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Deadlift Assistance Exercises

by Gary F. Zeolla

See Powerlift Assistance Exercises: Background Info for a discussion on how to best incorporate assistance exercises into ones powerlifting routine. See also Deadlift Assistance Exercises Videos. The links are to where the piece of gym equipment can be purchased from Amazon.

Bottom-end Exercise

(Helps the bottom part of deadlifts)

Deficit Deadlifts* - This exercise is ideal for overcoming difficulties getting the weight off of the floor. There is nothing more embarrassing than to get psyched up for a deadlift (DL) at a contest and then to barely budge it! And even if one's sticking appoint is later in the lift, this exercise will help as you will be stronger at the bottom and thus have more strength left for later parts of the lift. And with the longer pull, these greatly work the lower and upper back and have an excellent overall training effect.

To do this exercise, you stand on blocks 1-3" high while performing your DLs. If you're doing conventional (close stance) DLs, you can stand on a couple of 45 or 100 pound plates stacked on top of each other to the desire height, a couple of boards nailed together, or even couple of stacked rubber mats.

But for sumo (wide stance) DLs, it gets a little trickier. Weight plates will slide if you try to stand on two sets. But a way to avoid this is set up inside of a power rack. You can wedge the weights against the side of the rack to keep them from slipping. Another option would be to nail together planks cut to the required length. Be sure they're long enough to accommodate your stance but not so that you'll hit the planks when you set the weight on the floor.

As a sumo lifter, I do these with both a sumo and a conventional stance at different times in my training plan. For sumo DDLs, initially I nailed together four planks, 3/4" thick (for a 3" height), 10" wide, and 4' long. For the conv DDLs, I stand on three boards nailed together for a 2-1/4" height. The different heights was because for conv DDLs, any higher would require too much of a bend forward and thus cause my belt to dig into my midsection. But later, I decided that 3" was too much even for sumo DDLs, so I removed one of the boards, so my deficit for sunos is now the same as for conv DLs.

Video of Conv 2-1/4" Deficit Deadlifts

Snatch Grip Deadlifts* -  The purpose of snatch grip deadlifts is to lengthen the pull, both at the bottom and at the top. They are thus even more different from regular deadlifts than deficit deadlifts. But the main caveat for them is a male has to be careful not to use too wide of a grip or the bar will hit his nuts. Given this, during my first workout, I experimented and found the widest grip I could use with a conv stance without that happening was to grip the bar with my outside fingers just inside of the rings, or about one hand width wider than my regular grip. Women could of course go wider, but I don't think you would want to go much wider anyway as they would be too tough. In fact, with a conv stance, I use about 20 pounds less than I do for conv 2-1/4" deficit deadlifts, so snatch grip deadlifts are a tough exercise. But they are an effective exercise, working the pulling muscles in a slightly different manner than regular deadlifts.

However, at first I could not use a sumo stance at all, as I couldn't even pull 135 with it. But after some experimenting, I found I needed to use a slightly wider grip, outside fingers on the rings, and a slightly narrower stance than my normal somewhat narrow stance for sumos. My regular sumo stance is more of a hybrid stance, about halfway between conv and a toes-to-plates sumo stance. And with that stance and grip, I can do sumo snatch grips, but they are still awkward. I feel like I almost have to stiff leg them. But that awkwardness is what makes them an effective exercise, as it takes a lot of musculature to track the bar properly. But one problem is the knurling on the bar hits my thighs just above the knee. The first time I tried them, I ended up with brush burns. But that was easily solved by wearing knee sleeves and pulling them up a bit higher than usual.

Video of Sumo Snatch Grip Deadlifts.

Top-end Exercises

(Helps the top part of deadlifts)

Chain Deadlifts* -  See Bands and Chains for details.

Band Deadlifts* -  See Bands and Chains for details.

Reverse Band Deadlifts* -  See Bands and Chains for details.

Rack Pulls* - As the name implies, these are done in a power rack. Set the pins about 1-2" below the knees or below wherever your sticking point is. Lift the bar from the safety bars as if you were completing a DL. The idea here is to overcome a sticking point and to work the top part of the lift. However, be sure to use the same form as you do on regular deadlifts. There is a tendency to alter one's form with rack pulls. But if you do, the carry-over will not be as great as expected.

Start with the bar resting on the safeties. Pull it up as usual, and take a breath at the top. Then lower the bar slowly. At the bottom, rest the bar on the safeties, but stay tight. Do not relax your muscles. Pause until the bar stops bouncing; as soon as it does, pull it back up from this dead stop. If there is excessive bounce, then you are coming down too quickly.

Given the heavy weights utilized, the use of a belt would be prudent when doing this exercise. Most also find they need to use wrist straps when doing this exercise. But if you can manage without them, then this exercise will help to strengthen your grip. It should also be noted, that this is a very demanding exercise, so be careful about overtraining. Some recommend only do rack pulls about once a month for this reason, but I've found I can do them every other week.

Block Pulls* - The weights are placed on blocks of anywhere from 2" or more, then pull as usual. By using blocks of various heights, you can work on a sticking point at any point in the lift. The advantage of these over rack pulls is the feel of the lift is similar to regular deadlifts. That is because the point of contact is still the bottom of the weights, whereas with rack pulls, it is closer in, where the bar rest of the safety bars. As such, with block pulls, you get the same bend in the bar as with regular deadlifts, so it is easier to maintain your regular form.

Video of Sumo Block Pulls from 2-14/" blocks

Upper Back Exercises - The upper back is used greatly in DLs, especially when locking out. It is also used for support in benches. As such, any upper back work will have some carry-over to DLs and benches. But the best exercises would probably be variations of rows and cable pulls, as these most closely approximate the DL movement and are the exact reverse of the bench movement. But lat. pulldowns and pull-ups/ chin-ups are very effective exercises as well.

Rows can be done with a barbell, a curl bar, or a super curl bar. For BB rows, use an overhand grip and pull the bar to your chest. For curl bar and super curl bar rows, use an underhand grip and pull the bar to your stomach. Note that a super curl bar has different angles than a regular curl bar, so it gives a different feel to the lift. Both a curl bar and a super curl bar are available from Amazon.

Videos:  Close Grip Curl Bar Rows, Medium Grip Curl Bar Rows, Wide Grip Curl Bar Rows, Close Grip Super Curl Bar Rows, Medium Grip Super Curl Bar Rows, Wide Grip Super Curl Bar Rows, Close Grip Barbell Rows, Medium Grip BB Rows,

Shrugs: These work the traps, which are used in the lockout on DLs. But the traps get a lot of work with any deadlift movements, so doing shrugs might not be needed. But if you believe they are, then when you do them, be sure to actually shrug the shoulders up as far as possible. Do not be like the dweebs often seen in gyms who load as much weight as they can on a bar and then barely move their shoulders. All that does is bend the bars at gyms.

Shrugs can also be done with dumbbells, though big guys might not be able to find DBs with sufficient weight. Either way, this is one exercise where wrist straps will probably be needed. If you need a pair, they are available from Amazon.

For a video of DB Rows with an Underhand Grip, click here. For a video of DB Rows with the elbows out, click here.

For a video of Lat. Pulldowns with a long bar, click here. For a video of Lat. Pulldowns with a "V" grip, click here.

All-aspects Exercises

(Helps all aspects of deadlifts)

Opposite Stance Deadlifts* - If you use a conventional stance, then do sumo stance DLs as an assistance exercise, and vice-a-versa. Conventional stance DLs work the lower back and hamstrings more than sumos, and sumos work the hips and quads more than conventional stance DLs, so the two forms complement each other rather nicely. And you just might find out that in time you can actually use more weight on the "opposite stance" and want to switch to it for your competitive stance. But whatever the case, it is good to experiment with both stances. The opposite stance can be used for the regular deadlift or with any of the variations mentioned on this page.

Stiff Leg Deadlifts* - This is a great deadlift assistance exercise. But careful attention must be paid to form to prevent injury. SLDLs should only be done in a slow, controlled manner, on both the ascent and descent. These can be done with the legs straight or with the legs held in a slightly bent position. The latter are better for novices, while the former requires a significant amount of flexibility in the hamstrings. If you lack this flexibility, be careful, or you could pull a hamstring. For that reason, I personally always keep my legs slightly bent. That is why I call these STIFF Leg Deadlifts, not STRAIGHT Leg Deadlifts.

SLDLs should be done from the floor, pausing the weight at the floor as should always be done with regular deadlifts. And as with DLs, keep your head up as much as possible so you don't overly round your back. But once you attain the flexibility, doing them while standing on a 1-3" platform is an alternative. This way, you can lower the bar to your ankles and really stretch the lower back and hamstrings. But some claim this stretch is dangerous to the lower back. If you experience any undo comfort in the lower back or hamstrings, discontinue them or only do them standing on the floor.

SLDLs are an excellent exercise for strengthening the low back, hamstrings, and upper back in a way that has direct carry-over to DLs. They are especially important for those who use a sumo stance for DLs, as the sumo stance does not work the low back as much as conventional stance DLs do. Sumo stance deadlifters can use either a sumo or a close stance for SLDLs, though the former would have greater carryover, while conv deadlifters should use a close stance.

Video of Conv SLDLs

Video of Sumo SLDLs

Romanian Deadlifts* - These are similar to the above, except the bar is only lowered to about knee level. Also, push the butt back and keep the back straight. These will strengthen the lower back, but given the partial movement, would not help the full range of the deadlift like SLDLs off of the floor.

Pause Deadlifts* - Start the deadlift as usual, but pause for 1-3 seconds when the weights are about 2-3 inches above the ground, then continue pulling as usual. The idea is, the pause removes all momentum, so this works on a sticking point about 4-5 inches above the ground, which is very common. Of course, the pause can be done at any point in the lift; that is why I am including these in this section. If you pause at about knee level, then they would help with the lockout. Some advocate doing double pause deadlifts, pausing at both the 2-3 inch point and at knee level. That would help with both the pull off of the floor and the lockout.

However, there are several problems with this lift. First, only light weights can be used, about half of what you would normally use, so it is not a very good strength builder. Second, it is hard to maintain proper form at the pause, but if you change your form, then the carryover will not be as great as expected. Third and most importantly, these can strain the lower back, as holding the pause is very awkward. When I tried them with a pause at mid-shin level, the strain in my lower back was very noticeable, and that was with very light weights and just a momentary pause. A longer pause and trying to pause higher up would cause even greater strain and could easily lead to a low back injury. As such, I cannot recommend this lift. But if you do try it, start with very light weights and be very careful with your form.

Video of Sumo Pause Deadlifts

Hack Deadlifts* -  The purpose for hack (behind the back) deadlifts is to work the quads more than they get worked with regular deadlifts. But in doing some research about them, the warning I read was that they were hard on the knees. And pulling just 135 for one rep, I would tell that would be the case. It really bothered my knees. I tried a second rep, and that was it. There was no doubt they would hurt my knees. That was with a conv stance. I could not do them at all with a sumo stance, as it was just too awkward. As such, I will not be doing and would not recommend hack deadlifts.

Good Mornings - These are a very effective lower back and hamstring exercise. You should put the bar on the back in the "low" power squat position, not high on the traps as for Olympic squats. The bottom position should be when your upper body is at or just above parallel. As with SLDLs, use a slight bend in the knees. And do them in a slow, controlled manner. If you experience any undo comfort in the lower back or hamstrings, discontinue them.

GMs should only be done with a spotter on either side or in a power rack. For the latter, set the safety bars so that at the bottom position the bar is just above the safeties.  If you miss a rep, you can lean forward a little more and set the bar on the safeties and duck out from under it. If done without spotters or the rack, the only way to get out would be to dump the bar over one's head, and that could have traumatic results.

But it should be noted, these can be a dangerous exercise. This writer has pulled a hamstring twice while doing then (see Hamstring Injury and Hamstring Re-Injury), so I will will never do them again. There is a  lot of torque due to the mechanics of the lift that put more stress on the hamstrings than even SLDLs, and it is very hard to maintain proper form, much harder than with SLDLs. Plus SLDLs would have better carryover to regular DLs, so they I much prefer SLDLs to GMs.

Hyperextensions - These are done on a hyperextension bench. These are another very effective lower back and hamstring exercise. But again, form is critical. Despite the name, you should NOT "hyper" extend at the top. Stop when the body is straight. Pause, then slowly lower yourself to a 90 degrees bend. Pause, and then start up again. There should be no "swinging" of the body. They should be done in slow, controlled manner. And if you experience any undo comfort in the lower back or hamstrings, discontinue them.


Miscellaneous Exercises

Leg Curls - These are very effective at working the hamstrings. But SLDLs and Good Mornings also work the hamstrings and in a manner that would have more carry-over to DLs than leg curls would. But leg curls are good for rehabbing a hamstring injury or even for "prehab," meaning to prevent a hamstring injury. They would also be worthwhile at the end of a DL workout to pump up the hamstrings. Just be sure you don't end up overtraining the hamstrings by doing so.

Side Bends - These are one of best methods there is for working the obliques. and thick obliques are important for providing stability for doing squats and DLs. Since they are basically a "pull" exercise, they are best done on DL days. Do them one side at a time, holding a dumbbell on the side you are bending towards. Do not hold dumbbells in both hands as the weights will offset each other.

But even if you do DLs beforehand, it is still important to do one or two warm-up sets on each side before doing your work sets. The reason for this is to be sure the obliques are warmed-up so as to prevent injury. Also, as each rep is done you should notice that you can bend a little further down, so by warming-up first, all of your work reps can be done through as full range of motion as possible.

Upright Rows - See Bench Assistance Exercises for a discussion of this unique and controversial exercise.

Forearm/ Grip Exercises - Any pulling exercise will work the forearms and improve ones gripping strength. However, if you're finding that you're loosing your grip on DLs, then some direct forearm work would be needed.

I have always found that reverse curls eliminate any grip problems I might be having. For a video of BB Reverse Curls, click here. Wrist curls are another good option. These should be done with both an overhand and an underhand grip. While doing the underhand grip, be sure to "roll" the bar down to your fingertips and roll it back up again before bending your wrists up.

Another good exercise is use a wrist roller. You can purchase one at Amazon, or you make one. Get a 1" thick wooden dowel, attach a chain to the middle, then attach a hook of some kind hook at the other end. You then wrap and hook the chain around a weight. Stand and hold the dowel with the arms bent at the sides, the weight on the floor. Roll the weight up and then back down. Do this with both an overhand and an underhand grip. Video of wrist roller done overhand. Another good exercise is a Hand Gripper.  It can be done for reps or for holds. Also, avoid the use of wrist straps in your training. Anytime these are used the forearms are not strengthened. The only time they are really necessary is with heavy shrugs and rack pulls.

Video of Hand Griper reps

Video of Hand Gripper holds.

Biceps Work - The biceps are not really used in DLs nor in either of the other powerlifts. However, there is quite a bit of strain on the biceps when doing DLs. And with the amount of work the triceps get in training the bench press, it would be prudent to add some bicep work for injury prevention and to maintain muscle balance. The biceps are worked in most upper back exercises, like rows and cable pulls. And that would suffice for some. But most will want to add a few "curls for the girls."

Curls are best done with a curl bar or a super curl bar, though they can also be done with a barbell. They can be done using a close, medium or wide grip with any of these bars. Curls can also be done with dumbbells, using a preacher's bench, or with cables, so they are lots of variations.

Video of MG Super Curl Bar Curls

Calf Raises - See Squat Assistance Exercises.

Ab Exercises - See Squat Assistance Exercises.

Deadlift Assistance Exercises. Copyright 2001-2007, 2014, 2015, 2016 by Gary F. Zeolla.

The above exercise descriptions were posted on this site November 28, 2001.
They were last updated June 21, 2017.

Powerlifting and Strength Training
Powerlifting and Strength Training: Powerlift Assistance Exercises

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