Best Unilateral Exercises to Improve Your Deadlift
There are not many more satisfying things in the gym than pulling a heavy barbell deadlift from the floor. It’s you versus the barbell, and you win. The regular barbell deadlift is not the greatest exercise to build muscle due to a lack of eccentric contraction, but it sets the table for muscle.
A stronger muscle can move more weight for more reps and tension for improved muscle-building potential, but pulling heavy bilaterally can lead to strength imbalances and weakness that stop you from being your best. Here, we’ll dive into what’s needed for a strong deadlift, deadlift weakness, and three unilateral exercises for a stronger deadlift.
Let’s grip it and rip it, shall we?
What’s Needed For The Barbell Deadlift
There are various barbell deadlift variations, from regular to sumo to rack pulls, and three ways to grip and rip it. But no matter your deadlift style, there are a few non-negotiables.
- Grip strength: Whether you use an overhand or a mixed grip, you still need to grip and rip it. This doesn’t happen without a decent level of grip strength.
- Solid hinge technique: A few genetic outliers can round their spine and pull heavy from the floor, but you’re probably not one of them.
- Hip mobility: Hand in hand for the first point. It pays to have good hip mobility to grip and rip it from the floor with a neutral spine.
- Upper back strength: Keeping the barbell close to you when you pull is essential for a neutral spine and a safer pull.
- Core strength: Your midsection, abs, or whatever you call them, need to be locked in to keep your spine neutral and to stop you from folding like a deck chair.
Main Deadlift Weaknesses
When you’re pushing the envelope and approaching 90% 1RM or above territory, you will move further away from pristine form, and that’s okay. Doing so exposes the things you need to work out to improve. Here are a few deadlift weaknesses that crop up.
- Pulling slowly off the floor: The longer it takes to rip it from the floor, the more lower back stress and the less likely you will lock it out. Improving leg drive is the key here.
- Lack of lower and upper back strength: Rounding the lower or upper spine will cause the bar to drift away from the body.
- Losing your grip: You can use straps or a mixed grip, but it pays to have better than average grip strength when pulling heavy from the floor. Not just for the deadlift but for the pickle jar, too.
- Lack Of Lockout Strength: Finishing or locking out with your lower back is not okay. Just ask your spine.
If these deadlift weaknesses crop up or you notice you favor one side over the other, these three unilateral deadlift accessory exercises are for you. Start inserting these exercises into your routine for a stronger and safer deadlift.
3 Unilateral Exercises To Improve Your Deadlift
Here, we’ll try to narrow down the three best unilateral exercises to improve your deadlift. Sorry, this is a bicep curl-free zone.
Front Racked Pin Stop Split Squat
You cannot avoid the split squat if you want a bigger and stronger deadlift. The quads are crucial for leg drive, especially when pulling from the floor or doing sumo. There are a few split squat variations you could plug in here, but the Pin Stop split squat wins out. Because you’re starting in the bottom position, like the Anderson squat and pulling from the floor, you’re taking the stretch reflex out of the equation and focusing on leg drive. The front rack position also trains anterior core and upper back strength.
How to do it:
- Set the pins and the barbell in the correct half-kneeling position for you.
- Get underneath the barbell in the half-kneeling position and assume the front rack position.
- With your shoulders down and chest up, drive your front foot through the floor and stand up.
- Slowly lower to the pins, pause and reset, and repeat for the desired reps.
Sets & reps: The Pin Stop split squat will test your balance and upper back strength, so start on the lighter side and do fewer repetitions until you get into a groove. Pairing with a hip mobility exercise works well due to the intensity of this exercise.
1A. Pin stop split squat six to eight reps per side.
1B. Leg abducted rocking eight reps per side.
Landmine Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
Now you’ve worked on the quad leg drive, it’s time to strengthen glute and hamstring imbalances with the single-leg deadlift. The problem with many single-leg deadlift variations is it’s a balance challenge, which can limit the load you can use. Enter the landmine single-leg deadlift, with its long lever and fixed bar path, which takes the balance challenge out of it and
allows you to lift heavier. The bonus with this variation is gripping the barbell sleeve works on grip strength, and the heavier load and fixed bar path better recruit the hamstring muscles.
How to do it:
- Stand perpendicular to a loaded landmine barbell with both feet underneath the sleeve.
- Hinge to bend forward until you can grab the sleeve of a barbell with the hand closest to the attachment and stand up.
- Lift the foot on the same side as the hand off the floor.
- Maintaining a slight bend in your working knee, hinge until your torso is parallel to the ground.
- Drive your foot through the floor to stand up, reset, and repeat for reps.
Sets & reps: As mentioned, this variation can be loaded, so don’t be afraid to go heavy. As an accessory exercise, three to four sets of six to 12 reps per side works great.
Stability Unilateral Dumbbell Bentover Row
Upper back and grip strength are crucial for deadlifts, meaning single-arm rows are required. Almost any variation could be plugged in here, but IMO, the stability unilateral bent-over row is the total package. With its increased stability and being in the deadlift position, this variation strengthens the lower and upper back and the ability to do more reps with the same weight. And it works on the biceps and grip strength; what more do you want?
How to do it:
- With a dumbbell on the opposite side of the squat rack, perform a hinge and grip the dumbbell with your arm extended.
- Grip the squat rack with the non-working hand.
- Then, with your chest up and shoulders down, row the dumbbell to the outside of your hip.
- Slowly lower to the starting position, reset, and repeat.
Sets & reps: Don’t be afraid to go heavier than a regular bent-over dumbbell row because of the increased stability. As an accessory exercise, three to four sets of 10 to 15 reps per side works well.