The deadlift is a compound exercise and targets the posterior chain of the body; Ranging from the upper back to the hamstrings. However, its intense engagement of various muscle groups can burden the central nervous system (CNS). Accessory exercises help to improve deadlift performance without further compromising the central nervous system.
Some of the best accessory exercises that target the posterior chain of the body include bent-over rows, front squats, block pulls, lat pulldowns, deficit deadlifts, and the Romanian deadlifts. Some accessory exercises, however, focus on strengthening performance in various sticking points of the deadlift like pause deadlifts, pause squats, speed deadlifts, and rack pulls.
This article will enumerate and explain various types of accessory exercises that specifically target muscles that aid in performing deadlifts. It will also explain some accessory exercises that will improve overall deadlift performance by targeting various sticking points (around the knee and off the floor).
Accessory Exercises Based on Muscle Targeted
Deadlifts affect various muscles of the posterior chain of the upper and lower body. For the upper body, deadlifts affect the upper portion of the posterior chain such as the lats, the upper back or thoracic spine, and the lower back or the lumbar spine.
Upper Back or Thoracic Spine
The strength of the upper back or the thoracic spine affects the pulling performance in deadlifts. Improving upper back performance will allow lifters to lift heavier weights off the floor, sustain good form, and avoid back and shoulder injuries. Good accessory exercises to improve upper back strength include bent-over rows, front squats, and snatch grip deadlifts.
Bent over rows strengthen both the upper and lower back and improves the ability to maintain a hinge position with a neutral spine. Despite its perceived risk to the spine (avoid rounding your lower back), it is a good accessory to help improve stability of the thoracic and lumbar spine.
Front squats improve the thoracic extension of the upper chest and reduce spine compression and knee torque. Front squats strengthen the quads and the lower back and also help with the lockout at the end of the lift. However, front squats more-so cater to sumo than conventional because of its focus on the quads instead of the hamstrings.
The snatch grip deadlift stretches the torso to follow a more horizontal angle. This stance has a wider grip than a conventional deadlift, which activates the traps and tightens the upper back. It also features a lower starting point which increases the range of motion of the exercise and improves hip mobility. When doing a snatch grip deadlift you should use a weight that’s around 20-25% lower than the same weight used for a conventional deadlift.
Weak lats can result in overcompensation for the thoracic and lumbar spine as well as the shoulder blades. Barbell rows can improve lat strength resulting in stronger pulling power during deadlifts and safer activation of the back and shoulder muscles.
A double overhand grip will increase lat engagement through greater muscular tension.
Lower Back or Lumbar Spine
Block pulls help to increase the strength of the lumbar spine. The elevated position of weights, which is around 2-6 inches, reduces the range of motion to around 1/3 or 1/2 of the original movement. This elevated position puts more stress on the back and the top-end of the lift.
Deficit deadlifts use an elevated surface. This exercise lowers the bar to increase range of motion and improve the lifter’s bottom-end strength (slow off the floor). The lower bar increases the external load and improves the strength of the lifters in pulling the weight off the floor. It also improves hip and lower back flexibility and the stability of the torso.
A deficit deadlift places the lifter 2-4 inches off the floor resulting in greater pressure and increased tension on the hamstrings, lower back, and hips. It’s advised to lift 50-70% of your deadlift max as your starting weightt.
The Romanian deadlift is an accessory exercise that engages the hamstrings and glutes, promoting greater hypertrophy essential for stronger pulling power.
This exercise improves hip hinge by bending the hips further backward and lowering the knee as far as possible. It also improves the ability to move the hips safely when under heavy load.
However, the Romanian deadlift is not an overload exercise intended for muscle growth. Performing this exercise safely requires lighter weight and requires focus on the hamstrings and glutes. Extensive performance of Romanian deadlifts can help to prevent hamstring injuries.
Accessory Exercises Based on Sticking Point
Other types of accessory exercises aid in the various sticking points associated with the lift. Typically these sticking points are either off the floor, shin, and knee.
The pause squat involves pausing at a specific angle during the exercise for 1-4 seconds to emphasize the weak points of the deadlift. A pause squat also eliminates momentum.
In a paused deadlift, the lifter pauses (2-3 seconds) at certain points during the lift. The pause can be at any point in the movement, dependent on where the lifters sticking point is. The most common sticking points are just below the knee and mid-shin.
When performing a paused deadlift, you should keep your body tight throughout the movement. More so than anything, a paused deadlift teaches proper technique and reinforces the angle of the torso and shoulders.
Pausing at the bottom end of the lift will ensure that the hips safely rise under the load. Pausing before lockout will ensure optimal torso angle when transitioning between the bottom-end and top-end of the lift. Pausing at the top-end will ensure correct lockout and release timing to avoid putting too much pressure on the knee during each repetition.
Rack Pulls and Hip Thrusts
Rack pulls help to train the lockout portion of the lift. Since the starting position is rather high (based on pin-height), you can rack pull more weight than your deadlift max. Rack pulls help because they train your CNS to recruit more muscle fibers.
Just like rack pulls, hip thrusts help train the top-end of the movement. Hip thrusts train the glutes and help to improve hip extension during lockout.
Professional lifters perform accessory exercises for deadlifts in order to target their weak points, either in muscle strength or in their performance of the deadlift. Constantly challenging the body by providing a variety of accessories can help break plateaus.