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.
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.
Dumbbells are usually used but kettlebells are also perfect for the suitcase deadlift.
As mentioned above, to increase the stability and grip challenge, some people use barbells. Keep in mind that although the barbell will add a new grip and stability challenge it will limit the total amount of weight you can handle and/or the reps. There is no real advantage to focusing on being able to use a barbell exclusively. Use a variety of implements of your choice. Sandbags also work well.
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 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.
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.
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.
Here is a standard dumbbell suitcase dead by Tony Gentilcore. He starts at the top and lowers to around mid-shin.
Tony Gentilcore Dumbell Suitcase Deadlift
Something a bit different using a chain passed through a pipe with kettlebells clipped on to each end of the chain: