Deadlifts seem to be one of those exercises you either love or hate. But chances are you have some variation of a deadlift in your program, with the variation dependent on your goals. They are an awesome exercise to develop all over strength, and build muscle mass through the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, back). Below we are going to discuss three variations of deadlift; RDL’s, trap bar deadlifts and conventional deadlifts, and the why and how of using them in your training.
Deadlifts are a technical exercise, as the hip hinge movement pattern can be difficult to master at first. The hip hinge requires isolating movement from the hips, moving them posteriorly, while keeping soft knees and a neutral spine position. It can be difficult to get right if you feel ‘tight’ through the Hamstrings, or struggle to load the posterior chain, hips and lower back. However, once you get the technique down, the hinge movement will transfer across all to all deadlifts. And can be loaded appropriately to derive awesome performance improvements for most sports, improvements in strength, hypertrophy, power output, motor unit recruitment (skill, and recruitment patterning), and improved joint health.
The Romanian Deadlift or RDL, is the first derivative of a deadlift to work on. It isolates the hinge pattern, requiring the knees to maintain an extended position (soft knee) throughout the entire movement. And is therefore a great exercise for hamstring, glute and back hypertrophy, that will transfer to trap bar and conventional deadlifting strength. As the movement focuses on the eccentric (lengthening) of the hamstrings under load, it is one of the best exercises for hamstring growth and strength. Either DB’s, KB’s or barbells can be used, and they can be completed at higher volumes with lower loads (10+ reps @60-70%), or higher loads and lower volumes (<6 reps @80-85%).
The Trap bar deadlift is the next variation. As the grip is in a neutral position, slightly higher than a normal deadlift position, and we can position ourselves central to the load, the trap bar is a great way to start loading deadlifts at higher intensities. The trap bar (and conventional deadlift) will require more knee flexion, and therefore utilise the quads to a greater extent than the RDL.
The trap bar deadlift is often the most utilised deadlift variation in programming for hinging and lower body strength, as it allows most individuals to get into an optimal position to pull heavy loads. With working sets generally in the strength ranges (10 reps or less, and >65%). However, once the hinge pattern has been trained, we can also utilise the trap bar for jumps or single leg variations in this movement pattern, with higher volumes and lower intensities (> 8 reps @30-85%).
The conventional deadlift uses the barbell, and will now require the load to be positioned in front of the body. The set up position will be different for individuals depending on arm, torso and leg lengths, so a one-size fits all technique is not possible to outline. However, general features should include straight arms, neutral shoulder blades with a tight back, shoulders on top of the bar, flexed knees behind the bar, and a comfortable stance to drive through the floor to initiate the lift. We also want to ensure hip extension is the primary driver of the pull from the floor, making it extremely beneficial for posterior chain strength and hypertrophy development. Generally conventional deadlifts will be programmed for strength, with lower rep and higher intensities (8 reps or less, @>75%).
Each deadlift variation has its own unique benefits, and utilising variety can not only keep your training more interesting, but target different musculature, joint positions, intensities, and performance outcomes. In general, when programming these lifts, focus on executing with good technique, and ensure you increase loads and intensities as you progress.