The 7 Best Deadlift Variations

fit man doing a barbell deadlift variation at the gym
Different types of deadlifts work certain lower-body muscles more than others, but all deadlift variations are great for strengthening your glutes.
Image Credit: Westend61/Westend61/GettyImages

If you've been doing the same barbell deadlift for a while, you might be wondering how you can step things up. Expanding your exercise repertoire with deadlift variations allows you to hone in on different muscles and make use of a variety of equipment so you can continue to challenge your body.

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"Just like any exercise, we adapt to movement, so we must keep making changes," says Morit Summers, certified personal trainer and creator of Brooklyn-based training studio Form Fitness.

By trying different types of deadlifts, you may also find that certain ones work better for your body and goals. For example, plus-size athletes, tall people or those with larger stomachs or breasts might feel more comfortable doing the hip hinge with a sumo stance.

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"There is not one single exercise on this planet that everybody needs to do," says Meredith Mack, a personal trainer in New York and IFBB professional bodybuilder. "It will always depend on individual goals, what their bone structure dictates and their current tolerance."

Here are the best deadlift variations to keep your glutes guessing and boost your strength gains in new ways.

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1. Kettlebell Deadlift

If you're feeling lower back pain while deadlifting, that's a sign your hip hinge is off. It's one of the most important elements in a deadlift, as it helps protect your lower back by enlisting your lats and core as you bend over to pick up the weight.

The kettlebell deadlift is ideal for practicing the hip hinge because it's lighter than a barbell but still allows you to use both hands. The narrow size of the kettlebell means you don't have to worry about banging a barbell into your knees or shins, so you can concentrate on hinging, not wrangling the weight to avoid bruises.

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A kettlebell is also more accessible and functional because it mimics many things in daily life, like carrying a heavy bag of groceries or a car seat.

"I'm not teaching you to deadlift so you can be good at doing a deadlift. I'm teaching you to deadlift so when you go to pick up a box to bring it downstairs, you can do that without hurting yourself," Summers says. "And a kettlebell is way closer to picking up a box than a barbell."

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Activity Kettlebell Workout
  1. Place a kettlebell on the floor in front of you and between your feet.
  2. Stand with your feet planted firmly hip-width apart. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
  3. Hinge from your hips, softening your knees as your hips sink low enough to let you grab the handle with both hands.
  4. Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
  5. Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you press your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift the weight.
  6. Finish the motion by lifting your chest and engaging your lats to stabilize the weight in front of you.
  7. Return the weight to the ground by reversing the motion, pushing your weight back into your hips and softening your knees, letting the weight travel in a controlled path back down to the floor along your body.

2. Hexagonal/Trap Bar Deadlift

The hex bar (or trap bar) deadlift uses a hexagonal bar that you step into. When you're standing in the center of the hexagon, you hold the bar handles at your sides instead of in front of you.

This setup allows the bar to move straight up and down — the proper path for the weight to travel — without worrying about banging a barbell into your knees. This position is also more stable because the weight isn't trying to pull you forward, causing your back to bend.

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With your palms facing each other, the grip of a hex bar deadlift also means it's less taxing on your hands and forearms than an overhand barbell grip, so you can focus on pulling with your glutes and hamstrings instead of holding on for dear life with a weakening grip.

"It's just more mechanically efficient. It aligns with your body — the weight's not out in front but is off to the sides. That makes it easier on your joints," says Jason White, PhD, CSCS, a certified sports and conditioning specialist and associate professor and director of performance sciences at Ohio University. "It allows you to pull more weight and stay comfortable. And if you're tall, it's good for you."

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Plus, in general, people are able to move more weight with the hex bar. For example, in a December 2017 study in ​Sports (Basel),​ athletes were able to lift an average of 20 pounds more with the trap bar than the barbell. They were also able to move the bar with more speed, suggesting that this deadlift variation can help build more explosive strength and power.

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Activity Barbell Workout
  1. Stand in the center of a trap bar with your feet hip-width apart, toes facing forward.
  2. Keeping your back as flat as you can, bend your knees slightly, push your hips back and hinge forward from your hips to reach down and grab the handles on either side, palms facing in toward your legs.
  3. Pull your shoulders together to create tension and keep your neck neutral.
  4. Take a deep breath in as you press through your feet, squeeze your glutes and bring your hips forward to stand up with the weight. Keep your gaze a few feet in front of you.
  5. Stand until your knees and hips are locked out.
  6. Lower the weight back down to the floor with control by pushing your hips back, keeping your core engaged and back straight.

3. Romanian Deadlift

In a conventional deadlift, your knees, hips and ankles move together, spreading the work across your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calves.

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But in isometric knee variations — like the Romanian deadlift — your knees and ankles stay in place and only your hips move. These types of deadlifts provide a greater challenge for your glutes and hamstrings, which hinge and straighten your hips.

"The Romanian deadlift (or RDL) provides constant tension for the hamstring and lower back," White says. It may work better for your body mechanically than conventional deadlifts, which can make it your go-to pulling move, he says. But he prefers it as an accessory move, meaning it's not your heaviest lift for hammering hamstrings on leg day.

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Activity Barbell Workout
  1. Add weight plates to your barbell (optional) and position it on the floor in front of you.
  2. Step up to the bar, shins almost against it, feet planted firmly hip-width apart. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
  3. Hinge from your hips and soften your knees as your hips sink low enough to let you grab the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart.
  4. Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you press your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift the bar.
  5. Lift your chest and engage your lats to stabilize the bar in front of your hips.
  6. Pushing your hips as far back as possible, bend your knees slightly and lower the bar to mid-shin height.
  7. On an exhale, brace your core and push your hips forward to return to standing.

Tip

If you want to add more range of motion and muscle activation, perform RDLs on a short box or step.

“You can create even more constant tension by not ever having the bar touch the ground,” White says. Once you lift the weight, you only let it hover at the bottom of each rep, never having the weight rest back on the floor.

4. Sumo Deadlift

The main difference between a sumo deadlift and a conventional deadlift is the placement of your hands and feet. In a conventional deadlift, your arms are outside of your knees as you lift, but in a sumo deadlift, your hands are between your knees during the lift, so your legs are wider.

Sumo deadlifts might feel a little "easier" than conventional ones because the bar doesn't have to travel as far (you don't have to stand up as tall or bend down as low at the bottom) so you can pick up more weight, making them a great option for beginners.

However, everyone — regardless of fitness level — can benefit from doing more sumo deadlifts, as the skills and strength transfer to real-life situations.

"If you think about reaching down to pick up a box or a couch or something similar, a sumo deadlift, where you're actually bringing your legs outside, is a lot more common than keeping your legs close together and lifting up a weight in front of you," says Alex Viada, CSCS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of Complete Human Performance.

The sumo deadlift strengthens your hips and abductors (small glute muscles) because of the wider stance, Viada says. According to a September 2019 study in the ​ Journal of Sports Science and Medicine​, this deadlift variation taxes your vastus muscles — the knee extensors in your quads — more than conventional deadlifts.

"Just doing a deadlift variant where your legs are outside your hands really works a lot of different muscles in different ways and could be really useful," Viada says. They may also be more advantageous for people with longer torsos because the position of the weight allows for a more upright torso.

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Activity Barbell Workout
  1. Add weight plates to your barbell (optional) and set it on the floor in front of you.
  2. Step up to the bar, shins almost against it, feet wider than shoulder-width apart and toes angled out. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
  3. Hinge from your hips, softening your knees as your hips sink low enough to let you grab the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart.
  4. Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
  5. Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you press your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift the bar.
  6. Finish the motion by lifting your chest and engaging your lats to stabilize the bar in front of your hips.
  7. Return the bar to the ground by reversing the motion, pushing your weight back into your hips and softening your knees, letting the bar travel in a controlled path back down to the floor along your body.

5. Single-Leg Deadlift

Compared to a traditional deadlift, the single-leg variation focuses more on stability and building unilateral (single-leg) strength. Strength and balance go hand in hand, Summers says, and this deadlift variation allows you to train both at once.

With one leg off the ground, you're able to isolate your calves, quads, hamstrings and glutes in your standing leg. You also enlist your core — hence why you might feel a little shaky at first.

According to an April 2021 study from the ​International Journal of Exercise Science​, this deadlift variation taxes your gluteus medius (a smaller glute muscle) and biceps femoris (hamstring muscle) more than conventional deadlifts do.

The single-leg deadlift is particularly great for athletes, as it ties together balance and core and leg strength as they're used in sports. It also helps with building foot and ankle stability, Mack says.

If you have limited fitness equipment, the single-leg deadlift is also more accessible because you can do it with a light dumbbell.

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
  1. Stand on your right leg while holding a dumbbell at your side in your left hand. Rest your right hand on a bench, wall or squat rack for support (optional).
  2. Keeping your right knee slightly bent, perform the deadlift by hinging at your hip and extending your left leg behind you for balance. Make sure your hips remain square toward the floor.
  3. Continue lowering the dumbbell until your upper body is parallel to the ground.
  4. Keeping your back flat, return to the upright position.
  5. Repeat on the other leg.

Tip

Because balancing can be tricky, Summers suggests holding onto something. Hold the weight with the hand on the same side as your moving leg and lightly hold onto a door frame, chair or squat rack with your other hand.

“I have pretty good balance, but [with this variation] I can really focus on keeping my hips squared,” she says. Without holding on, “I felt like I was mostly focusing on balancing, versus picking up the weight and really being able to get into the hips.”

6. Staggered-Stance Deadlift

Sometimes, one of your legs is stronger than the other. It may not seem like a big deal, but this imbalance between the sides can lead to injury. And if you train those imbalanced body parts together — like in a bilateral (two-legged) deadlift — the stronger leg may do more work, increasing the imbalance over time.

A single-leg deadlift can help even out your strength on both sides by working one leg at a time, but it comes with a balance challenge. The staggered-stance deadlift creates less of a balance challenge, as both feet remain on the ground, but it still allows you to focus on strengthening one leg at a time, Mack says.

In this deadlift variation, your back leg is used almost like a kickstand on a bicycle to maintain your balance while your front leg performs all the work.

"I like knowing how I feel from side to side. I can really see where my strength is, where one side feels better or the other," Mack says. Knowing which leg feels stronger can help you be more mindful when doing bilateral lower-body exercises to make sure both sides are properly engaged.

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
  1. Start with your feet together, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs.
  2. Step your right foot about 6 to 12 inches back. Throughout the movement, you'll balance on the toes on your right foot.
  3. Keeping your left knee slightly bent, perform a deadlift by hinging forward at your hips. Make sure your hips remain squared forward.
  4. Continue lowering the dumbbells until your upper body is almost parallel to the floor (if that's within your range of motion).
  5. Keeping your back flat, brace your core and push through your left foot to return to standing.
  6. Do all your reps on one leg, then repeat on the opposite side.

7. Dimel Deadlift

Olympic lifts like cleans and snatches train you to extend your hips quickly, and that's important for athletic movement.

"If you're a runner, if you're a climber or even if you want to go fast up the stairs — that's a foundational movement for everybody," Viada says.

But Olympic lifts are technical and require a fair amount of skill to perform properly, so Viada recommends training hip extension with the Dimel deadlift. Named after Matt Dimel, a powerlifter who invented the move, this shorter-range deadlift is performed explosively and with a lighter weight.

"You're bringing it down only to about the knees, using a Romanian deadlift-type of form, and then you're exploding up to lockout," Viada says.

He uses this move with athletes who have trouble maintaining explosiveness through the second half of barbell lifts. "Triple extension, [simultaneous extension of the hips, knees and ankles] doesn't get trained enough, so this is a great exercise for the general population, too," he says.

Any time you perform a move that involves leaving the ground — whether it's lifting, running, jumping and sprinting — you need triple extension to do it, and the Dimel deadlift is one of the best exercises for training this movement pattern.

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Activity Barbell Workout
  1. Deadlift a light barbell off the floor so that it's in front of your thighs, arms hanging straight. Your knees should be slightly bent, and your feet about shoulder-width apart.
  2. Keeping a slight bend in your knees, push your hips back like you’re opening a door behind you with your butt. This starts the hip hinge. Keep pushing your hips back until the bar is past just your knees.
  3. Thrust your hips to explosively bring the weight back up to the starting position. Repeat.

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