Although the deadlift exercise is a simple one that only requires you to lift a heavy bar off the ground and set it down again, it's considered one of the best muscle-growing, strength-building exercises!
It's a compound exercise that works multiple muscle groups at once, helping you challenge the muscles across your posterior chain - all the muscles from your neck to your feet! To be more specific, it works the glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, upper and lower back muscles, quads, and core muscles. However, proper deadlift technique is needed to help effectively target and activate those muscles, and to save you from an unwanted injury! Doing this compound lift wrong can cause a strain or a more serious injury, so perfecting your form is the first thing you should do before moving on to attempting heavier weights.
Once you master the barbell deadlift, it'll be your go-to exercise for building muscle and full-body strength! And that's just the conventional deadlift... It has other variations that zone in on specific muscles that way you can target a muscle that might be weaker than others! Luckily, the moves are quite similar with a few distinct differences, so nailing the form on the deadlift will get you on the right track with its other variations.
Keep on reading to learn the correct way to deadlift, plus how to master other popular variations so you can start deadlifting like a pro!
How to deadlift with proper form
The deadlift exercise can be used with virtually any free weights, like dumbbells and kettlebells, but the best way to perform it is by using a barbell. The barbell is much heavier and that is what helps target and activate the intended muscles. That said, we'll be giving you steps on how to do a barbell deadlift! But don't worry if you're performing it with a dumbbell or kettlebell you can still follow the steps below, your hand placement will just be slightly different.
So, to help you establish proper deadlift technique and form, follow these six steps below...
1 - The approach
Approach the bar on the ground and place your feet about hip-width apart, making sure that you're right in front and center of the bar. The bar should be over your midfoot.
2 - Grab the bar, but don't move it
Bend at your waist and slightly bend your knees to grab the bar. Place your hands shoulder-width apart using a double overhand grip (both palms facing behind you). There are other grips you can try, but this one is best to start with. Once you have your grip secured, make sure that your arms are completely straight.
3 - Assume the position
Begin to hinge your hips back until your shins are touching the bar. Press your chest up to help flatten your back and get your spine into a spine neutral position. You want your head and neck to align with your back, so pack your neck to give yourself a double chin (don't look straight ahead or up), and focus your eyes a few feet ahead of you. So, it should look like your entire body is straight, but at a slight downward angle.
This is the official starting position before lifting, so everything should feel tight and in position. Your lats should be squeezed, core tight, and engaged, and you should feel a slight stretch in the hamstrings.
4 - The lift
Take a deep breath (big enough to fill up your stomach), and maintain everything tight as you drive through your heels, using your glutes and hamstrings to straighten your hips and pull the bar straight up.
Your body should be moving upwards at the same speed. As the bar travels past your knees, begin to pull it into your hips to keep it as close to your body as possible (this maximizes your strength). Squeeze your glutes as you continue to straighten your hips and knees until you're standing upright. You should be standing tall with your chest open, spine neutral, and everything still engaged and tight.
5 - Lower the bar
Your body should start to descend at the same time. Begin by unlocking the hips to slowly move them backward, maintain the bar close to your thighs. Continue hinging at the hips until the bar is past your knees, then you can bend your knees to lower the bar down to the ground.
Focus on putting it down slowly to maintain tightness - losing your grip or tightness can lead to an injury! Once you're comfortable with the move, you can start picking up the speed.
6 - Prepare for the next rep
You've done one rep! If you're lifting lighter weights (doing at least 10 reps), opposed to heavier weights, take another big, deep breath and dive into your next rep. If you're doing fewer reps and lifting heavier then take a moment to assume the position again.
Common mistakes to avoid
We've told you how to deadlift with good form, but to emphasize the importance even further, here are common deadlift mistakes you should avoid:
- Hunching your back - Your spine should be neutral the entire time, not hunched over! This tends to happen if the weight is too heavy or if the lats (upper back muscles) aren't being engaged. If your upper back isn't strong, or not engaged, then your shoulders will pull forward as you lift the bar. This will cause the back to round or hunch over, which is a huge no-no. To avoid this, focus on pulling your shoulders back and tightening your back and lats.
- Looking up - Aside from keeping a neutral spine, make sure that your entire body forms a straight line. Meaning your body should form a straight line from your head all the way to your glutes. Some lifters hyperextend their necks to look up when deadlifting because of how heavy the weight is. This will only increase your risk of injury. Your neck should be packed slightly downwards, and your eyesight focused a few feet ahead of you.
- Hyperextending at the top of the move - Although you should fully extend your hips at the top of the movement, you don't need to completely lock out that it causes you to hyperextend your back. This will just place an unnecessary strain on your lower back. Your spine should always remain neutral, so stop the movement once you're standing up straight.
- Not moving in unison - We mentioned earlier that your body should be moving upwards and back down at the same speed. This means that as you lift, your glutes should come up at the same time as your chest, and vice versa. The common mistake lifters make is lifting their butts first before their chest. This usually happens if the lifter is driving through their knees and not extending their hips. This can also cause the back to round and hunch over. So, to avoid this, lead the movement with your chest and your entire body will follow moving upward at the same pace.
- Core is not engaged - All your muscles should be engaged, especially your core. A tight, engaged core will keep your lower spine from bending to handle the weight load. To activate your core, squeeze all of the muscles in your torso and hold them in that tightened position while still breathing normally. It should feel like the muscles in your abdomen and glutes are tightened, stable, and secure from your pelvis all the way to your rib cage.
- Treating it like a squat - The deadlift is not a squat. It's a heavy hip hinge movement that involves sitting back, not sitting down in a squat position. So, make sure the movement is coming from your hips, like a horizontal hip thrust.
Popular deadlift variations
Now that you understand the proper mechanics of deadlifting, the other three popular variations - sumo, snatch-grip, and Romanian deadlift - should be much easier to do!
This variation is similar to the conventional deadlift, except the wider stance shifts the focus to be on the hamstrings and hips instead of the lower back. This also reduces the range of motion which means you'll be able to lift heavier. It's also the preferred variation for shorter lifters!
- Approach it as you would a regular deadlift, except you want to spread your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with feet pointing slightly outwards. Remember, the bar should be over midfoot. Take the time to find your optimal stance, test a few different foot positions and stick with the one that allows you to reach the bar comfortably.
- Hinge your hips back and bend your knees. Use a slightly narrower overhand grip so that you grasp at the bar inside your legs.
- Assume your position by inhaling deeply, pressing your chest up, shoulders down, and engaging and tightening your core and back muscles to help you maintain a neutral spine.
- Drive your heels into the floor as you begin to straighten your legs to pull up the bar. The movement should be through the extension of your legs, so keep your torso upright, arms straight, bar close to your body, and squeeze your butt, hamstrings, and quads as the bar travels past your knees.
- Hold at the top of the movement, and begin to slowly lower the bar to the ground, maintaining everything tight and controlled.
This variation requires the knees to remain in a static position. The Romanian deadlift is one of the best hamstring exercises because instead of pushing the hips all the way back, you're simply hinging forward to lift the bar, which places more of a workload on the hamstrings. It also places an emphasis on the glutes and back muscles, and less on the quadriceps.
- Approach the bar as usual by placing your feet under the barbell, and spreading your feet hip-width apart.
- Use a double overhand grip to grab the bar placing your hands just outside of your thighs. To assume position, engage your core and back to help you maintain a neutral spine and stand upright letting the bar hang against your thighs.
- Keep your knees "soft" with a slight bend, inhale deeply, and begin to bend forward from the hips (not the waist). Lower the bar down so that your chest is parallel to the ground and the bar is in front of your shins, you should feel a good stretch in your hamstrings.
- Keep your back straight, muscles engaged (especially your hamstrings and glutes), and spine neutral as you hinge your hips forwards. Squeeze your glutes and hamstrings as your body travels through the movement.
- Exhale at the starting position with the bar resting against your thighs.
This variation requires a wide snatch-grip that helps place a greater emphasis on the upper back muscles to specifically increase pulling strength. It's also considered to be more difficult and often seen in Olympic weightlifting. It's a great back exercise to work up to that can help increase your back strength, but also your grip strength, and improve your overall pulling abilities.
- Approach the bar as usual and place your feet under the bar so that they are about hip-width apart and toes pointing slightly outwards.
- The snatch-grip requires a wider grip. So, using a double overhand grip place your hands around 2x wider than shoulder-width apart. Play around with different, wide placements to find the one that allows you to lower the bar comfortably.
- Assume the position, flex your back muscles, and begin to push through your heels keeping your chest up as you drive forwards with your hips. Place a greater emphasis on your upper back, traps and arms to help you pull the bar up.
- Pause at the top of the move, and maintain tension and control as you lower the bar back to starting position.
The barbell deadlift is one of the best strength training exercises that is a must in any workout routine! The key to nailing it, aside from following our step-by-step guide, is by practicing and progressing slowly. If you can't start with a barbell, use a long resistance band or a light dumbbell to get you adjusted to the hip hinge movement.
That being said, hopefully, our guide on how to deadlift properly improves your form and technique to help you lift heavier and build muscle effectively, and most importantly, safely.
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