Deadlifts: Is It One Size Fits All?

The other day I found myself in discussion with a buddy of mine (he trains at a gym/training chain that shall remain unnamed), and the topic naturally steered toward moving heavy objects around. His tone of voice became quickly disgruntled as he told me:

“Yeah, I hate deadlifting. I love squatting though! But I utterly DESPISE deadlifts.”

This obviously perked my interest, so I asked him to elaborate.

Friend: “Well, I just can’t get down there and grab in a good position. It doesn’t feel comfortable and my back always hurts when I do the lift. The instructors are yelling at me ‘Hey, do this, do that, get your back flat’ and I’m thinking to myself ‘I know, I know!’ but I physically can’t do it since I’m so tall.” (he’s well over six feet tall)

Me: Ah, yeah, I know what you mean. I’m guessing you’re pulling conventional style, with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart?”

Friend: “Yep.”

Me: “Well, did the instructor ever have you try using a SUMO stance for your deadlifts?”

Friend: “……What’s that?”

Me: “Where you put your feet out pretty wide, and then grip the bar with your hands inside your legs, as opposed to outside your legs. I find it’s a bit easier for people with your type of build to get into a good deadlift position that way”

Friend: “Oh, no, they won’t allow us to use any stance other than conventional. We’re all forced to use the same stance.”

Me: “Excuse me? I thought I just heard you say that they force you to pull conventional, and then they murder innocent little kittens.”

Friend: “Yeah, that’s ‘cuz that is what I said.”

Me: “So you have no other option? What about elevating the bar a bit to help you get into a more neutral spine position?”

Friend: “No. They don’t let me do that. I have to pull from the floor. Conventional. And it hurts my back like crazy, especially when I have to perform 10 freaking reps for multiple rounds in a row.”

I think it goes without saying that hearing this made me completely incensed. What’s next, are we going to take young, beginner lifters and throw them under a 400lb barbell, telling them to ‘just squat it’? Or do something else as equally useful as handing out free tickets to an all-you-can-eat poop buffet?

And this is why you continue to hear people spouting off that deadlifts are bad for your back. Of course deadlifts are bad for your back. If you’re an idiot with them.

The very beauty of deadlifts is you can fit them to the individual, no matter the person!

Here’s just the tip of the iceberg with options we have at our disposal, starting with the variation that initiated this entire discussion:

Conventional Deadlift

While conventional pulling arguably looks the coolest, these require the most ankle mobility, thoracic (upper back) mobility, and hip flexion range of motion (ability to bend at the hips without compensating at the low back)in order to get into position safely. Conventional pulling should typically be reserved for those who’ve had fairly extensive practice with how to achieve and maintain a neutral spine under load, as this variation places the most sheer stress on the spine (bar is positioned furthest away from the body’s center of gravity, compared to other deadlift variations).

SUMO Deadlift

Taller individuals (such as our friend from the conversation above), and those with longer torsos are going to find this variation easier to utilize, as less mobility is required to execute the pull with a neutral spine. In addition, the total range of motion of the lift is decreased, meaning the distance the bar has to travel from start to finish is shortened.

SUMO pulling is the most common variation we will progress our athletes to after they have learned to deadlift with the trap bar.

(Note: The only caveat I’ll note with SUMO pulling is that it can really beat up your hips if you use a super wide stance, and if you fail to intermittently cycle them in and out of your training.)

Trap Bar Deadlift 

This variation is usually the easiest to for all people to “sit into” while keeping a safe and sound position. The high handle setting makes it so you don’t have to dip down so low to grab the bar (thus less mobility is required), and the fact that you’re positioned INSIDE the bar typically makes the lift easier to execute, given that the weights are lined up with your center of gravity.

This is usually the first barbell deadlift variation we use to teach our athletes and clientele at SAPT. After they have developed proficiency with the trap bar, we’ll move on to the appropriate straight bar variation, depending on their body type and other morphological concerns.

Conventional Deadlift with Barbell Elevated

(Note: Could also be performed SUMO style)

The beauty of this set-up is that you can adjust the height the barbell is elevated – using mats, bumper plates, or whatever – so that the lifter can utilize the straight bar but at a height that is appropriate for them as an individual.

Oftentimes, I find that someone may know what they’re supposed to be doing (such as our friend above), and kinesthetically aware of where their body is in space, but they just can’t physically get into a solid position when the barbell is on the ground. No worries! Elevate the bar just as high as necessary to get them into a neutral spine position (and no compensations elsewhere), and, as their mobility and stability improves, they can lower the height of the bar over time.

Kettlebell Deadlift: Conventional and SUMO

(thank you Lisa for the demos!)

With our younger athletes, and sometimes with our adult clientele, we’ll have them initiate the process of learning the deadlift by using kettlebells, as they may not ready to use a 45lb barbell, even with the luxury of 10lb bumper plates in order to get the bar at a proper height yet keeping the weight down.

These can be done either conventional or SUMO style, and the weight of the kettlebell will obviously be chosen depending on the person.

Stop Trying to Force Square Pegs Into Round Holes

As you can see, we virtually have an endless supply of deadlift variations to fit the lift to the individual, not the other way around. If someone can’t pull conventional from the floor, why force it??? They can simply use another variation (or elevate the bar a bit) until their necessary qualities improve in order for them to pull from the ground safely.

Conventional deadlifting from the ground looks awesome and is “hard core,” I get that. But I also don’t see what’s hard core about forcing someone into a position that perhaps they’re just not ready for yet.

All deadlift variations are going to hammer the glutes, hamstrings, upper back; “pull” people into better posture, improve the structural integrity of their bone and soft tissue (Wolff’s Law and Davis’ Law), all the while teaching them to resist sheer forces and elevating their superhero status. Try not to get so caught up in what “all the cool kids do” and instead focus on the larger, and more important, picture at hand.