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The Dumbbell Deadlift: The Best Exercise You’re Not Doing

The deadlift is one of the kings of all exercises: it is a full-body exercise that recruits the majority of muscles in the body and can build overall strength, power, and muscle. You are probably most familiar with traditional barbell deadlifts, but there are a few other variations that you can perform.

If you’re only doing conventional barbell deadlifts, you may be missing out on some added benefits from the different alternatives. Hex – or trap – bar deadlifts use a hexagonal-shaped bar that combines a deadlift and shrug.  There are also dumbbell deadlifts that incorporate in the use of dumbbells to create an alternative stimulus to conventional deadlifts.

Deadlifts with dumbbells can be a great way to add variation to your workouts and incorporate a new form of deadlift into your routine. This article will look at the dumbbell deadlift, why they are so beneficial, how to properly perform them, and some dumbbell deadlift alternatives.

Why Is The Deadlift So Important?

Along with the squat, the deadlift may be the most important lift that you perform in your workouts. As mentioned before, the deadlift is a full-body exercise that builds power and muscle. It takes all your muscles working in synchronicity to perform a deadlift from your feet all the way up to your neck.

The ability to deadlift not only is a great display of strength and power, but it also takes some athleticism. When you have to coordinate your entire body to perform the movement, it helps to build muscle balance and athleticism.

Traditional tests of strength for athletes used to involve maximum reps on the bench press. Today, the deadlift is becoming a better indicator of true strength and athletic ability.

Ryan Flaherty is regarded as the most tech-savvy trainer in all of professional sports. He runs Prolific Sports in California and it is used to prepare NCAA athletes for the NFL combine. The combination is a test of strength, speed, jumping, and agility.

He also works with Olympic athletes, professional soccer players, Major League Baseball players, Serena Williams, and Track and Field athletes. He found the best way to test the true sprinting and power potential of an athlete wasn’t by using the squat, front squat, pull up, or bench press: It was using the deadlift.

He found that the more you can hex-bar deadlift, the faster – and better athlete – you can become. The deadlift uses the same muscles you need to run faster, jump higher, and explode upwards.

Why Do You Need To Start Deadlifting?

If you want to get bigger and stronger you need to incorporate some form of deadlift into your workouts. Whether it is a conventional deadlift or deadlifts with dumbbells, they are a key movement to develop full-body musculature, power, and strength.

The strength you gain from deadlifting will have a carry-over effect to help improve your other lifts including squats, barbell rows, pull-ups, hamstring curls, and every back movement. Deadlifting improves your grip strength which allows you to control barbell and dumbbell movements better. A lot of times when a person hits failure on a certain lift it’s not always because the weight was too heavy, but because their grip couldn’t keep up.

Dumbbell Deadlift Benefits

Here are the reasons you need to deadlift:

Calorie Burning

Besides being a great mass and strength builder, deadlifts are also good for your health. The deadlift actually burns a great number of calories meaning it can help you to decrease body fat and get leaner and healthier. Studies show that movements like deadlifts not only burn more calories than most other exercises, they will also increase your metabolic rate.

Deadlifting also serves as a cardio workout as it requires a lot of oxygen – and calories – to perform the movement. This can help to improve your cardio and muscular endurance.

Improved Hormone Profiles

Similar to the squat, the deadlift is a full-body movement that stimulates your sympathetic nervous system. This results in an increase of hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone. These hormones lend themselves to better health, muscle mass, and strength. Growth hormone is also responsible for helping to prevent premature aging, so if you’re looking to slow down the aging process, get deadlifting!

The increased amounts of testosterone will also help your recovery and muscle growth from other workouts so if you want to get big and strong all over, make sure your deadlift!

Transfer To Everyday Activities

The deadlift is the ultimate functional movement and this allows it to help you in day-to-day life. Lifts like the bench press don’t really impact your life as you rarely have to perform that movement.

The deadlift, however, is very practical. The deadlift helps to develop the muscles that you would use to carry things. This could involve picking up a child, groceries, or moving things around the house. You will have improved power and muscle coordination to make these everyday activities much easier.

Improved Posture

This is a big benefit if you suffer from posture issues or back problems. The muscles used during the deadlift will help to improve your posture and keep your back straighter. Deadlifting leads to increased core strength and stability and works the muscles that help keep your shoulder blades back, instead of rounding forward.

 Deadlifts are great at targeting your trapezius muscles and these kite-shaped muscles in your back act like a natural coat hanger keeping everything stable, balanced, and lined up properly. You will be able to avoid back pain from regular walking and keep your back straight throughout the day because of this exercise.

Prevents Injury

Barbell and dumbbell deadlifts can help to prevent injury due to the specific muscles they strengthen. Since the deadlift targets the lower back and hamstrings it can help to reduce injuries to these areas. The hamstring tends to be the weakest muscle on the body and the muscle that is most likely to be pulled.

Deadlifts also increase the strength of muscles around your joints, tendons, and ligaments. WIth your joints better supported, you will be better able to prevent injuries.

How Does The Dumbbell Deadlift Vary From Conventional Deadlifts?

The simple difference is between the dumbbells and a barbell. The conventional deadlift is a more compound movement meaning your arms work in conjunction with each other to move the bar. With a dumbbell deadlift, each arm works independently – but still has to perform the movement in sync.

Due to its compound nature, you will always be able to lift more weight with a conventional deadlift. But deadlifts performed with dumbbells allow you to focus more on the muscles being used during the lift. Whereas the conventional deadlift is more about building power and strength, the dumbbell deadlift will be a great muscle builder – but still build strength.

Dumbbell deadlifts also take a bit more coordination to perform as you have to manage two different weights, keep them balanced, and move them in a coordinated fashion.

Muscles Worked During A Dumbbell Deadlift

You can see that the dumbbell deadlift uses most of the muscles in your body. We could be here for a while if we listed every single one, so let’s take a look at some of the key muscles used when performing a dumbbell deadlift:

Here are the muscles worked during the dumbbell deadlift

  • Glutes – many forget how much the glutes are worked during a deadlift. One of the main functions of the glutes is to help to extend the hips and keep the back straight – both things imperative to a proper deadlift
  • Hamstrings
  • Trapezius
  • Latissumus dorsi
  • Erector spinae
  • Quads
  • Calves
  • Hips
  • Core muscles

So besides all these larger muscles, you will work your smaller stabilizer muscles throughout a dumbbell deadlift. This lift will also help to strengthen your tendons and ligaments. You will also strengthen muscles through your forearms, wrists, ankles, and even in your feet. 

Using The Proper Dumbbell Deadlift Form

We’ll start by using a traditional stance which means keeping your feet about shoulder-width apart. The way you hold the dumbbells is going to be a little bit different compared to holding a barbell. When holding a barbell you have the bar straight in front of you with your hands just outside of your legs.

With the dumbbells, you want to hold them not directly in front of you, but a little out to the side. This will also help you to keep your shoulder blades back and to keep them tight. This is an important tip during the lift – you want to keep your shoulder blades back and tight while still keeping your chest up.

Let’s look at the procedure of movements from the starting position for proper dumbbell deadlift form:

  1. The starting position will begin on the floor. You will be in the traditional deadlift finishing spot with your back straight, head up, hips deep, and the dumbbells on the floor.
  2. Before you lift upwards, make sure that your heels are under your hips, shoulder blades back, and chest up.
  3. Keep your abs tight and breathe out on the way up as you drive through your heels upward.
  4. Push your hips forward as you reach the top phase of the deadlift and pause for a second
  5. Breath in and slowly lower back down under control to the starting position.

The difference here is that the dumbbells will probably not touch the floor compared to a barbell deadlift unless you have very long arms. This is ok because it’s going to allow you to build more muscle since the muscles will not relax as they would when a barbell touches the floor.

If dumbbell deadlifts are a new lift for you, you want to make sure you master the form before moving up to heavier weights. They can take a little getting used to so focus on form and the weights will naturally go up.

You will be using a lighter weight than you would with a barbell deadlift so this is a good time to get some more volume for added muscle growth. You can aim for 2-3 sets and 10-12 repetitions. Dumbbell deadlifts work well on a back or pulling day but you want to make sure you are properly warmed up before performing them. Start with 5-10 minutes of light cardio and some dynamic stretching to get the heart rate up and blood flow to the muscles.

Important Things To Keep In Mind When Performing A Deadlift

Even though the dumbbell deadlift is a simple movement – you’re basically standing up then lowering the weight down – there are many things to be aware of to perform it correctly, and safely.

The first thing to be aware of – which applies to all lifts – is to keep your core muscles properly engaged. This will help prevent you from straining or pulling any muscles. When your core is not engaged, you leave yourself prone to potential injury. Keeping your core tight will help stabilize and control the muscles throughout your abdomen, lower back, and body.

The best way to make sure your core is engaged is to clench your abs as if someone was going to punch you in the stomach. Holding them like this throughout the deadlift – and all lifts – is going to make sure your form remains proper and safe.

You also want to pay attention to your breathing: Many people hold their breath throughout weightlifting and this is something you want to avoid. This puts a tremendous strain on your central nervous system and can reduce your power output. When you breathe properly, you improve your endurance capacity and physical output. Holding your breath can also cause elevations in blood pressure which you don’t want.

To make sure you are breathing the correct way, make sure that you exhale on the lifting/pulling/upward phase of the deadlift. When you lower the dumbbells back down under control is when you want to inhale. Be sure to inhale through your nose to fully oxygenate your lungs and muscles. When you exhale it should be out of your mouth and a little more forceful compared to the slow inhale which is best as you lower the dumbbells back down.

Another tip is to make sure you keep the dumbbells as close to your body as possible. It can be tempting to let them sway forward during the movement but you want to prevent that. When the dumbbells move too far away from your body, you are more prone to muscle strains and pulls – especially through the back and neck. Ensure that you keep them close to your body and keep your back as straight as possible throughout the movement.

Lastly, make sure to rest for a sufficient amount of time between sets. Since this is a full-body movement that works a majority of your muscles, you want to make sure you are properly rested in between sets. You want to take at least 90 seconds but 2 minutes is probably ideal. If you need more rest it’s ok – this will help avoid your form from getting sloppy from being tired which can lead to potential injuries.

You also want the proper amount of rest so you can get the full amount of muscle exertion when needed. If you rest too shortly, your muscles will not be able to handle the full load of the set and this can inhibit muscle and strength gains.

Advantages Of The Dumbbell Deadlift Over Traditional Deadlifts

The first big effect of performing deadlifts with dumbbells instead of a barbell is that you allow for more variation in your workout. If you are constantly performing the same lifts and movements your body can get used to the motion. When this happens, gains in strength and muscle can be harder to achieve.

Variation is a key component of progressing with your results in the gym and the dumbbell deadlift allows for this. When you add variation to your workouts you allow for a different stimulus for your body. This is what helps lead to changes in strength and hypertrophy for the muscle.

The idea is to keep your body guessing so that it never can get complacent and use to the same workouts day in and day out. Changes in exercises are also very important if you’re looking to boost your strength levels.

Research from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning reveals that changes in exercise are more effective than loading plans in order to improve muscle strength. This means if you want to be as strong as possible you want to switch up exercises from time to time such as replacing traditional deadlifts with dumbbell deadlifts.

The other advantage is that dumbbell deadlifts allow for a greater range of motion throughout the lift. With the barbell deadlift, you are limited to how far you can lower your body as the barbell will eventually touch the ground. With dumbbells, you can get a wider range of motion which also can help with strength gains along with more muscle recruitment, and improving your flexibility.

Lastly, the dumbbell deadlift is going to help target your hamstrings, traps, and lats a bit better which will help to improve your traditional deadlift.

Variations On The Dumbbell Deadlift

As effective as dumbbell deadlifts are, it’s still a good idea to incorporate in multiple variations of them to give your workout even more variety. Here are 3 variations of the dumbbell deadlift and how to perform them:

Romanian Dumbbell Deadlift

You will still be using dumbbells but doing a Romanian deadlift with them. These don’t differ too much from a regular dumbbell deadlift but the focus here is going to be centered more on your hamstrings. You still want to keep your core tight, and your chest and head up when you perform them.

Start these in a standing position with feet shoulder-width apart and the dumbells hanging in front of you this time. Inhale as you lower down and keep your legs with a bit of bend at the knee. You want to stop when you’ve lowered far enough that you feel a stretch in the back of your legs. You’re probably not going to get too close to the floor with these ones.

When you’ve reached the point you feel the stretch in your hamstrings, breath out and then pull up making sure to squeeze your glutes at the top and push your hips forward.

Stiff Leg Dumbbell Deadlift

This is a dumbbell stiff leg deadlift that is going to primarily target the hamstrings. You will probably need to use a lighter weight than you would for the other types of dumbbell deadlift. The hamstring is the weakest muscle on the body and doesn’t need a lot of resistance in order to properly engage it.

The cues will be similar to the Romanian dumbbell deadlift: Start in a standing position with the dumbbells at your side and feet shoulder-width apart. You will have a slight bend in your knees and move the dumbbells in front of your legs with your palms facing towards you.

Inhale and lower the dumbbells down over the top of your feet while keeping your legs as straight as possible. Imagine that your leaning over to pick up something from the floor to keep the right form on this one. When you feel that stretch; stop and stand back up squeezing the glutes at the top and pushing your hips forward.

Key tip: Start with a few light warm-up sets before getting heavier. Remember, this exercise does not need a lot of weight and you could probably feel some resistance using 5-pound dumbbells.

Dumbbell Sumo Deadlift

The dumbbell sumo deadlift will be quite different as far as your set up and foot positioning. This time, you will be using one dumbbell and it’s going to be placed vertically between your feet. Your feet are going to be just wider than shoulder-width apart and your toes are going to be slightly pointed outward.

You will drop your glutes down behind your like you’re about to sit in a chair while grabbing the top part of the dumbbell. You will inhale on the way down and exhale as you stand up. Remember to drive through the heels of your feet and keep those regular dumbbell deadlift cues: core tight, head and chest up. Keep your back straight through the repetitions and your weight over your heels.

Dumbbell sumo deadlifts can take some getting used to as the leg and foot position isn’t traditional. As always, start with some light warm-up sets to master the form before increasing the resistance.

Wrapping It Up

Hopefully, you can see now why you need to be deadlifting! And also why you need to include some variation within the deadlifts. Dumbbell deadlifts are a great deadlift alternative that comes with some added benefits. Not only can you build strength and power with them, but you will be able to target your muscles more directly by doing them.

Besides gaining strength and muscle, you’ll want to include deadlifts in your workout to get their extra benefits such as better hormone production, improved posture, better functional strength, and injury prevention. The question is: Which type of dumbbell deadlift will you start with? Regular, Sumo, Romanian, or stiff-leg??

Jamie Logie

Jamie Logie is a certified personal trainer, nutritionist and health and wellness specialist with a degree in Kinesiology and Food and Nutrition. Jamie runs a website and podcast called Regained Wellness. Jamie has worked in gyms in Canada, England, Australia, and the U.S and is the author of an Amazon #1 book called Taking Back Your Health.

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