A simple eye-test should tell you that the deadlift is a great lift for rowing performance. A big push with the legs, a tight torso to transfer the force, and an external load held in the hands. It is very similar to the first three-quarters of the drive and provides a great opportunity to teach and reinforce the same skills as in the boat. The deadlift is also an extremely effective developer of the posterior chain muscles, which are important for performance as well as back health. However, not all deadlifts are created equal, so what is the best deadlift for rowing? Here are the variations of deadlifts you’re likely to see in the gym, the pros and cons of each, my grade for each one, and my ultimate favorite deadlift for rowing.

Remember that the goal of strength training for rowing is to become a better rower! If all you care about is lifting the most weight or the most reps, go compete in strength sports. What we care about here is finding the best deadlift for the goal of rowing stronger, faster, healthier, and longer.

Click on the title of each deadlift for the demonstration video from my exercise guide.

Conventional Deadlift

This is the most common form of deadlift and probably the image you had in your mind. The conventional deadlift used to be my favorite form of deadlift for rowers, but more on that later.

GRADE: 4/5

  • Pros:
    • Similar positioning to the stroke
    • Good transference of cues from stroke to lift
    • Effectively targets posterior chain muscles
    • Equipment (barbell and plates) is commonly available
  • Cons:
    • It is easier to get wrong than my favorite deadlift variation
    • Athletes max out quickly on the double-overhand grip. I suggest using straps when this occurs rather than a mixed-grip, but not every weight-room has straps available.
    • While injuries are relatively rare, because of the amount of weight that can be used, they are often more dramatic and can make athletes nervous
    • It has a fixed starting position that is the same regardless of how the lifter is built
    • Tall rowers often struggle to achieve solid positioning at the bottom of the lift

Touch-and-Go Deadlift

In the touch-and-go deadlift, athletes perform reps without a dead-stop at the floor after each rep. This is often unintentional as athletes look to squeeze out a few more reps in a set and use the bounce to get out of the hardest part of the lift. Ultimately, touch-and-go deadlifting suffers from the same problem as the conventional deadlift and is not a variation I use with rowers.

GRADE: 1/5

  • Pros:
    • Allows for overloading the top of the deadlift for extra glute and upper back work and less lower back
    • Minimizes the bottom part of the lift, usually the hardest part technically and physically
  • Cons:
    • Takes the “dead” out of dead-lift and fails to develop the bottom portion of the lift. The raw strength developed at the bottom of the lift is important for teaching connection and building leg and back power for a strong first stroke of a start
    • Too easy to get wrong. Touching becomes bouncing, and reps get sloppy and injury risk increases
    • Usually allows for more weight or more reps than a dead-stop deadlift, which means more systemic stress

Sumo Deadlift

The sumo deadlift has no place in a rowing program. The movements are too dissimilar, the stance width is too wide, the hip action is totally different, and it’s one of the more complex skills you can tackle in a weight-room. Rowers have too many other things to do to waste time on this exercise!

GRADE: 0/5

  • Pros:
    • None
  • Cons:
    • Stance width too wide for carryover to rowing performance
    • Complex technical movement specific to the sport of powerlifting
    • Hip action too different from the stroke
    • Requires great groin flexibility

Deficit Deadlift

In a deficit deadlift, the lifter stands on a 2-6” raised platform to increase the range of motion of a conventional deadlift. This is a tempting deadlift variation to include in a rowing program for its increased demand on leg drive, but is one that I very rarely use with rowers for the cons listed below.

GRADE: 2/5

  • Pros:
    • Increased demand of leg drive
    • More compressed bottom position similar to the stroke
    • Athletes use lighter weights than other variations, which means less systemic stress
    • Still achieves the same goal of conventional deadlift
  • Cons:
    • Increases difficulty of the bottom position, where rowers tend to struggle anyway
    • More shear force on spine than conventional deadlift due to more bent-over torso position
    • More complex technique than the conventional deadlift

Block or Rack Pull Deadlift

The block or rack pull deadlift is the opposite of a deficit deadlift, as the lifter elevates the bar 2-6” above its normal starting height using blocks under the weights or by resting the bar itself on a power rack. The primary benefit of this deadlift variation is to find the ideal bottom position for athletes of different heights, which allows us to get around the conventional deadlift’s limitation of being one of the only lifts with a fixed starting height.

GRADE: 4.5/5

  • Pros:
    • Customizable bottom position improves utility of the lift for athletes of different heights
    • Allows each athlete to train the bottom position from their best and most stable position possible
    • Less shear force on the spine from a less bent-over starting position
    • Allows athletes with mobility restriction to perform some kind of deadlift while working to improve their mobility and gradually reduce the starting height to the floor
  • Cons:
    • Requires a trained eye to evaluate the best starting position for each athlete
    • Without evaluation, many athletes will end up lifting from too high of a position simply because it allows them to lift more weight
    • If using an elevated pull to train around a mobility restriction, the mobility restriction should also be addressed separately, but is often neglected

Trap Bar Deadlift

I saved the best for last. The trap bar, or hex bar, deadlift had been on my radar for a while, but it wasn’t until our university weight-room was renovated that we had enough bars to use with the whole team. This lift has numerous benefits, next to no drawbacks, and is my #1 favorite deadlift variation for rowers.

GRADE: 5/5

  • Pros:
    • Most natural technique of the deadlift variations, easiest for athletes to get right
    • Starting position of the lift is a hybrid between a squat and conventional deadlift, which produces much more even loading on the lower body muscles
    • More upright torso position is more similar to the rowing stroke
    • More upright torso position results in less shear force on the spine
    • Side-handles do not allow for a mixed grip, so athletes either use a normal grip or straps and don’t take on this extra risk of imbalance
    • Most trap bars have a high handle and a low handle, which provides a higher starting position for taller athletes more easily than setting up blocks
  • Cons:
    • Trap bars are not as widely available as a barbell and weights. However, they are still relatively common and can also be purchased for less than $150.

Want to learn more about the deadlift?

READ: How to Train Your Rower, The Deadlift

WATCH: How I Teach the Conventional Deadlift

LISTEN: Strength Coach Roundtable Episode 6, The Deadlift

2 Comments

  1. What do you think of deadlifting with a heavy dumbbell in each hand? I realize it has its limitations in terms of maximum weight, but I find it particularly good for transitioning to a dynamic squat jump variation during the speed and power phase of training.
    Keep up the good work Will!

    1. Hi George,

      Thanks very much. The limitation of weight would be a deal-breaker for me, as well as the very low pick height. If you have heavy enough dumbbells to still be challenging for you, I’d recommend raising the pick height so it’s at least as high as a conventional deadlift. The lower the pick height, generally the more challenging to the lower back and the more challenging the technique of the bottom position. However, if it works for you, then it works for you. I think using it during that power transition period is the best place for it, I’d just want a heavier variation you can use in other phases.

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