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January 01, 2023
The deadlift movement is one of the most natural and primal exercises you can do. Since the beginning of time people have been bending down and picking stuff up. Take cue from the strong boulder-hauling cavemen by loading up a barbell to perform deadlifts, and then reap the multitude of benefits that follow.
This article will teach you everything you need to know about deadlifts, which includes:
After reading this, you will have all of the know-how you need to put on some serious muscle mass and improve performance with this gold standard exercise.
While there are many variations of deadlifts, when you say "deadlift" we must assume you mean the standard deadlift, aka the king of muscle building, strength gaining exercises. A deadlift is a barbell exercise, involving lifting a loaded barbell off the ground, pulling it up until the bar is at hip level and your body is perpendicular to the floor, and then in the same motion, bringing it back to the ground.
The deadlift is a weight training exercise and one of three main powerlifting exercises, alongside squats and bench press. It is said to be the best exercise for building total body muscle mass and strength.
As one of the gold standards of fitness, deadlifts are a great addition to nearly everyone’s routine. There’s a reason that they are one of the pinnacles of the weightlifting world.
Even if you are not into lifting very heavy and no matter your skill or strength level, you can benefit from deadlifting in so many ways.
Deadlifts are fantastic for building muscle and strength in the entire posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, entire back and traps), which translates into better body composition and improved performance in the gym, during sports, and all-around in your daily life.
One of the best things about deadlifts, apart from building a body like the Rock, is there are so many modifications to keep things fresh and hit your muscles in different ways. Ideally, you want to build upon each as they get easier and your strength skyrockets.
What's more, with variations, those who have low back problems or beginners and women who are not ready or into deadlifting can still perform variations fo the deadlift as to make sure their posterior training is still being effectively targeted.
All in all, the benefits of deadlifts and the variations are pretty awesome. We will be going over all of the muscles worked, benefits, and variations below, as well as how to perform the conventional deadlift correctly. By adding deadlifts to your menu of weightlifting options, we promise you will develop a strong back, powerful legs, killer core and rock-solid arms and traps.
Notice how the question says "the most". This is because deadlifts are a total body exercise that will hit damn near every muscle in your body. Now, be that as it may, the main muscles deadlifts work are your hamstrings, quads, glutes, erector spinae, abdominal muscles, traps, lats and other deep back muscles...Pretty much your entire posterior chain. It will also help you develop a strong core and powerful forearms.
Strengthening all of these muscles with deadlifts will lead to more powerful lifting in squats and other lower body movements as well as upper body pulling exercises.
By doing deadlifts on the regular, you’ll be quickly on your way to having immensely powerful back muscles and legs.
Now, let's look at the movement a little closer to see how it hits these major muscles...
Deadlifts have a number of awesome benefits. Adding them to your routine can pay off big time. They will make you stronger, more muscular, and overall improve your health and well-being. Here are a few ways they will rock your fitness goals and improve your life.
The deadlift has the ability to create muscle mass like no other exercise out there. It is a motion that leads to raw, primal power. If you perform deadlifts on a regular basis, you will see spectacular muscular gains in your upper body and lower body, and your overall strength will sky-rocket.
So, power through those deadlifts the best that you can (as they are exhausting) and create incredible muscle mass that others will envy and aspire to.
And if you're interested to see how this exercise compares to the squat, another muscle-building compound lift, be sure to check out our article on the differences between deadlift vs. squat explained.
One of the biggest benefits of deadlifts is that they are super flexible. You’ll see as we go over the techniques and variations further below that the possibilities are endless. This makes it an ideal exercise for people of all fitness levels.
First, you can perform deadlifts with a wide variety of equipment. Sure, they are traditionally done with a barbell. But you can also do deadlifts with resistance bands, kettlebells, dumbbells, or even a cable machine, as you will see below. This makes getting deadlifts into your workout routine possible nearly anywhere, even if you can’t get to the gym.
Second, there are variations to accommodate everything from back pain to knee issues. You can also modify this exercise to meet your unique needs and target specific muscles more or less. And over time, you will find that the stability and power gained from doing various forms of deadlifts allows you to lift heavier in the standard deadlift and other big lifts in the gym like barbell rows and squats.
Deadlifts target the hard to work muscles deep in your back. They also strengthen your overall core. And both of these are super important for maintaining good posture.
Not only does slumping make you look bad, but it can also actually cause some serious back issues. Arching your spine or slouching your shoulders can lead to everything from neck pain to disc damage. Poor posture can even cause headaches and fatigue.
When your core and back are strong, it’s easier to stand tall and keep your spine elongated. Deadlifts allow these muscles to support your spine and keep you standing up straight and alert. And that great posture is the best way to put all of those hard-earned muscles on display.
Deadlifts are great for building muscle. And an increase in muscle mass will lead to an increase in your metabolic rate. This allows you to burn more calories, even when you are hanging out on the couch after your workout.
Muscles require energy even in a resting state. That means that even long after you're done with your deadlifts for the day, your body is burning some serious fuel to function. This higher metabolic rate can lead to a higher calorie burn and weight loss or maintenance.
The deadlift is a big, all-consuming compound motion. That big power motion requires a ton more energy than simple isolation exercises. And that energy is burned in the form of calories.
Combined with a healthy diet, exercise is one of the key components of fat loss. When your body needs more calories to move than you are taking in from food, that leads to a calorie deficit. And guess where your body goes to get the needed energy? Yup, stubborn body fat.
And, as mentioned, with deadlifts, your muscles work so hard that they are still requiring energy long after you get home from the gym. The intensity of deadlifts leads to post-exercise oxygen consumption, which is also known as the "after burn", meaning that you are still churning through that energy for a while after your workout is finished.
Any time you are moving with such a large range of motion, you are improving your stability. Deadlifts give this benefit and added bonus by strengthening both your legs, back, and core. These muscle groups are essential for maintaining great stability.
Deadlifts can also do big things for your balance thanks to variations like the single leg deadlift (if these are too hard at first, use a bench or wall for balance, or, use your free foot as a kickstand).
One of the most obvious benefits of deadlifts is that they are excellent for strengthening leg muscles. But let’s talk for a minute about why toning these muscles are so important. And how they can benefit you more than just by looking great.
Your leg muscles are the supportive system of your lower body. They support your knees, hips, and ankles, all areas that are prone to injury. By building the strength of your leg muscles, they stabilize and support these joints so they can better resist both wear and tear and debilitating severe injury.
The muscles of your legs also enhance your athletic performance. From being more agile to jumping higher, you’ll get a boost from the added strength. Strong legs mean you can run harder, jump higher, and move with more force.
The first part of the deadlift motion is mainly for your legs, the second part is mainly for your back. As you pull that bar up from your shins to a standing position, all of your back muscles will be firing off. We are talking about your erector spinae, lats, traps, rhomboids, teres major, teres minor, rear delts, and supraspinatus. All of these muscles (along side your biceps and forearms) will be targeted and engaged in a way that no other exercise can. This will lead to back hypertrophy (muscle gain) and toning. If you do deadlifts consistently, you will build a very impressive and chiseled back.
As you age, your bones start to decrease in density, leading to frailty and falls. Not only do deadlifts build up muscle to support your bones, but they will actually increase your bone density.
Heavy, weight-bearing exercises like deadlifts strengthen bones. The stress the exercise puts on the bone itself prompts it to become denser. This is essential for preserving the good bone health that leads to longevity.
With deadlifts, your hips and spine will be undergoing the most gravitational force, and as we all know, these are two of the most important areas of our skeletal system.
Your muscles are a big part of your body’s whole makeup. Making sure they are healthy is pretty important to your overall health and well-being. And with your glutes being the largest muscle of them all, deadlifts can mean some great things for your body.
When you increase your muscle mass, you often see an increase in energy levels. You also reduce stress and release endorphins during and after your workout. The intensity of deadlifts can be an awesome way to boost your mood.
Strength training is great for your long-term health. It can help reduce the chances of chronic disorders like heart disease and can help you regulate your blood sugar. Building muscle can also boost your immune system. This way, you can fight off everything from the virus going around the office to the bug your kid brought home.
Deadlifts will even improve your sex life! For men, deadlifts boost testosterone and for men and women , they will help you go longer and stronger in bed.
Want to dive deeper into the benefits of deadlifts? Check out our article on the Surprising Benefits of Deadlifting!
The standard deadlift is the king of deadlifts (and exercises in general). It is also the foundation for the many options and variations that we will go over. So, it’s super important that you have a good understanding of it. It’s also important that you learn the proper deadlift form and technique to avoid deadlift injuries. While this exercise is high reward, it can be high risk if you go too heavy and perform it with bad form. Pay attention to our deadlift form tips.
You can use a double overhand grip or a mixed overhand underhand grip. If you use a mixed grip, be sure to change which hand is overhand with each set as to avoid muscle imbalances. Also, the stronger your grip the better your lift, so we recommend including dumbbell forearm exercises into your routine so your arm muscles don't slow you down.
You can also try the hook grip, which is a type of overhand grip that strength athletes use for better support. The hook grip involves trapping the thumb between the bar and the first and second finger. This differs from a normal overhand grip with your thumb over your fingers.
Note: If you struggle with gripping the bar during deadlifts, lifting straps are good to use. While you will get less training for your grip strength when using lifting straps, you won't be limited by your grip either, meaning you can actually fatigue the bigger muscles. The stronger you become, the more lifting straps will be useful, which is why a lot of experienced lifters use straps. Just be sure to also do deadlifts without straps so you can improve your grip strength over time.
Avoid the following mistakes when doing deadlifts:
We get asked this a lot. And really, it depends on you and your fitness goals.
The bottom line is, with these low rep counts, it’s the weight that matters. Challenge yourself to get the most out of your reps to see gains, but always deadlift safely. Again, it is a very high risk, high reward exercise when done with heavy weights.
By mixing up your deadlifts with variations, you can find a combination that targets various areas for an overall improvement in strength and muscle mass.
There are several types of deadlifts that will target muscle groups differently.
For example, using a hex bar to deadlift will place more emphasis on your quads and traps. Doing a stiff-legged deadlift will engage the hamstrings to a much greater degree. Adding a shrug at the end of a standard barbell deadlift will make your traps explode (not literally). A wider grip deadlift will engage your hamstrings, traps and upper back more as you need to get deeper.
The list goes on and on.
Some deadlift variations are also better for situations like back pain or mobility issues. Deadlifts can even be modified to fit the confines of the equipment that you have available to you.
As you can imagine, there is a lot to work with. So, let's get into our favorite deadlift variations...
The barbell deadlift is the standard deadlift we already discussed. This classic go-to compound movement is awesome to activate the glutes and spine. There’s a reason it holds an iconic place on the throne of gym favorites.
With this, you use a traditional barbell loaded with the appropriate weight load. Place it on the ground in front of you, even with your feet. Then, squat downwards and back reaching your arms straight forward even with your shoulders.
Firmly grab the barbell with an overhand grip and inhale. Move smoothly upward at an even and controlled pace while exhaling. Try to keep the barbell as close to your body as possible. Stand straight up with your core and glutes fully engaged.
Then, with a neutral spine, use the power of your legs to slowly return the barbell to its original position in front of you. Try to hinge at the hips to lower the barbell as much as possible before bending your knees. This allows you to target your back and hamstrings more at the top of the movement.
Tips for Performing the Barbell Deadlift:
The stiff leg deadlift is very similar to the traditional barbell deadlift. However, here you keep your legs straight to really strengthen your glutes and stretch those hamstrings. Essentially, you'll be doing the top portion of the conventional deadlift movement, but with minimal to no bend in the knees. You will also use an overhand grip rather than a mixed grip.
This is a great option for runners or other athletes that are at a higher risk of a hamstring injury. By lengthening and strengthening the muscle, it can better protect itself.
With stiff leg deads, aka straight leg deadlifts, you place the barbell in front of you and hinge from the hips, grasping it firmly. Then, slowly lift the barbell up, running it along the front of your legs. At the top of the movement, inhale and begin to lower the barbell again, keeping it close to your body.
As you lower, engage your glutes to control the descending weight. Keep knees a a bit bent to avoid overextension. Repeat slowly and work your way up to higher reps as you strengthen your legs and back and improve your form.
Tips for Performing Straight Leg Deadlifts:
The sumo deadlift is exactly what it sounds like, a deadlift with a wider sumo stance. By moving downwards in a wider stance, you reduce the load on your lower back. This makes it an awesome deadlift option for those with back pain. You can see more benefits of this version in our article that compares the sumo deadlift vs conventional deadlift.
Place the barbell in front of you on the floor and stand with feet spread wide. Inhale and hinge at the hips and reach downwards to grasp the bar. Pull it slowly to standing in a smooth motion, inhaling as you rise.
Then, inhale at the top of the motion and begin to lower the bar back towards the floor. Return it to its starting position with control.
Tips for Performing Sumo Deadlifts:
You don’t need a barbell to perform deadlifts. A set of dumbbells can allow you to perform the same movement with the same benefits.
To do the dumbbell deadlift, set the dumbbells in front of your feet on the floor. Hinge forward and squat down toward the dumbbells. Grasp them firmly and run them along the front of your legs as you move upwards and return to standing.
Then, inhale and move the dumbbells back to the ground with control. You can perform this motion by bending the knees or keeping your legs straight to stretch your hamstrings. Just be sure to keep your spine straight and move with control.
Tips for Performing Dumbbell Deadlifts:
With this variation, you use a trap bar to switch up the positioning of your hands. This allows your quads to take on a bigger role. It also takes some of the pressure off your lower back, making it ideal for those who have back problems when deadlifting with a barbell.
Learn more about the differences between trap bar deadlifts and barbell deadlifts.
Load your weight on the trap bar and stand inside. With your arms at your sides and feet shoulder-width apart, squat down and firmly grab the trap bar handles. Exhale as you return to standing, raising the trap bar slowly.
Hinge at the hips to lower the trap bar. Then, bend your knees enough for the weight to return to the floor. Keep your core tight and legs engaged throughout the movement.
Tips for Performing Trap Bar Deadlifts:
Related: Best Trap Bars to Buy
Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) are great for keeping the muscles constantly engaged. With this technique, the barbell is only returned to the floor at the end of the set. It's basically the same movement as the stiff-leg deadlift, but you can have a slight bend in the knees as you lower the bar.
To perform the RDL, place the loaded barbell in front of you and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Inhale and hinge forward at the hips and bend your knees to grasp the barbell. Move slowly to standing, exhaling, and moving with control.
At the top of the movement, inhale. Then, slowly move the barbell back down the fronts of your legs. Stop around mid-shin or when you feel a good stretch in your hamstrings. Return to standing and repeat the rest of the reps in your set before returning the barbell to the floor.
Tips for Performing Romanian Deadlifts:
The main difference between a stiff-legged deadlift and a Romanian deadlift is that with stiff-legged deadlifts, you are supposed to bring the barbell to the floor, but the Romanian deadlift you only bring the bar down to your shins before coming back up. This means your back is likely to be slightly arched with a stiff-legged deadlift, especially if your mobility is not that great. As such, go lighter with stiff-legged deadlifts if you are going to touch the plates to the floor with each rep.
All in all, the two are different but many people perform Romanian Deadlifts and call them stiff-legged deadlifts.
Single leg deadlifts are awesome for improving balance (core strength) and hitting the hamstrings, gluteus maximus, and gluteus medius. They are also great for strengthening your core as it works hard to stabilize you through the movement. These can be done as either straight leg deadlifts or with a bend in the knee.
Place a dumbbell or kettlebell on the floor in front of you. Stand on one foot and slowly hinge forward to grasp the handle. You can either use the same arm as your standing leg or the opposite one. Many people find one way or the other better for balancing.
Float your other leg upwards as you move towards the floor. Then, pull the weight upwards with control. Move slowly and take your time. Extending the non-weight-bearing arm outwards can help with balance. You can also find a spot to fix your gaze to help stabilize you.
Slowly move the weight back towards the floor, extending the opposite leg. You can do these with a Romanian technique for a move advanced exercise. Or, you can rest the weight on the floor between each rep as you break to regain your balance.
Tips for Performing Single Leg Deadlifts:
Deadlifts with an added bicep curl are an incredible full-body dumbbell workout. Not only are you working those legs and glutes, but you’re also getting your arms beefed up. The trick here is finding the just-right weight for each movement.
You can do these with both a barbell or dumbbells, but obviously if you choose a barbell, you won't be putting too many plates on the bar unless you are very strong.
You can also choose any type of deadlift from straight leg to sumo stance. All you need to do for this variation is use an underhand grip or neutral grip and add a bicep curl at the end to target your biceps femoris.
Perform whichever deadlift variation you choose. Then, stop at the top of the deadlift movement. Tuck your elbows at your side and slowly raise the weight towards your shoulder. Then, move it back down with control until your arms are fully extended. Lower the weight back down for the rest of the deadlift motion.
Tips for Performing Bicep Curl with Deadlifts:
Deadlifts are incredibly versatile. You don’t even need free weights to perform them. A good set of resistance bands can allow you to do some killer banded deadlifts.
Step on the center of the band and bend down grasp them so there is tension. With the band securely under your feet, move to standing with the band creating resistance. Then, slowly move your hands back towards the floor with control.
You can do these with your hands in front of you or to your sides. You can also do these as single-leg deadlifts with the resistance band under one foot and the other outstretched behind you. Choose between straight legs or bend your knees to target different muscles and stretch your hamstrings.
With resistance bands, your muscles will be engaged in a similar way as with free weights. It is effective for building muscle. The difference is, rather than fighting gravity, you will be fighting elastic tension. Bands hit your muscles differently, and is especially effective for the eccentric phase of the deadlift (when lowering down from the standing position).
Tips for Performing Resistance Band Deadlifts:
An elevated deadlift can be a good option for those with back or knee pain. The exercise is similar to rack pulls, but starting from a lower bar position. With these, you use weight plates or boxes to raise the weight slightly from the floor.
Using dumbbells? Use a weight bench or step as their starting point to reduce your range of motion.
These can be done in either a traditional conventional stance or sumo stance. You can also bend your knees or use a straight-legged technique. But by starting with the weight in a higher position, you reduce the amount of motion needed to pull it to standing. This allows you to still work your legs without having to reach your hands as low to the floor in front of you.
Tips for Performing Elevated Deadlifts:
Note: The elevated deadlift is not to be confused with the deficit deadlift, which involves elevating your feet rather than the bar and is a harder variation (the elevated deadlift is an easier variation of the conventional deadlift). So, with a deficit deadlift, you will stand on a raised platform (even just an inch or two to start) and the bar will be on the floor as normal.
This is another great option when you don’t have the necessary weights available. The cable machine can be an awesome way to perform deadlifts (or any leg exercise for that matter). Use handles or a bar and attach it to the pulley in the lowest position.
Then, step back from the machine until you feel tension, holding the handle or bar in front of you. Holding it at about waist height, hinge forward, pulling the handle or bar towards the floor. Slowly return to standing with control. Keep your core engaged and your back straight to isolate your legs through the motion.
Tips for Performing Cable Machine Deadlifts:
As you can see, there are many ways to modify deadlifts to target different muscle groups. Get creative and find fun ways to mix up your deadlift routine for variety and effectiveness.
Go to an Olympic weightlifting competition and you'll see snatch grips everywhere. A snatch grip, which is a term from Olympic lifting, involves holding the barbell with a wide grip (about 1.5-2x shoulder width apart).
The snatch grip makes the lift harder, so you won't be able to go as heavy with a snatch grip deadlift, but it is great for building up grip strength and the traps.
With all of these options and variations, the short answer is nearly everyone should do deadlifts! From beginners to seasoned bodybuilders to pro lifters training for powerlifting competition, deadlifts are an important addition to any fitness routine.
Just about all fitness and strength levels can find a deadlift that works for them. And as you consistently perform them, you’ll get stronger and be able to increase the weight and try additional variations.
Minor back pain shouldn’t stop you from doing deadlifts. If you are concerned about your back, then consult a doctor first. But, if your back pain is caused by poor form, try an elevated version with the weight starting higher off the floor. Or, use a sumo stance or trap bar to make deadlifts easier on your back.
Straight leg deadlifts are often easier for people with knee pain. Or trying single-leg deadlifts to slowly strengthen the problem leg. The quad toning from deadlifts can go a long way in protecting knee joints.
Deadlifts can be a tool to improve performance for many athletes. By improving these muscle groups, they can often run faster and jump higher. Plus, they can help stretch hamstrings, which improves mobility.
Many people ask, “How often should I deadlift?”
Well, there’s no magic number here. The main thing is to listen to your body and recover adequately as with any exercise.
Deadlifts are super effective and doing them at the right frequency can earn you some noticeable results. You’ll likely find that you can soon increase the weight you are lifting, especially if you are applying progressive overload techniques.
If you would like to do deadlifts more often, consider mixing up your techniques and variations. Not only will you target different muscle groups and reduce your risk of injury, but you will also be less likely to get bored of them by focusing on variety.
All in all, ideally, you should deadlift once a week and maybe do another variation or two on that same day.
Deadlifts are awesome because they target large muscle groups and have a big movement resulting in a great workout. However, this also means that proper recovery is needed to reap the most benefits.
As with any strength training, it’s important to stretch for recovery and to prevent injury. This is especially true for deadlifts. Sore quads and hamstrings can leave you miserable if you don’t stretch them well.
Your lower back might be sore from working those deep muscles so hard. Alternating between cat and cow stretches can help loosen it up. Get on all fours, inhale, and arch your back, pushing your pelvis toward the floor. Then, smoothly move your head down and your ribs to the sky and stretch in cat pose. Move between these two to help those back muscles recover faster.
Depending on the variation you choose, deadlifts also work the inner thigh muscles pretty well. Many people forget to stretch these well. To get these loosened up, a simple butterfly stretch is super effective. Sit on the floor with your knees bent and the soles of your feet together. Push your knees apart and down to the floor to feel the stretch in your inner thighs.
The standing hamstring stretch can help your hamstrings, and the whole posterior of your legs, recover. Stand and reach toward the floor to touch your toes, keeping your knees straight. As you can, lean deeper into the stretch to really get those muscles loosened up.
A good rule of thumb is to always listen to your body. Maybe you were able to do more deadlift reps than normal. Maybe you were finally able to jump up the amount of weight. This might leave you feeling a little more sore than normal from your deadlift sesh.
Don’t be afraid to take an active recovery day to rest. Do some yoga, go for a walk, take a chill bike ride. You’ll still feel great getting up and moving but you’ll also allow your muscles to recover so you can get back at it more quickly.
Muscles need a lot of fuel to build properly. And not all fuel is created equal. Make sure to refuel after an intense round of deadlifts. Stay hydrated and get plenty of essential nutrients for optimal muscle growth.
Now that you know all there is to know about the deadlift, its variations, and the many benefits, how do you plan to add them to your routine?
Whatever you decide, we hope that you use this great lower body compound exercise to your advantage and you can build more muscle and smash your lower body goals.
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