The deadlift strengthens our bodies from our fingers down to our toes, bulking us up from our forearms down to our calves. In fact, it’s such a good indicator of strength that it’s the only lift that’s a staple of both powerlifting and strongman training.
When it comes to size and aesthetics, though, the deadlift becomes more controversial. Most casual gymgoers skip it. Many bodybuilders do, too. And it’s easy to see why that is. Deadlifts are hard to do, they’re hard to recover from, and people worry about hurting their lower backs.
And besides, most powerlifters and strongmen deadlift with the goal of developing their max-effort strength. It’s a different style of training designed to get them a different outcome.
If your goal is to build a bigger, stronger, and better-looking body, then you’ll want to deadlift a little bit differently.
- Deadlifting for Size, Strength, and Aesthetics
- The Conventional Deadlift
- Conventional Deadlift Alternatives
- Assistance Lifts
- Accessory Lifts
- Main Takeaways
Deadlifting for Size, Strength, and Aesthetics
Deadlifting for General Strength
Of all the lifts, the deadlift has the most carryover to general strength. Not only will deadlifting help us lift heavier things, but it will also toughen our spines, strengthen our tendons, and harden our bones, keeping us safe while doing it.
On the other hand, some people worry that the risk of injury is too great. If our goal is to develop long-lasting general strength, why risk loading up our spines so heavy? Why risk slipping a disc?
There’s a problem with this line of thinking. Lifting is designed to build us up, not to break us down. It’s stressful, yes, but that’s how we force our body to adapt. If we do it properly, we can minimize the risks while maximizing the benefits.
The deadlift, done right, will toughen your spine and reduce your risk of injury, especially as you age.
Deadlifting for Muscle Mass
For gaining muscle size, deadlifts are controversial, and at first, it’s hard to see why. Deadlifts are great for bulking up our hamstrings, hips, forearms, and entire upper back:
Where the deadlift truly shines, though, is in its ability to develop our deeper back muscles—our spinal erectors and transverse abdominis (TVA):
And keep in mind that these muscles aren’t just active while deadlifting, but they’re also potential limiting factors, meaning that they’ll be challenged enough to stimulate muscle growth.
In terms of sheer muscle growth being stimulated, only squats can compete.
However, if you’re deadlifting with the goal of gaining muscle mass, there are a few issues we need to address:
- Adjusting the tempo. When deadlifting heavy, most people heave the barbell up and then drop it back down, removing the eccentric part of the lift. The idea is that you’ll save your strength and reduce your injury risk. The problem is that you’ll build more muscle if your lifts have both a concentric and eccentric portion to them. That means that if your goal is to build muscle, you should lower the weight down under control. So long as you maintain proper positioning while lowering the barbell, it shouldn’t increase your risk of injury. And if you can’t maintain proper positioning while lowering the barbell, you should lower the weight until you can.
- The starting position and your hips. The starting position of the deadlift is determined by the size of the plates you’re using. Almost always, those are standard 45lb plates. The problem is that the mobility you have in your hips might not quite line up with that depth. More on this in the range of motion section.
- The range of motion. Different variations of the deadlift use different ranges of motion. Trap-bar and sumo deadlifts use smaller ranges of motion, which tends to make them worse for gaining muscle mass. Conventional deadlifts use a larger range of motion, making them better for bulking (at the cost of being more tiring).
- Lining the limiting factor up with your goals. Different deadlift variations will cause you to fail for different reasons. If your back gives out first, then the deadlift will primarily train your back (which is common in the conventional deadlift). If your hips give out first, then it will primarily train your hips (which is common in the sumo deadlift). You can pick your deadlift variation based on which muscle groups you’re most eager to stimulate. For gaining overall size, we recommend the conventional deadlift.
- Fixing grip strength. Many people fail deadlifts due to a lack of grip strength, especially when they’re new to it. This needs to be solved by using a mixed (over/under) grip, a hook grip, using chalk, using lifting straps, or using accessory lifts to buff up your grip strength. Otherwise, the deadlift will be reduced to a convoluted forearm exercise.
- The fatigue problem. The deadlift is a very fatiguing lift, especially if you’re being limited by your spinal erector and/or grip strength. Unlike the other big compound lifts, it’s often wise to deadlift with a fairly low volume and frequency, but with more assistance and accessory work.
This is all to say that most people program the deadlift to improve general strength rather than muscle size. With a few simple tweaks, though, it can be a great bulking exercise, too.
Deadlifting for Aesthetics
For aesthetics, deadlifts are criminally underrated. They develop the yoke muscles that make us look stronger and more dominant: the traps, the forearms, the spinal erectors, and the glutes.
- For guys with naturally thinner bodies, bulking up our spinal erectors is especially important. Like the front squat, deadlifts will make us markedly thicker.
- For guys with longer and thinner necks, nothing will improve your appearance like building a tall set of traps to rest your neck upon.
- For guys with lankier arms, nothing will bulk them up like a pair of burly forearms, and nothing will cap them like a pair of harder and thicker hands.
If you agree with the formidability argument of aesthetics—that men who look more formidable look more attractive, then deadlifts are a great tool for improving your aesthetics.
Yes, deadlifts are difficult. But if we’re trying to improve our appearance, best to have bodies that look like they’re capable of doing difficult things.
The Deadlift and Fatigue
Deadlifts are notorious for being hard. We’re engaging almost every muscle in our bodies, we’re lifting tremendous amounts of weight, and that weight is being borne by our spines.
That may not sound like a bad thing yet. After all, squats are hard, too. In fact, all of the best bulking lifts are hard. And yet it’s these big lifts that give us most of our results. A single set of heavy deadlifts can replace an entire mediocre workout. However, deadlifts are disproportionately fatiguing.
To put this into perspective, let’s compare the deadlift against the squat in terms of its ability to generate fatigue. Both the deadlift and the squat engage most of our muscle mass under a heavy load that must be supported by our spines. They’re similar in a lot of ways.
As soon as you look at how squats and deadlifts are programmed, though, you realize that something odd is going on. Programs like Starting Strength recommend starting every single workout with three sets of heavy squats. StrongLifts recommends starting with five heavy sets of squats. Perhaps you’ve even heard of programs that recommend squatting every single day (such as Smolov). That’s a lot of squatting. But people can handle it. That’s because squats aren’t that fatiguing.
Now consider the deadlift. Starting Strength and StrongLifts both recommend deadlifting 1–2 times per week, saving them for the end of the workout, and doing just a single set. That means that in Starting Strength, they’re squatting 6x as much as they’re deadlifting. In StrongLifts, they’re squatting 10x as much. And there isn’t a single (sane) program that recommends deadlifting every day. That’s because deadlifts are much harder on us than squats.
Why are deadlifts so fatiguing? There are a few theories. Most of it comes down to the fact that deadlifts put a great load on our spines—axial loading—with our torso more horizontal, demanding quite a bit from our spinal erectors. When our spinal erectors are tired, we’re tired.
Heavy deadlifts can turn new lifters into puddles for days at a time. It can be hard to even sit upright in a chair, let alone do anything else at all.
There’s also the fact that gripping such a heavy barbell so hard can tear up our hands. When our hands are torn up, we don’t want to hold anything.
If we’re just trying to gain muscle size, why should we put ourselves through that hardship? Why not spend our energy doing other lifts instead? The answer to this question is simple: to stimulate as much muscle growth as a deadlift, we’d need to do a dozen other lifts, including ones that load our spines up heavy. We’d accumulate the same fatigue, it would just take us an entire workout instead of a few sets of deadlifts.
There’s a stronger version of that argument, though. Even if we do decide to deadlift, why not choose an easier variation, such as a Romanian deadlift? It’s the same general movement pattern, but it’s much less fatiguing. We’d hit our hamstrings similarly hard but with less stress on our backs.
The reason we disagree with that line of thinking is that the very reasons that deadlifts are so fatiguing are what makes them great.
- Work capacity. Becoming accustomed to doing more taxing lifts will increase our work capacity, allowing us to handle higher volumes of harder lifts. This is especially true if we put extra emphasis on bulking up our spinal erectors, giving our spines a bit of extra support.
- A tougher spine. The reason that deadlifts are so tiring is because of all the stress on our spines. But that stress will make our spines stronger. That will make every other lift easier.
- Denser bones. Going into the realm of speculation here, there seems to be a strong link between bone mass and genetic muscle-building potential. First, the research of Casey Butts, PhD, found that guys with more bone mass can build more muscle. Second, bone researchers have noticed that when people lose bone density, their muscle mass tends to decrease as well. I think including some lifts in our routines that are good for building denser bones is not only healthy, but also a good idea for longer-term muscle gains.
- Time efficiency. It’s true that deadlifts are fatiguing per unit of muscle growth, but if we also factor in that deadlifts stimulate a tremendous amount of muscle growth per unit of time, they start to look a bit better. Spending fifteen minutes deadlifting per week might yield a disproportionate amount of fatigue, but it will also yield a disproportionate amount of overall muscle growth.
Besides, most smart programs take into account that deadlifts are fatiguing anyway. That’s why you’ll often see deadlifts programmed with a lower volume and frequency.
We can get the best of both worlds by doing just a few sets of deadlift per week, but combining that with some smart assistance and accessory lifts to get the ideal frequency and volume for size and strength gains.
The Deadlift and the Spine
Sometimes you’ll hear that the deadlift is dangerous, and it certainly can be. There’s an inherent risk in every lift. What we want to do is minimize those risks while still reaping as many benefits as we can.
There are two common mindsets about lifting, and they seem to be most at odds when it comes to the deadlift. Some people see themselves as invulnerable and they rush right into things regardless of the risk. Other people see themselves as fragile and they shy away from things that might hurt them.
The guys who rush recklessly into lifting will often get hurt, and the deadlift can be especially bad for that. Lifting with a rounded back makes the lift a bit easier on the hips by shrinking the moment arm, like so:
This allows people to rest the weight on their spines and muscle it up with their hips. That’s no good. Our spines are strong, and they’ll often hold out for quite a while, but there’s only so much stupidity they can take. It doesn’t always happen, and it doesn’t always happen right away, but these guys often get hurt.
Cautious people hear about these injuries and they psyche themselves out. Any soreness in their lower back worries them. They start to see the deadlift as an assault on their fragile spines.
But even if you believe that your spine is fragile, you’ve still got a couple of different approaches you could take. The first option is to tiptoe around your spine, never stressing it, and abandoning it to get gradually weaker. The other approach is to toughen your spine to the point where it isn’t fragile anymore.
Bone in a healthy person or animal will adapt to the loads under which it is placed.Wolff’s Law, discovered by Julius Wolff, PhD
Now, what’s neat about the spinal erectors is that although they span your entire spine, they’re made up of many different little muscles that span just a couple of vertebrae. This means that your back might be strong in some places, weak in others. You could have a strong lower back and a weak upper back or vice versa. What’s nice about conventional deadlifts is that they do a great job of strengthening our entire spines from top to bottom.
Progressive overload is a gradual process. A few pounds here, an extra rep there. A slightly stressed disc today, a slightly stronger disc tomorrow. We may start off lifting modest weights with fragile backs, but our spines will adapt along with our muscles, growing tougher as we grow stronger (study).
Intensive training will increase the bone mineral content (BMC) to an extent that the spine can tolerate extraordinary loads.Spinal loading research by Granhed et al
We do still want to be cautious, though. For example, we recommend deloading now and then, giving ourselves a chance to fully recover from any minor damage that we may be accumulating. Every few weeks, do a couple of easier workouts. Every few months, take a week off. Every few years, take a month off.
You don’t necessarily need to take time off from lifting, just from heavy spinal loading. For example, you could spend a few weeks every year doing 1-legged Romanian deadlifts instead of conventional deadlifts.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. In order to minimize our risk of injury while reaping all of these rewards, we need to deadlift with good technique. And different people have different ideas of what that looks like.
There are two popular ways of deadlifting (properly):
- Strongman-style: the strongman mentality is to build a back that’s tough even in unsafe positions, and so they deadlift hard and heavy. The barbell starts a bit higher, allowing for heavier loading. They use lifting straps, again allowing for heavier loading. And they allow hitching—resting the barbell on the knees and then dragging it up the thighs. You’ll also see strongmen lifting with rounded backs during a variety of different lifts, including deadlifts—on purpose.
- Powerlifter-style: the powerlifter mentality is to deadlift with absolutely textbook technique. They still deadlift heavy, of course, but the barbell starts low, there are no lifting straps, and there’s no hitching. This forces lighter weights, a longer range of motion, and a steadier amount of stress on the spine. All lifts are done with a neutral spine, and most especially deadlifts.
Dr Stuart McGill’s research found that deadlifting with a rounded back puts around 950% as much shear stress on our spines. No surprise, then, that strongmen have about twice the injury rate of powerlifters (source).
Most of us will want to deadlift more like powerlifters, keeping our spines in the neutral range. If we do that, we can expect a lower chance of getting injured than joggers, soccer players, and triathletes.
We aren’t just trying to stay safe, though, we’re also trying to get bigger and stronger. And beyond the beginner stage, improving means that we need to push outside of our comfort zones and fight to add weight to the bar.
As we lift closer to our max weight, or as we near the end of a hard set, our textbook form will start to waver. If our back strength is our limiting factor, then our spinal erectors might stretch out a bit, and our backs might start to flex. That’s normal.
As we add weight to the bar, our spinal erectors will all grow strong together, and the stress on our backs will be shared between the many different vertebrae in our spines, minimizing the stress on any one joint.
The trick is that the curve must be modest and smooth. As long as we only flex a degree or two at each vertebra, we’re still within what’s called the neutral “range,” where our vertebrae are still more or less in the middle of their range of motion. In this slightly flexed position, the shear stress should still be tolerable, and our risk of injury should stay low.
Point being, deadlifts should be done with care to reduce our risk of injury. But we also need to lift heavy, hard, and with confidence in order to provoke beneficial adaptations. If we can balance caution with aggression, then over time our entire backs—including the bones and connective tissues in our spines—will become bigger, stronger, harder, and more robust.
The Deadlift and the Neck
Of all the big compound lifts, the deadlift is the one that’s the most likely to bulk up your neck. In fact, if you count your upper traps as part of your neck, then the deadlift is a great neck exercise. The deadlift will absolutely bulk up your traps.
However, if you’re also interested in bulking up your sternocleidomastoid, which is the muscle that will make your neck thicker, then the relationship between the deadlift and your neck becomes more tenuous.
If you deadlift with classic technique, eyes forward, keeping your spine neutral from top to bottom, then the deadlift probably won’t stimulate any neck growth whatsoever. This is generally considered the safest deadlift technique, and it’s our default recommendation. (We aren’t sticklers about it, though.)
On the other hand, if you tend to look up while deadlifting, then as the barbell pulls against your collarbones, your sternocleidomastoid might get stretched out under a heavy load, which can cause some neck growth. However, that brings the very top of your spine out of a neutral position, and even though that area of your spine won’t be bearing any load, some spinal experts argue that it’s more dangerous. (There’s very little evidence one way or the other. It depends on how cautious you want to be.)
Regardless, no matter what position your neck is in while deadlifting, there’s no real guarantee that your neck will grow. And even if your neck does grow, it’s unlikely that it will grow very quickly or very much.
As a result, if you want a thicker and stronger neck, I would recommend doing some dedicated neck training. You won’t need extra work for your upper traps, but you’ll probably want some extra work for your sternocleidomastoid.
The Conventional Deadlift
Why the Conventional Deadlift is Best for Bulking
The conventional deadlift is the best default variation if you’re interested in gaining muscle size and general strength. To understand why that is, we have to look at the 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. Not by a huge amount, mind you. Most studies find somewhere around 8–10% more back stimulation from the conventional deadlift.
However, you’ve got to lift the weight a greater distance, too, bringing your hips through a larger range of motion, and stabilizing the weight with your back muscles for longer. As a result, this study found that conventional deadlifts used 25-40% more energy than the sumo deadlift.
That won’t necessarily mean that you’ll need to lift less weight with a conventional stance. After all, people don’t fail reps because they get tired of lifting the weight through a large range of motion, they fail because they’re not strong enough to get the weight past the sticking point. And at your sticking point, it’s unlikely that your back will be your limiting factor. That’s why most people are able to deadlift similar amounts in both stances.
However, even though you’ll be lifting a comparable amount of weight, conventional deadlifts will almost certainly feel harder. That’s because it has a better strength curve. It’s got a longer range of motion and it remains more challenging throughout. The peak stress per rep similar—the sticking point is similarly hard—but the average stress is greater, resulting in more muscle growth per rep.
Getting that deeper range of motion in your hips is good, too. It will maximally challenge your hips in the stretched position at the bottom of the lift, which is fairly ideal for muscle growth. Then, over the course of the rep, emphasis will shift from your lower back (at the bottom) to your upper back (at the top). You’ll get great back development as well.
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 bulking up your hips and back, strengthening your spine, and improving your lifting fitness.
If you’re interested in size, general strength, and aesthetics, go with the conventional deadlift.
How to do the Conventional Deadlift
The deadlift is a hard lift. You need to lift a lot of weight, and you need to lift it safely. However, it’s not a complicated lift. Most of us intuitively know how to pick things up, and we often have pretty good intuitions about how to do it safely, too.
Deadlifts are perhaps the simplest of all lifts. They’re very easy to learn. All you need to do is reach down to the bar, contract your back muscles (“chest up!”), and pull.
Here’s Marco teaching the conventional barbell deadlift:
As you do your deadlifts, you might want to keep a few cues in mind:
- Chest high: keep your chest high and your lats flexed hard.
- Sit back: Sit your hips back and feel the tension build on your glutes and hamstrings. This is where your power will come from.
- Tight armpits: before you lift the weight, tighten your armpits as if you’re deathly afraid of being tickled.
- Pull the slack out of the bar before you lift it. If there are a few hundred pounds on the bar, put a couple of hundred pounds of pressure on the bar before you try to heave it up. That will pull the slack out of the bar and give your back muscles a chance to engage.
You probably won’t need to overthink it, though. By the time you’re an intermediate lifter, deadlifts should feel fairly intuitive. Trust that intuition. Your back is strong and so are you.
Min-Maxing the Range of Motion
Just like hitting a certain depth while squatting is arbitrary, so is deadlifting from the floor. We want to find the range of motion that suits our bodies best. Going deep is great, but going too deep can jam up our hips and force lower back rounding. And since everyone is built a bit differently, everyone’s ideal depth will be a bit different.
For people with average bone structures and decent posture, deadlifting from the floor is a good default. Almost all of us will be able to get into a position like the good fellow on the left:
But let’s also talk about this guy on the right. Most people can get somewhere between 110–130° of bend in their hips (source). The deadlift typically requires about 115° (source). So when some people set up for the deadlift, their femurs crash into their pelvis, forcing them to round their lower backs in order to reach the barbell. That throws their backs out of proper alignment, making the lift more dangerous.
If you don’t have the mobility to grip the bar without rounding your back, all hope isn’t lost. Try going through this list, starting at the beginning and working your way down:
- Trap-bar deadlifts. Most traps bars reduce the range of motion by a couple of inches, and they also allow you to bend less at the hips by bending more at the knees, allowing everyone to get into a proper starting position. Mind you, not everyone has a trap bar.
- Angling your knees outwards. To do this, angle your feet out to about 30°, plant them firmly on the floor, and then “drill” them in to angle your knees outwards. As always, line your knees up over your second toe.
- Using a slightly wider conventional stance, even if that means moving your arms out a little bit wider.
- Using a narrow sumo stance, where you bring your knees right outside your grip. This has many of the benefits of a conventional deadlift while freeing up a bit more space in your hips.
- Full sumo stance, which requires quite a bit less mobility in the hips.
- Romanian deadlifts. These allow you to use whatever range of motion you’re comfortable with. The downside is that they aren’t as good for strengthening your back.
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, wide-grip deadlifts, or full-on snatch-grip deadlifts. Given the steeper back angle that those involve, they’re even better for building up a bigger and stronger upper back.
However, since deeper deadlifts require using quite a bit less weight, and given that the deadlift is our best opportunity to load our bodies up heavy, you may want to reserve the deeper deadlifts for assistance lifts.
Finally, a mix of different ranges of motions is probably ideal. A November 2014 study found that including some 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 if a conventional deadlift is deep for you, then include some assistance lifts with a shorter range of motion. Romanian deadlifts are great for that.
Or if the conventional deadlift is shallow for you, then include some deeper assistance lifts. Wide-grip deadlifts are great for that.
To summarize, choose the deepest deadlift that you can comfortably manage as your main lift. For most of us, a standard conventional deadlift is the best choice. Then, alongside your main deadlift, try some deeper (wide-grip) and shallower (Romanian) ranges of motion.
Diagnosing Weak Links
There are a few different limiting factors that are common on the deadlift:
- You can’t break the bar off the floor.
- You fail with the bar a few inches off the ground.
- The bar slips out of your hands.
- Failing above the knee.
- Your back rounds.
Let’s tackle them one by one.
The Bar Won’t Move
If the bar won’t move, it might be because you’re using a weight that’s much too heavy. In this case, choose a slightly lower weight. No problem.
Another reason that the barbell gets stuck on the floor is that our quads are disproportionately weak. Conventional deadlifts mainly train our hips and back, so it’s rare for our quads to be a limiting factor, but it can happen. With sumo and trap-bar deadlifts, though, the quads play a bigger role, and so it’s common for the barbell to get stuck on the floor because of weak quads.
The solution here is to do more squatting. Front squats and Zercher squats are a good choice because they’ll sneak in some bonus upper-back growth.
Your hips are too weak. If you’re deadlifting with a conventional stance, your back is holding a proper position, but you just can’t get the bar to move, then it’s probably because your hips are too weak. Romanian deadlifts, low-bar good mornings, and hip thrusts will help.
Failing a Few Inches Off the Ground
This is the ideal scenario. This means that your muscles are proportionately developed, they just aren’t quite strong enough yet.
In this case, you don’t need to do anything special. Just keep growing stronger at the overall movement pattern. Conventional deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, barbell rows, and front-loaded squats are all great.
Grip Issues While Deadlifting
Use a strong grip technique. The first thing is to make sure that you’re using a mixed or hook grip, which will help keep the barbell from rolling out of your grip.
The mixed grip is how powerlifters grip the bar. It will increase biceps activation on the underhand side, so if you switch your grip between sets, that can add a bit of biceps work into your routine. It also increases the risk of tearing your biceps, but that’s quite rare, and it mainly happens to powerlifters who are maxing out in competitions. You can also radically reduce your risk of tearing your biceps by keeping your upper arms more relaxed while deadlifting (which you should be doing anyway).
The hook grip is how weightlifters grip the bar. It will allow you to deadlift more symmetrically, which makes deadlifting with good technique a bit easier, and it also keeps your spine from twisting. However, it’s also the more painful way of gripping the barbell. While learning it, my thumbs were torn and purple for a good few months. But it’s the strongest and most versatile way to grip a barbell, and I dig it.
Add friction to your hands. Once you’re using a strong grip, the next thing to solve is the sweatiness and slipperiness. Try using chalk (for any grip) or putting some lifting tape around your thumb (for the hook grip). Combined with good grip technique, this will often be enough.
If you train at a commercial gym, they might not allow chalk. That’s not the end of the world. You’ll just need to get your grip extra strong (or switch to a hook grip with thumb tape).
Strengthen your grip. If you’re using good technique and chalk/tape, and you’re still having trouble holding onto the bar, then the next thing to do is to strengthen your grip.
If the barbell is slipping out of your hands while deadlifting, then it means that you lack the strength to keep your hands closed. Duh, I know. But this is a specific type of grip strength called support strength, which is different from the type of strength that you use while squeezing things (crushing strength). As a result, it requires a specific type of training.
There are a few good ways to strengthen your grip, starting with the simplest:
- Follow a program that uses a variety of barbell lifts. Barbell rows, Romanian deadlifts, chin-ups, farmer carries, and curls will all help to strengthen your grip. If you have enough of these in your program, you probably won’t ever need dedicated grip training. But if your grip has fallen behind, it may pay to emphasize it for a bit.
- Static holds. Once you’ve finished your heavy lifting for the day, load up a barbell and hold onto it for 15–30 seconds. Do 2–4 sets of these. Whenever you’re able to hold the bar for a good 30 seconds on the final set, add a bit more weight to the bar next workout. Use the same grip that you prefer while deadlifting (mixed or hook grip).
- One-armed static holds. If you want to mix in some core training with your grip training, you can train your grip one hand at a time. This is great for your obliques. (This works best if you’re using a barbell that has centre knurling.)
- Weighted hangs. If your back is fatigued from your heavy lifting, you might prefer to hang from a chin-up bar instead. It won’t be quite as specific, and you’ll need to use a double-underhand grip, but it will allow you to train your grip without further stressing your back. Again, do these at the very end of your workouts. And again, hold the bar for 15–30 seconds, adding weight when you can hold the bar for 30 seconds.
The trick is to grip a bar that has a similar diameter to the barbell that you’re deadlifting with. You can indeed emphasize your grip by using handles with a thicker diameter, but the strength that you gain won’t transfer over to the deadlift as well.
Lifting straps. You could, of course, avoid all of this hassle by using lifting straps, which is the approach that strongmen take. You’d miss out on buffing up your forearms, but it’s an option. Not our preferred option, but an option nonetheless.
Failing Above the Knee
Failing above the knee is usually a back rounding issue. Take a video of yourself deadlifting and see if your back is falling out of the neutral range. If you notice that your back is rounding, see the back rounding section below.
If your back is holding a good position but you’re still having trouble locking out the deadlift, then we need to get your hips stronger at that top part of the lift. Glute bridges and hip thrusts are good for training hip lockout strength.
There are a couple of reasons why your back rounds while deadlifting.
First, you don’t have the mobility to get into the starting position. That might be something you can work on, or maybe those are just the hips you were born with. In either case, that’s fine, you can just raise the barbell up to the point where you can deadlift without rounding your back. Switching to a trap bar can also be a good solution to this problem.
Second, your hips aren’t strong enough. As we covered earlier, rounding your back while deadlifting opens up your hip angle while scooching them closer to the barbell, giving your hips better leverage.
The first downside is that this makes the deadlift more dangerous, and the second downside is that you’ll have a harder time locking the bar out. (When people fail above the knees, deadlifting with a round back is usually the root problem.)
If this is happening, you’ll want to strengthen your hips with Romanian deadlifts, glute-ham raises, glute bridges, or hip thrusts.
Third, your spinal erectors aren’t strong enough. The conventional deadlift is a back exercise, so it’s totally normal for your back to give out first. When you notice that your back starts to flex (or if you feel that it’s about to start flexing) more than a few degrees, that’s a good reason to end your set. Your back has gotten what it needs out of the lift.
To continue strengthening your back, you could simply do more conventional deadlifts. After all, if you’re failing due to your back strength, then your back is getting the largest growth stimulus out of your deadlifts. But if you’re failing on your back, chances are that your back is already way too fatigued to handle any extra deadlifting volume.
A better way to strengthen your back is to choose lighter and easier exercises that will bulk up your back muscles without fatiguing you quite as much. High-bar good mornings, barbell rows, front-loaded squats, and hyper-extensions will help.
Conventional Deadlift Alternatives
The Sumo Deadlift
The sumo deadlift allows you to lift with more leg and less back. It’s easier on your spinal erectors, easier on your mid and lower traps, easier on your lats. However, it’s still just as hard on your hips and hamstrings, and it’s actually a pretty solid quad exercise.
Most people switch to sumo for the wrong reasons. They switch because when they deadlift conventional, they have a hard time keeping their back straight, their back gets too sore, or they feel the lift too much in their spinal erectors. Those are bad reasons to switch.
The conventional deadlift is largely a back exercise, so the fact that it challenges your back is hardly a sign that you should be doing a different variation. That would be like trading the bench press for triceps extensions because benching is hard on your chest. Just like the bench press is supposed to be hard on your chest, the conventional deadlift is supposed to be hard on your back.
Some say that if your back is having a hard time keeping up with the demands of the conventional deadlift, your back is identifying itself as a weak point that needs attention. So you should stick with the conventional deadlift, add in some back-dominant assistance and accessory lifts (like good mornings and barbell rows), and watch your back explode in size.
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 may not be technically ideal for gaining back size and strength, or for improving your aesthetics, but the difference won’t be bulk-breaking.
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. 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 the handles 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.
- 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, the trap-bar deadlift is an 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 hamstrings, backs, or forearms as the conventional deadlift, and we already have the 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 muscle growth that we stimulate. It might also make trap-bar deadlifts worse for improving our 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 more back for your buck by doing conventional deadlifts and front squats instead.
Unless, of course, you do a trap-bar deadlift as if it were a conventional deadlift. After all, there’s nothing stopping you from getting a trap bar with shorter handles, sitting back further into your starting position, and then muscling the weight up your posterior chain. At that point, you’re essentially doing a conventional deadlift but with a trap bar.
If you use a conventional deadlift technique with a trap bar, you’ll get some cool advantages, too:
- You’ll be able to hold your arms in a more neutral position, which is nice on the shoulders.
- Your grip will be wider, which is great for your traps.
- You won’t need to worry about fancy grip techniques or chalk to stop the bar from rolling out of your hands.
If you’re doing a conventional-style deadlift but with a trap bar, I’d still count that as a conventional deadlift. You’ll still get all of the benefits.
The Romanian Deadlift
If for whatever reason none of the heavy deadlift variations are working well for you, the Romanian deadlift is a good fall-back lift. You can also swap out some of your conventional deadlifts for Romanian deadlifts if you find that your training is getting particularly fatiguing.
For most people most of the time, though, Romanian deadlifts are better used as an assistance exercise to the conventional deadlift.
Heavy conventional deadlifts are incredibly fatiguing, especially once you get strong at them, and especially if you’re pushing yourself hard. In fact, most people find deadlifts about twice as fatiguing as heavy squatting. And so, not surprisingly, most people can only handle deadlifting about once per week.
Deadlifting more than once per week tends to be too hard on our spinal discs, too stressful for our spinal erectors, and put too much wear and tear on our hands. And it’s just tiring. Nobody wants to feel like a puddle all week long.
However, training a movement pattern just once per week isn’t ideal for gaining muscle or strength. That means that if we want to bring our frequency up into the ideal range (of 2–3 times per week), we should turn to assistance and accessory lifts. They can help us bulk up the relevant muscles without accumulating too much overall fatigue.
The next thing we need to consider is whether your spinal erectors need more work or less work.
- The case for more spinal erector work. Spending extra time bulking up your spinal erectors will make deadlifts less stressful on your back, allowing you to either feel fresher or to handle higher deadlift volumes. In this case, you might benefit from barbell rows, good mornings, and hyperextensions.
- The case for less spinal erector work. On the other hand, if your spinal erectors are already being pushed to their limits, you might want to take it easy during the rest of the week. You might want to choose lifts that minimize the role of your spinal erectors, giving them more time to recover.
The best approach is probably to do a bit of both. Choose a couple of lifts that will strengthen your spinal erectors that aren’t overly stressful. And then shy away from lifts that cause too much fatigue in your lower back.
Another technique is to deadlift with a lower volume but to bring up the volume of your assistance lifts. For example, maybe you do 4–5 sets of squats per session, but just three sets of deadlifts. But then to make up for that disparity, you include more rowing and Romanian deadlifts, fewer squat accessories.
Finally, if you’re ever feeling beat up before a session of heavy deadlifts, consider swapping in an assistance lift instead. If your lower back is already feeling tired before you even start your conventional deadlifts, consider doing Romanian deadlifts instead. They’ll be a bit easier on your back, and will hopefully leave you feeling fresher for the next week.
The Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
Romanian deadlifts are the top half of a conventional deadlift, and they start from a standing position. You lower the barbell to your knees, then drive the barbell back up with your hips, like so:
Since you aren’t lowering the barbell all the way to the floor, it also keeps your torso in a more upright position, reducing the demands on your lower back, both in terms of peak load (bottom of the lift) and average load (over the full range of motion):
Combine that with the fact that Romanian deadlifts are substantially lighter than full deadlifts, and we have a much less fatiguing lift that’s still similarly good at packing meat onto our hips and hamstrings.
Now, we also want the benefits of heavy spinal loading and to bulk up our backs. Deadlifts still have a place in our routines. But Romanian deadlifts are an absolutely amazing assistance exercise that will help us bulk up our volume while keeping our fatigue low.
The 1-Legged Romanian Deadlift
The trick with choosing deadlift assistance exercises is that we want to manage the stress on our backs. We want to stimulate our spinal erectors as much as possible without accumulating more stress than they can realistically recover from. We also want to keep the stress on our spinal discs manageable.
One tool for this is 1-legged Romanian deadlifts. By training our legs one at a time, we can get just as much stimulation on our hips and hamstrings while using much lighter weights. Our spinal erectors still get worked, of course, but with substantially lighter weights and for twice as many sets. This may even act as a form of active recovery, allowing them to heal and adapt more quickly.
The same is true for our forearms. We’re holding much less weight but for twice as many sets, which seems to be great for managing fatigue and recovery.
The Wide-Grip Deadlift
Using a wider grip while deadlift does a couple of cool things. First, it forces you to bend further over, extending the range of motion for your hips. Second, it puts your back in a more horizontal position, making the lift better for strengthening your spinal erectors. Third, it puts almost all of your upper back muscles into a difficult position, forcing them to work much harder.
Now, all of this will force you to use lighter weights. As a result, using a snatch-grip isn’t necessarily better than the deadlift for stimulating overall muscle growth. However, it’s a great way to get a ton of muscle growth out of lighter weights, making it a great assistance lift.
I would turn to the snatch-grip deadlift if you want to speed up your upper-back development. If you wanted bigger traps, say, then this would be a great assistance lift.
Now, there’s a popular type of wide-grip deadlift called the snatch-grip deadlift. That’s a great variation that’s typically used to improve Olympic weightlifting performance. Thing is, snatch-grip deadlifts are done with a very wide grip. That might extend the range of motion by more than you can handle. Or maybe not. Feel free to try them. Just keep in mind that you’re free to use a grip width that’s comfortably wide. I like to put my pinky fingers on the bench press knurl marks.
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, some experts, such as Greg Nuckols, MA, believe that the strength you gain while doing back squats translates 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 back your deadlift 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 squat variations demand much more from your spinal erectors than others. That’s where front-loaded squats come in. As we covered in our squat article, front squats are just as good for your upper back as they are for your quads, making them brilliant accessory lifts for the deadlift.
The added benefit here, of course, is that spending more time squatting will also help to improve your squat.
Barbells rows are really quite similar to deadlifts. They work all of the same muscles: your grip, your spinal erectors, 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 a weight tends to yield more muscle growth than stabilizing a weight, this means that the barbell row tends to be better for developing the lats, whereas 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. It’s a fairly easy lift that’s great for bulking up your lats and forearms.
Now, it’s worth pointing out that barbell rows train the lats, but don’t let that fool you. The lats don’t connect the vertebrae in our spines, and so they won’t help us maintain our spinal position while deadlifting. What gives barbell rows such great carryover to deadlifts is that they’ll also bulk up our spinal erectors and hips. That means that choosing chest-supported or arm-supported rows, where your hips and spinal erectors are removed from the equation, won’t cut it. Those are accessory lifts for the chin-up.
That also means that choosing row variations that put even more emphasis on the hips and spinal erectors can have even more transference to the deadlift, provided that your back isn’t too fatigued already.
If we deadlift from the floor instead of our knees, that shoots our hips further back and puts our backs in a more horizontal position, like so:
What we’re seeing here is that rowing from our knees (left) is pretty easy on our hips and spinal erectors. As a result, our lats and forearms are more likely to be our limiting factor, and so they’ll get more of the growth stimulus. When we row from the floor, it’s around 30% harder on our hips and spinal erectors, making it more likely that they’ll limit our performance, and thus see more growth.
The exact effects vary from person to person, of course, but rowing from the knees puts more emphasis on the lats and upper back whereas rowing from the floor puts more emphasis on the lower back.
That brings us to the more advanced rowing variations:
The Pendlay row starts with the barbell on the ground and finishes when the barbell touches your torso. There’s no hip drive, so you finish with your hips in the same position, your back at the same angle. This is a great lift for bulking up your spinal erectors, just make sure that you aren’t overdoing it. If you do a lot of heavy barbell work, it’s easy to overwork them.
The power row adds hip drive into the Pendlay row. The obvious benefit is that you’ll be working your glutes and hamstrings harder. The subtler benefit is that you’ll also be building momentum through the bottom part of the lift. That momentum will help your lats blast through the sticking point at the top. That means that you’ll be able to use a heavier weight or get more reps, giving your upper back even more stimulation.
This row variation has the most carryover to your deadlift, and it’s a favourite among top-level powerlifters (such as Cailer Woolam). The downside is that it’s a big lift—especially for an accessory. Again, you need to make sure that your back is tough enough to weather the onslaught.
Glute Bridges / Hip Thrusts
Glute bridges and hip thrusts are a great way to bulk up your hips without putting any more stress on your back or hands. They’re hardest at the lockout position, so they’re especially good for improving lockout strength, but the size you gain will improve your hip strength in every part of the deadlift.
Glute bridges use a smaller range of motion but they’re easier to set up and can be loaded heavier. They’re a good lift to start with.
Hip thrusts are a bit more finicky but they use a much larger range of motion and so they technically do a better job of stimulating the glutes.
Back Raises / Reverse Hypers
If you want to improve your back extension strength, these are the lift for you. They’ll strengthen your spinal erectors while simultaneously training your hips. The only downside is that you’ll need a special machine, which brings us to…
Good mornings got their name because they resemble the movement we do when we get out of bed in the morning. Another source claims that they got their name because they look like the movement that we use to wish people a good morning.
I felt ashamed when I learned that. I hadn’t known. I had to completely change how I got out of bed and said good morning to my wife. She was confused at first, but I think it’s been good for our marriage.
Anyway, if you want a simple solution to back troubles on the deadlift, good mornings are for you. They’re great for strengthening your spinal erectors, hamstrings, and back-extension strength. Best of all, they don’t require any special equipment, they’re easy to set up, dead simple to learn, and they’re a breeze to recover from.
If you train at home with a simple barbell home gym, good mornings are a good barbell alternative to reverse hypers, back raises, and even glute-ham raises. (And they’re a perfectly good lift by their own right.)
Low-bar vs high-bar: good mornings can be done with the barbell in either a low-bar or high-bar position. The low-bar position is easier on your back and allows for heavier weights, making it good for training back extension with a tired back. The high-bar position is harder on your back but uses lighter weights, making it great for improving back strength.
Safety: if you already know how to squat and deadlift, then good mornings shouldn’t really be very dangerous. Still, you should probably use safety bars (as you would when squatting), and this isn’t really an exercise that you’ll want to take to failure.
The deadlift is perhaps the single best lift for becoming bigger, stronger and better looking. It will help you live a longer and healthier life, too.
However, as great as the deadlift is, and as efficient as it is per set, it’s also incredibly fatiguing. As a result, we need to program it sparingly. Less is more.
When taking a lower-volume approach to deadlifting, it pays to include plenty of assistance and accessory lifts. That allows us to boost the volume and frequency back up into the ideal range without accumulating as much fatigue. It also gives our spine a chance to more fully recover between heavy deadlift sessions.
Of the assistance lifts, Romanian deadlifts are perhaps the best all-around choice. If those are too tiring on your lower back or grip, try doing them one leg at a time.
Of the accessory lifts, nothing beats the barbell row. But if that’s too ambitious, back extensions / good mornings are an easy way to strengthen your spinal erectors without accumulating much extra fatigue.
Finally, you may have an easier time progressing on the deadlift if you include some front-loaded squats in your program, such as front squats and Zercher squats.
If you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, then check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. If you liked this article, you’ll love the full program.