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There are not many more satisfying things in the gym than pulling a heavy barbell deadlift from the floor. It’s you versus the barbell, and you win. The regular barbell deadlift is not the greatest exercise to build muscle due to a lack of eccentric contraction, but it sets the table for muscle.
A stronger muscle can move more weight for more reps and tension for improved muscle-building potential, but pulling heavy bilaterally can lead to strength imbalances and weakness that stop you from being your best. Here, we’ll dive into what’s needed for a strong deadlift, deadlift weakness, and three unilateral exercises for a stronger deadlift.
Let’s grip it and rip it, shall we?
There are various barbell deadlift variations, from regular to sumo to rack pulls, and three ways to grip and rip it. But no matter your deadlift style, there are a few non-negotiables.
When you’re pushing the envelope and approaching 90% 1RM or above territory, you will move further away from pristine form, and that’s okay. Doing so exposes the things you need to work out to improve. Here are a few deadlift weaknesses that crop up.
If these deadlift weaknesses crop up or you notice you favor one side over the other, these three unilateral deadlift accessory exercises are for you. Start inserting these exercises into your routine for a stronger and safer deadlift.
Here, we’ll try to narrow down the three best unilateral exercises to improve your deadlift. Sorry, this is a bicep curl-free zone.
You cannot avoid the split squat if you want a bigger and stronger deadlift. The quads are crucial for leg drive, especially when pulling from the floor or doing sumo. There are a few split squat variations you could plug in here, but the Pin Stop split squat wins out. Because you’re starting in the bottom position, like the Anderson squat and pulling from the floor, you’re taking the stretch reflex out of the equation and focusing on leg drive. The front rack position also trains anterior core and upper back strength.
How to do it:
Sets & reps: The Pin Stop split squat will test your balance and upper back strength, so start on the lighter side and do fewer repetitions until you get into a groove. Pairing with a hip mobility exercise works well due to the intensity of this exercise.
1A. Pin stop split squat six to eight reps per side.
1B. Leg abducted rocking eight reps per side.
Now you’ve worked on the quad leg drive, it’s time to strengthen glute and hamstring imbalances with the single-leg deadlift. The problem with many single-leg deadlift variations is it’s a balance challenge, which can limit the load you can use. Enter the landmine single-leg deadlift, with its long lever and fixed bar path, which takes the balance challenge out of it and
allows you to lift heavier. The bonus with this variation is gripping the barbell sleeve works on grip strength, and the heavier load and fixed bar path better recruit the hamstring muscles.
How to do it:
Sets & reps: As mentioned, this variation can be loaded, so don’t be afraid to go heavy. As an accessory exercise, three to four sets of six to 12 reps per side works great.
Upper back and grip strength are crucial for deadlifts, meaning single-arm rows are required. Almost any variation could be plugged in here, but IMO, the stability unilateral bent-over row is the total package. With its increased stability and being in the deadlift position, this variation strengthens the lower and upper back and the ability to do more reps with the same weight. And it works on the biceps and grip strength; what more do you want?
How to do it:
Sets & reps: Don’t be afraid to go heavier than a regular bent-over dumbbell row because of the increased stability. As an accessory exercise, three to four sets of 10 to 15 reps per side works well.