How to Do the Deadlift for Muscle, Raw Strength, and Power

Conquer the deadlift to build a stronger body and better-looking physique.

Of all the exercises out there, few engage as many muscles and reinforce proper movement like the deadlift. You have — at least, we hope — have heard of this exercise. If you haven’t, then you’re about to be introduced to a fundamental move that helps you to pack on muscle and build strength that will carry over to all facets of your life. 

However, you cannot simply bend over and pick up a barbell. Without knowing proper deadlift form, grip positioning, and how to program the exercise, you’ll risk injury and stagnation. In this guide, we’ll leave no stone unturned as we dish out everything you need to know about the deadlift. Strap in — you’re about to get a crash course on becoming a master puller

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.

Conventional Deadlift Video Guide

For the visual learners out there, make sure you check out our in-depth deadlift video guide below that covers all of the vital topics above.

How to Do the Deadlift

There are two primary deadlift set-ups that lifters can take — sumo and conventional. We’ll explain the differences between the two more below, but here’s a very brief primer. The sumo deadlift is done with the feet wide and hands set inside the legs. A conventional deadlift has the lifter assume a narrow stance with their arms outside their legs. The step-by-step guide below is for the conventional deadlift.  

Step 1 — Conquer the Set-Up

deadlift phase 1
Credit: Riley Stefan

Set the feet about hip-width apart, and then root them to the floor by twisting them slightly apart. Maintain a relatively vertical shin angle, bring the shoulders over the bar, then hinge the hips backward by driving the butt behind you. 

Form Tip: Contract the lats to pull the bar tight into the body and create a proud chest posture as you set the back. 

Step 2 —  Initiate the Movement

deadlift phase 2
Credit: Riley Stefan

Breathe into your belly and expand your stomach. Maintain full-body tension, then 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, which should move to a fully vertical position as the barbell comes to knee-level.

Form Tip: Ensure the shoulders are over the bar throughout the movement.

Step 3 — Stand Tall

deadlift phase 3
Credit: Riley Stefan

As the barbell passes your knee, explosively thrust your hips forward to lock the bar out. Think about contracting your glutes and putting your hips directly underneath your shoulders. Hold at the top for a beat before letting the weight down. 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

Form Tip: As you lower the load, think about pushing the hip back and loading the hamstrings.

The Deadlift Eccentric

Most exercises have two distinct phases. There’s the concentric phase, in which the muscles working contract or shorten to move the weight. There’s also the eccentric phase, during which your muscles lengthen slowly against the resistance. The deadlift is one of the few resistance training movements that doesn’t necessarily have an eccentric portion.

The lift begins on the floor and is completed when you stand up. As such, you’re under no obligation to lower the weight with control back to the floor. Doing so with a maximum-effort weight may be potentially dangerous. However, including an eccentric portion with your light deadlifts is a great way to warm up and stimulate some extra muscle growth.

The bottom line is this — if you’re pulling heavy, stand tall and let the bar fall afterwards. If you’re working on your technique or want to strengthen your spine and hips, lower the barbell slowly. 

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, we’ll discuss four 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 (well, that depends on the child’s age), 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. That is a skill you want to maintain, as haphazard hinging can potentially lead to back injuries, especially as we age. 

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 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 the synergistic and stabilizer muscles listed below.

Glutes

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.

Hamstrings

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. 

Quads

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.

Lats

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.

Traps

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. 

Lower Back

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. 

Synergists

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 to Avoid

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 of the Bar

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. Neither is good. Check out this video on pulling the slack out of the bar: 

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 perform deadlifts from a deficit to emphasize leg engagement at the start of the movement. 

Sumo Versus Conventional Deadlifts: Which is Best?

The sumo and conventional deadlift are both excellent training options for anyone trying to improve their pulling strength. However, it’s worth noting that each lift comes with inherent mechanical differences. 

In a 2002 study published in Medicine and Science In Sports and Exercise, researchers analyzed EMG (electromyography) differences of 16 different muscle groups with the conventional and sumo deadlift. (2)

Overall, the results were pretty similar, but there were a few discrepancies between each lift. For example, the vastus medialis (inner quad) and vastus lateralis (outer quad) were more active during sumo deadlifts. It’s worth mentioning that, ultimately, the differences in muscle activation between the sumo and conventional pulls are fairly minimal. 

For recreational lifters, performing both deadlift styles can be a valuable tool for progressing across the board.

Finding the Right Deadlift For Your Body Type

Deadlifting is like shopping for shoes — you need to sample a bit until you find the right fit. It’s perfectly normal to attempt a sumo-style deadlift and feel like a contortionist about to snap. Conversely, lankier lifters may have quite the difficult time grasping the technique of the conventional pull. 

Fortunately, like shoes, there’s an appropriate style of deadlift for everyone under the sun.

For Tall Lifters

If you’re pushing six feet tall or more, looking down on a loaded barbell can feel like you’ve got miles to go to even reach it. It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence if you have trouble getting in position to lift, never mind the lifting itself. Since taller, long-limbed athletes simply have to pack more of themselves into their set up, a conventional deadlift may not be suitable.

If this is the case for you, you can opt to try out either an elevated block pull that increases the starting height of the barbell, or pick up a trap bar and do your pulls with it. The trap bar’s higher, by-your-side handles should allow you to feel more “open” and less compressed in your setup. 

For Shorter Athletes

Athletes with compact builds are well suited to deadlifting with a conventional stance. If you’ve got short legs and a long torso, you should find that a regular barbell deadlift is comfortable and allows you to pull with a fairly upright torso and short range of motion. 

However, if you prefer to spend more time working with the bar, you can stand on plates or a riser and perform deadlifts from a deficit instead to extend your range of motion. 

For Those With Mobility Issues

There are plenty of people who want to reap the benefits of deadlifting but simply can’t make the barbell work with their bodies. The elderly, trainees coming back from an injury, or those brand-new to lifting overall might not be built to deadlift from the floor. Luckily, there are plenty of serviceable workarounds.

The Romanian deadlift affords many of the benefits of a regular pull without the need to begin on the floor. You can also perform deadlifts with a dumbbell or kettlebell placed between your feet, which should reduce some tension on your spine and provide an easy-to-learn method of developing a good hip hinge

Which Deadlift Grip is Best for You?

There are multiple ways to grip the barbell for a deadlift. The three most commonly used options include double overhead, hook grip and mixed grip. Each of these come with their own lists of strengths and weaknesses, which we’ll quickly go over below. 

Double Overhand Grip

The double overhand grip can be used with or without the hook grip (see below). This is a great grip to help develop grip strength and have an application to the Olympic lifts. Some lifters do experience issues holding onto loads using this grip (which is why it is a great way to develop a better grip).

Hook Grip

The hook grip is the grip of choice for Olympic weightlifters due to the ability to have more security as the barbell spins during the turnover stages and rack positions.

To do it, you’ll grab the with both palms facing you. Instead of keeping your thumb on the outside of your hand, you’ll tuck it around the bar and inside your hand. Be warned, while this is an effective grip, it is not a comfortable one. 

Mixed Grip (Over-Under Grip)

The mixed grip, also known as the over-under grip, is a secure grip that prevents the bar from rolling out of the hands as you pull. It has you hold one side of the bar with your palm facing you and the other facing away. However, this grip does promote some rotational stress on the body and may lead to asymmetrical back development and can (rarely albeit) put additional stress on tight biceps tendons

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 weightlifters 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. 

General Population

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, Reps, and Programming Recommendations

Below are three primary training goals and programming recommendations when programming the deadlift into workouts. Note that these are general guidelines and by no means should 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, we suggest a more isolated approach, such as back extensions or hyperextensions for lower back endurance or hip thrusts for glute endurance. 

High-rep deadlifts often are the cause of deadlift injuries, in addition to lifting too heavy too often with poor technique.

To Gain Muscle

If you are looking to build significant amounts of muscle mass, it is important to understand the eccentric loading (lowering of the weight) and tension is key. Therefore, use a weight that you can control but is still challenging. Start with four to six sets of six to 10 repetitions with moderate to heavy loads (70-90% of your one-rep max). Rest for two minutes between sets.

Note: The deadlift is a good move to add muscle to the back and hamstrings, but you’ll still want to incorporate moves to isolate those specific areas. Isolation moves like Pendlay rows and Romanian deadlifts can better recruit specific muscles more than a standard deadlift. 

To Gain Strength

For general strength building sets, athletes can perform lower repetition ranges for more sets. The actual programming will vary based on the individual. However, generally speaking, the lifter will perform three to six sets of one to five repetitions with moderate to heavy loads (80-95% of your one-rep max), resting two to four minutes between sets.

It is important to note that for some lifters, pauses and pin presses can be used to address concentric strength limitations or issues throughout certain ranges of motion in the deadlift.

Sample 4-Week Deadlift Progression

The below progression follows a linear structure and is best used for beginner and intermediate lifters. You will deadlift twice per week, except in the third week. The second deadlift session of the week is meant for muscle growth and technique. The last week will have you test your rep max with 90%.

If you don’t know your one-rep max, check out our calculator below to find your starting point.

One Rep Max Calculator

Weight Lifted
Reps Performed

Week One 

  • Day One — 5 sets of 2-3 reps at 80% of your one-rep max.
  • Day Two — 3 sets of 5 reps at 75% of your one-rep max.

Week Two

  • Day One — 4 sets of 2-3 reps at 82% of your one-rep max.
  • Day Two — 3 sets of 5 reps at 75% of your one-rep max.

Week Three

  • Day One — 4 sets of 1-2 reps at 85% of your one-rep max.

Week Four

  • Day One — 1 set of 3+ reps at 90% of your one-rep max.
  • Day Two — 3 sets of 5 reps at 75% of your one-rep max.

Popular Deadlift Programs

Beyond a sample template, there are also plenty of pre-built programs out there to help you deadlift absurd amounts of weight. These popular programs below might just be the perfect platform for you to jump off of and land on some new gains. 

The Cube Method

Brandon Lilly’s “Cube Method” is a fantastic form of periodization for turning the deadlift into a muscle-builder. By staggering rep ranges and allowing you the freedom to choose your own accessory moves, you can build a personalized routine that will grow muscle while also helping you master the deadlift itself.

5/3/1

Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 is an extremely popular deadlift program, and for good reason. It’s designed to be appropriate for intermediate lifters who still make gains readily but who have advanced beyond a true beginner program. If you’ve been in the gym for a couple of years and are looking to gain strength in the pull, 5/3/1 is worth a shot. 

The Conjugate Method

This style of training, popularized by the iconic strength gym Westside Barbell, is fully customizable. The main principle is simple — by practicing deadlift-esque movements with extreme regularity, you can build out an impressive skillset that should translate over to your competition deadlift. For athletes who enjoy a lot of variation in their training, the conjugate method is the perfect plan. 

How to Warm Up for the Deadlifts

A strong deadlift starts with an ever stronger deadlift warmup. Before every deadlift session, it’s important to perform a string of warmup movements designed to prime the muscles responsible for moving big weight. Check out the video below for how to properly warm-up before some big pulls. 

Deadlift Variations

Below are four deadlift variations that can be done to increase overall deadlift strength, address limitations and sticking points, and regress or progress the deadlift for different experience levels.

Block Deadlift

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.

Stiff-Leg Deadlift

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.

Deficit Deadlift

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.

Snatch-Grip Deadlift

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. 

Deadlift Alternatives

The three variations below can increase unilateral strength and hypertrophy and add variety to a training program.

Trap Bar Deadlift

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.

This is also a great exercise if you are looking to decrease lumbar stress and strain, as the trap bar deadlift often allows for a more vertical torso positioning when done with the hips lower in the start.

Hip Thrust 

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 (lower back injury) or are simply looking to add additional glute specific training without the added lumbar stress and fatigue of doing more deadlifts.

Farmer Carry

The farmer carry can be done with handles, dumbbells, kettlebells, a trap bar, or anything you can get your hands on (literally). This dynamic strength exercise starts by lifting a load from the floor, stabilizing the trunk, and then simply walking (either for distance or time). This is great when looking to bolster grip strength, improve posture, and reinforce pulling strength for all levels.

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 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

FAQs

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.

Prime Movers

  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Lats

Synergists and Stabilizers

  • Gastrocnemius
  • Soleus
  • Obliques
  • Rectus Abdominis
  • Erectors, Quads
  • Traps
  • Rhomboids
  • Forearms

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.

  1. Keep the warmup somewhat time-conscious. You don’t need to spend half an hour getting warm. 
  2. Focus on the muscle groups and joints needed most in the deadlift.
  3. Spend the most time targeting areas that need the most activation per your needs.

References

  1. 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. 
  2. An Electromyographical Analysis of Sumo and Conventional Style Deadlifts | Electromyography | Knee. (2020). Retrieved 29 January 2020.

Featured image: puhhha/Shutterstock