5 Great Benefits of the Block Deadlift: Muscles Worked, How To Guide

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Written by Wasim Kagzi

Key Points

  • Deadlift block pulls are essentially a deadlift that has been elevated by placing a set of blocks underneath the weight.
  • Block deadlifts help strengthen the specific range of motion for sports. They improve posture & grip strength and overloading the upper back for gains.
  • Based on my experience lifters can lift 20-30% more than your conventional deadlift using deadlift pulling blocks.
  • You can also attach the safeties to the squat rack and place the bar on top as a mimic of blocks.

So many types of deadlifts with such little time!

The block deadlift is yet another variation of the deadlift.

A deadlift block pull is an elevated deadlift with the use of wooden blocks. Many athletes and strength lifters use the block pull to strengthen the back.

So are block deadlifts right for you?  The block pull deadlift or block pulls are an elevated version of the conventional deadlift. Using wooden blocks or steps, the barbell rests at a knee height. When lifting the weight, the block deadlift emphasizes your upper back, traps, glutes, and forearms. Block deadlifts are great for training your lock out and strengthening the concentric phase of deadlifts.

Let’s go over the block deadlifts in detail!

What is a Block Pull Deadlift?

We’ve always found ways to manipulate exercises to strengthen specific movements or muscle groups. 

As the name suggests, the block deadlift is essentially a deadlift that has been elevated. A set of blocks underneath the weight raises the bar.

So a block pull reduces the bar path by 50-75% compared to the standard deadlift.

Deadlifting from an elevated position will reduce the movement at the ankles and knees.

The movement engages the calves and quadriceps to a much lesser degree compared to the full-range deadlift. 

Man about to perform a block pull deadlift
Block deadlift from two blocks

Now think about it, what range does this leave us with? The block pull deadlift allows you to load up the bar by an additional 20-30%. You can manipulate the 3rd pull of the deadlift to strengthen the back extension and scapular retraction.

Let’s say you can lift 352lb for 6. During the block deadlift you may be able to load up an additional 100+lbs.

How can the block pull help us as powerlifters or strength based athletes?

The deadlift requires a ton of energy and can be fatiguing during the initial 1st and 2nd pull. For this reason, it is very common for lifters to struggle with the lockout to complete the lift. Especially if we are observing the low powerlifting rep ranges. 

So, if we manipulate the block pull we can condition the top range of the deadlift to perfect that finish. (1)

How to Perform the Block Pull Deadlift

Step 1: Place blocks on the ground and will be spaced out at a barbell length. The height of the blocks will dictate the amount of back engagement you get.

Step 2: Place a bar on top of the blocks. Load it up to around 20% more than your conventional deadlift 5RM.

Step 3: Approach the bar and stand with it perpendicular to the top of the shins. As a reference, this should be the lower-mid part of the upper leg. 

Step 4: Grip the bar with an overhand grip just outside of shoulder width. I prefer the overhand grip as it is evidently safer compared to the mixed grip for the bicep brachii (2).  For more info on deadlift grip variations check out ‘The Deadlift Grip variations

Step 5: Drop the hips back and bend at the knees. To form your individualized back angle by bracing the core and positioning the shoulder blades in front of the barbell.

Step 6: Inhale, press from the midfoot, extend at the knees (straighten). If appropriate, drive the hips forwards and pin the shoulder blades back. All of these movements should be performed with a high velocity of contraction, in simpler terms hard and fast. 

Step 7: Exhale at the top of the movement, place the bar back onto the blocks and reset your position. Perform more reps or take a rest in preparation for your next set if the intensity was over 90%. (1)

Block Pull Deadlift Muscles Worked

Forearms

Without getting into too much detail the muscles around the forearms are activated whilst grasping the bar throughout the movement. Activation of the forearms will depend on what intensity you are performing the block deadlift. 

Gluteus

The gluteus maximus is the large buttocks muscle located at the posterior portion of the body just underneath the back.

Adductors

Adductor magnus is the inner thigh muscle. This muscle promotes adduction of the upper leg (bringing the leg closer to the body). During the block pulls think of it as the muscle to keep the legs stable and prevent losing balance. 

Lower Back Muscles

Erector Spinae is a lower back muscle which helps to produce the initial movement of straightening the back. This relays into the scapular retraction.

Upper Back Muscles

The upper back consists of the latissimus, three parts of the trapezius and the rhomboids. The latissimus dorsi is the outer back muscle often referred to as ‘wings.

The lats bring the upper arm closer to the body. For the block deadlift, it stabilizes the lift.

The trapezius and rhomboids are the center back which pull back. They elevate and depress the shoulder blades, which are crucial during the 3rd pull of the deadlift. (1)

Benefits of Block Deadlift

1. Overload the Upper Back for Gains

Let’s say you’re a bodybuilder or a recreational lifter just trying to pack on more muscle mass and you’ve hit a wall. 

This is where the block pull comes in. It allows you to load up a bar more and potentially maximize muscle fiber recruitment.

I would say you can definitely build an impressive back with block pulls.

2. Strengthen Specific Ranges of Motion for Sports

As I have already highlighted, the block deadlift focuses more on the 3rd pull of a deadlift. Specifically, this is essentially the hip and shoulder blade movement.

Based on what we understand about movement patterning, strengthening the block deadlift range of motion can translate into almost every power sport. 

Let’s think of some sports that may rely on the same movement pattern;

  • The 3rd pull in competitive powerlifting
  • A hip and back extension in sprinting sports
  • The hip extension while producing a punch in combat sports
  • Hip and back extension to produce a jump

3. Improves Posture 

Often times posture is hindered by an underactive and undeveloped back. Which can cause a lifter to become more slouched and even increase the risk of spinal injury. 

Now I’m not prepared to claim the block pull is the miracle fix.

But as we have established it focuses on the muscles of the back, and if you use it appropriately it may be a tool to ‘normalize’ posture.

4. Improves Grip Strength

You’re having to load the bar with an additional 20-30% during the block deadlift, so you will need more grip strength if you are training for muscle strength. Expect a chronic adaptation in grip strength if the block deadlift is used regularly. 

Performing deadlift lock out in a block pull
The top of the deadlift is known as the lockout

5. Adds Variation

Changing around and introducing any new exercise adds variation to your training, which is well known to keep you enjoying your training sessions and revamping your motivation. 

In my humble opinion the block deadlift is an interesting pull-based exercise and if you didn’t know about it, now you do. So, use it if it’s a fit for your training program.

Drawbacks of Block Deadlift

Increased Injury Risk

Now you’ve just read about increased injury risk and might want to duck out of using the block deadlift, but there are injuries associated with any exercise or activity. 

The block deadlift in most cased will be loaded to a greater extent compared to most variations of the deadlift so there is an increased risk of back, shoulder and bicep injury especially if you opt for the mixed grip.

What If You Don’t Have Access to Blocks?

Some gyms forget to invest in blocks, why? I have no clue, they’re a great inexpensive piece of equipment. 

If you do not have access to blocks, you can attach the safeties to the squat rack and place your deadlift bar on top which mimics the blocks. 

Essentially, you would set the safety rack to just below your knees. 

Pro Tips for Performing the Block Pulls

1. Utilize an Overhand or Hook Grip

I will keep stressing this point, I do not agree with the mixed grip as it is evidently more dangerous than most other lifting grip styles. 

I would recommend the double overhand grip or the hook grip and perhaps combined with accessories like the lifting straps or chalk depending on your goal and sport.

If you are a powerlifter or looking to improve your grip strength you should not use lifting straps as they will slow down grip development and are prohibited in most powerlifting meets.

2. Brace the Core 

Bracing the core is so important to keep the spine neutral and prevent curving forward which can cause major injuries to the discs of the spine. 

A lifting belt is a great accessory for helping brace the core during strength training, especially since it is so easy to form a curved position while observing high-intensity block pull deadlifts. 

3. Use Proper Breathing Techniques

It’s important to inhale before starting the movement, hold your breath during the movement and exhale at the top. 

Breathing helps get oxygenated blood to the brain and muscles, reducing the chances of fainting. 

I know some of you must have flared some red flags when you read that you would need to hold your breath during the movement, but in fact, this is safe and helps you keep your core brace and the spine in a neutral position.

Best Way to Breathe During Deadlifts

4. Evenly Distribute Your Feet and Hands 

Imagine losing balance while performing a block deadlift, not only can this cause skeletal injuries from perhaps misaligning the hips of the spine, but can also cause blunt force injuries in the occurrence of falls. 

What’s the best way to stay balanced? As established core stability but another important variant is foot and hand positioning on the bar. 

The feet should be evenly distributed at shoulder width, whilst grasping the bar just outside. 

5. Observe Good Nutrition

Nutrition is often overlooked in gym training, especially among low level lifters. In my opinion, if you want to maximize your training potential, nutrition accounts for 50% and training provides another 50%. 

What do I mean by good nutrition?

If you are looking at strength training modification, I generally recommend 2-3g of protein per kg of body weight.

Younger lifters under 30 can attain maximal benefits from the lower recommendation whereas older lifters above 40 may need a higher end, as older adults experience impairments in mTOR phosphorylation, which is a word for the muscle/protein building signal (3)

Another important nutrition variable is total energy intake, as I would highly recommend eating just over a caloric surplus by 1-200 calories which will also help a lifter to build some strength and put on some well-deserved muscle (3).  

Common Mistakes to Avoid in Block Deadlift

Holding Breath

Holding your breath is common with all heavy compound lifts which can cause fainting and subsequent blunt-force injuries from falling. 

I’d highly advise all lifters to practice proper breathing techniques, which I have mentioned above. 

Using the Hook Grip

I’m sure I’ve mentioned the hook grip multiple times in this article, but it is indeed a common mistake to use the hook grip in my opinion from the bicep injury risk with the loaded block deadlift. 

Curve the Spine

At times lifters select a load which is clearly too heavy, this can curve and injure the spine. 

Try not to go 20-30% above your standard deadlift intensity.

When Should You Do Block Pulls?

Strength and Hypertrophy Training 

If you made it this far into the article, one thing you surely have taken away is that the block pull is a heck of a lift for building an overall solid back, in terms of muscle and strength. 

For this reason, you could opt to include the exercise as part of your high intensity low repetition periodized program.

Endurance and Metabolic Stress Training

Just because the block pull is great for strength training, doesn’t mean it has no other purpose in the gym setting. 

I would certainly utilize the block pull with lower intensities of around 50-60% to induce some muscle endurance and inducing some metabolic stress-based hypertrophy.

Metabolic stress is basically another form of muscle building from the lactate and hormones released as a result of training to high reps, also known as ‘burn’ and ‘pump’. 

During Back Days, pull Days or a Whole Body Workout

It would make perfect sense to slot the block deadlift in during a back or pull day as it engages the back and arm muscle. Honestly, for me, it’s a juggle between the barbell back row and the block or rack deadlift to hit and bring out my upper back.

Rack Pull vs Deadlift: What’s the Difference?

Early in the Training Session

In my opinion, it would best suit one of the first exercises of your session as it is a compound lift engaging so many muscle groups and burning through so much exercise.

This is called exercise prioritization where you would select the exercise first that draws the muscle that you lack or the most physically demanding. 

I would follow up the block deadlift with a few more less physically demanding row based exercises and some isolation exercises, i.e., rear deltoid flies and bicep curls.

Who Should Perform the Block Deadlift

Powerlifters

It’s common for powerlifters to perform a conventional deadlift and fail at the lockout due to a lack of strength or fatigue setting in. 

Based on this reasoning, the deadlift from blocks has a practical use case for powerlifters to strengthen the 3rd pull position. These strength modifications may give a powerlifter allow a powerlifter to perfect the deadlift and get the green lights in the competition setting. 

Typically, powerlifters could benefit from training at a really high intensity over 90% with 1-5 reps.

Bodybuilders

Bodybuilders are more focused on muscle mass as oppose to strength, but that’s not to say strength development has no purpose. 

The block pulls can be used as a form of overload to bring up the glutes and back muscles. As they say, bodybuilding competition is won from the back. 

Bodybuilders in most cases will tend to adopt an intensity of 65-80% and perhaps a rep range of 6-12. 

Recreational Lifters

Most lifters who don’t consider themselves to be athletes or competitors and just train for general health, strength and muscle mass. 

Regardless, I would not discourage the block deadlift as it can help build muscle strength and improve deadlift form. 

Weight Lifters and Sports Athletes

We’ve learned that the block deadlift can strengthen the 3rd extension of the human kinetic chain (hips and back) which is crucial in almost every powerbase sport.

Weightlifters and sports athletes are definitely up there on my ‘who should use’ list preferably during strength phases if they have a force-velocity periodized program. 

Older Adults

Typically for older adults, let’s say above 55 should utilize a modified version of the block deadlift, perhaps not as high intensity. 

Based on what we know about the natural declines in functional mass in older adults, I would say that the block deadlift is great to build up some of the important muscles and bones, as well as helping to maintain a strong posture. 

What’s the Best Way to Overload the Block Deadlift?

A lot of lifters have the interpretation that overload means add more weight to the lift. Overload should not be limited to intensity alone.

 You can create more overload on the block deadlift by;

  • Adding more volume with more reps and/or sets 
  • Adding more load in an incremental gradient
  • Slowing down the downward part of the lift
  • Performing supersets and tri-sets with other exercises i.e., back row and trap raises 
  • Performing 2-3 drop sets 
  • Using resistant band block deadlifts

Final Thoughts

The block deadlift is one heck of a compound exercise.

As a strength training lifter, I would definitely think about including it into my training macrocycle.

With benefits such as overloading the upper back and improving grip strength, its a great exercise.

I would recommend a cycle of perhaps 2-3 times per year, and twice a week for around 6 weeks. Start off at a lower weight to get the technique down. Move up to your regular 1RM of deadlift and see how much you can add.

Keep that back straight! Happy lifting.

Frequently Asked Questions

How frequently should I use the block deadlift?

There’s no one size fits all when it comes to the block deadlift, I would incorporate it once within 2 weeks. If you want to maximize the strength training benefits, you could use it as frequently as every 2-3 days, but then again you would need to be somewhat of an advanced lifter.

How much weight can you pull from the blocks?

Entirely dependent on the lifter! But based on my experience lifters can lift 20-30% more than your conventional deadlift. So let’s say you can deadlift 250 pounds, you should be able to block deadlift 300+.

What is the difference between the Rack pull and block deadlift?

Both exercises are very similar, in most cases the rack pull would be set a little higher and focus less hip extension and more scapular retraction (back pulling).

References

  1. Fluentis, M.F., Lozano, J.M.O., Muyer, J.M. Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review. PLOS ONE. 2020; 15(2): e022950
  1. Kapicioglu, M., Bilgin, E., Guven, N. The Role of Deadlifts in Distal Biceps Brachii Tendon Ruptures: An Alternative Mechanism Described With YouTube Videos. Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine. 2021; 9(3): 1-6
  1. Hoffman, J.R., Ratamess, N.A., Kang, J., et al. Effect of Protein Intake on Strength, Body Composition and Endocrine Changes in Strength/Power Athletes. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. 2006;3(2):12-18.

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Wasim Kagzi

Hi! I’m Wasim Kagzi and this is where my team and I write and research about everything fitness. On MuscleLead we share all the helpful tips, techniques, and advice we've learned over the years. Personally, I've dedicated my life to learning and the pursuit of strength science. I hope to eventually compete one day and become the strongest version of myself.

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