Variations on the deadlift
There are several varieties of the deadlift, and can be used not only to assist in deadlift training, but can also significantly strengthen muscles that can be impeding progress in another lift. Some of these lifts can be used in place of the deadlift during training as well.
One of the most common variations of the deadlift is the partial deadlift, or rack lockout. These are usually performed in a power rack, with the pins set at a variety of heights. Pulls can be done from one inch above the deck to a couple of inches below lockout. As a general rule, the shorter the ROM, the more weight that can be handled. The primary function of the partial deadlift is to not only overload the muscles of the back, as well as increase motor recruitment. (5, 18) At times, the amount of weight that can be handled during the execution of a short range of motion rack pull can be so great that it surpasses the amount of weight the athlete can hold. In this case, it may be necessary to employ straps to secure the weight. (6)
Another common variation is the stiff-legged deadlift (SLDL) which will work the hamstrings to a much greater degree than the conventional deadlift. (2, 10) This lift should begin just like a conventional deadlift, and should be pulled to the top in the same manner. The knees will be stiff, but not locked, as the bar is lowered as far as possible without allowing the back to round. The lower back should remain arched throughout the entire lift, and if the back begins to round despite the best attempts of the athlete, it is necessary at this point to begin the concentric portion of the lift and raise the bar. The bar will travel away from the lifter as the hips are flexed progressively. There is greater torque on the hips and lumbar areas because of the greater horizontal distance from the bar to the base of the support than in the conventional deadlift. (3, 4, 17)
Despite the fact that numerous “muscle mags” often illustrate a lifter performing this exercise while elevated, this should be avoided by all at first and most athletes for the duration of their career. The greater the range of motion, the greater the chance of lifting with a kyphotic (round back) posture. (10) Artificially increasing the ROM will serve only to increase the chances of this occurring. It must also be noted that a comprehensive stretching program is essential to not only athletes, but everyone wishing to improve the ROM of this exercise.
The Romanian Deadlift (RDL) is used primarily to strengthen the hamstrings, gluteus, and lower back, although this technique causes less stress to the lumbar area. Unlike the SLDL, the RDL is initiated from the floor, although the set up is roughly in-between that of the conventional deadlift and the SLDL. (23) During the ascension, the knees should begin to straighten in advance of the hips, with the goal of keep the torso at the same angle as in the beginning of the lift for as long as possible. This should occur while maintaining normal spinal curvature. Pulling in such a manner allows the athlete to keep the bar closer to the base of support, decreasing the strain on the lumbar area when compared to the SLDL. As the knees fully straighten, the hips shall travel toward the rear slightly, then the hips are then powerfully flexed, fully utilizing the hamstrings and erectors to complete the lift. This lift is often performed by Olympic style weightlifters to increase the strength of the clean pull.
Another variation that is not often performed is the Snatch Grip Deadlift (SGL). This version of the deadlift is similar to a conventional deadlift, with the only difference occurring in the placement of the hands upon the bar. The grip is at least one and a half times shoulder width, while larger lifters will often grip collar to collar. A good general guide to novices is to extended the arms out to the sides, then bend only at the elbow. The bar should be held at approximately the width of the elbows. The difficulty of maintaining the grip in such a position, as the mixed grip cannot be used, will require the used of straps for those not very experienced in utilizing the hook grip. This lift will further stress the musculature of the upper back, particularly the trapezius. (19) This lift is often performed by Olympic style weightlifters to increase power of the first pull, making it easier for the athlete to raise weights from the deck.
A simple method of increasing the ROM of a deadlift is for the athlete to stand on a block. Once again, care must be taken to avoid kyphotic lifting posture. The increase in ROM will necessitate a decrease in weight.
There are far too many methods of training to improve the deadlift to list here. A few will be briefly discussed.
Periodization. This is a simple yet effective method of decreasing the volume while increasing the weight. This process occurs over a period of weeks or months. It is by far the most common method of training, although lifters are branching out in new directions daily. This method has been discussed in great detail in numerous other works, and will not be discussed further here.
Conjugate Training. This is a system of training the musculature of the lift without overtraining the CNS with respect to a single lift. The deadlift is not trained heavy throughout the cycle, and in some training cycles, may be trained only rarely. This method was first used in Olympic weightlifting by the incredibly successful Soviet Dynamo Club.(24) It was later used by the original Westside Barbell Club in the 1960’s and 1970’s, as well as some lifters on the East coast, including Bill Starr, a former Olympic weightlifter turned coach. (21). It is currently the system employed by the new Westside Barbell Club, of Columbus, Ohio, under the coaching of Louie Simmons, the most successful coach in powerlifting history.(20) This method will involve heavy assistance work for the lift itself, such as partial deadlifts, good mornings, etc. A list of assistance exercises can be found at: www.elitefts.com
An interesting variation for training the deadlift was employed by the great Don Rheinholdt, the first man to squat 900 lbs. in competition as well as being one of the first to deadlift over 800 lbs. He would set up with his opener in the power rack eight inches off of the deck, and pull it. He would then drop the pins one inch every week until the week before the meet, when the plates were just a single inch off of the floor. This allowed him to preserve his lower back while maintaining proper form.
A final word on a couple of myths. Numerous “experts” have cautioned against utilizing the deadlift, incorrectly stating that it is hazardous to perform. This is true, if the above cautions are not employed. While there can be a place for round back lifting in the program of the highly advanced lifter, this is a mistake for most and will not be discussed further. Other self proclaimed authorities state that you must wear a belt when deadlifting. A belt can help increase intra-abdominal pressure, as well as increase the force generated when deadlifting. However, the majority of the deadlifting done by any athlete should be performed without a belt to further recruit the core muscles (abdominals, obliques, etc.).
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