Women & Strength Training Pt. 3: Deadlift

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Strength training – more specifically powerlifting – has given me so much confidence and pleasure in the way I live my life; I feel much more confident in both my personal and professional lives. Who knew the iron could be so powerful?!

The third and usually most heavy lift in powerlifting is the deadlift. There are a few variations of the deadlift, so let’s break them down a bit.

Stance: conventional, sumo, or hybrid

Conventional stance deadlift is the more traditional stance. In this stance, the athlete is in a very natural standing position; feet are about hip-distance apart and the athlete’s hands are gripping the bar just outside of their legs.

Sumo stance deadlift is a very wide stance, just like a sumo wrestler would stand. Usually the athlete’s feet are spread out and are close to the loaded plates on either side. The athlete grips the bar at about shoulder distance wide. Sumo stance is actually sometimes considered a “cheater” stance because of the decreased distance the bar has to travel. When sumo stance is preferred by the athlete, it’s usually due to their unique body mechanics and feels a lot more comfortable during their execution. It is not considered cheating by any means.

Hybrid stance is literally a cross between conventional and sumo; it’s a wider stance than a conventional foot placement, but not nearly as wide as a sumo stance.

Grip: overhand, mixed grip, hookgrip

Overhand grip of the bar would be the traditional grip most commonly seen in gyms. This grip is both palms wrapping over the bar where you can see the back of your hands.

Mixed grip (also considered cross, switch, or alternate grip) is with one overhand placement and one underhand placement. This is commonly seen with more experienced lifters (powerlifters, bodybuilders and general population athletes) as it allows for a more secure grip on the bar without using wrist straps. When one hand fatigues and the bar begins to slip out of the finger tips, the other hand acts as support to hold on.

Hookgrip is more commonly seen with Olympic Weightlifters but is also seen with powerlifters. This is again an overhand grip, but then thumbs are tucked under the fingers. This provides a little more security with the bar, although it can be extremely painful at times. Athletes who commonly practice with this grip has built up callouses on their fingers to help protect them.

How each athlete stands and grips the bar is entirely up to them; all of the above-mentioned variations are allowed in competitions.

What changes for each athlete will depend on his or her body mechanics and bone structure. When someone has longer femurs, a conventional stance deadlift may put too much strain on their low back, causing discomfort and risking serious injury. It’s hard to determine exactly which stance is best for each athlete until the athlete has spent time training in all of the positions. As a personal trainer and strength coach, I like to provide my clients with opportunities to learn the different stances and they are then able to decide which style they prefer.

I find deadlifting to be one of the most empowering movements because it’s usually the heaviest. As a 114-pound female, being able to pull nearly three times my bodyweight off the floor is absolutely incredible! And I am very proud of that.

Deadlifts target many muscles in your body, and depending on which stance you choose, it may hit some areas more than others. For the most part, deadlifts primarily target your erectors, gluteus maximus and forearms. If you prefer a conventional stance, you’re more likely to be activating your hamstrings more, and if you prefer a sumo stance, you’re more likely to be activating your quads and adductors. Again, how each athlete performs this lift will depend on their body mechanics and bone structure.

There aren’t as many posterior accessory movements to compliment deadlifts as there are for squats and bench press, but here’s some of my go-to exercises that I have in my training program:

  • Stiff-leg barbell/dumbbell deadlift (also known as a Romanian deadlift)
  • Split-stance dumbbell deadlift
  • Hamstring curl
  • Hip thrust
  • Elevated barbell deadlift (when the plates are at a higher point than the feet)
  • Deficit barbell deadlift (when the plates are at a lower point than the feet)
  • Barbell rack pull (more common with a conventional stance)

Back exercises will also help improve a deadlift. Back-focused exercises that I enjoy include:

  • Wide-grip pull up
  • Lat pulldown variations
  • Single-arm dumbbell row
  • Barbell Meadows row

Here’s a strong deadlift-focused workout routine to try:

A. Barbell deadlift (stance of choice), 4 sets of 6 (rest 2:00 between sets)

B. Deficit barbell deadlift (same stance as previous exercise), 2 sets of 10 (rest 2:00)

C. Wide-grip pull up (assisted if needed), 3 sets of MAX reps*
* if it’s easy for you, try adding a weight between your feet

D1. Stiff-leg dumbbell deadlift, 3 sets of 10 (superset with…)
D2. Narrow-grip lat pulldown, 3 sets of 10 (rest 1:00)

E1. Barbell hip thrust, 3 sets of 10 (superset with…)
E2. Single-arm dumbbell row, 3 sets of 10 (rest 1:00)

F. Dumbbell hip thrust, 2 sets of 50 (rest :30)

One cue that I always emphasize is the importance of keeping good form, with any movement, but especially with deadlifts. Too often athletes can become fatigued and risk back injury. Keeping a strongly braced core through all movements is extremely important. It’s never smart to train heavy when you’re feeling sick, rundown or fatigued. Always remember to train smart and adjust your plan as needed.

Powerlifting and strength training for women can help build confidence. I have never had a female client start strength training with me and tell me they haven’t enjoyed it. Once they get a taste for the iron, it’s like the continually want more! And for me as a coach, that is so rewarding!

If you’re interested in learning more about me and what I do, please visit my website. I am a certified nutrition coach who teaches clients how to eat the foods they love without restriction while reaching their body goals. I also provide custom strength training programs for clients who are looking for serious results, no matter the level of experience.

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