LOADING AND PULLING tons of weight creates major strength and muscle (and for many lifters, just as much fun)—which is a big reason the barbell deadlift is widely regarded as strength training’s gold standard exercise. Deadlifts target nearly every major muscle group, especially your back, glutes, hamstrings, and core, while allowing you to lift majorly heavy loads.
According to Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., and MH Advisory Board member David Otey, C.S.C.S. because there are so many steps involved in moving heavy weight—from grip to hinge to squat—there are several assistance exercises that everyone should be adding to their routines in order to nail a new one-rep max.
Here are five of those must-do moves.
5 Best Accessory Exercises for Stronger Deadlifts
3 to 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps
This bent-over row variation is a posterior chain heavy hitter. The main focus of the Pendlay row—in which you raise weight to your torso from a dead stop position on the floor—is working on the concentric portion, the reps you pull from the floor. One key to remember is to allow the bar to “crash” to the ground—this will allow you to work on stabilizing the weight as you’re putting your lats and scapular muscles to work.
“Do not think about doing this lift slowly,” Samuel says. “What you want to think about doing is creating tension through your hamstrings, tension through your glutes, tension through your core—maintain all that tension and then think about ripping the bar off the ground, pulling it up with speed because that’s the key.”
These can be added as an accessory on a deadlift day or as an opening exercise on back day. Go for three to four sets of 6 to 8 reps.
3 sets of 8 to 12 reps
The good morning is an oftentimes underrated move that gets passed over for Romanian deadlifts. The good morning provide a unique hinge-movement challenge you can’t replicate from other exercises. Unlike RDLs, because the load is placed on your back, it creates a new way to really feel the eccentric portion of each rep.
Good mornings can be a little tricky at first, so it’s better to master technique over weight. You’re going to be creating a bit of tension in your mid-back, so don’t just rest the bar there. You want to make sure you’re steering and controlling the bar before pushing your butt back as you hinge forward. This will create some great core tension before driving back up.
For starters, keep it in the eight to 12 rep range, taking your time with each rep to establish that mind-muscle connection. If necessary, even reduce the range of motion at first—or even shift to a front loaded goblet position, as Otey demonstrates in the clip—to get a better feel.
How many times has your grip slipped as your deadlift load got heavier? This is likely because you’re only as strong as the weight you can hold, which is one reason why farmer’s carries are great for tapping into that grip strength. They’re also great at locking in your posterior chain and shoulders as you brace yourself for the movement.
No matter the equipment—dumbbells, kettlebells, trap bars, to name a few—your grip will be challenged as you stand, hold, and walk. You’re also going to want to work on squeezing your shoulder blades and tighten your abs as you squeeze and move.
Otey believes the best way to implement the carry is in chunks time over distance, go for about three to four sets, 30 seconds each with anywhere from 25 percent to 50 percent held in each hand. You can even march if space is limited, which will still give you adequate core tension.
4 sets of 20 to 30 seconds, on, 40 seconds off
When you master its form, the kettlebell swing becomes a fun and challenging conditioning movement that also carries over to a stronger and better deadlift.
Two things to be aware of as you begin swinging:
- Get as tall as possible with your swing before bringing the bell back down.
- Remember it’s not necessary to bring the bell all the way up to your shoulders. The purpose of the kettlebell swing: to ballistically move the weight in front of you.
If the kettlebell consistently rises above your shoulders when you swing, chances are you’re using too light a load. The opposite holds true as well: If the bell’s barely moving past your hips, you may want to use a lighter kettlebell. The goal is to keep each swing powerful.
Kettlebell swings make a great finisher that will greatly improve your deadlift. Think about three to four sets of 20 to 30 seconds on and 40 seconds off. If you’re incorporating these into the beginning of your workout, go heavy, with about three to four reps of four to eight reps
3 sets of 4 to 6 reps
If you have a sticking point, there’s no better way to unstick yourself than the rack pull. What makes the move so beneficial for athletes is that no matter the point at which you struggle, you can set the load at that point and work from there. Rack pulls also work if you just want to lift heavy weight, which is the main goal of many deadlifters.
This movement works especially well for those with mobility limitations that make deadlifting from the floor a painful challenge. Rack pulls are an option to allow you to lift heavy from depth that’s comfortable for each lifter
Since rack pulls are mainly a strength-based move, low reps are probably a better option—try four to eight reps—but higher volume is okay as well. No matter the volume you choose, treat each rep like a single. Lift, reset, then lift again.
Jeff Tomko is a freelance fitness writer who has written for Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, and Men’s Health.