There aren’t many exercises more “raw” than a barbell deadlift. But most people doing traditional deadlifts chase the extra plates, often sacrificing the tension required to make it a good bodybuilding exercise.
The heels-elevated trap bar deadlift encourages you to chase the tension while also reducing low-back strain. It’s a bit more squatty, which means it can build your quads. Here’s how it’s done:
Hip Versus Knee-Dominant
A “hip-dominant” deadlift means more movement is encouraged at your hips versus your knees. Biomechanically speaking, peak hip moments are greater.
Hip-dominant doesn’t mean knee movement is absent though. This includes Romanian deadlifts, which are very hip-dominant, yet your knees still move a little. If we were to place deadlifts on some kind of continuum from most to least hip-dominant, they’d look like this:
- Most Hip-Dominant: Romanian Deadlift
- Moderately Hip-Dominant: Conventional Deadlift
- Less Hip-Dominant: Basic Trap Bar Deadlift
- Least Hip-Dominant: Sumo Deadlift
The more hip-dominant, the less knee-dominant and vice versa. So, a sumo deadlift is more knee-dominant than a conventional deadlift. Individual variances in limb-lengths aside, this is why those with weaker backs and stronger quads tend to do better at sumo deadlifts than conventional (the demands on your back are roughly 10% higher during conventional).
If you want to work your back, glutes, and hamstrings more, then do Romanian deadlifts. If you want to take some load away from your hips and add some to your quads, basic trap-bar deadlifts and sumo deadlifts are better.
But for bodybuilding purposes, you might as well scrap deadlifts altogether and opt for something even more knee-dominant like squats. That is, unless you manipulate your deadlifts to become more squat-like.
To make deadlifts work your quads harder, it’s a simple matter of degrees. You need to achieve a greater degree of flexion at your knees and less at your hips.
By elevating your heels using a plate or heel-wedge, you’ll automatically notice a more upright torso, greater knee bend, and a somewhat “squatty” deadlift. If you measured the knee and hip angle you’d come pretty darn close to the high-bar back squat. Plus, they put you in an ideal position to chase some tension through your quads.
So, Why Not Just Squat?
There’s a reason why the best strength and bodybuilding programs cycle their big lifts. Rotation of exercises within a program is important for preventing overuse injuries, staleness, and allowing continuous development over time.
Squatting with a bar on your back every week applies a certain pattern of loading. Switching to a squatty deadlift every now and then will avoid the axial loading of a heavy bar on your back, while continuing to strengthen and build your quads.
But Wait, There’s More: Assistance Exercises
While I hate the term “assistance exercise” since it implies a lack of importance, certain exercises can be useful in assisting your squatty deadlifts. Here are some options:
Leg Extension With Iso-Hold
Most squatty lifts share the same drawback when it comes to developing your quads. While squats do a great job at activating most areas of your quads, they fall a little short when it comes to your rectus femoris (one of the quad muscles that runs up the middle of your thigh).
This is largely due to it crossing over the hip and knee, and acting both as a hip flexor and knee extensor. Essentially, the hip and knee movements that occur during squats never allow this muscle to be trained through large ranges of motion.
One exercise that can make up for that is the leg extension machine. Sitting with a flexed hip while extending your knee works to load this muscle in its shortened position. Try holding it at the top to eliminate cheating and work that peak contraction even harder.
Horizontal Back Extension
All forms of back extensions would work well alongside your squatty deadlifts. They target your glutes and hamstrings without having to put much load through your back.
However, the more horizontal force vector associated with these horizontal back extensions make them the better choice for targeting your glutes. Why? Because they maximally shorten at the top of the lift, while 45-degree back extensions tend to be better for more of a hamstring focus since they load more through the mid-portion of the lift.
Lying Hamstring Curl One-And-One-Quarter
When they want to build bigger quads, most lifters devote more of the workout to exercises that build them. Your hamstrings and other areas become neglected as a result. This is a mistake, especially when it comes to your hams.
Besides the fact that stronger hamstrings will protect your knees when squatting and leg pressing, they’ll also give your body the go-ahead to add slabs to your quads. Structural balance between antagonistic muscles are important, and if a muscle on one side of a joint is weaker than the other, your body is clever enough to do something about it.
Stronger hamstrings mean stronger quads, and one of the best ways to work them in isolation is with the lying hamstring curl machine. You might even want to do these as a first exercise prior to your squatty lifts. That way you can work your hamstrings while you’re fresh and get plenty of blood around your knees before hammering your quads.
Your knees will feel better and your quads will grow faster. Try the one-and-one-quarter method to up the intensity from your regular hamstring curls.