The deadlift is one of the most popular movements of all-time.
And most think you should include some variation of the deadlift in your program for it to be considered a sound workout.
While there are a great many deadlift variations, those included here (in no particular order) are considered the best of the best.
Note: While a brief summary on form is included for each lift, always seek specific hands-on advice to lessen the chance of injury.
1. Conventional Deadlifts
The version that everyone starts with, the conventional deadlift builds mass and strength across the entire physique, with an emphasis on legs and back (and associated muscles). The conventional dead should be included in workouts for its greater systemic effect and for its ability to provide a more precise gage of deadlifting strength.
Related: Training Talk - What's the Best Variation of the Deadlift?
To perform, stand with feet hip-width apart and grasp bar just outside of the feet. Remember: do not pull the bar up the body. Rather, by leg pressing the floor, achieving full extension through the hips and knees, and keeping the core and lower back tight.
Begin each rep from the floor and finish each rep in the same position. Do not fully settle between reps. Stay tight and limit rest between reps for complete tension and full engagement of all working muscles.
2. Sumo Deadlifts
Electromyography (EMG) measurements have shown the sumo deadlift to be more effective in targeting the quad muscles compared to the conventional deadlift (and variations of).
Requiring wider foot positioning, the sumo dead enables the thighs to be lowered closer to the floor, thus activating more leg musculature. The trapezius muscles of the back along with the shoulders are also recruited to a larger extent, with less of an emphasis on lats and lower back engagement.
The sumo variation is often preferred as it removes pressure from the lower back while allowing more weight to be lifted. An overarching of the lower spine is effectively neutralized. This movement is especially beneficial for taller lifters and/or those with compromised lower back strength.
3. Romanian Deadlifts
Because it does not require complete hip and knee extension, the Romanian deadlift is often considered an isolation movement. However, because it engages the back, glutes, core, and, to a greater degree, the hamstrings, many consider it a solid compound lift.
It’s certainly one of the very best movements for strengthening and developing the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes and back), but still not as effective in this regard as the conventional deadlift.
While adhering to the usual deadlift requirements (bar close to body, back flat and chest up) bend at the torso while keeping the knees fixed at the same angle throughout. Lower the bar slowly to knee height (or slightly below) while achieving a good hamstring stretch. Fully squeeze at the top to achieve maximum tension through the glute-ham tie-in area.
Unlike the stiff-legged deadlift, the Romanian deadlift better isolates the hams via a greater degree of sustained tension. The stiff-legged deadlift requires the bar the travel lower, which inevitably causes the knees to bend and tension to be removed from the hams. For this reason the Romanian deadlift is also a safer option.
4. Trap Bar Deadlifts
Originally designed to lessen the recurrence of lower back injuries, the trap bar is a hexagonal shaped apparatus into which a lifter positions themselves and performs a few select movements. It’s largely regarded as a ‘back-friendly’ alternative to traditional bar deadlifts or squats as it places less stress on the lower spine.
Traditional deadlifts require the weight to be some distance from the hips (the body’s axis of rotation), thus forcing the lower back to act like a lever to power up the weight. This restricts the body’s lifting capacity in that the lower back’s flexor muscles’ ability to resist flexion can become barrier to total body engagement.
This limits the amount of force that can be generated through the legs and other assisting muscles. By using a trap bar, a significant amount shear force is removed from the lower spine and the movement becomes safer.
Aside from being safer, the trap bar deadlift achieves significantly greater levels of peak force, velocity, and power, making it an effective exercise for both strength athletes and human performance generally.
With more of an upright position compared with the regular bar deadlift, move the knees forward as you bend into this movement and sit the hips lower than normal. Then run through the standard deadlifting technique as you press with the feet and hoist the weight skyward. Because there is no bar to prevent excessive lower back arching, be sure to control the lockout. Tighten all the right muscles before resetting the bar at ground level.
5. Snatch Grip Deadlifts
The set up and execution of this movement is almost identical to that of the conventional bar deadlift, with one major difference: the bar is seized with an ultra-wide grip. The body must therefore be lowered closer to the ground, thus increasing range of motion (one of this movement’s many advantages).
Few people attempt the snatch-grip deadlift as it can be extremely difficult to execute. However, as the major targeted muscles become stronger, you’ll find it an excellent way to improve hip mobility, enhance sports performance and build impressive size, strength, and power.
Snatch-grip deadlifts really flesh-out the upper back and traps. This is one reason why Olympic weightlifters are especially jacked in these areas. As well, this movement may be less taxing for the lower spine as less weight is required to derive significant total body benefits.
Also, rather than using deficit deads to enhance overall deadlifting strength, the snatch grip version effectively does the same job but with less stress placed on the lower back and more on the upper back/traps.
6. Rack Pull Deadlifts
Rack pulls can be a great alternative to regular deadlifts as the range of motion is significantly shorter, thus allowing for more weight to be used, less chance of injury (despite weight increases), and greater emphasis to be placed on the back with less emphasis on leg musculature.
By pulling the bar from a rack, less leg and total core strength is required. So while you may achieve more back thickness from rack deadlifts, overall performance benefits will not be as impressive compared with regular deadlifts.
On the upside, rack deadlifts do not tax the body as much as their full range counterpart. With less nervous system activation, less recovery is needed between workouts, and other muscle groupings which may require greater prioritization can be addressed with more volume and intensity.
7. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts
More of a performance enhancer than a total-body mass builder, the single-leg Romanian deadlift builds core stability and improves balance and coordination to optimize any sporting skill-set.
This movement challenges the three primary balance systems (proprioception, vestibular and visual). As such, it enhances the ability to maintain a desirable center of gravity and improves one’s ability to control the body during a range of different movements. The single-leg RDL also greatly challenges the ankle, hip and knee joints, making each more stable and less susceptible to injury.
The single-leg RDL can be used for both strength and conditioning and rehab purposes.
To perform, stand with one leg off the floor and hold a weight on this side. Slightly bend the supporting knee by around 15-20%. Hip hinge as per the regular deadlift and lower the torso to where it’s parallel to the floor. Squeeze the glutes, thrust the hips forward, and drive the torso back to the starting position.
8. Dumbbell Deadlifts
Because the weights used for the dumbbell deadlift are not held together as one unit, more coordination, balance and agility is needed to successfully complete this movement.
The other major difference between the dumbbell deadlift and its barbell counterpart is that the lifter does not have to reach over their legs to grasp the resistance. Thus less stress is placed on the lower back, and greater isolation of the lat muscles can be achieved.
In fact, by varying the placement of the dumbbells, different muscles can be engaged. In this way, four sets of dumbbell deadlifts incorporating different load placements can effectively target all the muscle of the regular deadlift without overemphasizing any given area.
Adopt a regular deadlift stance and place a dumbbell on the outside of each foot. Bend the knees more than when completing a conventional deadlift (thighs horizontal to the floor). Keep arms straight while pressing with the feet to achieve full lockout.
9. Deficit Deadlifts
While the snatch-grip deadlift achieves a similar effect to the deficit version, the deficit works all of the major muscles (including the lower back) whereas the snatch-grip tends to emphasize the traps, shoulders, upper back and quads.
Related: How to Pick the Perfect Deadlift Variation for Your Body Type
By standing on a small platform, both range of motion and quad/posterior chain activation is increased. By deadlifting from a deficit, greater strength can be achieved, which translates to more muscle gains and a stronger conventional bar deadlift.
For the lifter to get into the correct position, increased joint flexion of the ankles, knees and hips is required. This leads to greater driving power through the legs and hips. Getting the bar off the floor during the initial pulling phase thus becomes less of a limitation and more weight can be handled for more total-body benefits.
And because the body is forced to work from a lower position, the target muscles are subjected to greater time under tension (TUT), which in turn leads to greater strength and size gains.
Many consider the deficit deadlift to be more dangerous compared with regular deadlifts due to the excessive pressure that’s placed on the lower spine. However, this only becomes an issue if the lower back does not remain neutral throughout the movement.
In fact, provided form is sound and weights are not excessively heavy, incorporating the deficit deadlift may further strengthen the lower back, making it an asset to whatever deadlift variation is used.
10. Reeves Deadlift
Popularized by none other than Steve Reeves, the Reeves deadlift is a tricky movement to perform, but if you can stick with it and master it, it’ll produce a substantial return on muscle-building investment.
By grasping the inner weight plates, rather than the bar, this movement severely taxes the grip and produces a massive forearm pump.
By taking the arms all the way out to the sides, the lats are kept in a constant state of tension and the upper back and traps are placed under tremendous pressure. To top it off, your grip strength will be better than ever, which will enable you to handle a regular bar with relative ease. It’s perhaps no surprise that Reeves had one of the best V Tapers in all of bodybuilding history and a decent set of forearms to go with it.