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The Deficit Deadlift: A Strength Exercise You Can Do Without

Written on August 15, 2013 at 7:25 am, by Eric Cressey

The deadlift from a deficit is a strength exercise that has gained some popularity in recent years, and it's popping up in more resistance training programs.  Unfortunately, it's an exercise that sounds a lot better on the internet than it plays out in the real world.  I have a lot of one-time consultations at Cressey Performance with people who have a history of lower back pain after deadlifts, and not surprisingly, a lot of them have attempted the deficit deadlift when they have no business performing it, as the risk-reward ratio is far too high.

To that end, in our recent Functional Stability Training of the Lower Body resource, I devoted a segment of my deadlift presentation to the topic.  Here's a free preview:

To view the rest of the presentation (and eight others), be sure to check out Functional Stability Training of the Lower Body.

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  • David

    Interesting, Eric. I agree that doing deficits from 6′ is a bit extreme and the most whacked out lifters would perform them on a regular basis. However, how viable is a 3′ deficit? You said 3′ is an alternative, but do you feel that they have any carry-over (in the case that someone doesn’t have access to AR) or are you putting them in the presentation to appease those who can’t do without deficits?

  • michael

    Eric, Great article and video. My physical therapist suggested I stop deadlifts when she determined my sacram was way out of position. She informed me that their are other exercises you can do that are much safer and that do not provide the risk of deadlifts. Unless you do them correctly to near perfection, she informed stopped doing them, plus I have tight hip flexers and left weak pelvis, working on to get stronger, may be down the road, but for now not doing deadlifts!

  • Mark

    Eric, if the deficit deadlift is “moronic” as you stated, why then would you even make the concession to 1-3″? I would certainly agree a 6″ deficit is moronic but do people really do that?

  • David Brewer

    Eric, What is your opinion of strength programs that vary starting positions on a weekly basis. For example, do the deadlift in varying heights in a rack. In a second example deadlifting with grip variations every week (snatch grip, mid grip, clean grip). Any studies that measure the varied stress? Great comments!!!!

  • Chris Newbold

    Are deficits from 1 inch still ok? That guy looks like he is doing them from a foot

  • Roy

    Hi Eric,

    I seem to recall you incorporated deficit deadlifts with your clients a few years ago.

    Are these a complete no-no for your clients now or do you still incorporate them under some circumstances?

    Roy

  • Erik Petersen

    I agree! Whenever I tried to do this in the past it never failed to irritate my lower back. Never thought it was quite right. Not sure why Poliquin likes it????????

  • Shane

    Thing about common sense, Eric, it is not so common. Thanks for a another great blog post, you cyborg.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Roy,

    Haven’t programmed it for about five years.  I know better now! :)

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Mark,

    Sadly, yes, they do.  I don’t think 1-3″ is really even that great an idea, but sometimes, you have to give a little. :)

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    David,

    I don’t think it’s worth complicating things that much! :)

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    David,

    As noted above, it was really just to meet people halfway.  I really don’t think there is a need.

  • Samuel

    This all seems rather arbitrary to me. People of different heights have to go down different distances to meet the bar on the floor as it is. Someone who is tall if they pull from the floor is effectively always pulling from a deficit. Meanwhile, someone who is very short has the advantage of essentially pulling from an elevation.

    Surely if we’re not dealing with competitive powerlifters who always have to pull from the floor, the principle should be maximal safe range of motion? Is there any reason to set up the floor as THE starting point? It’s nonsensical to suggest that somehow, independent of the height and mobility of the lifter, that the bar on the floor is always magically the right position. We are happy to acknowledge, and rightly so, that some people have restrictions and may need the bar elevated. Why wouldn’t it be the case that it could be an advantage for other lifters to be taxed through a greater range of motion if capable?

    And for the record, I can only just barely pull from the floor in a good position, so I have no emotional attachment to deficit deads. Although I would probably do them if I were able.

  • Eduardo

    Hi Eric,

    I was thinking about the very same issue lately.

    Many people cannot master even a regular barbel deadlift with proper form. I am still working my flexibility/mobility up and would not give it a try.

    I really like your posts. Thank you

  • Sean

    Have you established any arm:trunk ratios to determine how deep of a deficit or if any deficit should be used?

  • Mike Cruickshank

    Very Interesting. I remember years ago reading Ed Coan mention this in the book “Coan”. One year he had suffered a back injury which greatly limited his performance at nationals. He said it was from doing dead lifts while standing on a 100lb plate.

    I also know Donnie Thompson suffered a really bad back injury, 3 herniated disks or something to that effect. I read somewhere he hurt himself doing deficit dead lifts also. I can’t confirm that, I just remember reading it somewhere.

    Either way when you take two of the biggest beasts in powerlifting history and you injure them with the same exercise I guess you say to yourself that maybe this exercise really isn’t worth it. Maybe there are other ways to under load the body and bring up weak points while not crushing your spine.

  • http://brainbodybelly.com Mark P

    Eric, great post.

    What would you think of doing a modified-sumo-deadlift (the one you prefer over the conventional wide-stanced sumo) from a slight deficit?

    I’d imagine this would be less moronic because the sumo already artificially reduces your limb length, thus the deficit “makes up for it”. Any thoughts???

  • Sven

    What about snatch-grip deadlifts, then?

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Mark,

    Might be a bit better.

  • Sven

    ince the snatch-grip deadlift requires more mobility as well, do you recommend against it, then?

  • Corey Duvall, DC

    Any thoughts on stone lifts and other odd lifts? I’ve found that those stiff into thoracolumbar flexion benefit greatly in a stone lift, which creates some scapular protraction and thoracolumbar flexion.

    In acute flexion induced low back pain I’d agree that creating flexion is a bad plan. But wouldn’t a progressive model built towards achieving some strength with moderate lumbar flexion a good long-term goal?

    A neutral spine gives the extrinsic spinal erectors a posterior shear force, and a moderately flexed spine gives the intrinsic group a posterior shear force, both balancing out the anterior shear of the load against gravity in the forward inclined spine. If one has strong extrinsics (neutral spine dead lift), and weak intrinsics (stone ground to shoulder lift, or deficit DL with mild thoracolumbar flexion), and life (picking up groceries, a child, something in the back of the trunk) would require strength of the intrinsics, have we not set them up for failure?

    By fearing ANY spinal flexion, are we not just creating focal weakness and risking sudden injury?

    Perhaps when someone gets an “iffy” low back following a deficit, slight flexion inducing lift session, they need to back off the intensity or volume to something they can handle? And then allow adaptation and strength/capacity gains in that position?

    Has spinal flexion become the latest below parallel squat?

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Sean,

    No; usually just go by how it looks.

  • Childress

    What i find very ironic is:

    In 2005, you stated on T-Nation:

    “Another option I sometimes use in assistance work (e.g. snatch grip deadlifts) is to pull heavy from the floor in week one, then pull the same weight in week two from a two-inch deficit, and from a four-inch deficit in week three. In effect, you increase the amount of work you do by simply changing the distance, but not the force (in contrast to the traditional method of just increasing resistance while keeping distance constant).”

    Glad to see evolution.

  • todd

    After constant back issues I’m feeling this way about a number of lifts. Mostly back squats. Frankly, I’m done.

    I went for over twenty years of positive hard athletic training (boxing and kickboxing) day in and day out with never an injury until I started to incorporate more olympic strength training into my routines under the advise of a coach – ironically for injury prevention. And without fail with-in six to eight months I would injure my lower back.

    I tried every variation, every way to acclimate my joints and tendons, every stability/mobility sub-routine – no matter. Six months in (when weight got “scary”) BAM! Pinched nerve, tendonitis, or pulled muscle and six weeks of, well, of next to nothing.

    This cycle repeated itself throughout my thirties and forties – because trainers kept telling me “No, do it THIS way” until I realized certain lifts were not for me. And perhaps maybe not for a number of people.

    At fifty my boxing days are long over. But now I’m stuck with a hinky lower back that I’m sure would not be there if it wasn’t for doing back-squats to “prevent” injury.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Childress,

    I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve learned a lot over these past eight years! At least it wasn’t a six inch job…haha.

  • Ellen

    Samuel – without accounting for flexibility limitations, our bodies are proportional to themselves. For example the wrists naturally reach around the hip sockets for everyone.

    And although the bar height is an absolute value and not specifically proportional to the lifter (so someone 5′ tall could in theory handle a bar 1.5″ lower to the floor than someone 7′), the bigger point is that pulling from the foot level i.e. the real floor, will inevitably cause the body to break form.

  • Ellen

    Re Samuel’s comment – would I be correct to suggest that the bigger idea is that each body has its own proportionality – for example the wrists fall somewhere level with the hip sockets for everyone.

    So perhaps someone 5 feet tall could in theory handle a bar 1.5 inches lower to the floor than someone 7 feet tall, either of them when trying to lift from the level of their feet will have to break form.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Corey,

    I’m just not sure that there is even any anecdotal evidence to support it.  Most strongman I’ve known have chronic low back pain in spite of the fact that they sit in extension in resting posture and do all this lifting in flexion.  I just don’t think they’re getting the motion in the right places – and they’re doing so under compressive loads.

  • Dean

    Eric,

    In the recent 2011 article you mentioned in speed training included snatch deadlifts. Is this a typo since you have not programmed them in 5 years? What about olympic style deadlifts when the hips and low back stay straight and the legs are the primary movers? What is the mechanism of injury when the lumbar spine is not flexed.

  • http://ericcressey.com Eric Cressey

    Dean,

    I’ve programmed snatch grip deadlifts, just not from a deficit.


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