If you’ve got an advanced client looking to spice up their strength training routine, deficit lifting might be one answer–successful at employing a greater range of motion at lower intensities. 

Over the last few months we’ve been exploring creative approaches to progressively overload strength training clients to avoid and/or get past plateaus. Time Under Tension (TUT) has been the popular answer to the question: How can we progressively overload clients in a creative way? 

Specifically, the topic of TUT has led to the exploration of tempo and negative, or eccentric, training, but deficit training deserves its time in the limelight as well.

What is Deficit Lifting?

Ever walk into the weight room and see someone standing on a weight plate while barbell deadlifting? In a nutshell, that is deficit lifting. 

My fellow trainer and coach, Antonio Brito, offers a more descriptive definition: Deficit training is a technique where the range of motion (ROM) is increased in the lengthening (eccentric) phase of a movement to recruit more musculature or increase mobility at lower intensities. 

Essentially, the eccentric phase and ROM are increased because the movement is performed more deeply or extends lower than the standing surface, creating the perfect TUT scenario. For example, in a deficit deadlift the feet are elevated on a platform, such as a weight plate or box, while the barbell is able to descend lower than said platform placing greater demand on the hamstrings.  

Why Use Deficit Lifting?

Aside from the fact that deficit lifting can help add variety to TUT training, there are a great number of progressive overload adaptations that can be seen when it is incorporated with strength-training. 

Benefits of deficit lifting include:

  • Develop maximal tension and strength at end ranges of motion
  • Greater force production
  • Increased TUT
  • Posterior chain development (deadlift, lunges)
  • Stronger chest development (push-ups)

When is Deficit Lifting Appropriate?

First and foremost, deficit lifting requires optimal mobility because it requires increased joint flexion (for example, deadlift- ankles, knees, hips) and active ROM; it is most appropriate for conditioned clients who fit into this category. Those with average or limited mobility would not be candidates. 

Second, because this technique is employed at lower intensities, it is often recommended to introduce it as accessory work at the end of the main set or workout.

Lastly, both power and Olympic lifting have seen a resurgence in popularity over the last decade, and these are the lifters who may find this approach most beneficial for their strength gains. 

How to Incorporate Deficit Lifts

As mentioned above, this approach is best incorporated at the end of the main workout. A few rounds of one or two exercises every once in a while can be beneficial for clients looking to break or, potentially avoid, that dreaded plateau.

Is Deficit Lifting Exclusive to Deadlifting?

An internet search on the topic, deficit lifting, will lead almost exclusively to deficit deadlifts, but this approach can be appropriately applied to split stance squats, push-ups, and even handstand push-ups. 

Young Fit Woman Doing Horizontal Push Ups With Bars In Gym.Deficit Push-ups

Deficit push-ups can be done by placing the hands on blocks or dumbbells and lowering the chest below the surface the hands are on. There is a tremendous degree of ROM required of the shoulders on these, so a proper shoulder warm-up is highly recommended. Clients with limited shoulder mobility should avoid this exercise or take time to improve on that mobility


Deficit Split Stance Squats

There are two approaches to play around with here:

Reverse Lunges: Place the front foot on a platform (such as a box or bench) and step back and down with the other foot. Align the back knee under the hip as it bends below the platform. 

Rear Elevated Split Squats: (Or Bulgarian Split Squat) Sounds much harder than it is! Place the back foot on a platform while stepping forward with the front foot. Bend both knees so the front knee lines up over the foot, while the back knee lowers past the platform. This one is demanding on quadriceps flexibility, so the initial attempt should be done unloaded to gauge tolerance.

What are some deficit exercises or protocols you’ve led clients through?

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Theresa Perales

Theresa Perales has an MA in Spanish, and is an ESL teacher at San Diego State University (SDSU). After years of struggling with her weight, she decided to give exercise a try. A passion for health and fitness grew instantly and inspired her to become certified as a personal trainer with NFPT, and as a group fitness instructor with AFAA Group Fitness and Madd Dog Athletics® Spinning. Theresa believes that nutrition and fitness are not about aesthetics but ultimately about feeling healthy and empowered.