Although the deadlift is a simple exercise that only requires you to lift a heavy bar off the ground and set it down again, it's considered one of the best muscle-growing, strength-building exercises. It's a compound exercise that works multiple muscle groups at once, helping you challenge the muscles across your posterior chain - all the muscles from your neck to your feet! Practically, strengthening every bone in your body! That is if it's performed safely and with proper form and technique. Doing this compound lift wrong can cause a strain or a more serious injury, so perfecting your form is the first thing you should do before moving on to attempting heavier weights.
Once you master the deadlift, it'll be your go-to exercise for building muscle and full-body strength! And that's just the conventional deadlift... It has other variations that zone in on specific muscles that way you can target a muscle that might be weaker than others! Luckily, the moves are quite similar with a few distinct differences, so nailing the form on the deadlift will get you on the right track with its other variations. And in an effort to help you achieve your goals, and start deadlifting like a pro, we've put together a guide to help! We've also included common mistakes to avoid and tips for beginners to safely work their way up to deadlifting.
The anatomy of the deadlift
The first thing to learn when it comes to deadlifting properly is what muscles are at work during the exercise. There is no doubt that the deadlift is a full-body impact exercise, but knowing exactly what muscle groups are being worked will help you engage them better and improve your lifting form.
The deadlift works not only your lower body, but also your upper body and core muscles. Here are the main upper body muscles that are at work:
- Latissimus dorsi
- Levator Scapulae
- Rhomboid major
The main muscle groups at play here are the shoulders, back, and core. Along with strong legs, these muscles need to be strong enough to provide balance and hold the barbell securely throughout the exercise. So, to have good deadlift form, you need to focus on keeping your upper body and core tight and engaged, along with engaging the following lower-body muscles...
- Gluteus maximus
These are the muscles that are going to generate the most power and stability! They work simultaneously to create enough force to lift the bar off the ground while stabilizing the body throughout the entire exercise.
How to deadlift with proper form
Now, to the fun part... Learning how to deadlift! You can use any free weights, dumbbells, kettlebells, a medicine ball, but we're going to be focusing on the barbell deadlift. Either way, the movements will be the same, your hand placement will just be different.
How to deadlift in six steps:
- The approach - Approach the bar on the ground and place your feet about hip-width apart, making sure that you're right in front and center of the bar. The bar should be over your midfoot.
- Grab the bar, but don't move it - Bend at your waist and slightly bend your knees to grab the bar. Place your hands shoulder-width apart using a double overhand grip (both palms facing behind you). There are other grips you can try, but this one is best to start with. Once you have your grip secured, make sure that your arms are completely straight.
- Assume position - Begin to hinge your hips back until your shins are touching the bar. Press your chest up to help flatten your back and get your spine into a spine neutral position. You want your head and neck to align with your back, so pack your neck to give yourself a double chin (don't look straight ahead or up), and focus your eyes a few feet ahead of you. So, it should look like your entire body is straight, but in a slight downward angle. This is the official starting position before lifting, so everything should feel tight and in position. Your lats should be squeezed, core tight and engaged, and you should feel a slight stretch in the hamstrings.
- The lift - Take a deep breath (big enough to fill up your stomach), and maintain everything tight as you drive through your heels, using your glutes and hamstrings to straighten your hips and pull the bar straight up. Your body should be moving upwards at the same speed. As the bar travels past your knees, begin to pull it into your hips to keep it as close to your body as possible (this maximizes your strength). Squeeze your glutes as you continue to straighten your hips and knees until you're standing upright. You should be standing tall with your chest open, spine neutral, and everything still engaged and tight.
- Lower the bar - Your body should start to descend at the same time. Begin by unlocking the hips to slowly move them backward, maintain the bar close to your thighs. Continue hinging at the hips until the bar is past your knees, then you can bend your knees to lower the bar down to the ground. Focus on putting it down slowly to maintain tightness - losing your grip or tightness can lead to an injury! Once you're comfortable with the move, you can start picking up the speed.
- Prepare for the next rep - You've done one rep! If you're lifting lighter weights (doing at least 10 reps), opposed to heavier weights, take another big, deep breath and dive into your next rep. If you're doing less reps and lifting heavier then take a moment to assume position again.
That's how you do a deadlift properly and safely. Remember, hinge at the hips, your body should move upward and downwards at the same speed, keep your arms straight, maintain a straight neutral spine position, keep the bar close to your body, and maintain all your muscle squeezed and tight!
Popular deadlift variations
Now that you understand the proper mechanics of deadlifting, the other three popular variations - sumo, snatch-grip, and Romanian deadlift - should be much easier to do!
How to sumo deadlift:
- Approach it as you would a regular deadlift, except you want to spread your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with feet pointing slightly outwards. Remember, the bar should be over midfoot. Take the time to find your optimal stance, test a few different foot positions and stick with the one that allows you to reach the bar comfortably.
- Hinge your hips back and bend your knees. Use a slightly narrower overhand grip so that your grasping at the bar inside your legs.
- Assume your position by inhaling deeply, pressing your chest up, shoulders down, and engaging and tightening your core and back muscles to help you maintain a neutral spine.
- Drive your heels into the floor as you begin to straighten your legs to pull up the bar. The movement should be through the extension of your legs, so keep your torso upright, arms straight, bar close to your body, and squeeze your butt, hamstrings, and quads as the bar travels past your knees.
- Hold at the top of the movement, and begin to slowly lower the bar to the ground, maintaining everything tight and controlled.
This variation is similar to the conventional deadlift, except the wider stance shifts the focus to be on the hamstrings and hips instead of the lower back. This also reduces the range of motion which means you'll be able to lift heavier. It's also the preferred variation for shorter lifters!
How to Romanian deadlift:
- Approach the bar as usual by placing your feet under the barbell, and spreading your feet hip-width apart.
- Use a double overhand grip to grab the bar placing your hands just outside of your thighs. To assume position, engage your core and back to help you maintain a neutral spine and stand upright letting the bar hang against your thighs.
- Keep your knees "soft" with a slight bend, inhale deeply, and begin to bend forward from the hips (not the waist). Lower the bar down so that your chest is parallel to the ground and the bar is in front of your shins, you should feel a good stretch in your hamstrings.
- Keep your back straight, muscles engaged (especially your hamstrings and glutes), and spine neutral as you hinge your hips forwards. Squeeze your glutes and hamstrings as your body travels through the movement.
- Exhale at the starting position with the bar resting against your thighs.
This variation requires the knees to remain in a static position. Instead of pushing the hips all the way back, you're simply hinging forward to lift the bar, which places more of a workload on the hamstrings. It also places an emphasis on the glutes and back muscles, and less on the quadriceps.
How to snatch-grip deadlift:
- Approach the bar as usual and place your feet under the bar so that they are about hip-width apart and toes pointing slightly outwards.
- The snatch-grip requires a wider grip. So, using a double overhand grip place your hands around 2x wider than shoulder-width apart. Play around with different, wide placements to find the one that allows you to lower the bar comfortably.
- Assume position, flex your back muscles, and begin to push through your heels keeping your chest up as you drive forwards with your hips. Place a greater emphasis on your upper back, traps and arms to help you pull the bar up.
- Pause at the top of the move, and maintain tension and control as you lower the bar back to starting position.
This variation requires a wide snatch-grip that helps place a greater emphasis on the upper back muscles to specifically increase pulling strength. It's also considered to be more difficult and often seen in Olympic weightlifting. It's a great back exercise to work up to that can help increase your back strength, but also your grip strength, and improve your overall pulling abilities.
Ways to grip the bar
Grip strength is important when it comes to deadlifting, but luckily there are different ways to grip the bar that makes it either easier or sometimes harder. In the above example, we specify using a double overhand grip because it's the safest and most comfortable for lifters, be it beginners or more experienced. As you know, it involves the knuckles facing forwards (palms facing you) with your fingers going over the bar and thumb under the bar. It does place a greater emphasis on grip strength, so as you increase the weight, this grip will become more challenging. That's when you can start experimenting with other grips, like these...
- Mixed grip: It involves using one hand to grab the bar with an overhand grip, and the other hand with an underhand grip. This is a good grip to try on heavier lifts because it allows your grip to handle more. Meaning there's less of a chance for your grip to fail and let the bar roll out of your hands. It does have a few disadvantages, like it can place an uneven stress on your shoulders and aggravate your biceps on the side using an underhand grip.
- Hook grip: This grip involves placing both hands over the bar, but wrapping your thumbs under your fingers so they secure your hand into a hook grip. This grip is more advanced, it hurts a lot and could take some time getting used to.
Although the overhand grip is the most popular, play around with the different deadlift grips using a lighter weight to see which one is best for you. Oh, and as you get stronger and upgrade to really heavy weights, consider investing in some lifting straps! Grip fatigue is real. Although your body might be able to push through one more rep, your grip might fail when performing really heavy deadlifts. Using lifting straps, like these from UPPPER, can help with grip fatigue so you can pull heavy weights and focus on maintaining close to perfect form.
Common mistakes to avoid
We've told you how to deadlift with good form, but to emphasize the importance even further, here are common deadlift mistakes you should avoid:
- Hunching your back - Your spine should be neutral the entire time, not hunched over! This tends to happen if the weight is too heavy or if the lats (upper back muscles) aren't being engaged. If your upper back isn't strong, or not engaged, then your shoulders will pull forward as you lift the bar. This will cause the back to round or hunch over, which is a huge no-no. To avoid this, focus on pulling your shoulders back and tightening your back and lats.
- Looking up - Aside from keeping a neutral spine, make sure that your entire body forms a straight line. Meaning your body should form a straight line from your head all the way to your glutes. Some lifters hyperextend their necks to look up when deadlifting because of how heavy the weight is. This will only increase your risk of injury. Your neck should be packed slightly downwards, and your eyesight focused a few feet ahead of you.
- Hyperextending at the top of the move - Although you should fully extend your hips at the top of the movement, you don't need to completely lockout that it causes you to hyperextend your back. This will just place an unnecessary strain on your lower back. Your spine should always remain neutral, so stop the movement once you're standing up straight.
- Not moving in unison - We mentioned earlier that your body should be moving upwards and back down at the same speed. This means that as you lift, your glutes should come up at the same time as your chest, and vice versa. The common mistake lifters make is lifting their butts first before their chest. This usually happens if the lifter is driving through their knees and not extending their hips. This can also cause the back to round and hunch over. So, to avoid this, lead the movement with your chest and your entire body will follow moving upward at the same pace.
- Core is not engaged - All your muscles should be engaged, but especially your core. A tight, engaged core will keep your lower spine from bending to handle the weight load. To activate your core, squeeze all of the muscles in your torso and hold them in that tightened position while still breathing normally. It should feel like the muscles in your abdomen and glutes are tightened, stable, and secure from your pelvis all the way to your rib cage.
- Treating it like a squat - The deadlift is not a squat. It's a heavy hip hinge movement that involves sitting back, not sitting down in a squat position. So, make sure the movement is coming from your hips, like a horizontal hip thrust.
Everyone should include deadlifts into their strength training routine, whether they're trying to build serious muscle mass, or just trying to burn fat, this is the perfect full-body exercise. But those that are new to weightlifting, or just new to deadlifting, should work their way up to it. Do this by building strength and muscle in your upper and lower body first. Some of the best exercises that will get you on the right track to safely deadlift heavy weights are...
- Bent-over rows: You need a strong back to support your lift, and this is one of the best back exercises to help you build muscle. Plus, it involves the same position as the bottom of a deadlift! You can use a long resistance band to start, move up to dumbbells, and then a barbell.
- Banded deadlifts: Unfortunately, you can't perform a bodyweight deadlift - although we do recommend practicing the hip hinge! But fortunately, you can use a long resistance band to perform a banded deadlift. This is an excellent way to practice the movement before moving on to heavy weights.
- Core exercises: Along with a strong back, you want a strong core to be able to help you pull up the heavy bar and to maintain a neutral spine. Implement core exercises like planks, woodchopper, dead bug, and leg raises.
- Rack pulls: Once you've built a good amount of strength, are comfortable with hip hinge movements, then you can attempt deadlifting by starting with rack pulls! This involves placing the bar on a rack or block so the bar is elevated off the ground, allowing you to lift more weight due to the shorter range of motion. It places a greater focus on the top half of the deadlift which forces you to maintain tension and form as you lift.
The key to nailing the deadlift, aside from our step-by-step guide, is by practicing and progressing slowly. A good rule of thumb to follow is if your form is breaking down, then it's time to lower the weight. With that being said, hopefully, our guide on how to deadlift properly improves your form and technique to help you lift heavier and build muscle effectively, and most importantly, safely.