The deadlift is one of the all-time best lifts for a powerful physique. It’s a fantastic gauge of your overall strength, and an excellent mass-builder, to boot.
It’s also extraordinarily taxing on your body and your nervous system, especially as you progress toward heavier and heavier loads.
Smart lifters will rotate their lifts frequently or incorporate variations to keep things fresh, and the one-arm deadlift might just be the best deadlift variation you’re not doing.
Sometimes called the suitcase deadlift, the one-arm deadlift offers up an intense challenge for your obliques, overall core stability, and grip strength. It also hits your legs, traps, and shoulders from a unique angle for extra growth.
Let’s take a look at how to do the one-arm deadlift properly and why most lifters would benefit from programming it into their routine.
One Arm Deadlift Proper Form
There are a few different ways to do the one-arm deadlift, and it’s worthwhile to experiment with all of them.
Side Variation (Suitcase Deadlift)
Approach a loaded barbell from the side, with the length of the bar running parallel to the direction of your feet.
Squat down beside the bar in your conventional deadlift position and grip the barbell with one hand, directly in the middle. It’s helpful to use a barbell that has a knurled center (or a center with grip marks).
Just like you would during a conventional deadlift, initiate your upward movement with your legs. Use your obliques and other core muscles to steady your upper body, keeping your shoulders square and your chest up.
Finish the movement by driving your hips forward to lock out.
Throughout the movement, your secondary arm remains at your side and does not assist in the lift.
Finally, lower the barbell to the ground with control and intention.
Imagine you’re bending down to pick up a heavy suitcase off the ground — that’s exactly how the lift should look!
Here’s a helpful instructional video so you can see it in action.
The one-arm deadlift can also be done exactly the same way as a conventional deadlift, with similar bar and foot position.
Simply approach the loaded barbell with the front of your body, squat down into position, and grip with one hand in the center of the barbell instead of two.
All of the usual deadlift cues apply, except your other arm will stay by your side while you complete the lift.
The front-facing variation is extremely challenging from a balance perspective, so it’s a great one to incorporate now and then for extra stability training.
Kettlebell or Dumbbell Variation
Finally, both the side and front-facing variations of the one-arm deadlift can easily be done with dumbbells or kettlebells.
Dumbbells and kettlebells will be significantly easier to balance in one hand due to their shortened length and structure, and they’ll also usually allow you to load up the movement with less weight. These are ideal options for learning the movement pattern when you’re just starting out and aren’t ready to challenge yourself with heavy loads.
In either case, the overall form remains the same, though dumbbells and kettlebells will offer slightly different ranges of motion compared to the barbell.
Benefits of the One Arm Deadlift
The one-arm deadlift certainly looks cool (and hard!), but why bother doing it? Are there any actual benefits?
Here are a few reasons everyone should try the one-arm deadlift at some point in their training.
Core stability & Oblique Development
The primary difference between the conventional or sumo deadlift and the one-arm version is that the OAD throws your body significantly off balance..
In order to complete the movement properly, especially with a heavy weight, you’ll need exceptional core strength and stability to keep your torso upright and correctly aligned.
If you don’t have enough stability, you’ll find out quickly! Doing this lift will definitely help you develop a stronger midsection.
Your obliques, especially, will be hit extremely hard by the side or suitcase one-arm deadlift variation, as they’ll work overtime to keep you from toppling over to one side or the other.
Though you won’t be able to one-arm deadlift anywhere near what you use for work sets on the conventional deadlift, you’ll find that even just a third or half that weight is extremely difficult to grip with one hand.
Training the one-arm deadlift is an awesome way to isolate the grip strength in each of your hands, one at a time, to train it to its full potential.
Challenge Weak Points & Correct Imbalances
One arm and one leg lift variations are awesome for correcting strength and muscle imbalances.
Chances are, one side of your body is slightly stronger than the other, and may have a tendency to do more of the work on full-body lifts like the squat, bench press, deadlift, and more.
During a lift like the one-arm deadlift, there’s no place for your weaker side to hide! Attempting the same weight with both arms, one at a time is an excellent way of sniffing out weak points in your strength development and fixing them with intentional training.
How to Program the One Arm Deadlift
The conventional deadlift should be a primary strength and mass-builder for most lifters.
However, incorporating the one-arm deadlift is a great way to test and build grip strength and core stability.
You can replace conventional deadlift in your program temporarily, or add one-arm deadlifts as an additional accessory, but remember a few things before you do:
In a best-case scenario, you should be able to one-arm deadlift somewhere around half of what you deadlift.
However, when you first start practicing the OAD, you may find your grip strength or obliques aren’t up to the challenge yet and will need to learn and adapt to the movement pattern.
We recommend starting with dumbbells or a little loaded barbell at first and slowly working your way up as your perfect the movement.
This is a huge but surprisingly common mistake for one arm and one-legged variations — don’t forget to train the other side!
If you complete 5 reps with one arm, make sure you complete 5 reps of the same weight with the other arm.
Keep in mind, that’s 10 reps for your legs, back, and core, so if you completely burn yourself out going too heavy on your right arm, you might not have anything left in the tank to train your left.
That could lead to imbalances or injury down the road.
Try All Variations
To get the most benefits from the one-arm deadlift, you’ll likely want to rotate through all the different variations.
Do it with a dumbbell or kettlebell for high reps! Do the side variation! Do the front-facing variation!
(Some people even like to straddle a barbell and perform the movement that way. It’s a little awkward but great for changing things up.)
The primary benefit of the OAD is that it really challenges your core stability, so the more ways you can throw yourself off balance and adapt, the better.
If you’re a complete beginner to the deadlift, you should be able to make quick progress with linear progression on the conventional deadlift or sumo variation.
However, if you’re slightly more advanced, or training for more athletic or bodybuilding purposes, you might really get a lot out of trying some of these one-arm variations.
In fact, you’ll probably find that working the one-arm deadlift for a few weeks with heavier and heavier loads carries over nicely to your conventional strength. Added core stability and grip strength will only help you in the long run!
Evan Porter. When Evan turned 30, he was finally ready to make a change and ditch the dad-bod. He hasn’t missed a workout in 2 years, and now has a passion for busting fitness myths, fighting misinformation, and simplifying fitness for others on their own journeys. You can read more from Evan on his blog, The Trusty Spotter.