Allow us to introduce you to the deadlift — a fundamental exercise that helps you build muscle and increase strength that will carry over to all facets of your life. This guide leaves no stone unturned and dishes out everything you need to know about the deadlift. Strap in — you’re about to get a crash course on becoming a master puller.
How to Do the Deadlift
Lifters can take two primary deadlift set-ups — sumo and conventional. The sumo deadlift is done with the feet wide and hands set inside the legs. A conventional deadlift has you assume a narrow stance with your arms outside your legs.
- Step 1 — Set your feet about hip-width apart, and then root them to the floor by twisting them slightly apart. Maintain a relatively vertical shin angle, bring your shoulders over the bar, then hinge your hips backward by driving your butt behind you.
- Step 2 — Drive through the floor with the legs, keeping the bar against the body, to lift the weight off the floor. The barbell should very lightly graze your shins.
- Step 3 — As the barbell passes your knee, explosively thrust your hips forward to lock the bar out. Hold at the top for a beat before letting the weight down.
Coach’s Tip: If you’re working with bumper plates, you can drop the bar from a standing position, or lower it under control for some eccentric stimulus.
Below are four deadlift variations that you can perform to increase overall deadlift strength, address limitations and sticking points, and regress or progress the deadlift for different experience levels.
Why Do It: The block deadlift, or rack pull as it’s sometimes called, can address sticking points at the top of your deadlift and be used as a regression or lifters who may struggle to maintain back tension from the floor.
- Elevate a barbell on a pair of lifting blocks, plyo boxes, bumper plates, or the safety arms of a power rack to around knee level.
- Stand with your feet under the bar and hinge down as you would for a standard pull.
- Once you’re in position with both hands on the bar, inhale to brace your core and tighten your spine.
- Stand up with the bar, pausing for a moment at lockout.
Why Do it: The stiff-leg deadlift is a variation that places the knees at a slightly increased extension angle, which loads the hamstrings to a greater degree. This is ideal for lifters hoping to integrate deadlifting into a program to increase the hamstrings’ size and strength. This can also be used as an accessory exercise for powerlifters and strength athletes looking to maximize deadlift performance.
- Set up for a standard conventional deadlift.
- Once you’re in position, purposely lift your buttocks up to straighten your knee.
- Elevate your hips until your torso is parallel to the floor or your lumbar spine can no longer remain straight, whichever comes first.
- Pull the bar off the ground by contracting your posterior chain and stand up.
Why Do It: The deficit deadlift is done by standing on plates or an elevated surface, usually 1-4 inches in height. This is a good variation to use when addressing the hips shooting up off the floor, weak leg drive in the deadlift, and form breakdowns right after the setup.
- Place a pair of change plates on the floor to stand on, or get ahold of a low riser. Anything stable that provides an inch or two of extra height will do.
- Stand on the elevated surface and reach down to grab the bar with your standard deadlift setup.
- Allow your knees to travel forward a bit more than usual to help you get down low enough to grab the bar.
- Push through the floor and deadlift the bar to a standing position.
Why Do it: This is a weightlifting-specific deadlift, as it’s done with the same grip that a weightlifter uses for the snatch. However, any lifter can benefit from this exercise. Because your hips are lower, your glutes and hamstrings are more involved. And a stronger posterior chain will help you lift more with the standard deadlift.
- Address a loaded barbell with your regular deadlift stance and hinge down to grab it.
- Instead of grabbing the bar with your hands just outside your shins, reach out wide and grasp the shaft close to the collars.
- You’ll need a lower hip position and more knee flexion to accommodate the wider grip in the start position.
- Deadlift normally, holding the bar tightly with the snatch grip.
- At the top of the deadlift, the bar should be roughly in contact with the crease of your hips.
The three variations below can increase unilateral strength and hypertrophy and add variety to a training program.
Trap Bar Deadlift
Why Do it: The trap bar deadlift is a great alternative to the standard barbell deadlift as it is a more natural lifting position for most athletes and beginners. The trap bar deadlift loads the glutes, back, hamstrings, and quadriceps and mimics real-world actions like picking things up, jumping, etc. Note that the model in the GIF above elevates his heels on small weight plates, allowing the knees to travel forward more for better quad engagement.
- Stand inside the trap bar frame after loading it with some plates. Your feet should be close, under your hips.
- Sink down by bending at both the knees and hips and lowering your body until you can grasp either set of handles within the frame.
- Your torso should be more upright than during a standard deadlift, similar to that of a partial squat position.
- Inhale, brace your core, and push directly downward with your legs to lift the bar up to a standing position.
Why Do it: The hip thrust is a good alternative to the barbell deadlift as it allows for a high amount of loading to be done while attacking the glutes and hips. Some lifters may have limitations in which they cannot perform standard deadlifts or are simply looking to add additional glute-specific training without the added lumbar stress and fatigue of doing more deadlifts.
- Set up by sitting with your back to a stable surface like a weight bench or plyo box.
- Load a barbell with plates and roll it over your hips with your legs straight.
- Grasp the bar for stability, kick your feet back until your knees are bent, and brace your core.
- Thrust the bar up off the ground by contracting your glutes until your torso and legs form a straight line.
Who Should Do the Deadlift
The deadlift is a versatile movement that can be done with barbells, dumbbells, and specialty bars to increase upper body strength, hypertrophy, and sport-specific performance. Below we will discuss what types of athletes can benefit from the barbell deadlift and why.
Strength and Power Athletes
Strength and power athletes use the barbell deadlift to increase overall strength, add quality muscle mass to the back, hamstrings, and glutes, and improve sport-specific performance.
- Powerlifters: This one is simple. The deadlift is one of the three lifts in a powerlifting competition, so you need to be strong and proficient in it to succeed at this sport.
- Strongmen and Strongwomen: In almost all strongman shows, there’s some deadlift variation. The sport also includes a wide array of pulling movements like car pulls, stones, rack pulls, and carries (to name a few) that all can be improved by getting your deadlift stronger.
- Weightlifters: Olympic weightlifters can gain strength from the deadlift. However, most Olympic lifters will need to perform clean and snatch-grip deadlifts and pulls for optimal positional strength and technique. The snatch and clean pulling mechanics are slightly different than that of the barbell deadlift discussed throughout this article.
Anyone who lifts and doesn’t compete can still reap the benefits of a strong deadlift. That said, be sure to really hone in on your form and progress slowly. It’s even suggested that you hire a trainer, at least for a little bit, to help you develop solid deadlift mechanics and a program to go with it.
Deadlift Sets and Reps
Below are three primary training goals and recommendations for programming the deadlift into workouts. Note that these are general guidelines and should not be used as the only way to program the deadlift.
Generally speaking, the deadlift should be done earlier in a session if the primary emphasis is on strength and/or muscle hypertrophy. However, like most training programming, muscle hypertrophy and endurance work often occur after power and strength exercises.
You’ll also notice that an endurance protocol isn’t on this list — and that’s on purpose. If you are looking to build lower back, glute, or hamstring endurance, your best bet is to take a more isolated approach, such as back extensions or hyperextensions for lower back endurance or hip thrusts for glute endurance.
- To Gain Muscle: Start with four to six sets of six to 10 repetitions with moderate to heavy loads (70-90 percent of your 1-rep max). Rest for two minutes between sets.
- To Gain Strength: Perform three to six sets of one to five repetitions with moderate to heavy loads (80-95 percent of your 1-rep max), resting two to four minutes between sets.
Benefits of the Deadlift
There are many deadlift benefits, which is why this movement, or one of its variants, is a staple in nearly every training program. Below are just four of the many, many benefits that come with deadlifting.
Better Functional Movement
Break down the deadlift to its core, and it’s picking something up off the ground. That’s a life skill. Think about how many times you’ve bent over to pick up your kid or something you’ve dropped — a lot, right?
That’s not to say that you need maximal deadlift strength to pick up your child, but the core mechanics are the same. A deadlift mimics proper hip hinging, driving your hips back and lowering your torso toward the floor with a tight back.
Deadlifting somewhat regularly (even with light weight) will help reinforce proper hinging patterns to help you stay supple and mobile.
Strength Sport Specificity
There’s no beating around the bush on this one. If you want to compete in strength sports, you need to deadlift. Powerlifters compete to see who can deadlift (and bench press and back squat) the most weight. Strongmen and strongwomen compete in various deadlift variations, too, and weightlifters need to deadlift the barbell off the floor to complete both the snatch and clean & jerk.
A Bigger Back
Deadlifts should be in your training toolbox for those on the quest to build a strong and big upper back. You can load the deadlift heavier than other back movements, making it fantastic for strength and hypertrophy.
Because the deadlift recruits so many muscles, it’s a great option if you’re pressed for time. Say you only have 20 minutes to work out. Quickly warm up, load up a barbell with moderate weight, set a timer for 12 minutes, and do six reps at the top of every minute. Rest for the remainder of the minute and then repeat at the top of the next minute. Before you know it, you’ve just done 72 reps that targeted your back, hamstrings, core, and glutes.
More Maximal Strength
The deadlift is a good indicator of absolute raw strength. While there are other great ways to test strength and power, the deadlift is considered a solid test of true strength, and so in the process of building a big deadlift, you’ll gain a lot of strength along the way.
Muscles Worked by the Deadlift
The deadlift is a top compound exercise because of how many muscles it works at once.
In a 2018 study from the Journal of Exercise and Fitness, authors noted that the gluteus maximus, rectus femoris, and biceps femoris were highly active during the conventional deadlift. (1) Besides being an excellent movement for working these major muscles, the deadlift is fantastic for targeting these synergistic and stabilizer muscles:
The deadlift is primarily a hip extension exercise. As such, the glutes do a lion’s share of the work in helping you stand tall with the barbell. Your glutes are active from start to finish, but engage primarily to straighten your body once the barbell passes your knees.
Your hamstrings work alongside your glutes in the deadlift to help right your torso. That said, they’re also active from the very beginning of the lift. When you set up for a deadlift, depending on the height of your hips, you should feel a decent stretch throughout the back of your thigh.
Your quads have a limited role during most types of deadlift, but they’re crucial for getting the movement going. As knee extensors, your quadriceps work to help break the barbell off the floor in the beginning of the lift, but their engagement does decrease as you move to a standing position.
Your lats work isometrically to stabilize your torso during the deadlift. To be an effective puller, you need to stabilize your shoulder girdle from start to finish. Contracting your lattisimus dorsi muscles will help you achieve a solid, “locked-in” feeling during your pull.
Your traps also come into play isometrically in the deadlift. Even though you shouldn’t shrug your shoulders during the pull, you’ll undoubtedly feel a massive amount of stress across your traps as you lift. The primary function of your traps is to physically keep your shoulders in place against the heavy resistance of the bar.
Even though you maintain a rigid, unmoving spinal column in the deadlift, your lower back gets plenty of work. Much like your lats and mid-back, your erector spinae muscles have one simple but important job — to protect your spine by contracting hard to keep everything aligned and in place. The deadlift is one of the best ways to develop an ironclad back that will assist and support you in and out of the gym.
Core & Other Muscles
Alongside the main movers in the deadlift, your body calls to action many of the smaller, supportive muscles as well. Your forearms work hard to maintain an airtight grip on the bar. Your abdominals brace hard against the impulse to collapse your trunk. Your rhomboids, middle traps, and serratus all assist your lats in stabilizing your shoulder while you pull.
Even though the deadlift may not stimulate all these tissues in a way that will create long-term growth, the exercise is still unbelievably effective at training your body to work as a unit.
Common Deadlift Mistakes
Below are three of the most common mistakes seen in the deadlift, which can lead to loss of positional strength, failed lifts, and potential injury if you’re not careful.
Poor Bar Path
As the name implies, bar path refers to the barbell’s path from start to finish. Ideally, you want the bar to remain in as straight of a line as possible. A straighter bar path means the bar has to travel less distance and is, therefore, easier to pick up. Second, a barbell that juts outward can throw your body out of alignment, which may lead to a failed lift or, in extreme cases, injury.
Set a foam roller six to eight inches before the barbell and practice reps without touching or knocking down the roller to fix the poor bar path. If it gets knocked over, film yourself from the side and analyze where the barbell might be shooting forward.
Not Pulling the Slack Out
Pulling the slack out of the bar means to create tension with the body, barbell, and floor before any movement is initiated. This ensures that you are bracing correctly and setting yourself up for mechanical success by producing tension. Otherwise, you’ll pull the barbell with loose form and either not move the weight or potentially hurt yourself.
Address this issue by progressively pulling tension into the barbell before liftoff and holding for a full second before lifting. Actively feel the tension and what it feels like to produce tightness before physically moving weight. Focus on the cues used, then repeat them every rep.
Your Hips Rise Too Quickly
If the hips shoot up once you start the movement, then there’s a good chance you’re losing power due to poor mechanical positioning, or your quadriceps are too weak to begin the exercise properly.
Try taking a video of yourself from the side and practice bringing the hips up slightly each set to highlight different positions and which feels most comfortable. Assuming the rest of your form is okay, then one position will generally feel best, and that’s what you’ll end up going and experimenting further with.
If you feel your legs are underpowered, you can benefit from deficit deadlifts to emphasize leg engagement at the start of the movement.
The Big Picture
The deadlift is unparalleled. While there are certainly other movements that excel in improving specific areas of your fitness, a good deadlift is among the highest-value actions you can perform in the gym. The beauty of the lift lies in its simplicity. The deadlift is easy to learn, but difficult to master. Convenient to adjust to suit your body, but challenging if you load up on weight.
No matter your goal, the deadlift deserves a home in your programming household. You can pull hard and heavy to improve your strength, turn your power output up, or perform well in a powerlifting meet competition. Dial back on intensity and ante up on repetitions to build work capacity and add new muscle. No matter what your target is, when it comes to the deadlift, you get out what you put in.
Can beginners deadlift?
Absolutely. Everyone can deadlift at any fitness level. What’s most important is considering form and variations when progressing with the deadlift safely. Dumbbell and kettlebell deadlifts are a great option for beginners working towards the barbell.
It’s also worth hiring a coach to properly learn form and technique.
What muscles does the deadlift work?
The deadlift works a ton of different muscles and it’s worth breaking them down into prime movers and synergists/stabilizers.
Synergists and Stabilizers
- Rectus Abdominis
- Erectors, Quads
What are some benefits of the deadlift?
The deadlift has a ton of benefits for every fitness enthusiasts. For starters, the deadlift is fantastic for building total body strength and muscle. In addition, nailing the deadlift is a great way to produce carryover to sport and longevity in everyday life.
How should I warmup for deadlifts?
There’s no “one-size-fits-all” for a deadlift warm-up, but we do have a couple of pieces of advice.
- Keep the warmup somewhat time-conscious. You don’t need to spend half an hour getting warm.
- Focus on the muscle groups and joints needed most in the deadlift.
- Spend the most time targeting areas that need the most activation per your needs.
- Lee, S., Schultz, J., Timgren, J., Staelgraeve, K., Miller, M., & Liu, Y. (2018). An electromyographic and kinetic comparison of conventional and Romanian deadlifts. Journal Of Exercise Science & Fitness, 16(3), 87-93.
Featured Image: puhhha / Shutterstock