The Deadlift: The Most Powerful Weapon In Your Lifting Arsenal

By Alli McKee

The deadlift is one of the most primitive, fundamental, full body exercises you can do. With zero momentum involved, you simply bend at the hips, sit your arse back, pick a dead weight up off the floor and put it down. While it may be that simple, there's still a bit more you should know.

Benefits from the deadlift:

  • Strength
  • Power
  • Athletic development
  • Hypertrophy
  • A beautiful backside
  • Flexibility and developing strength through the range of motion

Muscles Used / Full Body Work (upper posterior and lower posterior):

  • Hamstrings
  • Hips
  • Glutes
  • Back / Core (erectors, lats, traps)
  • Biceps, forearms and grip

I've mentioned before how much I enjoy the opportunity to share and talk training with my coach, Mike Matz, and because two heads are better than one, I went to Mike for some feedback on this post as his understanding of the body and attention to technique is impeccable.

The deadlift has a big family and while it's not an exhaustive list, below are five of the most commonly used deadlift variations. I hope the following arms you with a greater understanding plus options to either dig in and or progress!

1. Kettlebell (KB) Deadlift

(Note: Kettlebell Deadlift Demo starts at 2:17 in this video)

Who: Great for anyone. Male, female, all ages, all goals, all levels (beginner, intermediate, even advanced lifters and athletes) who want to work on learning or refining the hip hinge mechanics.

When / Where: When learning a new movement, you want to be at your freshest versus a fatigued state. Therefore, you want your deadlift and learning curve early in the lifting session to teach or refine mechanics / technique.

Why: The KB deadlift is less taxing on the body, less intimidating to human eye and a great tool if working on the mechanics of your hip hinge. It's also a great place to start if a lighter load is more appropriate for the lifter.

How: Stand over the KB, feet hip width apart, or slightly wider. Bend at your hips, pushing your hips / butt back. "Keep your shins as vertical as possible (to put more tension on the hamstrings and glutes). Keep your chest up and your core tight. Push the ground away from you to drive through your mid foot" - Mike Matz

2. Trap Bar Deadlift

Who: Again, great for anyone. Male, female, all ages, all goals, all levels. Especially great for advanced lifters as a different movement pattern from conventional deadlifts.

Switching variations up over time is a good way to avoid wear and tear from the same, repetitive patterns. The weight displacement from the trap bar deadlift can reduce the risk of low back injuries because it is in line with your center of mass. It can also be a safer lift with regards to learning and executing technique.

The trap bar deadlift also "helps to teach leg drive off the initial start in the ascent versus using your low back." - Mike Matz

When / Where: You can use this lift at the beginning of the session or even in the middle as a supplementary exercise for leg strength and extra work for low body leg development.

Why: The trap bar deadlift is a great, progressive movement and tool when you're looking to progress the deadlift. Also can be a safer choice for certain lifters and can help where flexibility / mobility may be limited due to the higher handle options.

How: A similar application by pushing hips back, grabbing the trap bar and extending up and through. To avoid over emphasizing the quad work, watch the knee angle - having a more vertical shin creates a more hip dominant movement.

3. Conventional Deadlift

Who: Intermediate to advanced lifters / athletes. Those who have acquired the proper hip hinge pattern and a foundational level of strength to support the conventional deadlift.

When/Where: Typically at the beginning of your session for your freshest state for technique, strength and power.

Why: Because it's the most primitive exercise out there! :

How: "Top Down Effect: Brace your core, get in neutral posture (hips right in line with your spine - minimizing hyper extension in your lower back), squeeze your glutes. Hip hinge down to the bar, keeping shins vertical, feet are sligtly wider than hip width apart.

"Bar is at the midline of your foot, grip is overhand, mixed or hooked and hands are just outside the knees / shins...When lowering down to the bar and gripping, push your knees against your forearms to create more tension through your hips. Also tense your lats by imagining you're squeezing a piece of paper between your arm and torso. For head position, look about five feet in front.. and lift." - Mike Matz

Note: At the top of the lift / lock out, and avoid hyper extending through the low back.

4. Sumo Deadlift

Who: The intermediate to advanced lifter/athlete. Those who have a taller build will also have greater success with the sumo versus a conventional deadlift because the range of motion is cut down due to the wider stance. The sumo deadlift also helps in getting your hips a little lower and you can use your hips more with the deadlift in this stance. This variation is great for glute strength. While the sumo deadlift can place a bit more stress on the hips, it's less stressful on the low back due to the stance and your torso angle.

When / Where: Generally at the beginning of the lifting session (if your main lift) or for supplementary work. Supplementary work for glute strength (if you're using the sumo deadlift for supplementary work, use a lighter load and slightly higher in reps).

Why: Great as a variation in movement and mechanics. Works glute strength and imbalances. Also, appropriate if you're a taller lifter. Ultimately, choose your liking and what works best for you.

How: Stand wide but make sure you can maintain the wide stance without your knees dropping in as you do down for the bar (aka, keep your knees out). Feet are angled in a more open stance. Maintain a vertical shin angle, drive your hips back with a slightly more vertical torso (compared to the conventional deadlift). Grip is usually a mixed grip and aim to have hands even with (or slightly narrower than) shoulder width.

5. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift

Who: Everybody! Intermediate and advanced  athletes and lifters. The single leg deadlift is also a great choice for rehab clients. If you're a beginner, simply use low load and work on technique.

When / Where: You can incorporate this movement into the beginning of your session for a warm up (minimal to light load) or in the middle to end of your session. Because it's a single limb exercise, it's not to be treated as a lift with maximal loads. You can certainly challenge yourself with resistance on this lift, but no need for a competition of the strongest on single limb exercises.

Why: This exercise is great for coordination, flexibility, balance between limbs, hip stability, knee stability, ankle stability. Also core / rotary stability if using unilateral loading.

How: Distribute your weight through your mid foot. With a slight knee bend, a flat back and a keeping a tight core, slide your hips back until tension is felt, then reverse back up. Keep your back (lifted) foot angled towards the floor to keep your hips more square. "The relationship between your torso and your back leg should look like a see-saw" - Mike Matz. You can load this movement bilaterally (as shown above) or unilaterally (hold in opposite hand of the planted leg).

Final Thoughts:

    1. The deadlift is an incredible, fundamental and total body movement for all things strength, power, sports and curves.
    2. All of these movements can be progressively taught through various patterns. Even those patterns can be progressively taught by adjusting the height for example, rack pulls or using risers for block pulls.
    3. Always proceed with smarts and a little caution:
      • For beginners (and all people really), quality quality quality (in fundamental technique) trump speed and load.
      • If you have low back pain with flexion, or any pain with the movements, please use your best judgement.
      • Take your time, (L)earn progressions, set PR's and feel awesome about it!

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About the author:  Alli McKee

Alli is a certified strength and conditioning specialist. She's contributed to and modeled for a number of major publications including Oxygen magazine and the New Rules of Lifting: Supercharged. You can find out more about Alli on her personal blog at

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