The deadlift comes in several variations, and although they’re all hip hinge movements, each one will challenge your body in a different way.
So, which type of deadlift is the hardest? Every deadlift is challenging in its own right and your personal weaknesses may make one feel more difficult than another. However, deficit and stiff leg variations are some of the more difficult options because of the increased time under tension, range of motion and emphasis on the posterior chain.
In this article we will explore what factors make a deadlift hard in the first place and then go deep into 7 different deadlift variations and what makes each of them difficult or easier to execute.
Use these quick links to jump to the deadlift variation you’re interested in learning more about:
- Are Deficit Deadlifts Harder?
- Are Romanian Deadlifts Harder?
- Are Sumo Deadlifts Harder?
- Are Dumbbell Deadlifts Harder?
- Are Stiff Leg Deadlifts Harder?
- Are Trap Bar Deadlifts Harder?
- Are Rack Deadlifts Harder?
What Makes a Deadlift Harder?
The deadlift can be difficult for several reasons such as range of motion, different muscle focus, your personal body proportions, mobility, time under tension as well as its technical demands.
Therefore, when assessing whether a style of deadlift will be more difficult you should have a sense of where your weaknesses lie, and if you don’t know, the deadlift variation you choose will probably bring it to light.
1. It challenges a weak range of motion
While the deadlift is always some version of a hip hinge, not all deadlifts have the exact same range of motion.
Some deadlifts variations focus more on the top range and don’t even touch the ground while others focus on the bottom range and even add range of motion, like in the case of deficit deadlifts.
Therefore if you are stronger in one area than another, picking a deadlift variation that challenges the range where you are weak will feel harder for you.
Read our articles on strengthening certain ranges of the deadlift:
- Is Your Deadlift Weak Off The Floor? Try These 7 Tips
- Is Your Deadlift Weak At The Knees? Try These 5 Tips
- 10 Tips To Improve Your Deadlift Lockout That Actually Work
2. It challenges a weaker muscle group
The deadlift involves the hamstrings, glutes, back and in some cases the quads. If you have a weakness in one muscle group relative to another there will be deadlift variations that feel less comfortable and strong because that muscle group is being put to the test.
An example of this would be romanian deadlifts or stiff leg deadlifts which emphasize the hamstrings.
3. It’s harder based on your individual mechanics (limb lengths)
Individual mechanics can vary and as a result will make certain styles of deadlifts feel more difficult than others.
For example, those with shorter arms or longer legs may find conventional deadlifts to be significantly more difficult than sumo because it’s more difficult to get into a good start position without rounding their back.
Read our articles on limb lengths and deadlifts:
- Deadlifting For Tall Guys: 7 Tips For Bigger Pulls
- Conventional vs Sumo Deadlifting: Which One Should You Do?
4. It’s technically more challenging (greater coordination, balance, proprioception)
Beyond just having personal weaknesses, some deadlift variations require a bit more coordination, balance and proprioception than others and can be particularly difficult for novices and beginners who have not spent enough time practicing these skills.
An example of a more technically challenging deadlift would be a sumo deadlift compared to the conventional deadlift, or a banded deadlift where the band is pulling you forward throughout the range of motion.
5. It has a greater time under tension
A classic way to increase the challenge of a lift is to increase the time under tension. When it comes to deadlifts, certain variations increase the time under tension and as a result the weight feels heavier and more difficult to move.
Variations that increase time under tension are great for building muscle and strength and eventually making variations with shorter time under tension feel easier over time.
One example of an exercise that increases time under tension is the paused deadlift.
6. It requires a greater level of mobility
Mobility varies across different deadlift styles and those with more mobility restrictions will feel like certain deadlifts are more difficult than others. Hamstring and hip mobility are two common limitations and which one you struggle with will determine which deadlifts you prefer.
Those with hamstring limitations may struggle with stiff leg and Romanian deadlifts whereas those with hip mobility limitations will struggle with sumo deadlifts.
Looking for exercises to improve your deadlift strength, check out these articles:
- 12 Deadlift Accessories To Increase Strength & Technique
- 18 Exercises To Improve Deadlift Strength (Science-Backed)
Are Deficit Deadlifts Harder?
Deficit deadlifts are harder than conventional deadlifts and most other deadlift variations because they challenge the back muscles, hip mobility, and have an increased time under tension. It can also be an extra challenge for those with longer legs and short torsos because of the increased range of motion.
Deficit deadlifts are performed similarly to traditional deadlifts except that you are standing on a 1-4” platform, commonly a 45lbs plate or something similar. As a result your body is higher up and the deadlift starts from a lower position and farther away from lockout than it would normally.
Deficit deadlifts are great to implement into your program especially if you struggle with strength or positioning in the bottom position or have a weakness in the low back or legs.
Although it’s most commonly seen done as a conventional deadlift set up, you can also perform deficit sumo deadlifts which is especially helpful for those who compete with the sumo stance. Another great part about implementing deficits is that switching back to a traditional deadlift will feel suddenly easy because you have shortened your range of motion.
For more information on deficit deadlifts and their benefits, check out our article here: 5 Benefits of Deficit Deadlifts (+5 Other Things You Should Know)
Are Romanian Deadlifts Harder?
Romanian deadlifts are more difficult than standard deadlifts from the ground because your back and legs have to change the direction of the bar without a full stop on the ground and the focus is on the eccentric, making it a more hamstring, glute and lat focused exercise.
The romanian deadlift starts from a standing position and is solely a hip hinge where you pull your hips back and then forward and into the bar. This contrasts from traditional deadlifts where you push off the ground and flex at the ankle, knees and hips.
This can be a difficult movement for those with hamstring mobility issues as well as those with weak hamstrings, glutes and upper back. However, it can be a great exercise to help improve these areas as well and is a popular accessory exercise.
Because the RDL is harder you should opt for a lighter weight than you would normally deadlift with to complete the exercise. Very light RDLs can also serve as a great practice tool for hip hinging in beginners.
To learn more about the Romanian deadlift and how it differs from other similar exercises, check out:
- Deadlift vs Romanian Deadlift: Form, Benefits, Differences
- Good Morning vs Romanian Deadlift: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Can’t Feel Hamstrings in Romanian Deadlifts? Try These 5 Tips
Are Sumo Deadlifts Harder?
Sumo deadlifts are a harder deadlift variation for those who have limited hip mobility and are weak through the quads. The sumo deadlift moves slowly off the ground and so it requires lots of tension to be harnessed through the legs when compared to conventional.
The sumo deadlift will however feel easier for some because of body proportions. This is especially true for those with relatively long legs or short torsos or arms. This is because reaching the bar and setting up adequately for a conventional deadlift is uncomfortable at best and unattainable at worst for these lifters whereas a sumo stance moves their legs out of the way.
The sumo stance can also feel a bit easier to some due to its shorter range of motion; however, the time under tension is still significant because of the difficulty of getting the weight off the ground that it should not be assumed to be an easier lift overall.
Sumo deadlifts are similar to conventional except they are performed with your feet wider than shoulder width apart (will vary based on your size) and with toes pointing toward the weight plates on the bar. The stance itself can be adjusted to a spot where you can optimally activate your quads, hamstrings and glutes.
Looking for an in-depth comparison of the two competition deadlift styles? Read about it here: Conventional VS. Sumo Deadlift: Which One Should You Do?
Are Dumbbell Deadlifts Harder?
Dumbbell deadlifts can be a harder exercise than the barbell variation because it requires more coordination and stabilization since the weights are able to move more freely in your hands. Also, the starting position is much lower therefore increasing range of motion and activating more of the quads.
With the dumbbell deadlift you will need to get lots of power through the quads to push off the ground and it will be key to keep your shoulders retracted and your lats engaged throughout. This is a good option for those still learning deadlift mechanics and those looking to build more muscle with increased volume in their program.
Dumbbell deadlifts are done using a pair of dumbbells angled toward your side. If you try to place them directly in front of your legs it will be difficult to get into the proper position. From here you grab the dumbbells with a hip hinge and then bend at the knees until you are comfortably grasping each one and keeping your spine neutral.
You can also do other deadlift variations with a dumbbell including a stiff leg dumbbell deadlift and dumbbell romanian deadlifts.
To see a demonstration check out the video below:
Are Stiff Leg Deadlifts Harder?
Stiff leg deadlifts are harder than traditional deadlifts because the higher hip position and lack of knee flexion results in greater activation of the back, glutes and hamstrings. This will be particularly difficult for those with limited hamstring mobility and or posterior chain strength.
Stiff leg deadlifts are like a cross between romanian deadlifts and conventional deadlifts because they start from the ground like a conventional, however, the legs remain straight throughout the movement like in RDLs.
This is a great variation for those who need more work on their back, glutes and hamstrings since the straight leg position removes the work of the quads and places much more stress on the back.
Those with low back weaknesses or with long legs may find this variation to be quite challenging but if load is managed it will be a great tool for them to build strength in weak areas.
Watch the video for a demonstration:
Are Trap Bar Deadlifts Harder?
Trap bar deadlifts feel easier than most deadlift variations because they allow you to assume a neutral grip by your side and don’t require as much hip hinging. There is increased activation in the quads, but it’s less taxing on the back and requires less mobility compared to traditional deadlifts.
Trap bar deadlifts are often programmed for those first learning how to deadlift because they are a little bit easier to set up since the handle is higher up than it would be for a barbell deadlift. The lift does however require a specialty hex bar that not every gym may have available and so this may be a limitation.
It is still a hip hinge movement that works the glutes, hamstrings and quads but you’re likely to feel a bit less pressure on the back because you’re not as bent over the bar.
It’s also great because you can likely lift a significant load, when compared to dumbbell variations or RDLs, while still getting great activation of the lower body muscles with less stress on the back. It can be used as a great alternative if injured, as a learning tool or just as a leg building accessory exercise.
To take a look at a comparison of trap bar deadlifts as a tool to build lower body strength, check out: Trap Bar Deadlift vs Front Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons
Are Rack Deadlifts Harder?
Rack deadlifts, or rack pulls, aren’t harder than regular deadlifts because they work a shorter range of motion and there is overall less time under tension when compared to deadlift variations starting from the floor. They do however still challenge the back, glutes, and lockout strength.
Deadlifts done in the rack are often called rack pulls and are included into programs when a lifter has a weakness in the top half of the lift. It removes the need to pull the weight off the floor by setting up rack safeties a couple inches below the knees.
You will likely be able to load relatively heavy weights, often more than you can actually deadlift, for rack pulls. As a result, they serve as a great muscle building exercise and one that will strengthen your lockout in the deadlift.
This variation may feel somewhat challenging if you have a weak lockout but the shorter range of motion and shorter time under tension does make up for it and will allow you to get in the work necessary to build muscle and strength.
For an in-depth look at rack pulls and why you might want to include them into your program, check out: Rack Pull vs Deadlift: Pros, Cons, Differences, & How-To
The difficulty of a lift and its variations can often come down to individual strengths and weaknesses as well as overall body proportions.
However, there are some hard and fast assumptions that can be made about deadlift variations when we take into account several factors like range of motion, time under tension and muscle weakness.
This is seen by the observation that deficit and stiff leg variations tend to be more difficult while trap bar deadlifts and rack pulls tend to feel a bit easier. However, each variation serves a purpose and can be a great addition to your program.
About The Author
Elena Popadic has worked within the fitness industry for over 6 years, is co-host of the Squats and Thoughts podcast and trains and competes as a powerlifter. She has a BSc in Life Sciences from McMaster University, a Postgrad Certificate in Public Relations from Humber College and is currently pursuing a MSc Occupational Therapy at Western University. Connect with her on Instagram or LinkedIn.