Two Helpful Deadlift Variations You Are Not Doing
Increasing your big lifts (bench, deadlift, squat, military press, clean, snatch, etc.) is a matter of three things:
- Perfecting technique: Improper mechanics won’t allow you to lift as much weight as you physically can (and the risk of injury is higher)
- Fixing your weak link(s):This could be a lagging muscle group, a point in the range of motion where you are not efficient at transferring maximum force to the barbell, or a part of your body that cannot stay “tight”, creating a strength leak/loss of stabilizing tension which lessens how much force you can transfer to the barbell
- Improving neural efficiency:Improving motor unit recruitment, firing rate, as well as intra/inter muscular coordination.
Points no.1 and 3 come with a high frequency of technically sound practice. For point 1, first with moderate weight (60-70%) to correct bad habits, then with more substantial loads (80-90%) to learn to maintain the same technique against a heavier weight.
Point no.3 requires a higher force production and is best trained with weights ranging from 85-100% of your maximum, even going higher than that on partial lifts.
Fixing weak links is a more complex part of the problem because it requires understanding the precise source of the weak point and then selecting the best exercise strategy to fix that issue.
Sometimes, this requires the use of more of a “bodybuilding” approach: improving the mind-muscle connection with a specific muscle and making it bigger. Some other times, it might require the use of special exercises resembling the main lift but in which the weaker link is put in a mechanical position where it must do the bulk of the work.
When it comes to fixing the deadlift, I probably have more assistance exercises than for any other big lift. Granted it is a more complex movement than a bench or military press, so there are more potential problems to fix, but it has always been my nemesis due to my levers (short legs, short arms, long torso: the worst deadlifting body).
While this article is not a complete guide to fixing weak points in the deadlift, I want to present you two new assistance exercises that I started using with great success recently.
I will explain their purpose and how you can use them to make your deadlift (and squat) performance go up.
THE SEATED SUMO DEADLIFT
This is an exercise created either by Louie Simmons or Chris Duffin. Both “invented” it, but I don’t which one came up with it first. Regardless, you will agree that both are extremely credible sources where powerlifting is concerned.
First let’s look at what it looks like. Here is Gabriel Chiasson (National Bobsleigh team) demonstrating it.
Gabe has a very strong lower body (280kg squat, 220kg front squat) but is extremely quads dominant and has a hard time maintaining maximum core tension when deadlifting or power cleaning: his natural strategy when doing these lifts is to try to rip the bar off of the floor. He has a strong lower back, so he still manages decent numbers, but not up to par for his full potential.
The quads dominance also always makes him shift forward when squatting, deadlifting and cleaning which, of course, will limit performance and stability with maximal weights and also reduce the transferability of his strength into his sport (which requires more glutes and hamstring strength).
The use of the seated sumo deadlift for him is twofold:
- To strengthen the glutes: Once the torso has extended (first part of the movement) and he focuses on keeping the weight on the back half of the feet, the glutes will become the prime mover provided that he doesn’t let his weight/body shift forward when he begins to stand up.
It is worth noting that when he first did the movement his tendency was to re-bend the torso forward and shift his bodyweight to the front of the feet when he started to stand up. This is not what we want, you will still technically “make the lift” but you are not strengthening what you need to, and you would actually reinforce the bad habit you are trying to fix.
- To improve “core tightness”: To do the exercise properly (not letting the torso re-bend forward when you stand up) challenges your core quite a bit. This will improve your capacity to stay tight during the first pull. You also strengthen the transition point (from below the knees to just above the knees) which is often a weak zone in the deadlift.
Regardless of if you are deadlifting sumo or conventional, the sumo seated deadlift can improve your lifting (as well as squatting, sprinting, power cleans, etc.) via its impact on glute strength and core tightness.
I do not use it as a max effort lift, at least not before the athlete has become really technically efficient at it. I prefer to use it for slightly higher reps (3-6). A starting point of 50-60% of your deadlift max is adequate (some might need to start lower) and you work your way up, as long as technique doesn’t degrade.
While we sometimes accept little technical imprecisions during max effort lifts, it is very important to focus on optimizing technique when you are doing an exercise to fix a weakness. With these movements, technical glitches are more often the body trying to compensate by using its stronger muscles instead of the weaker ones you want to fix.
Key coaching points
- Keep weight on your heels
- When you begin to stand up from the bench, don’t allow your torso to bend forward
- When you begin to stand up, visualize standing up and back, not straight up
Note: in the video Gabe’s first rep is not perfect, he still wants to shift forward a bit. 2nd rep is better and 3rd one is perfect.
THE LOG DEADLIFT
This is an exercise I have been playing around with and that really hit my hamstrings like no other deadlift variation. The log diameter moves its center of mass further forward, giving you a disadvantageous lever and shifting the effort to the posterior chain.
I came up with the idea of using the log deadlift when I was doing some log clean and press in my training and noticed that the “deadlift” portion of the log clean really hit my hamstrings hard. Hams being my lower body weak link, this was something I felt the need to explore.
And it worked well. See it as “training out of the groove on purpose” to strengthen the posterior chain muscles.
“Why not just use a barbell held 3-4″ away from the body?”
It won’t have the same effect. If you are doing regular deadlifts with the bar held in front on purpose it’s pretty much impossible to keep the lats engaged. When you engage the lats you will pull the bar toward you (that’s why it’ important to engage the lats when deadlifting: to keep the bar as close as possible). You cannot keep the bar away if you are doing something that brings the bar towards you.
Why is it important to keep the lats engaged? For various reasons, the most important being to keep tension in the upper back, which will help you stay tight and reduce lower back stress.
With the log deadlift you can engage the lats (pulling the log toward you). The log willcome close to you but it’s center of mass still stays a few inches in front of you. That allows you to keep the lats tight while also having the center of mass of the weight in front of you. This puts you in a disadvantageous mechanical position without increasing the risk of lower back strain.
If you look at the video, the log is scraping the legs on the way up, a sign that the upper back is kept tight.
Key coaching points
- Engage the lats in the starting position: do this by trying to pull the log towards you while keeping the arms straight
- Pull in a slight backward arc to shift the load on the hamstrings more than on the lower back
You can also do the Romanian Deadlift version of this exercise, in which case the rules above still apply.
I see this variation a lot like the Seated Sumo deadlift: not as a maximum effort movement to be trained with 90%+ weight but as an assistance exercise to build the posterior chain. Sets of 3-6 reps would be the ideal training zone. You will be around 15-20% weaker on a log deadlift vs. your regular deadlift. So, a good training zone to start with would be 60-65% of your maximum deadlift weight.
We all know about the best “traditional” deadlift assistance exercises:
Weak at the start: deficit deadlift, floating deadlift, Zercher deadlift
Weak just below knees: pin pull from below the knees, Romanian deadlift, Goodmorning
Weak above the knees: pin pull from above the knees, deadlift with chains, deadlift with bands, Romanian deadlift with band around waist, hip thrust (if that’s an exercise you like)
But these two “new” movements are powerful weapons that can be added to the lot. The log deadlift improving both the start and helping solve a weak link below the knees and the seated sumo deadlift having a beneficial effect on the sticking point below and above the knees.