deadlift guide

Deadlift – Benefits, Muscles Used, Form & Variations


There are many different types of weight training exercises and it can be difficult to decide which routines to do and which ones will be most effective for your needs. If you are looking to increase your strength, deadlifts might be an exercise you should consider.

Deadlifts are an important exercise for anyone who wants to gain strength throughout their body. This article will highlight the muscles used, the proper form and the benefits of deadlifts.

Deadlift Muscles Used

deadlift muscles worked diagram

So, what muscles do deadlifts work?

There are many muscle areas which are used: forearms, hamstrings, glutes, trapezius, abdominal, and back muscles. Your whole body works together as one unit to perform this exercise.

We will examine each set of muscles and the role they play below.

Arm Muscles

Your hands are holding onto the bar and given the tension in this workout, that same energy will also tighten your forearms. This flow of energy also affects your upper arm muscles and your shoulders. There will be a lot of tension which is held and then released so your arms will be important stabilisers to work through the tension.

Abdominal Muscles

The abdominal muscles condense the muscles to provide strength to your core. The core communicates to your muscles that there is a task which needs to be completed. Contracting your abdominal muscles also helps your posture which is essential for this exercise. Good posture helps the back muscles do what they are supposed to do.

Back Muscles

The back muscles strengthen the spine and prevent injury to your vertebrae. They also help contract the tension of the deadlift inward so it can do it’s work and strengthen muscles throughout the body.

Shoulder Muscles

The shoulder muscles are important stabilising force and vital in your ability to transfer force to the weight.

Leg Muscles

The leg muscles are important for strengthening your joints, of which there are many sensitive joints in your legs. The muscles will be strengthened when performing this exercise and will help protect the more sensitive joints in your body.

The deadlift works muscles in the upper and lower body, so it is a good overall body workout. It is important to have proper form when doing a deadlift because there are a lot of muscles in your back which power the deadlift and can be severely injured if the lift is not performed properly. This exercise uses a variety of muscles thus it is an efficient workout.

Benefits of Deadlifts

So what does all of this work do for you?

Deadlifts improve posture because they test your core muscles and your ability to retain posture under duress. They also work a variety of muscles at the same time,  making your workouts quicker. You will gain size in your forearm muscles and as your grip is the only connection you have with the bar,  you will improve your grip. All of these benefits help prevent injury because you are increasing muscle mass to support joints in tender areas.

Yes deadlifts are a difficult exercise but if you stick with them and have proper form, you will receive a lot of benefits. Therefore, if you would like to see these benefits from your exercise routine, then add deadlifts  to your exercise. Your repetitions will be short but intense, so save these for when you can handle the extra intensity

How to Deadlift – Form and Technique

It is important to follow all the steps to perform a deadlift because of the heavy weight you will be lifting. Improper form increases your risk of injury and makes it harder to perform the lift.

Step by Step

dead lift

First, plant your feet firmly on the ground. You will need a strong foundation in order to successfully perform the deadlift. Plant your feet as you would if you were doing a standing long jump. Your power will come from how you set up in this first step, so be comfortable and have your feet planted before you move to the next step.

Second, bend from your hips and lower yourself to get to the barbell. Do not grip your hands too close together on the barbell. Instead, have your hands apart – slightly wider than your shins. Your starting position should be having your shoulder blades over the bar and your shins at a right angle with the floor. Doing this properly will give you the shortest movement thus completing the exercise most effectively.

Take a deep breath and engage your lateral muscles. This will allow the bar to be straight when you start the lift. This step is important as you need oxygen in your muscles to function for this exercise and you need your lateral muscles to keep the proper posture and efficiency to do the exercise well.

Next, pull. You will become tense from head to toe, this is normal so do not worry! Try to imagine yourself pushing the ground away from you using your leg muscles. Subconsciously, this will cause the bar to move up.

Squeeze your gluteal muscles. You’ll be able to move your hips forward which will help in the next step. Lockout and stand straight. Secure your lower back muscles for extra support.

Finally, start to lower at a steady pace by unlocking your gluteal muscles and moving your hips away from the bar. Then, let go of the bar in a controlled manner so it has a stable drop to the floor. If you release the bar too slowly, you will hurt your back and if you release the bar too quickly you will not get all the benefit from your workout.

Deadlifts are the perfect exercise for augmenting core strength of your body’s main muscles. Core muscles are the ones in your back, buttocks, abs and hips. These all work together during a deadlift. With strong core muscles, you will keep a good posture and avoid back issues.

Deadlifts are very effective workouts because they engage your entire body. Most importantly, do NOT forget to warm up, especially if you will be lifting heavy weights. The best option is to warm up for two sets with light weights, repeating many times. Always remember that you need to keep your back straight during the exercise to avoid any potential injury.

Deadlift Variations

Deadlifts are a great workout, as they ensure your entire body receives attention. To get the best results, it’s critical you apply the appropriate variation and have the correct form. Bad posture while deadlifting can result in damage to the spine and lower back.

There are multiple deadlifting variations, so work with each of them and find out which is best for you.

The most popular are as follows:

Conventional Deadlift

As the name suggests, the conventional deadlift is the standard form that many bodybuilders use. To perform a conventional deadlift, you place your feet under the barbell and leave your arms at a hip-width distance. It’s very important that your arms are outside of your feet when attempting a conventional deadlift.

When you’re ready to lift, bend your knees and keep going until you feel the barbell against your shins. Then, raise your chest, keeping your lower back neutral. If there is an unnatural curve to your spine while deadlifting, you risk critical damage to your lower back. Keeping your hips and knees straight, hold the weight for around a second, breathing deeply all the while, then put it down by bending your legs.

Sumo Deadlift

Sumo DeadliftThis twist on the conventional deadlift is very popular with competition power lifters, and anybody concerned with applying too much pressure to their spine. The main difference with this stance is that your legs will need to be much wider apart. Get your knees and ankles in line before you begin the lift, and point your toes outward to a 45-degree angle. Keep your knees behind the bar, and point them outward.

When you’re ready to lift, hunker down and get your hips as close to the bar as possible. The whole idea of this form is to place less pressure on the hips. Keeping your arms straight and rooting your feet to the ground, lift the bar in one fluid motion. Practice makes perfect with the sumo deadlift, so don’t lose heart if you struggle the first time.

Hex or Trap Bar Deadlifts

hex bar deadliftHex bars, or trap bars, are named after their shape – the weights attached to the sides of the bar are hexagonal. When attempting this lift and, unlike a conventional barbell, you lift from the hexagon sides. The benefits to your body are similar, but hex bars are designed exclusively for deadlifting. There will be two handles for grip, one high and one low.

Stand in the middle of the bar as always, and separate your feet to a hip’s distance. Bend using your hips when you’re ready to lift the bar, ensuring you have a strong grip. Plant your feet, and lift using the power in your legs – keeping your back neutral as always. Hold the pose, and gently return the bar to the ground.

Snatch Grip Deadlift

snatch grip deadliftThis is a popular lift with Olympians and bodybuilders, as it builds grip resilience and core body strength. To perform a snatch grip deadlift, stand over your barbell with your feet apart and pointed slightly outward. The width of your hips should do it. Flex your back and hips, and position your shoulders directly over the bar.

This deadlift uses a very wide arm stance that’s similar to the sumo lift, so keep them outside your shoulders. When you’re ready to lift, do from the outside of the bar. Pull it up slowly and steadily, ensuring that you don’t lean too far forward and topple over. Peak the lift around your waist whilst keeping your back straight, and maintain the tension in your hips and back as you place it back down.

Romanian Deadlift, Stiff Legged Deadlift and Straight Leg Deadlift

Romanian deadliftThese three variations all look similar at a glance, but are commonly confused. However, there are some fundamental differences between them.

Romanian deadlifts involve straight toes, with the feet around a hip’s distance apart. The bar must be kept close to the thighs throughout the entire life. Perhaps most importantly, the chest and shoulders must be held back and kept straight throughout.

Stiff-legged deadlifts really benefit the hamstrings. Use a rack, and don’t load up too much weight. Consider going a few pounds lighter than a typical lift. Use a double-handed grip, and back away from the rack, bending your knees and keeping your shins straight. Apply all the pressure to your legs.

Straight-legged deadlifts are very similar to the above, but as you may imagine, the knees remain unbent throughout. The spine must be left neutral, and the bar will be elevated slightly in front of the lifter. Many lifters also find it beneficial to stand upon a bench before attempting this manoeuvre.

Deficit Deadlift / Rack Pulls

deficit deadliftIf you feel that you would like to improve in a particular area, you could perform a deficit deadlift or a rack pull. Rather than providing a full body workout, these exercises will focus on certain body parts. It will also help build general strength.

Deficit deadlifts are popular with beginners, and people that struggle with the opening stages of a lift. It involves standing on a platform – usually other weights – that add roughly four inches of additional height. This will provide greater mobility. A deficit deadline will not be able to lift as much weight as it can be tricky to get a good grip on the bar, but it’s great for building strength,

Rack pulls, meanwhile, are designed to decrease the mobility of the lifter. They involve placing a barbell in an elevated rack, then performing a lift of the individuals’ choice. Like a deficit deadlift, this allows somebody to lift a greater weight.

Dumbbell Deadlift Variations

dumbell deadliftYou don’t always need a barbell or hex trap to perform a deadlift. A pair of dumbbells can be every bit as impactful. In fact, performing a conventional deadlift using a pair of dumbbells is arguably the ideal beginner’s exercise.

Just bend the knees, keep the hips flexed, and don’t put any undue pressure on the back. Dumbbells are not as heavy as a barbell and may not risk as much damage, but the idea of this exercise is to learn good form, not bad habits.

Adnan Munye
A certified personal trainer, Adnan specialises in weight loss, muscle building, body conditioning, core strengthening and injury rehabilitation. Adnan comes from a sporting background, where he has played football, badminton, rugby, and swimming all at various levels.

Adnan has always been passionate about health and fitness. He comes from a sporting background playing football, badminton, rugby, and swimming at various levels from a young age.

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Last modified: 12th April 2019