Updated: May 15, 2020
We’ve all heard the phrase, “there are six different ways to skin a cat”. This timeless euphemism is perfectly applicable for exercise selection and variation. The preface of the phrase is that there are several ways to do something to reach the same goal. There are multiple ways to deadlift, and despite each of these variations having their own specific purpose, at the end of the day they are all achieved in the relative same fashion- standing the bar up off the floor.
When I first started working at Iron Asylum and began training in between clients, I got a lot of funny looks from powerlifters because of the shoes I had on. To be fair, IA began as mainly a powerlifting and bodybuilding gym with a couple of weightlifters and functional training sprinkled in. Finally, one of them asked me why I wasn’t deadlifting in a flat shoe. At first, I kind of just stared and replied, “I’m a weightlifter”. Then I stopped and thought about it for a second and began to explain that the deadlift in training has a different purpose for a weightlifter versus a powerlifter.
There are more variations of the deadlift than one might initially think, and each have their own reason for being placed into a training program based on the athlete and their specific sport. Aside from the obvious two- conventional and sumo, there are trap bar or “hex bar” deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts (RDLs), clean deadlifts, and snatch deadlifts. For the purpose of this article I’m going to focus on the two that pertain to powerlifters versus the two that pertain to Olympic weightlifters.
For each of these sports, trap bar deadlifts and RDLs are often thrown into the programming as accessory work to load and strengthen the quads and hamstrings, respectively. The collective goal simply being using a specific movement pattern, or in this case variation, for a specific outcome. The trap bar deadlift uses more of the quads by lowering the hips while maintaining an upright or vertical torso and the start position more closely resembles the start position for a weightlifter. The RDL targets the hamstrings by starting from the top of the deadlift and eccentrically (controlled) lowering the bar to the ground while maintaining a neutral spine and soft bend in the knee. It has more of a traditional hip hinge pattern similar to a powerlifter’s deadlift mechanics.
Trap Bar Deadlift
Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
For a powerlifter, the deadlift is one of the three lifts performed in competition. It is either conventional or sumo deadlift. The conventional deadlift is much more hamstring oriented and requires a good amount of hip mobility and hamstring strength to be allow for a higher start position with a neutral spine. If the hamstrings are not strong enough, the upper back will cave immediately, which inherently increases the risk for spinal injuries to occur. The sumo deadlift also requires a good amount of hip mobility as well as groin flexibility. However, it is not solely reliant on the hamstrings to move the weight safely. In fact, the sumo deadlift allows the athlete to use the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and even the adductors to help lift the bar.
A conventional deadlift is more optimal for a person with an anteversion hip, meaning they have limited external rotation and more internal rotation. Making the narrower stance used in a conventional deadlift the more optimal for their biomechanics.
Whereas people with retroversion who have more external rotation and limited internal rotation benefit from the wider and externally rotated start position of the sumo deadlift.
A weightlifter uses the deadlift as one of its main strength building exercises but uses the clean or snatch deadlift instead of the conventional or sumo deadlift because there is a better carryover to their sport. As mentioned in previous articles Olympic weightlifting performs the snatch and the clean in competition. Like the deadlift, each of these lifts require the athlete to stand the bar up off the floor. As an Olympic weightlifter if you are trying to perfect and strengthen how you stand the bar up, then why would you perform a different movement pattern from the one specific to your sport? That is the fundamental reason why we have the clean deadlift and the snatch deadlift. Each of these deadlifts are set-up in the same start position as the snatch and the clean. The lifter begins with their hips down, vertical torso, positive shin angle and the shoulder slightly over the bar. When the athlete begins to stand up, they are trying to maintain the positions they will use in the snatch and clean (i.e. staying over the bar, keeping the knees bent and using the quads). It is more of a knee dominant movement similar to the trap bar deadlift versus a hip dominant movement.
Hence why weightlifters deadlift with their lifters on to keep that raised heel position. We want the mechanics of standing the bar off the floor to be as efficient and consistent in the snatch and the clean. So being able to replicate them in a strength-based exercises such as the deadlift is the most optimal way for us to train. It is the same reason as to why powerlifters do not use straps. Straps are not permitted in competition so to train with them is inefficient. Yes, you can obviously lift more weight and some coaches may choose to have their athletes use them to overload the lift itself. Think like a baseball player putting a weighted donut on the end of the bat and taking a couple of practice swings. When they remove the donut the bat will feel lighter, and in theory allow them to swing with greater velocity. The same could be said by overloading the deadlift for a powerlifter and straps. In my opinion, this doesn’t seem like the most efficient way to train because at the end of the day you want to focus on form and technique in order to deadlift on the platform and if your grip strength isn’t there on game day then you neglected a key component in your training.
A powerlifter will perform these lifts using either an alternating grip- where one hand is supinated and the other is pronated because for most it provides a stronger grip and secures the bar via co-contraction. However, some still use the conventional grip where both arms or pronated (palms facing towards the body). It can sometimes be a matter of preference or reflective of some type of injury that does not allow for the alternated grip to be as optimal for that specific athlete. Regardless of grip form, grip strength is a must! However, weightlifters will never use an alternating grip for deadlifts because you never alternate your grip in the snatch and the clean and weightlifters will opt to use straps when getting to the heavier weights because a weightlifter’s deadlift will always surpass the weight they are able to snatch and clean. So, when going heavier to strengthen the legs and the positions (i.e. below the knee and above the knee), we want to lift as much as possible and straps will help to do so.
Other considerations of the lifts to note are the hand placement and use of the scapula versus the lats. The snatch deadlift and clean deadlift resemble the hand placement of the snatch and the clean. Obviously the clean-grip is narrower than the snatch-grip however the conventional deadlift and sumo deadlift have an even narrower grip. This is due to the placement of the feet and knees. The foot placement for the snatch and clean is under the hips, but the toes are turned out and the knees are pushed out over the toes requiring a wider hand grip than conventional deadlift because the hands should be placed outside of the knees. A conventional deadlift has a narrower stance, which permits a more parallel knee position and allowing for the arms to be closer and the sumo deadlift has a wider stance that allows for the arms to be placed inside at a narrower distance. The narrower hand placement uses more of medial portion of the back reinforcing proper scapula strength to keep the back from rounding. The wider grip of the snatch and clean deadlift works more of the lateral portion of the back and helps to strengthen the lats which are a key component throughout the entirety of the snatch and the clean.
Despite each of these differences the objective and variations of training these lifts are still the same. Like I said, “six different ways to skin a cat.” Coaches will still program variations for each of these lifts that are conducive to the athlete in attacking their weaknesses. Using training variations such as tempo work (eccentric and concentric), pauses and isometric hold in various positions of the pull, or pulling from a deficit are great ways to train regardless of sport specificity. At the end of the day we all want to get strong and it is simply a matter of which muscle groups and movement mechanics we want to be the strongest and how does that carry over into our sport.