As a powerlifting coach, there is no better deadlift accessory for my athletes to build top-end deadlift strength than the block deadlift.
What is the block deadlift? The block deadlift is also called a “block pull” or “elevated deadlift”. The barbell starts on blocks at the lifter’s knees, which places greater emphasis on the lock-out phase of the deadlift. Block deadlifts target the glutes, upper back, and trap muscles to a greater extent.
There are several benefits to the block deadlift, which I’ll explain further in this article. I’ll also provide a step-by-step guide on the block deadlift technique, including how to set it up when you don’t have access to blocks. Finally, you’ll want to know how to program this exercise, so I give you some example workouts that include the block pull.
Let’s get started!
What Are Block Deadlifts?
The block deadlift is one of the most common exercises for building strength in the top-end range of the deadlift.
It’s considered a partial range of motion because the lifter begins the movement with the barbell sitting on blocks. This means that the barbell starts at around knee height, sometimes slightly lower or higher (explained later).
Due to the reduced range of motion, the priority is on lifting more weight in the block deadlift versus a regular deadlift.
You can typically lift between 10-30% more weight in the block deadlift for the same reps ranges that are used in the regular deadlift. However, the exact percentage increase will depend on where the barbell starts (below the knee, at the knee, or above the knee), and how weak the lifter’s lock-out is.
You would perform the block deadlift if you always fail a deadlift in the top-end phase of the deadlift. In other words, you have no problem driving the barbell off the floor, but at around knee height you struggle to get your hips and shoulders locked out.
Block Deadlift: Muscles Used
The primary muscle used in the block deadlift is the glutes.
In order to understand what muscles are used in the block deadlift, you need to understand how the knees and hips contribute to the overall movement.
In the bottom end range of motion, the primary action is knee extension. The muscle used for knee extension is the quads (for the most part). Therefore, from the ground to knee height, the quads are challenged the most.
In the top-end range of motion, the primary action is hip extension. The muscle used for hip extension is the glutes (for the most part). Therefore, from knee height to lock-out, the glutes are challenged the most.
The muscles used in the block deadlift are:
- Adductor Magnus (Inner Thigh)
- Low Back
- Mid Back
- Spinal Erectors
- Forearms (Grip)
If you’re interested in the anatomy of the deadlift, check out my full guide on the Muscles Used In The Deadlift.
6 Benefits To Block Deadlifts
There are 6 benefits to doing block deadlifts:
1. You can use block deadlifts as an ‘overload exercise’
Any partial range of motion, like the block pull, is considered an ‘overload training method’.
This is when you use a load that would not be possible for the same rep range in the full range of motion.
For example, if a lifter can deadlift 400 pounds for 5 reps on the deadlift, then they (might) be able to do 450lbs for 5 reps on the block deadlift.
The benefit of using overloads in training is two-fold.
First, there is a psychological benefit.
When you get to ‘feel’ more weight in your hands than you otherwise would it helps build confidence. This is important if you have any anxiety around lifting heavier loads. Practicing lifting heavy to a reduced range of motion will increase your readiness to lift.
Second, there is a strength benefit.
When you use a maximal load above and beyond what you’re normally capable of doing, you produce a greater amount of force to activate additional motor units. The theory here is that when a lifter returns to the full range of motion that they have the potential to apply greater amounts of force in the range of motion that was trained.
2. Block deadlifts can target your area of weakness
If you’re someone who wants to maximize your strength, you need to be constantly dissecting your movement patterns to identify areas of development.
If your sticking point is always in the lock-out phase of the deadlift, then you need to implement variations that target that range of motion specifically.
This is because you can set up the barbell in the exact range of motion where you’re weak, which is identified by where the barbell begins to slow down during the regular deadlift.
Once you’ve set up the block pull, you can consistently train that range of motion from the exact same spot.
Over time, you’ll notice the strength that you’ve developed in the block deadlift begin to transfer to the regular deadlift, which will eliminate your sticking point.
If you struggle with the lock-out phase of your deadlift, you’ll want to take a more holistic approach, rather than relying on a single exercise. Check out my complete guide to Fixing Your Deadlift Lockout.
3. You can use block deadlifts to target your glutes and back muscles
The block deadlift will prioritize your glute and back development over anything else.
This is because when you start with the barbell at knee height on blocks, the hips are at the furthest possible point from the barbell. The greater the distance between these two points (the hips and the barbell), the greater the glutes need to work to extend the hips.
As well, for most people, the starting position for the block pull will place the torso in a slight forward lean relative to the barbell. The greater this forward torso lean, the greater the muscles of the low and mid back need to work to extend the spine into an upright position.
This is why you might see some lifters program a block pull on a traditional ‘back day’ or to help improve the lockout of your squat (more on programming later).
So if you want to increase the muscular development of the glutes and back, then using the block deadlift is an ideal exercise choice.
The block deadlift was named one of my top 10 Deadlift Alternatives. Check out the other alternatives in that article!
4. Block deadlifts can provide a different training stimulus
Block deadlifts can serve as an “exercise variation” to your normal programming.
Implementing “exercise variation” is an important training consideration over the long-term.
This is because if you keep all of your training variables static (sets, reps, load, exercise selection, rest, tempo) then your body will fail to adapt to any new stimulus.
To continue to drive new adaptations in strength, your body needs some form of variation with one or more training variables.
A common training approach is to keep a series of exercises the same over the short-to-medium term (3-12 weeks) and progress either sets, reps, and/or load.
However, at some point, you will have maxed out on your progression for that particular exercise, and you’ll need to consider new exercises to add a different training stimulus.
When adding this different training stimulus, you’ll find that your strength can progress further than it otherwise would by leaving your exercises the same year-round.
5. Block deadlifts will challenge your grip
Block deadlifts can be used to enhance your gripping capabilities.
It is one of the best movements for working your forearms and hands compared with any other gripping exercise.
If you find that your back and leg strength is strong, but your grip is the limiting factor in most pulling movements, then implementing the block deadlift will allow you to work this area of weakness.
A common approach to training your grip using block deadlifts is to simply lift the barbell off the blocks and hold the weight at the top of the movement for 5-10 seconds. You would then perform 2-5 reps using this ‘long hold’ method at the top of each rep.
However, if your grip is already strong and you want to work more of your glutes and back, then I would actually wear lifting straps while performing the block deadlift. This would allow you to lift even more weight, and create a greater overload for the glutes and back.
6. Block deadlifts help reinforce proper movement mechanics
Block deadlifts can also be used as a way to reinforce proper technique in the mid-range and lock-out phase of the deadlift.
One common deadlift fault is when the barbell moves off the body. What happens is that a lifter will start with the barbell on their shins, but somewhere halfway up the barbell breaks contact with the legs, which creates additional stress on the hamstring on low back.
The goal while deadlifting is to try and keep the barbell as close to the body as possible throughout the entire range of motion.
So, if you find that you have this mechanical deficiency, you could use the block deadlift to reinforce how the barbell should look and feel in the mid-range of motion.
You would start with the barbell on the blocks at the point in which the barbell usually breaks contact with the body. Before initiating the pull off the blocks, you would ensure the barbell is making contact with your legs, which is helped by engaging your lat muscles.
From there, you would execute the movement keeping the barbell on your body the entire time.
How To Perform The Block Deadlift
Here’s how to set up and execute a block deadlift:
- Stack lifting boxes on top of each other so that the barbell starts at about knee height
- If you need to fine-tune the start position, you can also step on plates to elevate yourself higher
- The goal should be to start in a position where you need to develop the most strength, sometimes this is slightly below or above the knee
- Walk up to the barbell and grip it just outside your thighs
- You should aim to have your shoulders directly in light with the barbell, which will result in a slight forward torso lean
- You should have a slight bend in your knee
- Take a big breath, brace your core, squeeze your lats strong, and lift the barbell from the blocks
- When initiating the movement, you should be thinking about driving your hips toward the barbell by squeezing your glutes. Cue yourself to bring your “hips through”
- The barbell should remain on your thighs throughout the entire range of motion
- Your hips and knees should lock simultaneously
- The final position should have your torso completely vertical, don’t lean back (hyperextend) any more than necessary
- Return the barbell to the blocks and repeat
What if you don’t have access to blocks?
If you don’t have access to blocks, you could do a rack pull, which is almost identical to the block pull but it’s performed on the safety racks inside a squat cage instead.
Whether you perform the block pull from blocks or on the rack doesn’t necessarily matter.
The most important part of the movement is ensuring the start position is beginning in your area of greatest development.
For example, if you’re weaker just below your knees, then there’s no point in starting the block deadlift above the knee.
If you can get a better set up by adjusting the safety pins inside a squat cage, then that’s how you should perform the movement.
How To Program Block Deadlifts
There are three ways that I would program block deadlifts:
1. Block Deadlift Overloads
As mentioned, one of the primary reasons to do block deadlifts is to get an overload training effect. In other words, the goal is to use more load than you otherwise would compared with the regular deadlift.
Here’s the protocol:
Load: 10-30% more weight than you would normally use for the prescribed rep range
2. Block Deadlift Combos
Block deadlift combos are a great way to overload the movement, but at the same time practice the full range of motion. You would perform some reps to blocks supersetted with some reps from the floor.
Here’s the protocol:
Sets: 4-6 sets
Reps: 3-5 reps to blocks + 3-5 reps from the floor (no rest between)
Load: 80-85% of your 1 rep max (on the blocks) + 60-65% of your 1 rep max (from the floor)
3 Block Deadlift Long Holds
If you want to use block deadlifts to develop grip strength, then you will focus primarily on holding the weight longer at the top end range of motion. Additionally, you’ll want to consider setting up the blocks higher than normal, starting with the barbell at mid-thigh vs knee.
Here’s the protocol:
Load: 90-120% of your 1 rep max
Holds: 10-15 seconds
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some frequently asked questions about Block Deadlifts:
How Do You Set Up a Block Pull?
Set up risers or blocks on either end of the barbell. The plates will rest on the barbell so that you are starting the deadlift with the barbell at around knee height. However, you should start with the barbell slightly higher or lower depending on your area of weakness that you’re trying to overcome by using the block deadlift.
What Are Block Pulls For?
Block pulls are used for developing deadlift strength in the top-end range of motion. Typically if you struggle with the lock-out portion of the movement, your glutes and low/mid back are the weaker muscle groups. The block pull will target these muscles more specifically.
How High For Deadlift Block Pulls?
You want to set up the block pull so that the starting position is at the weakest part of the movement. For example, if you find that you struggle in the deadlift just below the knee, you’ll want to set up the block pull just below the knee. Similarly, if you struggle lower or higher within the range of motion you’ll want to adjust the blocks to focus on your area of most development.
Block deadlifts are an excellent variation to work the top portion of the deadlift. I would cycle the exercise into your program 2-3 times per year and add progression to the movement over a 6-12 week timeframe. If you struggle with the lock-out phase of the deadlift, you’ll also want to consider doing Romanian deadlifts and banded deadlifts.