As a powerlifting coach, there is no better exercise for my athletes to help build strength off the floor than the deficit deadlift. The deficit deadlift is performed while standing on an elevated surface ranging from 1-4 inches, such as a weight plate or small riser. The movement will challenge the musculature of the low and mid-back, as well as the quads.
The 5 main benefits of deficit deadlifts are:
- Improved speed off the floor
- Improved start position
- Increased hip and low back strength
- Increased leg strength
- Increased hypertrophy
In this article, I’ll discuss these specific benefits in more detail. Additionally, I’ll tell you why the deficit deadlift should be part of your training program, and if you do decide to do them, how to implement the movement correctly.
Exercise Demo: How to Deficit Deadlift
The deficit deadlift is also called the “elevated deadlift”. The movement can be performed using either the conventional or sumo stance.
If using the conventional stance, you can have a greater deficit, ranging from 2-4 inches.
However, if using the sumo stance, you’ll want a smaller deficit, ranging from 1-2 inches. This is because in a sumo deadlift your hip mobility is already challenged in the wider stance. Any additional range of motion from the deficit might aggravate the hip joint unless you have a superior level of mobility naturally.
Here’s how to set up the deficit deadlift effectively (the same principles apply whether pulling conventional or sumo):
Step 1: Set up the deficit deadlift platform
Find something in the gym where you can place the barbell in a deficit position by standing on plates or an elevated surface. My favorite method is using 45lb plates.
Step 2: Position your feet and shins
To position yourself, stand with your mid-foot underneath the barbell and bring your shins to touch.
Step 3: Set your hips
In the deficit deadlift, you’ll start with your hips slightly lower than where they would normally be in a standard deadlift.
Step 4: Breath & Brace
Inhale and brace your core while engaging your lats to ensure the barbell stays on your shins when initiating the movement.
Step 5: Cue “pushing the floor away”
To begin the movement, cue your legs to ‘push the floor away’. This will activate your quads to extend the knee first, without having your hips rise faster than the barbell.
Step 6: Lock your hips and knees simultaneously
To initiate the lock-out, aim to lock the hips and knees at the same time.
Benefits of Deficit Deadlifts
Once you’ve mastered the set-up, you can start to reap the benefits. Here are the 5 benefits of deficit deadlifts:
1. Improved Speed Off The Floor
Think about where you’re weak in the deadlift under max loads.
If you are someone who gets glued to the floor when approaching heavy weights, then your weakness is breaking the floor. What this means is that the bottom end range is where you lack the most speed and strength.
You might also have a bottom-end weakness if you feel like you can always lock the weight out if you can simply crack the weight from the floor. In other words, you’ll always fail the lift on the ground unless you can get the bar 1-inch up from the floor.
Therefore, using the deficit deadlift exposes this weakness even more because you’re pulling extra range of motion.
The regular start position for a deadlift is 8.75 inches, which is the distance from the floor to where the barbell sits on a standard 45lb plate. Regardless of your individual height and limb lengths, everyone is pulling from this standard position.
However, in a deficit position, the starting position of the bar is lower than the standard 8.75 inches. The result is that you will be training in a disadvantaged position and more output will be required to move the bar.
Furthermore, this lower deficit position closes the hip, knee, and ankle joints. The effect is the body becomes less efficient at producing force. This deficit position recruits unused muscle mass that is not trained during a standard set up. The adaptation causes an increased output at a weaker position and thus will carry over to a standard deadlift by improving the speed at the starting position.
Takeaway: consistent training in the weaker range of motion increases the power output of the starting position.
2. Improved Starting Position
In powerlifting, there’s a saying:
“You always want to START right to FINISH right“
One common reason why liters miss deadlifts or sustain injuries over time is that they have an ineffective start position causing unnecessary stresses.
This could look like the knees caving in, the back rounding, or the hips shooting way up before the barbell leaves the floor.
Adding deficit deadlifts to your training exposes your body to a greater range of motion in the movement. Spending time in a position that requires greater flexibility and strength makes starting in the standard deadlift position much more tolerable.
Just make sure that you’re using lighter or moderate loads while doing the deficit deadlift so that you don’t recreate the problems you’re trying to fix with the movement.
In other words, use a weight where you can maintain your knees stacked over your feet, your back isn’t rounding, and your hips rise at the same tempo as the barbell.
Takeaway: deficit deadlifts can build strength and flexibility in the start position making it easier to hold an effective posture during regular deadlifts.
3. Increase Hip and Low Back Strength
The hips and low back will be challenged more when doing deficit deadlifts.
In the start position of the deficit deadlift, the low back will be required to have greater length to accommodate for the increased range of motion. As a muscle is exposed to greater ranges of motion, it creates higher levels of contraction and thus becomes more resilient to the external load.
What you want to avoid is excessive rounding in the low back while executing the deficit deadlift. So as long as you can maintain a relatively neutral spine, the low back will be activated in a safe manner, and you can progress the load accordingly.
Takeaway: The low back will be challenged more in the deficit deadlift vs. the standard deadlift.
4. Increased Leg Strength
The deficit deadlift will require you to sink your hips slightly lower in the start position and have greater flexion of the knee.
As a result, the deficit deadlift will activate your quads much more than the standard deadlift. In fact, the deficit deadlift can be viewed as having similar qualities as the squat and will use the same leg muscles.
During a standard deadlift, if you find your hip extensors taking over because your legs are weaker, then the deficit deadlift is a good option to overcome this weakness. You’ll know if your hip extensors are taking over in the deadlift if your hips start shooting up off the floor before the bar leaves the ground.
This will look like your back is horizontal to the floor before gaining upward momentum. If this is the case, you’ll want to increase your leg strength using the deficit deadlift.
Takeaways: Use deficit deadlifts if you need to build up strength in your quads.
5. Increased Hypertrophy
The deficit deadlift can lead to a greater amount of hypertrophy – or muscle growth.
This is because the deficit deadlift increases time under tension, which is the total time that a rep takes to complete. Exposing your muscles to greater time under tension, either through tempo work or increasing the range of motion performed, has shown to increase the rate of muscle protein synthesis.
Takeaway: If you’re looking to build more muscle mass in the low back and quads then the deficit deadlift is a good option to consider.
5 Other Things You Need to Know About The Deficit Deadlift
If you are going to implement the deficit deadlift into your program, you should be aware of the following considerations.
You will be required to have greater mobility
Because the bar is starting lower on the body, you must have greater mobility at the spine, hip, knee, and ankle to reach the bar. The setup rules don’t change so much from the standard deadlift, with the exception that every joint will be a few more degrees into flexion.
If you don’t have the mobility to get to a lower bar position you’ll most likely increase lumbar flexion, i.e. ‘low back rounding’. Increase flexion in the deadlift has been shown to increase the incidence of common low back injuries. Simply put, if an athlete is unable to get to a deficit position without rounding the low back, “the juice ain’t worth the squeeze”.
If you’re looking for mobility exercises specific to the deadlift, check out our artile on ‘how to warm up for deadlifts‘.
Takeaways: I highly recommend only using this exercise if you can maintain a safe back position to get to the bar.
Be careful of your breathing mechanics
The deficit deadlift requires the athlete to compress their bodies more to get to the bar, a position resembling the very popular leg press exercise. The leg press has shown to increase blood pressure numbers as high as 370/360.
Understanding this is important for the health and safety of the lifter. For some athletes, getting into deadlift positions can result in lightheadedness from increased arterial pressure. As well, if you’re wearing a belt, the body compression needed to achieve a lower starting position, and the increase in total time under tension all point to the potential of increased blood pressure, which may not be advised for some lifters.
Learn more about why lifters pass out from deadlifts
Takeaway: If you feel light-headed from doing deficit deadlifts it might not be the variation for you.
How low should you start for deficit deadlifts?
The deficit will vary based on the level of mobility of the person.
Remember you must be able to get to the bar with a neutral spine and if not then this is not the deadlift variation for you.
One to two inches is a sufficient deficit because for most lifters going any lower would increase the risk versus reward due to mobility requirements. However, there are some lifters, after starting with a one to two-inch deficit, can begin to work with three to four-inch deficit pending their mobility.
What do you stand on for deficit deadlifts?
When choosing how to set up a deficit deadlift, finding a heavy solid plate is a good start.
Remember that the plate needs to be flat to resemble the same surface one would deadlift from regularly. Sometimes using smaller diameter plates (like 5lbs or 10lbs) produces more of a ‘flat surface’.
But whatever you do, if you are a sumo puller do NOT do deficit deadlifts standing on unstable risers or slippery plates. The lateral push to the outside of the foot can cause the plates or risers to slide away.
Takeaway: Make sure you find a solid, flat surface to stand on when doing deficit deadlifts.
How heavy should you go for deficit deadlifts?
Because deficits are harder to perform due to the greater range of motion, the percent of one’s max should always lean toward the conservative side.
Generally, I program deficit deadlifts between 55-65% with rep ranges ranging from 4-8. This is a good base to start, and then build up from there. Always remember why you are doing this exercise. The goal is to improve the technique and speed of the barbell off the floor. Therefore, there is no need for the load this movement too heavy.
Takeaway: Start with lower percentages and build from there within a moderate rep range.
Improving your starting position, muscle mass, speed, leg, hip, and back strength by incorporating deadlifts from a deficit could be the missing piece to hitting your next personal record.
About The Author
Chris has over 20,000 hours of high-level coaching experience. He has worked with powerlifters, award-winning fitness models, and professional athletes. He has been awarded Personal Trainer of The Year across Canada and is a nationally ranked powerlifter.