It’s no secret that I am the world’s biggest advocate of the Jefferson Deadlift (or Jefferson Lift, or Straddle Deadlift, or Jefferson Squat). In 2012 I set the IAWA world record for the Jefferson at 605lbs. I have personally taught hundreds of people how to do this lift, and written several articles on the topic. I want you to at least try it, because it’s a fantastic lift.
My obsession with the Jefferson started a few years ago when Adam T. Glass suggested that I might have good natural leverage for it. We looked up the lift in the record books, and realized I could probably break the world record, which I later did in a training lift in 2011 and officially in a contest in 2012.
When I first met Jen Sinkler, she couldn’t conventional or sumo deadlift without pain. The Jefferson was one of the main lifts I prescribed for her to test out, and sure enough she was out of pain and back to traditional deadlifting for a PR in just a few months. Since then I have used this lift to help get countless people out of back pain. Plus, the total-body strength you develop with this lift is awesome.
Let’s get the reasoning for doing this awkward looking lift out of the way first. Here’s the short version: because you’re weak. Maybe that’s not entirely fair, but I’d be willing to bet it’s true that you are weak outside the ranges of motion that you’re accustomed to. For most people, these are very saggital-plane dominant squats and deadlifts. There’s no rotation, there’s no anti-rotation, and there’s no strength in asymmetry. Before you tell me how those are good things, let me warn you that I have a roster of people who can speak to how Jefferson lifts played a starring role in taking them out of back pain. Further, I’ve personally seen people tweak something conventional deadlifting, and I have never (knock on wood) witnessed anyone hurt anything doing a Jefferson.
More Advanced Tweaks
One of the neat things about the Jefferson lift is that it’s already so weird and awkward, it’s impossible for anyone to pin down what “perfect form” is for it. As such, people default to finding what actually is the strongest leverage for their own body.
However, it’s worth discussing what features of alignment make for the strongest pull. In my experience, the more like a trap bar deadlift (with a rotation) you can make it, the stronger you’re going to be. Alignments that favor one leg significantly don’t work as well.
In this comparison photo, you can see in the second photo Abbie’s hips are starting much higher, her back is flatter towards the ground, and the angle between her back and legs is much greater. She is also leaned forward heavily over one leg. For her in particular, to correct this, I asked her to take a position with more external rotation of the feet as in a plié. Being a dancer, this is a position that is strong and comfortable for her.
This resulted in an immediately stronger pull that felt much better for her.
Here is a checklist to use to find better alignment:
- Are your heels staying planted throughout the lift? If not, adjust so that they are.
- Are your hip starting in a high position, that you could lower by adjusting your feet? (Hips high is relative, the question is, can I get lower?)
- Are you fighting rotation on the way up? Could you start in such a way that the bar is already rotated to where it’s going to end?
- Is the bar hitting the inside of a leg? Adjust your position, sometimes it helps to rotate a little more along the hip axis, so that the bar travels smoothly up in between your legs.
- Are you mixing your grip on one of your hands? This typically helps, and most people are more comfortable in a mixed grip with the front hand turned palm facing out (supinated.)
Curious about how to integrate the Jefferson deadlift into your training to make your pulling strength downright impressive? This and dozens of other variations in my deadlift book, Off The Floor, will catapult your strength into another dimension. In addition you’ll learn to use biofeedback, giving you an unprecedented blueprint for success in your training. This is the exact template I used to skyrocket my deadlift from a measly 245 pounds to not one but three different 600+ pound deadlifts in 3 variations, including a world record.
Big fan of the Jefferson DL. Due to my body mechanics, I always preferred sumo to standard DLs. I like Jeffersons even more than sumos as they feel more “athletic”
Another reason to do it: I got low ceilings and no squat rack. Going to consider playing around with this lift as a proxy for squats
Dominique Locas says
Well, since I train at home without a Squat Rack, I found out about this lift doing research for squat alternatives. I’m just greasing the groove, so I haven’t put anything heavy on this lift yet; I just practice the Jefferson three times a week with some volume and add 10 pounds each week, just like I did and still do for my Deadlift — DL is going fine: I’ve done a set of 5 with one or two reps left in the tank (RPE 8.5) yesterday, so I’m darn close to reach 400. By comparison, I suck in quad dominant strength: I struggle doing a triple with 150 in the Front squats. Yes, the Jefferson is technically a Deadlift, but it is quad-dominant, and I’m sure it will bring up my leg (and overall!) strength. One very good thing is that I’m starting to actually enjoy doing it! As I deadlift a lot and train on grippers, grip is no issue at all… yet! I look forward to each session… Very nice article. Thanks!
Dominique Locas says
I forgot: my set of 5 on DL was done with 325 lbs on the bar, hence my being within reach of the 400-mark.
Ben Edwards says
Just wanted to let you know that your article on the Jefferson Deadlift is superb! I am no stranger to it – most USAWA members are at least familiar with it – and ever since the first time I tried it in 2000, I was able to pull over 150lbs more than conventional with it. Your Jefferson Deadlift strength is way up there. I like that you used the Bob Hirsh photo because it’s the highest I’ve seen a photo of.
Thanks so much Ben, I appreciate it!
Dominique Locas says
I like to come back to this article now and then. I am a big fan of the Jefferson now. I’ve been doing it for two months; my quad strength is improving big time! And so is my deadlift with better bar speed off the floor due to an improved leg drive. I am more of a conventional puller, but it’s doing great all the same. Thanks!
Gar Thornton says
I will definitely have to try this! im a little fellow only weighing in @ at huge 150lbs but for some reason my pulling power on the deadlift is kinda uncanny. its nice to be able to actually not take the plates off on at least one lift when I do get the chance to lift with friends. this will definitely help! thanks!
Looks like a killer variation. I’ve been playing with some other hinging variations with the sandbags, KBs and chains, but havent tried this one. Thanks for the tips and video.
It would seem that this version lends itself to a higher rep range than the conventional verson (ie. hypertrophy/conditioning) if desired? What are your thoughts?
Colin, I think it would be fair to say that. Like a trap bar it allows you to take a more upright back position.
Holy moly Dave! I first saw Jen doing the Jefferson in a vid with Coach Dos.
Sure I thought it was awkward but I love that stuff. I fiddled with the exercise but never took it seriously until deadlifts at just 200lbs began hurting my back.
That’s when I came across a vid from Roman where he gushed how the Jefferson and YOU helped him to deadlift again without pain.
So I checked my ego and off I went. I immediately found an imbalance with my left side compared to my right.
With some corrective exercise thrown in and the Jefferson’s I went from 135 on the bar to 250 in 4 weeks!
I hesitantly tried deadlifts again and went from testing the waters to 225 pounds pain-free!!
Before, 300lbs wouldn’t have even been in my thoughtmasphere but thanks to you putting this exercise out there I can say “Yup, I can do that.”
Much mahalo : )
Thanks so much for sharing your story. I love hearing things like this. Let me know when you hit 300.
Is this exercise seen as a bi-lateral exercise, so you would do sets alternating which leg is in front? as opposed to a regular DL
Paul – exactly. Unless by some chance it doesn’t test well on one side.
I have mild scoliosis, which leads to sometimes intense bouts with sciatic pain. I find deadlifts tend to aggravate my back, and jefferson lifts are much milder. I’ve been doing them for many years, and never had back issues resulting from them. I usually switch forward hands each set. Cool vids and article. Thanks!
Thanks for your article. I read it and I tried this exercise. I’m really happy because I finally found a barbell exercise for legs that fits me because I can’t squat or deadlift for the moment.
So my question… This exercise seems more quad dominant (I feel it like that). Can I use it instead of squat ?
Yes you can, it is also known as a Jefferson squat.
I have a congenital 8mm leg length discrepancy in my tibia that has created a huge SI problem for me. I corrected the structural issue with a 8mm shim under my weightlifting shoe. I am still a little confused, other places I have read that you need to mobilize the tight muscles and then focus on even contraction and core stability with PT exercises like deadbugs, planks, glute bridges, etc. Is it possible to just use Jeffersons to get out of this? I still don’t fully understand the problem.
So far i’ve done one heavy workout with Jeffersons using perfect form and I can’t say I’ve got much pain relief from it and there’s no noticeable hypertrophy that I can tell. Though I could have improved range of motion which would be harder to tell…
Am I trying to improve range of motion or build strength? I’m guessing both. So should I be going lighter with these and my ROM will improve and then go heavy? Or should I just go heavy off the bat?
It seems to me like there’s two sequential components the Jefferson works through. It first improves ROM and then once the ROM is there then the weak muscles can be brought up. So would my guess is start out with high volume, high frequency, relatively low weight, and improve ROM. Then go into high frequency, low volume, and go heavy?
And there’s no need to mobilize beforehand with this exercise? Does the Jefferson mobilize the tissues on its own then?
It just seems to me the cumulative articles from this site don’t emphasize that there are two distinct phases when using this lift for SI dysfunction:
1. Improving ROM
2. Strengthening weak muscles
For me personally I only really plan on using Jeffersons to get out of this problem and then go back to conventional deadlifts and squats. And maybe use it as an accessory if the problem comes back.
I could be entirely wrong on this. Please let know your thoughts!
…Unless ROM is improved by strengthening the weak muscles. That is what I am thinking now. One side is too strong and hypermobile. This pulls the weak side making it hypomobile. So I believe that it could actually be the reverse order of what I previously stated. In that strengthening the weak side gives both sides of the muscles of the body even “pull” balancing everything out. So I don’t think this is a ROM issue at all…
I don’t think the mobility is coming from stretching, its coming from stimulating hypertrophy on one side which eventually evens out and removes hypermobility and hypomobility.
Greg, big picture I want you to think of it not in discrete terms such as ROM, mobility, stretching, or strength. Just think of the bigger picture function and how everything moves together. The Jefferson increases your breadth of function: how many different directions you can move in – as well as your depth of function: how far you can move in any one direction. I think taking a higher level view like this is really important to understand why looking too small (what muscles are weak or tight) doesn’t have a good track record of fixing things.
Hopefully that’s helpful!
Yes definitely, I’ve had SI problems my whole life and I am really hoping this lift can fix all of it. I have a purely functional scoliosis that I believe I can probably completely get rid of with time on this exercise, so thank you for that!
My only point was identifying the exact mechanism of how this lift fixes the problem. In most cases mobility is often seen as synonymous with ROM and in this case I don’t think that’s the case. You’re correcting a muscle imbalance that restores even pull throughout all the muscles of the body. With the case of SI dysfunction you have muscles on one side of the body that are too strong and create a constant pull throughout the body that results in pelvic torsion and functional scoliosis.
In my case having one leg shorter than the other caused more hypertrophy on the short side and my body would never even out unless I use this lift with a shim under my short leg to correct for the structural problem and over time with jeffersons correct the functional problem.
This is actually an incredibly significant exercise that I’m sure very few people know about. I think it can help anyone with scoliosis especially, but its important to understand what is causing the scoliosis in the first place. In my case its functional caused by leg length discrepancy, in others its idiopathic/structural. There other fringe cases too like a small hemipelvis, etc. You’d want to be aware of the cause before prescribing jeffersons I think. That way if its a leg length discrepancy you put a shim under their foot before performing jeffersons.
I have before x-rays and pictures of my spine already, and I am pretty confident this lift is going to sort the whole problem out. Maybe I can get some after x-rays as well. There’s probably millions of people that could eliminate their back pain using this exercise, its a shame its not more prominent.
Anyways thanks for the material! In theory I really believe this could probably totally eliminate my scoliosis!
Don Voigt says
Dave, I am an older lifter, and pulled 305 from the floor on my 60th birthday. I’ve become more concerned about injury lately though and switched to other hinge movements and rack pulls instead of deadlifts off the floor. I’m anxious to try the Jefferson (maybe start with KBs like Jen shows in her site) and am wondering how it might be for older lifters like myself.
Don, you’ll find that it works well for you for several of the reasons I discussed. Congrats on keeping your strength through your young age!
good tutorial, found I was not doing it right.
I suffer from SI joint pain for about 1 year and I tried so many things but nothings really helped. Right now I want to try out Jeffersons, I tried it once and I noticed that one side (right leg front) hurt very badly in my SI and the other side (left leg front) is pain free (SI Joint pain is on the right side). Should I continue this exercise only on the side that is pain free and progress from there?
I would suggest using biofeedback testing to figure out which tests best, and then do that. It’s not really reliable for me to say which side you should or should not do as it can vary from person to person and day to day. Biofeedback testing is the most reliable way I have found to determine which positions to train.
thanks for the answer, I used Biofeedback and got a positve result on the side which is pain free, the otherside tests negative. Now after a couple of Jefferson Deadlift workouts on only one side I feel some Overall pain relief. How should I continue? Progress and add more and more weight? Or should I start Training both sides?
Marc, the answer is always more testing. Keep testing both sides training only the side that tests well. In addition to that test higher weights and see if that is a direction you should go. Remember that when you’re in pain the goal really needs to be better movement not necessarily more weight. More weight can definitely be one way to get there, but not always. You might also experiment with other variations and see if something else tests even better than Jefferson, such as a rotational (Russian hockey) deadlift or one hand deadlift for example.
Can I do this dead lift in a Smith machine? I unfortunately go to a gym that doesn’t have anything other than Smith machines and really want to be able to dead lift again. Thank you
You can. You’ll just want to be really careful with the bar locked in a straight line of motion that you don’t let it dictate how your body moves. Adjust around it if it’s fighting you, and if you can’t adjust your position then don’t use it. Do NOT let the fixed path of the bar jam you into a position that doesn’t work for your body. The beauty of the Jefferson is that it allows you to move more like you actually move, so don’t let a Smith machine ruin that.
Min Young says
Hi Dave, I saw in one article that jefferson lift on one side fixed someone’s scoliosis. Does that mean jefferson lift has the potential to cause scoliosis on a person with straight spine?
No one’s spine is “straight” and scoliosis can not be “fixed”. The precision of our terms is important. Typically presents at a young age and the factors have been present since birth.
Plastic deformation of bone, including spine, can occur due to environmental factors. Many athletes have bone deformation due to high velocity repetitive motion.
By that same token, and according to Wolff’s law, if bone can move one way, it can move the other way.
We don’t know if Martin’s spine actually changed, or if the musculature surrounding and stabilizing the spine changed its functional nature. Fixed is an extremely imprecise word. We can say that we know Martin can lift pain-free, and that’s an important marker, but I would hesitate to ever call someone “fixed” in the same way I’d hesitate to call someone “broken”.
If you were to only ever do Jeffersons on one side, with a lot of load, a lot of volume, and a lot of time you would develop some sort of asymmetry. The nature of that is impossible to guess at.
In short, can you “cause” scoliosis? No.
E Heath says
I’m excited. My max deadlift was 215kg 2 months ago when I tested it. Recently I’ve been doing a lot more squatting since it puts less strain on the body and can be done more frequently… today was my first day doing Jefferson. I cleared 230kg without too much difficulty, maybe at a 9RPE. I look forward to the progress. Thanks so much for your guide dude.
Excellent! Lemme know how it goes.
Great job man! What do you think of Eric Bugenhagens lifts he has done Jefferson Deadlifts with 700 pounds for 5 reps
Dude is a beast.
Steve Lumpee says
Are you aware of any top powerlifters doing heavy (or any) Jefferson deadlifts? If they are as beneficial and productive as you say, wouldn’t those lifters be doing them?
I have short arms. The bar hits my croutch. What can I do?
Grow longer arms or get some kettlebells.
How would I set up with kettlebells?