The Complete Guide to Deadlifts
Ever bent down to clean dog doo from the sidewalk? Congrats! You've done a deadlift. Same goes if you've ever picked up a kitten or kiddo, hauled your latest Amazon deliver inside, or dropped and then retrieved your iPhone from the floor.
In fact, any movement that involves hinging at your hips and picking something up to standing technically qualifies as a deadlift, according to strength and conditioning specialist Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., founder of Training2xl. Unfortunately, a lot of lifters shy away from doing weighted deadlifts at the gym for fear of damaging their backs (or ego!).
But here's the thing: "As long as you do the deadlift with good form and load the barbell intelligently, you won't injure your back—or any other part of your body, either," says Luciani. On the contrary, "Doing and mastering, the deadlift can help you age well, stay injury-free, and get stronger," she says.
That's why we tapped Luciani and Alan Shaw, certified CrossFit Level 2 coach and owner of Rhapsody Crossfit in Charleston, NC, to put together this guide on the deadlift. Below, they explain the benefits of the deadlift, how to deadlift, and the best deadlift variations to add to your exercise routine.
Why You Should Be Deadlifting
Two words: injury prevention. "If you can't properly deadlift, the probability that you pull a muscle or strain your back when picking something up is high," says Shaw. Especially as you get older, knowing how to deadlift can be the difference between maintaining your independence and not, he says. (Hey, there's a reason CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman petitioned to have the deadlift renamed the "healthlift.")
Beyond that, the deadlift is a killer move for gains.
What muscles do deadlifts work?
All of them! No, that's not an exaggeration. "The deadlift is a true full-body movement," says Luciani. Notably, deadlifts work your:
- hamstrings (the muscles on the back of your thighs)
- latissimus dorsi (or lats, the big back muscles that stretch from your armpit to your hip)
- erector spinae muscles (aka the muscles along your spine)
For people with desk jobs, the deadlift is especially beneficial. "When you spend all day sitting, your posterior chain weakens while your anterior chain becomes more dominant," says Luciani. This imbalance increases risk of injury in both life and sport. "Doing posterior chain exercises like the deadlift helps close the strength gap between the two body parts and reduces risk of injury," she says. (Related: What Exactly Is the Posterior Chain?)
What's more, the deadlift actually works your core better than most go-to (read: boring) core exercises like the sit-up or crunch. In fact, Luciani says the deadlift can replace the sit-up in your exercise routine altogether. "Movements like the crunch only work your superficial [aka most surface level] ab muscles," she says. The deadlift, on the other hand, works the deep muscles of your core that keep you tall, protect your spine, reduce injury risk, and help you do things like kick a ball or throw a frisbee.
Different Types of Deadlifts
First, master the conventional barbell deadlift. Then, check out the other different types of deadlifts below (including form tips for each). All of these deadlifts work your hamstrings, glutes, core, quadriceps, and lower and upper back, but alternating between the different deadlift variations can target specific muscles, improve overall strength, and head off workout boredom.
Conventional Barbell Deadlift
If you're new to the movement, ask a trainer or coach to check your deadlift form. Or, video yourself and then play the video back, watching and comparing it to the points of performance below. If your lower back rounds at any point during the lift, drop the weight. If that doesn't correct the rounding, it could be a mobility issue. So rather than lowering the weight all the way to the ground, Shaw suggests only lowering the weight to your knees. (More here: How to Do a Conventional Deadlift with Proper Form)
Looking for an additional challenge? Make it a deficit deadlift by standing on a platform (box, bench, step) while performing the lift. The elevation encourages a greater range of motion, thereby recruiting more muscles and burning more calories. Just note: the deficit deadlift requires a decent bit of hamstring mobility, so Luciani recommends only (!) giving the deficit deadlift a whirl if you've either been complimented for your mobility or can touch your whole damn hand to the ground. (Also keep an eye out for these 3 Deadlift Mistakes You Could Be Making.)
A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, barbell pressed up against shins, core braced (here's how).
B. Keeping a flat black and proud chest, hinge at hips to bend torso forward, pushing butt backward, until hands can reach barbell with straight arms.
C. Grip the bar with palms facing shins, hands shoulder-width apart. Screw pinkies into the bar to engage lats. (Think: Rotate your hands slightly outward).
D. Look straight ahead to maintain a neutral neck. Then, keeping arms straight and core tight, squeeze glutes and pull the bar up along the front of legs until standing upright.
E. Maintaining a flat back, hinge at hips and slide the bar in a straight path down the front of legs to return to start.
Conventional Dumbbell Deadlift
Time for a quick visualization exercise. Think about a barbell with a big 'ole plate on each end. Now think about two dumbbells. The handles on a dumbbell are much lower to the ground than a loaded-up barbell is, explains Luciani. That means you can reach the dumbbells farther toward the ground, taking the hamstring muscles through a greater range of motion compared to the traditional barbell deadlift. (Granted, you don't need to reach them all the way to the ground—you can stop where your mobility limits you.)
Beyond that, because the weights are controlled separately, "dumbbell deadlifts are a great way to address any muscular imbalances between the right and left side," says Luciani. "And pulling two separate dumbbells as opposed to one barbell really forces you to engage your midline for stability, so it has additional core-strengthening benefits," she says. (Related: Barbell Exercises Every Woman Should Master)
The one downside? Because the cumbersome shape of dumbbells makes them a bit harder to hold onto, you're simply not going to be able to lift as much as you could with a barbell.
A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, one dumbbell in each hand, palms facing thighs.
B. Brace your core. Then, keeping arms straight, push butt back to slide both dumbbells down the fronts of legs at the same time.
C. Continue lowering until the weights touch the floor, or until you feel it in your hamstrings—whichever comes first.
D. Keeping a proud chest, press into feet to return to standing, squeezing glutes at the top.
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
"When it comes to posterior chain exercises, in my opinion, the single-leg Romanian deadlift is the best," says Luciani. Why? Because the single-leg RDL doesn't just #werk your hamstrings, glutes, lats, and rotator muscles… it works them unilaterally, aka one at a time. "Forcing your limbs to work independently is essential for correcting muscular imbalances and ultimately creating a stronger body and midsection," she says. (P.S. You should work on pistol squats, too.)
The first time you try this movement, don't be cocky. Start wayyy lighter than you think you need to. You can perform this with a barbell, like a conventional deadlift, or you can go lighter using dumbbells or a kettlebell. "I recommend lifting one-fourth to one-third of what you can lift with a conventional deadlift, and slowly increase from there," says Luciani.
A. Stand with feet stacked under hips. If using dumbbells or a kettlebell, hold in both hands in front of hips. Shift weight onto the left leg, right foot slightly behind, balancing on toes.
B. Actively press the left leg into the ground and shoot the right leg back while hinging forward at the hips, lowering weights along the front of the left leg to mid-shin height. (If using a barbell, grab the barbell with both hands, arms fully extended and shoulder-width apart, palms facing shins.)
C. Keeping a tight core and flat back, simultaneously pull right leg down to meet the left while pulling the weight up the left leg to return to standing, squeezing standing leg glute at the top.
Rather than taking the hips-width stance you take with the conventional deadline, for the sumo deadlift you'll widen your feet. "This shortens the distance the distance the barbell has to travel to the top of the rep, which increases how much weight you'll be able to lift," says Luciani. The wider stance also ramps up how hard your glutes, quads, and hip adductors have to work during the move.
A. Stand with feet about twice shoulder-width apart, toes pointed outward so that they're angled at 10 and 2 on the clock.
B. Position barbell against shins so that, when looking straight down, toes peek out the front side of the bar.
C. Brace core. Maintaining a straight back, bend knees and hinge forward at hips to grab the bar with both hands using an overhand grip, shoulder-width apart.
D. Press through heels to lift the bar off the ground, thrusting hips forward and squeezing glutes while standing as quickly as possible.
E. Lower the bar back to the floor, keeping it as close to body as possible and without rounding back.
Hex Bar Deadlift
Surprise, surprise! For this variation, you'll need something called a "hex bar" or a trap bar. The hex bar is shaped like a giant hexagon with handles on each side. "You step inside the bar, and then rather than reaching in front of you to hold on and lift the weight, you grab the handles at the side," explains Luciani. (Here's a guide to all the different types of barbells you'll find at the gym—and how much they weigh.)
The benefit? It could force you into better deadlift form. "It's just easier to get into a good starting position when you don't have to lean forward." You're less likely to round—or put undue pressure on—your spine, she says. In fact, one 2016 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that hex bar deadlifts activate more leg musculature and less back musculature compared to a straight barbell. The more you know! (See: How to Do a Trap or Hex Bar Deadlift)
A. Step right smack dab in the middle of the hex bar with feet hip-width apart.
B. Push butt back and bend at the knees until hands can reach handles with straight arms.
C. Stick chest out and pull shoulders back and down. Then, keeping back flat and arms locked out, straighten legs to stand.
D. Keeping back flat, hinge at the hips and bend knees to carefully lower bar back to start.
All these deadlift variations are going to hammer your hamstrings—but the Romanian deadlift works them the most. That's because every rep starts with you standing, the weight at thigh-level (as opposed to the weight against your shins). And, rather than lowering all the way to the floor, your lower until you feel a stretch in your hamstring before returning to standing, explains Luciani.
In a conventional deadlift, your hamstrings get a little "breather" at the top and bottom of each rep. Romanian deadlifts take that away, which ramps up the amount of time your hamstrings are under tension. The result: hamstring gains.
Loading note: Do *not* load the barbell to the weight you'd use for the conventional deadlift. Go lighter! The Romanian deadlift will still support your strength goals, but because of the way the weight is loaded in this movement, and the amount of time your hamstrings are under tension, you won't be able to lift as heavy.
Oh, and if you don't have a barbell, no worries. You can do this movement with dumbbells, kettlebells, or a mini barbell instead. (Related: How to Properly Do a Romanian Deadlift with Dumbbells)
A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, bar pressed against shins. Brace core and tip torso forward to grab bar with straight arms, hands shoulder-width apart. Keeping back flat, pull bar to standing. This is the start position. (If using another type of weight, pick it up and hold in front of thighs to start.)
B. Keeping knees soft and back flat, push hips back and lower the weight along the front of legs. Instead of lowering weights all the way to ground, stop when there's a stretch in the hamstrings.
C. Squeeze hamstrings and core to bring the bar back to start. Squeeze glutes at the top.
How to Incorporate Deadlifts Into Your Workout
Ultimately, it depends on how long and consistently you've been strength training, your comfort level in the weight room, and fitness goals. But Luciani recommends doing 4-6 sets of 3-8 reps with at least 90 seconds of rest between sets. "Don't skimp on the rest," she says, "Your body needs the rest to recover so that you can hit the weight and move it well."
If you're not sure how much to lift, Shaw says start low and slow. "A good goal for someone new to lifting is to work towards lifting their body weight," says Shaw. "Once you hit that, a good second goal is to hit 1.5 times bodyweight." Advanced lifters can lift 2 to even 3 times bodyweight. (More here: Training Volume Basics If You're New to Lifting)
"If you feel it in a bad way, or what you're experiencing is pain, stop," says Shaw. "All the great benefits of the deadlift go out the window when your form isn't good." Fair.