Deadlifts Unleashed: A Detailed Guide to Deadlift Variations

Written by the Boostcamp staff
Mar 22,2023|25 min| 937

The different ways to deadlift
If you’re training, or thinking about training, you’ve probably heard of the deadlift. You might even be doing the deadlift right now, but did you know there are many different ways to actually perform the deadlift movement?

Whether you’re looking to set a new personal best, or need a refreshing new movement for your workout, you’ll want to know the different types of deadlift variations to level up your performance. 

  • What is the deadlift?

  • What are the main types of deadlifts?

  • What deadlift variations are there?

  • Which deadlift variation is the best?

  • Which is the easiest and hardest deadlift variation?

  • Conclusion - ‘many roads to rome’


What is the Deadlift?

Before diving into variations, you have to know what the deadlift is. You may have already seen this movement in many Boostcamp programs, and for good reason. The deadlift is an excellent full body exercise and overall strength builder. The movement itself is mainly a hinge movement that utilizes your whole posterior chain. One other important thing to mention is that it’s one of the three lifts you have to perform in the sport of powerlifting.

To perform the deadlift, all you have to do is pick the weight up off the floor which is typically a barbell with plates loaded on either end. That’s why it’s called a deadlift, the weight is ‘dead’ or immovable on the floor and you lift it up, simple enough.


What are the Main Types of Deadlifts?

Alright so what are the main types of deadlifts? The first is the conventional deadlift which is the most common. This is where you place your feet roughly shoulder width apart and your hands are outside your legs. You then bend over to grab the weight and push hard into the floor using your whole body to lift the weight up. 


Another popular deadlift is the sumo deadlift. The difference here is that you place your feet in a much wider position and your arms are on the inside of the arms. The result is a much more technical movement, but this isn’t meant to be an all inclusive guide on how to deadlift. Instead, the reason why these two are mentioned as the main types of deadlifts is because of the sport of powerlifting.


In powerlifting, the third and arguably the most important lift is the deadlift. Every federation has their own specific set of rules, but the just is that you have to successfully lift a weight off the floor. The two main styles of deadlift you’ll see adopted is either a conventional or a sumo deadlift as they are within the constraints of these rules. Which you choose will depend on your anatomy and your preferences. Typically, at least in powerlifting, you want to choose the one that allows you to lift the most weight, but that doesn’t mean you can’t train both. 

Most Boostcamp programs don’t specify what ‘main’ deadlift to perform, so it’s up to you to decide what works better based on your goals. You can read the information under each program to get a better idea of which deadlift might be right for you. The following sections will further discuss the many deadlifts variations that you can consider in your training.

Deadlift Variations

Like the multiverse, there is technically an infinite amount of variations out there for you to choose from. We already covered the conventional and sumo deadlift, but that doesn’t mean those don’t have variations either. Here are some other deadlift variations you’ll want to consider. 

Romanian or stiff-leg deadlift

In a romanian (RDL) or a stiff-leg deadlift, your legs are locked in at a certain angle. They can be slightly bent in the RDL, or fully straight in the stiff-leg deadlift. What this does is shift the focus of the lift to be more on your hamstrings and your glutes. If you want to blast muscle development in your hamstrings, consider the stiff-leg deadlift. If you want to focus more on building your glutes, consider the RDL.

Snatch grip deadlift

Your grip is the connection to the bar, and changing this can drastically affect the deadlift. When you adopt a wider grip, it is also known as the snatch grip. The snatch grip resembles the “Snatch” which is one of two main lifts in olympic weightlifting. This grip will shift the focus onto your lats. If you want to build a wider back or if you’re into olympic lifting, the snatch grip deadlift is your friend.

Touch and go

Regardless of the type of deadlift, it takes tremendous amounts of strength to break the bar off the floor. However once you get going, you might notice that it gets significantly easier. To take advantage of this, you can perform touch and go deadlifts. The difference here is that you are not resetting in between every rep. This allows you to potentially push more weight and lead to greater hypertrophy gains, but you won’t be building the same strength benefit off the floor if you don’t reset.

 

Tempo and pause variations

Do you find your technique lacking? Slowing down the tempo of the lift can help you master the deadlift, whether you decide on sumo or conventional. You can even include a pause to work on sticking points and positioning.

You may see Boostcamp programs have tempo or paused deadlifts in the program. They are usually prescribed in numbers such as 3-1-3 tempo. The first number refers to how long you should take to perform the concentric portion of the lift (on the way up). The second number can refer to how long you spend at the top of the lift. And the third number is how long you should take to perform the eccentric portion of the lift (on the way down). So if you see a 3-1-3 tempo deadlift, it means you should take three seconds to lift the weight up, one second hold at the top, and three seconds to put the weight down. If it’s a paused variation, you may just see a number that tells you how long you should pause and a description on where to pause (ie. just off the floor or below the knee). 

Tip: A common mistake is dropping the last few inches of the rep on the deadlift. Don’t be lazy and try to make your tempo consistent throughout the whole lift. If you can’t do this, it may be a sign you’re going too heavy. 


Range of motion variations

Another common way to change up your deadlifts is to change your range of motion. You can either increase the range of motion by pulling from a deficit, or decrease the range of motion by performing a rack pull. 

Rack pull

If you want to rack pull, you’ll need blocks or a cage to perform the movement in. You will have the barbell and weights placed higher than normal from the floor, thus reducing your range of motion in the lift. You can typically lift way more weight this way, and it can be very helpful for overloading your deadlift. Another benefit is it provides you with an opportunity to easily work on your grip strength with maximal loads if you have issues holding onto your deadlift. 


Deficit Deadlift

On the other hand, increasing the range of motion will typically make the lift much harder. To perform deadlifts at a deficit, you will need some mats or blocks (or even plates) for you to stand on. Where you put them depends on your feet placement in either the sumo or conventional deadlift. Consider this deadlift when you want to build some strength off the floor, or if you’re looking for some extra hypertrophy gains.



Using a different bar

The standard 45lb or 20kg barbell is the traditional go-to when it comes to the deadlift, but you probably notice a lot more bars available at your local gym. Each of these bars can be considered a variation as they change the mechanics of the deadlift. Here are some common bars you might run into at the gym or in Boostcamp programs. 

Deadlift Bar

Every bar has different tensile strengths that can affect how your deadlift feels, but there is one specific bar that comes to mind. The deadlift bar, also known as the noodle bar, is much thinner and longer than a traditional barbell. The result is a bar that flexes significantly more under load versus a standard powerlifting bar. What this means for you is that you can typically lift more weight using a deadlift bar and have a slightly reduced range of motion. Depending on your federation, you might have to train on this bar if it’s used in competition. Otherwise, you might pull it out just for fun.


Hex Bar Deadlifts

The hex bar looks like it sounds, it is a hex shaped bar. You actually deadlift while standing inside the bar so you won’t be able to sumo with this one. However, due to the nature of the bar, it is much more beginner friendly as it allows you to be more upright and have a perfect center of gravity. If you’re struggling with an injury, or barbell deadlifts are not working out for you, you can try the hex bar to build your deadlift in the meantime. 


Axle Bar Deadlifts

Training for strongman? Need to increase your grip strength? The axle bar is your go to. The axle bar is much thicker than normal, and therefore your grip is going to be the first thing to go versus your back strength. You can use this bar to help with grip training, but you probably won’t be using it much unless you need to grip things with a thick handle like in strongman.


Dumbbells or Kettlebells

This may not be your first choice, but you cannot discount the versatility of deadlifts using unilateral weights. It might be all you have access to, or you want to train one limb at a time. The dumbbells are a great choice if you need something new and refreshing while still working the muscles of the deadlift.

Using external accessories to modify the lift

Aside from traditional weight plates, there are other things you can load onto the barbell to increase the difficulty of the deadlift.

Bands and chains

Bands or chains are a great way to externally load the deadlift. Unlike traditional weights, they ramp up in resistance as you perform the lift (although this can be the other way around for reverse band deadlifts where resistance goes down as you lift). Bands and chains are typically used for speed work and can help you build more acceleration when deadlifting. It is also a great way to overload your deadlift at the top of the range. 


Grip attachments/accessories

Similar to the axle bar, grip attachments such as a ‘fat grip’ can be used to increase the diameter of the barbell. This can make the barbell more specific to your sport if you’re into strongman, or help you blast your forearms and grip. 

If you find your grip lacking you can use straps. This takes your limited grip out of the equation and allows you to focus on pushing massive weight. However, don’t neglect your grip strength because when it comes down to gameday, you’ll want to make sure you can hold onto a one rep max attempt. 


No-hand deadlift

Yes you read that right, you can also add an attachment called a ‘barbell strap’ to completely eliminate the use of your hands when deadlifting. If you’re dealing with any arm or shoulder injuries, this tool allows you to still load your body and build your deadlift despite the setbacks.


Using one leg or one hand

Now in certain cases you might want to do deadlifts with one leg or even one hand. Perhaps you are working around an injury, or you want to prepare yourself for other sports that involve a lot of unilateral work. Dumbbells are the easiest way to perform deadlifts with one limb but you can use one limb for pretty much any of the variations mentioned. Performing unilateral movements such as a suitcase deadlift can help expose any potential weaknesses in your body. Expect to lift less weight and for your balance to be challenged. 

Outliers

Barbell hack squat

It would be unfair to end this conversation without talking about the barbell hack squat. Although it has squat in the name, it very much resembles a traditional deadlift where you pick a weight off the floor. However, the difference is that the bar is behind you. The load is placed directly in line with your center of gravity, so much of the load is taken off your back and the focus is on your legs. Although it may feel awkward at first, you might be surprised how much you can hack squat. Use this if you want to take your back out of the equation on deadlifts. 

Jefferson Deadlift

Another seemingly strange deadlift variation is the jefferson deadlift. It is very similar to the barbell hack squat in that it reduces the load on your back, except your legs straddle the bar. You can have your left or right leg in front, but you may find it more comfortable with your dominant leg forward. Aside from being a fun variation, you could build some serious strength in the straddle position with the jefferson deadlift.



Which deadlift variation is the best?

Phew, that’s a lot of variations! But which one is best? How do you decide what deadlift variants to use? Well it depends on where you are at with your training, but here are some general recommendations.

For competition

If you’re gearing up for a competition, you want to focus on strength and maximizing technique. According to the SAID principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands), you want to choose variations that are specific to your sport to maximize your performance (1). Options such as a rack pull or chain deadlifts can help you overload your deadlift. Pause and tempo deadlifts can refine your technique leading into the competition. In general, it’s best to avoid variations that do not mimic your competition deadlift when peaking for a one rep max. So choose variations closest to your competition stance. 

For hypertrophy

On the other hand if you’re in the offseason, you can afford the time off from your competition movements and explore some deadlift variations. Consider romanian or stiff-leg deadlifts with a touch and go variation to build more muscle which can lead to greater gains down the road. Also, feel free to experiment and try something new as this is the perfect time to do so. If you usually do sumo deadlifts, try out some conventional and vice versa. 

For strongman or other sports

Think about your sport and what the demands are. Whatever that is will dictate what the best variations are for you. Using thick bars? Try an axle deadlift. Need to balance on one leg? Try some one leg romanian deadlifts. If you’re not sure what to do, boostcamp makes it easy for you as there are many programs available depending on your focus. Choose the one that fits your lifestyle and your goals the best, and boostcamp will take care of the programming for you. 

Here are some examples of programs depending on your particular focus.

Fullsterkur Strongman Program

A 12 week strongman program performed 3-4x a week. Check it out at the link here: 

https://www.boostcamp.app/alex-bromley/bromley-beginner-strongman 

Reddit PPL

Just getting into it? This is a great 6 day per week push-pull-leg program to get you started. Follow the link below to get started on your gains:

https://www.boostcamp.app/r-fitness/reddit-ppl 

TSA 9 Week Intermediate Approach

Gearing up for another competition? This is an excellent 9 week program to get you peaked and prepared for the platform. View the program here:

https://www.boostcamp.app/bryce-lewis/tsa-9-week-intermediate-approach

To search for more programs, simply browse or filter according to your experience level, equipment access and preferred workout days per week here:

https://www.boostcamp.app/programs


It doesn’t matter

At the end of the day, try different variations simply because you want to! It’s ok to have fun and there’s nothing wrong with experimentation - especially if you don’t have any serious competitions on the horizon. Try them out and see what you like, you might just find a variation or program that you’ll fall in love with. 


Which is the easiest and hardest deadlift variation?

The easiest variation would probably be the hex bar or dumbbell deadlift whereas the hardest variation would be the axle bar deadlift. This is because the hex bar and dumbbell deadlift have much more flexibility and a lower entry point to perform. The axle bar deadlift on the other hand requires huge amounts of grip strength and a certain amount of mobility/proprioception to get into position to perform the deadlift. You can of course make this even harder by adding deficits into the lift. 

However, it is important to note that everyone has different anatomy and comes from different strength levels, so some variations may be easier or harder for you. Regardless of which deadlift variation you choose to do, be sure to build up your deadlifts slowly. You want to find a difficulty level that is manageable but still challenging for your specific body. 


How do you progress deadlift variations?

Speaking of progress, how do you progress these deadlifts? Just like any other exercise, you want to manipulate variables such as volume, intensity, and range of motion.

Volume

Volume refers to the sets and reps that you perform. You want to progress volume if you’re looking to build more muscle or endurance. You can choose to increase the sets or reps or both. The key here is that the weight stays the same. 

Here’s an example.

Week 1

3*5 romanian deadlift @ 70% 1RM or RPE 7

Week 2

4*5 romanian deadlift or 3*7 romanian deadlift 70% 1RM or RPE 7

Intensity

Intensity refers to the amount of weight on the bar. If you want to hit a new one rep max, you’ll want to focus on increasing intensity.

Here’s an example.

Week 1

3*3 two second paused deadlift @ 80% 1RM or RPE 8

Week 2

3*3 two second paused deadlift @ 85% 1RM or RPE 8

Now of course you can mix and match volume and intensity and everything in between to maximize your progress. It can get quite confusing what to do, but boostcamp programs have that all planned out for you so you don’t have to worry. You’ll notice programs will increase or even decrease in sets/reps/intensity throughout the weeks. It’s all part of the plan.


Range of motion

Maybe you want to work into a barbell deadlift for the first time, but it’s not quite tolerable. A great way to progress is to gradually increase the range of motion as you build up the tolerance to deadlift from the floor. 

Here’s an example of what this looks like.

Week 1

3*8 rack pull deadlift (above knees) @ 70% 1RM or RPE 7

Week 2

3*8 rack pull deadlift (below knees) @ 70% 1RM or RPE 7

Week 3

3*8 deadlift from the floor @ 70% 1RM or RPE 7

On the other hand, maybe you just want to do the hardest deadlift ever known to mankind, like this guy

Well, there is a way for you to progress to that too! Here’s what it might look like.

Week 1

3*4 conventional deadlift @ 75% 1RM or RPE 7.5

Week 2

3*4 one inch deficit deadlift @ 75% 1RM or RPE 7.5

Week 3

3*4 two inch deficit deadlift @ 75% 1RM or RPE 7.5

There are many ways you can make your deadlifts harder or easier. The key is to have the right dosage of training to allow you to make gains over time. You’ll notice performance can vary greatly on the day, so use these variations and progression strategies to modify the load as needed. 

Conclusion - ‘many roads to rome’

Regardless of what you choose, the deadlift will always be a staple in the strength training world. There are many variants available, and you can mix and match them all according to your goals. When you’ve made a decision, train hard, put in the work, and reap the benefits of building a huge pull. Like Jon Pall Sigmarsson says, “there is no reason to be alive, if you can’t do deadlift”.

References

  1. Fisher JP, Csapo R. Periodization and Programming in Sports. Sports (Basel). 2021 Jan 20;9(2):13. doi: 10.3390/sports9020013. PMID: 33498350; PMCID: PMC7909405.

Clifton Pho - Powerlifting Coach | Last modified on March 21st, 2023