Westside Barbell Deadlift Variation Guide
The Conjugate Method is a training system that can be implemented in many ways to help any athlete improve. A vital aspect of the Conjugate Method is the ability to utilize a variety of exercise variations to develop special strengths and target identified weaknesses specifically. Ultimately, the freedom and flexibility the Conjugate Method provides a coach makes it the most optimal training method.
At Westside, we follow a four-day-per-week training schedule. This is divided into upper and lower body training. Monday is max effort lower, Wednesday is max effort upper, Friday is dynamic effort lower, and Saturday is dynamic effort upper. Each training session will feature a main exercise, accessory exercises, and GPP training to provide athletes with optimal stimulation to develop multiple strengths and raise conditioning simultaneously.
One exercise that plays a central role in any Conjugate Method program is the deadlift. We utilize the deadlift and include the many variations of the deadlift that are just as effective at building strength and muscle mass. The reason for this is the deadlift's ability to develop posterior strength, often at a rate faster than most other lower body exercises.
The deadlift has received a bad reputation in some strength and conditioning schools of thought. Some, unfortunately, believe that the deadlift is an injury waiting to happen. These folks think that you risk immediate catastrophic injury whenever you deadlift or use your lumbar discs up like brake pads working closer to an eventual back injury.
However, the deadlift is as safe as a squat, an overhead press, a good morning, or any other exercise that applies significant force to the musculoskeletal system. It is all a matter of technical execution and smart escalations in exercise intensity. As with any exercise, failure to properly execute the movement and improper programming will significantly increase the chance of injury occurring.
Fortunately, that is what we intend to address in this guide; the basic technical execution of common deadlift variations and advice when it comes to adding these exercises into a training plan.
Now, we will list and discuss the common deadlift variations used as main exercises at Westside Barbell:
Main Exercise Variations
When following a Conjugate Method training plan, athletes commonly perform a deadlift variation once every three weeks as a max effort exercise and once per week as a dynamic effort exercise. Below, we will discuss the various choices a coach has when programming the deadlift as a main exercise and the recommended way to program these exercises.
Remember, many of the exercises listed below can be included in a training program as accessory exercises. One thing to remember when using the Conjugate Method is that almost all main exercises can be performed as accessory exercises, but most accessory exercises cannot be performed as main exercises.
That said, we will also provide the basic accessory programming guidelines for each exercise.
One of the two common stances used when performing a deadlift. At Westside, many of our athletes pull using a sumo stance. However, just as a conventional stance deadlifter must pull using a sumo stance occasionally, it is also crucial for a sumo deadlifter to pull in the conventional stance sometimes.
The conventional stance is a great way to target the hamstrings and glutes, and depending on the build of an athlete, it can be the more advantageous position. Regardless, the training this stance provides the posterior chain makes the conventional deadlift an exercise all athletes need to include in their training plan.
All athletes will look different when it comes to form with any deadlift style. The key to safe execution is not the ability of an athlete to mimic another athlete's "safe" form; the athlete needs to find their optimal motor pattern that fits within the parameters of safe exercise execution.
With the conventional deadlift, we want to avoid unnecessary shearing force on the spine. The goal is to pull the barbell up the body in as straight a line as possible to give the spine the best chance at staying in a relatively neutral position. The line in which the barbell moves as it ascends mostly depends on the distance between the shin and the barbell as the movement begins.
One trick to ensure an athlete is close to correct with their shin to barbell distance right away is to have the athlete set up their starting position with the barbell sitting over the middle of the foot. From the athlete's perspective, they should look down and see the barbell essentially cutting their foot in half.
Generally, this will have athletes in a much more workable starting conventional deadlift position and will keep the bar close to the body as the lift commences and help limit the demand placed on the lumbar spine. Aside from addressing the foot position and bar path, all that is left is to take in air to achieve proper intra-abdominal pressure to brace the trunk and further protect the spine.
As long as these basic steps are followed, athletes will find themselves stronger and more durable after utilizing the conventional deadlift.
When programming this exercise as a max effort main exercise, we recommend working up to a top set of 1-3 repetitions. The conventional deadlift will also be used as a variation for dynamic effort deadlifts, rotating every wave with the sumo deadlift. Conventional deadlifts can also be used as an accessory exercise, in which case we would perform 3-5 sets of 5-8 repetitions.
This is the other common deadlift stance and the most commonly used deadlift stance at WSBB. The sumo deadlift is a great way to improve absolute strength and the ability to apply force vertically and laterally. Additionally, the sumo deadlift is an excellent way to develop the abductors, adductors, hips, glutes, hamstrings, quads, and abdominals.
As you can see, the sumo deadlift is an excellent way for an athlete to develop lower body strength considering the number of muscle groups involved in the movement.
When setting up your sumo stance, it all depends on the ultimate goal. If we prepare for the sport of powerlifting, we will widen our stance as much as possible to provide ourselves with the most significant leverage advantage possible. However, if we train athletes, we want them in a stance that significantly emphasizes the muscle groups we intend to train.
Fortunately, no matter how wide your stance is, the rest of the movement is practically the same once foot placement is established. First, set the grip. The goal is to grip as close together as possible to allow the arms to lengthen as much as possible during the lift. Next, take in air to fill the trunk and lock down the upper and lower abdominal muscles. Then, sit into the pull only as much as necessary to achieve a vertical chest position.
If executed correctly, the athlete should be in a very rigid position that provides the base to allow vertical and lateral force to be applied simultaneously, resulting in the barbell being lifted to lockout.
When programming this exercise as a max effort main exercise, we recommend working up to a top set of 1-3 repetitions. The sumo deadlift will also be used as a variation for dynamic effort deadlifts, rotating every wave with the conventional deadlift. Sumo deadlifts can also be used as an accessory exercise, in which case we would perform 3-5 sets of 5-8 repetitions.
Mat deadlift, also known as block deadlift, is a variation that limits the exercise's range of motion. The goal is to elevate the barbell 2-4" to place the athlete at a leverage disadvantage, forcing the glutes, hips, and back to do most of the work. While some may believe that limiting the range of motion of an exercise makes the exercise easier or lessens the effectiveness of the movement, this is not the case.
When we limit the range of motion of a particular exercise, we do so to increase the time spent at specific joint angles, as well as the intensity and training volume experienced at those joint angles. This strategy is often employed if an athlete has a particular weakness at a specific joint angle or involves a muscle group that can be best targeted by limiting the range of motion of a specific exercise.
Make no mistake about it; just because the range of motion is limited does not mean the exercise's effectiveness is limited. When performing a mat deadlift, execution will be most significant in determining exercise effectiveness. Considering the stance options for this exercise are sumo or conventional, following the setup and technique guidelines mentioned above is recommended.
When programming this exercise as a max effort main exercise, we recommend working up to a top set of 1-3 repetitions. Mat deadlifts can also be used as an accessory exercise, in which case we would perform 3-5 sets of 5-8 repetitions. As mentioned above, 2-4" elevation is recommended; this typically places the barbell at mid-shin or just below the knee for most athletes.
Out of all the common main exercise deadlift variations, the deficit deadlift is likely the most challenging. Why? Because this lift takes an already difficult lift and extends the overall range of motion. However, this exercise will be a game-changer if you lack glute, hamstring, back, or starting strength in the deadlift.
Additionally, out of all of the main exercise deadlift variations, the deficit deadlift also places the athlete in the least advantageous starting position, emphasizing an athlete's ability to get into position during the initiation of the lift. When combining an extended range of motion with additional form and technique challenges, an athlete can significantly improve strength and technical ability simultaneously with this movement.
The most critical aspect of deficit deadlift execution is ensuring the hamstrings are shortened as much as possible before pulling the barbell. As mentioned earlier, the deficit deadlift places the athlete out of position. So, the athlete must shorten the hamstrings as much as possible while sitting into the deadlift to ensure max output is achieved and the hamstrings are as protected from injury as possible. Short muscle = strong muscle.
We recommend working from a 2-4" deficit when performing this exercise, depending on strength and experience level. When programming this exercise as a max effort main exercise, we recommend working up to a top set of 1-3 repetitions. Deficit deadlifts can also be used as an accessory exercise, in which case we would perform 2-4 sets of 5-8 repetitions.
Accessory Exercise Variations
The accessory exercise portion of the training day provides another chance to program deadlift-focused exercise variations intended to target identified technical or muscle weaknesses and bring about specific training adaptations.
When selecting accessory exercises for a training day, it is essential to understand the basics of accessory exercise programming. It is crucial always to keep the intensity of accessory exercise training regulated. It is just as important to manage the training volume appropriately. Failure to do so will result in excessive fatigue or injury.
When regulating main exercise intensity, we assign specific percentages. However, intra-workout fatigue accrued prior to accessory training would set an athlete up for failure to set percentage goals for accessory exercises. So, we ensure athletes achieve optimal stimulation by following this guideline for accessory exercises: use the heaviest training weight you can while completing all prescribed sets and reps with proper form.
At first glance, that may seem like a bit much regarding accessory exercise training intensity. However, the accrued fatigue will help regulate the training weights used, and athletes will notice that following these guidelines will almost always have them using the most optimal weights.
Here are the deadlift variations most commonly used as accessory exercises at Westside Barbell:
If we had to choose one deadlift accessory exercise to perform until the end of time, it would be the Romanian deadlift. In terms of the ability to strengthen the posterior chain and develop the glutes and hamstrings, no other variation compares. Including a few sets of heavy Romanian deadlifts weekly will skyrocket your squat and deadlift strength.
Another benefit of the training effect provided by the Romanian deadlift is knee stability. Along with size and strength benefits, properly developed hamstrings help protect the knee joint. By using this exercise, an athlete can enhance the durability and resilience of the knee joint. This exercise can help bulletproof one of the most critical joints in an athlete's athletic career. The stronger the hamstrings, the lower the risk of an ACL, PCL, MCL, or LCL injury.
Execution of Romanian deadlifts is almost entirely similar to a conventional deadlift. The only difference is instead of completing a full eccentric to the floor, the athlete will stop the barbell around mid-shin level before reversing the bar path and returning to a concentric contraction. This should be performed with great control, with the trunk remaining rigid and adequate intra-abdominal pressure maintained.
As long as the trunk remains rigid and the IAP is properly established, this exercise is as safe as any other exercise. The key is to stay in control and move smoothly between eccentric and concentric contractions. If an athlete gets out of control and begins "ripping" the bar from eccentric to concentric, the risk of injury to the shoulders, biceps, neck, back, glutes, and hamstrings is significantly increased.
Move like a controlled machine. Regarding regulating the intensity of this exercise, movement quality is the measuring stick. If your movement becomes lackadaisical, lower the training weight or end the exercise. Romanian deadlifts are very effective, but only with proper form and intent.
We recommend using 3-5 sets of 5-8 or 10-12 repetitions when programming this exercise. Regarding where this exercise should be featured in your accessory exercise lineup, we recommend programming this exercise immediately after your main or primary accessory exercise. We want maximum energy on deck when it is time to perform Romanian deadlifts.
Trap Bar Deadlift:
The trap bar deadlift is an exercise that has been used for a long time for athletes and has started to become popular amongst powerlifters and strongmen competitors. This exercise provides many of the benefits a typical deadlift does while mitigating the stress placed on the spine.
The trap bar allows an athlete to pull the barbell off of the ground with their hands in a neutral grip, the spine in a neutral position, and the legs at an advantage to produce maximal force and move the barbell. Unlike the typical deadlift, which applies a shearing force to the spine, the trap bar applies very little.
The trap bar deadlift can be programmed in a few different ways. If we are dealing with athletes without prior weight training experience, the trap bar can be an excellent way to get them deadlifting without worrying about injury caused by poor execution. It's simple; the trap bar is more forgiving to the novice lifter. In this case, we would have the athlete perform 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps as an accessory exercise.
Another way to go about adding in the trap bar is to enhance the strength endurance of an athlete. If this is the goal, we will program 2-4 sets of 12-15, sometimes even 20 repetitions.
One of the great benefits of using the trap bar when performing high-volume deadlift sets is the forgiveness the bar provides when an athlete fails to execute technically. Resetting and maintaining form with a trap bar is much easier than with a deadlift bar. This is because the trap bar's neutral grip and general positioning make it easier to return to form after each rep, regardless of fatigue.
Additionally, it is easier to breathe between reps when using a trap bar versus pulling with a deadlift bar. One of the biggest reasons an athlete's technique suffers during multi-rep deadlift sets is fatigue caused by inadequate oxygen intake during the set.
Regarding where this exercise should be featured in your accessory exercise lineup, we recommend programming this exercise immediately after your main or primary accessory exercise.
Snatch Grip Deadlift:
The snatch grip deadlift is a great way to develop the posterior strength chain, particularly the trunk, hamstrings, glutes, low back, and mid-back. Considering these muscles play a significant role in practically any sport, this movement is one all athletes should always consider when planning their lower body accessory training.
The snatch grip ultimately places the athlete at a leverage disadvantage, with the benefit being the increased demand placed upon the mid back, low back, trunk, and glutes. If the goal is to develop a posterior chain made of steel, snatch grip deadlifts can get the job done.
When performing a snatch grip deadlift, the first step is to use a snatch grip to grab onto the barbell. This grip will emphasize the mid and low back, primarily the point of this exercise. Foot placement will be wider than conventional but not as wide as sumo. Start with a slightly widened conventional stance, and work from there.
We will generally go with 3-5 sets of 5-8 or 8-10 repetitions when performing this exercise. Athletes must focus on trunk engagement, locking in the lats, and maintaining a vertical torso to execute this exercise properly.
Regarding where this exercise should be featured in your accessory exercise lineup, we recommend programming this exercise immediately after your main or primary accessory exercise.
Not all deadlift accessory exercises are barbell exercises. Kettlebell deadlifts are a great way to add in posterior chain-focused training volume to help further develop the muscle groups that play a significant role in the squat and deadlift. Not only that, but kettlebell deadlifts also help improve overall mobility when performed at full or extended ranges of motion.
We will perform this exercise one of two ways; either standing on the floor or standing on an elevated platform to extend the range of motion. When standing on the floor, we will use heavier training weights and focus more on developing muscle mass. When standing on an elevated platform, we will focus more on mobility and less on the training weight used.
We recommend 2-4 sets of 10-15 reps when opting for heavier weights from the floor. When focusing on mobility, we recommend 2-4 sets of 15-20 controlled reps. Regarding where this exercise should be featured in your accessory exercise lineup, we recommend programming this exercise toward the end of the training day.
The single-leg deadlift is a great way to directly challenge the glute and hamstring of each leg and help reinforce the integrity of the knee joint. As the exercise name indicates, this is a deadlift performed while standing on one leg. Regarding the training tool used, we can choose a barbell, kettlebells, or dumbbells.
The key to performing a single-leg deadlift is getting the foot placement correct. The goal is to find the foot position that best allows you to engage the trunk and balance the barbell throughout each set. Depending on the build of an athlete, foot placement can differ between athletes.
Once optimal foot placement is achieved, it is time to begin the exercise. To start the lift, engage the trunk while keeping the chest and head in position to maintain a neutral spine. Once the trunk has engaged and a neutral spine position is achieved, begin applying force via the trunk, glute, and hamstring of the involved leg to perform the movement.
Control is essential with this exercise, so be sure to regulate training intensity to maintain strict form. We recommend performing 2-4 sets of 8-10 or 12-15 reps for this exercise to benefit the most. Regarding where this exercise should be featured in your accessory exercise lineup, we recommend programming this exercise toward the end of the training day.
Keep Your Options Open
As a coach, having a closed mind and unshakeable belief in a limited training system makes no sense. Having training options and tools at your disposal only enhances your ability to deliver consistent results to your athletes. Unfortunately, many coaches become stuck in their ways, limiting their athletes because they refuse to broaden their perspective.
The Conjugate Method allows a coach to address any weakness, physical or technical, at any time throughout the year. This freedom allows a coach to build stronger, faster, more durable athletes that consistently improve across the board. With Conjugate, there is no falling behind due to detraining and reduced training response.
The deadlift variations listed above are all excellent choices to achieve the goals they are each intended to achieve. When performed using our tips regarding programming and execution, you can be sure your athletes will improve the strength of their posterior chain and trunk, making for strong and sturdy athletes.
By training multiple strengths simultaneously throughout the year, athletes experience no loss in strength or skill, just a constant stair-step pattern of improvement. If you want to take your athletes to the next level, choose the Conjugate Method.