So, you’re looking to learn how to deadlift?
Maybe you’re deadlift form isn’t perfect. No matter, our experts have your back with this ultimate deadlift guide, that’ll have you deadlifting like a boss in no time. You’re welcome!
The deadlift is one of the most popular and effective exercises. You’ll find this heavy-weight movement in almost any strength and conditioning plan, and the training for almost any top-level athlete. No matter who you are or what your goals are, being able to use your legs and hips, powerfully, to pick something up is a great idea.
But why is it so popular? Why is the deadlift hailed by some as the most important weight training exercise? Today, we’re going to walk you through this info, as well as essential tips for making your deadlift form better.
If you like being strong, stick with us!
So, what is a Deadlift?
The deadlift is a compound exercise that involves lifting the barbell from the floor to the hips. It’s simple but challenging – this movement allows you to lift the heaviest weights, bringing its own challenges.
There are two types of deadlift: conventional and sumo. While the sumo deadlift has huge advantages for advanced powerlifters, it isn’t appropriate for the beginner. The positions require huge mobility, unusual movements, and have a big risk of injury if you’ve not learned the technique from a knowledgeable coach.
The conventional deadlift is any deadlift where your feet are within the width of your hands. It’s a movement that requires you to push through the floor, using the muscles of the thighs, butt, back and core. This obviously makes it a huge multi-joint exercise – one of the first hints as to why its such an effective, popular exercise.
Why is the Deadlift so Popular?
If you search the deadlift on google, you’ll find hundreds – if not thousands – of articles about why it’s the best exercise ever. Are they hyping it up? Does it live up to the reputation that it has developed?
The “king of the lifts” is popular for a number of reasons. Not least among these is that it’s the heaviest exercise you can do that doesn’t look ridiculous. You might be able to perform a heavier hip thrust or hip lift than a deadlift, but they look a bit silly. On the other hand, the deadlift uses huge weights and literally just pick them up.
Despite the continue improvement of female participation in strength sport, it’s got a masculine virtue to it. It’s a long-respected exercise that’s all about just being strong. Whoever you are – whatever your age and gender – a heavy deadlift just looks bad-ass.
Secondly, it’s a great exercise for developing the whole-body. The deadlift works hundreds of muscles when performed properly – from the stabilisers of the knee to the forearms. You can spur development all over the body just by deadlifting in a way that no other exercise can.
The final point is that it’s just really simple. You can learn and perform a good deadlift with only a few hours of training. You can develop technique as you train and practice the movement, but anyone can do it. A squat has more mobility demands than a deadlift, the bench is a specialised movement, but the deadlift is primally simple. You grab it, you pick it up.
Deadlift Muscles & Why is it so Useful?
If it’s being used by the best powerlifters, weightlifters, and power-athletes in the world then it’s probably quite good!
As we mentioned above, it hits almost every muscle in the body. While the quads, hamstrings and glutes are obvious, it also trains other muscles that you might not have expected. For example, the upper back is used to keep tightness, the forearms are trained with the huge grip challenge, and your core is used to stabilise the spine and stay safe throughout the movement.
This makes it a challenging, exhausting exercise but also one of the best ways to test and develop strength. It’s one of the key lifts in powerlifting for a reason: someone who can deadlift heavy weights (conventionally) is a very strong human. You can’t lack anything, and it is an easier exercise than the squat to learn.
It’s a tool that anyone can use to build huge strength in all the key areas. It also relies on/builds strength in the muscles and movements that you need for wellbeing and longevity. Healthy aging might bring to mind images of treadmills and exercise in your 80s, but it’s also about the next 5-10 years of your life and how you perform/feel.
Lower back pain debilitates 80% of people at some point in their life. One of the key reasons that you might experience this is weakness and lack of control in the muscles of the back and hips.
Moving effectively in the hips/back is one of the best ways to stay healthy. It teaches you effective, stable movement patterns and the deadlift will do this while strengthening the muscles responsible for this movement.
One of the underrated benefits of this change is reduced risk of joint injury as you age. This isn’t just the lower back – the strength of the glutes and hamstrings are a key player in the health of the hips and knees. These are two of the most commonly-injured areas in the elderly. Simply put, getting stronger in the deadlift reduces your risk of needing a total knee- or hip-replacement.
Building this much extra muscle in all of these areas is another key contributor to improved hormonal and metabolic health. Muscle isn’t just about building strength and stabilising the joint – it’s calorie-expensive and plays an important part in keeping your hormones healthy. Having more of it brings up your maintenance calories and ability to burn fat.
If that wasn’t enough, oddly-specific studies have linked the musculature of the thighs and buttocks to a reduced risk of death. In an interesting turn of events, thick thighs really do save lives.
The Best Deadlift Form
So, who should use the deadlift and when?
To start with, you need to know how to keep your back flat and use your core before you start deadlifting. This is essential to keep the back safe during the movement and ensure that you’re moving efficiently.
If you can’t keep the back flat and the core on during the full movement, one option is to train the movement with a kettlebell just to practice. This is a great way to learn how to move without the additional loading. You can combine this with a block or rack pull (where the weight is raised) can be a great way of training the muscles/positions.
One important question is: who shouldn’t deadlift? There are definitely some cases where it’s a bad idea. You shouldn’t deadlift if you have an active injury in the knees, hips or back. This is a heavily-loaded movement and it will definitely be counter-productive to do heavy deadlifts with an at-risk joint or muscle.
This applies to the elderly and the young, too. You should be in the weight room, but it’s always important to be self-aware. If you’re young or old, ego-lifting is even more dangerous than it is for any other form of show-off.
You should still deadlift if you’re 15 or 75, but only after developing good movement patterns and ensuring that technique comes first. The progression to a good deadlift isn’t always fast and easy, but it is important to load slowly and safely to build up bone, joint, and muscle strength to support heavy deadlifts.
Best Deadlift Technique: 3 Simple Tips
Deadlifting is simple in concept, but difficult to get really good at. It’s a challenging movement.
We’re going to take you through three basic tips that will help improve your movement. This improves the muscle-gains you’ll see from a deadlift, as well as the weight you can lift, and they reduce injury risk. Imagine the deadlift, but better!
Learn to Hip Hinge
Hinging the hips sounds simple – and it is – but many people can’t do it (not surprising).
This is the movement that you should be performing for a deadlift, but it is also important in everyday life. The hip hinge is how you should pick things up to protect your back and prevent rounding.
Using the hips is one of the best lessons you can take from deadlifting. It protects you from injury, but it also makes sure that you’re using the right muscles. As many of us experience weak glutes and back muscles from sitting, being able to hip hinge trains these muscles and prevents postural/joint problems.
Hip hinging also makes sure your hamstrings are strong and flexible. If you can’t touch your toes, you might be having a problem with your hip movement. The hamstrings are tight in most people and this causes dysfunction in the hips and knees – risking injury and reducing performance. A good hip hinge combats this and moves you through full ROM, training hamstring control.
Below you’ll find a great video on how to hip hinge. It’s only 8 minutes long, which is definitely a better use of your time than watching TV or whatever you spend hours thinking about in the shower:
What you’re going to need to do is keep the weight in the rear 2/3 of the foot, push the knees out, and push the hips backwards. This is a great, simple drill. Focus on using the hamstrings to control the hips and pause at the point where you feel the stretch. Keep your core tight throughout (with the ribs and hips the same distance apart throughout).
Use your Core: Isolate the Limbs
The deadlift develops the core, but it also requires you to be able to use it. You need a minimum amount of strength and control in the core muscles to make sure that you’re performing the movement properly.
This isn’t just for safety – it’s a key way of improving your transfer of force and building strength. If your core is soft and weak, you’ll round your back and miss out on the possible benefits of the movement. You’ll overcompensate elsewhere, rather than using the muscles to produce force to move the bar. This is a huge “force leak”.
Learning to control the core comes in 3 parts:
A. Learning to Stabilise: this is the basic ability to hold your core during challenge. Think about a good plankt – it’s an exercise that requires you to stay strong through the middle and use your core. Watch this video to perform the perfect 8 point plank.
B. Learning to Isolate: once you can hold your core stable, you need to learn how to move the limbs without losing your core. It’s a key way of moving with weight training – the dead bug and bird-dog are the best examples. Watch below.
C. Integrating the pattern: once you can perform basic movements while isolating the core from the limbs, it’s time to use that in the pattern you’re training. Deadlift slowly with proper positions and control as a way of building strength and developing technique.
These are key: you can’t deadlift well if you don’t know how to control your core. If you’re soft in the middle, you’ll reduce your performance and put your back/hips at increased risk of injury. This is exactly the opposite of what you’re deadlifting for. Put the basics first.
Build the Thrust
The hip thrust is an important part of the deadlift. You need to be able to move the hips without losing the core or compensating through the knees or back. This is a common problem we see in people who try and rush the weights and ego-lift.
This lack of hip control isn’t the same as the hip hinge. It’s about building the strength and control in the glutes. This isn’t just for the deadlift, it’s a key part of effective squatting and other lower-body movements. It’s worth training by itself, as the glutes’ main role is to stabilise the lower spine and extend the hip – two key factors in effective sport and exercise!
There are two hip thrusting movements you need to practice and master to get the most out of your deadlift. The first is the frog jump – this weird-looking exercise is one of the best movements for isolating the glutes. It teaches you how to use your butt, which is something that we all struggle with to start with. Check it out here.
Once you’ve learned to use the buttocks by themselves, you can add in the barbell hip thrust. This is another heavy-weight exercise that focuses on hip extension. It’s a great way of improving the strength and familiarity of effective hip movement. It’s a great way of building strength in a common “weak link” in the deadlift.
Dealing with the deadlift: sets, reps and programming
So, how does a deadlift fit into your training program?
This is a big question with a lot of factors the first question is “what are your goals?”. The goals you have needs to dictate how you train – you need to be specific and aim your methods at your objectives.
Deadlifting for Size
The deadlift can be used as a great tool to build muscle and size in the lower body and back. The value of hitting so many muscles comes from the fact that it can build muscle strength and size across the body with a single exercise.
If you’re trying to build muscle, you need to focus on “stimulating reps”. These are the reps that force you to move slowly because of the weight on the bar. This is when your muscle fibres are being recruited and they’re experiencing enough tension to produce muscle growth. This means that high-rep sets are overrated.
The best types of sets for muscle growth are 4-7 reps at a weight that challenges you. You should only have 1 rep or so left in the tank at the end of a set of deadlifts. There are a few great ways that you can maximise muscle growth:
- Spend more time resting between sets – this increases muscle growth and reduces muscle damage
- Perform more sets, rather than more reps – there will be less unstimulating (“junk”) reps and better weights
- Lower the weight as it becomes more difficult – fatigue makes lighter weights more stimulating (because they’re more difficult).
These tips all centre around one idea: making the best muscle progress with the least damage. This allows you to recover faster/more effectively and get back to training.
Muscle damage doesn’t cause muscle-gains, tension on the muscles does – you want the most loading/use with the least amount of waste. Those 20-rep sets might give you a sick pump, bro, but they won’t build the kind of size you’re hoping.
Deadlifting for Strength
There are two ways of boosting strength: building muscle or improving recruitment.
We’ve already discussed how to deadlift for muscle growth, so the key here is improving neuromuscular efficiency. This means improving our ability to produce maximum force from existing muscle fibres. This is why we use near-maximal weights for strength and power.
You have two options for improving this efficiency. First, you can perform weights that are heavy enough to force you to use lots of muscle fibres – these are the heavy 1-3 rep sets that we see powerlifters and weightlifters use. The alternative is to use light weights (around 30%) for fast reps to try and improve speed.
For strength, RPE is a great way of regulating your weights. This is a measure of how hard an exercise feels on a scale of 1-10 (where 10 is the maximum effort you can achieve). This allows you to adapt and make sure that every set is contributing to improvement, while minimising the amount of “junk” reps as well as failed attempts.
Whether you’re training for muscular changes or neural ones, you need to be working at near-maximum effort. Whether this is a near-maximum weight or maximum acceleration, strength requires serious challenge and RPE should remain above 8 for top sets.
Simply put, you actually have to try hard to get stronger – imagine that.
Deadlifting is awesome. We don’t think it’s always the best exercise, but it has amazing benefits and an be a great strength training tool when it is used properly with the right focus.
The deadlift is a great way of dealing with a variety of goals at once: improved movement, stronger muscles, reduced risk of injury, and a better physique. This makes it a great catch-all exercise and definitely something you should include in your training along side proper nutrition and an optional good protein powder supplement.
Pulling movements can be quite tasking, so make sure that you’re getting plenty of rest and recovering between training sessions.