While most people are referring to conventional barbell deadlifts when they mention the deadlift, there are a slew of great deadlift variations to choose from, and different variations work better for different people based on their goals, injury history, and height/body proportions.
In fact, except for competitive powerlifters, most regular guys just looking to gain strength and size don’t have the mobility to pull from the floor safely. These trainees round their backs and increase risk of injury.
If you’ve had someone look at your form and you’re confident you’re doing conventional deadlifts correctly, then have at it and get strong. But if you’re unsure of your form and/or tend to feel the majority of the stress in your lower back, try one of these five variations:
1. Rack pull
Rack pulls are essentially just a conventional deadlift with the bar raised slightly off the floor. For those who prefer conventional deadlifts but don’t have the mobility to pull from the floor with good technique, this is a good option. Adjust the pins in the power rack to the point where you can pull with a flat back.
Rack pulls are also a great exercise to build up the upper back and traps, as they allow you to use more weight than you’d otherwise be able to pull from the floor.
2. Sumo deadlift
Sumo deadlifts allow you to maintain a more upright torso and put more stress on the legs, particularly the glutes and quads. They can feel awkward at first if you’ve never done them, but most people find that it’s easier to pull with a flat back as compared to conventional deadlifts once they get the hang of the movement.
3. Trap bar deadlift
The trap bar deadlift is another great option that takes stress off of the lower back and puts it onto the legs. In fact, the trap bar deadlift acts as a hybrid between traditional squats and deadlifts, giving you the best of both worlds.
While most deadlift variations focus more on the posterior chain, trap bar deadlifts work the quads to a high degree as well. Unfortunately not all gyms will have a trap bar available, but if you’re lucky enough to have one, take advantage of it.
4. Romanian deadlift
Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) put a greater emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes so if you're zeroing in on those areas, RDLs are a good choice. They’re also a great option for people with knee issues who want to get the benefits of deadlifts but find that most variations bother their knees.
RDLs are not stiff leg deadlifts. You want to maintain a slight bend in your knees (approximately 20 degrees) and then hinge at the hips while maintaining a flat back. You can do RDLs with a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells. As an aside, stiff leg deadlifts are unnecessarily risky on the lower back when you could just do RDLs and get the same benefit at a fraction of the risk.
5. Kettlebell sumo deadlift
Kettlebell sumo deadlifts are another great option. While its name implies that it would be similar to a sumo deadlift, the movement actually resembles more a trap bar deadlift motion, almost like a squat with the weight in your hands. Because the weight is lighter and the movement allows you to maintain more of an upright torso, these are great for people with lower back issues who don’t tolerate barbell deadlifts well.
This can be a great exercise to start with as a way to progress to heavier barbell deadlift variations, or as an exercise for more advanced lifters looking to do some higher rep work near the end of a workout.