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Which Deadlift Variation Should You Be Doing?

Updated: Jan 28, 2022

When it comes to lifting in the gym, you'll commonly hear people refer to the deadlift as the 'king of all exercises'.


This is because it works the largest amount of muscles simultaneously out of any exercise. It's your strongest free weight exercise, and is generally the single best indicator of muscular strength.


But when it comes to the deadlift, there are several different variations, all of which target some muscle groups more than others, with some of them being potentially better overall exercise for you, depending on your body anatomy, strengths, mobility and history of injury.


Let's look into what the common types of deadlifts are, the benefits of them, and which on you might get the most out of.




As previously mentioned, there are multiple common types of deadlifts, and each of them have their time and place.


These deadlift types are:



NOTE: Hamstring, upper back and glute activation difference between these stances are minimal, and are subjective.


Conventional Deadlifts


Strong powerlifter doing heavy deadlift for strength gains

This is the exercise that usually pops into mind when you hear the word 'deadlift'. And this is due to the conventional deadlift being the standard or traditional way to deadlift.


It most accurately resembles a 'hip hinge' movement out of the two powerlifting stances (conventional & sumo), and is the classic way to deadlift.


Most people will start with this stance then they deadlift for the first time.


In studies conducted that compared the conventional, sumo and trap bar deadlift, they found that conventional deadlifts elicited approximately 10% more muscle activation in the spinal erectors, when compared to the sumo deadlift. Click HERE for the source.


For a great in-depth breakdown of this study, check out Jeremy Ethier's video below! His video covers most of what we're discussing, and is a great way to learn about the topic for those who like to learn by video.



It's also been proven to work the erectors more than the trap/hex bar deadlift, and this is likely due to the more horizontal starting position of the body.


The conventional deadlift also generally has a greater range of motion, which we know is generally directly correlated with muscular hypertrophy.


That means, typically more range of motion means more muscle gain, maybe up to a certain point. With the conventional deadlift, it's got a 20-25% greater range of motion than the sumo and trap bar deadlift, which may be an indication that it will lead to better overall size gains (click HERE for the source).


However, this is not always the case.


The shorter range of motion in the sumo and trap bar deadlifts could be combatted by potentially lifting more weight, depending on your body structure, anatomy and strengths. The conventional deadlift tends to favor taller, heavier lifters, while the sumo deadlift tends to favor shorter, lighter lifters.


So if you find yourself stronger on the sumo or trap bar deadlift, don't switch to conventional just because it might elicit more muscle growth due to the range of motion. The weight that you lift could help combat that.


The conventional deadlift also often requires more mobility and flexibility than some lifters can handle, and may be harder to get into the right position.


Due to this, some beginners simply cannot perform the conventional deadlift with good form, and therefore have to switch to the sumo or trap bar deadlift to start with.


So who would benefit the most from the conventional deadlift?


Generally taller, heavier lifters will benefit the most from the conventional deadlift. It's also a good idea to go with this stance if you have a long arms, as it'll help you cut that range of motion down a little, and you'll likely end up having to do less overall work.


However if you don't fit this criteria, and you find yourself stronger on the conventional, or you just enjoy it more and aren't so worried about the weight you're lifting, then it's perfectly fine to go with the stance you enjoy doing the most.



Sumo Deadlift


Powerlifter doing heavy sumo deadlifts during competition for strength test.

The sumo deadlift is the other primary deadlift variation or stance, popularized by professional powerlifting. This deadlift type has you standing in an initially wider stance, with your hands inside of your feet.


The sumo deadlift resembles more of a squat than the conventional and trap bar deadlift, and is popular among powerlifters due to the shorter range of motion.


The sumo deadlift gets a bad rap and is often regarded as cheating, but it's completely within the rules of the sport of powerlifting.


The main difference in muscle activation between this stance and the conventional stance is the activation of the quadriceps.


The sumo deadlift has been proven in studies to elicit approximately 20% more quad activation than the conventional deadlift (Source), meaning it may be a good choice for those who are looking to target those muscles a little more.


The sumo deadlift also does tax the lower back a little less than the conventional and trap bar deadlift, meaning it might be the better choice for those who have had a back injury in the past, or just want to potentially play it a little safer.


We're not saying that you can't hurt yourself on sumo. You definitely can. However we are saying that you might have a slightly lower chance of injuring your lower back, if you opt to go with the sumo deadlift instead of the conventional deadlift.


The sumo deadlift also has less mobility requirements to achieve the basic form, due to it resembling more of a squat. Once you get really advanced, you'll need really good hip mobility.


However to achieve just the basic form, it's more beginner friendly than the conventional deadlift might be. This might make it the better option for those who aren't able to perform the conventional deadlift due to mobility restrictions.


The sumo deadlift does tend to be harder off the ground, and and it's where most people will fail the lift. You'll very rarely see a lifter fail at the sumo deadlift lockout, where as that tends to be where most conventional pullers fail.


So who would benefit the most from the sumo deadlift?


This stance will generally really benefit those who have had a back injury in the past, as well as those who want to target their quadriceps a little more.


The sumo deadlift will also potentially allow lifters to use heavier loads, if their hip structure and body proportions match the ideal body of a sumo puller (generally shorter arms and longer legs).


It does also tend to favor shorter and lighter lifters, and is easier to get into position to for beginners.



Trap/Hex Bar Deadlift


Athlete doing hex bar deadlift for quadricep activation and athletic purposes

The trap bar deadlift is a deadlift variation that's somewhat like a combination of both the conventional and sumo deadlifts.


It more closely resembles a hip hinge than the sumo deadlift, but also more resembles a squat than the conventional deadlift.


You won't be deadlifting on a straight barbell with this type. It's got a special bar like the one in the photo above.


As you can see, the handles are slightly higher than a normal barbell would be, meaning the range of motion is shorter, and it's easier to get into position for.


This makes the trap bar deadlift a great starting option for tall people, as mobility requirements are more demanding the taller you are.


The trap bar option may also be the best if you're an athlete, as it can be modified to mimic running, jumping and athletic movements.


You'll see many professional NFL and NBA athletes utilizing the trap bar deadlift over the other variations, and that's the reason why.


It can be easily modified to suit more athletic purposes, such as with resistance bands, or doing unilateral movements with ease.


It can also be easier to do power-focused exercises with this deadlift, which just makes it that much better for athletic purposes.


There is also the least stress on the spinal erectors with this deadlift type, due to the handles being next to you instead of in front of you.


This allows the weight to be closer to the center of your mass, reducing the sheer force on the spinal erectors. So if you have had a serious back injury in the past, this may be the best option out of all three deadlifts.


Similarly to the sumo deadlift, the trap bar deadlift engages the quadriceps a little more than the conventional deadlift.


It'll also generally allow you to lift the most weight, due to all the things mentioned above (the shorter range of motion and handle positioning).


So who would benefit the most from the trap/hex bar deadlift?


The trap bar deadlift is a great choice of deadlift for any of the following: athletes, beginners, taller individuals, and those who have had serious back injuries in the past.


Just because it's not one of the main powerlifting stances doesn't mean it's a bad exercise like some may think.


It definitely has its time and place, and is a great exercise that could be used for a wide variety of purposes.


Still Not Sure?


If you're still undecided as to which stance or deadlift type you want to go with, you can either simply pick the type that you feel to be the most comfortable, pick the one that you're strongest at if you're looking to go into powerlifting (excluding trap bar deadlift) or pick the one that targets your weakest points if you're looking to become a better overall athlete.


However you should definitely keep any past back injuries in mind, as another one may prevent you from deadlifting again for a very long time, or forever in some serious cases as well.



Conclusion


Ultimately, picking the right deadlift variation for you is going to be a process that should be taken seriously, and is going to have direct impacts on your gains and progress in the gym.


We all have different bodies, and certain deadlift variations are going to benefit some of us more than others.


If you're really unsure, the best thing you can do is test out each deadlift variation and find the one that resonates the most with you.


Which one is your favorite?


Whcih one do you do?


Let us know in the comments section below!


Happy deadlifting!

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