Updated: Jul 28, 2021
For athletes with long legs, artificially "shortening" the legs may be necessary for the deadlift.
Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC
In certain gyms occupying the danker realms of the Inferno, there exists an unpleasant assistance exercise called a deficit deadlift, used by advanced and competitive athletes to take their deadlifts from Damn Strong to Really Damn Strong. In this variant, the lifter positions himself above the level of the floor, so the bar is an inch or two lower relative to the usual. (One could also, I suppose, lower the floor, but that often presents logistical, safety, and marital difficulties that outweigh the supposed benefits).
The deficit dead is used for advanced lifters because it lengthens the pull and results in a more horizontal back, which will suggest to anybody with a modicum of imagination and experience that the exercise is harder. It is.
The ideal, perfect, categorical, Platonic Deadlifter is a short guy with short legs, long arms incapable of flexing and actively pulling on the bar, and steel hooks where his hands are supposed to be. This guy can set up with a less horizontal back, and his distance to lockout is relatively short--meaning he has to do less work to complete his pull.
Figure 1. Mr. Deadlift. Short legs, long arms, big strong hands, short distance from floor to lockout, nice smile, really badass shorts. This guy does your max for reps to warm up on light day.
Fortunately, not all of us are built like this. Some people are what we might call "lanky," or what the Scandinavians call "average." Some people have very long legs relative to their torsos and arms. When you take these praying-mantis-phenotype outliers through a standard deadlift setup, what you'll get is the bar over the midfoot (good), shins on the bar (good), knees inside the elbows (good), arms projecting posteriorly to the bar (good), hamstrings tight (good), long straight elbows (good), and the ass higher than the shoulders (unfortunate). They end up in a deficit deadlift position by default, simply by virtue of their anthropometry.
So, when it comes to deadlifts, those people are screwed.
In both figures, trunk and arm length are identical. Stumpy, in A, has a perfect dead setup, and his back angle is in a nominal range. Lanky, in B, also has a perfect deadlift setup, and his back angle can be most charitably described as unenviable.
But they're not irretrievably screwed, because we can make adjustments to get them out of the deficit position, into something resembling a more standard deadlift setup.
The key here is to make their legs shorter.
Hacksaws and other invasive approaches to this solution have proven unsatisfactory in my client population, and there have been some vociferous recriminations and lost revenue. Mistakes were made.
But a noninvasive approach is available, and the solution my colleagues and I most often use turns out to be astonishingly simple.
First, we ask the athlete to widen the grip. The astute reader may recoil from this suggestion. After all, if we widen the grip, we have two immediate impacts that seem unsavory. First, a wider grip will lengthen the pull--it must travel further to lockout if the grip is wider (think about it, or better yet, demonstrate it to yourself). Second, and more importantly, this grip tends to make the back more horizontal. Don't believe me? Look at the back angles in the snatch (wide grip) and clean (narrower grip) for any Olympic lifter.
But in this case, we're not asking the lifter to take a snatch grip, only a grip that's at most 1-3 inches wider than the grip they've been using. Then, we use this wider grip to allow the knees to go further apart. The knees go into the crook of the elbows and lock into place there, as they always do. But with the elbows further apart, the knees can project more laterally.
This increased abduction of the knees need not (and should not) be dramatic to have the beneficial impact we're looking for. We don't want to create unnecessarily large moments between the knee and the foot, after all. But if we just moderately increase the grip width and then project our knees out proportionally, we'll find that we have made our legs artificially shorter. (We've also decreased soft tissue impingement on the femurs.) The pull will be slightly longer, but this will be offset by a more workable startup position, with the hips now just below the shoulders. No more deficit deadlift.
Figure 3: Widening the grip allows greater extent of knee abduction, which lowers the hip. Limb lengths are constant in the figure.
Figure 4. Although the subject here could not by any stretch of the imagination be called "lanky," this montage nevertheless demonstrates the principle at issue. In the left panels, the grip and setup are standard. In the right panels, the subject has widened his grip, allowing further abduction of the knees. Note the difference in back angle between the two conditions in the lower panels.
I want to emphasize that this variant should be prescribed only for those relatively unusual athletes who, upon the proper execution of a deadlift setup procedure, end up in a deficit position, with hips higher than the shoulders. If you or your client conduct a proper setup and find that your back is nearly horizontal, then...so be it.
It is a cornerstone of our thinking about the dead that we are not trying to eliminate shear and stress on the back. We're just dealing with shear and stress on the back, by making the back stronger. The technique described here is reserved for those with Slim Jim phenotypes, who need a setup variation to get into a workable deadlift position. Put this trick in your toolkit, and let us know how it works for you.
Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.