Updated: Dec 11, 2020
There’s no better way to improve your deadlifts than actually doing deadlifts, but accessory exercises become helpful after you’ve gotten your form and execution down.
No, this doesn’t mean you completely switch to doing rack pulls from above the knees because you’re able to lift more.
Accessory exercises to improve deadlifts play a vital role in your strength training program. However, some you may find you favor since you can lift a lot more weight. Don’t let ego come in between you and your strength gains.
Basically a variety of accessory exercises come into play if you’re stuck in a strength hole and just can’t bypass your max effort anymore. Everyone gets stuck and needs to work on the smaller issues causing the big picture to falter.
What are Accessory Exercises?
Accessory exercises are the ones that come after your primary exercise. For example, leg extensions and the leg press are basic accessories to squats. The purpose of them is to work on movements from the primary lift, or muscle groups that support the lift.
These come afterwards because the importance is not above your deadlift. However, following the sets you would want to implement 1-2 of these exercises.
Now, you can do accessory lift only days if you’re a little more advanced in your program and essentially using them as a “deload day” or to offset the main lift. A possible reason for deadlifts would include allowing your lower back to recover.
More on this when we cover rack and block pulls. But before we cover accessory exercises to improve deadlifts, you should understand the phases of the deadlift:
Hip position and tension
Speed and drive from the floor
Mid-range at the knee
Want to see those three lights flash for good lift? Then let’s cover accessory lifts for your deadlifts to get you there.
Hip Position and Tension
The biggest reason many have trouble progressing in their pulls and possibly constantly hurting their back is from the very beginning. Your hip position and tension play a vital role to the rest of your deadlift.
This is not to say your back needs to be perfectly straight doing a heavy pull. That’s rarely going to happen when you have sets using 90% or more. Slight upper rounding is fine as long as your core is engaged and protecting the lower back.
Should you strive to be perfectly neutral as possible? Sure. But this will generally only happen on training days and not while going for max lift effort. Plus, it really depends on your body mechanics.
For example, I'm 6 feet tall with long femurs. This causes my hips to be in a higher starting position during conventional deadlifts. My pulls end up being slightly rounded in the low back.
The counter for this is progressing slower in this area, plus learning to use my hamstrings and glutes much more for the lift. Even to this day I barely feel much of the tension in my lower back even beltless.
However, if your back is rounded like a camel hump then there’s other issues you need to be fixing. Core strength is imperative for heavy lifting - especially with deadlifts.
Your hip position is important because you don’t want to be too low and squat the deadlift, and not too high to change the movement into a stiff leg pull either.
Block Snatch Grip Deadlifts
These are perfect for finding your correct hip position, learning to engage your hamstrings, and develop your lats during the process also.
Snatch grip basically means you hold the bar wide towards the outer rings. Essentially think of how the Olympic weightlifting snatch appears. That’s what you’re doing, but just the deadlift portion.
Straps come in handy with this deadlift accessory exercise as the grip is harder wide when it comes to reps.
Romanian Deadlifts (RDL)
I like to have this exercise for the hip position section since RDL’s help develop better use of your hamstrings with bracing to keep lower back straight.
You accomplish this by pushing your hips back and lowering only to where you feel your hamstrings tense up. Once tension is felt, you drive your hips forward and squeeze your glutes. (Don't over emphasize hips going forward.)
Lowering too far below your knees will cause excessive back use, and most likely make your lower back round or shoulders roll forward.
However, those with shorter legs (or just shorter in general) may need to go much lower to almost touching the floor.
This is acceptable if it applies to you so-long-as your hips are pushed back and does not cause much rounding in the lower back.
Bar Tension Drills
Bar tension is taking the slack off the bar and holding that tension as you start the pulling phase. Many fail at holding this tension and allowing it to release as the hips go down ready to initiate.
Removing the slack can be in essentially two ways. Normal barbells and power bars will make a clicking noise as the slack is pulled off. Deadlift bars are different and will bend to a certain point.
Tension drills help with this and are quite easy to perform. Simply setup as you would normally for a deadlift. Take the slack off the bar, maintain this tension, and lower your hips down slightly, feeling the hamstrings engage.
Right as you prepare to pull you release the tension and repeat several more times. This is breaking the movement down and fine tuning, but don’t get overly frustrated. Execute a few rounds of drills then start warming up further to your working sets.
Speed and Drive from the Floor
Every person has his or her own weak spot, and simply getting off the floor is the first main hole to cover. Deadlifts are performed while you’re already in a concentric phase with knees and hips bent. So the stretch reflex isn’t there like when we perform squats unless you perform a slight squat into you pull prior to drive.
(Stretch reflex is when your myofascia create elasticity like a rubber band and help spring your body back up. Hence the use of knee wraps during squats to take advantage of this.)
All styles of the deadlift can be difficult from the floor, but sumo stance deadlifts would be the most highlighted when it comes to this phase. Sumo is usually easier to lockout, but when it comes to clearing the floor it could be an issue.
Power cleans are great for hip extensions and also build up the necessary speed + strength to increase overall power.
Full power cleans are from the floor and you dip into the front squat afterwards. You see this more for Olympic lifting programs.
If the technique part is messing with you then don’t get overly frustrated. It's all about the explosive power and doesn't have to be perfect like for weightlifting. Even strongmen competitors execute a similar movement.
This is a simple ballistic exercise that should be pretty easy for you to execute. The main focus is to keep your back in the neutral position just like with deadlifts, and do not round your shoulders forward as the kettlebell lowers with gravity.
The hip extension phase is as you pull the kettlebell up and explode your hips forward also squeezing the glutes into action. If you don’t have kettlebells at your gym no worries; just grab a dumbbell and swing away.
Another good use for these is strength-based cardio. Definitely gets the heart rate up.
Box Jumps from the Bottom
These are technically called concentric box jumps since you’re at the point of the exercise where your primary muscles are shortening. The purpose is to build the speed necessary for explosiveness.
You must allow your body to stay in the concentric portion for 3 seconds to ensure that the stretch reflex is no longer there to assist with the jump.
Floor Drive Fine Tuning
This fine tuning is to literally develop the strength necessary from the bottom position, which is directly similar to the deadlift plain and simple. No need to sugar coat them – just consider implementing these into your workout.
This exercise is a gold mine for powerlifters looking to increase their leg strength and explosiveness. Also referred to as “bottom up, dead, or pin” squats since you’re literally starting from the bottom portion of the squat.
These are not easy to perform, so don’t going throwing 90% of your max lift on the bar and expect it to move first time executing. You need a power cage to be able to adjust the safety bars to where you start off in the bottom phase.
However, you can also control the squat lowering down to the rack safeties and pausing before coming back out of the squat.
The only other option is if you train at a weightlifting gym and have the high boxes to squat from. In order to benefit the most from Anderson squats, you need to move your hips and knees simultaneously.
This prevents all the contraction being placed solely on your quads. Front squats can be performed in this same style if that’s what you prefer.
Front squats also help your deadlifts by teaching your body to keep back tight during the pull and activating the core.
This type of deadlift you actually perform standing on a box or plates to elevate you off the floor ranging from 1-4 inches (usually).
The intent is making you have to pull the bar for longer distances than usual, thus building up power from the floor. Both powerlifting and weightlifting coaches utilize this accessory exercise.
The deficit deadlift increases the use of posterior chain muscles especially within your legs, and definitely activates your quads more during the process.
These are not usually the primary working set, and follows your top deadlift sets instead when programmed. For example, you have 2x2 with 88% to execute, and then drop the weight down slightly to 78-80% for 3x3 deficit pulls.
Focus on still maintaining good deadlift form not only for practice, but to protect your lower back as well being in a deeper pull position.
Note: In the video I placed small plates below the front of the plate, which helps emphasize more hamstring use with the longer pull ratio.
Mid-Range at the Knee
This is the tougher portion of the deadlift because you are now around the halfway point and still need to lockout the body. This phase plays a large role using your hamstrings and a tight lower back – even for the sumo pull.
Stiff Leg Deadlifts
Doing these will allow you to practice your deadlift movement, but the difference is your legs are stiff. This means knees are only slightly bent.
Yes, they are called "stiff leg" deadlifts, but it's been found that adding a slight knee bend is better for the movement. Basically think about 50% less bend at the starting position than normal deadlifts.
Your hips are going to be at a higher starting point. The intention of these is to target your hamstrings primarily, but lower back is activated as well.
Focus heavily on glute activation and hip extension at the top, and not just feeling it in your hammies.
Leg Press for Hamstring
The leg press can be used for multiple areas of effect, and in this case it would be your hamstrings, glutes, and hips. The foot placement with the leg press for hamstring would be wide and high.
Basically your feet are at the top of the platform all the way to the corners. Always drive up with your heels into the platform.
This is another great exercise for the posterior chain that mainly focuses on building the lower back. The secondary muscle use is your hamstrings, so as you can tell the good morning is great for building up your mid-range pulling muscles.
These don’t necessarily have to be heavy reps. 5-8 reps works very well, and it wouldn’t hurt to use even less weight for a 12 rep range instead. You must perform these keeping your back straight to get the benefits needed for your deadlift performance.
SSB is a type of camber bar that has pads raising the bar off your traps, handles to grip, and the weight falls down at the center towards your waist.
These are great as a deadlift accessory because they promote use of your legs and posterior chain more than normal back squats.
The bar forces you forward as you come out of the squat, and your must fight to maintain an upright position using your core muscles.
SSB squats can be utilized after your deadlift training for the day, or following regular back squats as well. Remember, not all exercises that support your deadlift have to be on the actual day.
Now it’s time to lockout. Pucker-up your butt and drive those hips forward. This is the phase where it’s either make the lift or bail the fuck out. Try not to get in the habit of hitching during training as you may do it during competition, which is illegal under most federations.
(Hitching is when you bounce your knees and jerk the bar up your thighs slowly making progress until lockout.)
This is a term most hear, but other names could be box pulls, elevated pulls, etc. Basically it’s a deadlift variation named after what equipment you use to have the bar elevated off the floor.
You want the bar positioned to where your sticking point is i.e. where you get stuck pulling heavy singles or when you max out and get stuck.
The exercise limits the use of your lower back and engages your hips and glutes with greater emphasis. They are even good to perform prior to your deadlifts to get them hips fired up.
Usually for conventional pullers it’s just below the knee or above, which is where you want the bar set when you are in position with knees bent as if you did the deadlift and now have reached this point. See video below for understanding.
Great for lat isolation too if you engage them before each pull as shown. Remember, the key to deadlifts, both conventional and sumo, is learning to engage your lats.
Glute Bridges and Hip Thrusts
Technically you want to get your glutes involved ASAP during the deadlift, but if anything you need them at their strongest when it comes to the lockout phase of your deadlift. These accessory exercises to improve deadlifts are perfect to add in once every couple of weeks.
Hip thrusts are when you have your upper back on a raised platform such as a bench and thrust the bar up from this point. Glute bridges are different because your back is against the floor as you drive your hips forward.
Both target the glutes and quads extremely well, and can be an effective tool for deadlifting more weight.
Alright, so the lockout phase requires a lot of the upper body now especially the traps and lats. This again applies to both sumo and conventional pulls, although sumo does use a lot more hips and quads for the movement overall.
Regardless, you will benefit from barbell shrugs in two ways, which are strong ass traps for pulling and juicy traps to pop them shirts up. They are not necessary to program often, but during off season they fit in nicely for a training block.
Bent Barbell Rows
These are again performed with heavy weight to target the posterior chain ridiculously well. You can perform the Yate version, T-Bar, or Pendlay row. All are different in their own respect, but still accomplish the same overall task when it comes to deadlifts.
Practically any rowing/pulling exercises are great for the finishing touch with your deadlifts such as lat pull downs, seated cable rows, and weighted pull ups. Choose one or two of these exercises to accommodate your deadlifts accessory training day.
Don’t Forget About Grip
Grip strength is very important for a competitive powerlifter, but many go about this the wrong way. Some will completely say no straps to improve grip strength. However, if you don’t have any grip to start then your strength will suffer without being able to hold the damn bar.
That’s why lifting straps actually do improve grip strength to an extent, and also allows you to complete accessory exercises for your deadlifts at higher weights and repetitions. Just break the habit of relying on them for top working sets of the deadlifts you perform.
Basically allow lifting straps to help perform better during training. Because you can't wear them during sanctioned powerlifting and weightlifting meets.
Accessory Exercises to Improve Deadlifts Recap
Alright ya'll there you have it. A pretty definitive guide for you to follow when it comes to exercises that serve as accessories to the deadlift. As mentioned, you don’t want to neglect performing actual full deadlifts.
Floor and Drive Work
Power Cleans, Concentric Box Jumps, Kettlebell Swings, Anderson Squats, Deficit Deadlifts
Stiff Leg Deadlifts, Leg Press for Hamstring, Good Mornings, Hyperextensions
Barbell Shrugs, Glute Bridges, Hip Thrusts, Bent Rows, Pulling Exercise Variations
Let me know if you have any questions or have a topic you want me to cover next. Stay strong always!
Strong Fit Living
Live it. Do it.