The conventional deadlift is the most common deadlifting style seen in most training programs and in most gyms, followed closely by sumo. This isn't a bad thing. Both involve a lot of overall musculature and are great movements for basic strength development.
But there's a drawback: They disperse tension across such a large degree of musculature that no one area is truly hit with the majority of tension during execution.
"But that's why they're great! Because you hit so many muscles with one movement!" Yes, of course, that's advantageous, but not if you're actually trying to target a particular group in the posterior chain.
It's hard to build or strengthen any one specific area with run-of-the-mill deadlifts. Nothing gets in a really lengthened state in conventional deadlifts, and everything in the back – from the traps to the lats to the thoracic extensors – functions only in a static or isometric state throughout the movement. That's what these muscles are supposed to do: protect the spine by holding it in a neutral position.
So while you should keep the conventional deadlift in your training plan, use the following variations to really get after the areas where you want to place more tension.
What you'll build: Upper back and lats
The upper back and lats essentially perform in an isometric fashion during the conventional deadlift. The problem is, the start of the movement is initiated by a push off the floor using a degree of knee extension, then the movement is finished through hip extension.
With partial deadlifts (whether they begin from the rack or off blocks), you can eliminate the push off the floor and instead focus largely on the upper back and lats, making them do most of the work.
With the addition of bands, you'll make the lockout even more difficult and force the upper back and lats to work even harder to "hold position" and perform isometrically. Even in the top position the entire back will still be under a tremendous amount of tension just to hold the weight in place.
What you'll build: Glutes and hams
The sumo deadlift isn't a bad lift to use for glute development because the glutes tend to be in a more lengthened state compared to conventional deadlifts. Also, because of the foot position (toes turned outwards), you start and finish with a significant degree of external hip rotation.
You can amplify these benefits with this variation of the Jefferson deadlift. With the traditional Jefferson, you straddle the bar evenly, feet on each side. With the split or staggered stance version, one foot is going to be in front of the body and the other behind it. You'll also be in a wider, more sumo-style position, and have to get down very low.
- Try using smaller plates to increase the range of motion.
- Load the hamstrings and glutes by telling yourself to screw your feet into the floor and getting into a wide, staggered stance.
- Also think about twisting your feet outward as you perform the concentric (lifting) portion of the rep.
- Put your ego aside and use higher-rep sets here. Your hams and glutes should be screaming. Try sets of 15. Instead of setting the bar on the floor, stop it about an inch or two above to keep all of the tension on the glutes and hams.
- If you have short T-Rex arms, be careful and don't rack yourself in the crotchal region.
What you'll build: Quads
Decades ago, guys used to do deadlifts by putting the bar behind them. This allowed for a very upright position, which meant a great degree of knee flexion had to happen in order to get into position. This meant that due to execution, the quads got a great deal of work.
To get the same effect, use the trap bar deadlift. To make it more of a quad movement, raise your heels. This will automatically put you in a very upright position and create a mechanical position where the hips aren't as loaded as they would be with conventional deadlifts.
For those with bad knees or achy hips, this is a very joint-friendly exercise that can be used for both heavy progressive overload or high-rep death sets.
What you'll build: Glutes and hams
The Romanian deadlift, or RDL, is a great exercise for glute and hamstring development, but its resistance curve is in a descending pattern. So when the glutes are pushing through to finish hip extension, they're not working against a lot of resistance. This can be remedied with bands of course, but what works even better is using the Hammer Strength shrug/deadlift station.
Due to the way these machines are designed, the resistance curve is greatest at the top of the movement. When you use it for your RDLs your glutes and hams have to generate a lot of tension from start to finish.
These deadlift variations can either replace traditional deadlifts or they can be a supplemental part of building your deadlift by addressing any weaknesses you may have.
- If you're weak off the floor in the conventional deadlift, then the heels-elevated trap bar deadlift can help with leg drive by developing quad strength.
- If you're weak in the lockout, the hammer strength RDL can help you finish a conventional deadlift.
- If you need a solid assistant movement for the sumo deadlift, the Jefferson deadlift is a great option to use after your sumo pulls.