At first glance, the conventional deadlift may appear to be one of the most straightforward moves in weightlifting; you raise a weight from the floor by hinging at the hips and standing up.
The name itself seems simple – deadlift comes from precisely that, to lift a dead weight. But there are reasons weightlifters have been performing this compound exercise, and its variations, for centuries. The deadlift is a great exercise for building powerful strength and muscle mass. Any fitness enthusiast who wants strong back and shoulder muscles should have the deadlift as a regular part of their training program.
The barbell deadlift is one of my favorite lifts. It’s not as showy as the Olympic lifts and isn’t social media’s darling like the squat, but there is something magical about the conventional deadlift. When done with good technique, this back exercise works multiple muscle groups, including your hip extensors.
Muscles Used in the Traditional Deadlift
The deadlift works your back and your entire posterior chain. Your posterior chain includes the muscles along your spine and back of legs to your heels. These groups of muscles are some of the biggest and strongest in your body. If you spend all your time using the bench press for a big upper body, you miss one of the best moves in strength training.
The Major Muscles in Your Back and Posterior Chain are:
- Trapezus or traps – Your traps are your upper back muscles that control your shoulder blades movement. They also help balance the weight of your head by controlling the cervical spine.
- Rhomboids – lay under the traps and pull your shoulder blades together.
- Deltoids – The deltoids are your shoulder joint muscles that work with your traps.
- Triceps Brachii – This is the muscle that runs down the back of your humerus, which is the long bone of the upper arm. It ends at the top of the long bone of the forearm. It helps in the extension of the elbow joint. This muscle also assists in supporting the shoulder by keeping the head of the humerus in the shoulder joint.
- Latissmus Dorsi or lats – The lats are your biggest muscle of the back. It runs between the trunk, through the extended attachment and the humerus by a narrow tendon.
- Erector spinae or spinal erectors – spinal erectors are the deep muscles in your back. They run next to your spine and extend the vertebrae column.
- There are three spinal erector muscles: the spinalis, which connect adjacent vertebrae together, the longissimus which is the main spinal erector muscle, and the iliocostalis, which is the later part of your spinal erectors and attaches to the ribs.
- Gluteus Maximus or glutes – This is your big butt muscle that is located at the joint of your hip. One of its main jobs is to give you upright posture by controlling the hip joint.
- Adductors – these muscles adduct your femur at the hip and help you open and close your thighs.
- Hamstrings – Your hamstrings are made up of the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus muscles. The biceps femoris is the back part of your thigh, the semitendinosus is in the middle and back, and the semimembranosus – is the lowest part of your thigh.
- Soleus – this muscle makes up your calves and is important for walking.
The deadlift is also an excellent workout for building grip strength. Or showing the lack thereof, if you don’t have the grip strength or a strong posterior chain, the barbell is not going off the floor. And that is one of the beautiful things about it.
Deadlifts aren’t just for bodybuilders and powerlifters. Anyone wanting a strong back needs a deadlift routine.
Some of the deadlift variations, like the sumo deadlift or the trap bar stance) will also work your quadriceps. Those thigh muscles, along with your hamstrings, glutes, and calves, can build explosive power and strength for any athlete.
The deadlift may look simple, but because it uses all these muscle groups, you can get hurt if you do it wrong. I have seen people blow out their lower back with lousy lifting techniques. That is why new lifters should always start with lighter weight, and only work up to heavier weight when you can do so with proper form.
What You’ll Need For a Conventional Barbell Deadlift
A conventional deadlift is usually performed with a barbell, but you can also use a pair of dumbbells or kettlebells.
To reduce the risk of injury to the low back, a beginner may start by using a PVC pipe. This is an easy way to learn good position and proper technique.
No matter how strong your upper body is, how much weight you can lift will be determined by your grip strength. For this reason, some people use straps and chalk. Chalk will help absorb moisture and keep the bar from slipping. In high volume sets, straps can be used to help secure your grip on the bar.
Step by Step Instructions on How to Do a Conventional Deadlift
- For the setup, step up to a barbell and stand with your feet hip-width apart. The barbell should just about touch your shins and the front of the bar will be just over your shoelaces.
- Hinge at the hip, and grasp the bar with your hands just outside of your legs.
- Bend your knees and move your hips down, pushing your butt back. Keep your spine neutral. The bar will almost touch your shins. As you grasp the bar, your shoulders will be slightly in front of the bar.
- Keeping a neutral spine, squeeze your gluteus maximus, and tighten your core.
- At the start of the pull, take a deep breath. As you pick the bar off the ground, keep your chest up and press through the floor with your feet.
- Once the bar passes your knees, thrust your pelvis forward until you are standing up.
- At the top of the lift, you will be in an upright position.
- Reverse the movement and lower the weight back to the floor.
- You can drop the weight after your last rep in a set.
Here are some important tips so you can lift heavier weight with good form.
- In the correct start position, your feet should be angled slightly outward.
- Also in the setup, the bar will be close to your shins. Good form requires keeping the bar path as straight as possible.
- As you lift, your body should be moving at the same time. Don’t let your hips rise faster than your torso. Hips and chest should rise together.
- Proper deadlift form requires a straight back. If you allow your lower body and spine to round (known as lumbar flexion), it will put a heavy load on your lumbar spine. A great way to keep your spine straight is to think about bracing your core or your abs in the setup position and as you lift.
- Don’t squat too low. Keep in mind that the human body is a set of levers. In the deadlift, your hips act as a fulcrum. There is a moment arm from your hips to your glutes and a longer moment arm from your hips to shoulders. To move the most weight, you want to keep your shins perpendicular to the floor and your hips high. This will give you the best moment arm and most leverage by keeping the bar path as straight as possible.
- Keep your elbows straight and arms in full extension. Think of your arms as straps holding you to the bar. The work is being done by your back muscles and legs, not your biceps.
- At the lockout position, the proper position is standing tall, keeping a neutral spine position. Do not lean your shoulder back putting yourself in hyper extension.
Now you have worked on your form, and you are ready for that heavy deadlift. If you are going to move really heavy weight, your grip strength will probably be the limiting factor, which is why there are several different grip styles to consider.
- Overhand Grip – in the overhand grip, your fingers and thumbs will be over the bar and both of your palms will be towards you as you grip the bar. They should be about shoulder-width apart, or just outside your legs when you grasp the bar. This is a basic grip and easy for first-time weightlifters to learn. It is also good when you have light weight or a low rep range. However, if you are going to get your 1rm, you will need a different grip.
- Mixed Grip – In a mixed grip, you will have one palm facing you, one facing away. Powerlifters will use a mixed grip. However, it’s limitation is that it can cause a slight rotation of the body, throwing you out of alignment and leading to excess strain and back injury. So experienced athletes alternate their grip and which hand is supinated between sets or repetitions.
- Double Overhand Hook Grip – The hook grip is popular with Olympic lifters because of its stability when you lift a heavy load. A hook grip means grasping the bar overhand, so your fingers come over and lock in your thumb. The hook grip is a secure grip, but can be painful, and will take some time to get used to.
In the case of the deadlift, there are many variations. Though it is traditionally performed using a barbell with bumper plates, you can also do kettlebell or dumbbell deadlifts.
In a deficit deadlift, the lifter stands on a short box or a set of plates, lifting them a few inches off the ground. The deficit deadlift is an accessory lift used for those with longer arms or whose limiting factor is their range of motion. This can be a great option for someone how cannot hip hinge in the proper position for good form. A trainer may determine that a lifter does not have the hip joint mobility or spinal flexion for proper deadlift form, so may assign this modification.
In a rack pull, the weight is raised off the floor, either in a power rack or on low blocks. Like deficits, a trainer may use the as an accessory exercise for a lifter with some limitations. For example, if a lifter’s sticking point is picking up the bar from the bottom position, or needing lockout strength, or grip strength improvements.
There is another reason to do rack pulls. Deadlifts are great for strength gain in the lower back, but if a lifter wants to concentrate on their upper back, the rack pull can be a useful exercise.
You may have seen a Sumo stance or Sumo deadlift in competitive powerlifting. Unlike the conventional stance, the feet are roughly twice wider than hip-width in a Sumo, with the toes slightly turned out. The lifter’s hands are in an alternate grip and shoulder-width apart, (which puts them inside their legs.)
The other reason a lifter might use a Sumo deadlift is if they have relatively long femurs compared to the rest of their body. The downside of long femurs means that they cannot grab the bar without lowering their shins. The Sumo puts the bar in a better path. However, others swear by standing in a narrow stance instead. This variation is also suitable for lifters with shorter arms since it allows them to start with arms closer to the barbell, decreasing the range of motion. If you have a hard time achieving the natural position due to short arms or long femurs, try these options while standing in front of a mirror to see if either can help you achieve better form.
The Sumo has another advantage that powerlifters like. Powerlifters move serious lbs. The Sumo deadlift puts less force on the vertebra of the lumbar spine than the conventional deadlift, reducing injury risk.
Trap Bar Deadlift
The large hexagonal weight bar you have seen at the gym is known as a trap bar. A lifter stands inside the trap bar and grips the handles on either side to lift the weight. Though both lifts build back muscles, the big difference is that the trap bar moves the weight to a more central position, which means that it also builds your quad muscles in addition to the posterior chain. Because the bar path is no longer in front of you, you have less shear force on your lower back. If you suffer from back pain, get medical advice, and talk to your personal trainer and see if the trap bar deadlift may be a good choice.
Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
The RDL and the single-leg Romanian deadlift are two other exercises you need in your arsenal. Why is it called the Romanian? Accounts vary, but legend has it that when Coach Dragomir Cioroslan of Romania was at the 1990 Olympics with his lifter, Nicu Vlad, a lifter names Jim Schmitz, saw Vlad performing a lift he hadn’t seen before. When the duo said they didn’t have a name for it, Schmitz suggested they call it the Romanian Deadlift.
One of the possible downsides to the traditional deadlift is that unless you have a pretty extensive set of weights at home, you will probably have to hit the gym to lift heavy. The Romanian does not require heavy weight to be a fantastic exercise for building muscle. Starting with less weight is a very good idea. As your hamstrings become stronger you can add lbs.
Like the deadlift, the RDL is a great barbell exercise for creating strength and building muscle in your back. RDLs build your posterior chain, including the spinal erectors, glutes, adductors, gastrocnemius, traps, forearm flexors, and hamstrings. Want to strengthen hamstrings without doing a ton of ham raises? The Romanian is one of the best exercises for this muscle group.
If you have knee joint problems, you may appreciate the mechanics of this move. Unlike the leg presses, deadlifts, or other leg day workouts that concentrate on the quads, the Romanian focus on the hamstrings and hip and muscles from the back of the knee, so it is an effective way to work your legs without pressure on your knees.
Step by Step Directions on How to Do a Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift starts with the loaded barbell in your hands. To reduce the risk of injury, either use the deadlift technique described above to lift the weight or use a squat rack to rest the bar at the appropriate thigh-to-waist level.
- Stand with your arms extended, using a double overhand grip on the bar. Use a neutral position stance, with your feet hip-width apart.
- Engage your lats and brace your shoulder blades to protect your upper back. Keep your back in a straight line throughout the movement.
- Keeping a slight bend in your knees, use a hip hinge to push your tailbone back and slowly lower the weight.
- Lower the weight until you feel a slight stretch in your hamstring muscles.
- When you feel that pull, use your hip extensors and hamstrings to do a hip thrust and power your torso back up into a standing position.
- The depth you can lower the bar will depend on your full range of motion. At its lowest point, it most likely will only go past your knees. One common mistake is expecting the weight to touch the floor. (This is not a touch and go deadlift workout.)
- Typically you would use the double overhand grip, as described above, however, you can also alternate your grip, depending on how much weight you have on the bar.
- Keep your chin tucked. A good cue is to imagine holding a tennis ball with your chin. This will help you keep a safe position in your cervical spine and your gaze neutral.
- Pull your shoulder blades back towards your back pockets to brace your upper back.
- Do not use your forearms to lift the weight, this is not an arms workout.
- Do not extend your knees. Keep a little bit of bend in them the entire time.
- Like in the deadlift, do pull the weight with your upper arms.
- When reversing the hip hinge, push through your heels as you return to the upright standing position.
Romanian Deadlift Variations
There are several variations including the Good Morning, the Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift, the Single Leg Romanian Deadlift, and the Stiff-Leg Deadlift. We will look at each, and why they might be a great option.
The Good Morning is a body weight movement that mimics the Romanian deadlift’s hip thrust into extension. It is an excellent tool for education purposes on the movement pattern and how to lift using the hip extension. It also makes a fantastic warmup for these muscle groups.
Start your Good Morning with your feet hip-width apart. Place your hands on your hips. Brace your core and bend at the waist, keeping your back flat. Squeeze your glutes to lift your torso and return to the upright starting position. That is one rep.
Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
The RDL can also be performed with a pair of dumbbells. Because the Romanian is effective with a lower weight, this is an excellent option for a home gym. In this variation, hold the handles in a double overhand grip so they rest against the front of your legs, like a barbell.
The Stiff-Leg Deadlift
The stiff leg deadlift is more like a Romanian than a conventional deadlift for all intents and purposes. This move also starts at the top and should be done with less weight. As the name implies, the main difference is that your knees are kept locked out during each rep, which means your glutes will be doing more work.
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
If you play sports, the single-leg Romanian Deadlift is a great way to build stability in your ankles, knees, in hips. Another good reason to add the single-leg Romanian deadlift is that it improves balance.
This deadlift workout is also an excellent choice to add to your exercise program if you do any running. Again, for injury prevention, use light weight to start. You can even do these at bodyweight.
In your setup, engage your lats pulling your shoulder blades to your back pockets. Relax your traps and arms, and create abdominal pressure by bracing your core.
Then, holding a heavy barbell or pair of dumbbells in front of you, lift one leg off the ground, and lean slightly forward. Maintain a neutral spinal position as you lower the weight until you feel the tension in your hamstrings. Squeeze your glutes and use your hip flexors to do a hip thrust to stand with full leg extension. On each rep of your single-leg Romanian deadlift alternate standing legs.
The Bottom Line
Everyone loves to find their one-rep max. Believe me; I get it. But if you want to move heavy weight, you need the perfect form. If you can’t get good spine alignment or have problems with posture, work with a trainer. They can assign the mobility exercises or accessory work you may need for a better form. The easiest way to end up with a spinal disc injury is to attempt a heavy lift without proper alignment and with bad form. Next thing you know, you’ll be seeing a physical therapist or lined up for surgery.
As you are training, start with lighter weights, and use progressive overload to build up over time. Practice your alternate grip. Usually, one side is stronger than the other. You’ll want to know which for that big lift. As your muscles fatigue, you’ll want your strongest grip before you hit muscle failure.
Here are some good options for accessory lifts to improve your deadlift:
Front Squat – the front squat will work your quads and lower back. It is a great option for people who have problems in the lockout or for those who lift Sumo.
Snatch Grip Deadlift – If your sticking point is having low back pain, this accessory lift will give you a greater range of motion, while working your posterior chain. In addition, you can work on hip joint mobility, all while working at a lighter weight.
RDL or Ham Raises – Both of these moves will increase strength in your hamstrings, which you need for that one rep max.
On the day you are going for that 1rm, warm up the muscles of the back properly.
The best way to start is to warm up with a small rep range of light weights. This will slowly turn on your nervous system and get you ready to lift. It will also keep the fatigue at bay. Make sure you have your favorite power heavy-lift day song playing, then lift that weight!
- “Erector Spinae.” Physiopedia, . 10 May 2020, 10:24 UTC. 3 Oct 2020, 00:13 https://www.physio-pedia.com/index.php?title=Erector_Spinae&oldid=237314.
- “Triceps brachii.” Physiopedia, . 29 Apr 2020, 11:25 UTC. 3 Oct 2020, 00:20 https://www.physio-pedia.com/index.php?title=Triceps_brachii&oldid=236381.