Which Deadlift is Best for You?

So you want to tackle the deadlift…the King of Lifts? The deadlift is a total-body pulling exercise that builds serious strength and muscle mass. But you must pay your taxes to the King! If you are new to training deadlifts or are returning after an injury, learning to handle the load and generate the necessary levels of muscle tension can be a major source of pain and problems, especially for the lower back. 

How should you deadlift to get strong while avoiding injury? We recommend that you learn several variations , so you always have a training option when you need it. Here are five styles that cover all the skills you need to know to keep deadlifting:

1. Conventional or Standard Deadlift

This style is considered the gold standard when lifters think of deadlifts. However, it is not necessarily an entry-level skill. Because this lift requires a narrow stance, it may be unachievable or some people due to natural variations in pelvis and hip socket shape. Conventional Deadlifts place significant demands on your erector muscles (the back muscles running along both sides of your spinal column) compared to other big lifts. As your torso is inclined farther forward in this style, your erector muscles must contract harder to keep your spine straight as you lift the bar from the floor.

Want to try Conventional Deadlifts? Make sure you first qualify with this test, demonstrated by Coach Dave. Then, watch Coach Mark Rippetoe teach the Conventional Deadlift.

2. Sumo Deadlift

Owing to a wider stance, the Sumo style is more forgiving of lower body mobility problems, yet has all of the strength benefits of Conventional Deadlifts. Sumo style allows you to maintain better spinal alignment, especially if you have short arms. Sumo may be a good option if you have stiff hips or ankles, have been diagnosed with hip impingement (FAI, or femoroacetabular impingement), or have recurring low back problems. It tends to be our go-to deadlift style for clients returning to the gym following a low back or lumbar disc injury. Watch Coach Brett Contreras teach the Sumo Deadlift.

3. Trap Bar Deadlift

This style is a reliable initial deadlift technique for anyone starting out with heavy lifts from the floor. We like it for trainees who are just getting back into heavy lifting after a period of extended travel, completion of an endurance event, or following illness. The Trap Bar allows a new (or returning) lifter to pull heavy loads in a safe manner, especially for the lower back. The knees travel forward with Trap Bar style similar to Barbell Squats, which also makes it a decent substitute for people with shoulder or wrist problems who can’t rack a squat bar properly across their shoulders. Watch Coach Eric Cressey teach the Trap Bar Deadlift.

4. Romanian Deadlift

Named for Olympic weightlifter Nicu Vlad from Romania the RDL is a deadlift style where the bar or weights remain off the ground. In this exercise, the shin bones stay fixed and vertical, while the knees have a small amount of bend (not locked out!). This is a great exercise to teach or retrain “hip hinging” technique so that the large hip muscles do the moving while the back muscles keep the spine stable and the thigh muscles keep the knees stable. Because the bar stays in your hands the entire time, the muscles work continuously, allowing you to use less weight. RDLs can be used as an exercise to maintain deadlift strength while you are recovering from a back or knee injury, as long as you don’t experience pain with the lift. We use RDLs during recovery from leg or back injuries to restore hip hinging ability and spinal alignment (no rounded backs allowed here!). Watch Coach Mark Rippetoe teach the Romanian Deadlift.

5. Single Leg Deadlift

This style is perhaps one of the most underutilized exercises to improve overall athleticism and should definitely have a place in your training arsenal.  SLDLs increase hamstring flexibility and core stability, eliminate muscle imbalances, and upgrade all other deadlifting styles. Additionally, SLDLs are an effective way to improve your lunge technique if you struggle with weighted or walking lunges. SLDLs are especially beneficial for runners and those who have training difficulties following an ankle sprain, runner’s knee, or patellar tendinitis. We also use them for shoulder rehab, as the rotator cuff and shoulder blade muscles must stabilize the arm(s) to avoid swinging the weights. Watch Coach Karen Smith teach the Single Leg Deadlift.

What deadlift style should you choose?

Think about your training experience and injury status – do you feel strong and healthy? If you train heavy barbell lifts regularly, are free of back pain, and can touch your toes, go after the Conventional style. If your history is more complicated, experiment with other methods, based on the suggestions above. Regardless of your training status, we recommend that you incorporate two styles per week into your workout program, including one that is bilateral (Standard, Sumo, Romanian, or Trap Bar) and one that is unilateral (Single Leg is the answer here). 

Having problems with your deadlift? Muscle imbalances, stiff joints, or improper lifting techniques could be causing the problem. If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to us.

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