The deadlift is the number one total body exercise out there. The deadlift will challenge every single muscle in your body … even your eye lids! But only of course if you do it heavy enough!
This detailed article is the ultimate guide for beginners, regular gym goers and even personal trainers and coaches. It walks you through what a deadlift is, what equipment you need, what muscles it helps develop, proper technique, a guide to the weight to use, tips for success, variations and a description about what could go wrong and how to minimise the chance of injury.
What are you waiting for. Here it is …
The low down
The deadlift is the number one total body exercise out there with the weighted squat coming in at number 2. The deadlift will challenge every single muscle in your body and I mean even your eye lids, but only of course if you do it heavy enough!
Basically, a deadlift involves using brute strength to lift a weighted barbell off the ground with straight arms and lowering it back down again.
Deadlifts are often referred to as ‘deads’.
What does this one do?
Deadlifts pretty well work the whole body. You need a strong upper body to keep yourself upright in the movement and to hold onto that bar. But you also need strong legs to help drive that bar off the ground.
To successfully and safely lift heavy weight you absolutely must keep your entire structure strong by engaging your core abdominal muscles as well as your chest, shoulder, arm and back muscles. Check out the technique description below to learn more.
So, the deadlift squat will work your calfs, quadriceps (also called ‘quads’), hamstrings) and your gluteus Maximus (also called your ‘glutes’ or ‘butt muscles). It will also work your forearms, chest and shoulders and the entire length and breadth of your back.
They don’t call it an all body exercise for nothing!!
Concentrate on good heavy deadlifts once a week for 6 months and muscles you never knew you had will start popping!
Deadlifts really only require a barbell and some weights. However, if you are going to go real heavy, you might like to consider wearing shin guards to protect from scrapes.
You may also like to invest in a set of figure-eight straps – which can be quite handy particularly with the wide grip variation (as described below under ‘How do I Mix it Up?”).
And then there is a platform, which allows you to perform the deadlift movement at a deficit – meaning that you are required to lift the bar from a deeper position than when lifting from the floor.
Chalk is also useful as it dries out your hands and helps stop your grip from slipping.
There are also a number of different bars you can use such as a ‘hex bar’ and a ‘fat bar’.
How do I do the standard version of this exercise?
In many ways, the technique for a deadlift is a lot like the technique for the weighted squat. But instead of having a bar resting across your shoulders, you are lifting it off the ground.
First, stand with your legs hip width apart and your feet parallel. You should be standing at the middle of the bar with the bar almost touching your legs.
Next, reach down with both hands and grab onto the bar with arms about shoulder width apart and with your palms facing towards you.
Now, while keeping your arms straight, your head looking forward and your chest up, bend your knees and push your butt backwards, creating a nice strong arch in your lower back just like in the lower part of the squat movement.
Holding onto that bar nice and tight, push through your heels and come up into a standing position. Keep your head looking forward and your chest up. With straight arms, the bar should now be touching your upper thighs.
Even with a relatively low weight, you will already start to feel how your back, chest, shoulder and arm muscles need to work in order for you to maintain an upright position in the upper body, and how your legs need to work to power that bar off the ground.
To lower the bar, pretty well reverse the movement. It is like coming down in a squat. As such, your knees should not track too far out over your toes and should track in line with your feet. That is, they should not drop inwards towards each other and they should not splay out to the side.
Remember, even in the downward movement, keep the weight through your heels, your chest up and the bar close to your legs.
Then, let the weight just sit on the ground for a second before straightening up through the movement again.
Continue until you have completed all reps or until your technique breaks down.
How much weight should I be using?
Your deadlift should be your strongest exercise. That is, you should be able to lift more with the deadlift movement than any other exercise. That’s right, more than your bench press and more than your back squat.
The amount of weight you use for deadlifts will very much depend on your ability and your training age. Training age equates to the number of weight training years you have under your belt.
While light deadlifts are reasonably easy enough, it is important to get technique right at the start. And a false move with heavy deads can spell trouble.
So if you are new to deadlifts, we strongly recommend that you find a coach to help guide you and to help work out the most appropriate weight.
As a general guide though, you should start with just using the 20kg barbell. This will help you get a feel for the movement and to learn the proper technique. If 20Kg is too heavy, your gym may have lighter bars for you to use.
After that, the sky is the limit. First aim would be to be able to deadlift 15 reps at 50% of your bodyweight. Most people could get to this level reasonably quickly if they are not there already.
Next target would be to complete 10 reps lifting your bodyweight and then 1.5 times bodyweight. People who work on their deadlifts regularly should get to a point where 1.5 times bodyweight is their regular everyday working weight – meaning that they can quite easily do 3 sets of 10 with a 3 minute rest in between.
Next stop, twice bodyweight. Now we are getting somewhere! Being able to crank out 3 sets of 5 reps with a 3-5 minute rest in between will be tough for most and will take a good period of time to work up to. But you know you are starting to hit the big time, and you are ready for competition when you move beyond 2.5 times bodyweight.
Always, and we mean always, stretch and mobilise all the muscles you intend to work before you start. A foam roller, a Rumble Roller, stretch bands and even a tennis ball placed in just the right spot are all useful tools.
Body awareness plays a major role with deadlifts and is something that is developed over time. So be patient and persistent and, if you are relatively new to deadlifts, start with low weights, even just the barbell on its own is fine as a starting point.
Maintain good technique at all times even if this means that you need to lift less for now. Good technique will help keep you free from injury and will give you better results in the long run.
Keep your chest up and shoulders back. To do this, you may need to work on your flexibility through the hips, hamstrings and your upper thoracic (upper back muscles).
Keep the bar close to your legs both throughout the upward and the downward movement. Some people choose to even drag the bar up their shins which is why shin protectors can be helpful!
Remember your breathing. Take a deep breath and don’t let it go until you have completed the full rep. This helps keep your core engaged and helps generate stability and strength through the movement.
How can I mix it up a bit?
There are a few ways you can mix up the deadlift. Check out these variations:
Change the tempo: Changing the time it takes you to squat down and/or stand up during the deadlift movement can really bring on the burn. For example, lower down for a four count and stand up for a one count. Tempo is not something you mess around with though when it comes to pushing your single lift maximum weight. That bar is going to come up slow enough as it is!!
Change the range of movement: By standing on a step or platform of some description, even if just one that is say 2 inches high, can increase the range of the movement – making you lift and lower to a deeper position which helps create even more strength.
Change the width of your arms: Instead of holding the bar with your arms about shoulder width a part, grab onto the bar nice and wide. Even wider than the smooth rings you can feel on the bar. This is a nasty variation and really helps to build strength. However, grip can fail reasonably quickly on this one, so a set of figure-eight straps may be helpful.
What could go wrong?
With any exercise, the heavier you lift the higher the chance that something could go wrong. Deadlifts are no exception! The slightest shift in posture, the slightest loss of focus, the momentary relaxing of a muscle can all result in a failed rep at best, and injury at worst. And the margin for error becomes smaller and smaller the more weight you lift.
With such heavy weights, a failed rep can be very dangerous. If you feel that you are losing your proper technique structure, then just drop the bar. Your coach, if you have one, should also be alert and on the job and should tell you to drop the bar the moment your technique is becoming unsafe.
As you move up or down, though the risk is higher on the way down, you could find that you stop moving through the hips, causing you to round out through the upper and lower back. This could lead to neck and back injuries and strains.
Length of your hamstrings will also play a major role here. If they are tight your pelvis will be pulled into a posterior tilt, meaning in the bottom of the deadlift you would round out your lower back. If this happens to you, mobilise and stretch and you can go back and deadlift again and see if it has improved, a training buddy can help you with this. If not you’ll have to spend some time mobilising until you have better length in those hamstrings.
As said above, deadlifts work the whole body. As such it is inevitable that you will experience some soreness through the entire range of your back muscles. However, to keep that back safe, keep the chest up, concentrate on moving your butt backwards and maintain the arch in your back for the full movement – both down and up.
Your adductors or groin muscles will also play a major part. If they are too tight your knees will drop in and you will risk your knees, maybe not right now but later.
At the end of the day, just focus on keeping the full movement, both up and down, nice and controlled.