What Deadlift Is Right For You?
by Mike Robertson T-Nation
Which type of deadlift is best?
Trap bar? Conventional? Sumo?
I get this question almost daily. And like most training questions, the best answer typically is, "it depends."
But when that won't suffice, here are my follow-up questions:
What are your needs? Your goals?
What do you want to get out of training? Bigger muscles? Less body fat? A crazy strong deadlift?
Once you start answering those questions, we can start to figure out which type of deadlift is best for you.
The Big Assumption(s)
I'm going to make two big assumptions:
When discussing the trap bar deadlift, we'll focus on how most people perform it: high handles, hips down, more dorsiflexion, and a more upright torso.
When discussing the conventional deadlift, we'll focus on how most people perform it: hips high, minimal dorsiflexion, and a much more bent-over torso.
I've seen people trap bar deadlift with no dorsiflexion, a vertical tibia, and using all glutes and hams, and I've seen people who start their conventional deadlift with their thighs parallel to the ground.
Looking at all the possible variations would be ridiculous, so we have to use a few generalizations to get everyone on the same page.
Experienced powerlifters aside, I want lifters to deadlift with a neutral spine or flat back. One of the biggest issues we see when deadlifting is that many lifters don't have adequate mobility to deadlift safely and effectively because they can't get into an initial neutral spine posture.
For this reason, coupled with the fact that very few people can hip hinge and load their hamstrings effectively, we start most clients off with a Romanian deadlift.
From there, the trap bar deadlift is an ideal progression. The high handles minimize mobility demands while still allowing the lifter to learn the deadlifting pattern within their functional range.
This makes sense – high handled trap bar deadlifts are almost like a rack pull. But what comes next, sumo or conventional?
The sumo deadlift is easier for most lifters to learn. This may not be how they end up handling the most weight, but many will have an easier time getting into position on a sumo deadlift than a conventional one. The major limiting factor here will be groin flexibility.
A big component of this is also hamstring strength. To get into a flat back position on a conventional deadlift, you not only need a tremendous amount of hip mobility, but also hamstring strength. If your hamstrings aren't strong, chances are you'll turtle up and start from a horrible low back position.
Less Mobility Mobility Demands
Trap Bar Sumo Conventional
Anterior or Posterior Chain
I hate the question, "Which type of deadlift is best?"
Which is why I typically answer with something like, "Best for what purpose?"
When most people trap bar deadlift, it's like a reverse squat. There's a lot of dorsiflexion at the ankles and the spine is very upright, and as a result they get considerable quad and anterior chain development.
The conventional deadlift is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Most have a tendency to shove their hips way back, incline their torso to a much greater degree, and start with their hips much farther back from the bar.
The end result is a tremendous exercise for building the entire backside of the body (glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors).
The sumo deadlift really is a hybrid between the two. Your hips start closer to the bar (especially if you think about pushing your knees out to get to the bar, versus pushing your hips back), and you're also much more upright.
In the end, the sumo gives you this weird blend of quad, glutes, hamstring, some lower back, and even some adductors.
Anterior Chain Posterior Chain
Trap Bar Sumo Conventional
Stress on the Spine
"Deadlifts hurt your back."
Another quote likely disregarded by T Nation readers for years. While we're busy paying our dues and getting bigger, leaner, or stronger, these people are reading trusted fitness resources like MSN and Yahoo to keep them firmly entrenched on the treadmill to mediocrity.
Still, there's definitely a risk/reward trade off when it comes to deadlifting – but if there was no risk and all reward, everyone would be pea****ing around with Inflated Lat Syndrome and a 500-pound pull to back it up.
Let's get one thing straight: Your lumbar vertebrae are pretty friggin' huge and are meant to deal with compressive forces. Compression is just like it sounds – when your vertebrae and discs are pushed closer together vertically, that's compression.
And anything you do will result in some compression. Simply tensing your abs and lower back muscles will result in compression, not just loading your spine vertically (as in a squat).
The key distinction here is load. The more load you have, the more compressive forces on your spine.
Let me be clear: When it comes to people in back pain, the last thing I'm worried about is compressive force. There are positions that are far more worrisome to me than compression.
Shear force is where many get into trouble. Shear forces occur whenever the torso is inclined to a high degree. As we bend over (or hip hinge), our vertebrae have a tendency to drift or slide forward on one another.
Unfortunately, most people don't tolerate shear forces very well. One of the biggest reasons is they simply don't have a good strategy to deal with it – they have no anterior core, no glutes, and no hamstrings, so their only strategy is to arch the low back as hard as possible.
In doing so, they combine compression with shear, thereby grinding their spine into a fine powder. It's about this time that I hand them my business card and tell them to call me when the time is right.
The more upright we are, the less shear we have to deal with. This is why someone predisposed to back pain can often get away with front squats yet back squats causes them pain or discomfort.
Regarding the deadlift, these lifters will probably do better with either a trap bar or sumo style lift, at least in the short-term, to reduce shear forces.
Less Shear Force More Shear Force
Trap Bar Sumo Conventional
Deadlifts for Reps?
I hate performing deadlifts for reps.
There's really no two ways around it – anything over three reps of deadlifts feels like torture, or at the very least, cardio.
In fact, I modified Jim Wendler's 5-3-1 on the deadlift day, switching it to 3-2-1, because I thought I might die on the 5's day – even when using quite a bit below my 1-RM.
Somewhere in Texas, Jim is laughing his ass off and thinking I'm just barely NOV.
If working with a fat loss or physique-focused client, higher-rep sets of deadlifts are something to consider. But I wouldn't be a very good "corrective" or "rehab" guy if I got my clients injured a lot, and I know doing higher-rep sets of deadlifts is like playing with fire.
For that reason alone, I do my best to keep clients out of precarious positions. On sumo and conventional deads, I rarely (if ever) prescribe more than five reps per set.
But on a trap bar deadlift, though, I'll often go as high as 10-15 reps in a set, especially if the end goal is fat loss.
I'm just a lot more comfortable as a coach with the upright posture and less technical nature of the trap bar, which allows for more wiggle room.
Feel free to make your own decisions here, but I firmly believe this is the way to go.
Best Choice Worst Choice
Trap Bar Conventional & Sumo
We can talk about joint stresses, mobility needs, anterior versus posterior chain and what not, but at the end of the day, what really matters is how awesome you look deadlifting.
For the record, I pull sumo. I do this partly because it's the way I was taught, and partly because it feels the most natural to me.
I also realize that some people call this "cheater style," and it's not as awesome as hoisting a monster deadlift conventional style. I'm okay with that – my best pull is 545 and was done at a bodyweight of 180.6, getting me into that exclusive 3x/body weight club.
However, one of my pet peeves now is people's obsession with the trap bar. Here's my two cents on the matter.
I only use the trap bar if:
The client doesn't care how much they deadlift.
The client is an athlete and I deem the risk: reward to be too great to use other styles.
They don't currently have the mobility to sumo or conventional deadlift with a neutral spine.
Their primary goal is fat loss.
If your goal is to be big and strong, learn how to sumo or conventional deadlift with good technique.
Because honestly, anyone who lifts heavy stuff doesn't care how much you trap bar deadlift. (Insert smiley-face.)
Lame Totally Awesome
Trap Bar Sumo Conventional
Mike, how do gains in one transfer to gains in another?
A great question, and I'm pretty sure there's no great answer.
I know a lot of super strong guys that pull conventional in meets but pull sumo in the off-season, claiming it brings up their weak points.
In fact, I just had this discussion a few weeks back with Jeremy Hartmann, a 220-pound lifter who has pulled 788 in competition. He pulls conventional in meets but does a lot of sumo pulling in the gym.
I think it's working on your weak area that's most important.
For instance, if you typically pull conventional with the hips starting high, you're used to smoking weights off the floor and struggling at lockout.
In contrast, someone who pulls sumo with a lower hips position is used to struggling with weights off the floor, but anything that breaks the floor is getting locked out.
In this case, it's not so much that they're using an alternate style, but training for the specific areas where they're weak that's most important.
Mike Tuscherer once told me that you pick your poison when deadlifting. Either you get your ass down, chest up, and struggle off the floor, or you round over to get the bar rolling off the floor and struggle at the top.
If it comes down to specificity, you're going to see a high transfer between trap bar and sumo deadilfts, or between sumo deadlifts and conventional deadlifts.
The differences between the trap bar and conventional deadlift are a little bit too big to see massive carryover, but nobody said it couldn't work for you.
And I'm Out
There's no shortage of deadlifting articles at T Nation, and for good reason – the deadlift is many a strong guy's favorite lift. I think even the most diehard deadlift fan will appreciate this concise breakdown on the similarities and differences between the trap bar, sumo, and conventional deadlifts.
The question is, will they agree? Good or bad, I await your comments in the LiveSpill.