The deadlift. An exercise that, by name alone, evokes some incredibly strong feelings, having somehow earned an almost mythical reputation.
“Never do it. It’s terrible for your back.”
“The only exercise you ever need to do is the deadlift. Do it multiple times per week.”
“Never use an alternating grip.”
“Always use an alternating grip.”
“Tall people shouldn’t deadlift.”
“It doesn’t count if it isn’t from the floor.”
“You should only trap-bar deadlift.”
“Trap bar deadlift is a squat. Only use a barbell.”
… and so on. With so much out there, so many opinions on it, and everyone being equally convincing to the average Google researcher… how do you sift through it all? Well, to begin with, any time someone speaks in absolutes – you can probably dismiss them. Like most things in health and fitness, the deadlift and how to implement it depends on context – who the individual is, what their goals are, and what they are using the exercise for. So, let’s talk about the more common misperceptions surrounding it, break the basic movement down a bit, and then look at the variations – so that you have some of the essential information needed to make some well-informed decisions.
What Is a Deadlift?
The name itself can be intimidating to the new or inexperienced lifter, but ultimately it’s simply a description of what is being done: LIFTING a weight from a DEAD stop on the ground. So, by framing it thus, a couple of things become a little clearer – for one, literally any time you are pulling a weight up from the ground, it’s a “deadlift”; and for another, some exercises that are called a “deadlift” may not actually be one by strict definition – such as the oddly named “Romanian” (aka Top Down) Deadlift. Furthermore, it lends support to the notion that “everyone needs to be able to deadlift”, because everyone does need to have some sort of strategy to lift things up from the ground on a day-to-day basis (picking up children, groceries, pets, plants, furniture, etc.). But not everyone can – or needs to – do a hinge variation. For example, although learning to deadlift is often used as a rehabilitative drill for people with back problems, it is NOT a one-size-fits-all solution, and there will always be outliers who simply cannot perform a hinge without suffering from some sort of restrictive post-exercise pain that takes this hinge-based deadlift off the table for them. Likewise, there are the outliers on the other end of the spectrum that can pull 500lbs off the floor while breaking every single form guideline and never have any issues – but these must be recognized as exceptions to the rule versus what we base the rules on.
Choosing the Right Type for You
When trying to determine which type of deadlift you should be performing, the first question should be, “What am I using it for”? If it’s simply the day-to-day activities of moving furniture and picking up groceries, then it’s more of a strategy that you’re learning – one that helps you do it safely under a variety of both regular and irregular situations (“Lift with your legs!”). If you are looking to improve in a sport, you must decide how much time you want to spend on the technical elements and which format offers the most direct transfer to your performance. And if you just want to be strong, then safety considerations must be taken into account in determining how far you want to push it.
For Daily Life
If you just need to be learning, practicing, and refining a strategy that allows you to be confident that you can lift, move, and carry items of various weights without fear of hurting your back – then there’s no need for the challenging or technical forms of deadlift that utilize the barbell. In fact, it may be of greater benefit to practicing deadlifting with an assortment of implements in various shapes and sizes, utilizing different stances. Tempo is less important than the consistent application of technique with these adjusted grips and foot positions, with a focus on creating good habits so that in the real world, you naturally fall into good form without having to make a conscious effort every time. Some variations that may be useful might include staggered stances, starting from a half-kneeling position and working with both scoop and suitcase grips.
If you’re deadlifting to improve your performance in a sport, then look no further than the trap bar. Some who consider themselves to be “purists” shy away from the trap bar as they feel it is in some way lesser than the more traditional barbell styles, but the truth is that this variation offers a lot of benefits for athletes over and above the conventional or sumo. One of the more common criticisms of the trap bar variation is that it is far closer to a squat than when done with the barbell. Interestingly, though, the research suggests that while there is indeed more recruitment of the quads with the trap bar, it still works the back and hip extensors almost as hard as the conventional lift and may in fact, be a truer hinge than the sumo deadlift. 
Factor in some of the other benefits of this style, like the peak power and velocity of the trap bar being higher than the conventional version and the fact that it is easier to learn and execute as a result of its lower technical requirement, and you can see why this is a highly favorable option for those looking to improve sports performance.
For Absolute Strength
If your goal is simply to get as strong as possible, then you need to figure out to what end you are working to develop this maximal strength. If you are competing in strength-based sports (powerlifting, strongman, or Crossfit, for example), then there are certain risks that you may have to take to perform at the top end. On the other hand, if you are someone who simply enjoys training and wants to see what they are capable of, then there is a little more to consider. Like what types of injuries you are at risk of and whether your daily obligations (work, family) can afford the time away if you do hurt yourself. Ego and pride are poor motivations, and missing work due to a torn bicep tendon or a herniated disc might not be something you can afford. Keep this in mind when making decisions on things like whether to use an alternating grip or electing to implement maximal training loads – there can be collateral consequences beyond the injury itself in the pursuit of these top numbers, and these must be included in the risk/reward evaluation.
Everyone Can and Should Deadlift – But…
There may be a disconnect between the specific exercise and the function. The deadlift doesn’t have to be seen as some sort of pinnacle, as either the ONLY one that people need to do or the one that everyone MUST do. From a functional perspective, we all need to be able to pick things up off the ground without hurting ourselves – which, by definition, is a deadlift – but how we accomplish this isn’t near as constrained as the more traditional thinkers would have us believe. Furthermore, if our goal is to improve sports performance (other than a weightlifting-based one), then there may be variations outside of those more commonly recognized ones that offer greater benefits at a lower risk. And lastly, if you are strictly performing the deadlift to see just how much weight you can move, be sure to balance the value of this achievement with how much leeway your life offers should you find yourself injured.
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 Escamilla RF, Francisco AC, Fleisig GS, Barrentine SW, Welch CM, Kayes AV, Speer KP, Andrews JR. A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000 Jul;32(7):1265-75. doi: 10.1097/00005768-200007000-00013. PMID: 10912892.
 Camara KD, Coburn JW, Dunnick DD, Brown LE, Galpin AJ, Costa PB. An Examination of Muscle Activation and Power Characteristics While Performing the Deadlift Exercise With Straight and Hexagonal Barbells. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 May;30(5):1183-8. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001352. PMID: 26840440.