Deadlifts rock! Few if any exercise can touch deadlifts for their ability to build full-body functional strength. They also build an amazing foundation of strength for athletic performance, muscle gain, and even fat loss training. Pressed for time? Deadlifts hit a tone of muscles at once and offer tremendous bang for your buck. However, despite these fantastic benefits, deadlifts can quickly wreck you. To maximize your results while minimizing your risk, proper form is essential when deadlifting. However, before you worry about proper form for the deadlift, you have to ensure that you are doing the best deadlift variation for YOU! You have to learn how to deadlift right for your body type.
Understanding Your Body Type
We are all built differently and this needs to be accounted for in our training. Even at the same height, people can have different body proportions which will naturally make them more or less suited to certain variations of a movement. For example, some people will have naturally longer torsos and shorter limbs while others (like me) are all limbs and practically missing a torso.
|Notice the height difference between Tim and I when we are standing vs. seated?|
Most of my extra height is coming from my legs.
If you have a short torso and long limbs (especially long arms), you will love deadlifts. Long arms decrease the distance you have to pull the bar thus giving you a mechanical advantage. Check out this video of Powerlifter Lamar Gant deadlift 634 lbs at a body of 123. Notice that at lockout his hands are barely above his knees - that is what you call being built for deadlifts!
If you have a long torso and short limbs you will love squats and bench presses. However, when it comes to deadlifts, this structure means you have to start your deadlifts at a lower, less advantageous position.
Finding the Right Deadlift Variation for YOU
Step 1: Check out your proportions
Have a look at yourself in a full-length mirror and note your body proportions. Are you more arm or torso?
Step 2: Check out your mobility
Ensure that you have decent hamstring mobility. To do this, lie down and flex your quads so you straighten your knees. Press one leg into the ground while slowly lifting the other leg into the air. Shoot for about 80-90 degrees. If you are not there, this could be what is keeping you from better deadlifting. In this case, give some attention to your mobility.
|Here is Tim's mobility - it could be a little better, but it's pretty good|
Step 3: Check your set-up
Try a set-up with a conventional deadlift (i.e. narrow stance, hands outside legs) from the floor with a barbell at a standard height (i.e. the height of the barbell when you have 45lb plates on the bar). Have someone take a picture of this and see what it looks like. If you can get into a good set-up position (bar over mid-foot, shoulders over the bar, natural arch in the low back), then the conventional deadlift is an option for you.
If you like Tim in this picture below and you can’t get a proper set-up, keep reading…
|Tim' set-up - note the lack of natural arch in his lower back|
Note: some people choose to still do conventional deadlifts with a rounded back. While there have been some people who are very successful at it, this greatly increases your risk of a low back injury. Also, as strength coach Josh Bryant points out, rounded back deadlifts beat you up more and take a lot longer to recover from.
Konstantin Konstantinovs - a VERY successful rounded-back puller
Best Deadlift Variations for Those with Bad Deadlifting Structures
Alternative #1: Rack Pulls or Block Pulls
One simple way around the problem of short arms is to simply increase the height of the bar. This can be easily done by deadlifting off blocks or from a power rack. Remember that unless you are competing in powerlifting, there is no rule that says you have to pull from the floor. By increasing the height of the bar, you can deadlift like a longer-limbed person and get the same benefits.
|Note the nice low back arch compared to the picture above|
Important note: don’t increase the height more than needed. While 2-inch rack/block pulls are fantastic for building your ego, they won’t make you strong.
Alternative #2: Sumo or Semi-Sumo Deadlifts
If you are built for squatting and want to pull from the floor, try a sumo deadlift. By going wider with your stance and gripping inside your legs you can get down to the bar with a good low-back position.
|Again, notice the nice low-back position in this semi-sumo set-up|
This change in stance will alter the muscular stress a bit. Sumo deadlifts tend to stress the hips, quads, and groin more while conventional deadlifts hit the low back and hamstrings harder.
Also, if you are not competing in powerlifting, you don’t have to go crazy wide with these (hence the name semi-sumo). Experiment with different widths to find what works and feels the best for you.
Alternative #3: Trap-Bar Deadlifts
If you have access to a trap bar, this is another option. The unique design allows you to stand inside of the bar and lets your body go into its natural deadlifting position.
|Tim with the trap bar - note how similar this is to his sumo deadlift|
|My trap bar deadlift set-up - note how similar this is to my bar deadlift set-up|
Note the difference in Tim’s set-up vs. mine. As a natural squatter, he can set up with a lower hip position while I can go to my higher-hip position.
Trap bar deadlifts are easier to learn and more low-back friendly. If you are doing team or group training, they allow virtually everyone to do the same lift without added equipment. However, if you want to hammer your hamstrings and glutes, they are not the best option.
Related: Trap Bar vs Straight Bar Deadlifts
Unless you compete in a lifting sport such as Powerlifting, you don’t have to do a particular variation of a movement. While lifts such as squats (i.e. back squats), bench presses and deadlifts have gotten countless people big and strong, they have also wrecked countless others. Yes, of course, poor technique is often to blame, but so is poor selection of a movement variation suited to an individual’s structure.
While every healthy person can benefit from squatting, hinging, pushing, pulling and loaded carries, not everyone will benefit from the exact same variation of these basic movements. As the old saying goes, don’t try to force a square beg into a round hole. If a particular variation of a movement is beating you up or not allowing you to progress towards your goal, then explore other variations of the movement until you find what works for you.
Special thanks to Spartan Student Intern Strength Coach Tim Lo for asking me about this topic (thus sparking the idea for this post) and for being willing to help me out with the photos.
How about you? What is your favorite deadlift variation? I invite you to leave your questions and comments below or on my Facebook page.