The Deadlift | How To, Muscles Worked, Benefits, and More

Conquer the deadlift to build a stronger body and physique!

The deadlift is fundamental compound movement to conquer in the gym. We like to consider the deadlift as a right of passage because it entails a movement pattern that should be accomplished by everyone regardless of goals or needs. After all, picking things up from the ground is a skill that everyone should possess throughout their whole life. 

If you’re trying to improve your strength and total body muscle, then it’s a good idea to integrate some form of deadlifts into your training. In this deadlift guide, we’re going to cover every aspect that you need to know to get stronger and safely perform deadlifts.

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

How To Deadlift

1.
Conquer the Setup

Position the feet about hip width apart and grip the floor. Maintain a relatively vertical shin angle, bring the shoulders over the bar, then hinge the hips backwards.

Contract the lats to pull the bar tight into the body and create a proud chest posture to set the back.

2.
Initiate the Movement

Breathe into the obliques, maintain your tension, and drive through the floor with the legs keeping the bar tight to the body.

Ensure the shoulders are staying over the bar and the hips are progressively rising at a speed that correlates with bar speed and tempo of the deadlift.

3.
Lockout and Eccentrically Load

Lockout at the top by contracting the quads, glutes, and lats. While maintaining tension, start the descent by hinging the hips backwards and maintaining the same tight bar path that was used in the concentric (upward movement).

Deadlift Warmup

A strong deadlift starts with an ever stronger deadlift warmup. Before every deadlift session, it’s important to perform a string of warmup movements that are designed to prime the muscles responsible for moving big weight. 

Deadlift warmups should be individual in nature, but if you’re running low on ideas, then we’d suggest checking out our full body deadlift warmup below for inspiration. This warmup is fantastic for prepping every muscle and joint responsible for big lifts.

Warmup Stats

  • Total Time Needed to Complete: 6-12 minutes
  • Total Exercises: 8
  • Designed For: Beginners – Advanced Trainees

Once again, it’s important to remember that there is no “one-size-fits-all” deadlift warmup for everyone, and everyone will need to individualize movements that best prep them for big lifts based on their needs and lifestyle.

Deadlift Muscles

The deadlift is a top compound exercise for many because of how many muscles it works at once. It’s often considered as the “king” of the exercises for this exact reason — along with the fact that it is such a primitive movement and impressive display of strength. 

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 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 both play a role in hip extension, a.k.a. the key to successful and strong deadlifts.

  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Lats — Prime movers at initiation of pull
Deadlift Muscles Worked
Deadlift Muscles Worked

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 like the prime movers. 

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

Deadlift Benefits

There are handfuls 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 five of our favorite benefits that come with deadlifting. 

1. Carryover to Sport

The deadlift is a fantastic movement for creating performance carryover benefits to nearly every sport. Walking, jumping, running, and pretty much every athletic movement require strong hip extension and control over the pelvis. The deadlift is a great exercise for strengthening hip extension and improving full body strength. 

2. Functional Movement Pattern

Let’s call it what it is, but picking stuff up off the ground is a skill that one should possess throughout their whole life. The deadlift itself will not always directly reflect the object being lifted off the ground, however, the way in which we hinge, brace, and sequence our joints will be pretty consistent. 

So yeah, the barbell deadlift is not an absolute must when it comes to a “functional” real-life movement pattern, but the skill of deadlifting an implement and lifting it with success is a skill that has carryover to the real world. 

3. 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 to some degree. For example, powerlifters have to deadlift for their sport, and weightlifters/strongman/CrossFit athletes can all benefit with improving their pulling potential.

This isn’t to say these athlete all need to deadlift, but being strong in this movement pattern will certainly help support long-term success. 

4. Back Muscle Builder

For those on the quest of building a strong and big back, then deadlifts are going to be one of your better bets for doing so. You can load the deadlift heavier compared to other back movements, which makes it fantastic for strength and hypertrophy.

In addition, if you’re pressed on time for a workout and want a lot of bang for your buck, then the deadlift is a great exercise to employ for total muscle growth. The deadlift will strengthen handfuls of prime movers, stabilizers, and synergists, in addition to building full body strength. 

5. Look Super Cool

Okay, this benefit is said a bit in jest, but there’s no denying that deadlifts look super cool and they’re a fun skill to practice. For those on the pursuit of strength, the deadlift is certainly a movement worth conquering and nailing. After all, you know never know when you’ll need to pick up a heavy barbell in public to prove yourself as a strong human…kidding, sort of!

Deadlift Mistakes to Avoid

1. Poor Bar Path

View this post on Instagram

Bar getting away from you? Try this Set a foam roller about 3-inches in front of the barbell and presume to perform your normal reps. Video yourself, preferably from an angle or the side. If you knock the foam roller down, then pay attention to where the barbell made contact with it. Generally, the foam roller will get knocked down mid-way up the shin during the concentric, which would indicate that the lats are becoming disengaged, or at the top, and that would indicate there’s a breakdown in hinge mechanics. The goal is to have the barbell remain in a relatively consistent spot throughout each rep with little deviation and to keep the foam roller contact free. #deadlift #deadlifttechnique #sumodeadlift #deadlifttip

A post shared by Jake (@jake_boly) on

  • What It Is: Bar path entails how the barbell tracks from initiation of the deadlift to its successful completion. In the deadlift’s case, we want to watch how the bar travels from the ground, to the standing up portion, then back to the ground. In a perfect world, the bar path will be for a majority straight, and any shift can result in power dissipation. 
  • Where It Goes Wrong: Improper bracing and hinging technique can cause the bar to shoot away from the body, which will pull your setup out of position. 
  • How to Fix It: Set a foam roller roughly 6″-8″ in front of the barbell and practice reps without touching or knocking down the roller. If it gets knocked over, then film yourself from the side and analyze where the barbell might be shooting forward. 

2. Not Pulling the Slack Out

  • What It Is: Pulling the slack out of the bar is creating tension with the body, barbell, and floor before any movement is initiated. This concept ensures that you are bracing correctly and setting yourself up for mechanical success by producing tension before force exertion. 
  • Where It Goes Wrong: If you lack the ability to pull the slack out of the bar, then you’ll see the hips rise too quickly, or the back can round in the first pull. 
  • How to Fix It: Set on the barbell, create tension, 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.

3. Hips Rising Up Too Quickly

  • What It Is: Strong hips in the deadlift remain in a relatively fixed position that move in conjunction with the knee extension and the rest of the deadlift. 
  • Where It Goes Wrong: If the hips are shooting up upon the initiation of the movement, then there’s a good chance you’re losing power due to poor mechanical positioning. 
  • How to Fix It: Video 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

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 its inherent mechanical differences. In general, performing both deadlift styles is a good idea for most lifters, as each can strengthen different muscles and body parts per their technical execution. 

In a 2002 study published in Medicine and Science In Sports and Exercise, researchers analyzed EMG differences of 16 different muscle groups with the conventional and sumo deadlift. (2) Check out some of the data points below for differences in muscle activation during each lift. 

Sumo Versus Conventional Muscles Used
Data from: Escamilla, R. F., Francisco, A. F., Kayes, A. V., Speer, K. P. & Moorman, C. T. (2002). An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts.

Overall, the results were pretty similar, but there were a few discrepancies between each lift. For example, the vastus medialis (inner quad) and vastus lateralist (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. If you’re interested in nailing your sumo deadlift, then check out our in-depth sumo deadlift guide!

Deadlift Grips

There are multiple ways to grip a 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 strength and weaknesses, which we’ll quickly go over below. Also, check out our additional article to see which deadlift grip you should be using.

Double Overhand

  • Pros: Great for building grip strength and a symmetrical back. 
  • Cons: Limited in nature to what you can hold. 

Hook Grip

  • Pros: Very secure and promotes symmetrical back growth. 
  • Cons: Can be painful during acclimation phase.

Mixed Grip

  • Pros: Secure and prevents the bar from rolling out. 
  • Cons: Can (rarely albeit) put additional stress on tight biceps tendons

Best Deadlift Variations

Best Variation for Beginners

The Romanian deadlift (RDL) is one of the best deadlift variations for trying to isolate the hamstrings and full posterior chain. This variation focuses fully on the eccentric movement pattern of the deadlift and is great for building hamstrings strength and hypertrophy. 

The RDL is also a useful tool for teaching proper hip hinge mechanics, which are essential to have for long-term health and success in the gym. Check out full Romanian Deadlift (RDL) guide for more information on this exercise. 

Best Advanced Variation

One of the best deadlift variations for advanced trainees, and beginners for that matter, is the snatch grip deadlift. This exercise requires a bit more technical prowess than your traditional deadlift and RDL, which is why we classify it has a slightly more advanced movement. 

This exercise does a phenomenal job at building posterior chain and grip strength. For a full breakdown of this exercises form, benefits, and muscles worked, check out our snatch grip deadlift guide.

Wrapping Up

At BarBend, we like to consider the deadlift as much of as skill as it is an exercise. If you’re on the mission of building total body strength and packing on muscle, then the deadlift is certainly a movement worth employing. 

You don’t need to barbell deadlift to reap all of the benefits of the deadlift and variations can work wonders for long-term success in and out of the gym.

Deadlift 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 employing 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 (during first pull)

Synergists and Stabilizers

Gastrocnemius, Soleus, Obliques, Rectus Abdominis , Erectors, Quads, Traps , Rhomboids, and 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 warmup, but we do have a couple pieces of advice.

  1. Keep the warmup somewhat time conscious!
  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 & Fitness16(3), 87-93. 

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

Jake Boly

Jake Boly

Jake holds a Master’s in Sports Science and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. Currently, Jake serves as the Fitness and Training Editor at BarBend. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and has spoken at state conferences on the topics of writing in the fitness industry and building a brand.

As of right now, Jake has published over 1,300 articles related to strength athletes and sports. Articles about powerlifting concepts, advanced strength & conditioning methods, and topics that sit atop a strong science foundation are Jake’s bread-and-butter.

Leave a Comment