If squats are a building block to weightlifting, the deadlift is the foundation. It is the strongest lift — meaning you’ll be able to lift the most weight — with most beginner athletes being able to lift their bodyweight and more after a few training sessions.
While the deadlift is commonly classified as a leg exercise, it engages virtually every muscle group at once, giving the lifter the most bang for her buck.
Performed correctly, the lift has a very low injury rate (if it’s too heavy, you just drop it to the floor). However, if performed with poor technique, you could risk hurting your lower back.
Here, we go over technique and deadlift variations to get you started. But first, science!
Squats and deadlifts engage a group of muscles called the posterior chain — glutes, hamstrings, and back muscles — basically all of the muscles on the backside of your body.
Why is it important to have a strong posterior chain? Think of these muscles (especially your glutes and hammies) as your engine. If you need to jump, push, pull, or run, these are your go-to muscles. The stronger they are, the higher you can jump, the heavier you can push and pull, and the faster you can outrun that lion chasing you.
“It’s safe to say that the health of your posterior chain not only affects your athletic prowess—but your ability to move,” said weightlifting coach Greg Glassman in an interview for Boxlife Magazine.
One of the best exercises for strengthening your posterior chain? You got it.
I know I said in my squat overview that all lifts should be performed with bodyweight before progressing to a barbell and weights. But it’s pretty difficult to do this with the deadlift, just because most people are naturally stronger starting off.
You can grab a PVC pipe and do a few technique warm-ups, but adding a little weight will actually be more beneficial in highlighting certain positions.
So grab a barbell or trainer bar, and put a 10-pound plate on either side. This will get the bar to a natural starting position, without you having to struggle right out of the gate.
Stand with your feet shoulder width apart under the bar. I typically line up with the bar over the mid-way point of my foot. Do not have the bar too close or you will fight with your shins to keep a straight bar path as you begin your lift. Having the bar too far out, will result in a similar struggle.
Hingeing at the hip and keeping soft but straight knees, place your hands at or just inside the knurling. Hook grip the bar.
Bend your knees and lower your hips to keep your chest up and lock out your arms.
Keeping a straight back, engage that posterior chain and lift, coming to a full hip extension at the top.
Here, you can either lower the weight back to the floor, or drop it to the floor. Although, if it’s lighter weight you may get some folks raising their eyebrows if you drop intentionally.
Potential technique issues
A big no-no in the deadlift is not keeping a neutral spine or straight back. Over arching results in the knees rising before the shoulders, which can put un-do stress on your lower back.
Similarly, rounding your back (especially at heavy weights) can cause back pain.
Ideally, shoulders and hips rise at the same time, ensuring a neutral spine.
If you’d like a more comprehensive guide on form and how to keep a neutral spine, check out Nerd Fitness’ article on performing the perfect deadlift.
If you’re not sure if you are using the correct technique, call a trainer, a coach, or your best friend who nerds out on lifting videos to do a form check. We all started as beginners so there’s no shame in requesting help.
As with the squat, there are special variations to the deadlift that are handy for the more advanced weightlifter. As a beginner, it is probably best to stick with the conventional deadlift, but if you’re ready to spice things up, here are some great variations.
In this variation, the lifter takes a wider stance, effectively shortening their height and, therefore, shortening the distance the bar must travel for a “good lift.” This type of lift is great for folks with mobility issues or whose body type favors this set up (read: us short folks).
An approved powerlifting stance, the Sumo deadlift can also help those who have back issues.
This variation is not a competition lift, but is awesome for engaging and strengthening that posterior chain.
Have trouble engaging those hamstrings, Romanian deadlifts will take care of that.
Typically done with lighter weight than your conventional or sumo deadlift, the lifter deadlifts the weight, then slowly lowers the bar until she feels a stretch in her hamstrings, then brings the bar back up to the finish position. Repeat and repeat again.