The deadlift is the king of all weight training exercises.
It is practical, as picking something up off of the ground is a fairly typical human skill.
It’s rehabilitative, as it is the exact opposite of sitting down. It strengthens then muscles that get weak from excessive sitting.
In addition, deadlifting is great for building muscle and burning fat, by way of hormone optimization. Lifting heavy stimulates the production of growth hormone and testosterone, this helps you build muscle and burn fat.
I’d call it the best total-body strength builder. When you handle heavy loads, your body adapts. Muscle, bone, connective tissue—all of it is going to adapt to make you stronger.
The problem is that most people are TERRIBLE and planning out their deadlift training.
In fact, many people are unknowingly doing a deadlift variation that is making them WORSE!
The first lesson in choosing the right deadlift is accepting that people have very different anatomies and health histories. EXAMPLE: Because Fred is Polish and has no previous injuries, his hip anatomy AND his muscles will tell a very different story than someone who is Scottish with a history of knee injuries during sport.
So the question is, how do we know what is best for us?
The answer to this question is something called biofeedback. Biofeedback is essentially listening to the response of your nervous system to a given stimulus.
There are several ways to measure this, the easiest way is through range of motion testing.
First, stand with your feet together and do a toe touch. Don’t hang out there forever, just make a mental note of how far you got, and how easy it was.
Now do an easy set of deadlifts, then re-test your toe touch.
Did it get better? Worse? Same?
Ideally you will want to look for a variation that makes your range of motion better. If your nervous system likes something, it’s going to give you more range of motion. If it doesn’t, it will make you stiffer (and weaker).
This is by far the easiest test to implement.
Now, understand that it can change on any given day, so test on a regular basis to find the optimal variation. Do you HAVE to test? No. But it will ensure that you maximize your potential gains.
The second piece of the deadlift puzzle is related to planning.
If you are constantly doing heavy, bilateral deadlifts, you are going to fry your central nervous system—and probably your lower back.
You need to make sure you are cycling between bilateral (two legged) and unilateral (one legged) deadlift variations.
Single leg deadlifts are a fantastic exercise for training the legs harder (without stressing the low back and core as much). It will also promote athleticism (due to the single leg stance) and actually enhance your flexibility. You can do a full single leg deadlift, unsupported—or a kickstand deadlift.
In the single leg deadlift you have a couple different options as to loading.
- 1 kettlebell in the opposite hand (contralateral)
- 1 kettlebell in the same side hand (ipsilateral)
- 2 kettlebells – 1 in each hand (bilateral load)
- Barbell (bilateral load again, but easier to go heavier)
There are different advantages to each variation—I find that many people struggle with the contralateral load due to a weak glute medius and oblique sling. Practicing contralateral single leg deadlifts is great for improving hip/core strength and coordination.
At the very least, you should alternate between single leg and two-legged variations in the deadlift.
Ah but wait, there’s more!
You can also do a 2 legged deadlift with one hand…
The one hand deadlift (weight in front) and the suitcase deadlift (weight by your side) are killer exercises. They will really emphasize core, grip, and shoulder strength. Because you won’t be able to lift as much, it will kind of give your legs and low back a bit of a break. The grip will be the limiting factor, which means you can’t use massive weights. Be sure to include a one-handed deadlift variation in your training as well. Don’t forget to test which one works better for you.
There are several variants of the standard deadlift that need to be highlighted.
You see, most people always deadlift a bar from the floor. This is usually bad, because unfortunately most people nowadays just don’t have the flexibility and coordination to do that safely—yet.
Some variations you should definitely try:
- Rack Pull
- Trap Bar Deadlift
- Sumo Deadlift
Remember, people are different. If you have to elevate the bar a couple inches, DO IT. Do anything you can to stack the deck in your favor and achieve the best possible outcome. DON’T deadlift from the floor with a straight bar all the time because that’s what you’ve been conditioned to think is the “right way.”
Next, the humble leg curl.
Too often, the leg curl gets cast aside for more manly exercises (like the deadlift). This is a mistake, because leg curls are one of the best ways to train the hamstrings (which is great for fixing many knee problems). Leg curls also spare the back and core, which if you’re deadlifting frequently, is a very good thing. My top choices are either leg curls on a suspension trainer, or furniture sliders. Drive the hips upward as you bring the feet in—this trains the hamstring in two ways: as a hip extensor and a knee flexor. It’s important to train the hamstring for both of its roles—the above variations are perfect for doing just that. The glute ham raise is also a great substitute if you have access to one.
Here’s what a plan might look like, if you wanted to do full-body workouts and emphasize the deadlift:
Wednesday: Single Leg Deadlift
Friday: One Hand Deadlift
Saturday: Leg Curls
A good complement to this program would be to do the inverse in your lower body pushing.
So if you were doing two leg deadlifts, you would also do lunges that day. On single leg deadlift day you might do squats. This way you get the best of both worlds while sparing your back.
The deadlift is a true test of total body strength, and the perfect way to build it. The ABSOLUTE MINIMUM for the deadlift should be about once a week. You don’t have to go balls to the wall heavy, but you do need to pick up some (at least relatively) heavy things off the ground. Deadlifts will definitely make you a better overall athlete when properly paired with other movements like sprints, levers, and handstands.