How to Do a Dumbbell Deadlift with Perfect Form

The full-body exercise is a bit more complicated than it seems, but these expert tips will teach you how to nail the dumbbell deadlift form once and for all.

Conventional Dumbbell Deadlift
Photo: Jenna Brillhart

Just like the squat and bench press, the dumbbell deadlift is a classic strength-building exercise found in nearly every effective, well-programmed fitness routine. And for good reason: The move hits multiple muscle groups, improves your day-to-day life, and makes you feel oh-so-powerful.

Still, the proper dumbbell deadlift form and technique aren't so intuitive, particularly if you're a total newbie to resistance training. To help you master the move, Shape tapped fitness experts to break down how to do a dumbbell deadlift correctly and reveal some common form mistakes. Plus, you'll learn all about the benefits the exercise has to offer and tips on how to add it to your own fitness regimen.

How to Do a Dumbbell Deadlift

Despite its simplistic appearance, the dumbbell deadlift offers a full-body challenge, says Kells James, P.P.S.C., an ACE-certified personal trainer. To perform the move, you’ll slowly hinge at the hips to lower two dumbbells down to the floor in front of your body, then drive through your feet to return back to standing. Below, Rachel Mariotti, an NCSF-certified personal trainer in New York City, demonstrates the move.

A. Stand with feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of thighs, palms facing body.

B. Engage core and pull shoulder blades down and back. Then, keeping arms straight, send hips back and bend knees slightly to lower both dumbbells down to the floor in front of legs. Continue lowering until hips are fully pushed back and the weights are as close to the floor as far as possible.

C. Keeping chest up, push through feet to return to standing, squeezing glutes at the top.

Key Dumbbell Deadlift Benefits

By mixing the dumbbell deadlift into your routine, you'll see improvements in your strength — from your head to your toes and fingers — and in your everyday life. Here, James and Mariotti break down the benefits.

Strengthens Posterior Chain

When performed with proper form, the dumbbell deadlift strengthens your entire posterior chain — all the muscles on the backside of your body, says James. Specifically, the exercise targets your calves, hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and lats, she adds. By focusing on these muscle groups in your training routine, you’ll build better posture, as you’ll have stronger back muscles that can keep your upper half upright, Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., the founder of Training2XL, previously told Shape. Plus, you’ll help correct potentially harmful muscle imbalances; if the muscles in the front of your body (the anterior chain) are significantly stronger than those along your backside, you may compensate your movement patterns which, in turn, ups your risk of injury, according to the American Council on Exercise.

During your strength workout itself, using your posterior chain muscles will make you feel like a total badass. “You get a lot of your power from the posterior chain of your body, which has a lot of big muscles,” says James. “And [during the deadlift], you’re getting a lot of muscle mass working at once.” In turn, you’ll be able to move more weight (read: use heavier loads) during the dumbbell deadlift than you’re able to in other exercises, says Mariotti.

Supports Everyday Function

You may not realize it, but you likely perform some variation of a deadlift on a daily basis, says James. You bend over to pick a heavy laundry basket up off the floor, for example, or you lift your jam-packed Trader Joe’s bags off the parking lot pavement to stuff them in your car trunk. By practicing the dumbbell deadlift in the weight room or your home gym, the movement pattern may eventually feel easier — or less achy — IRL, Scott Thompson, the director of athletics at F45 Training, previously told Shape

Improves Grip Strength

As you increase the load you’re using during a dumbbell deadlift, your grip strength — how firmly you can hold and squeeze onto objects — will also improve, says James. And this boost of grip strength can be particularly valuable when you’re attempting to hit a new PR on an exercise that involves holding onto a bar; even if you have the upper-body strength necessary to power through five pull-ups, for example, you won’t be able to hit that goal if your grip isn’t strong enough to grasp onto the bar for the entire set, Natalie Ribble, M.S., C.S.C.S., a certified personal trainer and body-neutral strength coach in Seattle, previously told Shape

This extra grip strength has benefits for your daily life too. “If you're coming in from the store and you have a bunch of groceries in your hands, it can be really tough,” says James. “But if you improve that grip strength, you may go from carrying four bags to eight bags in one hand.”

Dumbbell Deadlift Muscles Worked

As mentioned earlier, the dumbbell deadlift targets your entire posterior chain, as well as your quads and core, says James. The lats play a particularly important role in maintaining proper posture throughout the movement: “You'll see people rounding out their upper back, and that is due to the lack of lat engagement,” she explains. Without this engagement, your dumbbell deadlift may not be as effective or efficient, she adds. 

Dumbbell Deadlift Variations

If the traditional dumbbell deadlift feels too challenging — or not difficult enough — you’ve got options. 

Modification: Suitcase Dumbbell Deadlift

If you’re intimidated by the basic dumbbell deadlift and want to practice the technique, try limiting the range of motion by performing the move with a plyo box in front of you, suggests James. The box will give you an idea of when to stop lowering the dumbbells, so you won’t end up going too low for comfort, she explains. Or, you can try a suitcase deadlift, during which the dumbbells hang at the sides of your legs rather than in front, says Mariotti. “With this positioning, you can bend the knees more on the way down, allowing the body to use more of the legs…to get back up,” she explains. 

Progression: Single-Leg Dumbbell Deadlift with Row

To amp up the challenge of your dumbbell deadlifts without increasing the weight, consider switching up the tempo or adding in a pause: “Maybe you control the movement going down for three seconds each rep, or you pause for two seconds at the bottom of the movement,” suggests James. “You're just working for a longer period of time with that same exact weight, so that's increasing the time under tension that you are putting on that muscle.”

Or, do the classic dumbbell deadlift on just one leg; you'll hold your leg in the air behind your body, then perform dumbbell rows to challenge your balance, test your core strength, and hit your back muscles, says Mariotti. 

Common Dumbbell Deadlift Mistakes

When performing the dumbbell deadlift, remember to keep your lats engaged and upper back neutral, as excessive rounding can put additional stress on your back, says James. “I always tell my clients to imagine you have hundred dollar bills right in your underarms and you don't want them to fall,” she explains. “So what are you going to do? You're going to tuck your arms and keep them nice and tight so those a hundred dollar bills do not fall, and that translates to that upper back or lat engagement.”

As you press up and out of your deadlift, make sure that your entire body — from your hips to your upper back — moves simultaneously. “Sometimes people will be at the bottom of the deadlift, and when they start to rise up, their hips or their butt will shoot up before their upper body,” says James. “That can translate to some lower back pain.” If you’re struggling to move your whole body in one swift motion, consider reducing the weight until you perfect your technique, she suggests. 

How to Add Dumbbell Deadlifts to Your Routine

Since dumbbell deadlifts can improve both your everyday life and your training progress, James recommends everyone incorporate them into their workout routines. That said, you’ll want to chat with your doctor if you’re dealing with any injuries, recently had surgery, or are currently pregnant before giving the exercise a go, she says. 

Once you get the all-clear, start off with two to three sets of eight to 12 reps of the dumbbell deadlift, says James. In order to get the most out of the move, remember to place it at the beginning of your workout, she suggests. “The deadlift is very tasking on the central nervous system, so you'd want it at the beginning of your workout,” she explains. “That way, you're able to come in fresh, well-rested, and capable of giving your all to that movement.” Perform the dumbbell deadlift at the end of your workout, and your body will likely be too exhausted to effectively tackle this full-body move, says James. But if you put these tips into action, you're sure to feel stronger — whether you're powering through a round of chin-ups or lifting a laundry basket full of activewear off the floor — in no time.

Photography and art: Jenna Brillhart
Model and fitness expert: Rachel Mariotti
Wardrobe: SET Active

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