Why The Deadlift Is King of All Lifts (Plus 6 Variations)

Sep 20, 2022 | Exercise guides, Strength & Conditioning

Strong, muscular man performing the kettlebell swing

You’ve heard it before — deadlifts rule. For raw power output, having a massive pull is where it’s at. But why is that the case? And what other deadlifting variations are out there?

Joseph Lucero, owner of Harvesting Strength, is a powerlifter and strongman coach with years of practical S&C experience in high school, collegiate, and professional settings. You don’t want to miss his analysis of the deadlift and variations for all fitness levels.

John Fasulo
Joseph lucero

Deadlifts: The Ultimate Fight Against Gravity

If you had to choose the squat, bench or deadlift as the king of lifts, which would you choose? To debate this topic is tough as each lift trains different parts of the body. But if you were to consider the overall rigor of each movement, does one outweigh the other? In my opinion, only one lift requires you to move weight in a manner stated by Newton’s First Law:

 An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion unless acted on by a force.

Deadlifts.

By that fact alone, the deadlift is king. Of the three major compound lifts, the deadlift is the only movement that occurs within one motion, not two.

 

 

Elastic Potential in the Compound Lifts

When you perform the squat or bench press, you start them with a descending motion (eccentric phase) that leads into an ascending motion (concentric phase). The physiological benefit behind this is due to the elasticity of the muscle — the bar descends and the muscles start to stretch, building “elastic potential” for the ascending part of the movement. The more you can refine this component of lifting, the better your lifting skills become.

The elasticity of the muscle is also like a slingshot. If you try to pull a slingshot quickly and without any regard, you could have terrible aim and not hit your target. But if you pull back with precision, maximize the ability to promote a stronger stretch of the slingshot before letting go, you’ll have better accuracy and power behind your shot.

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Breaking Down Deadlift Physiology

Deadlifts are all about pulling a motionless bar, hence the word “dead” in the name — as in “dead weight”. The biomechanics of the deadlift occur within a partial bend of the hips and knees that almost looks like a “quarter squat” position. When you learn to master the lift, you are mastering the idea of eliciting strength and power out of a hinge position. Considering human performance in general, hinging is the ultimate athletic position! 

Think about a football lineman. He starts in a half-squat position with his hands on the ground. At the snap, he accelerates out of position in order to either block or defend the play. Sprinters, track athletes, and swimmers use similar starting positions. They begin in a half-squat in order to push off the blocks with as much force as possible. 

So many other sports performance positions can benefit from having a strong push against gravity with your posterior chain — blocking in volleyball, rebounding in basketball, jumping to catch in football, etc. This athletic hinge mimics the performance components of a deadlift, which is meant to elicit strength and power out of a hinge position.

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7 Popular Deadlift Variations

While the conventional deadlift is the king of all lifts, it can be modified to help promote more strength in different areas or to help with positional stability and power. Here are some variations of the deadlift and how each is helpful for for certain goals or populations:

 

Dumbbell/Kettlebell Deadlift

Using other weights in place of a barbell improves the strength of the hips and legs in a neutral position for newer athletes.

Trap Bar Deadlift

With the handles at your sides instead of in front of your body, the trap bar teaches the biomechanics of the deadlift by incorporating more leg drive.

Sumo Deadlift

The wide stance sumo position improves hip strength as the load places more emphasis on the hip joint. The shorter range of motion usually means pulling more total weight.

Single Leg Deadlift

Working on one leg at a time challenges your balance and unilateral/single leg strength for better posterior chain positioning. Don’t be afraid to try single leg RDLs, too.

Romanian Deadlift

The top-down Romanian deadlift (or RDL) is popular for loading the glutes, hips, and hamstrings while improving the hinging motion.

Deficit Deadlift

Elevating your platform adds a deeper range of motion component, making the conventional deadlift more challenging. Deficit deadlifts with tempo is extra hard more!

Power Shrug 

A precursor for other types of Olympic movements such as the power clean, this variation uses an overhand grip and requires the lifter to pull the barbell off the floor fast into triple extension of the hips, knees and ankles.

For a more in-depth look at deadlift variations, see this blog: Which Deadlift Variations Hit Your Goals?

 

 

Whether you’re a sprinter pushing off the blocks or a strongman competing in the deadlift ladder, knowing how to master the deadlift translates into so many things. If your wife decides to dump you on the side of the road because of a lustful affair, you need to know how to deadlift in order to pick up and carry your boxes for the big move…

Oh, my mistake. She dumped you for your lustful affair with the iron. God bless you for your admirable training dedication. 

Using the deadlift can be pivotal for producing strength and power out of a hinge position. If you currently are not doing the deadlift in your programming, CHANGE THAT! It’s a monster lift with monster benefits for every level of sport and fitness.

 

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