As the Head Coach for Team Canada Powerlifting, my job is to make sure that every exercise in the gym is used to help support either the squat, bench press, and deadlift. In this article, we’ll discuss the best exercises to improve deadlift strength.
Here is my top list of exercises to improve deadlift strength:
- Pendlay Row
- Wide Grip Pull-Ups
- Roman Chair
- Romanian Deadlift
- Barbell Hip Thrust
- Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat
- Deficit Deadlift
- Front Squat
- Leg Press
- Lying Leg Curl Machine
- Floor Lying Glute Ham-Raise
- Swiss Ball Leg Curl
- Weighted Plank
- Flying Bird Dog
- Dead Bug
- Farmer Walk
- Barbell Holds
- Hanging Leg Raises
Of course, you don’t want to implement all of these exercises at once. And, not everybody is going to need each of these movements anyways.
From this list you’ll need to identify the exercises that will have the biggest bang for your buck. This depends on where within the deadlift range of motion you’re weaker as you’ll want to pick exercises that address those areas of development.
Let’s start with how to go about that process and explain each of these exercises in greater detail.
What Is The Fastest Way To Increase Your Deadlift Strength?
One of the main ways to increase your deadlift strength is to identify the exercises that will help improve areas of muscular weakness within the range of motion.
This is called ‘exercise selection’.
The basic idea is that if you’re failing within a certain range of motion of the deadlift it’s because there is a specific muscle group that is responsible for lifting the weight through that range. If you can identify that weakness and train the muscle to get stronger, you should be able to lift more weight.
Now, before continuing, you should understand that exercise selection is only one part of your training program that will help increase your numbers.
It’s an important part, but it’s not the only part.
Other training variables you may need to consider are:
- How often should you train the deadlift?
- How should you structure your training split?
- And, what is the best volume and intensity for your experience level?
Another factor is your overall deadlift technique.
This is your ability to understand what optimal technique looks like and then training to that standard in every workout.
This site is dedicated to teaching about proper powerlifting technique, including the deadlift. If you want my complete list of deadlift technique articles, click HERE.
So, what exercises will be best for improving the deadlift?
Back to exercise selection…
The rest of this article will discuss the 18 best exercises to improve deadlift strength.
These exercises are broken down by muscle group:
Under each of these sections, I will detail the importance of that specific muscle group for the deadlift, and then list three exercises that should be your go-to movements if you have a weakness in this area.
Let’s get started!
Deadlifting with a weightlifting belt is one of the fastest ways to improve your deadlift strength. If you don’t already have a proper belt for deadlifting, you can check out my powerlifting belt recommendations.
Back Exercises To Improve Deadlift Strength
Your back muscles help you maintain a neutral spine while lifting. In other words, strong back muscles prevent your back from rounding.
As well, your back muscles (lats in particular) help keep the barbell close to your body while lifting. If the barbell starts to come off your body at any point during the lift, the movement will become substantially harder because you’ll feel like you’re falling forward.
Pick one of these exercises below if you find that you’re losing integrity in your spine while lifting or you have a hard time keeping the barbell on your body throughout the lift.
1. Pendlay Row
The Pendlay row is a version of the bent-over barbell row that uses a wide grip and targets the mid and upper back (check out my article on the differences between the T-Bar Row Vs Barbell Row and Pendlay Row vs Barbell Row).
You’ll start with the barbell on the floor and take a grip that mimics your bench press grip (somewhere between your pinky and index finger on the hashmark).
With your elbows out to the side (not tucked) and your back parallel to the floor, row the barbell to touch your sternum. Avoid heaving the weight or rowing to your stomach. If you can’t, the weight is too heavy.
In between each rep you’ll let the bar come to a dead stop on the floor to ensure you’re maintaining strict posture.
Looking for alternatives to the Pendlay row? Check out my article on the 11 Best Pendlay Row Alternatives.
Related Article: 5 Best Deadlift Jacks & Wedges (2020)
2. Wide Grip Pull-Ups
The wide grip pull-up is a classic movement that helps build strength in a variety of different movements, including the deadlift.
There are several variations of the wide grip pull-up depending on your level of strength, including the band-assisted pull-up, machine pull-up, negative pull-up, body-weight pull-up, and weighted pull-up.
Neither of these variations are better than the other. It just depends on whether or not you can perform the full range of motion for the prescribed number of sets and reps. Read my article on Do Pull-Ups Help Deadlift Strength to get a better idea of how to program pull-ups.
While this exercise will target the back muscles, you’ll also get the added benefit of working your grip, which is another important component of your deadlift strength.
I also like programming the Zercher Deadlift to help build upper back strength.
3. Roman Chair
The roman chair is a back extension exercise that places a greater emphasis on the low-back.
You’ll situate yourself in the machine placing your back at a 45-degree angle from the floor, and then hinge forward from the hips while keeping your back straight.
You don’t need to go substantially heavy with the roman chair exercise in order to get a high training effect for the low back.
However, you can increase the difficulty of the exercise by either holding a plate, sandbag, or dumbbell close to your chest, or for a more advanced variation, performing the movement with a barbell on your back.
Glute Exercises To Improve Deadlift Strength
Your glutes are primarily responsible for hip extension. In other words, helping your hips to extend forward in the lock-out position of the deadlift.
Pick one of these exercises below if you find that you can drive the barbell off the floor, but you tend to slow down in the lock-out phase or you always fail the deadlift above the knee.
I’ve only listed three exercises below (which are awesome exercises for developing glute strength), but know that there are several other exercises to help build strength in the lockout of the deadlift. A couple of these exercises that I’ve written about previously are the:
If you want a more in-depth guide to working on your deadlift lockout, read my article on 10 Tips To Improve Your Deadlift Lockout, which covers everything from technique to programming.
4. Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift is a movement that exaggerates bending forward from the hips. This is why it’s called a ‘hip-hinge’ exercise. It’s also a partial range of motion as the exercise only works the top half.
You’ll start the movement standing from the top position versus the bottom position like a traditional deadlift. As you hinge forward with the barbell on your thighs, you’ll emphasize pushing your hips back, placing the weight on your heel.
At the same time, you’ll lean your shoulders over the barbell so that the horizontal distance between your hips and shoulders is long. In this way, your glutes will need to work a lot harder to extend up and forward.
Read my guide on the differences between the Romanian deadlift vs deadlift.
5. Barbell Hip Thrust
The barbell hip thrust is a classic glute-building exercise that will help increase your deadlift strength in the lock-out phase. If you don’t feel your glutes while hip thrusting, make sure to read my other article that gives you 9 tips to use your glutes more.
With the back of your shoulders on a bench, and a barbell in the crease of your hips, you’ll drive your waist up toward the ceiling so that your torso is parallel to the ground with your knees bent at 90-degrees.
It’s been shown that there is no statistical difference between the hip thrust and Romanian deadlift in activating the glutes (Delgado et al., 2019). So you could use these exercises equally for targeting the glutes. I actually wrote an entire article comparing the Hip Thrust vs Deadlift.
If you can’t do a hip thust, then check out my list of top hip thrust replacements.
Another interesting fact is that if you compare the hip thrust vs squat the hip thrust places greater tension on the glutes, in addition to creating greater metabolic stress for the glutes (Contreras et al., 2015; Shoenfeld, 2010). The squat is more of a quad-builder than a glute-builder.
6. Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat
The dumbbell Bulgarian Split squat is a glute-focused exercise that helps target any imbalances between the right and left side.
You’ll assume a split stance with the rear foot elevated, and then perform a squat where both the front and back leg bend simultaneously.
The key to targeting the glutes while doing the Bulgarian split squat, more than the quads, is to keep the angle of the front leg at 90-degrees in the bottom position. In other words, keeping the shin of the front leg vertical.
What you want to avoid is bending the front knee forward as this will target the quads to a greater extent. Speaking of quad-focused exercises, let’s talk about those now.
Quad Exercises To Improve Deadlift Strength
Your quads are primarily responsible for knee extension. In other words, helping your knees to extend out of the bottom position of the deadlift.
It’s common for lifters to say “if I can pull the bar to my knees then I can lock it out no matter what”. If that’s a statement you can relate to, then you’ll want to bring up the strength of your quads, as you would be struggling in the bottom-end of the deadlift.
While my top three quad-dominant exercises for improving deadlift strength are listed below, a few more that I’ve written about previously, are the:
Pick one of these exercises below if you find that you really struggle with cracking the barbell off the floor in the start of the deadlift.
7. Deficit Deadlift
The deficit deadlift increases the range of motion your knees need to travel in the bottom-end of the deadlift.
You’ll start the deficit deadlift standing on an elevated surface, typically 2-4 inches, and then perform the deadlift as normal.
The deficit deadlift has all sorts of benefits, including improving your speed off the floor, refining your technique in the start position, and increasing your leg strength and hypertrophy.
The only downside of doing deficit deadlifts is you’ll require additional mobility through your hips, knees, and ankles to account for extra range of motion at the bottom-end. If you lack flexibility and mobility, this exercise might be harder for you.
You can read all about the deficit deadlift in my complete guide.
8. Front Squat
The front squat is one of my favorite exercises to build quad strength in the deadlift.
You’ll activate your quads to a greater extent if you squat below parallel and really focus on driving your knees forward in the bottom-end range of motion.
The tendency while front squatting is to sit back on your heels and keep the shins vertical.
Instead, try to maintain your weight on the midfoot, and think about flexing from your ankle in order to push your knees forward. The greater the angle of your knees, the greater the activation of your quads.
The front squat also has the added benefit of working your core musculature, including your low and mid-back, which helps keep an upright torso while squatting. This core strength will transfer to your deadlift strength as well.
Read my ultimate guide to how to front squat, which includes the step-by-step technique, common mistakes, and modifications you can make to the movement.
9. Leg Press
The leg press can isolate the quad muscles to a greater extent compared with the deficit deadlift and front squat.
If you’re looking for a quad dominant movement that doesn’t fatigue other muscle groups at the same time, then the leg press will be your go to choice (with that said, I wrote an article that talks about how to use your glutes more while leg pressing if you want to make it more glute-focused).
The leg press is also a less complex movement pattern compared with the other quad exercises listed above. Therefore, most people can jump into doing the leg press right away and get an immediate training benefit rather than spending time learning complex technique.
There are several variations of the leg press that would all be suitable, but my recommendation is the decline leg press. If you can’t do the leg press, check out my article on the best leg press replacements.
Hamstring Exercises To Improve Deadlift Strength
The hamstring has a ‘supportive role’ in the deadlift from helping with the lock-out to stabilizing the knee joint.
As the knees lock, the hamstrings are more engaged in order to bring the hips closer to the barbell. Keep in mind, the glutes should be doing most of the work to extend the hips, but the hamstrings certainly do help as well in the lock-out.
In addition, the hamstrings have an important role in stabilizing the knee joint. When you have your knees bent in the start position, the tension of the hamstrings help stabilize the knee joint by countering the forces of the quad to extend the leg.
You should pick some of the exercises below in order to ensure the hamstrings aren’t a lagging muscle group in the deadlift. You might not have any tell-tale sign that they’re weak, but bringing up the strength of your hamstrings will likely bring up the strength of your deadlift.
If you find your hamstrings getting sore from deadlifting, then check out my article on Hamstrings Sore After Deadlifts: Is This Good or Bad?
10. Lying Leg Curl Machine
The lying leg curl machine is the easiest way to isolate and train your hamstrings.
This exercise will require a specialized hamstring machine, but most gyms should have some version of it (check out the differences between the Leg Extension vs Leg Curl in my other article).
There are several variations of the lying leg curl machine that you can do, including performing the movement using a single-leg, using a slower eccentric tempo, or supersetting it with another hamstring exercise.
Other single leg variations include the Cossack Squat. Click to read my full guide.
11. Floor Lying Glute Ham-Raise
The floor lying glute ham raise is a variation of the classic glute ham raise and will help build strength in your hamstrings.
Rather than relying on the glute ham machine, the floor lying variation can be done with just a partner and your own bodyweight.
You’ll start kneeling on the floor with a partner holding your ankles. You’ll start to lean forward toward the floor keeping your torso straight.
The idea is to perform this movement as slow as possible or until you can’t hold tension in your hamstrings anymore. At that point, you’ll drop to the floor and perform an explosive push-up to get yourself back to the starting position.
Don’t underestimate this exercise just because it’s a bodyweight movement. You’ll require an incredible amount of strength in your hamstrings to perform it correctly.
If you can’t do a glute-ham raise, then check out my article on the best Glute Ham Raise Alternatives.
12. Swiss Ball Leg Curl
The swiss ball leg curl will also build strength and stability in your hamstrings
This movement requires the use of a stability ball. You’ll start with your calves and ankles on the stability ball while you lay flat on your back. You’ll then pull the ball into your glutes by driving your heels back and lifting your hips up toward the ceiling.
If performed with a slower tempo and higher reps, you should get a solid training effect for your hamstrings. I use this exercise with both beginner and advanced powerlifters.
Core Exercises To Improve Deadlift Strength
The core is a broad term to refer to different muscle groups that aid in stability of your limbs and joints. For the purposes of the deadlift, the core refers to your spinal erectors, rectus (front abs), and obliques (side abs).
- The spinal erectors help prevent your spine from rounding under load
- The rectus prevents you from hyper-extending in the lock-out, i.e. leaning too far back
- The obliques keep you from twisting the bar side-to-side and help stabilize your lats
If you have strong core muscles then you’ll be able to transfer force more effectively and you’ll prevent inefficiencies to your technique.
In other words, having a strong core will allow you to increase strength and stay healthy.
My three go-to core exercises are below. However, if you want my full core recommendation and routine, check out my article on the 9 Best Ab Exercises For Powerlifters.
13. Weighted Plank
The weighted front plank is a total core exercise that will build strength in both your rectus and spinal erectors.
You’ll set up the weighted plank on your elbows and toes. The torso should remain straight and stiff and you want to prevent your hips from ‘sagging’. You’ll then place a plate on your mid back to make the exercise more difficult.
I like to prescribe the plank anywhere between 30-60 seconds. You can choose the same weight and go for a longer time, or continue to stack weight on your back (so long as you at least get to 30-sec).
14. Flying Bird Dog
The flying bird dog promotes a neutral spine position, while at the same time working the low abs and erectors.
It will also strengthen your hips, promote proper posture, and work out any imbalances between the right and left side. Lifters will typically use the flying bird dog as a warm-up exercise for the deadlift to ensure the core muscles are activated prior to loading the body.
While it’s only a bodyweight exercise, if you’re performing it properly, you should feel quite exhausted trying to keep your hips and spine neutral throughout the movement.
The flying bird dog is one of Dr. Stu McGill’s “big 3 core exercises” to help prevent low back pain, who is a back and pain specialist.
15. Dead Bug
The deadbug will work your rectus and low abs, both of which help stabilize your pelvis in the deadlift.
The dead bug is commonly prescribed for people with chronic low back pain or people who have suffered a back injury, but it’s also an excellent general core exercise for powerlifters.
It’s also another exercise that is ‘single-sided’, so you can work out any imbalances between your right and left side. There is a high degree of coordination required to execute this movement effectively, which will improve your body control and awareness. .
The key to doing this exercise effectively is as you draw your opposite arm and leg down to the floor, you don’t want to break contact with your low back from the ground.
Grip Strength To Improve Deadlift Strength
Your legs and back may be strong enough in the deadlift to complete the movement, but if your hands can’t hold onto the barbell then it will prevent the rest of your body from doing its job properly.
Once you’ve developed a grip issue in the deadlift, it will take several months to get your grip strong enough where it doesn’t hinder the strength of your legs and back.
This is why I always advocate for training your grip year-round regardless if you have a grip weakness or not.
It doesn’t take much to keep your grip strong. You simply need to program 1 grip exercise per week and to take it seriously, not treat it like an ‘afterthought’. Below are a few of my favorites, although the number of grip exercises to improve deadlift strength is endless.
16. Farmer Walk
The farmer walk is an exercise where you grab heavy dumbbells in each hand and walk for either a prescribed amount of time or distance.
The grip is challenged simply by the time under tension that your hands are required to hold onto the dumbbells.
17. Barbell Holds
The barbell hold is where you lift a heavy barbell up from the power rack and you stand in place while holding the barbell for as long as possible.
Many powerlifters like to use a weight that is heavier than their 1 rep max deadlift. This is because if you can hold onto a weight that’s heavier than normal for 10-15 seconds, then you’ll have no problem with your grip when it comes to deadlifting.
18. Hanging Leg Raises
The hanging leg raise is actually a core exercise where you hold onto the chin-up bar and lift your legs up so that they’re parallel to the floor.
However, because your hands are required to grip your bodyweight for an extended amount of time while performing this movement, you’ll find that your grip is equally as challenged.
Each of the exercises in this article have a time and place in any well-rounded strength training program. The key is selecting the movements that are going to be the most effective based on your areas of development.
If you struggle at the top end of the deadlift, you’ll want to focus on glute and hamstring exercises to improve your deadlift
If you struggle at the bottom end of the deadlift, you’ll want to focus on quad exercises to improve your deadlift.
You’ll also want to assess the role of your back, core, and grip in the deadlift, and if you think there’s any lagging area you should implement the appropriate exercises to get stronger.