Here's what you need to know...
• Some coaches say the deficit deadlift is too dangerous to perform. However, a simple analysis shows it's perfectly safe, provided it suits your particular anthropometry.
• Those with abnormally long arms may be better suited to the deficit deadlift than the traditional pull from the floor.
• Deficit deadlifts will make your standard deadlift much stronger while helping prevent injuries both in and out of the weight room.
A deficit deadlift is a deadlift performed while standing on a weight plate or short platform, usually around one to four inches high. It's often used as assistance work for those that have trouble in the first stage of the deadlift. The increased range of motion also recruits more of the posterior chain and quads.
But certain strength coaches say the deficit deadlift belongs in the trash heap of failed exercises, right next to narrow-grip upright rows. I disagree, and here's why.
The main argument for dropping the deficit deadlift is that it's dangerous, and by setting the bar at a height slightly below a traditional deadlift we're turning a strength-training staple into a lower-back horror movie.
Consider that when we deadlift, the height of the bar is totally arbitrary. Nobody hired scientists to figure out the "ideal" diameter for 45-pound plates. Everybody just agreed that they all should be roughly 17.5 to 18 inches.
So if the diameter of the plates – and therefore the height of the bar – is arbitrary, does it matter where we pull from as long as we maintain form? The short answer is no.
When Should You Pull From a Deficit?
The most important thing to look at when determining if you can deadlift from a deficit is your lumbar posture at the beginning of the lift. If you can maintain a neutral or arched lumbar spine, you'll have no problems with performing deficit deadlifts.
A good predictor of lumbar posture is the amount of hip flexion present. As hip flexion increases, the hamstrings will eventually run out of room to stretch, and the lower back will have to flex to reach proper depth.
Another important thing to evaluate is arm length. For example, I have freakishly long arms. I'm 5'10" but have a 6'3" wingspan (a wingspan/height ratio of 1:1 is considered normal). This means that the level of hip flexion required for me to get into proper deadlift position is less than that of person with a normal wingspan.
When I pull from the floor with my orangutan arms, I'll always be at a mechanical advantage relative to somebody who doesn't share my arm length. So if it's impossible for me to stand on a 2-3 inch elevation and do a deadlift without injuring myself, what does that say about the danger posed to a 5'10" guy with a normal 5'10" wingspan doing a deadlift off the floor? Do we force him to only perform rack pulls because deads from the floor would be catastrophic?
Of course not. He pulls from the floor like everybody else, because that's how deadlifting works.
Why Should You Do These?
They'll make you stronger. If you're physically capable of pulling from a deficit, you should. By putting yourself at a biomechanical disadvantage – as you are during a pull from a deficit – you'll get stronger throughout the whole range of the lift, thereby improving your ability to get the bar moving off the floor when you pull from the ground.
Furthermore, by forcing yourself to maintain body awareness and keep your back flat with an anteriorly tilted pelvis in the deficit position, you'll become better at maintaining good lumbopelvic posture when deadlifting from the floor. This increased lumbopelvic control will make you less likely to get injured when pulling heavy.
Finally, if you're deadlifting to improve your performance in a sport, increased strength through a larger range of motion is even more important. The ability to control your body and be explosive and powerful in a large range of hip ROM comes in handy if you ever find yourself in a less than ideal level of hip flexion, as MMA fighters, football players, and other athletes often do.
How Low Can (or Should) You Go?
This depends on arm length and lumbar posture. A good rule of thumb is to figure out the difference between your wingspan and your height. Again, I'm 5'10" with a 6'3" wingspan, which is a difference of 5 inches. Therefore, I should be able to pull safely from a deficit of 2.5 inches (the difference divided by the number of arms I possess). This would put me at the same biomechanical disadvantage as a normal 5'10" guy.
But rather than start out at a 2.5-inch deficit, I'd start at 1 inch and then try 2 inches, and keep increasing until I'm not able to get into proper deadlifting position with a flat back. Even though I should be able to do something, that doesn't necessarily mean that I can. Mobility issues may still keep me from maintaining proper form at a 2.5-inch deficit, so it's better to ease into it at 1-inch intervals.
Now, for people with a less than 1:1 wingspan to height ratio – deficit deadlifts likely aren't for you as you're already at a horrible mechanical disadvantage when you pull from the floor. So before attempting any deficit deadlifts, make sure you can address the bar with a neutral spine. If not, don't push your luck.
Here's a comparison between me and T-Nation author Dan Blewett, who has slightly different anthropometry.
My measurements are as follows:
Dan's measurements are:
Here we are deadlifting from the floor; from a 1-inch deficit; from a 2-inch deficit; and from the floor with a snatch grip.
Andrew from the floor – 60 degrees hip flexion
Dan from the floor – 55 degrees hip flexion
Andrew at 1-inch deficit – 50 degrees hip flexion
Dan at 1-inch deficit – 45 degrees hip flexion
Andrew at 2-inch deficit – 45-degrees hip flexion
Dan at 2-inch deficit – 42 degrees hip flexion
Andrew using snatch grip – 45 degrees hip flexion
(My degree of hip flexion would have been greater, but my grip wasn't quite as wide as Dan's)
Dan using snatch grip – 40 degrees hip flexion
You can see that both our backs stay relatively flat on the 1-inch, and mine stays flat on the 2-inch deficit and the snatch grip.
However, you can see Dan's low back start to round on the wider snatch grip. Additionally, my hip angle bottoms out around 45 degrees on both the 2-inch deficit and the snatch grip, while Dan's hip angle gets as low as 40 degrees on the snatch grip, which is also the point where you really start to see his lower back round.
This is exactly what we should expect to see, given the fact that Dan's arms are the same length as mine, but he's nearly 2 inches taller. He should be able to deadlift with good form from about 1-inch less of a deficit than I can, which is exactly what we see from these pictures.
Another thing we see is that the 2-inch deficit involves less hip flexion than the snatch-grip deadlift. The snatch grip also causes more low back rounding than the 2-inch deficit deadlift. So why's there such an outcry against deficit deads while snatch-grip deadlifts don't get nearly as much flack?
If anything, snatch-grip deadlifts should be the exercise that people rail against, not the deficit pull.
Determining Your Ideal Deficit
Figuring out how much of a deficit you should be able pull from is simple. Simply measure your height, then measure your wingspan from fingertip to fingertip, and then determine the difference between the two.
Next, divide the difference by 2 and you have the amount of deficit required to put you in deadlifting position for a "normal" person with a 1:1 wingspan to height ratio. We'll call this number your ideal deficit.
I've found that most people who are roughly at 1:1 with decent hip mobility can pull from a 1-inch deficit with a flat back, so try to go 1-inch past your ideal deficit. If you can accomplish that with a flat back, try to go 2 inches beyond it. As long as your back stays flat, you'll stay safe.
How to Program Deficit Deadlifts
Deficit deadlifts should be rotated in for 3-4 weeks at a time, and should be done with weights less than what you'd pull from the floor. For every inch you add to the deficit, subtract about 10% of your max weight from the floor in the same rep range. So if you're doing 5 sets of 3, and your 3RM off the floor is 425 pounds, you should start with about 385.
Of course, this varies from lifter to lifter, so don't feel like you're automatically restricted to 90% intensity at a 1-inch deficit. If you can handle heavier weights, have at it. Just make sure you can handle the lighter weights first before jumping up.
I like to rotate deadlift depth every couple of weeks, much like how Louie Simmons' disciples rotate box heights for squats, and board widths for bench press. By rotating different deficit heights, pulls from the floor, and rack pulls, you'll build strength throughout the deadlift motion and avoid plateaus.
If you're worried about ruining your lockout strength by always lifting with submaximal deadlift weights, then add chains to your deficit pulls. This will allow you to work in greater ranges of hip flexion without dropping any weight at the top, and you can load the bar with a supra-maximal weight at lockout while keeping the weight relatively low on the floor. This way, you can train the lockout and the break off the floor at the same time.
Note: If you're attempting a 3-inch or more deficit, there's a good chance you're going to run out of room for your feet under the bar. If this happens, you'll need to get your hands on a hex or trap bar, as it's the only way to keep the bar in a safe position over the middle of your feet.
You can even get creative with it and use farmers walk handles on either side of your platform/plate/whatever you're standing on. These really challenge your grip with heavy weights, so you'll want to have some straps nearby in case your hands crap out on you.
When done correctly, there's nothing inherently unsafe about deficit deadlifts. Simply figure out what your ideal deficit is and start there. Go as low as you can without letting your back round and have fun getting strong as hell.