The classic deadlift is one of the best bang-for-buck exercises in the history of the gym, a move that can build real-world strength and burn plenty of calories, while layering muscle onto your back, arms, and thighs and training rock-solid core stability, too. If you’re serious about your fitness, you’ll want to integrate deadlifts into your training.
That doesn’t mean you need to do them like everyone else. Tradition tells us that if we aren’t doing deadlifts with the conventional barbell, we aren’t deadlifting. But that’s not true, according to recent research from Cal State-Fullerton, which studied the differences in both the conventional and hex bar deadlifts for people with different heights, arm lengths, and leg lengths. Among the findings in that study: Different bodies have different advantages and disadvantages.
That mirrors what I’ve seen in my 11 years as a trainer. I’ve never believed in one-lift-fits-all fitness, and that’s especially true for an exercise as nuanced as the deadlift. If you’re struggling with your deadlifting, or not feeling it in the muscles you want to engage, there’s a solid chance that you simply may be doing the wrong variation for your body type.
So take a deep breath (and a look in the mirror) and consider which version of the lift you should be doing for optimal results. You can—and perhaps should—train all deadlift variations. But expect to get the best results from the one that’s best for your body type.
The Conventional Deadlift
BEST FOR: Short guys
If you stand shorter than 168cm, there’s a good chance you can—and should—stick with that classic barbell deadlift. To do the classic barbell deadlift, load a bar with weight, then stand with your feet about hip-width apart, shins nearly touching the bar. Bend at your knees and hips and grasp the bar with your hands, which should be about shoulder-width apart. Keeping your chest above your hips the whole time, lift the bar, standing straight up.
A 2016 study by Kevin Camara’s team at Cal State-Fullerton compared muscle activation and power characteristics during both barbell and hex bar deadlifts lead to this conclusion. Camara’s team found that lifters saw similar muscle recruitment patterns with both versions of the deadlift. Either way, they saw great recruitment of the biceps femoris (a part of the hamstring) when you were lifting the weight, and solid involvement of the lower back muscles when lowering the weight. This emphasis on the backside is more advantageous for muscle gain with less risk in shorter lifters.
The conventional deadlift is what’s called a “true hinge” movement, which essentially means you’re bending and then straightening at the hip. It focuses on your posterior chain (think glutes, hamstrings, and upper and lower back — all the muscles you don’t see). Form is key for this one. The closer the bar is to the body the less stress at the lower back. This pressure magnifies with every little bit it creeps away from you. If you have a shorter frame, there’s less space between the main hinge point (the hip) and the bar, which means less chance of back pain.
In this case, opt for the optimal backside mass builder, the barbell deadlift. It’s also readily available at most gyms, and it teaches you to lift a weight in front of you, which is often the situation you’ll wind up in during real life.
The Hex Bar Deadlift
BEST FOR: Tall guys
If you’re over 188cm, you have an extra challenge when deadlifting: If you use a barbell, it amplifies the torque towards the posterior chain. This can definitely lead to serious muscle gains, but it can also cause undue stress and pain. I’ll typically see taller, long-limbed lifters complaining about pain in the lower and mid back. This is because of how far the weight is from that main hinge point. Just as taller buildings see more stress in the middle of its structure, the body of a taller lifter will see added stress.
Your better alternative is the hex bar deadlift. You’ll need a hex bar to do it, but once you have one, the setup is very similar to the conventional barbell deadlift. The lone difference: You step into the middle of the hex bar and grasp the handles, which should be near your sides.
The hex bar allows you to keep your arms at your sides, so the weight is no longer out in front of you. This small adjustment is enough to relieve stress from your upper body, and you get to move through the full chain of movement with greater fluidity. You’ll be able to produce greater peak power, peak force and peak velocity; this also keeps the emphasis of the movement on your posterior chain, which is what you traditionally want to train with the deadlift. Because of the upright position, your quads will get worked, too.
Understanding the difference in deadlift position can help connect the dots with real-life action. The hex bar deadlift’s starting position distributes the weight between the knees and hips. This upright position will lead to more vertical power, and hone your squat strength, while improving your sprinting and broad jumping skills. The conventional deadlift, because it is a complete hinge, stresses your hip joint more. It will help improve your vertical power (think jumping off two feet to dunk a basketball).
The Sumo Deadlift
BEST FOR: Anyone with arms longer than their legs.
Stand with your arms at your sides and look in the mirror. Do your hands pass below your pockets? Then you should consider the sumo deadlift. To do a sumo deadlift, position your feet wider than hip-width, toes pointing out just slightly. You’ll then bend at the knees and hips and grasp the bar with your hands (just as you do on traditional deadlifts). But your hands will be inside your knees now, about shoulder-width apart, or even slightly narrower.
The sumo deadlift lets you take advantage of your long arms. You won’t bend your knees quite as much to reach the bar, and you’ll have an easier time keeping your chest up. Since this will all feel more natural for you, you’ll be able to truly ramp up muscle utilization in your lower body. On top of that, since you’re using a wider stance than the traditional deadlift stance, you’ll give your hip abductors a workout, hitting a muscle group that’s often neglected by traditional leg training.
The Rack Pull
BEST FOR: Anyone with legs longer than their arms
Stand by the mirror again, arms at your sides. Are your palms well above your pockets? Then there’s a good chance your arms are shorter than your legs. And your best bet for training your posterior chain muscles just might be to sit out full deadlifts for the rack pull.
The rack pull has you setting up a loaded bar in a power rack, with the pins set just below your knee. From here, you get into a conventional deadlift stance and grasp the bar, then stand up, as if doing a deadlift. Since you’re lifting the bar from higher, your range of motion is limited. Wait, I have to work in a limited range of motion? No, you are working in the range of motion you can own. Identifying how you can move while checking your ego to the door is the easiest way to stay in the gym and away from injury.
This alleviates a common deadlift struggle for people with long legs: They can’t quite figure out how to bend to get in proper deadlift position, so when they’re in the bottom position of a deadlift, their hips are frequently higher than their chests. While our body knows its limitation, adding weight to a deadlift while forcing you into a position your body just shouldn’t be in. That shortcoming can lead to injury if you’re not careful, so you want to avoid it.
By David Otey