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UNDERSTANDING THE DEADLIFT AND ITS VARIATIONS

Holmes, Clifton J. M.S.

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ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: 5/6 2020 - Volume 24 - Issue 3 - p 17-23
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000570

INTRODUCTION

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The deadlift is a compound, multiple-joint lower body exercise (1). Because the lift can be performed with heavy loads, a large mechanical stimulus is placed on the body, lending itself well to strength and power adaptations. The deadlift is a premier exercise for enhancing the muscles of the posterior chain (e.g., back, hips, and hamstrings) because of its setup (i.e., starting position). Because the weighted barbell remains anterior to the lifter’s center of mass, there is greater demand for the erector spinae muscles to stabilize the spine when compared with other compound free-weight exercises (e.g., the back squat) (2). The deadlift is one of three events seen in the sport of powerlifting (3) and is incorporated into weightlifting programs as a supplemental movement (4). The exercise can be relatively simple if properly taught and supervised. However, its simplicity does not diminish effectiveness of the exercise, making it an ideal movement to include in strength and conditioning programs and personal training sessions for lifters at all experience levels (1,4). In addition to its use in competitive athletics and recreational training, the deadlift is a valuable tool used in postoperative and nonsurgical rehabilitation protocols (1). The exercise has been shown to be beneficial for reducing the risk of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury and reducing low back pain (5).

The deadlift is a compound, multiple-joint lower body exercise (1). Because the lift can be performed with heavy loads, a large mechanical stimulus is placed on the body, lending itself well to strength and power adaptations. The deadlift is a premier exercise for enhancing the muscles of the posterior chain (e.g., back, hips, and posterior thighs) because of its setup (i.e., starting position).

When speaking about the deadlift, many usually think of the conventional or sumo style. The conventional deadlift is characterized by a shoulder-width stance of the feet and the arms outside of the knees. The sumo deadlift distinguishes itself by requiring a wide stance and a handgrip that is between the knees. The conventional deadlift requires the trunk to be more flexed forward than the sumo style of deadlifting, which uses a more erect back position. The forward lean of the conventional deadlift recruits more of the lower back musculature around the lumbar spine, whereas the sumo deadlift increases the involvement of the hip musculature to perform the movement (6,7). Two additional variations of the exercise are the stiff-leg deadlift (SLDL) and the Romanian deadlift (RDL). These exercises are unique in the fact that the starting position is standing, similar to the starting position of a hang power clean. Both exercises are initiated by lowering the bar through hip flexion, moving through a full range of motion (ROM), before ending back in the standing position. The primary differences between the two are the degree of knee flexion at the start of the movement and the proximity of the bar to the body as a lifter progresses through the concentric and eccentric phases (6,7).

Although all the aforementioned variations are under the umbrella term of the deadlift, there are many key differences between them. This article will break down the correct procedures necessary to perform each deadlift variation and recommendations on how to choose which to use in a resistance exercise program.

PROCEDURES

Proper biomechanics in the starting position is essential to execute the lifting tasks for the deadlift safely and efficiently. All deadlift variations should be conducted in a slow, controlled manner. To enhance safety, and effective learning, lifters unfamiliar with performing the deadlift should use either unloaded or lightly loaded bars to learn the right position and develop proper exercise technique. The deadlift and its variations are taught and coached with close supervision but generally not directly spotted like the back squat or bench press exercises. Proper technique and control should be demonstrated before increasing the weight being lifted. Coaches and trainers should formulate quick and simplistic technique cues to implement during the teaching of the following exercises.

Proper biomechanics in the starting position is essential to execute the lifting tasks for the deadlift safely and efficiently. All deadlift variations should be conducted in a slow, controlled manner. To enhance safety, and effective learning, lifters unfamiliar with performing the deadlift should use either unloaded or lightly loaded bars to learn the right position and to develop proper exercise technique.

Conventional Deadlift

Setup

  1. The bar should be positioned on the floor, directly over the distal end of the metatarsals (i.e., balls of the feet), approximately 1 to 2 inches from the vertical shin.
  2. Stand with the feet flat and placed between hip- and shoulder-width apart. The toes should be pointed forward or slightly outward.
  3. With a slight flexion in the knees, bend down toward the bar, letting the hips move directly backward in a “hinging” motion. While bending over to the bar, the knees should remain stationery and shins should remain in a vertical position.
  4. Grasp the bar with a double overhand grip, placing the hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, outside of the knees. Keep elbows fully extended.
  5. From here, lower the hips into the final starting position by allowing the knees to move forward until the shins touch the bar. The head and the neck are aligned with the trunk by focusing the eyes slightly downward. The back should be flat to maintain a neutral spine.
  6. The chest should be held up and out, creating slight tension in the upper back to prevent rounding.

Action

Concentric/Upward Phase
  1. While keeping the head neutral, the torso rigid, and the arms fully extended, lift the bar off the floor by extending the hips and knees.
  2. Keep tension in the hips, driving the feet into the floor to move the bar upward.
  3. Once the bar reaches the knees, extend the hips forward to move the thighs forward to meet the bar. Continue to extend the hips and knees until the body reaches a standing position.
Eccentric/Lowering Phase
  • 4. From the standing position, allow the hips and knees to flex, lowering the bar to the floor. Maintain a neutral head and flat back position until the bar is back to the floor.

Tips

  1. When getting into the starting position, do not lean too far over the bar. Shoulders should be directly in line with the bar or slightly ahead.
  2. Do not let your knees extend prematurely. Extend the knees in a slow and controlled manner, so the hips rise simultaneously with the chest at a similar pace.
  3. Do not jerk the bar or hyperextend the back at the top position of the lift (see Video 1, Supplemental Digital Content 1, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A142).
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Sumo Deadlift

Setup

  1. The bar should start on the floor. The feet should be placed outside of shoulder width, with the midfoot being directly under the bar. Angle the toes outward approximately 40° to 45° with the shins in a near-vertical position.
  2. Squat down and grip the bar with the hands between the knees and the arms fully extended.
  3. Set the hips back and position them slightly higher than the knees while still maintaining a relatively upright trunk position.
  4. The shoulders should be in line with the bar. The head and the neck are aligned with the trunk by focusing the eyes slightly downward. The back should be flat, maintaining a neutral spine.
  5. The chest should be held up and out, creating slight tension in the upper back to prevent rounding.
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Action

Concentric/Upward Phase
  1. Initiate the exercise by simultaneously extending the knees, hips, and back. Drive the feet into the ground and force the knees outward to maintain the externally rotated position of the femur head.
  2. During the upward phase of the lift, keep the bar close to the body, almost dragging it along the shins.
  3. Once the bar reaches the knees, extend the hips forward by contracting the gluteus muscles to move the thighs forward to meet the bar while simultaneously extending the knees. The top position will have the knees, hips, and back fully extended.
Eccentric/Lowering Phase
  • 4. From the top position, allow the hips and knees to flex, lowering the bar to the floor. Maintain a neutral head and flat back position.

Tips

  1. Keep an upright posture in comparison with the conventional style. The back can be flat or slightly concave, just as long as there is tension in the musculature for proper stability of the spine.
  2. Avoid excessive hyperextending of the back at the top position of the lift; use forceful glute contraction so that the hips meet the bar (see Video 2, Supplemental Digital Content 2, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A143).

Stiff-Leg Deadlift

Setup

  1. Unrack the bar or perform a proper conventional deadlift to get into a standing position with the bar in hand.
  2. Stand with the feet flat and placed between hip- and shoulder-width apart with toes pointed forward. Hands should be approximately shoulder-width apart, slightly on the outside of the thighs.
  3. The head position should be in a neutral position. The chest should be up and out with the scapula retracted to create tension in the upper back musculature.
  4. The knees should remain relatively straight through the full ROM of the exercise.
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Action

Eccentric/Lowering Phase
  1. Begin the exercise by flexing the trunk forward at the hips while keeping a fixed knee position and a neutral spine and head position.
  2. Drive the hips back through flexion while maintaining distance between the barbell and the lower extremities with the weight in line with the shoulders.
  3. During the lowering phase, the bar will remain out in front of the body, directly beneath the shoulders, creating space between the legs and the bar. Lower the weight until the plates touch the floor or as far as the proper technique can be maintained without rounding of the back, locking of the knees, or heels rising off the ground.
Concentric/Upward Phase
  • 4. For the upward phase of the lift, extend the hips back to the starting standing position. Maintain a fixed knee and flat back position. Refrain from hyperextending or jerking the torso backward.

Tips

  1. Because of the increased shear stress placed on the lower back, it is important that neutrality or slight lordosis (i.e., normal inward curvature) of the thoracic and lumbar sections of the spine be emphasized to prevent rounding of the back to reduce risk of injury.
  2. Although the knees are relatively straight and stay in a fixed position during the lift, do not lock them out or hyperextend them.
  3. Because of the positioning of the bar directly under the shoulder, more care should be taken to pinch the scapula together to keep the upper back tight (see Video 3, Supplemental Digital Content 3, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A144).

Romanian Deadlift

Setup

  1. Unrack the bar or perform a proper conventional deadlift to get into a standing position with the bar in hand.
  2. Stand with the feet flat and placed between hip- and shoulder-width apart with toes pointed forward. Hands should be approximately shoulder-width apart, slightly on the outside of the thighs.
  3. The head should be in a neutral position. The chest should be up and out with the scapula retracted to create tension in the upper back musculature.
  4. Unlike the SLDL, the knees will have a greater degree of flexion, approximately 15°.
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Action

Eccentric/Lowering Phase
  1. The movement is initiated with flexion at the hips, creating rotation around the joint in a hinging manner.
  2. While the hips move backward, the bar is slowly lowered keeping the weight close to the thighs instead of underneath the shoulders, unlike the SLDL.
  3. Continue to lower the bar until it is in line with the patella tendon or is slightly below the knee.
Concentric/Upward Phase
  • 4. For the upward phase of the lift, extend the hips back to the starting standing position. Maintain a fixed knee and flat back position. Refrain from hyperextending or jerking the torso backward.

Tips

  1. Although there is greater flexion in the knee in comparison with the SLDL, do not overly bend at the knees. There should still be a large degree of stretch under load on the gluteus maximus and hamstrings.
  2. Because of the positioning of the bar directly under the shoulder, more care should be taken to pinch the scapula together to keep the upper back tight and prevent subsequent rounding (see Video 4, Supplemental Digital Content 4, https://links.lww.com/FIT/A145).

PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS

The technique differences in position and execution between the deadlift and its variations are well understood in the field of exercise science. However, the efficacy of one variation over the other is not quite as clear. Choosing which specific exercise to use will depend on several factors, including muscle involvement, anthropometrics, and comfort. Muscle recruitment and development is essential for determining which exercise to choose (5). All variations of the deadlift recruit the following primary muscle groups to varying degrees:

  • Gluteus maximus
  • Semimembranosus
  • Semitendinosus
  • Biceps femoris
  • Erector spinae

The technique differences in position and execution between the deadlift variations are well understood in the field of exercise science. However, the efficacy of one variation over the other is not quite as clear. Choosing which variation of the deadlift to use will depend on several factors including muscle involvement, anthropometrics, and comfort.

However, the conventional and sumo deadlift exercises additionally recruit the quadriceps musculature (i.e., rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius) (8). Electromyographic data have shown that there is greater quadriceps activity via the vasti muscles during the sumo deadlift compared with the conventional (5). Closed chain exercises (e.g., the deadlift and back squat) elicit moderate to high co-contraction from knee musculature and have been shown to minimize ACL strain (5). Because EMG data have supported greater vasti activity with the sumo deadlift, it may be useful to select it over the conventional style during ACL rehabilitation (5). However, a physician or therapist should be consulted before implementing deadlift variations into a rehabilitation program. When it comes to hamstring and gluteus maximus activation, no significant differences can be seen in the activity generated between conventional and sumo deadlift (2,5). Regarding the recruitment of the back extensor muscles (e.g., erector spinae), some research has reported greater activity when performing the conventional deadlift (2), whereas other literature has found no significant difference (5). Finally, in regard to the muscles of the lower leg, the sumo style generates greater stimulus of the tibialis anterior, whereas the conventional style produces greater activity in the medial gastrocnemius.

SLDL and RDL are known for specifically targeting the gluteus musculature and hamstrings (9,10). When compared with three other exercises (i.e., leg curl, glute ham raise, and good morning), EMG research shows that RDL produces greater activity in the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and medial gastrocnemius (10). Additional research has shown that SLDL produces similar mean activation of the upper medial and lateral hamstrings as the lying leg curl (9). Although it is commonly believed the SLDL and RDL are superior exercises for training the hamstrings compared with the conventional deadlift, research has shown that there are no significant differences in muscle activity produced in the biceps femoris between them (7,11). In addition, greater activity in the gluteus maximus has been observed with the conventional deadlift over the RDL (7). It also is important to note that if chronic, excessive low back pain is being experienced, the SLDL may exasperate the problem because of the distance between the load and the body.

Limb lengths can be a contributing factor in how well an individual performs a deadlift exercise. When it comes to conventional versus sumo deadlifting, shorter arms lend themselves better to sumo style, whereas elongated arms are typically well suited for conventional. In regard to SLDL and RDL, because of the distance between the bar and the body during the execution of the SLDL, those with longer torso may wish to perform the RDL exercise instead to reduce low back stress and the risk of rounding during the lift (12).

When choosing a deadlift exercise variation, comfort is critical. Individuals should implement exercises they can perform repeatedly without pain or discomfort. High compressive and shear forces have been reported in the spinal column with deadlifting (5). The best way to manage these forces and prevent injury is to practice proper technique and avoid overloading the weight too quickly. With the SLDL specifically, the distance between the bar and the body produces greater torque on the hips and lumbar areas. The RDL allows for reduced stress on the lower back relative to the SLDL (6). It may be beneficial to incorporate the SLDL during muscular endurance training (e.g., ≥15 repetitions), the RDL for hypertrophy training (e.g., 6–12 repetitions), and the conventional and sumo deadlift styles during muscular strength phases (≤6 repetitions) (8). Finally, weight-training belts can reduce the risk of injury and enhance an individual’s ability to lift heavier loads. When used correctly, increased abdominal cavity pressure from the belt transfers load off the spinal column during the movement. Belts should only be used for exercises that stress the lower back and are near maximal loads; avoid belt usage for light loads (5,8).

BRIDGING THE GAP

The deadlift is an extremely effective compound, multiple-joint movement for increasing total-body strength and power. All deadlift variations can be useful in training the posterior chain muscles, rehabilitating knee injuries, and reducing the risk of low back pain. Determining which deadlift variation to incorporate into a fitness program will depend on the goals, body type, and personal preference of the individual.

References

1. Hammer ME, Meir RA, Whitting JW, Crowley-McHattan ZJ. Shod vs. barefoot effects on force and power development during a conventional deadlift. J Strength Cond Res. 2018;32(6):1525–30.
2. Cholewicki J, McGill SM, Norman RW. Lumbar spine loads during the lifting of extremely heavy weights. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1991;23(10):1179–86.
3. Beckham GK, Lamont HS, Sato K, Ramsey MW, Haff GG, Stone MH. Isometric strength of powerlifters in key positions of the conventional deadlift. J Trainology. 2012;1(2):32–5.
4. Farley K. Analysis of the conventional deadlift. Strength Cond J. 1995;17(6):55–7.
5. Escamilla RF, Francisco AC, Kayes AV, Speer KP, Moorman CT 3rd. An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002;34(4):682–8.
6. Piper TJ, Waller MA. Variations of the deadlift. Strength Cond J. 2001;23(3):66.
7. Lee S, Schultz J, Timgren J, Staelgraeve K, Miller M, Liu Y. An electromyographic and kinetic comparison of conventional and Romanian deadlifts. J Exerc Sci Fit. 2018;16(3):87–93.
8. Haff GG, Triplett NT. Human kinetics. In: Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 4th ed. 2015.
9. Schoenfeld BJ, Contreras B, Tiryaki-Sonmez G, Wilson JM, Kolber MJ, Peterson MD. Regional differences in muscle activation during hamstrings exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2015;29(1):159–64.
10. McAllister MJ, Hammond KG, Schilling BK, Ferreria LC, Reed JP, Weiss LW. Muscle activation during various hamstring exercises. J Strength Cond Res. 2014;28(6):1573–80.
11. Bezerra ES, Simao R, Fleck SJ, et al. Electromyographic activity of lower body muscles during the deadlift and stiff-legged deadlift. J Exerc Physiol Online. 2013;16(1097–9751):30–9.
12. Hales M. Improving the deadlift: understanding biomechanical constraints and physiological adaptations to resistance exercise. Strength Cond J. 2010;32(4):44–51.
Keywords:

Compound Movement; Free Weight; Low Back Pain; Resistance Training

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