Deadlifts Part 4: Build the Skill

In Part 1 of this series, you learned about some important prerequisites for deadlifting. In Part 2, you learned how to work toward mastering those prerequisites, and Part 3 showed you how to work the pieces of the deadlift to either prepare you or use in place of a traditional deadlift.

In this part, you’ll learn some of my favorite deadlift variations to improve your overall skill in a deadlift. A barbell deadlift from the ground is considered a traditional deadlift, but this requires a lot of range of motion and control of that range to really reap the benefits of a deadlift. Some of these variations give safe alternatives to help you master the important parts of the lift.

Let’s first go over some basics for deadlift form. The difference between a deadlift and a squat can be looked at two different ways. One – which muscles are being used. A squat is quad dominant and a deadlift is hamstring and glute dominant. YES, squats use glutes too but not to the same extent. Two – the angle of the shin bone or forward angle of the knee. If the knee is tracking forward toward the toe, it is going to be more quad dominant or squat-like. In a deadlift, however, the knee bends but does not tip too far forward. This changes where the load is held – making it more hamstring dominant or deadlift-like.

A deadlift also requires a neutral spine that doesn’t over-flex or overextend while maintaining shoulder position. Essentially, your torso should look like its maintaining excellent upright posture while hinging forward at the hips. This holds true in every variation we’re going over below so keep this in mind!

Kettlebell Deadlift

I start with kettlebell deadlifts with anyone that’s new to the movement or could use some form work. I love them because they have built-in feedback and where the bell is held makes it easier to keep the weight centered – as opposed to a barbell where the weight may drift a little in front.

The weight should start in between the feet, particularly the arches, and should always stay in a path directly over those arches. If the kettlebell drifts forward over the toes, it’s a sign that one or more bad-form things are happening. Either your shoulders are rounding, low back is rounding, or you’re starting to squat and let your knees fall forward. Use that path as a guide to help you maintain good form.

Kettlebell Elevated Deadlift

This is exactly the same but a regression to help your work on control and range of motion. If you’re struggling with some of the range of motion of the hip-hinge or can’t maintain a neutral spine to bring the bell all the way to the floor, this is a good variation.

Everything is the same as the previous kettlebell deadlifts, you just raise the kettlebell up onto a sturdy surface that allows you to take the same deadlift stance (usually shoulder-width apart). Using some small weight plates are a good option. You are just trying to get the bell a few inches closer to you so you don’t need to go down quite so low. This is a good way to help you build these muscles while safely progressing yourself toward the floor as you improve.

Hex/Trap Bar Deadlift

I LOVE THESE. If you have a hex bar/trap bar, do yourself a favor and work on a ton of these before moving to the straight barbell. They’ll teach you so much about how to keep your weight centered. The weight should line up right next to your arches or shins. This style also makes it easier for you to get a feel of where your shoulders should stay. With the trap bar handles being to your sides, you end up holding a more neutral shoulder position. This makes it easier for you to figure out how to keep your shoulders pinned back and strong.

One major form thing I’d like to caution you with is to make sure it doesn’t turn into a squat. Unlike a kettlebell, there’s not as much external feedback letting you know if you’ve gotten off your optimal path. Make sure you’re not squatting down and you still feel that the load is being lifted by your hamstrings and glutes as you come upright.

Suitcase Deadlift

This is a substitute for Trap-Bar deadlifts if you don’t have that equipment available to you. The principle is the same – the weight is next you making it a little easier for you to keep it centered assuming you don’t start squatting it!

If you use kettlebells, just be sure they are giving you enough height off of the floor. If you use dumbbells, I highly recommend raising the dumbbells off of the floor. Either use a box on either side as your point of contact instead of the floor or skip going down to the floor altogether. If you’re touching the floor with dumbbells, you are no longer doing a suitcase deadlift. That would mean you are doing a suitcase squat because you have to engage your quads and let your knees shift forward to reach the ground with a dumbbell – no matter how good your mobility is!

Romanian Deadlift

These are a great transitional exercise to get you ready for a traditional barbell deadlift. You’re basically working on the first part of a deadlift here. Just the hip hinge and just allowing the bar to reach the knees. This is a great drill to get a feel for keeping the bar close to your body and how that hip-hinge engages those hamstrings under load.

The main point of external feedback here is keeping the bar on your thighs, If the weight comes forward away from your thighs, that’s a sign that you’re rounding your back or shoulders.

With that being said, you should also NOT feel like your knees are stopping the bar from going down. The bar should basically be going in a straight line down. The knees bend but just to allow you to hip-hinge, not to squat forward.

Transition into Traditional

Lastly, when you’re feeling pretty confident in your form – there’s no need to jump straight to a deadlift from the floor. Especially if you are not using full plates like 45lb plates or bumper plates (that are just as big but can be in lower weights) because you want the bar to be at least that high off of the floor.

In the squat rack, you can start to work towards traditional deadlifts by using the rack to give you the height of 45lb plates OR raising it even a little higher to help you ease into full deadlifts. Find a range that feels comfortable with good form.

Final Notes

A few final things for working on your deadlifts:

  • Very rarely do I like these as high repetition exercises. For the most part, they should be kept in a range at or under 10 repetitions
  • They are a low back exercise but you should not feel pain and you should feel your abs working just as much, if not more than your low back
  • This is a complicated move with heavy weight so be sure you are medically cleared for it, can perform this motion pain-free, and have spotters and help to adjust weight as needed.

I hope you find these variations helpful in improving your form, prepping you for the big traditional lift, and adding some variety to your routine!

Happy Training!

P.S. – If you want more help figuring out how to design a program for yourself, click here to sign up for my free “How to Build a Workout” guide. You’ll get the guide and you’ll be in the loop for upcoming blog posts and free programs coming your way!