Suitcase Deadlifts

Posted on 02 Aug 2009 21:39

By Eric Troy, Ground up Strength

The suitcase deadlift is exactly what the name suggests. Lifting a weight similar to how one lifts and holds a suitcase. So, instead of the implement being in front of the body it is to the side.

This is a great core stability exercise. Its provides rotational torque so it is an excellent anti-rotation exercise. You have to resist the rotation from the off-balanced load and keep the torso "level" or "symmetrical".

Although many purists will tell you that a "true" suitcase deadlift is done with an olympic bar this is usually just macho claptrap resting on how the "old timers" did things. The exercise is the basic parameters of the movement rather than the implement being lifted. Different implements provide slightly different challenges but the advantages of the suitcase deadlift are present whether you use a dumbbell or a barbell.

Suitcase Deadlift Benefits

As Eric Cressey explains here, this is a very "real world" situation:

The load in [the] hand is a destabilizing torque that attempts to shift [us] into lateral flexion as contralateral core musculature fires to keep [us] erect….Our lower extremities operate in predominantly closed-chain motion on stable surfaces in the real world - and the destabilizing torques we encounter further up the kinetic chain are truly functional instability training.

Equipment Used

There is no such thing as a suitcase deadlift barbell or any other implement made specifically for suitcase deadlifts. It is possible to do suitcase deadlifts with a regular barbell, and some people recommend this. However, balancing a weighed barbell in one hand is extremely difficult, as the weights will tend to rock up and down, much like a see-saw. Some people may tell you that this added challenge of stabilizing the bar is a reason to do barbell suitcase deadlifts, but it may well detract from the primary purpose of the lift. The difficulty in handling the akward bar may simply limit the amount of weight you can use.

Dumbbells are perfect for suit case deadifsts, but kettlebells are also very good. Anything that you can easily hold and carry at your side, and add weight to, can be used. Sandbags also work well. You may, of course, be limited on the weight available for both dumbbells and kettlebells. If so, the EZ-bar option, described below, is a good compromise between a dumbbells and a straight barbell.

As mentioned above, to increase the stability and grip challenge, some people use barbells. If you are interested in using this as a method of training the grip, instead of greatly limiting your suitcase deadlift weight by using a barbell, you could just hold on to a barbell in the suitcase position, with a static hold, and perhaps attempt to walk with it. This would give a similar challenge to the grip and your stability, without underming your deadlifts. There is no real advantage to focusing on being able to use a barbell exclusively. Use a variety of implements of your choice.

Although you can do perform the suitcase deadlift with a weight on each side it is usually done with only one weight to increase the stability challenge. Two weights create more balance and it is just "too easy". However, a two weight suitcase deadlift would be a great place for a beginner to start.

When using a dumbbell the primary problem will be mobility. The dumbbell is much lower than a barbell loaded with Olympic plates would be. At first there are a several choices to get around the mobility problem (the different methods can of course be mixed).

How to Perform the Suitcase Deadlift

The basic way to begin is to treat the lift more like a Romanian Deadlift in that the movement begins from the top instead of off the floor:

1. Hold a dumbbell to the side of the body and stand with narrow shoulder width or less stance.
2. Shoulder back, chest high and lower back held in a neutral position (natural arch).
3. Just like lowering with a conventional deadlift, break first with the hips, bend the knees and continue moving your butt back while keeping the arch in your lower back. Perform this lowering slowly and under control.
4. The dumbbell should be lowering pretty much straight down in line with the scapula.
5. Stop lowering at the point where you cannot maintain the spine, chest, and shoulder position if you go any lower.
6. Initiate the lift with a powerful hip thrust. Think GLUTES. Keep the torso level. No cantering to one side toward the dumbbell.
7. It may help to mimic what you do with the lifting arm side on the non-weighted side. So pretend that you have a weight in that hand as well. This is not strictly necessary.

As you gain mobility you can lower the dumbbell more and more until you can touch the floor. After that you can try beginning the movement from the floor.

Start from a platform:

Here, instead of starting from the top, or "hang" position we start from the bottom with the weight implement on a platform about mid shin level or lower depending on mobility. No need for precision. Pick a comfortable height and then lower the platform as mobility is gained. Obviously this method may not be practical for everyone, depending on gym equipment.

Heavy duty stackable aerobic steppers will make a perfect adjustable platform for this and many commercial gyms have these in abundance.

1. Place the dumbbell or kettlebell on the platform and stand beside it with the weight right beside the leg. Narrow shoulder width or less stance.
2. As above, shoulders back, chest high, back neutral.
3. Same as above except the hand is empty. Lower until you can grasp the dumbbell.
4. Same as step 6 above.

EZ-Curl Bar

EZ curl bar or curl bar
EZ curl bar or curl bar

A favorite method of mine is to use the EZ-Curl bar. Not all EZ-Curl bars will work but the type with a flat part in the middle like the one pictured provides a perfect handhold. The bar can be loaded with Olympic plates so you get a height very much like a standard deadlift done with an Olympic barbell. The curl bar is much longer so this will increase the stability requirements but it is still much easier than a barbell since it is shorter and the cambering helps it balance.

Another slightly more challenging choice is a cambered bar. These are 7 feet long (not the giant cambered bar which places the handhold very high).

How to Use

Use suitcase deadlifts primarily as a secondary lift to develop the core and hips. Moderate to high reps will be the most usefull. So four or greater.

Common mistakes:

1. Wide stance. Like a conventional deadlift a narrow stance is best. With the suitcase deadlift a wide stance places the knees out requiring you to reach around them. Common sense should tell you this is silly.

2. Remaining "upright". Do not try to keep your back straight up and down. As with the conventional deadlift the butt will be lower than the shoulders but higher than the knees.

3. Lowering the weight to a position forward of the foot. Many trainees seem to think it is proper to simulate a conventional deadlift by starting the lift with the weight in front of the foot. The weight may be beside the foot or slightly behind it but never forward of it. If you are using a larger implement such as a barbell then the hand should be beside or slightly behind the foot.

In terms of form this usually means you are not bringing the hips back and instead are just "bending over" at the hips (if not the lumbar). This may be a mobility issue and it shifts the weight forward toward the toes. Just as in a conventional deadlift the weight should be at the heel/center of foot and the lift should be initiated from the heels, not the toes. This tends to coincide also with a failure to keep the shoulders back and the chest high.

However, a barbell will tend to necessitate a little wiggle to balance the load. The hand may drift a bit forward or backward. This is no big deal as long as the tendency is not to let the hand drift forward of the toes.

In the video below Steve Maxwell demonstrates a suitcase deadlfit with a barbell. Notice the drift in the arm that I described. So that the hand position at the the end is not constant. This is a natural occurrence with the barbell and just part of the challenge but there is not much excuse to do this with a dumbbell.

Steve Maxwell Suitcase Deadlift with Barbell

This video link is an example of the weight being lowered way too far forward. If she was using more than those tiny little hand weights she would find this method to be quickly limiting. This brings up another point. The suitcase deadlift is not a squat/deadlift hybrid or a "cross" between the two. It's a deadlift. A better example of a hybrid would be a potato sack squat (plié squat)1 which has superficial similarities to the deadlift but is categorized as a squat, as it starts with a deep knee bend and is a knee-dominant movement with a larger hip torque than most squats.

4. A less common mistake is thinking of the suitcase deadlift as a "unilateral" movement. Many authorities will actually describe it this way. The mistake here is treating the exercise as if you are only exercising "one side" and especially one leg. Although the weight is on one side the movement should be thought of as using the entire body.

To show some of the different ideas you could use for suitcase deadlifts, here is a video using a chain passed through a pipe with kettlebells clipped on to each end of the chain:

Suitcase Deadlift with Pipe, Chain, and Kettleballs

© 2016 by Eric Troy and Ground Up Strength. All Rights Reserved. Please contact for permissions.