by Nick Tumminello T-Nation
Here’s what you need to know…
- Non-powerlifters need instruction on how to use the deadlift to meet their specific goals of athleticism, muscle, or functionality.
- For many, the Romanian deadlift (RDL) is a smart substitute for traditional deadlifts because it provides a shorter lever arm.
- Fat-bar deadlifting can improve the grip, but it also breaks bad deadlift habits.
- Contrast deadlifts, where you combine RDLs with kettlebell swings, can build crazy strength, power, and even size.
- Dumbbell squats and RDL combos are a great way to finish off a workout.
Not Just For Powerlifters
Most of the deadlift info out there has a powerlifting bias, meaning it’s for competitive lifters. The problem? Not everyone is training for a powerlifting meet.
Athletes deadlift to be stronger for their sport. Bodybuilders do it to build muscle. Regular people deadlift to look good and for general strength and fitness.
For them, the deadlift is simply an exercise; it’s a tool to help them achieve their goals. To powerlifters, the deadlift isn’t a tool; it’s an event – it’s the end itself.
It’s disappointing that so many trainers and gym goers fail to acknowledge the principle of specificity – different training goals require different training approaches.
So let’s talk about deadlifts and deadlift variations as they relate to those of you who aren’t in the gym to be competitive powerlifters.
1. Hip Positioning
When I’m training the average client, I don’t use traditional-style barbell deadlifts with a low starting hip position. The go-to move is instead Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) because the lever arm is much shorter.
Compare the distance between the two lines in each deadlift style below. Because it’s shorter, it’s also safer.
When we’re going for a lower-hip starting position, we use trap-bar deadlifts because they also create a shorter lever arm. No access to a trap bar? Use a sumo barbell deadlift in its place, as that also creates a much shorter lever arm.
Now, if you’re all fired up and ready to argue that I’m a dope for telling people that they “shouldn’t be doing” traditional style deadlifts because they’re “bad,” you’re right! The trouble is, I never said that.
It’s just that these styles are inherently safer and better for the person who doesn’t see the deadlift as an end in itself.
2. A Common Romanian Deadlift Mistake and a Quick Fix
One of the common mistakes lifters make when performing Romanian deadlifts is that they create more extension than desired in their lower backs, which reduces the amount of hip extension involvement.
Remember, it’s a hip hinge movement – the extension should come from the hips instead of the lower back.
Here’s what this common mistake looks like, along with a simple technique fix:
3. Fat Bar Deadlifts for Beginners
Deadlifting with an enhanced grip – using a fat, 2-inch diameter bar or those rubber grip devices you place over a bar – obviously limits the weight you can use because you’re limited by what your grip strength can handle.
This can be used as an advantage for beginners who are just establishing a training base and who’ve just started to use deadlifts. Similarly, fat bar deads break bad habits in those that were previously performing deadlifts in a less-than-safe manner.
In both those instances, the emphasis switches to the way they’re lifting the load, not the amount of weight they’re lifting. By starting off using a fat bar, we’ve limited the load that can be used, and therefore ensure that the emphasis is on refining safe lifting habits while they also build up their training base.
The use of fat bars or fat-bar grips also brings up grip strength, so that when we move from a base phase to heavier strength phase, the grip isn’t as much of a limiting factor anymore.
For those who already have a broad training base, mix up fat-bar deadlifts with regular bar deadlifts. Use the fat bar for lighter, repetitive effort sets. For lower rep or max effort deadlift sets, go with the normal bar.
4. Contrast Deadlifts
Contrast training can build strength, size, and power. It involves starting with a heavy lift and immediately following it with an unloaded explosive exercise using the same or similar movement pattern.
One of the best ways to apply contrast training to deadlifts is to begin with heavy lifts using a barbell or trap bar and contrast it with a medicine ball reverse-scoop toss.
Another good way to use this method is to contrast loaded deadlifts with kettlebell swings.
5. 7/4/7 Deadlifts
To perform a basic 7/4/7 set, start with 7 reps using a moderate weight. Without resting, increase the load and bang out 4 reps. Finish the set by doing another 7 reps using a lighter weight.
For deadlifts, this hybrid 7/4/7 protocol is best:
A1. Loaded Deadlifts (version of your choice) x 7
A2. Deadlift Jumps (as high a you can go) x 4
A3. Loaded Deadlifts (using a slightly lower load than used on the first 7 reps) x 7
The 7/4/7 protocol has three functions:
1. For physique goals: To add work volume and create more of a pump in the muscle involved, which can stimulate hypertrophy.
2. For performance athletes: To help increase work capacity by building power-endurance.
3. For general fitness and fat loss: To help increase the metabolic demand of the workout.
6. Dumbbell Squat + RDL Combo
Near the end of a comprehensive lower-body workout, add the dumbbell squat + RDL combo:
- Grab a set of dumbbells.
- Perform a dumbbell squat with the dumbbells by your sides.
- Then move the dumbbells in front of you and do a dumbbell RDL. That’s one rep.
- Repeat until you see stars.
Perform the dumbbell squat/RDL combo for sets of 10-15 reps (remember: that’s 10-15 of each movement) Use lifting straps here because the grip often wants to give out before the reps are complete.
If you’re into single-leg training, combine a Bulgarian split squat and a rear-foot elevated one-leg RDL.