When it comes to building fundamental pulling strength, the deadlift is king of the jungle. However, it is also one of the most versatile and customizable exercises out there. If you’re looking for a variation of the deadlift that can build muscle, improve posture, and supplement your main pull all at once, look no further than the dumbbell deadlift.
For most lifters, the dumbbell deadlift can be used to increase muscle growth and strength, however stronger individuals may find it has its limitations for top-end strength — but is still an amazing movement to incorporate as an accessory.
In this exercise guide, we will discuss in detail everything you need to know about the dumbbell deadlift and how to integrate it into your training program to build muscle, strength, and improve your fitness:
- How to Do the Dumbbell Deadlift
- Benefits of the Dumbbell Deadlift
- Muscles Worked by the Dumbbell Deadlift
- Who Should Do the Dumbbell Deadlift
- Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
- Dumbbell Deadlift Variations
- Dumbbell Deadlift Alternatives
- Frequently Asked Questions
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to perform the dumbbell deadlift. Note that by default the exercise is performed with a pair of dumbbells, one held in each hand.
Step 1 — Set Your Base
Assume your standard deadlift stance. Grasp the dumbbells, making sure that the arms are straight and the shoulders are set back. Your chest should be high and torso as upright as possible.
Coach’s Tip: If you’re a taller athlete or are missing some flexibility in your posterior chain, setting the weights on a stack of plates can be a suitable workaround as you adjust to the exercise.
Step 2 — Drive Straight
Once you’re set up properly — back flat, chest upright, grip firmly established — drive through the floor. With the weights at your sides, you should be able to engage your quadriceps effectively and “push the floor away.”
Coach’s Tip: Do not let your butt pop up while breaking the weights from the floor. The initial joint action should come predominantly from the knees.
Step 3 — Lower With Control
While the competition barbell deadlift has no eccentric portion, the dumbbell deadlift should be lowered under control. Once you’re in a standing position, reverse the motion slowly to return the weights to the floor.
Coach’s Tip: Maintain control of your tempo all the way through, particularly once the weights pass knee-level again, as this will be the most challenging part of the eccentric.
Below are four benefits of the dumbbell deadlift the lifters and coaches can expect when programming the dumbbell deadlift into their training programs.
Improve Pulling Technique
The dumbbell deadlift can help develop overall pulling technique in lifters who struggle to maintain proper positioning and/or set their backs. The dumbbells act independently of one another, which means that the lifter needs to establish more acute control and body awareness to maintain scapular tension and not allow any rotational movement to occur.
Additionally, using dumbbells for the deadlift can help lifters feel when they lose balance in the pull, as the dumbbells will easily swing out of their proper pathway.
Increase Lat Engagement
The dumbbell deadlift can be used to increase lat engagement in the deadlift as the dumbbells act independently, and therefore can easily swing or cause postural instability. Unlike with a barbell, the dumbbell deadlift can readily highlight any unilateral weaknesses that occur, which can help build a stronger back and improve deadlift technique.
Bolster Grip Strength
Since dumbbells can sometimes have thicker handles than a standard barbell, there’s some extra grip strength to be gained when performing the exercise. Your hands and forearms are also challenged to hold onto two individual implements — your dominant hand can’t pick up the slack to help perform each repetition.
Extra Muscular Development
The dumbbell deadlift allows for a greater range of motion than the conventional deadlift. By increasing the range of motion, the muscle fibers acting on the hips and knees will see increased tension and engagement, encouraging extra growth.
The below muscles groups are targeted with the dumbbell deadlift. Note that the dumbbell deadlift does stimulate the entire body; the below muscle groups are the primary muscle groups trained.
The back muscles and traps are used to maintain proper positioning during the pull and resist anterior flexion of the spine. Additionally, the traps aid in the movement by helping to keep the shoulders and shoulder blades from sliding forwards, which can result in the upper, mid, or lower back going into flexion. The dumbbell deadlift is a great exercise to reinforce lat engagement and well.
Hamstrings and Glutes
Since the dumbbell deadlift is a hip hinge, the glutes and hamstrings get a lot of love in every single repetition. As the load is lowered, the lifter places high amounts of tension and stretch on the hamstrings to control pace and speed. The dumbbell deadlift can be modified to target the hamstrings and glutes to an even greater degree by performing a Romanian deadlift.
The quadriceps are used when the lifter assumes the low start position in the deadlift. As the lifter descends past the knee, the knees themselves must begin to go into deeper flexion, which in turn increases quadriceps engagement.
If your goal is to build bigger quads with dumbbells, squat variations are probably better overall, but the extra-deep range of motion in the dumbbell deadlift does give a bit of bonus work to the knee extensors.
Below is a more complete breakdown discussing how the dumbbell deadlift can be beneficial for various groups.
Strength and Power Athletes
If your goal is to build maximal strength and power, the dumbbell deadlift may be helpful if you are a beginner or someone who cannot lift more weight than the dumbbells you have access to.
Most intermediate and advanced lifters will be able to deadlift more than the weight of any pair of dumbbells. That said, using dumbbells can be advantageous when the goal is muscle growth or improvement in pulling technique.
Gymgoers and Fitness Fans
The dumbbell deadlift can be very beneficial for lifters who may not be as strong as they’d like, and can be used to increase pulling strength and technique. As nearly every fitness facility or well-stocked home gym will have dumbbells, the exercise is a fantastic all-purpose beginner movement.
Below are common loading schemes that can be used when programming the dumbbell deadlift into training programs.
Note that the below guidelines are here to offer coaches and athletes loose recommendations for programming, and are not the only way to program the exercise.
To Improve Deadlift Technique
When using dumbbells for the deadlift, the lifter must maintain positional stability and integrity throughout the pull. This can be helpful for beginners looking to improve their technique or for lifters who have issues with spinal rigidity.
Start by performing two to three sets of five to 10 repetitions, using a slow and controlled eccentric, focusing on maintaining proper positioning of the back, and not allowing the shoulder to roll forwards. Rest periods can be as long as needed to ensure proper recovery.
To Gain Muscle
The dumbbell deadlift may best be used to gain muscle and size, as this exercise can be trained in a fuller range of motion and often is not heavy enough for more advanced lifters to increase top-end strength. That said, it makes a great muscle-building movement as it allows for higher rep training and fuller ranges of motion.
Start by performing two to three sets of 8-15 reps or more, using a heavy weight and training close to failure. Rest as long as needed to allow yourself to train hard.
To Increase Muscle Endurance
When looking to increase systemic muscular endurance, you need to train in high rep ranges and for longer durations. Some lifters may want to train greater muscle endurance for sports performance, in which higher repetition ranges and/or shorter rest periods are recommended.
Start by performing two to three sets of 10-20 repetitions, or do timed sets lasting 45-90 seconds.
Adding variety to your deadlift training offers you ways to increase complexity and continually push progress. These variations of the dumbbell deadlift can find a home anywhere the main exercise would go in your program.
Single-Arm Dumbbell Deadlift
The single-arm dumbbell deadlift, also known as the suitcase deadlift, is a great way to increase unilateral strength and core stability in any lower-body movement. This exercise also has fantastic carryover to daily activity, from performing loaded carries in the gym to bringing in groceries from the car.
Sumo Dumbbell Deadlift
By taking a sumo stance, the lifter creates space for the dumbbells to be placed in between the legs. In doing so, they are able to train the same movement patterning and muscle used in the sumo deadlift. This can place more emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes, and decrease stress on the lower back since the lifter is not bent over as much.
Stiff-Leg Dumbbell Deadlift
The stiff-leg dumbbell deadlift minimizes the amount of knee flexion to increase the demands placed upon the hamstrings and glutes. This is a great variation for lifters who may be too strong to use the dumbbells available to them to drive strength, so they can perform higher rep stiff-leg dumbbell deadlifts as an accessory movement to build more resilient hamstrings and glutes.
If you don’t have access to a good pair of dumbbells, you can always fall back to basics. Here are a few alternatives to the dumbbell deadlift that work wonderfully for strength, technique, or muscle gain.
Deficit Barbell Deadlift
The deficit barbell deadlift is a fuller range of motion deadlift option that can offer many of the same benefits of the dumbbell deadlift. By standing on a pair of weight plates, you can mimic the extra distance of the dumbbell pull and still load up really heavy weights to get strong.
The kettlebell deadlift is nearly identical to the dumbbell deadlift in every way, except that you’re using a more functional tool, making it a great option for lifters who don’t have access to dumbbells yet still want to train their deadlift patterning.
Trap Bar Deadlift
If a lifter is stronger than the dumbbells available to them, they must perform an alternative that allows them to train heavy enough to elicit a strength response. The trap bar deadlift is a perfect alternative as it trains the exact movement pattern and grip positioning as the dumbbell deadlift.
The dumbbell deadlift is a great deadlift variation to increase unilateral strength, movement coordination and technique, and improve muscular development. Lifters who may be stronger, or do not have access to heavier dumbbells, may find the dumbbell deadlift to be a more effective muscle builder than a top-end strength builder.
Nonetheless, the dumbbell deadlift is a great option for lifters who may not have access to a barbell or trap bar, or for anyone looking to improve muscle mass and address unilateral weaknesses in the deadlift.
Should you hold the dumbbells to the sides or front?
This is entirely up to you, as they both offer different benefits. If you place them in front, this is more like the conventional deadlift, and will force you to really stay over the loads longer and keep the knees back. If you place them to your sides, you may be able to stay more upright and train the lats in a different manner, adding diversity to your training.
How low should you go during the dumbbell deadlift?
You can go as low as you desire, as long as you maintain proper form. If your goal is muscle growth, aim to go as low as you can to increase the tension and strength on the muscles.
While working on your depth or starting position, elevating the dumbbells on a stable surface can be helpful.