I wrote about the deadlift exercise a couple of times on my blog before. It's my favorite exercise and that is for a reason. It is a compound exercise (including as many muscle groups as possible in one movement pattern) and extremely effective to build strength and muscle mass (hypertrophy). It is excellent to strengthen your whole posterior chain focusing particularly on your lower back and upper back.
In this article I will discuss the health benefits of deadlifting and why everybody should do some type of deadlift in their fitness routine. I will present different deadlift variations and their characteristics, go over some errors to avoid injury and highlight some helpful training equipment.
The Deadlift's Origin
Lifting heavy weights off the ground is probably as old as mankind. The first documented deadlift seems to have been executed by Eumastas of Thera, a Grecian, in the sixth century BCE. Supposedly, Eumastas deadlifted a 481 kilogram boulder.
Over the course of history, different variations of deadlifts evolved which promote different feature development and benefits.
The first official lift that most closely resembled the conventional barbell deadlift as we know it today was promoted in the 1800s by George Barker Windship. He was a Harvard University Medical School graduate but more importantly a strength pioneer and one of the first health and fitness professionals. Among various other strength training inventions he created the "Health Lift," an apparatus that allows a movement pattern that is very similar to today's barbell deadlift.
Around the 1930s the popularity of the deadlift (and other compound movements) started to increase. This is also when record lifts were starting to be documented. The current deadlift world record of 501 kg is held by Icelandic strongman and “Game of Thrones” actor Hafthor Bjornsson.
What a Deadlift Is and Why Everybody Should Do It
The deadlift is one of the most effective compound exercises that we have (next to back squats, bench presses, overhead presses and pullups). It's my all time favorite and forms part of every programming that I offer my clients. It is called a deadlift because you lift dead weight off the floor. It is a very natural movement pattern that you probably execute every day when you lift something up.
When doing so you are activating your whole posterior chain including your calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, core, latissimus dorsi (or simply lats, the big back muscles that look like a wing), and erector spinae muscles (your muscles along your spine). This also promotes grip strength as you need to hold on to the barbell firmly while lifting it up.
It is a very complete exercise and hence a foundational movement pattern in strength training and weightlifting that is leveraged by different types of athletes including powerlifters, Olympic lifters, CrossFitters, body builders, and sprinters.
Since deadlifts are typically a standard component in every health and fitness program (in all of mine anyway), they are also a great way to measure progress. For that of course it is necessary to log your training performance, which is one of my key principles to achieve better health and fitness. In addition, there are public strength databases for the main compound lifts that help you benchmark yourself against other lifters in a similar state as you are.
Getting stronger or building muscle mass are two key benefits of deadlifts and the most common goals. However, as a beneficial side effect, doing deadlifts right also helps us to prevent injury in all parts of daily life like lifting up your kid or in any type of sports like football. Stronger bodies are harder to damage.
The deadlift is not a complicated move but there are a couple of things that you must pay attention to and get right in order to achieve your gains and avoid injury.
Common Deadlift Errors and How To Avoid Them
Like always: Prehab is much more favorable than rehab.
Although the effects of deadlifts are great to reduce the risk of injury in general, there is a chance to get injured while executing them. Here are a couple of pointers to avoid that:
- Make sure that you understand the deadlift form well (which I’ll explain in a moment) and execute perfectly before you use heavier weights.
- The most common problem is rounding your upper or lower back (or both). It is crucial to keep a neutral spine and your back straight at all times. If you cannot, reduce the weight and/or increase hamstring and glutes mobility.
- Don't jerk the lift. Don't move the bar up too abruptly. Instead allow the bar to move up smoothly. A useful cue to achieve this is to start the move by first slightly pulling the bar (i.e., taking the slack out).
- At the top of the move, do not overextend as this would impose too much strain on your lower back. Just end the move standing up straight without leaning back.
- At the starting position do not bring your hips too low down (i.e., bend your knees too much). This is a deadlift, not a squat.
- The bar should touch your shin before you start the move in order to reduce any horizontal movements. The bar should travel up as vertically as possible (ideally in a straight line).
- Make sure your body is warmed up and primed for the deadlift. Start with movement-specific dynamic warmups (like my world's greatest full-body dynamic stretch routine) and go through the whole range of motion to activate all required joints. I also recommend foam rolling of relevant muscle groups prior to deadlifting.
Although I love deadlifts, my advice is: Don't go crazy. Listen to your body. If it tells you something is not quite right, stop deadlifts for a while. Getting an injury will prevent you from doing sports and fitness. In that case check out my other article about the most effective deadlift alternatives.
Types of Deadlifts and Their Benefits
What's the best deadlift?
The answer to this is very individual and depends on what you want to achieve. I personally prefer the good old conventional deadlift and the sumo deadlift. All types of deadlifts work incredibly well, have a very similar movement pattern but vary in the detail. In this section I will go over the different types of deadlifts, discuss some of the details and highlight the specific benefits of each variation.
To execute a conventional barbell deadlift stand upright in front of a barbell with feet hip-width apart and your midfoot under the bar. Then bend over and grab the bar with your hands just outside of your legs. Next, bend your knees until your shins touch the bar without moving it. Retract your shoulders to straighten your lower back. Your whole back must form a straight line.
Take a deep breath, then stand up tall in a controlled way by a hip hinge, which is also referred to as the triple-extension of ankles, knees, and hips. After this lock-out position, return the weight down carefully by moving hips back and bending the knees.
Typically you would grab the barbell with an overhand grip meaning that your palms face back with your knuckles forward. As a variation you could use a mixed grip where the palm of one hand faces back where the other faces forward. This may increase your grip strength (as you squeeze the weight between opposite facing hands) and allow you to pull heavier weights.
Instead of the barbell you could use two dumbbells to execute a dumbbell deadlift or a kettlebell.
The starting position of the sumo deadlift differs from the conventional deadlift as we are using a wider stance. In this case the feet are about twice shoulder width apart with toes pointing out. Adjust your stance so that your knees are directly over your heels and form one vertical line. The lift itself is then executed the same way as in the conventional deadlift.
The main difference of the sumo deadlift is that due to the lower stance the bar travels a shorter distance. You can lift heavier. The sumo tends to emphasize slightly more legs and glutes, where the conventional targets the lower back, especially at the start of the lift.
The Romanian deadlift (RDL) starts from the standing position. That's why it's sometimes referred to as the "undead lift." You then lower the weight down until you feel a slight stretch in your hamstrings. This happens typically before the barbell touches the floor. Then you lift back up again.
You execute the RDL with less weight then a conventional deadlift. It specifically targets your hamstrings. A variation of the RDL is the single leg deadlift. This lift, however, is so different from the RDL that I rather consider it an alternative as I wrote in my article Can’t Deadlift? Here Are the Most Effective Deadlift Alternatives.
Stiff Leg Deadlift
The stiff leg deadlift is very similar to the RDL. The difference is that you don't bend your knees. As a consequence this exercise targets specifically your lower back and hamstrings and is regarded as an isolation exercise. It will help you increase strength and flexibility in those areas. Generally you would execute stiff leg deadlifts with less weight but as an accessory exercise they will help you increase the weight you can pull in a conventional deadlift.
Trap Bar Deadlift
For the trap bar deadlift (or hex bar deadlift) we are using a bar with a hexagonal shape. You are standing within that hexagon and have handles beside you to the left and right. Alan Thrall published a video showing how to perfectly execute a trap bar deadlift.
The odd shape of the bar actually encourages a better deadlift form. There is no bar that is in the way and crushing your shins. Research shows that trap bar deadlifts activate more muscles in your legs than barbell deadlifts. Greg Nuckols also provides a very thorough discussion of trap bar deadlifts. One of his conclusions is that its transferability to other sports is higher than with conventional deadlifts.
The deficit deadlift is a variation for more advanced lifters. You typically stand with your feet hip width apart but elevated (on plates, for example). As a consequence, you need to bend deeper to pick up the barbell. The weight has to travel a larger distance due to increased range of motion. This type of deadlift requires more mobility. The deficit deadlift is brutal. It’s typically executed with less weight than the conventional deadlift but it will help improve it.
The opposite of a deficit deadlift is an elevated deadlift (also referred to as rack pulls or block pulls). In this case we use means to increase the height of the barbell's starting position. The bar could rest on a rack or on blocks, therefore reducing the range of motion. We can use this as an accessory move to focus on the muscles that are used towards the end of a conventional deadlift movement.
The hack lift is also called behind the back deadlift. The difference is that in the starting position the bar is behind the shin (on the side of your calves). This certainly feels very weird and targets more the quadriceps. The hack lift is another accessory exercise to counter imbalances or to overcome a plateau. I recommend doing this with less weight and very carefully.
Snatch Grip Deadlift
Another variation is the snatch grip deadlift. The only difference to the conventional deadlift is the much wider grip. As a consequence the range of motion changes and your upper back and traps have to work much harder to move the weight.
Helpful Equipment for Deadlifting
Apart from the weight (e.g., in the form of a barbell with plates, dumbbells, or kettlebells) you don't really need any further deadlifting equipment. However, here is a list of things that may help you improve your lift, especially as a more experienced lifter:
- A weightlifting belt helps to stabilize your core and is a very effective support for heavy lifts.
- Straps can help you compensate for a lack of grip strength.
- Generally wear flat shoes with no cushion (like minimalist shoes) or no shoes at all. You want your feet fully connected to the floor and not lose any energy in soft shoe soles.
- Knee sleeves can protect your knee joint, increase blood flow and keep them warm.
- Some chalk is great for sweaty hands.
- Tapes could be used to protect your fingers.
While all of this equipment is certainly helpful and has its place in strength training and deadlifting, I recommend to not use them all the time. Usually try to lift without but use supportive means when you need to overcome a plateau, for motivation, or if you have an injury.
How To Incorporate Deadlifts Into Your Overall Fitness Program
Deadlifts are the foundation to build a strong posterior chain from your lower body all the way up to your upper body. Whenever you want to build a strong foundation for athletic performance, for a specific sport or just for general health and fitness, not leveraging the deadlift is a huge missed opportunity.
In this article I discussed the different variations of the deadlift, each with their own specific benefits and target areas. We covered the conventional deadlift, sumo, Romanian, stiff leg, trap bar, deficit/elevated, hack lift, and the snatch grip deadlift.
All of my programs include a purposeful combination of deadlifts with other compound and isolation exercises relative to your goals. These are key ingredients of all my personal training work with clients and my online Build Bullet-Proof Health program. Find out all the benefits of the Build Bullet-Proof Health program or try a free trial.
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