You’ve probably heard of — and practice — the king of exercises, the deadlift. But even if you love improving your pulling strength, you may not be as versed in the deadlift’s seemingly endless variations. With so many deadlifts and pulling variations to choose from, it can often be overwhelming which one to choose based on your needs, weaknesses, and individual goals.
The deficit deadlift is a great deadlift variation for those who struggle with lower back strength. It also helps if you have trouble separating the barbell from the floor in the initial pulling phases. You may also lack strength and bar speed to accelerate the barbell during the latter half of the pull. Whatever the case, the deficit deadlift can help.
Moving weight through a lengthened range of motion — as you do when pulling from a deficit — has the potential to help improve the limiting factors of your deadlift, as well as build strength all throughout your body. All you need is a barbell, an elevated surface, and a little bit of knowledge to get started.
Benefits of Deficit Deadlifts
With the increased range of motion the deficit deadlift provides, you may need greater joint flexion in your ankles, knees, and hips. This can help you use more of your legs and hips in the movement, since more knee flexion is required. While the deficit deadlift is not a squat, it does mimic a more similar hip and knee flexion. Because of this, the quadriceps are more activated.
Studies suggest that the quadricep muscles are the most activated when the knees are flexed at an angle of 90 degrees. (1) Although the knees may not bend to a full 90 degrees, they will bend closer to it than that of a standard deadlift.
Your posterior chain runs from your upper back down to your calves. Strengthening these muscles can help improve athletic performance, help stabilize your hips and spine, and improve posture. Just some of the muscles worked by the deficit deadlift help make up the posterior chain, such as the glutes, hamstrings, erector spinae, and more.
Due to the increased range of motion, the deficit deadlift can present more of a challenge than the standard deadlift and can put more emphasis on your back. You may not be able to use the same heavy weights you do a regular deadlift, but this variation can still help improve your posterior chain strength.
The bar is set lower on a deficit deadlift since you’re on an elevated surface, so you must sit deeper into the start position. This will create a greater torso lean in the pull. By doing this, the need for lower back strength and health is key to avoid excessive spinal rounding at the lumbar spine. By increasing the range of motion, you force a lifter to develop maximal tension and strength at the end ranges, which will help develop lower and middle back strength.
Powerlifters often implement the deficit deadlift into their routine because it helps build strength, but it can also help increase force production. Exercises like the deadlift, the clean, and the snatch need a powerful, quick force right out of the gate to help get heavy loads up. The greater range of motion required by the deficit deadlift can help teach you to be more powerful from the start. Force is also needed in sports that involve explosive power. Studies suggest that the deficit deadlift can help increase athletic performance in activities requiring explosive movement, such as jumping or sprinting. (2)
Progressive overload is extremely important when you want to improve strength. Time under tension is a form of progressive overload. The longer range of motion in a deficit deadlift inherently takes you longer to complete. This time increase is key for building strength and muscle mass. One study shows that that increasing time under tension can help contribute to muscle hypertrophy. (3) Increasing the time your muscles are under load requires them to work harder, ultimately helping to increase not only muscle mass, but strength and endurance as well.
Sometimes the weakest point of a lift is the initial pull off the floor. Explosive Olympic weightlifting exercises, such as the snatch, relies heavily on the powerful pull. This is because the faster you can move the weight, the lighter it can feel.
The same goes for the initial pull of the standard deadlift. Although you’re not relying on as much momentum as you would the snatch, just getting a heavy barbell off the floor requires significant pulling strength. Increasing the distance from which you pull the weight can help improve your ability to pull from a shorter distance.
Maybe you know the weak point of your deadlift, or maybe you didn’t even realize you had one. A weak point could be the initial pull, the sticking point in the middle, or the lockout. The deficit deadlift resembles the deadlift enough to help expose and improve your weaknesses. Because of this, it can help you break through a deadlift plateau.
It can be harder to get the weight off the floor if your weak point is the initial pull, and that will be evident when trying to pull from a longer distance. The time under tension in the deficit deadlift can highlight the areas that need improvement, especially if your weak point is the lockout, it may be more difficult to finish the rep. Practicing this exercise at sub-maximal loads can help you iron out weaknesses for when you do return to heavier pulls.
How to Do the Deficit Deadlift
When choosing the elevated surface to stand on, make sure it’s stable and the appropriate height. For beginners, it’s best to stay with a surface no higher than one to three inches. For more advanced lifters, two to four inches can be sufficient.
- Set up as you do for a standard deadlift except you’re standing on the platform (such as a bumper plate). Your feet should still be about hip width apart with the barbell close to your shins.
- Lower your hips to reach for the barbell. Since it’s lower to the floor, you’ll likely need to bend your knees a little more than you’re probably used to for a deadlift. Bend your knees enough so you can grab the bar — but your back stays flat.
- Grab the bar with the grip of your choice. Maintain tension in your body and the barbell before lifting off the floor. Keep your back flat as you press your feet into the ground and pull the bar in a straight line.
- Pull the bar all the way until your hips and knees are fully extended. Slowly lower the barbell back to the floor through the same straight line.
Deficit Deadlift Variations
The deadlift can be one of the best exercises to implement into your workout routine. Pulling from a deficit can help improve your strength and power. There are also plenty of other deficit deadlift variations to help you from getting bored.
Snatch-Grip Deficit Deadlift
An even more advanced variation of the deficit deadlift is the snatch-grip deficit deadlift. With this grip, your hands will hold the bar wider than shoulder-width apart like you would in a snatch. Since your arms are wider, your range of motion is even greater.
The snatch grip deficit deadlift is great for helping increasing grip and back strength. Note that you can also perform the regular snatch grip deadlift without the deficit, and it can still be advanced.
If you’re looking for a less advanced deadlift variation or one that could help improve your limiting factors, this variation is it. The block deadlift decreases your range of motion by placing the weight plates instead of your feet on an elevated surface.
This reduced range of motion can help fight fatigue, as well as help improve sticking points in the top part of the deadlift. It’s also beneficial for helping improve grip strength and pulling strength. Note you can also perform this as a rack pull from a power rack.
Sumo Deficit Deadlift
You may have heard the age-old rumor that sumo deadlifts are cheating, but just because the range of motion is less doesn’t make them any easier. It’s beneficial for helping strengthen the posterior chain and can load the glutes more than a standard deadlift.
With your feet placed wider than shoulder-width, the sumo deficit deadlift helps improve your pulling strength from the floor. Note that you can also perform the sumo deadlift without the deficit.
Romanian Deficit Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift by itself can help target the glutes and hamstrings more, and adding a deficit helps increase the range of motion. In this variation, you start from a standing position and hinge at the hips, while keeping your legs straight.
Increasing the range of motion will help stretch the muscles more, which studies suggest can help increase hypertrophy. (4)
This may seem like the most obvious variation, but you can’t leave it out. The deadlift can be considered the king of exercises due to the impressive amount of weight that can be pulled. It can be beneficial for strength, hypertrophy, and power in your entire body.
With the conventional deadlift, you simply lose the platform you’re standing on and pull the weight from the same surface.
Deadlift More Weight
If you haven’t been using the deficit deadlift before, you may be using it now. Several benefits can accrue from this exercise that can translate into other Olympic lifts, athletic performance, and overall strength. With any exercise, proper form is crucial for safety and efficiency. Since the deficit deadlift is more advanced, it requires more knowledge and experience. It may take time and practice to perfect, but you’ll be happy you did.
Check out these articles to help boost your deadlift, upgrade your training programs, and increase your efficiency as a puller.
- Marchetti, Paulo Henrique, Da Silva, Josinaldo Jarbas, & Schoenfeld, Brad Jon. Muscle Activation Differs between Three Different Knee Joint-Angle Positions during a Maximal Isometric Back Squat Exercise. Journal of Sports Medicine. 2016. doi: 10.1155/2016/3846123
- Lanham, Sarah, Cooper, James J, & Chrysosferidis, Peter. Exercise Technique: Deficit Deadlift. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 2019; 41(1). doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000428
- Krzysztofik, Micahl, Wilk, Michal, & Wojdala, Grzegorz. Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2019; 16(24). doi: 10.3390/ijerph16244897
- Oranchuk DJ, Storey AG, Nelson AR, Cronin JB. Isometric training and long-term adaptations: Effects of muscle length, intensity, and intent: A systematic review. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2019 Apr;29(4):484-503. doi: 10.1111/sms.13375. Epub 2019 Jan 13. PMID: 30580468.
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