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March 27, 2020 10 min read

Twenty minutes till your flight leaves, you’re scrambling through checkpoints and gates, beads of sweat starting to form on your forehead. As the time ticks down and your plane is about to leave, you’re running through the airport, and for a moment a thought passes through your head; “Should I just ditch this bag?” 

You finally make it onto the plane, breathe a sigh of relief, and sit down uncomfortably until your heart rate returns to normal. But you’re still thinking, “I work out three times a week, hit all the major muscle groups, why did lugging around a 50-pound suitcase take so much out of me?” The fact that the uniform weights at a gym don’t necessarily translate into real-world strength is no secret, but it doesn’t have to be this way. Like its namesake, the suitcase deadlift might help you catch flights easier, but its benefits extend much further than that. 

While also being easier to do for some people, the suitcase deadlift retains the same benefits as a regular deadlift and focuses on the core and stability. While the core is a major component in most people’s workout regimes, the obliques often go under-trained or even completely ignored. Most people rely on standing side bend exercises to strengthen their oblique muscles which don’t work. With the suitcase deadlift, you can take your core to the next level, gaining the coveted v-shaped torso and improving your stability in the process. 

Its Cousin The Deadlift

The deadlift truly deserves its position as one of the big three foundational lifts. With full-body benefits, the deadlift is a critical lift for any gym-goer working on their physique or health. Most benefits are concentrated in the core muscles, glutes, hamstring, and quads. Their effectiveness doesn’t stop there, however. The simple movement of a deadlift activates almost every muscle in the body.

How It Differs

While the basic deadlift is a mainstay of any gym-goer, its variations introduce new ways with which to work out the core. The big benefit of the suitcase deadlift is that it really focuses on kicking the core into overdrive. With the unbalanced weight pulling your body to the side, your obliques have to strain to keep you upright and not falling to the side. 

The deadlift is the backbone of any workout regime, but an asymmetrical lift can lead to injuries and an asymmetrical physique. With the suitcase deadlift, your body is forced to resist shear forces which will improve your anti-rotational core strength, meaning a more stable and geometric deadlift.

The suitcase deadlift can also address issues such as the hips tracking back differently and will prove to be a godsend for your total-body coordination. 

But the balance benefits don’t stop there. Lifting a dumbbell or kettlebell to the side won’t just massively strengthen your grip strength, but your forearms will also see the benefits. Especially if you decide to do the more difficult barbell suitcase deadlift, your hand is going to have to work against any imbalances in the bar. Your hand flexor and hand extensors will be put to the test with the suitcase deadlift, providing massive gains in this muscle area. 

A man doing a deadlift in the gym.

How To Do The Suitcase Deadlift Correctly

The form and technique for the suitcase deadlift is very similar to the regular deadlift. To get the most out of the lift, there are a few differences that are important to keep in mind. This exercise can be done with either a kettlebell, dumbbell, or a barbell. The kettlebell and dumbbell are recommended for beginners since they have a smaller surface area and their mass is easier to control. The barbell on the other hand, is for those looking to add an extra edge to this lift and put more work on their forearms. 

Step 1: Stand beside your chosen weight (in this example we’ll use a barbell). No weight should be in your other hand unless you’re performing a double suitcase deadlift variation. 

Step 2: Stand straight, your shoulders pushed down the back, with your arms straight. Your feet should be about shoulder-width apart and toes pointing forward—the same form as a regular deadlift. With the weight in line with the center of your foot, keep your back straight as you push your hips back and down.

Step 3: When you go down to pick up the weight, make sure that your elbows are locked, and keep the chest high. 

Step 4: Stand up by lifting your chest, making sure that your back is constantly straight. 

How To Get The Most Out Of The Suitcase Deadlift

The most important part of this exercise is that your body does not lean to one side. If you find yourself tipping to one side, then either focus in on your core more or try the lift with a lighter weight. All the benefits of this exercise can only happen if you activate those obliques, as grueling as it may be at the beginning. It will also be helpful to keep the weight off your hips, and instead hold your arms out from your body about an inch. Doing this will help stimulate the back muscles. Focus in on your abdominal region and make sure those muscles are tight, you don’t want to risk twisting and harming yourself. 

Once you grasp the weight, take a deep breath and focus on keeping your core tight while closing the space in your midsection between your rib cage and your hips. It’s important to keep in mind that a well-executed deadlift is meant to feel like a pressing motion, and not a lifting motion. Imagine yourself pressing your body away from the ground, rather than lifting your body up away from it. 

Don’t let your upper body collapse forwards in the middle of the lift, and make sure to keep the weights in line with your toes. Keeping your core tight will help in keeping your lower back and torso stable through the movement. 

When you get to the top, extend your knees while squeezing your glutes and remembering to keep the core braced. Keep your shoulders squared and your shoulder blades together and pointed downwards towards the floor. 

Flat shoes or bare feet are recommended for the deadlift, and for additional stability remember to keep your weight on the mid-back part of your foot, with your toes down towards the ground. The deadlift, and in particular the suitcase deadlift, is all about stability. Keeping yourself as stable as possible will be the most important aspect in effectively doing this lift and getting all its benefits.  

While you pick up and lower the weight, use your hips as a hinge and don’t round your back. It’s also helpful to visualize the weight painting the side of your boy along your leg and body, in order to keep it in perfect alignment. Lastly, keep your chin tucked in when deadlifting and your spine and neck in a neutral alignment. 

Keeping this form properly is important to preventing injury in the gym, especially with the deadlift. But the proper form won’t just prevent you from injuring yourself, but will also maximize the benefits of the suitcase deadlift and activate these critical muscle groups. 

The Muscles Activated With The Suitcase Deadlift

Core: As mentioned before, by far the biggest focus with this lift is the core. The asymmetrical weighting challenges your delts, abs, and obliques to resist the rotational force. This is especially true with the often underdeveloped and under-trained obliques. While this muscle group is put in the spotlight with the suitcase deadlift, there is a small trade-off with the traditional deadlift muscle groups in the lower body.

Hamstrings: Like with most deadlifts, the hamstrings are one of the primary muscles activated. However, with the suitcase deadlift, the lower hip positioning shifts some weight to the quadriceps.

Quadriceps: This muscle extends the knees and provides stability with the deadlift. As mentioned above, the lifter uses a lower hip positioning in this lift, so the quadriceps will actually be more activated in this lift than the Romanian deadlift, for example. 

Glutes: These are the primary muscle group worked in deadlifts, helping to extend the hips and provide additional stability. 

While the above three lower-body muscles come into play, sometimes even more than in a conventional deadlift, it’s important to keep in mind the overall weakness of the suitcase deadlift. While a lot of importance is placed on the core, and especially the obliques, the fact is that you won’t be able to lift as much as with a traditional deadlift. This means that the impact on these muscles won’t be as good. The trade-off is that a stronger core should ultimately lead to an improved lifting capability while training compound exercises, such as squats and the traditional deadlift. 

Latissimus dorsi (back): This muscle stabilizes the spine. With this asymmetrical lift, the lats are forced to contract and be engaged—which is why it’s important to keep the weight an inch or so out from your hip. 

Spinal erectors (lower back): Your lower back muscles help you resist the load pulling your center of balance forward. 

Hand flexor and hand extensor: This lift puts a lot of importance on balance, and there is no exception when it comes to your arms. Especially if you use a barbell, the widely distributed weight and balance differences will definitely prove to be a test for your grip and general forearm strength. 

How To Program In The Suitcase Deadlift To Work Towards Your Goals

As with all things in life, it’s important to start slow and steady when you’re trying something new. This goes doubly for something that can injure. It’s crucial that you approach the suitcase deadlift from at least an intermediate standpoint if you already have experience with the traditional deadlift. A true beginner should begin with a broomstick or a similar object in order to master the hip-hinge movement before moving onto actual weights. 

Even if you’re already experienced with the traditional deadlift, it would benefit you to begin with either dumbbells or kettlebells instead of going straight to barbells. The suitcase deadlift can even humble regular gym-goers since the obliques are usually under-trained.  Once comfortable with the form and the weights, you can move onto barbells to start activating those forearm muscles a lot more. 

As with all lifting, the number of sets and reps will always come down to what your personal goals are in the gym. Are you training for hypertrophy? Strength training? We’ve outlined general guidelines below, but the all-round benefits of the suitcase deadlift will benefit your regular compound lifts in any programming you choose. 

Muscle Hypertrophy: The weights should be moderate to heavy, and the time under stress should be maximized by limiting rest periods from 45 to 90 seconds at most. 2 to 3 sets with 5 to 8 repetitions is the advised plan. 

Strength training: With strength training, the number of sets can be increased from 3 to 4, and the number of repetitions lowered from 5 to 8, at a heavier loading. 

Muscle Endurance: If you’re wanting to increase the volume you’re able to train at, it’d be best to limit the number of sets to 2 or 3 with about 15 to 20 repetitions. 

It’s also important to warm before any exercise. This will help prevent injury, and also increase the benefits of the lift on your body. A good warm-up for the suitcase deadlift is several light-to-moderate weight sets with 5 repetitions on each side. Additionally, you could add this lift to a set that features other oblique targeting exercises, such as suitcase carries and single-leg deadlifts. And of course, make sure you don’t sacrifice good form when squeezing in those few extra sets. 

A man doing the suitcase deadlift in the gym.

Modifications On The Suitcase Deadlift

The suitcase deadlift is already a good variation to the traditional deadlift for those who may have trouble with flexibility and hip mobilization. For one of the most important compound exercises that work the whole body, the suitcase deadlift provides a more accessible alternative along with providing similar benefits to the traditional version. We’ve already touched on the different types of weights you can use. Both the kettlebell and dumbbell will work the same muscles and provide the crucial activation to your core, while the barbell takes it to the extreme with the need to further balance the bar. However, there are some more interesting variants that build on top of the uniqueness of this lift. 

Asymmetrically-Loaded Suitcase Deadlift: This can be done with either only one weight or another lighter weight in the other hand. Although very similar to a regular suitcase deadlift, these types of asymmetrical lifts greatly improve muscle imbalances since both sides of the body are forced to move equal loads. When doing a bilateral movement, such as a traditional deadlift, we usually subconsciously use our dominant side more than the weaker side.

Deficit Suitcase Deadlift: A deficit deadlift is done by standing on an elevated surface, which forces you to use a wider range of motion in the knees, ankles, and the hips. This will fully challenge and strengthen your lower back, upper back, and leg muscles. 

Double suitcase deadlift: An honorable mention, the double suitcase deadlift is extremely similar to the trap bar deadlift. While working out all the major muscle groups of a traditional deadlift, you will lose some of the focus on the core, and especially the obliques, that can only come from an asymmetrical lift.

The Suitcase Deadlift Will Boost Your Lift Game To New Heights

Hitting the gym usually means hitting the big three, for good reason. These provide a solid foundation from which to build the physique of your dreams. However, even the most devoted gym rat can sometimes find themselves missing major muscles such as the obliques.

With the suitcase deadlift boosting their strength, there’s a good chance all of your other lower-body, as well as any standing upper-body lifts, will benefit massively. This underrated lift will help you crush any plateaus you might’ve reached with your regular lifts (along with these useful tips). Not to mention the ripped physique you’ll have when scoring that coveted v-shaped torso. 

If you haven’t already, the time is now to introduce this exercise into your weekly routine, whether you’re a beginner or someone who’s been working out for years. This asymmetrical lift will activate your glutes and develop your core to another level. Paired with an exercise like the single-leg RDL, you’ll be feeling the benefits of added overall balance and unmatched total-body coordination which is essential to pursuing any goal at the gym. 

Coordinate Your Efforts to Maximize Success

Strength is the central element behind any lift, which is why we so often focus on it. But lifts such as the suitcase deadlift show us that balance and coordination are integral to any long-term improvement in athleticism and health. Any kind of long-term positive growth will take a devoted engagement to all aspects of life. It’s important to balance a rigorous training regime with a routine for eating, supplements, and sleeping that you’re just as committed to. Not only engaging with them but also coordinating them with your goals—both in the gym and outside of it. 

The suitcase deadlift was named after a common, everyday item for a reason. It’s these small decisions we make every day—inside and outside the gym—that are really the foundation towards building a path to our goals. Especially when the going gets tough, it’s important to reflect on ourselves. Do our mind and body have a balance between work and play? Are the actions we take coordinated enough to slowly bring us to where we want to be in life? After these questions are answered, then we can move forward with surety and stability.