What You Need To Know About Barbell Deadlifts

I’m OVER it: Why force the issue? The deal with barbell deadlifts and what you need to know. 

Written by Mike Over

One thing comes with experience in the fitness industry, and that’s practical application. Find me a study against knees over toes squats, and I’ll find one that is promoting it. This is what leads to so much confusion to those wanting a healthier lifestyle.

My argument today comes with over a decade of practical application to real training both in person and remotely with the topic of deadlifts and the gripe that everyone needs to be loading them with a barbell. 

Let’s first start with what the deadlift is and how it works. Deadlifts involve your latissimus dorsi muscles or lats, your upper and mid trapezius or traps, your quadriceps or thigh muscles, your core, and your upper and lower forearms. They are a king of compound lifts and while not the greatest for hypertrophy (in my opinion), they can add mass and strength to your frame.

The setup starts from the floor, with the bar positioned directly in front of you. Most of us are aware that the completion of the rep is finished once the bar travels up the shins and the hips and knees extend at lockout. Where my concern comes is those forcing the issue with deadlifts who have a body structure or mobility constraint not suited for them. 

They are just told “deadlifts get you strong,” so they forgo science and genetics to bolster their instagram page. A few reasons deadlifts with a barbell can be the wrong fit for you:

  • The setup doesn’t fit your mobility needs. To be perfectly clear, 80% or more of our population has a hard time getting into the starting position correctly.  To additionally make them pull weight from the floor makes this a tough pill to swallow.  You need at least 90 degrees of hip and knee flexion and if you have a hard time getting to a setup position. 
  • You cant get out of a deadlift session without your low back hurting. For years, I’ve had clients come to me and say they hate deadlifts because their low back hurts after for days. While it might be common sense to me, but I would advise them to NOT do deadlifts. When you shoot your hips up too quickly, your spine begins to do the grunt work for the rest of the movement. 
  • You struggle to keep tension in the right areas and let the bar “drift.” If you are not strong in the key areas, such as the lats and traps, your form can begin to take a back seat as the stabilizing synergies lose their ability to keep the weight close to your body, and with a barbell….the only way to go is forward which puts you more at risk for injury. 
  • Your body structure does’t match.  Deadlifts with a bar are better opted for those with short femurs and torsos, while having longer arms.  It gives them quite a better setup to execute the lift with more efficiency. Additionally, if you have good hip internal rotation and flexion you would be better suited for conventional deadlifts. 

So, now that you know if you might be one not well suited for these coveted exercises, what should you do?


This is the beauty of fitness. There is always a workaround. In 2014 I was struck by a pickup truck while training for a Ironman (Kona) and had 7 knee surgeries and two years to “find ways” to train. If you think deadlifting with a bar is your only option, you got a lot to learn! I’ll start with listing my top 5:

  • Trap Bar Deadlift: The setup allows your body to be centered more along the midline to take sheer force off the lower back.  Additionally, A 2016 study by Kevin Camara’s team at Cal State-Fullerton compared muscle activation and power characteristics during both barbell and hex bar deadlifts leads to this conclusion. Camara’s team found that lifters saw similar muscle recruitment patterns with both versions of the deadlift. 
  • Landmine Deadlift: This version allows your body to be more centered and upright while using angle vectors to keep your body positioned well even if you are not relatively accustomed to vertical pulling exercises. You can load much more here than the kettlebell deadlift, ranking this above it. 
  • Kettlebell Deadlift: While the loading potential may be a bit less, you can utilize this version if you are a newbie or looking to add in an assistance exercise that can keep the weight more centered. 
  • Rack Pull or Elevated Deadlift: By raising the bar, you give yourself a short range to work with, which can be helpful for those who either have trouble with the initial pull off the floor or if you have a tough time getting into the setup position.
  • Bulgarian Split Squat: While not a “deadlift,” I still find this one of the best variations for mimicking it in a unilateral sense. Studies have even shown that single leg work can quote to a stronger bi-lateral partner. One of the best reasons to swap for this is the simple fact that the injury risk drops and you can get an added benefit of working some proprioceptive control. You can bias the quads more or glutes based on your setup position as well, making it a win-win in my books.

When it comes to the deadlift, the option you choose shouldn’t be based on what social media makes look test worthy, it should be based off your goals, body structure and personal limitations.  Not everyone is looking to compete in a powerlifting competition, nor is every deadlifted trying to hit a 500lb PR. You place the puzzle piece in the right place for where you need to be. For years, I tried forcing the barbell deadlift and always ended up in pain. Trap bars work wonders for taller guys, so if you are like me, you can be happy and put an end to the barbell and feel no shame, only pride in knowing your progress will get better. 

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