The deadlift is one of my favorite exercises, but it’s also one of the hardest things you can do in the gym. That means the deadlift is pretty tricky to train with high frequency – try to pull more than once or twice a week, and you’ll probably find your lower back screaming in protest.
That’s where variations come in! By using slightly different setups and techniques, you can train a very similar movement without beating yourself up quite so much – which helps not only to increase frequency, but to improve weaknesses, too.
Here are three of my all-time favorite deadlift variations for you to try:
Wide-Grip Partial Deadlift
The wide-grip partial deadlift, or WGPDL, lets you train a heavy pulling movement without straining your hips, legs, or lower back as hard as a regular deadlift. That makes it a great variation to strengthen the upper back, and to help learn to activate your lats: two things many lifters struggle with.
How to Perform WGPDL
To perform the WGPDL, begin by setting up a bar in a power rack or on blocks about two inches below your knees. You want to take a grip that’s roughly a full hand’s width wider than your regular deadlift grip (a bit narrower than what you would use for a snatch grip). Position yourself with your shoulders directly over the bar and spine in a neutral position, and then pull your scapula back and down and flare your lats hard. Lift the bar by squeezing your glutes and bringing your hips forward, making sure to keep that upper back as tight as you possibly can throughout the entire movement.
I generally recommend training this movement for higher reps (8-12 is a good bet), starting with about 40-50% of your 1-RM conventional deadlift. You’ll also probably want to use straps, since it’s pretty difficult to hang on to the bar with a wide grip.
The Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift (RDL – we’re all about acronyms today) is one of the most productive deadlift variations you can do. It’s also one of the deadlift variations I see most people do wrong. Execution is crucial here, because if you’re even a little bit off, you’re going to turn your Romanian deadlifts into regular deadlifts.
How to Perform RDLs
The common cue for RDLs is “push the hips (or butt) back,” and that’s not terrible, but oftentimes, thinking about pushing the hips back will lead to arching the lumbar or thoracic spine and bending the knees as well. Instead, I think it’s better to forget about your body, and focus on the bar. Starting from the top position (always start your RDLs from the top), you want to lower the bar towards the floor in a perfectly straight line. It should not move forward or back at all.
To do that, you’ll have to maintain a neutral torso, load your hips, keep your hamstrings and glutes tight, and balance your weight over your heels. The cool thing is, when you just focus on that straight bar path, all those other things will usually take care of themselves. Plus, it’s very easy to tell when your form starts to break down – the bar will start to drift away from that straight line.
Properly executed, the RDL is a fantastic way to train the posterior chain with great carryover to the squat and deadlift. It also doesn’t require a huge amount of weight to be effective, so it’s something you can program into your light days, knowing you won’t beat your body up too much.
Whoa whoa whoa! This isn’t a deadlift variation at all – but it is a fantastic way to strengthen many of the muscles involved in your pull. Typically, the good morning is performed using a hip hinge, but I prefer the stiff-legged variation, for two reasons: I think it’s a bit easier to perform correctly, and it’s one of the best hamstring exercises you can perform.
How to Perform Good Mornings
It’s best if you can use a safety squat bar for the stiff-leg good morning, but a regular bar will work too. Take a fairly close stance and, with knees unlocked but not bent, bend forward at the waist while keeping your abs tight and spine neutral. Your butt should not move backward! Instead, the weight comes forward – in front of your feet – placing a tremendous load on the hamstrings. Just like in the RDL, you don’t need a whole lot of weight here to get some good work in. In fact, I recommend that you start very light, and, if it’s your first time performing the exercise, don’t even push yourself very hard. You’ll probably find yourself much, much more sore than you expect.
One last thing to note: you shouldn’t expect to replace the deadlift with any of these variations. It’s pretty important – regardless of whether you’re training for size or for strength – to incorporate the regular deadlift (either sumo, conventional, or both) somewhere in your training program. Use these variations to supplement that training, and you’ll be in great shape!
Feature image screenshot from Ben Pollack Instagram page.