8 Best Deadlift Accessory Exercises to Increase Strength

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Written by Athina Crilley
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Key Points

  • Deadlift accessory exercises should be done after traditional deadlifts in your workouts.
  • Deadlift accessories don’t necessarily have to target the whole body like deadlifts.
  • Pick your deadlift accessories by understanding how they improve deadlifts and add them to your workouts to target your weak points.

The deadlift is one of the best exercises you can do to increase your strength.

Smashing through a heavy set of deadlifts leaves you feeling tired, but accomplished.

If you reach a plateau with your deadlift, the obvious answer is to deadlift more. However, there are several deadlift assistance exercises you can do for a more powerful pull.

Deadlift Muscles Worked?

The deadlift targets the whole body. It is a great, compound exercise to work the majority of the lower and upper body, particularly the posterior chain. Three muscle groups and ten muscles are used in a deadlift.

The primary muscles targeted with deadlifts include:

  • The Gluteal Muscles
    • Gluteus maximus
    • Gluteus medius
    • Gluteus minimus
  • The Hamstrings
    • Biceps femoris
    • Semitendinosus
    • Semimembranosus
  • The Quadriceps
    • Rectus femoris (RF)
    • Vastus lateralis (VL)
    • vastus medialis (VM)
    • vastus intermedius (VI)

The deadlift also works a bunch of secondary muscles like the latissimus dorsi, trapezius muscles, rhomboids, biceps, forearms, and abdominals.

Why Deadlift Accessory Exercises are Important?

Although compound lifts like the deadlift are undoubtedly the best to increase strength and power, the accessory exercises should not be forgotten about.

Exercises that directly assist deadlifts are beneficial to the program, especially during the ‘tapering’ phase of a program. They reduce fatigue while still increasing strength and performance. [1]

Deadlift assistance exercises can help to identify weak areas, giving you a better idea of which muscles are limiting your deadlift. Practicing accessories help you to perfect your deadlifting technique.

As most accessory workouts use a lower weight than deadlifts, meaning you can use higher reps and focus on building muscle endurance. The lighter loads also mean you can increase your training volume and frequency without overtraining.

Using accessory exercises for deadlifts allows you to train without stressing the muscles and joints as much as you would with more deadlifts.

What Makes a Good Deadlift Accessory Exercise?

Accessories don’t necessarily have to target the whole body like deadlifts. Any good deadlift assistance exercise is one that works all, if not some, of the same muscles.

Deadlift accessories should activate the core, including the abdominals and the spinal stabilizers.

This will improve your balance and stability, which will translate into your deadlifts and improve your form. They should target areas of weakness and work to increase your strength, power, or technique.

8 Best Deadlift Accessory Exercises

Here are the best accessory exercises for deadlift to help you build muscle while improving form. Use them to take your deadlift game up a notch!

1. Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift starts from a standing position where you lower the barbell down to your shins, keeping knee flexion to a minimum. They work the glutes and hamstrings more than regular deadlifts.

Who Should Do Them?

If you find the ‘hip hinge’ movement hard to get your head around, the Romanian deadlift helps you practice proper hip movement.

How They Improve Deadlift Strength

Because this accessory exercise allows you to perfect the hip-hinging movement, it can improve flexibility and mobility.

You can focus on the mind-muscle connection in your glutes and hamstrings, teaching you to activate the correct muscles. This leads to better form, so you can lift more weight correctly to increase your deadlift strength.

Common Mistakes with Romanian deadlift

The most common mistake with this deadlift variation is bending the knees too much. The idea with the Romanian deadlift is to keep the legs fairly straight to engage the hamstrings. Bending the knees more than necessary turns this exercise into more of a traditional deadlift.

How to Program Them

Romanian deadlifts are usually done with a lower weight than normal deadlifts. I like to use 60% of my deadlift 1RM and do 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps, so I can focus on squeezing my glutes and hamstrings.

2. Trap Bar Deadlifts

The trap bar deadlift accessory exercises use a specific type of bar called the ‘trap bar’ (sometimes called the ‘hex bar’ or ‘diamond bar’). You stand inside a hexagonal shaped bar and deadlift with your hands by your sides.

Who Should Do Them?

For lifters who have poor hip mobility, and struggle with traditional deadlift positioning, the trap bar deadlift is great. It enables you to lift the bar whilst remaining more upright, meaning less hip flexion is required.

How They Improve Deadlift Strength

You can use a heavy weight with the trap bar deadlift, meaning you can improve strength and power. They allow you to practice deadlift technique whilst stimulating hypertrophy.

There is less stress placed on the lower back because the hex bar allows you to keep your torso more upright. Therefore, if you find deadlift form difficult to get right, or if you are suffering from a lower back injury, trap bar deadlifts can help you with this.

Common Mistakes with Trap Bar deadlifts

The trap bar deadlift doesn’t require as much ‘forward lean’ as a normal deadlift. But I find a lot of people try to lift the hex bar by leaning their torso forwards and pulling the bar up that way. This is taking tension out of the target muscles and makes the exercise less effective.

How to Program Them

Program trap bar deadlifts using 10% more weight than you usually would use, and perform 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps.

What is the Difference Between Trap Bar Deadlift and Front Squat?

3. Deficit Deadlifts

The deficit deadlift is performed standing on an elevated platform. This increases the range of motion compared to a floor-based deadlift.

Usually, the platform is anywhere from 2-5 inches above the ground.

Who Should Do Them?

This deadlift variation is good for those of you who are weakest at the bottom of the deadlift. It can improve flexibility and mobility too.

How They Improve Deadlift Strength

Deficit deadlifts increase bottom-end strength. In other words, they strengthen the lowest part of the deadlift, which is the part of the rep that a lot of people struggle with.

They improve deadlift strength by overloading the muscles in a wider range of motion, which can help you when lifting a heavy barbell off the floor.

Common Mistakes with Deficit deadlifts

It can be difficult to get your form right with deadlifts. The deficit deadlift is no exception. A lot of people let their heads drop or their lower back round over, which puts strain on the neck and spine and increases the risk of injury.

How to Program Them

Due to the extra range of motion, lower your usual deadlifting weight by around 10% and perform 3-5 sets of 3-6 reps.

4. Pause Deadlifts

Pause deadlifts are when you do a standard deadlift but pause with each rep. You can also do pause deadlift combos where you perform pause reps alongside full reps.

Who Should Do them?

If you’re looking to up the intensity of your deadlifts, and want to focus on really squeezing your muscles, pause deadlifts will be a great accessory exercise.

They allow you to emphasize the hardest part of the rep and practice technique.

How They Improve Deadlift Strength

Pause deadlifts increase the time under tension. The muscles are placed under more stress due to the pause, which increases strength and can cause muscle growth in major muscle groups, particularly the legs and upper back.

Common Mistakes with Pause deadlifts

I find a lot of people do not pause for long enough. They will simply pause for a split second before coming back up. A short second isn’t enough time to be counted as a pause rep. Ideally, keep the pauses around 2-3 seconds to ensure your muscles are being challenged.

How to Program Them

Pause deadlifts can be programmed similarly to traditional deadlifts. Use 65-75% 1RM and perform 3-5 sets of 3-6 reps.

5. Sumo Deadlift

Sumo deadlifts are a variation of the traditional deadlift where you have your feet wider than shoulder width apart and pull the bar up with a narrower grip.

Who Should Do Them?

If you struggle with standard deadlift form due to poor hip mobility, the sumo deadlift is a great accessory. Due to the shorter range of motion with the wider stance, less hip flexion is required to pull the bar up.

9 Best Sumo Deadlift Alternatives: Tips and Videos

How They Improve Deadlift Strength

The sumo deadlift can be overloaded just as much, if not more, than a normal deadlift.

I find that I can lift more with sumo deadlifts because of the shorter range of motion. So, if you want to significantly increase your deadlift strength, try using a sumo stance.

Common Mistakes with Sumo Deadlifts

A common mistake with the sumo deadlift is having a stance that is way too wide, or not wide enough. The feet should be wider than shoulder width apart, so that when you bend down to pick up the bar, the knees travel out to the sides.

How to Program Them

Sumo deadlifts are effective for building strength in the 3-5 rep range. Perform 3-5 sets using 70-85% 1RM.

Sumo vs Conventional Deadlift – What’s the Difference?

6. Snatch Grip Deadlift

The snatch grip deadlift allows you to work on technique and strength for the conventional deadlift. This underrated exercise allows you to improve your grip strength and strengthen your movement off the floor.

Who Should Do Them

If you want to strengthen your traditional deadlift whilst challenging your central nervous system, the snatch grip deadlift will help.

How Snatch Grip Deadlifts Improve Strength

The snatch grip accessory exercise improves deadlift strength by training your muscles and central nervous system to work cooperatively. It’s a unique exercise that requires the recruitment of specific muscles throughout the body, similar to a standard deadlift.

Snatch grip deadlifts focus on the upper back, building strength and stimulating muscle growth.

Common Mistakes with Snatch Grip Deadlift

I’ve seen a lot of people try this exercise with way too much weight, and this is not good! Lower the weight you use to around 60% of your deadlift 1RM so you can focus on form and technique. This exercise isn’t about pushing your weights as high as possible. It’s about perfecting your deadlift technique and training your mind-muscle connection.

How to Program Them

Stay with lower reps for snatch grip deadlifts of around 3-6 for 3-4 sets, using 60% 1RM.

7. Bent Over Rows

The bent over barbell row is a staple in most upper body workouts. It requires you to bend forwards and lift a barbell from the hips to the sternum, whilst keeping a straight torso.

Who Should Do Them

This exercise builds upper back thickness, so if you’re wanting to build width in your lats and strengthen your rhomboids, this deadlift accessory is perfect for you.

How They Improve Deadlift Strength

Bent over rows improve both upper and lower back strength. The deadlift requires every muscle in the back to remain stable whilst pulling up a heavy barbell, so practicing bent over barbell rows will contribute to an overall improvement in deadlift strength.

Common Mistakes with Bent Over Rows

With any barbell row, the most common mistake is poor form. Letting the spine round over, and allowing your head to drop, leaves you at risk of pulling a muscle or injuring yourself more severely. Make sure to keep your spine neutral.

How to Program Them

Bent over barbell rows can be performed in a wide range of reps. I recommend sticking within the 3-6 rep range if you want to build your back and progress your deadlift strength.

8. Pendlay Row

The Pendlay row is similar to a bent over barbell row, but you are lifting the barbell from the floor.

Who Should Do Them

If you have a weak upper back and this is limiting your deadlift progress, try Pendlay rows.

How They Improve Deadlift Strength

Pendlay rows are a great deadlift accessory because they work on upper and mid-back strength and power, which is required to help you pull the bar off the floor during deadlifts.

Common Mistakes With Pendlay Row

A common mistake with this deadlift accessory exercise is having your torso too upright. Try to stay as horizontal as possible whilst doing Pendlay rows to target the correct muscles.

How to Program Them

Program in 3-5 sets of 3-6 reps to see maximum strength gains in the Pendlay row.

T-bar rows. Try to keep your head up and your chest lifted throughout this exercise to ensure the spine stays neutral.

When Should I Do Deadlift Accessories?

Deadlift accessory exercises should be done after traditional deadlifts in your workouts. They can be added to a full-body, upper-body, or lower-body workout, depending on what muscles they target.

Don’t add all of these accessory exercises into one workout. This would be way too much! Instead, choose a small selection and incorporate them into your routine. I recommend figuring out where your weaknesses are, and choosing exercises that can specifically target these weak areas.

FAQs

What is the ideal rep range to do deadlifts?

As a coach, I like the work in a range of reps in one deadlift workout. Start with 60-70% 1RM and perform 8-10 reps. From this point, slowly increase the weight and decrease the reps until you reach the 1-3 rep range. This will increase power, strength, and hypertrophy all in one workout.

Deadlifts are a great exercise to really push your weights. A lot of people enjoy going for PBs and reaching new 1RMs. The most important thing is to make sure your form is on point, not how many reps you can do.

Are deadlifts better than squats?

To be honest, this comes down to opinion and preference. The exercise you choose will also depend on if you have specific injuries or mobility issues. If this is the case, I recommend seeing a doctor or physiotherapist.

Squats are great to add more volume to your workouts, as they are less taxing on the body than deadlifts. But both add tremendous value to your workouts, and both can be just as challenging. [2]

Studies show a similar amount of gluteus maximus activation in both squats and deadlifts[3], and they activate the hip extensors equally.[4]

Final Thoughts

If you want to improve your deadlift strength and technique, you should try these effective deadlift accessory exercises. They enable you to push through a plateau without having to overload your body with even more deadlifts.

Pick your favorite deadlift variations and accessories, and add them to your workouts to target your weak points and build on your technique for a stronger, more powerful deadlift.

References

[1] Pritchard HJ., et al. Tapering Practices of New Zealand’s Elite Raw Powerlifters. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jul;30(7):1796-804. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001292.

[2] Kompf J., and Arandjelovic O. The Sticking Point in the Bench Press, the Squat, and the Deadlift: Similarities and Differences, and Their Significance for Research and Practice. Sports Med. 2017 Apr;47(4):631-640. doi: 10.1007/s40279-016-0615-9.

[3] Neto WK., et al. Gluteus Maximus Activation during Common Strength and Hypertrophy Exercises: A Systematic Review. J Sports Sci Med. 2020 Feb 24;19(1):195-203. eCollection 2020 Mar.

[4] Delgado J., et al. Comparison Between Back Squat, Romanian Deadlift, and Barbell Hip Thrust for Leg and Hip Muscle Activities During Hip Extension. J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Oct;33(10):2595-2601. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003290.

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Athina Crilley

Athina Crilley is a Biochemistry graduate and a qualified health, nutrition, and recovery coach. She believes that health and fitness is a lifestyle and should be enjoyable. She currently works with online clients to achieve their goals and creates helpful and informative content online through her podcast and social media platforms. She has also written and published a book all about her struggles and recovery from an eating disorder called ‘Diaries of An Anorexic’.

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