- The deadlift is often feared because it places great weight on the back, and this stress is believed to create the potential for injury.
- If properly progressed, the deadlift creates no excessive risk of injury, and greatly strengthens the back against future injury.
- Knowing which exercises to use, you can be sure to pick the right ones. This guide is intended to show you the relative strengths and weaknesses of different deadlift variations, so you can make informed choices.
- ~2100 words, a 10-15 minute read.
The deadlift. It's one of the most awesome exercises around, and will turn you into an absolute boss at the gym.
At the same time, people often (wrongly) fear that the deadlift will wreck their back. This isn't a concern, so long as appropriate progressions are used: using the right exercises, and applying progressive overload in a measured and intelligent fashion.
The goal of this post is to explore EVERY ding dang deadlift variation that exists, and their relative uses. If it's not here, it's probably pretty obscure. I'll also be including the standard progression of exercises (see below) so that you can know where to start off, if you're just starting out deadlifting for the first time.
I've also gone ahead and listed "progressions" and "regressions" for each exercise - ideas for where to go next, or what to return to if the current exercise isn't working out.
The Standard Progression
The Weightless Deadlift/Hip Hinge
This variation is essentially a deadlift without weight. While this won’t be useful for many, it’s definitely useful for those just starting out, for the deconditioned, or for those coming back from injury. If you're looking for more info on weightless exercises, check out my posts on the topic.
In this variation, you’re practicing the movement without any weight at all. It’s important to maintain proper form, keep a tight back, squeeze oranges with your armpits, keep the scapula “in your back pockets”, long arms, and make sure that you’re hinging at the hips. Slide your hands down your shins and go to the point where you start to feel your form break down, and then return. It should look like you’re just doing a standard forward bend stretch, but while keeping your lower and upper back tight, which limits your range of motion a bit.
For some, it's impossible to load up the lift at all to start, so this is a good place to get going.
The Kettlebell Deadlift/Single Dumbbell Deadlift
The kettlebell deadlift has numerous advantages that make it easier to learn and coach than the standard barbell deadlift, and this makes it a good entry point for most. One major reason is that the barbell deadlift starts off at 45lbs, and even then it can be hard to get the height right until you’re strong enough to lift 135lbs. In contrast, the kettlebell deadlift can be started at lower weights, and the kettlebell handle is usually around an appropriate height.
The kettlebell is grasped in both hands between the legs, and raised to hip height by the extension of the hips. All the standard form cues apply. However, with the weight between the legs, this movement is a bit safer and less stressful on the back. You can take more of a traditional (close) or sumo (wide) stance, whichever is more comfortable.
The single dumbbell deadlift is performed in the same way, grasping a single dumbbell in two hands between the legs. This is a bit more awkward, grip-wise, but works just fine if all you have is a dumbbell.
For regression, you may want to reduce the range of motion by setting the kettlebell just slightly in front of you on a step or other object. The height can then be further raised as needed if that’s still too hard, or progressively lowered as the movement becomes easier, until you’re able to to deadlift with a full range of motion without issue.
For progression, you can try the double kettlebell/dumbbell deadlift (one in each hand) or you can move on to barbell deadlift variations.
Progressions: Double Kettlebell Deadlift, Barbell Variations
Regressions: Weightless Deadlift, Reduced Range of Motion
The Trap/Hex Bar Deadlift
This deadlift is more of a hybrid between a hip oriented (deadlift) and knee oriented (squatting) movement. With the use of a hex bar, you're standing in the center of a sort of circle, and this allows the weight to travel a bit more freely compared to other deadlifts. This makes it safer and easier on the back than the standard barbell deadlift. However, the trap bar isn’t a common piece of equipment in many gyms, so unfortunately many won’t have access to it.
If you do have access to it, it’s an excellent starting point for those deadlifting with a barbell for the first time. You’re also usually able to handle a little bit more weight than with a standard straight bar deadlift, which makes it a bit easier to get into it.
Further, it actually gives you slightly better muscle activation than standard barbell deadlifts. However, if you plan to train as a powerlifter, weightlifter, or strongman, you’ll definitely need to progress to the straight bar deadlift instead, as this is more specific to the competitive lifts.
This is an excellent deadlift variation that scales upwards indefinitely, but may not be for everybody.
Progressions: Straight Bar Traditional or Sumo Deadlift
Regressions: Kettlebell Deadlift, Weightless Deadlift
The Sumo Deadlift
While the sumo deadlift isn’t the one that most people think of first when they think of deadlifting with a straight bar, it’s actually a bit safer on the back in that it involves more knee and adductor involvement and a bit less back involvement due to keeping the torso more upright during the lift. This makes it more ideal for those looking to transition out of a lighter option like the kettlebell deadlift.
In the sumo deadlift, a very wide stance is taken and the bar is grasped between the legs instead of outside the legs. This may be a bit harder to get the hang of at first. In terms of form, the sumo deadlift is much the same as any other deadlift variation, but with an additional cue - you must be careful to properly sit back enough in the starting position. Many, thinking of it more like a standard deadlift, lean forward a bit much, which can make the motion harder to complete. At Westside Barbell, the sumo deadlift is taught using a chair variation that makes it easier to get the hang of, and I like this cue.
This variation scales indefinitely, and you’ll be able to handle about the same amount that you can deadlift with a traditional stance. Both are acceptable in powerlifting competitions and more than good enough for building size, although traditional deadlifts are more useful in strongman and Olympic lifting.
However, you should try both to see which suits you better - some are naturally stronger in one than the other. Once you've got a handle on the one you prefer, stick to that.
Progressions: None or Traditional Stance
Regressions: Kettlebell Deadlift, Weightless Deadlift
The Traditional, Straight Bar Deadlift
This is the OG of all deadlift exercises, and the one that most people will end up training. It can be a bit rough on the back if not performed correctly, which is why it’s best to train a variety of other movements first.
If you’re training to be a weightlifter, CrossFitter, or strongman, this variation is a necessity for you. If you’re a powerlifter, this or the sumo deadlift is a necessity. However, if you’re not training for one of these sports, it’s perfectly acceptable to use one of the other variations, provided you’re appropriately challenging yourself.
Progressions: None or Sumo Stance
Regressions: Trap Bar Deadlift, Kettlebell Deadlift, Weightless Deadlift
Suitcase Deadlift/Double Suitcase Deadlift
In the suitcase deadlift, you’re lifting either a kettlebell or dumbbell to waist height. Unlike other variations, however, the weight is held at the side with a straight arm, instead of between the legs.
With the standard suitcase deadlift, this becomes a powerful move for training the core. Since the weight is concentrated on one side of the body, you’re stabilizing with the core to stay upright and prevent yourself from folding over to the side. By alternating which hand the weight is held in, you can train both sides of the torso effectively.
In the double suitcase deadlift, a dumbbell or kettlebell is held in each hand. If this is done with dumbbells, you may want to use a pair of steps to reduce the range of motion so you’re not going all the way to the floor. This is an effective deadlift variation and is safe on the back, but it doesn’t mean as much core involvement since the weights balance each other out.
This may be a useful precursor to car deadlifting or the farmer’s carry, which may be helpful if you’ve got really heavy dumbbells or kettlebells and don’t have access to the equipment needed to train these lifts. The grip on the suitcase deadlift is parallel, making it more similar to these movements.
The jefferson deadlift is a pretty awesome variant in which you deadlift with the bar between your legs. From there, you grip the bar with an alternating grip and raise the weight as best you can. While this might seem like it means you’re going to end up punching yourself in the junk with the bar, this won’t be the case unless you have particularly short arms.
This variation involves a much greater amount of core involvement, and sides should be alternated to ensure even development. Unfortunately, since this lift is a bit unusual and isn’t used in any competition, many won’t see much reason to train this variation. At the same time, it's useful in training around side-to-side core strength disparities.
The car deadlift is a staple of many strongman competitions, and has to be used if you’re preparing for a competition that involves it. It’s also significantly different than the standard deadlift, and the equipment to practice it is less common.
In the car deadlift, you’re deadlifting a car on a rig from a pair of handles attached to the front of the rig. Usually, these handles are set in parallel, meaning you’ll need to practice parallel grip deadlifting (trap bar or suitcase deadlifts). Additionally, because the weight is on a lever with the lever point being far behind you, you’re going to be leaning back into it a bit more to get good form.
Car deadlift simulation rigs do exist for personal use, or may be found at a local strongman gym. You can use this for a more accurate simulation of the feel of the car deadlift.
The tire deadlift is another strongman event. In this deadlift, you’re lifting a bar weighted with large tires instead of plates. This can mean a smaller range of motion, and it also means that the weight is further out, leading to greater bar bend. Both of these factors together render it a little bit easier than a normal (plate) deadlift of the same weight, but not much.
This isn’t too much different than the standard deadlift, so there’s not too much point in getting actual tires to practice with, although you can artificially raise the height (block or rack pulls) to match the diameter of the tires in competition, if known.
In this variation, you’re performing a deadlift with a purposefully reduced range of motion. This isn’t normally recommended since a bigger range of motion usually leads to more muscle and strength built, but it can be useful to target weak points. If you train the standard or sumo deadlift for strength, and you tend to fail at the lift in the mid range, the addition of rack or block pulls can help you train that end range that you’re weak at - this is a more advanced variation for lifters with specific weaknesses.
In the rack pull, the bar is pulled from a rack with pins or guards set off the ground. In the block pull, the bar and plates are set on a pair of blocks that raise it off the ground. The rack pull, however, is usually a bad idea - dropping the bar forcefully into pins or guards will cause a lot of noise and can permanently damage the barbell, making the block pull a much more preferred variation.
The deficit deadlift involves lifting with the bar starting from the ground while you’re standing on a block or step to raise yourself off the ground. This results in a longer range of motion, which makes the movement harder. While this may help a little with building size, it’s probably not necessary if that’s your goal.
More importantly, the deficit deadlift can be helpful if you’re training for strength and if you have trouble at the beginning of the movement. However, it can also be hard to get the hang of, particularly if you already have trouble with form on the standard deadlift from the floor. Any form issues are amplified with this longer range of motion.
Romanian Deadlift (RDL)/Stiff Leg Deadlift
The romanian deadlift is a variation performed with stiff legs and minimal knee bend. This necessitates a couple different approaches: first, you start the lift at the top of the movement (with the bar at the waist) instead of the bottom, and second you perform the lift with a reduced range of motion since you can’t get the extra range of motion out of the knees. Typically you’re lowering the bar slowly down the thighs until the point where your hamstring flexibility stops you (usually just below the knees) and then raising back to the top position.
This variation is useful for targeting the hips and back for more specific work, which can help at the very least by ensuring more variation. Since the glutes are often a limiting factor, this variation can be useful for helping with a wide variety of weak points.
A half deadlift is a deadlift which is broken off the floor and then lifted a small amount (I prefer to go to the knees or just above) and then dropped. This is useful for training the start of the movement, like the deficit deadlift. It also has the added benefit of being a bit easier to recover from since it’s a relatively smaller range of motion. However, it can also feel a bit awkward, depending on you leverages.
A pause deadlift is one in which the deadlift is paused one (or several times) throughout the motion. Typically, pausing at your weakest points is recommended, as this will build strength at that specific joint angle. These can be brutally hard, but are widely useful in targeting a variety of weak points to ensure improvement.
Single Leg Deadlift
Single leg deadlifts can be loaded in a variety of ways, but all share one thing in common: that you're lifting with one leg at a time. This means that the other leg has to be lifted off the floor, or at the very least all of your weight has to be shifted onto the front leg, with just a small amount of weight being placed on the back leg.
This may have some benefit in terms of training the legs individually, particularly if you have side-to-side imbalances. At the same time, it limits the amount of weight you can use, which makes it less useful for building strength or muscle in a general sense.
Tire Flip/Stone Load/Odd Objects
In strongman, it's often required that you be able to flip heavy objects like tires, or pick up odd objects like stones. These kinds of lifts superficially resemble a deadlift because you are picking an object up off the ground. However, because of the awkward nature of these objects, you often have to lift with a more rounded back than a typical deadlift.
Deadlifting will have a great degree of carryover to these lifts, but you should practice these lifts individually if the goal is to be good at them and compete in strongman. These kinds of lifts are also more specific to the awkward process of picking large and heavy objects up off the floor in everyday life.
The good morning isn't a deadlift, but it's effectively very similar. If done properly, a good morning is similar to an RDL or stiff leg deadlift in execution, but with the weight being located on the shoulders instead of held in the hands. This may make it easier if your grip strength is already tired on that workout day, or if you have issues performing a traditional RDL or stiff leg deadlift.
Snatch/Clean and Jerk/Power Clean
The Olympic lifts all involve pulling from the floor in the same way as a traditional deadlift. At the same time, these lifts are performed more explosively, and require a different kind of form.
If the goal is to build muscle, or if you're looking to build strength for powerlifting, these lifts won't necessarily be a good choice due to their more technical nature. Strongmen need to practice cleaning and jerking, if not snatching. CrossFitters and Olympic lifters need to practice all of the Olympic lifts.
Enjoy this post? Share the gains!
- How I Used Meditation To Deadlift 550lbs
- Troubleshooting Your Deadlift - Common Mistakes and Fixes
- Lock Down Motivation and Master the Deadlift Mindset
- Grind it Out!
- Never Drop the Bar: The Grip Strength Guide
- "No Load" Exercise For Those With Impaired Function
- Periodization For Beginners
Ready to be your best self? Check out the Better book series, or download the sample chapters by signing up for our mailing list. Signing up for the mailing list also gets you two free exercise programs: GAINS, a well-rounded program for beginners, and Deadlift Every Day, an elite program for maximizing your strength with high frequency deadlifting.
Interested in coaching to maximize your results? Inquire here. If you don’t have the money for books or long term coaching, but still want to support the site, sign up for the mailing list or consider donating a small monthly amount to my Patreon.
Some of the links in this post may be affiliate links. For more info, check out my affiliate disclosure.