No one can deny the host of benefits from deadlifts in any muscle building program.
However, the main issue which arises for many lifters is that the traditional barbell deadlift leaves their lower backs beat up to the point of chronic injury and fatigue, ultimately limiting the use of this variation for performance and aesthetic enhancement.
While the barbell deadlift is of course at the top of any hip hinging training pyramid, there’s no shame in reassessing your movements and goals to create pain-free training effects that will build back a foundation for this all important movement pattern.
Here’s how to intelligently choose a deadlift variation that fits for your body and current movement capacity to get the most out of your training.
Barbell Rack Pull
Key Modification: Elevating Barbell Height
The rack pull is the first hip hinge variation to implement when you are initially having difficulty executing a proper barbell deadlift with proper form and technique. The major distinguishing factor between the pull from the ground and pull from the rack is the approximate bar height from the ground.
Simply put, the more the barbell is elevated off the ground, the less distance it has to travel during the lift. Just a few inches of bar elevation can make a marked difference in form, as most lifters struggle with the initial pull phase of the deadlift.
By eliminating the weakest range of the lift, a lifter can execute this deadlift variation with sound form while minimizing unwanted shearing forces through the spine and targeting contractile tissues with a sustainable training effect.
As proper technique is honed, many lifters can actually overload their hip hinge patterns in a safe and effective manner by adding additional loads to this range of motion, which again is an incredibly effective way to generate strength and muscle mass over time.
Key Coaching Notes: Setup Bar Height Precisely
The ultimate goal of any regressed movement pattern is to be able to reimplement the traditional pattern; in this case the barbell deadlift, with better form and technique after remediation.
When implementing the rack pull, it is paramount that the rack you setup in has consistency in the height it places the bar off the ground. Keep note of your starting position and, over time, reduce the bar height until you are approximating the ground. This will guarantee success in getting you back to the holy land of pulling from the floor.
Shoot for mastering a higher bar position, and when you have confidence to take the bar height down an inch or two, do so strategically. With small changes to the height over time, you will eventually fool your body into aligning itself optimally.
If you are unable to get into a great spinal and pelvic position, even with an elevated bar position, see the next regression down on this deadlift sequence, the trap bar deadlift.
Trap Bar Deadlift
Key Modification: Bar Alignment with Center of Mass
The trap bar deadlift is one of my favorite “pain-free” variations of the loaded hip hinge due to many lifters having a very steep leaning curve when it comes to the mechanics and form of this movement.
The trap bar is a great tool for training around some nagging lower back issues as it places the load in a more centralized alignment with your body's center of mass.
This means less unwanted shear forces on the spine and a better chance of keeping the hips and spine in a neutral position throughout the pull from the floor.
By moving the bar back in alignment with your body, as opposed to out in front of your body like the traditional barbell deadlift, most lifters are able to incorporate their quadriceps to a greater degree, sharing the load with the more dominant posterior chain muscles, the glutes and hamstrings.
Also, many trap bars have an elevated handle which brings the bar height up off the floor slightly which has advantages as discussed in the rack pull section above.
Key Coaching Notes: Packed and Stable Shoulders
So we know that the spine and hips are going to naturally sit in a better position due to having the center of load in more optimal alignment with your center of mass. But, one of the biggest mistakes I see for lifters new to the trap bar is the lack of shoulder positioning and control.
The trap bar brings your body forward to a greater degree so your shoulders will also want to travel forward, which is bad news for spinal alignment.
To ensure proper setup and shoulder position, squeeze your lats and chest hard together in a “co-contraction” meaning both sides of the shoulder joint contract at once.
From this position, you should see your shoulders naturally depress and become stable as a rock. This is the position you want to initiate the pull with so find it before you get dynamic with this movement.
Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
Key Modification: Top Down Movement Pattern
If your goal is to improve your hip hinge pattern while also training with loads that develop both strength and muscle mass, one of the best deadlift variations in any lifter's arsenal is the romanian deadlift.
This variation features a top down movement pattern as opposed to a bottom up which is used during any pulls from the floor.
By starting the movement at the top of the range of motion in this variation, achieving and maintaining a neutral spinal position is far easier as the control and stability from the core and hips is able to be internally monitored from the very first move in the exercise.
This variation also allows you to limit the bottom range of motion, which most people tend to find the most problematic as we reviewed in the sections above.
Finally, what makes this move such a great hamstring and glute builder is the ability to overload this exercise with accentuated eccentric contractions of the entire posterior chain. Controlling the dumbbells down in a smooth and coordinated fashion target those muscles to a greater extent.
In the traditional deadlift, most setups limit the eccentric portion of the lift, which is usually the aspect of the lift that builds the most strength and muscle.
Key Coaching Notes: 45° Hand Position
While you can use any loaded implement for this variation, my tools of choice are dumbbells for a few key reasons. First, due to having a dumbbell in each hand, the available freedom at the shoulders allow a more natural movement pattern that can be reactive with your bodies ability to stabilize.
The dumbbells also allow a lifter to bring back their center of mass closer to their midline, which is always advantageous to the spine as we spoke about in the trap bar deadlift section.
Finally, the dumbbells can allow a greater range of motion while maintaining spinal stability, which will target the hamstrings and glutes to a greater degree.
To get the most out of this movement, allow your hands to rotate naturally during the eccentric portion of the lift.
As you drop down into the bottom range, the dumbbells should come slightly forward and to the sides of your knees. As you come back up to a neutral position, the dumbbells will be positioned more directly laterally to the knee.
Again, allow your hands to act as a pendulum with the weights, and move as freely as possible.
Double Kettlebell Deadlift
Key Modification: Freedom of Motion
If the romanian deadlift top down variation is too much for you to handle when choosing a deadlift variation, we can simplify the movement even further to a double kettlebell deadlift.
This variation is very much similar to the RDL in the setup of the hands and loads, but is unique in the fact that you are bringing kettlebells or dumbbells from the ground up into a locked out neutral position at the top of the movement.
This can be advantageous for learning how to create a proper hip hinge and stability through the core, pelvis, and hips before starting the dynamic portion of the lift.
Also, you can choose to elevate the bells off the floor to ensure proper technique throughout the movement, which is similar to the rack pull mentioned above.
Key Coaching Notes: Narrowly Position Your Feet
Since you will be taking bells from a dead stop position at the floor, it is paramount that you don’t set up too wide with your foot position, as this will cause the dumbbells or kettlebells to hit you in the side of the leg limiting your natural movement patterns.
A good place to start is by positioning your feet hip width apart with your toes directly forward. This position will also allow you to assess your true hip hinge pattern and your capabilities in maintaining a neutral spine, even at the bottom of the range.
Over time, play with your foot position little by little to find your perfect set up.