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The One-Handed Deadlift

By Tom Black

     No other lift is quite like the one-handed deadlift, for its many variances open up a world of potential benefits for hand, forearm, and ultimately overall body strength.  I have been pondering for awhile what could be the best exercise to work the hand and forearm.  The one-handed deadlift has one benefit that I believe may be unique in hand strength feats and exercise.  Mainly, with heavy weights, this lift in essence "channels" the strength of the entire body through the hand and to the lifting bar.  At best, great exercises such as the Captains of Crush grippers, leverage lifting, or pinch gripping only work the hand and forearm.  Thick dumbbell and pinch gripping, while awesome in their ability to work the hand, are not as challenging to the entire body because the weight is limited due to the difficulty of just holding on to the implement.  Only the Farmers Walk can tax the overall body like a one handed deadlift.
The adjacent picture shows a 350-pound ring deadlift.  In this picture the loading pin is full, I had no way of getting more weight on the pin (I doubt that I could have done more anyway).  The next day my hand was worked to the bone and my lower back felt like I had done a full 2-handed deadlift with my limit weight.

     Of the deadlift variations, all are beneficial.  Ultimately, I have to tip my hat to the one handed deadlift with a fixed, non-rotating bar.  Quite simply, the non-rotating bar enables more weight to be lifted.  Lift a non-rotating bar straddle style and even more weight can be added.  Most people with a good grip already, while performing non-rotating bar deadlifts, should be able to obtain weights that will challenge their back, legs, trapezoids and oblique muscles.  While not a one handed deadlift, the picture below of Tony Massimo (circa 1920's) certainly shows how the trapezoid muscles come into play when performing a straddle-style lift.

     One thing that makes one-hand deadlifts interesting is the many variations that can be obtained by using different handles. The following list details the standard handles, and a new idea I had for a deadlift "handle."

Deadlift Handle Implements

Ring- Anywhere from 1/2 inch to 1 inch thick rings are good for anywhere from one finger lifts to full hand lits.  Rings can be attached to rocks for Dinnie Stone inspired lifts, although all that is really needed is a loading pin and lots of heavy weights.  I bought my ring at a local industrial steel supplier, but it can be found at  Slingchoker.com.  (Model S-643, Stock #1013806) My ring is 5 1/2x 7/8 and can hold 5600 pounds, according to specification.  That should be strong enough :-)  Many people find that they can lift the most with the ring.  I have found that I can lift even more with my Piedmont Design Associates (PDA's) "Farmers" with the standard handle.  The ring works well with a combination loading pin and carabiner, however, you may need a large carabiner to hook around the ring and a small carabiner to fit in the hole on the loading pin (see top picture).

Cable Handle- The handle used on cable machines can be used in combination with a loading pin and carabiner for one handed deadlifts (see picture below) . It seems obvious that this would work, but for a long time I never thought to try this.  I basically did my Rolling Thunder and one hand deadlifts with a full Olympic bar.  With the cable handle you should be able to do more than an Olympic bar because you do not have to balance the weight.  You will be able to do less than the ring because the cable handle will roll like an Olympic bar (but not as smoothly).  I warm up with the cable handle then start doing the ring with the same weight as my last 1 or 2 sets of cable handle deadlifts.

Pear Shaped Ring- Good for one finger lifts.  This ring can also be found at Slingchoker.  I have both the round and pear shaped ring.  The round ring is more versatile.

Rolling Thunder or a Thick Rolling Bar-  So much has been written about lifting a thick rolling bar that I will not go into much detail here.

Rotating Barbell Handle- Preferably with the center marked with knurling.  A revolving handle will be more challenging than fixed-give both a try.   Quite a bit more weight can be lifted with a hook grip, but it will take you awhile to get used to the pain.  I prefer the non-hook grip, but I am slowly working my way up with the hook grip, knowing eventually that more weight can be lifted with the hook grip.  This lift can be done with the bar in three different positions. The bar can be lifted out in front, like a regular deadlift but with one hand, straddle style with the bar between the legs and finally as a suitcase lift, with the bar to the right or left side.

Non-Rotating Barbell Handle-  I use PDA's Farmers for this, but you could use a standard bar with the weights locked in tight.  This would prevent the bar from rotating, but it still won't be as stable as the PDA Farmers, which I highly recommend.  This lift can be accomplished in the three positions as noted above for the rotating barbell handle deadlift.

Nail Deadlifts-  This is not really a deadlift in the traditional sense, but I wanted to get the idea out to the grip world.  Take a 60-penny nail and bend it 2 inches from the point.  If your already strong enough to do this with your hands you may not need this exercise, otherwise, use a vise and a pipe for leverage.  Once you have your hooked nail you can simply hook the nail to a carabiner, and then attach this to a loading pin.  Hold the nail vertically and pick up the weight.  This is similar to John Brookfield's rope lift.  This lift will teach your hand how to hold real tight on a thin object.  Unlike the rope lift, you can hold the nail horizontal, being careful not to let the hook slip off the carabiner in this position.

The Deadlift Workout 

      Now that we have reviewed some handles used for deadlifting, lets explore how they can be used in a workout.  You'll note that many of the handles above can be used on a loading pin with a carabiner attached.  You

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 can totally work your hands more than you can possibly imagine using 4 or more different handles per workout.  Even more important, if the lifts are smooth and calculated your hands will be healed and ready to go a week later (this will not seem even remotely possible the day after your workout, but your hands can heal fast).  In my comments above for each implement, I noted that some are easier than others when you consider total weight that can be lifted with any particular handle.  I've designed a workout that starts with a small amount of weight (only 50 pounds) and keeps adding weight until I literally run out of room on my loading pin (until I buy more 50 pound plates).  For convenience, I use two pins, only loading the first up to 100 pounds or so and then moving to one loaded with 100 pounds (2x50 pound plates).   The complete workout, minus the commentary, can be found at the end of the article for quick reference. 

      I start the workout with the 5 1/2"x7/8" ring.  I do single reps with one finger, lifting the 50 pounds with each finger of both hands.  This is a warm-up for the strong middle fingers, but fairly difficult for the pinkies.   I keep going 10 to 25 pounds at a time, eventually lifting the weight with only my strongest fingers (the middle).  Don't use my 150 pound finger deadlift as a goal, I am conservative with this lift because I've just started doing one finger lifts recently.  You will see that one finger deadlifts are very demanding, and take quite a bit of concentration.  Don't apply force until the finger is stable and in a comfortable position on the handle.   The sky's the limit, remember Louis Cyr lifted 571 with this lift (in keeping with my article, "Grip Feats and Records" a world class goal would be 551x.75=  410 pounds, maybe even less considering the immensity of Cyr's lift.)

      This will bring the weight lifted up to 150 pounds, where I replace the ring (for the moment) with the Rolling Thunder (sometimes I'll throw a warm-up of 1x125 in with this).  The last sets of the one finger lifts are good warm-up sets for the Rolling Thunder, and it only takes a second to change the handles, which need to removed anyway to add plates to the pin.  My hands are already pretty warmed up, so I can start with a fairly heavy weight, without all the one finger lifts I'd probably start with some sets of 100 pounds.  I should also mention that as part of my entire grip workout that my one-hand deadlifts are almost always last in the rotation (following in this order: crushers; nail bending; hammer levering;  and sometimes pinch grips.)

      Once I do my maximum lift on the Rolling Thunder I use the top weight on the Rolling Thunder as the starting weight on the cable handle.  This weight is easy on the cable handle, whose diameter is the standard bar width at around 1 inch. For me, the weights on the Rolling Thunder don't really challenge my back, but moving into the cable handle and then the ring I really start to feel the weight with my entire body. As I noted above, it is at this point that I am channeling the strength of my entire body into my hand.   I've been slowly working in the hook grip on this particular lift and I do some with the lesser weights, but mostly I use a regular grip with the cable handle. The adjacent picture is the cable handle loaded with 265 pounds and lifted with a regular grip.

  As I get closer to the high end of my cable-handle deadlifts (around 250-265 pounds) I bring back the ring, but this time I use all my fingers of one hand to lift the weight.  I'll do 1x275, 300, 325, 335 and 350 pounds with the ring deadlift.  I feel this is the crescendo of the workout.  This may look like quite a few sets, but they are only 1-rep each.  If you do 2-handed deadlifts with heavy weights, the weights you can perform on the one-handed deadlifts won't be too taxing on your body until you get to the high end of the cable handle deadlifts and the ring deadlifts. If you use a fixed-handle deadlift like a Farmers Walk handle you will probably work your entire body at the upper weights.  At  this point you will probably have to be more careful with the position of your non-lifting hand.  Generally, you want to have this hand placed against the opposite thigh.  Also, there is no need to actually lock out the weight at the top of the lift like the conventional two handed deadlift.  A partial lock is all that is needed and there will not be as much torque on the spine at the top of the lift.

      I have found that doing heavy weights in the one-hand deadlift can be really tough on the hands, especially when using the ring as the lifting implement. I have found that I cannot do the ring deadlift every week, or at least I cannot lift my maximum weights with it every week. It is very rare for me not to be able to do an exercise heavy once per week, so I think that this illustrates the amount of soreness accompanied with the lift.

Sample Workout Outline

      In the sample routine below I don't include the weight of the pin and handle, the weight numbers are for illustration only and can be used to judge the relative weights that can be expected between the different handles. The series of weights show how it is possible to progress from a very light 50 pounds all the way up to maximum poundage, with little adjustment except for adding weight to the loading pin.

Ring-  Each finger 1x50, 60
  All fingers but pinkie 1x75
  Middle and Index fingers 1x100, 125
Rolling Thunder- 1x100, 125, 150, 175, 180
Cable Handle- 1x175, 200, 225, 250, 265
Ring (all fingers)- 1x250,275, 300, 325, 335 and 350 pounds.

Copyright November 2000, Tom Black