlift Range of Motion
Just like how hitting legal squat depth is arbitrary, so is deadlifting from the floor. If you’ve got poor hip mobility, whether that’s from your posture or your anatomy, then it’s better to raise the barbell up and do your deadlifting from a place where you can lift with a neutral spine.
On the other hand, if you’ve got great mobility, you may very well benefit from deadlifting even deeper than the floor. In that case, you might want to try deficit deadlifts or snatch-grip deadlifts. Speaking of which, deficit deadlifts tend to be the best deadlift variation for building a bigger and stronger upper back. So if you’re trying to build a bigger upper body relative to your lower body, that would be a good deadlift of choice.
However, a November 2014 study found that including partial range of motion accessory lifts (like rack pulls) alongside full range of motion lifts (like deadlifts) was more effective at improving strength gains than just performing a greater volume of lifts with a full range of motion. So just because we’re using deep deadlifts as our main variation doesn’t mean that we should shy away from assistance lifts with a shorter range of motion.
Deadlift Strength Curve
There’s a difference between deadlifting for strength and deadlifting for size. This may sound weird, but for a powerlifter, deadlift range of motion doesn’t really matter. After all, a powerlifter isn’t failing the lift because his muscles grow too fatigued, he’s failing because he can’t muscle his way through the hardest part of the lift. The rest of the range of motion isn’t a problem.
With the deadlift, the hardest part of the lift is often the very first part—getting the barbell up to the knees. This is why people can deadlift so much more weight by raising the barbell a couple inches off the ground, doing rack pulls or raised deadlift.
A deadlift barbell can help with this, too. If the barbell bends before the weight leaves the floor, that allows them to open up their hip angle, improving their leverage, before they need to lift all of the weight. If they’re pulling 500 pounds, they might only need to pull 300 pounds for the first couple inches, 400 pounds for the next couple inches, and then the barbell leaves the ground, loading them up with all 500 pounds. This is similar to using chains or bands, where the weight gets heavier the further you lift it. This aligns your “strength curve” with the weight you’re lifting: as your leverage gets better, more resistance is added. This is why the deadlift barbell is so great for deadlifting.
The Deadlift and Your Spine
With proper back positioning, the load will be shared between the many vertebrae in your spine, minimizing the stress on any one joint. It’s only if you lift with a kink in your back that one vertebrae will be forced to bear the brunt of the load, which can cause it to slip out of place. This allows your spine to bear incredibly heavy loads, and even to benefit from them.
Main Deadlift Variations
The Conventional Deadlift
The conventional deadlift is the best default variation if you’re interested in gaining muscle size and general strength, especially in your upper body. The main reason for this is that the sumo deadlift is great for bulking up your upper traps, whereas the conventional deadlift is great for bulking up your entire back.
To understand why that is, we have to look at torso angle and moment arms. A conventional deadlift has a more horizontal torso and a longer moment arm for the back muscles to deal with.
However, this also means that conventional deadlifts can be quite a bit harder. After all, the muscles in your back are working much harder to stabilize your spine, and then you’ve also got to lift the weight a greater distance, too. As a result, this study found that the conventional deadlift used 25-40% more energy than the sumo deadlift.
That won’t necessarily mean that your 1RM will be higher with a sumo stance. After all, people don’t fail 1RMs because they get tired, they fail because they’re unable to lift the barbell past a certain sticking point. And at that sticking point, it’s unlikely that your upper back will be the limiting factor. That’s why most guys are able to deadlift similar amounts in both stances. However, conventional deadlifts will almost certainly feel harder.
This is all to say that, as a rule of thumb, the conventional deadlift will leave you more winded and require longer rest times. However, it will also do a better job of improving your lifting fitness, and it will stimulate more muscle growth in your upper body.
If you’re interested in size, general strength, and aesthetics, go with the conventional deadlift.
The Sumo Deadlift
The sumo deadlift is a great deadlift variation for lifting more weight more easily, and with less shear stress on your spine. However, this isn’t necessarily ideal for building muscle because less stress on your spine means less stimulation for the muscles that stabilize it.
I’m a naturally thin guy with a long torso, which makes my spine very difficult to stabilize. As a result, I find sumo deadlifts much easier. I can do higher-rep sets with the same amount of weight on the bar, and my 1RM is a good 10% higher with a sumo deadlift.
There are two ways to look at this situation. I could avoid my weakness and double down on the sumo deadlift, or I could strengthen my weakness by choosing the harder variation: the conventional deadlift.
I chose to double down on the sumo deadlift, and my back strength suffered as a result. Then Marco found out, and he’s been programming conventional deadlifts for me ever since. My back grew much stronger and much thicker.
Being totally honest, though, sumo deadlifts are similar enough to conventional deadlifts that if you really do prefer them, it’s not going to ruin your results. They might not be technically ideal for gaining general muscle size, general strength, or improving aesthetics, but the difference won’t be bulk-breaking.
If you find that high-rep deadlifts are absolutely destroying your recovery or your lower back, sumo deadlifts might be a better choice.
The Trap-Bar Deadlift
The trap-bar deadlift is perhaps the single best lift for building muscle and improving general strength—with a catch. It’s a combination between a conventional deadlift, a farmer carry, and a squat:
- Like the conventional deadlift, you use a narrow stance and grip width. You can also sit back to create a hip-dominant lift, as you would while doing a conventional deadlift.
- Like the farmer carry, you hold the weight out to your sides with a neutral grip. Furthermore, the trap bar is built so that it won’t be trying to rotate out of your hands, making it much easier to hold onto than a barbell. This means that you won’t need to be as finicky about using a mixed grip, hook grip, or chalk in order to hold onto the bar.
- Like the squat, because there isn’t a barbell in the way, your knees are free to track forward, allowing you to lift the weight up with your quads. It’s also easier on your lower back because you can keep your torso more upright.
As a result, we get this amazing lift for overall strength development. It’s great for our posterior chains and for our quads. However, the trap bar deadlift isn’t as good for our backs or our forearms as the conventional deadlift, and we have the front squat for our quads.
Furthermore, because the handles are raised higher, the trap bar deadlift uses the smallest range of motion of all deadlifts. A smaller range of motion isn’t always a bad thing. It really depends on what we’re trying to accomplish. But in this case, that smaller range of motion is likely to reduce the growth that we stimulate in our posterior chain. It might also make trap-bar deadlifts worse for improving work capacity, which is one of the great strengths of the conventional deadlift.
So although the trap bar deadlift is arguably the best all-around lower-body lift, you’ll probably get better upper-back and forearm development by doing conventional deadlifts and front squats instead.
However, if you have access to a trap bar and you prefer it, it’s still a great choice. In fact, we almost defaulted to the trap bar. It won’t disappoint you.
Accessory Lifts for the Deadlift
Barbells rows are really quite similar to deadlifts. They work all of the same muscles: your grip, your back, your glutes, and your hamstrings. The difference is that the deadlift moves with the hips, supports with the back, whereas the row moves with the back, supports with the hips.
Because lifting the weight tends to yield more muscle growth stabilizing the weight, this means that the barbell row is better for developing the lats, and the deadlift is better for developing the hips. However, for optimal growth, you’ll really want to be doing both.
The classic barbell row, where you stand in a Romanian deadlift position (barbell at the knees) and then row the barbell to your belly button or sternum, is a good default choice. However, once your strength gains start to plateau with the classic variation, there are a couple of ways to make it even better for improving your deadlift strength:
- The Pendlay row: if you start with the barbell on the ground, your torso will need to be quite horizontal, and the emphasis will shift to your spinal erectors. If your spinal erectors are limiting your deadlift, this is a great way to bulk them up.
- The power row: if you add a little hip drive into a classic barbell row, it becomes a combination of a Romanian deadlift and a row. The obvious benefit is that you’ll be working your glutes and hamstrings harder. Another benefit is that you’ll improve the strength curve, you’ll be able to use a heavier weight, and you’ll build more muscle in your upper back. The only caveat is that this lift is heavier and harder to recover from.
This is all to say that if your back strength is limiting your deadlift, the barbell row is the perfect assistance lift for you. You’ll probably want to start with classic barbell rows, but once you’re confident with those, you may be interested in the power or Pendlay rows.
The Front Squat / Zercher Squat
Back squats work many of the same muscles that are used in the deadlift, including the quads, glutes, spinal erectors, and lats. However, Greg Nuckols, MA, believes that the strength you gain while doing back squats translates very poorly to deadlift strength. His reasoning is that your limiting factors on the squat are too different from the deadlift.
For example, let’s say that your quads are your limiting muscle group on your back squat, and your spinal erectors are your limiting muscle group on your deadlift. When squatting, your spinal erectors are more than strong enough, so they won’t grow. It’s your quads that will grow.
Then, when you go back to deadlifts, sure, you’ll have stronger quads, but those were never holding your deadlift back to begin with. Your limiting factor on the deadlift is still your spinal erectors, and the squats haven’t stimulated any growth there.
However, not all squats are the same. Some demand much more from your spinal erectors than others. That’s where the front squat comes in. As we covered in our squat article, the front squat is just as good for your upper back as it is for your quads, which makes it a brilliant accessory lift for the deadlift.
The same is true with the Zercher squat, which will have you using a lighter weight, but supporting more of that weight with your traps.