Weightlifting in its purest form is lifting something up and putting it back down. That’s the deadlift in a nutshell. It’s simplicity personified and one of the best muscle-growing, strength-building, health-improving moves around.
Performed safely, the deadlift will strengthen every bone in your body, challenge every muscle across your posterior chain (all the muscles that run from your neck to your heels) and test your grip strength and core stability to the absolute max. It will find any chink in your armour that you need to address if you hope to lift heavy. For that reason you should always start light, within your means, and build up the weight once your technique is flawless.
It’s a great addition to the routine of anyone who’s guilty of just training their “mirror muscles” on the front of the body – think chest, abs and quads – at the expense of those on the rear of the body, especially the lower back and hamstrings. Doing so will result in an unbalanced physique,and significant strength discrepancies between synergistic muscle groups that leads to injury. But the barbell deadlift is the best remedy for this, according to research published in the Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research, because the exercise works the entire posterior chain of muscles from your neck to your hamstrings, and activate more muscle fibres than doing similar moves such as hex-bar deadlifts or glute raises. Researchers found hamstring activation was 28% greater in the barbell deadlift over the hex-bar variation, and 20% higher than during glute raises.
The deadlift and its variants will also prove hugely beneficial to anyone who play sports. The activation it places on the hamstrings, glutes and quadriceps (if you adopt a sumo or trap bar stance) are invaluable for activities that require explosive leg strength – rugby, football, and track and field to name just three. These muscles are also vital in endurance sports such as swimming, cycling and running. The deadlift helps to keep them strong and in tip-top condition, preventing injury while also significantly boosting strength.
As a big compound lift, it also prompts your body to release growth hormones and testosterone, further increasing your bone density and muscular hypertrophy – so say goodbye to not being able to lift your sofa up to reach the remote.
The deadlift is one of the three core exercises in any strength training plan, along with the barbell squat and the bench press. With so many variations to activate different muscle groups it’s a great strength builder – you will find that you progress through the weight fairly quickly. You’ll fire up lots of muscle fibres during the move – much more important than a quick arm pump – and racking up big numbers on the deadlift will boost your confidence in the gym too.
Follow our tips and aim for the holy grail of a double bodyweight deadlift.
How To Deadlift
With your feet flat on the floor, bend at the knees and grab the bar with hands shoulder-width apart.
You have two grip choices: a double overhand grip or a reverse grip, where one hand grips the bar overhand and the other underhand. The reverse grip will allow you to lift heavier. Always squeeze the bar as hard as you can, especially on heavier sets, before the bar leaves the floor.
If you struggle with your grip try using chalk or a mixed grip (with one hand facing forwards, one facing back), which will help you cling onto the bar so you can focus on your form.
Keep your head in a neutral position by looking forwards with your eyes fixed to a spot on the ground, 2-3m ahead of your feet. Keep your chin up so your head stays in the best position for lifting.
Keeping your back straight and your head facing forward throughout, lift the bar using your legs and driving your hips forward. The deadlift should be a fast and powerful lift using your legs and glute strength. Drive upwards as explosively as possible.
Aim to maintain a strong spine from the beginning of the lift to the end. Do this by keeping your chest up to prevent your torso hunching forwards over the bar.
Your shoulders should remain slightly in front of your hands until the bar passes mid-thigh level, at which point you want to retract your shoulder blades for a strong and stable torso.
Pull your shoulders back at the top of the move, then carefully lower the bar to the ground.
Deadlift Form Tips
The deadlift is one of the best total-body moves for building muscle and burning fat, but only if you do it right. Use strength coach Andy McKenzie’s form advice to nail the lift
Keep your head neutral
“You want to keep your head in a neutral position throughout the lift,” says McKenzie. “This is achieved by looking forwards with your eyes fixed to a spot on the ground about two to three metres ahead of your feet. And focus on keeping your chin up to keep your head in the best position for lifting.”
Think chest and shoulders
“You want to maintain a strong spine from the beginning of the lift to the end, and the best way to achieve this is to keep your chest up throughout to prevent your torso hunching forwards over the bar,” says McKenzie. “Your shoulders should remain slightly in front of your hands until the bar passes mid-thigh level, at which point you want to retract your shoulder blades for a strong and stable torso.”
Keep your core braced
“You need to keep your abs braced throughout the entire move to maintain an arched lower back and to keep your entire body strong and stable, especially when attempting heavier lifts,” says McKenzie. “Engage your core from the very start so your abs are tensed as you squat down to grip the bar. As you are about to lift the bar breathe deep into your belly, hold your breath, and brace your abs hard, like you’re about to be punched in the stomach.”
Try to move explosively
“Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, grasp the bar with your hands just outside your legs,” says McKenzie. “Lift the bar by driving your hips forwards, keeping a flat back. Lower the bar under control – though once you get up to really heavy weights, it’s OK to drop it on your final rep.”
Develop a strong grip
“Place your thumbs against the outer part of your thigh, and run both hands down until they touch the bar,” says McKenzie. “This is your ideal hand position. As for your grip, you have two choices: a double overhand grip or a mixed grip, where one hand grips the bar overhand and the other underhand. The mixed grip will allow you to lift heavier, but make sure you switch hands regularly to prevent developing any muscular imbalances. Always ensure you squeeze the bar as hard as you can, especially in heavier sets, before the bar leaves the floor.”
Add these exercises to your workouts to target the key muscle groups involved in a deadlift so you can lift more weight.
How Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a barbell with an overhand grip just outside your thighs. Keeping a slight bend in your knees, bend forwards from the hips – not the waist – and lower the bar down the front of your shins until you feel a good stretch in your hamstrings.
Why This variation shifts the emphasis to your hamstrings, making it an ideal accessory exercise to the standard deadlift.
How Hold a barbell with your hands roughly double shoulder-width apart. Push through your heels and keep your chest up as you drive forwards with your hips to lift the bar.
Why Because your grip’s wider in this move, you’ll need to move the bar through a larger range of motion, increasing the growth hormone hit. It’ll also prepare you for Olympic-style weightlifting.
How Stand on a weight plate or low box and grasp the bar. Engage your shoulders and take the strain, then lift the bar by driving your hips forwards, keeping a flat back.
Why Lifting from a “deficit” – an artificially lower start position – will fix any weakness in your deadlift, forcing you to keep a flat back and engaged shoulders to get the bar off the ground. Use this as a “de-load” from regular deadlifts to carry on making gains.
How Swing the kettlebell between your legs with both hands, then pop your hips forwards to drive it up to head height, keeping your arms relaxed. Let the kettlebell swing back into the next rep – you don’t need to bend your knees much.
Why This full-body move engages all the muscles of your posterior chain, but also teaches the explosiveness you need to do everything from throwing a punch to jumping onto a box.
How To Dominate Deadlifts
With advice from former world record holder Andy Bolton
1. Set up for success
“Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and the bar touching your shins. Begin with a double-overhand grip with your hands slightly wider apart than your feet, but switch to a reverse grip for when the weights get heavier.”
2. Lift in harmony
“Take the tension of the bar. You need to pull it hard and fast but never snatch it or you’ll risk injury. Looking straight ahead, exhale, then take a deep breath and drive your heels into the floor, and push up using the muscles of both your lower back and legs so that the bar reaches your knees.”
3. Drive and lock
“Ensure that your legs lock and your back straightens at the same time. Once you’re straight, retract your shoulder blades and hold your head high, keeping the bar under full control. Then reverse every part of the move to lower the bar back to the ground.”
More Deadlift Tips
Most lower-body moves will benefit from lifting shoes, but in deadlifts they’re counter-productive – not only will they give you more height to lift, but they’ll tilt you slightly forward, throwing your movement pattern off. For best results, lift in flat shoes – think Converse – or in socks or barefoot. It’ll give you a stable platform to lift from.
Scrape your shins
The further the bar strays from your body, the harder to lift it will be – there’s a reason world champ Eddie Hall ends every record attempt with bleeding shins. Start your lift with your toes under the bar and your shins against it, then pull straight up. You might want to invest in a long pair of socks.
You can instantly add around 12kg to your deadlift simply by wearing a weight lifting belt. Breathing into your stomach and pushing against the belt with your abdominal muscles will increase intra-abdominal pressure, creating a more stable core, a necessity when lifting heavier weights.
Get a grip
It won’t matter how much you strengthen your back and your legs, you won’t be able to deadlift heavy weights if your hands can’t hold the barbell. To develop a strong grip, try using chalk and practice white knuckling (gripping any bar that you encounter as hard as you can) to tighten that grasp.
To start the move, stand with the bar in your hands as opposed to the floor and lower until you feel a slight stretch in your hamstrings to build flexibility as well as strength, power and control in these often neglected leg muscles. There’s no need to go heavy for the Romanian deadlift to be effective, so start small.
Trap bar deadlift
You may also find this version referred to as the hex bar deadlift, due to the hexagonal shape of the bar that’s used. This is a brilliantly effective version of the classic deadlift, with the side-on position of the trap bar handles forcing you to retract your shoulder blades and engage your lats. It’s great for making swift strength gains and doesn’t put as much pressure on your lower back as other deadlift variants because gravity won’t pull you forwards.
Place your feet wider apart and grasp the bar with a slightly narrower grip than you would with a regular deadlift. Use a significantly lighter weight as this variation targets the muscles in your hamstrings, making it a great builder for leg power.
Hold the bar with a wider grip to place greater emphasis on your upper back (trapezius) muscles. Lift the bar up slowly to avoid jarring your back
If you find the range of motion of normal deadlifts too strenuous, start with the weights raised on blocks or a rack. This is a good variation to start with until you are more confident with the movement required because it places less strain on your lower back.
To increase your range of motion and improve your ability to lift the bar off the floor, try an exaggerated deadlift by standing on a block close to the bar. Rise to standing slow and steady to maintain balance and avoid injury. Only progress to this variation once you have the standard deadlift form down pat.
Additional reporting by Scott Blake (@Scott_Blakey)