Deadlifts are one of the fundamental resistance training exercises for both beginners and more experienced gym-goers. Done properly, deadlifts can deliver many training improvements, including increased muscle growth and strength.
One of the compound exercises — training movements that work multiple muscle groups at the same time — deadlifts require input from the lower back, hamstrings, glutes, calves, quads and the upper back and arms.
In this article, we’ll take you through some of the best deadlift variations for beginners looking to build up confidence and those looking to mix up their workouts, master technique and take their training to the next level. We’ll also cover form and execution as well as risks and common mistakes.
Different types and variations of the deadlift
As with many training exercises, there are several variations of deadlifts you can include in your workouts. Each has slightly different benefits; it’s your choice whether you want to focus on mastering one type or to mix things up.
1. Sumo Deadlift
Like the sumo squat, the sumo deadlift involves placing your feet at a wider stance with your hands between feet.
The sumo deadlift can be performed with greater emphasis on the quads or hips and provides a range of motion that allows you to lift heavier loads. But remember, practice makes perfect.
Begin using low weights.
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Your toes should point outwards at a 45-degree angle.
- Hinge forward at the hips, knees bent slightly and grab the bar.
- Pin your shoulders back and stick your bum out.
- Imagine you’re pushing a button behind you with your bum.
- Drive through your heels, push the floor away and stand tall.
- Slowly return the bar to the floor, maintaining control throughout.
2. Hex or Trap Bar Deadlifts
This type of deadlift is performed using a hex or trap bar, which is a specialised bar.
By using the hex bar, you can change the mechanics of the lift and evenly distribute your weight.
- Stand in the middle of the bar, feet hip-width apart and facing forwards.
- Lower yourself down by bending your knees so you can firmly hold the handles at your sides.
- Sit your hips back, keep your back flat, push your chest out and engage your core.
- Drive yourself upwards as if you’re standing up, pushing through the floor and finishing in a vertical position. Remember to squeeze your glutes at the top and keep your back straight.
- Lower the bar to the ground, maintaining control throughout the movement.
3. Snatch Grip Deadlift
The snatch grip deadlift is a variation often seen in weightlifting competitions. It works the hamstrings more than any other muscle group. The hands take on a wider grip during the lift, with the aim of strengthening the pull of “the snatch” movement.
- Stand behind the bar with your feet hip-width apart and rotated slightly outwards.
- Dip your hips back until you’re almost in a full-squat position, and grip the bar with a wide grip.
- If you’re using small plates or no plates, you can balance the bar on blocks so you’re able to retain proper form when grabbing the bar.
- Slowly rise out from the squat position while holding the bar. Keep your back straight and your arms extended throughout the move.
- Squeeze your bum at the top.
- Slowly lower the bar back down to the starting position. This is one rep.
4. Romanian Deadlift, Stiff Legged Deadlift, Straight Leg Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift, sometimes called the straight legged deadlift, focuses on hamstrings more than other deadlifts, which tend to focus on your lower back.
When performing this deadlift, your back should remain straight, and all bending comes from the torso. Your legs should be stiff throughout the lowering and lifting phases of the movement.
- Position your feet slightly narrower than hip-width apart, keep your back straight, look forward and grip the barbell with your hands around shoulder-width apart.
- Stand with your feet approximately shoulder-width apart, maintaining balance over the middle of your foot.
- Bend your knees slightly at the joint and pinch your shoulder blades together.
- Maintain a neutral spine and slowly lower the barbell, flexing only at the hip.
- Keep the barbell over your mid-foot throughout the lift, keeping the bar in close contact with the legs.
- Keeping the bar close and minimising any knee flexion will result in the hips being pushed back as the barbell is lowered.
- Once you’re at the bottom of the movement and you feel a deep stretch on the hamstrings, concentrically contract the hamstrings, maintaining a neutral spine until you return to the starting position.
5. Deficit Deadlift / Rack Pulls
Deficit deadlifts and rack pulls can either increase or decrease the range of motion in a deadlift. They can be used to target areas of the back without committing to the whole movement or, in the case of the deficit deadlift, to add more depth to the pull and range of movement.
The deficit deadlift is a difficult movement; you can use a conventional or snatch grip width.
- Stand with your shins one inch away from the barbell, directly over the middle of the foot.
- Lean over with straight legs and take a grip just outside your legs.
- Bring your shins forwards until they touch the bar.
- Hold a big breath, brace your core and squeeze your chest up to engage the lower back muscles.
- Drag the bar up your legs, pushing the floor away.
6. The Hack Lift
The hack lift is a deadlift that focuses on the quads.
It requires lifting the bar behind your back, mimicking conventional deadlift form.
Warning: the hack lift is known to be one of the riskier deadlifts, providing additional stress and strain on the knees. This deadlift should only be attempted occasionally and only if you are experienced.
- Set the bar behind your legs close to your calves.
- Open up your chest and ensure a straight, neutral spine as you dip and grab the bar.
- Push the floor away and stand up with the bar.
7. Conventional Deadlift
Now it’s time to get back to basics and show your newfound strength, power and improved technique.
The conventional deadlift is a good place to start if you’re new to deadlifting.
When performing this deadlift your hands are just outside your feet, which are positioned about hip-width apart.
Conventional deadlifts are done with a barbell or set of dumbbells and target and work the lower back, calves, forearms, glutes, hamstrings, lats, middle back, quads and traps.
- Step up to and under a barbell, feet angled slightly outwards and hip-width apart.
- Bend over and grip the barbell with both hands at shoulder width.
- Bend your knees until the bar almost touches your shins.
- Hold a neutral spine, engage the core and glutes.
- Pick the bar off the ground. Concentrate on pushing the floor away with your legs rather than thinking of it as pulling the bar.
- Continue pressing down with your legs until the barbell passes your knees and you are upright.
- Control the release of the movement towards the ground.
The Best Deadlift Exercise
We’ve been through many deadlift variations, but which is best for you?
This depends on what movements you can perform with the best form and a neutral spine.
A neutral spine is by far the most important factor when deadlifting, allowing for adequate mobility and safety.
For beginners, the best place to start is with the Romanian deadlift. Once you’ve mastered that, the trap or hex bar deadlift is the next stage. The structure of the bar and high handles allow you to master deadlift form while minimising motion demands and injury risk.
If the trap bar’s unavailable, the sumo and conventional deadlift is the next step up. Groin strength and hamstring flexibility can become limiting factors in both these movements, and hip mobility and hamstring strength are vital requirements for performing them with correct form.
Ultimately the progression from trap to conventional deadlift is all dependent on mobility and strength.
Form and Execution of the Deadlift
- “Correct form” has been repeated many times in this article, but it really is the important factor for maximising results and staying safe.
- When performing the deadlift start by standing with a stance a bit narrower than shoulder-width.
- Bend the knees and start by using an overhand grip. Grab the bar with an overhand grip, so your arms are vertical to the floor.
- While keeping the back as straight as possible, bend through your knees and push through your heels, making sure the torso is upright, chest forward and shoulder blades directly over the bar.
- Lift your chest but don’t squeeze your shoulder-blades; keep the shoulders back and chest wide. As you lift above the knees squeeze the glutes, bringing them under the bar. One you reach the top of the movement, don’t lean back and make sure the chest is wide.
- A common mistake is looking up towards the ceiling with your chin up; the chin should be tucked in with the head in line with the rest of the spine.
- To go back to the starting position, bend the knees, leaning the chest and torso forward while pushing the glutes back.
Generally for the conventional deadlift there are several factors to ensure:
- All weight should be focused on your heels and the middle of your foot — one test of ensuring this is you should be able to always move your toes.
- Your body should move upwards and downwards at the same speed; in other words your chest and glutes should rise and move at the same time and speed.
- Keep your chest upright and drive with your heels.
- Keep your arms straight. They are there to hold onto the bar and should not be used to bend or pull at any time.
- Keep the bar close to your body; don’t let it come forward.
- Contract the glutes as you hit the top of the movement.
- At the top of the movement, stand tall with your chest open, do not lean or hyperextend the back.
- Remember to focus on pushing the floor away with your feet rather than pulling the bar.
Risks and Mistakes
- Performing the deadlift can be simple once you’ve mastered the correct stance and form, but it carries risk of injury and is not an exercise to be taken lightly.
- Because of the nature of the biomechanics and range of motion, deadlifts should be done with caution, especially in the case of people with poor hip flexibility and back problems.
- Proper form is essential for avoiding injuries. Practise both without a bar and with a standard bar with no weight. Once form is mastered, make sure you progress steadily.
- The gym is often a solitary pursuit for many, but it’s worth getting a spotter to analyse your deadlift form. If this isn’t possible, record yourself and study your form. You may think you look silly, but it’s better than performing the lift with incorrect form and risking injury.
- The eccentric movement (lowering the bar) is riskier than the concentric movement (picking it up) and should not be neglected. It’s also what will give you the most delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).
- Try not to drop the bar: put down the bar with control and practice lowering the bar with correct motion, movement and form.
Take Home Message
When considering what is the best variation of deadlift for you, remember to always listen to your body and put form and technique before weight.
By varying your deadlift movements and putting form first, you’ll see benefits for both strength and hypertrophy, while also preventing injuries.
Overall the best type of deadlift depends on what muscles you want to target and what your goals are. Mix it up, try new exercises and find out what works best for you.