Posted 3 months ago
Deadlifts are amongst the best of the best – they are perhaps the most potent barbell exercise you can perform. The benefits they can deliver and diverse and plentiful. Those performing them regularly can expect to see their overall athletic performance improving, their muscle mass increasing, especially across their legs and backs, and their full body strength increasing.
Deadlifts work the large posterior chain group of muscles (broadly speaking, the back, legs and core) all in one movement. Anybody serious about putting on muscle and building full body strength in any meaningful way should give the deadlift serious consideration. It is a go-to exercise for many looking to develop mass through their backs and lower bodies.
It is such a potent exercise that the deadlift can be seen in powerlifting gyms and meets as one of the big three competitive lifts, alongside the squat and bench press. Deadlifts, and variations on the classic deadlift, can be found in training regimes and events for a multitude of other disciplines, like Strongman competitions and CrossFit Games.
Alongside its use in more formalised strength competitions, the deadlift is considered a benchmark movement in training for improving and testing strength. Forget asking somebody how much they can bench press – if you really want to know how strong they are, ask them how much they can deadlift.
The benefits of deadlifting
As a large compound movement, the deadlift will involve lots of joints, individual muscles and large-scale muscle mass. Whichever variation an athlete chooses – and we will be looking through a few in this article – a deadlift should work and stimulate the glutes, hamstrings, quads, abs, lower and upper back, from the spinal erectors, through the lats, to the traps, and even the forearms and grip strength as the athlete holds onto the bar and prevent it from slipping out of their closed hands. We will go into more detail below on the specifics of each muscle engaged during a deadlift.
Aside from the individual muscles used, it is the deadlift’s effect on the sheer volume of muscle mass used that really characterise it. They tend to be very heavy, as so much mass is used, through such a mechanically powerful position. Most lifters (though far from all of them) will find that their deadlift is their heaviest lift, which is why it is such a good measure of full body strength and power.
This is not to say that isolation moves – movements that use only one joint and very few muscle groups to perform – should not be used in your training. They absolutely should. It is just that large compound movements like the deadlift are far more efficient at building muscle and more effective for building strength.
They elicit a greater hormonal response that will be geared towards strength and muscular growth – most notably testosterone and human growth hormone. Additionally, instead of working each muscle group individually, one by one, compound moves can work everything at once. This means that an athlete can either spend less time in the gym, or more time there working on other things.
Compound movements like the deadlift also teach the body to work as a single unit. As they use many different joints and muscles at once, compounds will teach them all to act with a unity that will create real strength and athletic prowess.
The benefits of including different forms of the deadlift in your training regime
‘Deadlift’ usually refers to the classic deadlift, the form for which can be seen below in the ‘how to’ section. However, there are plenty of variations, many of which are just as worthwhile as the regular deadlift and many of which will help to plug gaps in an individual athlete’s strength.
Muscular imbalances can often affect large compound movements. One side of the body may be stronger than the other, one joint stronger than the other, one muscle group, and so on. These imbalances cannot be fixed by repeating the same compounds one after another.
For example, if the hamstrings are lagging behind the rest of the posterior chain muscles, classic deadlifts may not be the answer. Alternatives like the stiff-legged deadlift, the deficit deadlift, or the back extension deadlift will work the hamstrings much harder, thus bringing them up to speed with the rest of the body. If the upper back is lagging behind the legs, upper back dominant posterior chain compounds like rack pulls and power cleans will likely be the answer.
If one leg is stronger than the other, any two-legged deadlift variation will be unlikely to fix it. Isolation movements like hamstring curls and single leg extensions can help. However, unilateral deadlift variations will go a long way to plugging this gap. Try a single leg dumbbell deadlift or a lunge deadlift – working your legs individually will stop the stronger one taking over from the weaker one and will eventually bring parity.
Because of this, it is rare to see deadlift programs containing only strict, classic deadlifts. Varieties like the stiff-legged deadlift, axle deadlift, sumo deadlift, deficit deadlift and rack pull should all be programmed in at some point or another. Unilateral work will generally be seen in a supporting role, as part of the program’s assistance work (generally conducted towards the end of each deadlift session – see below for how to structure a deadlift workout).
These are all complimentary to the benefits of a conventional deadlift. They will all complement the deadlift itself, improving its many different facets.
Sumo and conventional deadlifts
The sumo deadlift is one of the more common deadlift variations. It is often used instead of the conventional deadlift, as some people prefer it, and it brings broadly the same benefits and challenges.
A conventional deadlift is performed with feet around hip width apart (sometimes slightly inside or outside, depending on the personal preference of the lifter involved), with hands outside the knees and the barbell lifting from the floor. This is the form of deadlift most often seen in powerlifting competitions and will generally be the default for beginners to learn.
A sumo deadlift, on the other hand, has the feet wide apart, far outside of hip width, with the toes pointing outwards, heels slightly in, with hands inside the knees. It is less commonly seen in competition but works a very similar range of motion to the conventional deadlift, uses the same muscles, and brings the same benefits.
Generally, selection between the two should be the lifter’s choice. Whichever feels more comfortable and more intuitive is the right one for any individual. This is the one that will ultimately bring the greatest benefits.
How to do a deadlift
Here, again, ‘deadlift’ refers to conventional deadlifts, though we will go into detail below on how to perform a sumo deadlift. The conventional deadlift is where most people start out, as noted above, and it is the style that most people should try to perfect before trying anything else. It is easier to alter conventional deadlift technique to fit other variations than vice versa, and it will be the movement pattern to which any trainee will need to keep returning.
To perform a deadlift:
- Begin with a loaded bar on the ground: Ideally, this will be on a deadlift platform, but any flat, stable surface will be fine (check with your gym if they’re OK with you deadlifting on the ground – if not, use a couple of rolled up yoga mats to cushion the bar). Most plates will allow for the bar to come to mid-shin or slightly below, which is exactly where you want it. If you’re beginning with a bare bar, try using a couple of blocks to prop it up, or a rack for a low rack pull variant.
- Line yourself up with the bar and take hold of it: Stand before the bar with it over your mid-foot, with your shins a couple of inches back from it. As you bend in a moment, they should come forwards to touch it. Keep your heels around hip-width (experiment here to find the stance you are most comfortable with, as some will go slightly wider or narrower). Point your toes slightly outwards. Grip the bar with either a hook, overhand or reverse grip, using straps if needed to help you hold onto the weight.
- Brace: Breathe in, taking a deep belly breath. Tense your core, trying to expand it outwards. Feel free to use a lifting belt. This will give you extra security and will give you something for your core to push against.
- Break at the hips: Soften your knees and allow your hips to push backwards. Keep your weight in your heel. If you need to, use the bar to help pull yourself into position, but don’t let it roll. Depending on your own mobility, you may need to bend the knees and break at the hips before grabbing the bar. This is normal, but take it as a sign that you need to work on mobility and flexibility.
- Lift your chest: Lifting your chest will activate your posterior chain. In turn, this will allow you to maintain a neutral spine position. Lift your chest a few inches. Look ahead and down, maintaining a neutral position through the rest of your body. At this point, if you can, try to squeeze and activate your lats. Daft as it may sound, try to bring them in and then down towards your back pockets.
- Stand up, pulling: Now you’re ready for the lift. With your brace intact and your lats activated, stand up. Drive your legs into the ground, push your hips forwards, and allow your upper body to control the bar as it comes up to just below hip level. Note that a deadlift is both a pull and a press: press with your legs, pull with your upper body, then push your hips forwards at the top to lock out.
- Hold at the top: If you can, hold it for a breath at the top before dropping it back down. If you cannot, aim for it and gradually work up to it.
- Descend: The return to the ground should be a controlled, fast descent. It should not be load bearing in any way. However, it should be under your control. You neither want to drop it or lower it under tension. Rather, allow it to fall and guide it as it goes
- Repeat: The weight being lifted always needs to be ‘dead’ – hence the name deadlift. This means it is a dead weight being lifted, from inertia, from the ground. Every rep will have to start from the floor. It will only end with the bar setting down on the floor, with no bounce in-between, at a complete stop. Then, when the bar is completely still, the next rep can be lifted.
These are the basics. The deadlift is actually an incredibly complex, engaged movement that can take years to perfect – if indeed it can ever be truly perfected. However, by performing these steps, taking these cues, and staying mindful through the lift, the above instructions will work well to get any lifter started.
It should be noted, however, that there is no substitute for an expert’s guidance. The above instructions will get any lifter ready to try the deadlift, but it will always be safer, with far less risk of injury and far less risk of mistake, to engage an instructor. They will be able to run through the basics, the safety guidance needed, and will be able to watch for flaws in technique and correct them as they go.
How to do a sumo deadlift
As might be expected, we get the name ‘sumo deadlift’ from sumo wrestlers. This is because the sumo deadlift’s stance broadly mimics a sumo wrestler’s low, wide legged stance.
There is a good reason for this. There is a good reason for sumo wrestlers using this stance in the first place. It is an incredibly mechanically strong position, from which plenty of power can be generated and plenty of stability can be found.
This stance is the main difference between the sumo deadlift and the conventional deadlift. Rather than keeping your feet at hip width, you bring them well outside of hip width. The actual width will vary between lifters, going on their own physicality and proportions, their own preferences and so on. However, the main thing to note is that for the sumo deadlift, the arms will be inside the legs, as opposed to inside as with the conventional deadlift.
As well as the distance, the feet will be turned out at a wider angle with a sumo deadlift than with a conventional deadlift. Where a conventional stance would take around a 10-15-degree angle, sumo stances will be at around 30-40.
Picture that sumo wrestler – this is precisely the stance and footwork they would employ.
The arms, now inside the legs, will hang at around shoulder width – other than placement relative to the arms, this isn’t too much different to a conventional deadlift stance. The same grips will be used – if a lifter uses a reverse grip for the conventional, they will for the sumo, and so forth.
These changes will obviously have a bit of a knock-on effect. They will inevitably change the body’s mechanics, which will lead to slight variations in muscles used. However, it is all slight. Other than this set up, everything else is the same between the sumo and conventional deadlift. Everything from point 3 onwards above – from brace through to descent – is exactly the same.
This being said, the mechanics are changed. Though the basic movement pattern stays the same as with the conventional deadlift, the lifter’s centre of gravity is changed, being pushed slightly backwards, and different muscles take on different proportions of the load.
To account for these mechanical differences, a lifter will want to sit further back during a sumo deadlift than they typically would for a conventional one. This will keep their centre of gravity where it is needed – as close to directly beneath the body as possible. As well as this, they will want to drop down a little deeper in a sumo deadlift. Though it isn’t a squat, their thighs will still be closer to parallel to the ground (a position that should never be seen in a conventional deadlift).
If all of this feels comfortable and intuitive, and if the muscles of the posterior chain engage and work hard, everything is fine. The same benefits will be felt. It just happens that for some people, the sumo deadlift is more comfortable, comes more naturally, or works them better and performs better for them than a conventional deadlift will.
The basics are all there above – this should be more than enough to see a lifter well on their way to getting proficient at the deadlift. However, there are some common pitfalls that crop up with deadlifters, newbies and veterans alike. Some of them will take away some of the deadlift’s benefits. Some of them will stop an athlete from lifting as much as they be able. Some are dangerous and could lead to injury.
It is therefore a good idea to take note of them now and look out for them as you train.
Common mistakes include:
- Not maintaining a neutral spine: Rounding or arching the lower back will put a lot of stress in a mechanically insecure position through the spine. Imagine handling 200kg at an awkward angle and expecting your back to be OK with it – this is essentially what a crooked form does during a deadlift. If in doubt, take the weight down for a few sets and film yourself to see how you are getting on.
- Poor foot placement: It is pretty common to see people either going too wide or too slim with their stance during conventional deadlift. There is a great technique for finding the correct position, however. Perform a few box jumps, or simply jump on the spot. Where your feet naturally start the jump from is where your body is at its most mechanically sound and explosive. This is where you will want your feet during a conventional deadlift.
- Either pushing or pulling without the other: As mentioned above, the deadlift is both a push and a pull. Push the ground away with your legs, especially through the heels. Push your hips forwards. At the same time, pull the bar upwards with the back, using them arms to keep it secure. Extending your legs without pulling at the right time, or pulling without pressing in time, will hamper your performance and even make the move untenable.
- Squatting, not deadlifting: This is a deadlift, not a squat. Nevertheless, it is common enough to see beginners attempt to perform a squat whilst simply holding the bar in the deadlift position. Firstly, this will not activate the posterior chain. Secondly, it will not allow for enough weight to be used to elicit progression. The hamstrings and lower back need to be tight immediately before the lift is initiated, and they need to remain so throughout. The hips need to be high. The quads will be the junior partner in a good lift.
- Tugging on the bar: You do not want to jerk the bar off the ground during a deadlift. If this is what feels comfortable to you, great – try Olympic lifting. For a deadlift, you want to pull the slack out of the bar, tightening it – and, in doing so, tightening your body as it pulls against the bar – before initiating the lift. Pull with a little pressure, gather your strength, then drive the legs into the beginning of the movement.
- Stretching before lifting: A deadlift calls for plenty of dynamic stretching before lifting, with plenty of mobility work. There should never be any static or ballistic stretching. This will increase the risk of injury and will hamper performance.
- Protracting (rounding) the shoulders: The shoulders need to be retracted during the deadlift. This means pulling back, squeezing together and downwards. This will switch on the latissimus dorsi along the back, which will be a prime stabiliser and force transferer through a heavy deadlift. Rounding the shoulders, on the other hand, bringing them forwards, will stop the latissimus dorsi from being able to come into the movement and will create a non-neutral spinal alignment.
Muscles worked in the deadlift
Performed correctly, with an appropriate amount of weight, deadlifts should work the full body. Legs will be the prime movers, especially the hamstrings, especially during the lift’s initiation as the bar comes up from the ground. It is important to push with the legs during this first part, grinding the heels into the ground.
Then the hips come forwards, initiating the glutes and lower back. The spinal erectors work to keep the spine neutral and the upper back, traps and shoulders work to control the pull the bar. Trunk stability is crucial, meaning that the full core will be involved in keeping tension through the load. Finally, the arms deliver the power to the bar and grip it for control and motion.
This will be the case no matter the style of deadlift performed. Though some will emphasis different muscles – the rack pull going more into the upper back, for example, or the deficit deadlift going more into the hamstrings – all of these muscles will play their part in moving the bar.
What is a deadlift workout like?
Let’s take a look at a sample deadlifting workout. It has two main aims: to build strength in the deadlift and to build muscle across the legs and back.
- Begin with a dynamic warm up. Hip openers, leg raises and shoulder mobility exercises should be prioritised here. Explosive leg and back movements like box jumps and ball slams will help to warm the muscles and prime them for the lift ahead.
- Then come the deadlifts. Set the bar up, as above, beginning light. Using the above technique, work up to a weight just below failure in the chosen rep range. For example, if you are aiming to lift for 3 reps, it could look something like: 80kg, 100kg, 120kg, 140kg, 160kg. At 160kg, it is hard to get the final couple of reps out, so this is as heavy as you need to go.
- Then we want assistance work. These will be ancillary movements that work the same muscles as the deadlift uses. For the back, rows and pull ups will be ideal. For the hips, cleans and jumps will work well. For the grip and overall trunk strength, farmer’s carries are a staple. For the legs, a squat or leg press variation will be appropriate. Back bends and hamstring work will also be crucial.
So, this sample workout could look like this:
|Medicine ball slams||3|
|Dynamic leg raises||6 on each side|
90 second rest, then repeat for 4 total sets
Light weights, adding a little each time as you warm up
90 second rest, then repeat for 4 total sets
Working sets, so each set should use a challenging amount of weight
4 minute rest, then repeat for 4-6 total sets, adding 10-20kg each time until failure
|Farmer's carry||50 metres|
60 second rest, then repeat for 4 total sets
|Bent over rows||8|
90 second rest, then repeat for 4 total sets
Follow this template, substituting different exercises in to keep things fresh and make sure that you are working a wide range of systems, and you should find yourself having a very good deadlift workout. You will progress, getting stronger, so that your deadlift goes upwards.
What is Deadlifting good for?
Deadlifting is good for building full body musculature, strength and athleticism. As it works the posterior chain, it builds up the back, both upper and lower, as well as the glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps. The pulling and stability elements of the move through the torso also bring the shoulders and arms into play, whilst the trunk and core work to stabilise the body.
There are few exercises that stimulate muscle growth and full body strength as much as the deadlift.
Why is deadlift bad for you?
The deadlift isn’t bad for your per se. However, it can be dangerous if you perform it with poor technique, especially if you round your back. This can lead to some serious issues surrounding the spine. In addition, if you struggle with back pain or any kind of weakness through the posterior chain, the deadlift might not be a good idea. It is always best to check with your doctor before beginning a deadlift program, and it is always wise to learn good form from a qualified strength coach.
Is it safe to deadlift?
Yes, provided you perform it with good technique and have no underlying health concerns that could be aggravated by deadlifting. It is always best to check with your doctor before beginning a deadlift program, and it is always wise to learn good form from a qualified strength coach.
What should the average man be able to deadlift?
There is no clear answer to this as everybody is different. We all have different body mechanics, muscle masses, health records, skillsets and talent levels. However, at a minimum, most men with no underlying health conditions should be able to deadlift their own bodyweight for a number of reps. An experienced lifter should be able to lift twice this though, again, there is no ‘right’ amount for anybody. Rather than focussing on amounts, focus on good form and progression.