“I have spent much time and thought on the deadlift, and the main reason is that I am the world’s poorest deadlifter.”
Anderson was best known for his squatting prowess, not only shattering world records but also helping to popularize the lift. Ask any powerlifter or strongman or weightlifter who they consider the best squatter of all time, and the most likely answer will be Paul Anderson. Anderson had the perfect leverages for the squat and the poorest for the deadlift, but rather than focusing solely on his strengths, he spent a lot of time working on the deadlift and thinking about ways to improve it. And he found that a good way to improve it was to perform different variations of the exercise.
Anderson analyzed the techniques of deadlifting, and he also put a lot of thought into determining what exercises had the best carryover to the deadlift. In fact, he even looked at how wearing lifting shoes, which have an elevated heel, could be used as a deadlift variation. Now that’s attention to detail!
I’ve also done a lot of thinking about the deadlift. I agree with Anderson that it’s a great exercise and that one of the best ways to improve deadlifting is by performing different variations of the exercise. All deadlift variations have some special value of their own, as well as ensuring progress by adding variety to your training. A key point to remember is that the regular deadlift is ground zero, the standard that all variations of the deadlift are measured by.
I’ll go on record saying it is not a good idea to perform any deadlift variations while standing on an unstable surface, such as a Bosu ball or a rocker board. This may seem like common sense, but in fact these Cirque du Soleil-type exercises have attracted enough attention that a research study was performed on deadlifts performed on a BOSU ball and a rocker board (also called a T-bow, which is a platform that tilts laterally).
That study was published in the October 2010 issue of The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research with the title “ Deadlift Muscle Force and Activation Under Stable and Unstable Conditions .”
The authors of the study concluded that “…the use of instability devices in deadlift training does not increase performance, nor does it provide greater activation of the paraspinal muscles, leading us to question their value in the performance of other types of exercises.” As such, if you are considering performing deadlifts on an unstable surface such as a BOSU ball, first you have to answer the question “Why train your body to be weak?”
OK, now that we know what variations don’t work, let’s talk about some that do. Essentially, there are two types of deadlift assistance exercises: long-range and short-range. The standard range, you might say, is the conventional deadlift.
Much of the early attention on assistance exercises for the deadlift focused on shorter ranges of motion, especially deadlifts from the kneecap-level and up performed in a power rack. These were especially helpful for those who had problems with locking out the deadlift. In contrast, long-range deadlifts focus on trying to increase the range of motion of the exercise, which from a performance standpoint helps develop a more powerful pull off the floor.
From a bodybuilding standpoint, increasing the range of motion of a deadlift will increase the muscle building potential of the exercise (and there is evidence that the overload in the stretch position will contribute to hyperplasia, which is a splitting of muscle fibers). As an analogy, compare the quad development of an Olympic lifter to that of a powerlifter – often the Olympic lifter will have more impressive development because they perform squats through a full range of motion.
As a great testimonial for muscle building, one of the biggest (literally) proponents of long-range deadlifts was Gustavo Badell, who twice placed third in the Mr. Olympia. Gustavo credits his tremendous back, glute and hamstrings development to performing deadlifts on a platform.
Olympic lifters have often employed long-range deadlifts and pulls, and one reason that power snatches are considered a superior exercise for athletes compared to power cleans is that the bar is pulled through a greater range of motion. The great Russian super heavyweight Vasily Alexeev was known to use smaller-diameter plates to increase the range of motion during his pulling exercises, but I first learned about them from Terry Hadlow, who in the ’80s was ranked in the top eight in the world – an amazing accomplishment for a non-Communist-bloc weightlifter. Hadlow was particularly strong in the lower back, and he credited the coach he’d had in his teenage years who made him do deadlifts using only 25-pound metal plates to force a greater range than the standard 45 plates. That foundation of lower back development still serves him today as he just recently won the Masters World Weightlifting Championship in Poland.
Because using smaller-diameter metal plates can be rather abusive to the barbell and the platform, another option is to simply stand on a low, sturdy platform. When you do this, the platform should not be so high that the feet cannot wedge underneath the barbell (but don’t get too tight a fit, as you can do some serious damage to your feet).
For the ultimate long-range exercise, perform the deadlift on a platform and use a wide grip, but be aware that you will use considerably less weight than you can with a conventional deadlift. And if you’re a powerlifter, especially as you approach a competition, consider Paul Anderson’s idea of using weightlifting shoes, as it more closely approximates the competition deadlift.
Shortening the range of motion of a deadlift allows you to focus on a weak area. Two ways to shorten the range of motion are to place a barbell on small platforms or to set the bar on the crossbars of a power rack. The advantage of using platforms is that it’s easier on the bar (as the plates will touch the platform) and it’s easier to get in the perfect position for the lift because the bar is less likely to roll.
If you use a conventional-style deadlift, one way to perform a short-range movement is to use a sumo (or wide stance) style. The sumo style is a bit easier on the lower back, as you begin with the bar in a more upright position. Also, the sumo style places more work on the adductors of the legs.
One form of short-range deadlift is the Romanian deadlift (as for how many Romanians actually performed this exercise, that’s a matter of debate). A distinct feature of this exercise is that you start the movement in the strongest position and then work towards the weaker position. Also, the exaggerated lean forward places more emphasis on the hamstrings, and I believe it’s a great exercise to improve dynamic flexibility of the hamstrings.
One type of short-range deadlift is the hex bar deadlift performed on a high hex bar. This type of hex bar has elevated handles so that you don’t have to bend down as much – this type of deadlift would be appropriate for many basketball players, as, relatively speaking, the bar is set at a more natural starting position. Also, the hex bar offers the advantage of centering the weight more towards the hips, giving you a much more upright posture, like that of the sumo style, and so is easier on the lower back and places more emphasis on the quads.
Although this article is not about sets and reps, it’s important to note that the type of deadlift performed will influence the repetitions performed. With the longer-range deadlifts, it takes longer to complete a repetition; therefore the number of repetitions should be less than in a conventional deadlift to perform an equivalent volume of training. In contrast to conventional deadlifts, with the shorter-range deadlifts more repetitions can be performed. As an example, to achieve the same volume of training you get from 5 reps in a conventional deadlift, you may need to perform only 3 reps in a long-range deadlift but 8 reps in a short-range deadlift.
I’m a fan of the deadlift because it develops powerful glutes, hamstrings, quads and traps – hey, it even strengthens your grip! And as I’ve explained in this article, there are many great variations of the deadlift that will ensure that you have no weak points. Chances are you will probably never duplicate the feats of strength of Paul Anderson, but if you include these exercises in your workouts, you’ll be amazed at what you can do!