Are deficit deadlifts and other deficit lifts worth doing? Are there better alternatives with the same benefits? New info here.
Is deficit training useful or not? After working with thousands of clients, my final answer is… it’s tricky. For most people, the rewards aren’t worth the risks for some lifts. Luckily, there are ways to get the same benefits without the risks.
It’s when you increase the range of motion of an exercise. A common example is deadlifting while standing on a couple of plates or a platform. Also, doing lunges with one foot on a box so your back knee has to drop further down.
Here are the claims:
Increased Range of Motion: Yes, obviously.
Increased Time Under Tension: Increasing the range of motion can add more time under tension. Some believe this builds more muscle.
Increased Force Production: Powerlifters use deficit deadlifts to improve their explosiveness. Some believe the deficit improves bar speed and muscle fiber response.
Increased Lengthening: With a longer range of motion, you can get a bigger stretch on the targeted muscle.
Increased Variety: Sure, options are good.
I’ve seen many trainers trying to force their clients into deficits they have no business being in. They’re trying to fit square pegs into round holes.
First, deadlifts also train your lats, traps, quads, core, and forearms. Unfortunately, doing deadlifts from a deficit has no additional effect on these muscles. What it CAN do is force ranges of motion that many lifters don’t have. Most of the population doesn’t even have the mobility to get into a conventional deadlift stance, let alone a deficit.
Take a look at my position in the two images below. The deficit creates more range of motion demands from your hips and knees, making getting into a proper setup position nearly impossible.
You’d be better off pulling from the floor or with a trap bar.
Some even say the deficit improves the setup position. I disagree. It’s much tougher to set up correctly when standing on plates.
What about the claims about a stronger leg drive? Well, other exercises can match the leg drive and even lead to better outcomes. In one study focusing on hip and knee kinetics during the squat and deadlift, the authors determined that both exercises were useful for training hip and knee kinetics. (1)
However, the squat is a better tool for strengthening knee extension. The deadlift is slightly better for training hip extension. So, it depends on what you want to accomplish. But if you want to attack leg drive, you can get an equal, if not better, benefit from doing a trap-bar deadlift. That way, you don’t have to use risky positions to start the lift.
The risky deficit setup often leads to the hips shooting up too quickly, making it just a lower back exercise. Remember, anything with more than 90 degrees of hip/knee flexion is a squat… and that’s exactly what’s needed with a deficit deadlift.
Here’s how bad this can look if your hips are rising too quickly:
If you just have to use a deficit, use a trap bar for a better setup. To get many of the same benefits, use bands for accommodating resistance:
A few other deficit exercises would work great too:
You’re in a better setup right from the beginning with lunges. You’re also using less weight, so there’s far less risk. These are great options for athletes.
The required mobility can be altered as well. Use a higher deficit if you have great mobility. The glutes and hamstrings must work overtime to get the lunging leg back to the box.
The supported version is a good alternative if you need more stability. The ipsilateral loading allows for better recruitment of the prime movers, which promotes better strength adaptations. (Ipsilateral exercises use the same side arm and leg as opposed to contralateral, which use the opposite arm and leg.) Ipsilateral lifts greatly increase central stability requirements and develop neuromuscular recruitment.
A few exercises work very well with a deficit (when you’re ready for it):
Here the deficit is used strategically to:
- Progress from a single-leg hip thrust when you’ve maxed out the weight you can comfortably hold on your hips.
- Help you to feel the glute and hamstring even more because of the increased range of motion.
Make sure your feet are far enough away from your body to promote 90-degree angles at your knee joints in the top position. If you notice yourself coming up onto your toes, adjust your stance.
An elevated platform allows for a greater range of motion and increased muscle recruitment. Even with just body weight, the extra range of motion needed will create an adaptive muscle growth response.
Split squats are one of the best exercises for leg strength. Adding a deficit will make it even better.
- Start with a small 2-4 inch deficit with the front foot on a box or pad.
- Lower under control with your chest tall and spine neutral.
- Drive through the heel of the front foot back to the starting position.
- Keep a neutral head.
Just make sure you’re USING the deficit. Get your knee to the ground!
There aren’t too many good options for deficit upper-body exercises, not if you care about lifting longevity and injury avoidance. However, I’m a fan of the single-arm kettlebell push-up:
- It’s a symmetrical test of strength. Getting away from just your bench max is always a good thing.
- It builds core strength.
- It improves shoulder stability.
- It’s a closed-chain exercise. We need more of those in our programs.
Don’t force ranges you don’t have yet. The deficit doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get an added benefit. For building strength, it’s all about optimizing technique for force production.
- Choe KH, Coburn JW, Costa PB, Pamukoff DN. Hip and Knee Kinetics During a Back Squat and Deadlift. J Strength Cond Res. 2021 May 1;35(5):1364-1371. PubMed.