The One Arm Deadlift
by Brooks Kubik
The one arm deadlift is one of my favorite exercises. Why? There are several reasons.
1.) All of the oldtimers practiced the exercise, so you can compare your own performance to that of the immortals of the pre-drug era.
2.) The one arm deadlift is one of the very best exercises you can do for your grip.
3.) The one arm deadlift is one of the very best exercises you can do for your entire body. Once you get up to a respectable poundage, you will find that this exercise is one of the most rugged movements a man can do.
4.) No armchair academician has ever used the one arm deadlift as the basis for a research study or grad school project.
5.) You can do the one arm deadlift with no equipment other than a barbell.
6.) The exercise is severely, brutally, demonically hard! Since the one arm deadlift hits the entire body rather than just the grip I will discuss it as an all around movement. But remember, the this exercise is a supremely effective grip builder.
How do you perform the one arm deadlift? Here’s what works best for me. I use a cambered bar – it’s much easier to balance than a straight bar. The Buffalo Bar sold by IronMind is perfect for one arm deadlifting, and also a great bar for squatting. Another type of bar that works well is the McDonald bench press bar.
If you have an old kettlebell handle, you can use that to make a special bar for one arm deadlifts (this isn’t a classic kettlebell, but a U-shaped handle that slips over a dumbell or barbell).
If you use a kettlebell handle and a five- or six-foot bar, you will find that the balance on the lift is a breeze. With that type of equipment, any experienced lifter ought to make it into the 400-pound club (or the double bodyweight club for lighter lifters).
I start with the straddle-style deadlift. Straddling the bar, use a shoulder-width stance or one that is slightly wider, lock your low back, torso muscles and lats, reach down, flex the triceps on the lifting arm to keep it straight, keep the back flat and grab the bar exactly in the center. If you miss the center by even half an inch you probably will miss the lift. It’s best to measure the center or the bar and mark it with white tape, chalk or a magic marker.
BRACE THE NON-LIFTING HAND ON THE KNEE. THIS IS CRITICAL. When you start the pull, drive the heels through the floor just like you would do in a normal deadlift, pull with the lifting hand and PUSH DOWN HARD with the hand that is braced on the knee. Nothing will happen at first – then, slowly and majestically, the bar will leave the floor.
Pull the bar to the point where it is just above the knees, pause, then lower it carefully. At the conclusion of the lift, lock the knees. However, the torso need not be fully erect. In fact, it is actually better to finish the movement with the torso bent, so you can continue to have support for the non-lifting hand that is braced on the thigh or knee. If you come fully erect with the bar, you lose the support provided by the non-lifting hand, and this can easily lead to an injury. Train hard and be aggressive, but always pay attention to biomechanics and leverage.
Some men prefer doing the one arm deadlift with the bar in front of the legs, just like a regular deadlift. Give it a try and see which method you prefer. The performance is similar- non-lifting hand braced against the thigh or knee, and a hard pull that carries the bar to knee height.
If you want to hammer your grip, try doing either version of the one arm deadlift with a 2” bar. a recent report on the British Grip Championships listed gripman David Horne as pulling just under 200 pounds in the one arm deadlift with a 2” bar, so you can see that it’s an awfully tough movement.
A powerful old-timer, Ernest Cadine, is credited with a one arm deadlift with the Apollon Bell – a set of railroad car wheels connected by an axle measuring just under 2” thick. The little monster weighed 366 pounds. If Cadine truly managed a one arm deadlift with this enormous mass of metal, it goes down as one of the all-time great feats of grip strength in the history of the Iron Game.
Always do singles in the one arm deadlift. You cannot maintain the proper balance and groove if you do multiple reps. This holds true on all of your sets, including your warmup sets.
After doing the straddle-style lift, I switch to the “suitcase-style” variation. Stand next to the bar, with the feet shoulder width apart or a little wider, lock the low back, torso muscles and lats, flex the triceps on the lifting arm to hold it in place, brace the non-lifting hand on the knee, grab the bar and PULL. With a heavy poundage, nothing will happen for a second – then the bar will slowly start to move, and you will be able to pull it to a fully erect position. Be aware, however, that the lift will NOT feel easy. There are no “sweet spots’ in this movement. It starts hard, stays hard and ends hard.
Due to the change in leverage compared to the straddle-style lift, I find that I can safely stand fully erect with the bar when I perform the suitcase version of the lift. Be warned, though, that this exercise will hammer your hips, low back and obliques – particularly the latter. Standing erect with 200 or more pounds hanging at arm’s length from one hand is sheer torture for the torso and trunk muscles.
If you are like me, you will find that your top poundage in the suitcase-style lift is much lower than in the straddle-style. Osmo Kiiha, the editor and publisher of “The Iron Master” and one of the most knowledgeable guys in the Iron Game today says that a 200-pound lift in the suitcase-style is good and a 250-pound effort is top notch. In the straddle-style, however, most competitive lifters should work up to 400 pounds or more, so you have a big difference between the two lifts (Osmo, by the way, is the guy who introduced me to this terrific exercise).
In my own case, I have handled 435 pounds in the straddle-style deadlift (using a 1” thick McDonald bar) and 300 pounds in the suitcase-style lift. So there’s roughly a 150-pound difference between the two movements in my own case. Believe me, though, the lighter weight in the suitcase-style lift is still a killer.
You can use a regular grip or a hook grip for the one arm deadlift. However, a non-hook grip has more training effect as far as your grip goes. If you wish, train the straddle-style lift with a hook grip, the suitcase-style with a regular grip, and then do some thick bar deadlifts for extra grip work.
If you want to give one arm deadlifts a try, start out light, learn the movement, build up slowly and train with your head rather than your emotions. Play it safe. Regardless of your politics, be conservative when it comes to one arm deadlifting – especially if you try the suitcase-style lift. The one arm deadlift is a terrific exercise but you need to work into it slowly and gradually. Remember, you are always somewhat at risk when doing a one arm version of any exercise, and you are working areas you don’t hit with other exercises.
Once you get the feel of he movement, you can start to add weight. Don’t underestimate yourself. Some of the old-timers handled tremendous weights in the one arm deadlift. Louis Cyr deadlifted a 525-pound dumbell with one hand; moreover, the bar supposedly was 1.5” thick. He made this lift in 1896, at a bodyweight of over 300 pounds.
Thomas Inch is credited with a one arm deadlift on a 1.5” bar with 402 pounds. This was at a bodyweight of only 210 pounds. I don’t know the year of this lift, but Inch was lifting long before the First World War. One report says Inch later managed 500 pounds in the one arm deadlift – presumably on a 1” cambered bar (the type favored by British lifters of that era for one arm deadlifts).
August Johnson pulled 475 pounds in a contest with Louis Cyr, using the same 1.5” thick dumbell with which the French Canadian pulled 525. Johnson weighed but 205 when he made this lift.
John Y. Smith, the famous
W.A. “Bill” Pullum, the “dean” of English weight training for many years, lifted 324 pounds in the one arm deadlift. He weighed only 122 pounds when he managed this tremendous lift in 1914.
George Hackenschmidt, the famed “Russian Lion” of professional wrestling and a world record holder in many lifts around the turn of the century, once lifted a 660-pound stone with one hand “merely for the joke of the thing.” The stone had an iron ring set in the top. This may have been more of a hand and thigh lift than an actual one arm deadlift, and it may have been a less than full range movement, but even so we are talking about pulling TRIPLE BODYWEIGHT with one arm! “Hack” weighed under 220 pounds when he made this remarkable lift.
In the 1950’s, Peter Cortese lifted 365 pounds in the one arm deadlift at a bodyweight of only 115 pounds. That’s MORE than triple bodyweight! Cortese could handle more in the one arm deadlift than in the two arm version.
Edward Aston, one of
The undisputed king of one arm deadlifters, however, is the German strongman, Hermann Goerner. At a bodyweight of about 220 pounds, Goerner performed a one arm deadlift with 727.5 pounds in
You may or may not reach the Goerner level in the one arm deadlift. In the final analysis, it doesn’t really matter. If you train the one arm deadlift HARD for a couple of years, you will end up with a tremendous increase in overall strength and power – especially grip strength. The one arm deadlift has worked well for many generations of lifters. It can work just as well for you. Give it a try.