Exercise Spotlight: Suitcase Deadlift

The ultimate dark horse of real core training

Too often, we are coaches and lifters make a big mistake when we address training the core.  We think about creating motion, instead of resisting it.

That shows when we perform hanging leg raises, Russian twists, ab vacuums, mountain climbers, med ball tosses and more. Truth be told, there’s actually nothing wrong with any of these movements – but when it comes to core training, it really helps for us to think “anti” first. We need to remember that the primary function of the trunk musculature is protecting the spine. That means resisting unwanted forces that can act on the spine and enable it to assume different positions under load.  The main functions of resistance that deserve your attention are:

  1. Anti-rotation
  2. Anti-extension
  3. Anti-lateral flexion


All of the above allow the abs, lumbar region, and obliques to do their job in properly bracing the core to avoid anything other than a neutral spine with level hips. With that said, that third point – anti-lateral flexion – is a little bit harder to zero in on when it comes to effective exercises, but the suitcase deadlift is a movement I’ve found gets little to no love in the gym. Truth be told, it’s one of the king developers of the obliques when it’s done well.


It’s often humbling to lower the weight you can pull while paying even more attention to detail than normal. This movement forces that for the simple reason that you’re holding an entire barbell with one hand. Standing tall and straight while holding appreciable weight in one hand is easier said than done, and attention to your starting position matters that much more because of this.

As a bonus, as this movement is indeed a pull pattern, it’ll benefit your scapular muscles to have a tremendous impact on posture. All of the muscles of the upper back have to work overtime in order to maintain a proud chest.

Of course, the obvious factor to consider is holding a long barbell with one hand. It can often frustrate a lifter who’s struggling to get the right hand position to avoid the bar from tipping in one direction or the other. Part of this can be chalked up to wrist stability, but often, the culprit is simple hand positioning. You’ll be at an advantage doing this exercise if you find a barbell that has knurling in the exact centre of the bell (some do). This will give you a proper landmark, and help your grip strength also.

Note the rough knurling in the centre of the bar seen above, compared to none on the bar pictured below.

The Suitcase Deadlift: Coaching Cues

  • Set up beside the barbell, with your basic conventional deadlift stance. Be sure your ankle is aligned with the centre of the barbell.
  • With the barbell an inch beside your leg, hinge downward with a flat spine and level hips. Reach down and grab hold of the centre of the bell.
  • Make a fist with your free hand. This will help you brace your upper body via irradiation.
  • Without leaning or compensating, single-arm deadlift the weight with your entire body. Remember to squeeze the glutes and keep the hips facing straight ahead. Do your best to use both legs evenly.
  • Pause at the top position, and lower to the ground slowly. Landmark the hand so it doesn’t finish in front of or behind its original position.
  • If at all possible, use bumper plates. This will allow the bar to sit at the right height when on the ground, since all bumpers are the same size as iron 45’s. If you’re not strong or stable enough to lift full plates, then be sure you’re using 10, 25 and 35 pound bumpers first.

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