The Best Deadlift Accessory Exercises for Powerlifting
The deadlift is the king of the lifts. There’s nothing more satisfying than ripping heavy (heavy is relative of course) plates from the floor. Feeling the connective skin on your palm ripping under the strain of the barbell, whilst the rest of your body feels like it’s about to explode. The deadlift is special.
There’s no stretch reflex available in the deadlift and as such there’s no way to ‘beat the system.’ It’s an exceptional lift, but incredibly taxing. The stressors placed on the body must be managed properly so that they remain eu-stressors rather than dis-stressors.
In order to do so, it’s impractical and short-sighted to think you can perform a traditional deadlift workout day in, day out with enough stress to force positive adaptations. Utilising the below deadlift accessory exercises will help prevent overtraining whilst working on your weak points in the lift.
What Exercises help the Deadlift?
Any exercise that improves your pulling power, strength off the floor and lockout strength is going to positively impact on your deadlift.
To improve your pulling power you need to target your lats and upper back with:
- Weighted pull-ups
- Row variations
You’d then need to focus on quad (sumo) or hamstring (conventional) power with:
- Front squats (quad dominant)
- RDL’s (hamstring dominant)
To improve your strength off the floor, paused front squats and deficit deadlifts are a perfect combination. Increasing your pulling distance with a deficit variation increases your ROM and paused front squats are ideal for quad dominant lifters.
Lockout strength is again dominated by your back, so removing the bottom portion of the lift conserves your energy for ‘locking out.’ As such the below two exercises are ideal:
- Weighted pull-ups (top of the deadlift strength)
- Rack-pulls (removing the bottom portion of the lift)
Any combination of paused, quad dominant squats, deficits and rack pulls will improve your deadlifting capabilities no end.
Top 5 Deadlift Assistance Exercises
1. Front Squat
Great for: Those who struggle with the lockout portion of the deadlift
The front squat demands exceptional quad and lower back strength, as well as a very upright posture and upper back tightness to prevent the lifter rounding.
The deadlift demands every single one of the above. I would argue that if you pull sumo, the front squat should definitely be in your top 3 deadlift accessory exercises. Sumo deadlifting is much more quad dominant than your hamstring prominent conventional style.
Pro Tip: Add a pause at the bottom of the front squat to eliminate the stretch reflex out of the hole. This will build supportive strength in the lower back, core and hips – essential for deadlift success.
2. Snatch Grip Deadlift
Great for: Strengthening the lower back and core. The snatch grip variation is an assistance exercise that is fantastic for injury prevention and increasing your back tightness when performed with proper form.
For those of you who suffer from lower back issues from time to time (me!), the deadlift can be a vicious cycle of painkillers and rehab.
The huge amount of torque exerted on the L4 and L5 vertebrate when conventional deadlifting leaves little room for error. In lieu of this, finding pulling variety is essential to long-term success.
The snatch grip deadlift is a phenomenal alternative that has:
- Increased ROM (range of motion): Pulling with a wider grip demands the lifter begins from a lower starting position
- Lighter Load: Your snatch grip 1RM will be around 20-25% lower than your conventional. This allows your body to train comparatively heavy loads and improve your absolute strength without stressing your body too much.
- Hip Mobility: A deeper starting position builds strength and mobility into the hip flexors. Maintain a braced core and an incredibly tight upper back throughout to ensure proper form.
- Posterior Chain Development: In terms of specificity, the SGD has immense carryover as it’s a fantastic posterior chain developer. If you’re looking for a less taxing lift that strengthens your hamstrings, quads, lower back, traps and delts, the snatch grip deadlift is hard to beat.
Pro Tip: Not only a fantastic assistance exercise – the SGD is a fantastic deloading tool for those of you who find deloads dull. It forces you to use lighter loads.
3. Deficit Deadlift
Great for: Strengthening the initial pull from the floor
In terms of absolute specificity, it doesn’t get any better than a deficit deadlift. Performing the lift from 2-4 inches off the floor forces the lifter to use a lighter load as per the SGD, whilst improving pulling power off the floor.
Grab a 20kg plate (45lb for my non-metric system idiot readers; imperial(ist) scum), centre it beneath the barbell and perform a conventional deadlift.
- Posterior Chain Development: The deficit deadlift trains identical muscle group(s) to the deadlift, with a greater emphasis placed on hamstring, lower back and hio development.
- Specificity: Almost identical to the deadlift itself and phenomenal for improving pulling power off the floor
- Larger Range of Motion (ROM): Much like the SGD, the joints must flex to a greater degree which increases the mechanical disadvantage the lift has.
Pro Tip: I usually add in 2-3 sets of 8 reps on my deadlift volume day, to stimulate additional hypertrophy, but you could easily utilise this as your heavy variation.
4. Paused Deadlift
Great for: Overall back tightness, core strength and positional reinforcement.
The paused deadlift is perhaps the trickiest of the above variations as it requires true grit to perform.
Typically the lift will be won or lost between mid shin and knee assuming the lifter can pull from the floor. Reinforcing technique and stability is a surefire way to navigate this traditionally tricky portion.
Multiple pauses can be added throughout the lift to reinforce positional strength, but traditionally one pause as the barbell reaches the knees is enough.
- Specificity: Exactly the same movement as the traditional pull, whilst increasing time under tension in an area of great stress.
- Lockout: Pausing forces the posterior chain to become increasingly efficient, whilst the upper back has to remain tight for an elongated period of time.
- Lat Engagement: Adding in a pause will ensure the lifter keeps the bar as tight to the body as possible, engaging the lats as tightly as possible in order to do so. Tremendous carryover here.
Pro Tip: Whilst it will inevitably increase time under tension, it’s not ideal for higher rep hypertrophy training as the stress placed on the body is high per rep. Best utilised as you get closer to a 1RM test week post strength building program.
5. Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs)
Great for: Developing lower and upper back tightness in each position of the deadlift.
The RDL is routinely used by Olympic weightlifters because of it’s specificity. Back tightness and speed are two fundamental areas of concern in weightlifting. RDL’s train both extremely well.
The lift is called The Romanian Deadlift because in a 1990 Olympic training hall, a Romanian lifter named Nick Vlad was performing this lift as part of his warmup. No one had seen it performed before and the American coach suggested it should be called The Romanian Deadlift. Not exactly inventive.
- Posterior Chain Development: Eliminating the need for the weight to be on the floor is a sure fire way to train your entire posterior chain
- Grip Strength: Oft overlooked, but consistently relying on a mixed grip can lead to muscle imbalances and using straps doesn’t train grip. Win win.
- Hip Mobility and Flexibility: Tight hamstrings and hips are a common cause for concern. Working your way through the weights with the RDL can help alleviate this problem.
Pro Tip: Use the RDL as a hypertrophy exercise initially as it’s a taxing deadlift variation. I would suggest using <50% 1RM to begin with in a 4(10) set and rep scheme.
If you would like to know more about how to start Powerlifting I have created this handy guide because I love content and weightlifting.
If you’re looking for the best way to factor in Deadlifts and deadlift accessory exercises, I use the below format and find it sustainable and practical:
- Volume Day: I have one day for volume in the traditional deadlift format. Usually something like a 5(5) or 6(4) with around 80-87.5% of my 1RM.
- Heavy Day: One day a week I work up to a heavy double PR in an accessory lift. For one 6 week mesocycle, I will run the snatch grip deadlift for example. As this utilises a significantly lower weight than the traditional deadlift, it’s less taxing on your CNS.
I took certain inspiration from the conjugate method when working on this program. By continually working on my weak points, as long as I drive enough volume and continually PR, it should be very hard to plateau.
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What’s the ideal rep range for Deadlift Accessory Lifts?
The deadlift is a different beast to every other lift. It requires very careful management and if you exceed you MRV then it’s very tricky to come back from in that training cycle.
Typically with the deadlift I use the above assistance exercises as my primary lift on my heavy days. This may seem like an odd way round, but because you can’t lift as much with an assistance lift, the overall load on your CNS if lower.
But I’m also careful not to overdo volume on the main lift. You can get away with heavy 5(5)’s weak in weak out with all other lifts. But I find that anything above 77.5% of your 1RM is heavy enough to drive progress with a 5(3).
I cram volume with the accessory movements. The 5(3) on your main lift at 75-80% may not seem like much, but this is a marathon, not a sprint. Following this lift I could pull a 3(8) of deficit deadlifts in order to:
- Increase volume
- With a highly specific exercise
- That builds power off the floor
For me this means I can work on my weak points with assistance movements whilst cramming in volume on my main lift. This allows my deadlift training to go on for longer, meaning more overall volume (under my MRV) is achievable and recoverable.
HOWEVER… I understand this isn’t the absolute answer you’re looking for. But it really is dependent on a number of variables.
By and large I stick to lower volume primary deadlift workouts 6(4) at the very top end. And I only push near 90% of my 1RM in the final week or two of my program.
Assistance exercises are absolutely vital when deadlifting, so whether you’re using deficit deadlifts to build power or rack pulls for lockout strength and volume, you should carefully manage the rep ranges.
Does Squatting improve your Deadlift?
So this does depend on whether you pull sumo or conventional. If you pull conventionally, your deadlifting setup is much more geared towards lower back and hamstring strength.
Neither the back squat or the front squat have any real benefit to either of those core muscle groups.
The sumo deadlift is a much more quad dominant lift. The stronger and more explosive you can make your quads, the more impressive your sumo deadlift will be. So front squats and paused variations are a fantastic sumo deadlift accessory.
BUT… deadlifting is about more than just particular muscle groups. It’s a show of brute strength with a smattering of precision technique. You should treat it like a leg press in that you should be pushing through the floor when you pull.
It’s not supposed to be a solely back dominant exercise and when you start really driving through the floor with your feet the bar moves much more quickly.
Can Deadlifts replace Squats?
If you’ve picked up an injury that means you can’t squat but can deadlift without pain (weird injury I’d say – get it checked), then there’s no reason you can’t add in an additional deadlift day so that your training time isn’t wasted.
Then when you’re able to squat again focus on that to make up for lost time and drop deadlifts down to once a week.
If you mean are the two exercises interchangeable then absolutely not. Deadlifts are more lower back dominant and are the most taxing of all the lifts.
Squats need more volume to grow, but require slightly less careful management. I’m sure any of you who lift seriously will agree that if you deadlift too frequently, with too high volume or too high an intensity it can ruin your training cycle.
So deadlift needs more careful management and less volume at the 80% and above of your 1RM mark to grow. You can squat with more volume and typically recover better – and the exercises work very different muscle groups.
So no, not really.
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