Category Archives: Deadlifts

19 Squat & Deadlift Variations



Here’s what you need to know…

• Variety is good for both strength and hypertrophy and it helps prevent overuse injuries.
• Every body is unique, and the best form for a lifter is the one that best suits his unique anthropometry and injury history.
• Contrary to popular belief, there’s no standardized perfect form, only what form is best suited for your body and goals.

Strength training gurus love to say there’s only one way to perform a lift, and that all other techniques and variations are either wrong or ineffective. Such a philosophy is shortsighted, and this article will show how intelligent variation can build a bigger, stronger, bulletproof body.
First, every body is unique, and the best form for a lifter is the one that best suits his or her unique limb lengths, body segment proportions, tendon attachment points, muscularity, and injury history.
Second, the form that a lifter uses is heavily predicated on his or her overall goals. These goals might include hypertrophy, in which case it’s possible to accentuate tension on a particular muscle; strength, in which case it’s possible to perform a lift in a manner that maximizes leverages; or transference, in which case it’s possible to execute an exercise in a manner that best transfers to another lift or sporting action.
And third, all lifters should purposely perform lifts in a variety of ways in order to build well-rounded and maximal strength.
Stubbornly sticking to a particular form or variation that isn’t right for you, no matter how popular it is, will eventually lead to injury. It’s akin to forcing a square peg through a round hole.

Top Athletes Vary in Exercise Form

All my powerlifting and strongman friends look markedly different when they squat, deadlift, and bench. Hell, take a look at the various powerlifting world record holders, strongman champions, top Olympic weightlifters, and even the best bodybuilders on the planet – you’ll see that their techniques with the big lifts vary markedly.
They’ve all taken the time to figure out the style of each lift that caused the least pain and injury, maximized their leverages and performance, and/or allowed them to best reach their particular goals. What’s hilarious is that many of these top strength and physique athletes “break the rules” according to various experts, making it difficult to find merit with any hard rules in lifting mechanics.
The top lifters have also taken the time to figure out their favorite exercise variations. The top bodybuilder might prefer rack pulls over full-range deadlifts because they’re safer on his low back, but still might hammer his entire posterior chain.
The top powerlifter might perform low bar squats and sumo deadlifts in competition, but prefers high bar squats and conventional deadlifts in training until a month out before the meet since they better build his lifts.
The strongman might tell you that he gave up low bar squatting years ago to preserve his shoulder health, but that he still front squats every week. Lastly, the top Olympic lifter may prefer the Romanian deadlift and high-bar full squat as assistance lifts, whereas the top powerlifter might prefer the deficit deadlift and high box squat. You get the picture.

Useful Barbell Variations of Squats and Deadlifts

I realize most don’t have access to specialty bars, so I only included traditional barbell variations. However, there are dozens of incredible variations that use the rackable cambered bar, safety squat bar, or Dead-Squat™ Bar, to name a few.

Deep Back Squats: High Bar Versus Low Bar

Though the difference might appear subtle, the high-bar squat exhibits less forward trunk lean and therefore places more stress on the quads. Conversely, the low-bar back squat increases trunk lean and places more stress on the hips.
Strong quads are critical for proper squat performance, as are strong hips. You should incorporate both types of squats into your training arsenal.

High-Bar Back Squat


Low-Bar Back Squat


High-Bar Versus Low-Bar Parallel Squats

With sufficient training experience, most lifters will find that they’re stronger with squats when they use a low-bar placement and take a wide stance. However, there are lifters who discover that they’re indeed stronger with high-bar squats.
Usually, high-bar squats are performed with a moderate stance as opposed to a very wide stance. Again, the high-bar squat emphasizes the quads, whereas the low-bar squat will emphasize the hips. Both variations are great for squat training.

High-Bar Moderate Width Parallel Squat


Low-Bar Wide Stance Parallel Squat


Front Squats: Wide Versus Narrow Stance

Most of the time, when you see someone performing front squats they’re using a narrow stance. But there’s no reason why you can’t perform front squats with a wider stance. Again, both should be used in your training regimen.

Narrow Stance Front Squats


Wide Stance Front Squats


Box Squats: Low Box/High Bar Versus High Box/Low Bar

Most lifters are familiar with high box/low bar squats where they sit back and keep vertical tibias, thereby maximizing stress on the posterior chain. However, it’s also a good idea to perform low box/high bar squats from time to time. This variation places considerable stress on the quads and is quite useful depending on the purpose.

High Box/Low Bar Squat


Low Box/High Bar Squat


ZercherSquats: Hip Emphasis Versus Quad Emphasis

Most lifters only employ one style of Zercher squats but it’s a good idea to occasionally perform two different styles. To stress the hips, take a wider stance, keep the shins vertical and sit back more, descending to parallel. To stress the quads, use a moderate stance, keep the torso more upright, sit down, and descend below parallel.

Hip-Dominant Zercher Squat


Quad-Dominant Zercher Squat


Deadlift: Conventional Versus Sumo

You should perform both conventional and sumo deadlifts from time to time. They build each other, especially if you have a huge strength discrepancy between the two variations.

Conventional Deadlift


Sumo Ddeadlift


Block or Rack Pulls: Conventional Versus Sumo

The same logic applies to block or rack pulls. You can and should use a conventional and sumo stance throughout your training year.

Conventional Block Pull


Sumo Block Pull


Sumo Deadlifts: Quad Versus Hip Dominant

When you pull sumo, there’s a sweet spot for trunk angle and joint ROM that enables you to hoist the heaviest loads. That said, sometimes it’s a good idea to use lighter loads and practice your sumo deadlifts using a quad-emphasis or a hip-emphasis. With the quad-dominant style, sink deeper and keep a more upright trunk. With the hip-dominant style, raise the hips and use a greater trunk lean.

Quad-Dominant Sumo Deadlift


Hip Dominant Sumo Deadlift


Deficit Deadlifts: Clean Grip Versus Snatch Grip

When pulling from a deficit, you should employ a traditional grip width as well as a snatch grip width. The snatch grip deficit deadlift increases joint ROM and is a brutal yet useful variation.

Deficit Deadlift


Snatch Grip Deficit Deadlift


Hack Lift

The hack lift is a nifty way to build quad strength in a deadlift. Just place the bar behind the back and try to mimic your typical deadlift form. This variation stresses the knees and should be used only occasionally. The lockout can be tricky, but most lifters can learn to perform the movement correctly with practice.

Hack Lift


The Spice of Training Variety is good for both strength and hypertrophy and it helps prevent overuse injuries. Through tremendous effort and experimentation, accomplished lifters determine optimal positioning and technique for their bodies as well as figure out the movements that transfer best to their particular goals.
The takeaway point is that the best do what works best for them, not what some guru tells them to do. Contrary to popular belief, there’s no standardized perfect form, only what form is best suited for your body and goals.
There’s more than one way to skin a cat… or squat or deadlift a weight.

Deadlifts: One of the Most Functional Exercises for Everything!

By  On November 6, 2013 · 

I often say that I feel Deadlifts (and Deadlift variations) are one the most functional exercise options you can do, regardless of your training goal. That said, I can’t talk about why deadlifts and deadlift variations are functional for the 3 basic categories of training goals – Physique, Sports Performance or General Fitness/ Fat Loss – without first defining what the “functional” means.

Defining Functional Training

As I discussed in my What is Functional Training? The Real Definition post, The core problem with the term “functional training” isn’t the variety of different definitions trainers and coaches use in attempt to define it – that’s just a symptom of the real problem. The core of the problem which is that the fitness and conditioning field as a whole seems to have chosen to ignore the dictionary definition when it comes to this special word: “Functional.”
In school, we were taught to look up a word in the dictionary to understand its meaning, not make up our own definition. That causes chaos and confusion­—hence the current problem we have in the fitness field & conditioning fields with “functional.”
With this reality in mind, our Performance U philosophy on defining the word functional is not about attempting to just making up our own definition based on our favorite training methods; it’s about going with the dictionary definition.
According to the dictionary definition (each dictionary provides basically the same definition), the word “functional” is defined as something that is able to fulfill its purpose or function.
So, as I stated in my Functional Bodybuilding article, “Functional training has nothing to do with what the exercise looks like, nor does it have to do with the type of equipment you’re using – functional training is all about transfer into your training goal(s)!
Put simply, if the exercise transfers positively into the target sport, activity or physique goal you’re training for, it’s functional! Now some exercises have an obvious and direct functional transfer while other exercises offer a less obvious, indirect transfer. As I mentioned in my Truth About the Bench Press article, in the Performance U training system we classify our exercises as either Specific orGeneral based on how they (functionally) transfer.”

Deadlifts are Specific (i.e. Functional) for Everything!

Note: When I use the word “Deadlifts” here, I’m not just referring to the standard style Barbell Deadlift, but rather (in the context below) I’m using “Deadlifts”  to encompass all deadlift variations from standard deadlifts to RDLs to Single Leg RDLs to Trap Bar Deadlifts. 
In our the Performance U training approach, deadlifts are classified as a specific exercise (i.e. high on the functional spectrum) because they offer a direct and specific transfer into each of the three main training goals:
Functional Transfer into Sports Performance: Deadlifts specifically transfer to all field, court and combat sports because the movement closely matches the force generation patterns involved in sprinting, jumping, rotating to swing an implement like a bat or club (their hip extension involved in all of these movements), along with changing levels like shooting takedowns and picking up your opponent in MMA and grappling sports, etc.
Functional Transfer into Bodybuilding: It’s no secret that deadlifts are a very effective tool for helping to build bigger and better looking glutes, hamstrings and lower back muscles. And, since achieving that is a goal specific to bodybuilders, figure and physique competitors, along with those looking to add size; this make deadlifts a specific exercise.
General Fitness and Fat Loss: These are individual that are not training to compete in anything, nor are they interested in following the type of diet (of lifestyle) required to look like a fitness model. These are the folks who may be weekend warriors, moms, dads, and everyday people who’re looking to get into better shape for either an upcoming event (like a wedding or school reunion), or who simply want to have (and maintain) the physical capacity to easily perform the daily tasks of life an lead an active lifestyle. And, it’s important to note that this is the group of individuals who makes up the vast majority of the clients almost every personal trainer has, but hates to admit they’ve got because they’re not nearly as sexy to talk about as the physique and performance athletes.
Anyway, the deadlift has a high-transfer into the goal of improving general fitness for the same reasons I described above: it can help your move better and look better. Both goals of those interested in getting into better shape. And, deadlifts can be a great tool to contribute to fat loss because they’re a compound exercise option, which requires lots of muscles to activate simultaneously – The more muscles worked, the higher the metabolic demand.
Note: Weightlifting athletes and recreational lifters who’s goal is to become master deadlifters have been left out of the list above because this article is not discussing deadlifts from that perspective. This article addresses deadlifts and deadlift variations as they relate to those individuals who aren’t in the weight room to be weightlifters.

Don’t fit yourself to the Deadlift; Fit the Deadlift to You!

In short, to summarize what I just covered: Regardless of the training goal, deadlifts are used in some form or fashion in the Performance U training approach. That is, of course, unless we feel or have been advised by a medical professional that they’re contradicted for a certain individual’s injury or limitation.
That being said, one of the common practices I often see when it comes to using deadlifts is to attempt to fit everyone to deadlifts performed in the tradtional style (as demonstrated in the image above by my man Tony Gentilcore).
I submit to you that this is not only mentally lazy, it’s also dangerous  because it’s like trying to fit square pegs, triangular pegs, star-shaped pegs, etc. into round holes. And, it’s no secret that when you do that you’re going to cause lots to splinters!
In other words, because we all come in different shapes and sizes, we recommend fitting the deadlift styles and variations you use to YOU; don’t try to fit yourself to a specific type of deadlift.
Note: Depending on individual ability, some people may be able to use several different deadlift variations and styles while others may be more limited in the stances and styles they use. 

Deadlifts for Dummies

This is a guest post by Lee Boyce.
Deadlifts are one of those “no cheating” exercises. The steps are simple:
  1. Pick up bar all the way off the ground.
And that’s it.
For most of us, that’s about as far as it goes. Unfortunately, most of us are kinda stupid.  Deadlifting is one of those moves that looks so easy but has more particulars than meets the eye.  Less the cape and tights, I’ve come to save the day with the most comprehensive guide to deadlifting so you’ll be pulling strong, and pain free into oblivion.  Let’s get to it, step by step.

Grab a Hold

The grip for a deadlift can either be straight (palms over) or mixed. The mixed grip (one hand over, one hand under) is great for heavier loads, but I recommend not getting used to the same mix each time. It can begin to develop imbalances if you deadlift with it frequently. When performing a conventional deadlift, use a grip that’s just outside your hip width. Too wide and you’ll have issues keeping a strong grip on the bar. Too narrow and the bar will begin to lose its balance.  Remember to wrap the thumbs around firmly also.

Position Your Body

There are many schools of thought as to the technique used for a deadlift to be performed correctly.  My research and opinion leads me to use what you’re about to read as my choice way to keep a client safe, while pulling the most weight possible if need be.
The first step is to line the bar up with your shoelaces. The bar should be positioned over your foot to divide it into a front half and a back half. You should be able to see your toes come out in front of the bar, as it will be very close to your shins. Without changing anything, reach down to the bar and place your hands in your desired position – just outside hip width. At this point your back will be rounded and your butt will be way up in the air.  The next step is to lower your hips and raise your shoulders. Doing this simultaneously should encourage the low back to arch, and the chest to raise. Your shins should be right against the bar now, with the feet flat on the ground. Keep your head down.
Next, make sure your chest is what’s directly above the bar. If your chest is what’s over the bar, that means your shoulder blades are too. It’s a lot easier to transfer your forces into a heavy bar when you have your entire back helping you out. If you follow the physics by keeping your scapulae over the bar when you set up, you can’t lose.

Getting Tight

You may have thought that was what the last step was for, but you still have some tightness you need to achieve.  Grabbing a firm hold of the bar, with your shoulders where they should belong, actively try to squeeze the chest out. This will get the lats tight, low back tight, and arch your thoracic region so you’re ready to pull. At the same time, ensure your arms are fully straightened. Make an effort to “bend” the bar, or to “pull the flex out of it” without moving it off the floor.  Now you’re ready to pull.

So Pull!

Make sure the heels are dug right into the ground and stay tight. Drag the bar up your shins.  Now all the stuff we worked on in the setup section just became important. If the scapulae aren’t located over the bar, or the bar was located too far away from the shins, the hips would shoot upwards and the bar would move in against the shins, as soon as it was one inch off the ground. This goes to show that the physics are most closely followed through the setup above. Take a look at this bad deadlift and you’ll see what I mean.
In the video above, the girl does about everything you could do wrong in a deadlift wrong.  She doesn’t take her time in her set-up, and her feet aren’t in tight enough to the bar. As a result, the bar stays under her shoulders/armpit region and she has no stability in her pull. Her lats aren’t tight, her back isn’t arched and her scaps aren’t over the bar. So as you can see, the bar escapes her and the bar path is irregular on its way up.  Of course, this causes her hips to shoot up first and her back to round. But look what happens to the bar – it goes right where it belongs, under the scapulae, where the most support will be available.

Hip Drive

As the lift nears completion, what happens with your hips becomes important too. Remember that the deadlift dominantly works the big three muscle groups of the posterior chain – the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.  It’s easy to let the glutes slacken up and not fully contribute to the lift, and it all depends on how we finish.
I hear a lot of different cues to explain “hip drive”. Many of them involve a subtle forward thrust of the hips to encourage the glutes to activate, especially nearing the end of the lift at the lockout. I like to think of a pulley system, something like how elevators work. To me, it’s the simplest way to visualize the muscles.
In the picture, the weight (m) represents the barbell. The rope (on the side the hand is pulling on) represents your hamstrings, and the fulcrum (the block) would be your pelvis. Drive your heels straight into the floor and feel your hamstrings and glutes contract downwards. Keep the tension on them as the bar travels up your shins and thighs to correspond.  Your entire back will be working whether you try or not, so just make an effort to keep it just as tight as it was when you first started your pull.
I don’t focus on “creating” a hip drive, because the angle will close on its own, especially if these cues are followed properly. Often people create false drives at the top of the lift that usually just throws the low back into hyperextension, with the glutes just coming along for a free ride.  Having said this, the pelvis needs to be “unlocked” at the top of the lift so that the glutes can assist in completing the lockout. Check out the RKC plank by my man Bret Contreras:
This is essentially the hip position that would be ideal at the end of the deadlift.  We can achieve them through practicing these positions through supplementary exercises like this one, and also exercises like glute bridges, shown by Nick:

The Final Product

In a T-NATION article I wrote a couple of years ago, I included a video that demonstrates properly executed deadlifts. You’ll note the bar travelling in a straight line off the ground, and my hip position being dictated by my glutes at the end of the lift.
In a deadlift, the lowering phase shouldn’t be a slow one. Let the bar drag back down the thighs with the chest staying out. As soon as the bar passes the knee level, let it drop to the floor much faster by dropping your shoulders. Get your scapulae right back over the bar as fast as you can. Using this approach in the negative half of the lift will make it feel not so negative at all. You’ll avoid injury by not spending too much time lowering a heavy bar.

That’s All, Folks!

Clear as day – a deadlift is a simple battle with physics to make heavy bars move off the ground. Applying these words of advice can take you through strength plateau, and through a development plateau too. It may be a matter of a few subtle tweaks to your form and technique.  Keep in mind this was a guide to the conventional deadlift, not sumo, defecit, snatch grip, single leg, Romanian, or Give-a-Dog-a-Bone deadlifts. We’ll save those for next time.

Knee-Friendly Quad Builders

Knee-Friendly Quad Builders
As much as a beastly set of quads can really set you apart from the chest and arms crowd, training the quads hard and heavy can be problematic. Many of the best quad exercises put a lot of stress on the knees, hence their “knee dominant” classification.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing if you’ve got healthy knees, but if you don’t, well, your quest to build tree trunks for quads will be an uphill battle.
You essentially have three choices:
Option 1: Ignore your knee pain and train through it. Better yet, just get some knee wraps and wrap em’ up as tight as possible. Buy your ibuprofen in bulk from Costco. You won’t feel a thing. Woot!
I’m kidding. Having gone this route many times before, I can tell you it’s a losing proposition.  It may seem cool at the time, and some of your lifting buddies might say you’re “hardcore,” but when you’re hobbling around and struggling to go up and down stairs, it’s not so cool.
Option 2: Stop training your quads altogether and resign yourself to a lifetime of sweatpants and chicken legs. I mean, let’s be honest, by the time someone of the opposite sex sees your quads, you should have already sealed the deal.
Again, I’m kidding.
Option 3: Get creative and find ways to blast your quads without hurting your knees.
That sounds best to me, so let’s roll with that. Here are some exercises to help.

1. Landmine Reverse Lunges

Landmine reverse lunges are a great knee-friendly alternative to regular lunges, or even regular reverse lunges.
Start by putting one end of a barbell in the landmine unit and holding the other end in your left hand, 1-2 inches in front of your thigh. Keeping your chest up, take a big step back with your left leg while simultaneously reaching your left arm slightly forward.
In the bottom position, your left hand should be approximately in line with your right shin. From there, push through the heel of the right foot and return to the start position.
Repeat with your other leg.
It should look like this:

The barbell functions as a counterbalance, allowing you to take a much bigger step back than what would normally be possible with traditional loading methods, thereby encouraging you to maintain a completely vertical tibia, which in turn helps take stress off the knee joint.
If you try keeping a vertical shin in a standard lunge or reverse lunge using standard loading methods, it’s extremely difficult to execute. Using the landmine, it’s no problem at all.
Moreover, this variation provides offset contralateral loading, which increases glute recruitment and helps to build hip, core, and pelvic stability while also developing grip strength (since you’re forced to hold the thick part of the barbell).
I don’t recommend loading the bar up with too much weight because it can be tricky to handle heavy loads so far out in front of your body, and you don’t want to risk a lower back injury. This is a tough exercise to begin with so you probably won’t need a lot of external resistance anyway, but if you do, try adding a weighted vest.

2. Valslide Landmine Reverse Lunges

Knee-Friendly Quad Builders
To make landmine reverse lunges even more knee-friendly, try adding in Valslides or a slideboard for the reverse lunges.
Do the reps in a slow and controlled fashion and focus on keeping your weight on the heel of the working leg as you slide back as far as you can go, all without losing your balance or having your chest collapse forward.
When you reach the bottom position, think about pulling through the glute of the front leg rather than pushing with the quad. Don’t worry, your quads will still get plenty of work.
Here’s what it looks like in action:

If you watch the video, you’ll notice that the shin of the front leg hardly moves at all during the set and the tibia stays completely vertical throughout. Being that our goal is to deload the knee, that’s a good thing.
If you continue watching, you’ll also notice that I’m able to slide  back; much farther back than you can step in a regular reverse lunge and even a little farther back than you can go in a landmine reverse lunge without the slide pad.
Along with making for one hell of a hip flexor stretch, this encourages a posterior weight shift to take pressure off the knee of the front working leg. Better still, it also limits knee flexion in the rear leg, which again is great for folks suffering from knee pain – sometimes the rear leg experiences pain during lunges when forced to bend excessively and absorb the impact of stepping backwards.

3. Rear Foot (Slightly) Elevated Split Squats

Rear foot elevated split squats (RFESS), a.k.a. Bulgarian split squats, are one of my absolute favorite exercises for building the quads. That said, they aren’t always tolerated well by those suffering from knee pain.
Sometimes the pain is in the front leg, which can usually be cleared up by taking a longer stride and focusing on keeping as much of a vertical tibia as possible.
Interestingly enough, most complaints of knee pain during this exercise are usually related to pain in the rear leg. If that’s the case, the issue can often be ameliorated simply by not elevating the rear leg quite so high.
Most of the time you’ll see RFESS done using a standard weight bench, which depending on the manufacturer is typically somewhere between 17-19 inches. While that height is fine for most people, those experiencing knee pain in the rear leg should try using a 9-12 inch box instead and see if that helps.
Make sure to plantarflex the rear ankle and set up “laces down” on the box to avoid pushing through your toes. Do the reps in a slow and controlled fashion and focus on keeping your weight on the heel of the front foot, like so:

With the shorter box you can clearly see that knee flexion of the rear leg is dramatically reduced as compared to doing them on a full-sized bench. In that regard, it’s very similar to doing a regular split squat with the back leg on the floor.
I like split squats too as a teaching tool, but I don’t like loading them heavy because there’s a strong tendency to cheat and use the back leg too much as the weights get heavier.
I’d much prefer to progress to a RFESS with laces down and just limit the height of the box if need be, focusing on keeping the majority of the weight on the front leg.
Make sure you’re stretching and foam rolling your quads and hip flexors too, as that should also help a lot. In time you should be able to go back to using a full size bench, but until you can do so completely pain-free, don’t push it.

4. Eccentric One-Leg Squats

Knee-Friendly Quad Builders
I’d always thought of eccentric single-leg squats as an effective learning progression to work towards full single-leg squats (which it is), but I learned from Mike Boyle that it can also be a fantastic alternative exercise for individuals dealing with knee pain. After trying it out extensively, I think it works well in both scenarios.
To do them, simply lower down to a parallel box on one leg and come back up on two legs:

The key here is to control the eccentric portion of the rep and not just free-fall down to the box. If you’re unable to control it, raise the height of the box until you can and then slowly increase the depth over time.
If you’re new to single-leg squats and just can’t seem to get the hang of them, try doing these to a standard bench using 5-pound dumbbells in your hands to serve as a counterbalance.
[Insert Pic Ben Single Leg]
Once you can do five reps with 4-5 second eccentrics, you should be all set to do full single-leg squats.
If you’re more advanced and can already do single-leg squats but find they irritate your knees, the eccentric-only version may allow you to do them pain-free. Using a box allows you to sit back farther and keep a more vertical tibia than doing them without the box.
I’m using a front squat grip in the video above because I’ve done these for a long time and have progressed quite a bit in weight, but I recommend starting by holding 5-10 pound dumbbells in your hands and raising them straight-out to shoulder level as you descend. Having your arms out in front helps tremendously with balance so do it that way first until you’re completely comfortable and need to add more load.

5. Deadlifts

Knee-Friendly Quad Builders
You know those people that say a deadlift is just a squat with the weight in your hands and cue you to get your butt way down low before you pull? As someone who loves to deadlift – and deadlift heavy – that advice always used to annoy me because it’s clearly not the best way to pull heavy weights.
I also think it can be dangerous to pull in this manner because almost every time I see someone set up for a near-maximal deadlift with their hips too low, they almost invariably shoot up before the bar breaks the floor and the person ends up rounding his lower back something awful.
So if your goal is to move as much weight as possible, a low hip position isn’t the best way to go.
But this article isn’t about the best way to deadlift as much weight as possible. We’re talking about working the quads here, and if that’s the goal, a lower hip position deadlift where you try to visualize squatting the weight up can be a pretty damn good exercise that’s much more knee-friendly than squatting.
Start by getting your butt down and your chest up with your weight on your heels. As you break the bar off the floor, it’s imperative that the hips and shoulders stay in sync in order to protect your back and keep the stress on your legs.
You’re going to have to drop the weights significantly to do this correctly. I’d even start with 30-40% of what you think you can deadlift normally as you adjust to the new technique. It’s important to be strict with these, both for the health of your back, and to make sure the stress stays on the quads.
I know that seems extremely light, but if you’re doing it right, your quads will feel it. You don’t have to stay super light forever and your numbers should climb quickly, but don’t add weight at the expense of form. The devil is in the details with these.
From time to time I also like to do them from a slight deficit to increase the range of motion. If doing so causes you knee pain, or you don’t have the requisite mobility to get that low with a flat back, avoid pulling from a deficit and just pull from the floor.
My favorite stance is what I’d call “semi-sumo” with my feet slightly wider than shoulder width. If you remove the bar from the equation and just look at the movement, this really looks more like a parallel squat.

You can also pull conventional, but I think the low hip conventional deadlift can be a bit riskier on the lower back, and I don’t feel it quite as much in my quads. Interestingly, I actually pull weight more conventional style than I do sumo, but sumo just feels better. If you choose to pull conventional, be extra careful not to let the hips shoot up as you initiate the pull.

If you’re lucky enough to have a trap bar at your gym, that’s another option too. I like the trap bar a lot, but I find that when my knees are bothering me it can be problematic, so keep that in mind.

Experiment with all the different variations and find what you like best.

6. Reverse Sled Drags

Reverse sled drags have been my biggest staple quad exercise for the past eight months and I’ve managed to add some muscle to my legs, despite not doing a ton of other heavy “quad” work. I’m certainly not advocating ditching all heavy lifting in favor of sled drags, but I do think it’s a great way to finish your lower body workouts, or even as a standalone on days when your knees just aren’t up for the task.
I’m not talking about taking a leisurely stroll at the end of the workout, though. In order for the sled drags to be a viable way to build muscle, you’ve got to push them (or pull them, rather) hard, just like you would any strength exercise. If you aren’t hating life while you’re pulling, you ain’t doing it right.
I’m hesitant to give specific recommendations on how to implement sled work because so much of it depends on the surface you’re pulling on and the space you have available.
As a point of reference, I’ve pulled up to 1,100 pounds on one indoor turf surface I use. On another outdoor turf surface, I top out around 650 pounds, and when I pull on rubber I struggle with 300 pounds. Don’t worry about the amount of weight you use – just worry about increasing that number over time.
Distance will vary depending on your space limitations. If possible, start with heavy drags of about 25-30 yards each. Start with four trips and gradually work up to 6-8 trips.
If that’s not specific enough for you, here’s a good general rule: go as heavy as you think you can go – plus a little bit – for as far as you think you can go (plus a little bit).
I’m not saying to get reckless, and you obviously need to exercise a certain degree of caution, but too many people wuss out at the slightest sign of a quad burn. Sorry, there’s no way to get around that – but the cool thing about sleds is that while they burn like hell while you’re doing them, they won’t leave you too sore the next day, so remind yourself of that while you’re pulling.
You need to push past your comfort zone to get results, but that goes for just about anything worth doing in life.

Closing Words

If knee pain has kept you from training your quads like you know you should, or the current exercises you’re doing are making your knees bark at the moon, give some of this stuff a shot and see how it goes.
And it should go without saying, but if any exercise hurts, stop doing it. Don’t try to be a hero.
Lastly, these exercises aren’t just for those of us with bad knees, nor do you have to wait until you have bad knees to start doing knee-friendly training. Even if your knees are feeling good at the moment, it might still be wise to sprinkle some of these exercises into your program to give your knees a little break so they stay healthy for the long haul.
It may require a little bit of imagination to find exercises that don’t hurt, but one way or another, almost anyone can build a set of wheels they can be proud of if you’re willing to put in the work.
Remember, friends don’t let friends skip leg day.

Deadlifts: Which Type is Best For You?

Deadlifts: Which Type is Best For You?
Which type of deadlift is best?
Trap bar? Conventional? Sumo?
I get this question almost daily. And like most training questions, the best answer typically is, “it depends.”
But when that won’t suffice, here are my follow-up questions:

Once you start answering those questions, we can start to figure out which type of deadlift is best for you.

The Big Assumption(s)

I’m going to make two big assumptions:

  1. When discussing the trap bar deadlift, we’ll focus on how most people perform it: high handles, hips down, more dorsiflexion, and a more upright torso.
  2. When discussing the conventional deadlift, we’ll focus on how most people perform it: hips high, minimal dorsiflexion, and a much more bent-over torso.

I’ve seen people trap bar deadlift with no dorsiflexion, a vertical tibia, and using all glutes and hams, and I’ve seen people who start their conventional deadlift with their thighs parallel to the ground.
Looking at all the possible variations would be ridiculous, so we have to use a few generalizations to get everyone on the same page.

Mobility Needs

Deadlifts: Which Type is Best For You?
Experienced powerlifters aside, I want lifters to deadlift with a neutral spine or flat back. One of the biggest issues we see when deadlifting is that many lifters don’t have adequate mobility to deadlift safely and effectively because they can’t get into an initial neutral spine posture.
For this reason, coupled with the fact that very few people can hip hinge and load their hamstrings effectively, we start most clients off with a Romanian deadlift.
From there, the trap bar deadlift is an ideal progression. The high handles minimize mobility demands while still allowing the lifter to learn the deadlifting pattern within their functional range.
This makes sense – high handled trap bar deadlifts are almost like a rack pull. But what comes next, sumo or conventional?
The sumo deadlift is easier for most lifters to learn. This may not be how they end up handling the most weight, but many will have an easier time getting into position on a sumo deadlift than a conventional one. The major limiting factor here will be .
A big component of this is also . To get into a flat back position on a conventional deadlift, you not only need a tremendous amount of hip mobility, but also hamstring strength. If your hamstrings aren’t strong, chances are you’ll turtle up and start from a horrible low back position.

Less Mobility Mobility Demands
Trap Bar Sumo Conventional

Anterior or Posterior Chain

I hate the question, 
Which is why I typically answer with something like, 
When most people trap bar deadlift, it’s like a reverse squat. There’s a lot of dorsiflexion at the ankles and the spine is very upright, and as a result they get considerable quad and anterior chain development.
The conventional deadlift is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Most have a tendency to shove their hips way back, incline their torso to a much greater degree, and start with their hips much farther back from the bar.
The end result is a tremendous exercise for building the entire backside of the body (glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors).
The sumo deadlift really is a hybrid between the two. Your hips start closer to the bar (especially if you think about pushing your knees out to get to the bar, versus pushing your hips back), and you’re also much more upright.
In the end, the sumo gives you this weird blend of quad, glutes, hamstring, some lower back, and even some adductors.

Anterior Chain Posterior Chain
Trap Bar Sumo Conventional

Stress on the Spine

Deadlifts: Which Type is Best For You?

Another quote likely disregarded by T Nation readers for years. While we’re busy paying our dues and getting bigger, leaner, or stronger, these people are reading trusted fitness resources like MSN and Yahoo to keep them firmly entrenched on the treadmill to mediocrity.
Still, there’s definitely a risk/reward trade off when it comes to deadlifting – but if there was no risk and all reward, everyone would be peacocking around with Inflated Lat Syndrome and a 500-pound pull to back it up.
Let’s get one thing straight: Your lumbar vertebrae are pretty friggin’ huge and are meant to deal with compressive forces. Compression is just like it sounds – when your vertebrae and discs are pushed closer together vertically, that’s compression.
And anything you do will result in some compression. Simply tensing your abs and lower back muscles will result in compression, not just loading your spine vertically (as in a squat).
The key distinction here is load. The more load you have, the more compressive forces on your spine.
Let me be clear:  There are positions that are far more worrisome to me than compression.
Shear force is where many get into trouble. Shear forces occur whenever the torso is inclined to a high degree. As we bend over (or hip hinge), our vertebrae have a tendency to drift or slide forward on one another.
Unfortunately, most people don’t tolerate shear forces very well. One of the biggest reasons is they simply don’t have a good strategy to deal with it – they have no anterior core, no glutes, and no hamstrings, so their only strategy is to arch the low back as hard as possible.
In doing so, they combine compression  shear, thereby grinding their spine into a fine powder. It’s about this time that I hand them my business card and tell them to call me when the time is right.
The more upright we are, the less shear we have to deal with. This is why someone predisposed to back pain can often get away with front squats yet back squats causes them pain or discomfort.
Regarding the deadlift, these lifters will probably do better with either a trap bar or sumo style lift, at least in the short-term, to reduce shear forces.

Less Shear Force More Shear Force
Trap Bar Sumo Conventional

Deadlifts for Reps?

I hate performing deadlifts for reps.
There’s really no two ways around it – anything over three reps of deadlifts feels like torture, or at the very least, cardio.
In fact, I modified  on the deadlift day, switching it to 3-2-1, because I thought I might die on the 5’s day – even when using quite a bit below my 1-RM.
Somewhere in Texas, Jim is laughing his ass off and thinking I’m just barely NOV.
If working with a fat loss or physique-focused client, higher-rep sets of deadlifts are something to consider. But I wouldn’t be a very good “corrective” or “rehab” guy if I got my clients injured a lot, and I know doing higher-rep sets of deadlifts is like playing with fire.
For that reason alone, I do my best to keep clients out of precarious positions. On sumo and conventional deads, I rarely (if ever) prescribe more than five reps per set.
But on a trap bar deadlift, though, I’ll often go as high as 10-15 reps in a set, especially if the end goal is fat loss.
I’m just a lot more comfortable as a coach with the upright posture and less technical nature of the trap bar, which allows for more wiggle room.
Feel free to make your own decisions here, but I firmly believe this is the way to go.

Best Choice Worst Choice
Trap Bar Conventional & Sumo


Deadlifts: Which Type is Best For You?
We can talk about joint stresses, mobility needs, anterior versus posterior chain and what not, but at the end of the day, what really matters is how awesome you look deadlifting.
For the record, I pull sumo. I do this partly because it’s the way I was taught, and partly because it feels the most natural to me.
I also realize that some people call this “cheater style,” and it’s not as awesome as hoisting a monster deadlift conventional style. I’m okay with that – my best pull is 545 and was done at a bodyweight of 180.6, getting me into that exclusive 3x/body weight club.
However, one of my pet peeves now is people’s obsession with the trap bar. Here’s my two cents on the matter.
I only use the trap bar if:

  • The client doesn’t care how much they deadlift.
  • The client is an athlete and I deem the risk: reward to be too great to use other styles.
  • They don’t currently have the mobility to sumo or conventional deadlift with a neutral spine.
  • Their primary goal is fat loss.

If your goal is to be big and strong, learn how to sumo or conventional deadlift with good technique.
Because honestly, anyone who lifts heavy stuff doesn’t care how much you trap bar deadlift. (Insert smiley-face.)

Lame Totally Awesome
Trap Bar Sumo Conventional

A great question, and I’m pretty sure there’s no great answer.
I know a lot of super strong guys that pull conventional in meets but pull sumo in the off-season, claiming it brings up their weak points.
In fact, I just had this discussion a few weeks back with Jeremy Hartmann, a 220-pound lifter who has pulled 788 in competition. He pulls conventional in meets but does a lot of sumo pulling in the gym.

For instance, if you typically pull conventional with the hips starting high, you’re used to smoking weights off the floor and struggling at lockout.
In contrast, someone who pulls sumo with a lower hips position is used to struggling with weights off the floor, but anything that breaks the floor is getting locked out.
In this case, it’s not so much that they’re using an alternate style, .
Mike Tuscherer once told me that you pick your poison when deadlifting. Either you get your ass down, chest up, and struggle off the floor, or you round over to get the bar rolling off the floor and struggle at the top.
If it comes down to specificity, you’re going to see a high transfer between trap bar and sumo deadilfts, or between sumo deadlifts and conventional deadlifts.
The differences between the trap bar and conventional deadlift are a little bit too big to see massive carryover, but nobody said it couldn’t work for you.

And I’m Out

Deadlifts: Which Type is Best For You?
There’s no shortage of deadlifting articles at T Nation, and for good reason – the deadlift is many a strong guy’s favorite lift. I think even the most diehard deadlift fan will appreciate this concise breakdown on the similarities and differences between the trap bar, sumo, and conventional deadlifts.
The question is, will they agree? Good or bad, I await your comments in the LiveSpill.

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