The deadlift is one of the most effective strength and muscle-producing movements in all of sport. And fortunately for you, the ways to train your deadlift are just as varied and numerous as the benefits on offer.
The axle deadlift is a variation of the standard pull involving an axle bar, which is much larger and thicker than a standard barbell. At a glance, changing the size of the barbell may not seem like a significant alteration, but there’s a lot more to an axle pull than you might think — especially when it comes to keeping your hold on the bar itself.
In this exercise guide, we’ll discuss the axle deadlift and everything you need to know to integrate this movement into your strength training program:
- How to Do the Axle Deadlift
- Benefits of the Axle Deadlift
- Muscles Worked by the Axle Deadlift
- Who Should Do the Axle Deadlift
- Axle Deadlift Sets and Reps
- Axle Deadlift Variations
- Axle Deadlift Alternatives
- Frequently Asked Questions
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to properly perform the axle deadlift. If you do not have access to an axle deadlift bar, you can pick up some specialized grip attachments that simulate a thicker barbell.
Step 1 — Get Set Up
With your feet hip-width apart, grab the axle bar with a double overhand grip (you can also use an alternated grip), exactly how you would during a conventional barbell deadlift. Be sure to keep your back flat.
Coach’s Tip: Pull your shoulder blades down and focus on building tension with your lats as you load the pull.
Step 2 — Push Into the Floor
Once you are locked in, explosively push through your legs into the floor while keeping your torso over the barbell. Your back should be flat and your hips and shoulders should rise at the same rate.
Coach’s Tip: Keep your hips down, chest up, and focus on driving through the legs.
Step 3 — Lock and Hold
Complete the movement the same way you would for your standard deadlift. To really capitalize on the unique barbell, hold at the top — glutes contracted, shoulders depressed — with your tightest grip possible on the bar.
Coach’s Tip: The longer you hold the barbell at the top, the more isometric grip strength you can develop.
The axle deadlift is a two-for-one — by slightly increasing the size of the implement, you’re able to reap all the benefits of the “King of All Exercises” but with extra emphasis on creating a steel-forged grip.
Perfect Your Start
If you’re worried about slack in your setup on the deadlift, the axle barbell is an easy way to remedy it. While you may be able to get away with a sloppy start in sub-maximal pulls, a larger barbell will force you to dial in your tension from the very beginning. Otherwise, the bar might roll out of your hands the moment it leaves the ground.
Better Grip Strength
Since your forearms and hands have to adapt to a bigger bar, you might have to limit the amount of load you use early on in your training with the axle. As you progress, you’ll likely find that you have stronger and more forceful contractions in your forearms and improved neural drive overall, which enhances comprehensive pulling potential.
Improve Deadlift Technique
It’s no secret that perfecting your technique in the pull can boost your overall performance and possibly mitigate injuries. While not directly correlated, a larger bar diameter will likely inhibit your ability to train with heavier loads at first. Working with more moderate weights is a great way to solidify your form and make sure the tension is in your back, where it’s supposed to be.
Refine Bar Path During the Pull
If you misgroove a rep with a standard barbell, you may be able to save it and complete it successfully. But with the axle bar, it is completely imperative that the bar stays trapped against the body.
By using the axle bar, you’re forced to keep your bar path airtight or you’ll probably lose the rep. This can help refine patterning in the pull to limit horizontal displacement or any other compensations in your technique.
The below muscles groups are targeted during the axle deadlift. Note that the axle deadlift is a compound movement, and therefore recruits nearly every muscle in the body to some degree. The below muscle groups are just the prime movers.
Hamstrings & Glutes
The hamstrings and glutes are targeted during the axle deadlift just like they are during the conventional deadlift. The thicker bar does often limit the overall amount of weight that can be used, therefore if your top priority is to attack the glutes and hamstrings, you may want to stick with a standard bar, or perform more isolated hamstring work like hamstring curls or GHDs.
Lats & Upper Back
The back muscles are responsible for locking in trunk posture during the deadlift and keeping the bar close to the body during the pull. Using a thicker bar during the deadlift is a great way to reinforce lat tension and help build greater back thickness since the bar will likely want to fall away from the body while you pull.
The traps contract isometrically during every type of deadlift. When working with the axle, they have to show up extra to stabilize the shoulder girdle, since reduced grip integrity can compromise other areas of the kinetic chain.
Forearms & Grip
The forearms and grip muscles are specifically targeted during the axle deadlift, as the bar is thicker and lager in diameter than a normal barbell. The axle deadlift is a great movement for anyone who loses their grip, has a weak back, or needs to improve back tension in the regular deadlift.
The axle deadlift is a great deadlift variation to attack a weak grip or reinforce better back positioning in the deadlift. Below is a more complete breakdown discussing how the axle deadlift can be beneficial for different athletes.
Strength and Power Athletes
Those who are looking to specifically increase pulling strength and deadlift performance could especially benefit from the axle deadlift. The axle deadlift will increase grip strength, back tension, and is all but essential for strongman athletes who often work with an axle in competition.
Powerlifters could see some use from the axle pull as an accessory if they’re not too close to a competition of their own. Olympic lifters will likely not get much use out of the axle pull since they train with a hook grip for the majority of their time in the gym.
Even if you’re not a competitor in powerlifting or strongman, if your gym happens to have an axle bar you can still get some of the benefits offered by working with it. Replacing your standard deadlift with an axle pull for a period of time is an easy way to switch up your workouts and get some direct grip work in to boot.
If you are looking to use the axle deadlift to boost your overall back, grip, and deadlift strength, you can integrate it into your program at any time using the recommendations below. It is important to note that loading will often be less than a regular deadlift, simply due to the difficulty of holding onto the weight.
To Improve Strength and Muscle
Since the broad technique of the axle pull is identical to a regular deadlift, you can use this deadlift variation to increase muscle growth and overall strength, and can also program it either as a main strength movement or as an accessory.
Program 3 – 4 sets of 3 – 5 repetitions, resting 2 – 3 minutes between sets to allow for a full recovery for strength-focused sets, and slightly higher reps (8 – 12) for more hypertrophy work.
To Build Grip Strength
Chances are you’re probably using an axle bar specifically to develop a crushing grip. You’ve got the right tool in hand, all that remains is to program it properly. When it comes to developing grip, time under tension is the name of the game.
To build your grip strength with the axle deadlift, perform 2 – 4 sets of 3 – 5 repetitions with extended holds at the top of each repetition. Pause at the top for up to 10 seconds.
To Increase Muscle Endurance
When looking to increase muscular endurance, you need to train in higher rep ranges and for longer durations. If you need to build up your endurance for sport-related reasons, you should probably also cut down on your rest times.
Start by performing 2 – 3 sets of 10 or more repetitions, or do timed sets lasting as long as 60 seconds.
The axle deadlift is a great movement to increase deadlift performance, grip strength, and back tension all at once. Below are two quick and easy alterations to enhance those benefits even further.
Banded Axle Deadlift
The banded axle deadlift is done by adding accommodating resistance, in the form of band tension (or chains) to the standard axle deadlift. By adding bands or chains, you can increase the loading and power development needed throughout the movement.
This can help address lockout strength and improve grip strength during the back half of the deadlift, which is often an issue for some advanced lifters.
Paused Axle Deadlift
The paused axle deadlift is a great way to attack an area of weakness or postural breakdown during the deadlift. By doing a pause deadlift with an axle bar, you’re forced to remain fully in control of body positioning while having to hang onto a thick bar for longer than you otherwise would. Ratcheting-up the tension and grip demand means getting more benefit from each rep.
The axle deadlift is a great overall strength movement to build a bigger, thicker back, forearms, and augment strength. However, you may not have access to an axle bar in your regular gym or home facility. Luckily, you can develop a great grip in other ways.
The farmer’s carry is a great alternative to the axle deadlift as it allows you to carry heavy loads and is also typically limited by your grip strength. In some cases, the upper back is a limiting factor, making this a great movement for individuals who need to build their upper backs without using heavy pulls from the floor.
Axle Rack Pull
The axle rack pull is a rack pull done with the axle bar. Due to the limited range of motion, you can overload the relevant musculature — namely the forearms, traps, and upper back — without fatiguing your legs and glutes while working off the floor.
If you want to go all-in on grip work, rack pulls let you overload the right portion of the range of motion even further.
If the barbell is your weapon of choice but you don’t have access to an axle, you can still focus on your hands by performing deadlifts with a snatch grip. Olympic lifters are known for their tremendous grip strength, and a large part of that comes from grabbing the barbell as wide as possible.
Snatch-grip pulling puts your hands to the test and also increases the range of motion of your reps, which means a little extra hypertrophy for free.
What It’s Worth
You can’t get big and strong without using big weights, and to use big weights, you have to be able to hold onto them. The axle deadlift is a great way to boost grip strength, address tension and technique in the pull, and get some size gains in as well.
It may seem rudimentary, but a thicker barbell goes a long way towards introducing some novelty into a tried-and-true movement without beating your body up too much. Even if you’re not a strongman athlete and are just looking for a way to attack your grip and become a picture-perfect puller at the same time, look no further than the axle.
The axle deadlift is a great deadlift variation that can be used for all athletic levels, however there are some common questions that pop up from time to time regarding how to use them in a program. Below are two of the most common questions regarding axle deadlifts.
Is it okay to use straps during an axle bar deadlift?
When you use lifting straps during any movement, the straps aid in your ability to withstand grip fatigue. This could be a great way to overload the movement, or to train around having a weak grip, however if you are doing axle deadlifts with the intention of increasing grip strength, it would make sense to not use straps.
If however you are more concerned with increasing back tension in the deadlift, then using straps may be justified.
Is the axle deadlift better than a row if the goal is to gain size and strength?
Generally speaking, no, however it can be just as effective as other pulls in some cases. In a well rounded size and strength program, you could include axle deadlifts, pulldowns, rows, and other exercises to train the back more effectively than just doing extra deadlifts.
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