Master the Deadlift For Muscle, Raw Strength, and Power

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

Of all the exercises that exist, 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. 

You cannot, however, simply bend over and pick up a barbell. Without knowledge of 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. The strength and power to be gained are most definitely worth the read — we promise. 

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 (Not Sumo) 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 more narrow stance with their arms outside of their legs. The step-by-step guide below is for the conventional deadlift.  

Step 1 — Conquer the Set-Up

Conventional Deadlift Set Up

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

Conventional Deadlift Pull

Breathe into your belly and expand your stomach. Maintain full-body tension, and then drive through the floor with the legs, keeping the bar against the body, to lift the weight off of the floor. 

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

Step 3 — Stand Up, and Lower Under Control

Conventional Deadlift Lockout

Contract the quads, glutes, and lats to complete the lockout of the deadlift. While maintaining tension, start the descent by hinging the hips backward and maintaining the same tight bar path used in the concentric (upward movement).

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

Benefits of the Deadlift

There are a handful of 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 age of the 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. That is a skill you want to maintain, as haphazard hinging — especially as we age — can potentially lead to back injuries. 

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, then you need to deadlift. Powerlifters literally 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

Those on the quest to build a strong and big back then deadlifts should be in your training toolbox. You can load the deadlift heavier than other back movements, which makes 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 (multi-joint) 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) On top of being a great movement for working these major muscles, the deadlift is also fantastic for targeting the synergistic and stabilizer muscles listed below.

Deadlift Prime Movers

The prime movers are the muscles that are responsible for the brunt of the movement. In the deadlift’s case, these muscle groups are the glutes and hamstrings, which play a role in hip extension.

  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Lats

Synergistic and Stabilizer Muscles

The synergistic and stabilizer muscles are the groups of muscles that assist with the successful execution of the movement. They promote joint stability, prime mover strength, and have the ability to increase activation throughout various ranges of motion but may not be active the whole time as the prime movers. 

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

Common Deadlift Mistakes to Avoid

Below are three of the most common mistakes seen when deadlift, which can lead to loss of positional strength (flat back), failed lifts, and potential injury

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. 

To fix poor bar path, set a foam roller six to eight inches in front of the barbell and practice reps without touching or knocking down the roller. 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-goosey form and either not move the weight or potentially hurt yourself. Neither is good. Check out this video on how to pull the slack out of the bar. 

Address this issue by progressively pulling tension into the barbell before liftoff and hold 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 to do so, 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. 

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. 

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.

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

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.

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/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.

Frequently Asked Questions

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