Deadlift Benefits: What You Need to Know About This Strength-Building Exercise

Sport & Activity

This essential powerlifting move can help any athlete build muscle mass and strength in the posterior chain and improve their performance.

Last updated: June 30, 2022
8 min read
What Are the Benefits of Deadlifts? Plus Instructions and Variations

The deadlift is a popular compound exercise you'll see included in many full-body strength-training workouts. It's also one of three exercises performed in powerlifting competitions, along with the squat and bench press.

But you don't have to be a powerlifter to do this versatile move. Any athlete can take advantage of what it has to offer.

So, what muscles does the deadlift work? You'll activate muscles in your hips, glutes, lower body, core and back. And depending on the variation you choose, you may also be able to improve stability and balance with the exercise.

Benefits of the Deadlift

The great thing about deadlifts is that they work the muscles along the back of your body (aka posterior chain). Many strength-training exercises put the load on the front of your body—especially the front of the lower body. For instance, squats and lunges work the quads more than the hamstrings.

Over time, overworking the front of the body can cause tightness in the hip flexors and, subsequently, postural problems and back pain. There aren't many other exercises that shift the workload to the back of the lower body so effectively.

But the deadlift isn't just a lower-body movement. It also engages the core and muscles in the lower, middle and upper back that support good posture and alignment. Specifically, the muscle groups worked during a deadlift include:

  • Glutes (gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus and gluteus medius) help extend and stabilise your hips in all deadlift variations.

  • Hamstrings are located on the back of your thigh and include the biceps femoris, semitendinosus and semimembranosus. These muscles are also hip extensors. They work with the glutes to move the hips forward and come to a full standing position.

  • Quadriceps are four muscles on the front of the thigh that help extend the knees, especially during the initial lifting segment of the deadlift. The quads include the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis and vastus intermedius.

  • Trapezius muscles are located on the upper back and neck area. They help stabilise the shoulders as you lift the bar and stand upright.

  • Latissimus dorsi are wing-shaped muscles on your back that keep the mid-back strong and stabilised while lifting and lowering the bar.

  • The erector spinae are a group of long muscles that run along the spine and help you keep your back flat during a deadlift. When you're standing at the top of the move, your spinal erectors also help stabilise the torso.

  • Accessory muscles include those in the lower leg (gastrocnemius and soleus) and, to a lesser extent, the forearms.

Gaining muscle mass has numerous benefits, including a more efficient metabolism, better body composition, improved sports performance and easier movement during daily activities.

The deadlift will also help you stay strong and healthy as you age. For example, some studies have shown that workouts that include deadlifting can improve bone mineral density and may help you to manage lower back pain.

How to Do a Deadlift

Deadlifting is usually performed with a barbell and weight plates. But you can also do a deadlift with kettlebells, dumbbells or a resistance band. Some lifters also use a hexagonal barbell (also called a "hex bar").

Regardless of the equipment you choose, learn to do a standard deadlift with less resistance before adding more weight or attempting any variations. It may also be helpful to work with a personal trainer or at least do this move in front of a mirror to make sure you use proper form.

Deadlifts require you to press your feet into the ground to drive power through your legs, hips and glute muscles.

Deadlift Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Before you start, make sure the weight plates are adequately secured with barbell collars or clamps.
  2. Stand with your feet hip-width apart with the barbell on the ground near your shins. Your toes will be under the bar.
  3. Keeping your spine long and shoulders relaxed, push your hips back and down so that you can reach for the bar with an overhand grip. In this position, your hips should be lower than your shoulders, and your gaze should be on the ground about 60cm in front of the bar.
  4. With your core engaged, press your feet into the ground and lift the bar using your hips, glutes and leg muscles. Continue until you're standing upright. Keep your chest open and don't let your shoulders roll forward. Your gaze should now be straight ahead.
  5. Reverse the movement and lower the bar, keeping it close to your body as it approaches the floor.
  6. Rest the full weight down and repeat 6 to 8 times.

If you use dumbbells or a kettlebell, the movement is almost exactly the same, but it may feel more challenging to keep the body steady as you lengthen through the hips to come to standing. Be sure to keep your upper body open and stable to minimise extra movement.

If you're doing a resistance band deadlift, loop the band under your feet. Drop your hips back and down to prepare for the exercise. At this point, you don't want any slack in the band, but it shouldn't be so tight that there's no room for it to lengthen. Let the band stretch as you stand up, keeping your arms at your sides. Reverse the movement and repeat.

Advanced lifters may use a hex bar. It allows you to stand inside a hexagon-shaped device with weight plates attached and lift while keeping your hands facing the body. This variation may help you increase the mechanical load and lift more weight during a deadlift, according to a December 2017 study in Sports.

Deadlift Form and Safety Tips

The key to executing a proper deadlift comes down to alignment and posture. It's important that you feel the bulk of the load in your lower body and not your back. If you feel that your back is doing most of the work, check your form for these common errors:

  • Rounding the back to lift the bar: This may happen if the bar is too far from your body to reach. When you set up for the exercise, make sure the bar is close enough to the body so you can grab it without rounding your spine.

  • Hyperextending at the top: If you aren't looking in a mirror or working with a trainer, you might find yourself overarching your back at the top of the move. That is, your shoulders come behind the hips when you're standing. Be sure to lift only until your shoulders are in line with your hips and ankles.

  • Attempting to lift too much weight: It's easy for your back to take the brunt of the work if you're lifting more than your muscles can handle. For instance, some people use a weight belt to support their back and make up for a weak core. Instead, focus on building your core muscles so it can provide the corset-like feel that a belt would provide.

By executing the deadlift with proper form, you'll keep your body safe while getting all of the benefits the move provides. Keep the deadlift, or one of its variations (see below), in your full-body strength-training routine to keep your body balanced and strong.

What Are the Benefits of Deadlifts? Plus Instructions and Variations

Deadlift Variations

Once you've mastered the basic deadlift, add a challenge by trying one of these variations.

Mixed-Grip Deadlift
This variation requires that you grab the bar with an overhand grip on one hand and an underhand grip on the other. Sometimes people prefer this grip because the bar feels more secure and is less likely to roll at the start of the move.

But most experts advise that it's best to use an overhand grip first, then add the mixed grip when you've advanced to deadlifting heavier weight. Some lifters also use a "hook grip" where the fingers wrap on top of the thumb to provide greater grip security.

Sumo Deadlift
You'll need a kettlebell for this variation. Start in a wide sumo stance with the legs wider than hip distance and the toes rotated out slightly. Place the kettlebell between your legs but slightly in front of your feet.

Drop your hips back and bend at the knees, keeping your back straight. Pick up the kettlebell, then stand straight up. Reverse the movement, place the weight on the floor and repeat.

Stiff-Leg Deadlift
Sometimes also called a straight-leg deadlift, this variation requires that you keep your legs almost straight throughout the movement.

However, you never want your knees to be locked out, so you'll keep a slight bend in your knees while extending through your hips and lifting or lowering the weight to the floor. Your legs should be completely straight when standing.

Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift is very similar to the stiff-legged deadlift, but you don't bring the weight to the floor after each rep. Instead, you bring the bar low enough to reach a 90-degree bend at the hips (about mid-shin). Also, during this variation, you keep your legs just slightly bent even when standing.

Single-Leg Deadlift
You'll challenge your balance and stability during this variation, because it requires you to balance on one leg while performing the move. You'll do a Romanian deadlift, but as you hinge at the hips to lower or lift the weight, one leg lifts behind you.

Kickstand Deadlift
If you want to improve your balance but you're not ready for a single-leg deadlift, try a kickstand deadlift. It's the same as a single-leg deadlift, but instead of lifting the back leg entirely behind you, you allow your toes to stay on the ground for a little bit of stability.

What Are the Benefits of Deadlifts? Plus Instructions and Variations

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