Exercise Essentials, Part 2: Deadlift

In this series of posts, I am outlining several of the most basic lifts with which every lifter should be familiar.  I consider them the cornerstones of intermediate and advanced exercise programming.  Many of them are quite challenging and require certain levels of strength and mobility for optimal performance and safety.  Please take heed of contraindications and follow exercise progressions.

See also – Part 1: Squats

What is a deadlift?

The deadlift may be the most basic of all weight-lifting exercises.  Pick the bar up off the floor and put it back down.  Technically, the deadlift requires the weight to start at a dead stop on the floor and end around the waist, although some variations on this exist.

deadlifting bodybuilder

Why deadlift?

The deadlift is generally accepted as the greatest overall muscle-building exercise (some would argue for the squat).  A proper deadlift hammers the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, and most major back muscles).  It also engages the quads, gastroc-soleus (calves), biceps, all forearm muscles, abdominals, and other core stabilizers.  In fact, there are few muscle groups that the deadlift does not engage.

Deadlifts are crucial for any muscle building program, especially for those looking to build up the posterior chain muscles (and who isn’t?).  Like squats, deadlifts create a massive energy demand, making them excellent for fat loss programs as well.

jamie eason's posterior chain

Everyone loves a nice posterior chain.

Types Of Deadlifts

Like the squat, there are many variations of the deadlift.  Here are the four most common varieties.

  • Conventional Deadlift – Performed from the floor with the feet at or inside shoulder width and the hands just outside the legs.
  • Sumo Deadlift – Performed from the floor with the feet set well outside shoulder width and the hands set on the bar between the legs.  The version shortens the range of motion and requires less hamstring flexibility.sumo deadlift
  • Trap-Bar Deadlift – Performedfrom the floor using a trap bar (or hex bar).  Stand within the bar.  This version results in a more upright posture, engaging the quads to a greater extent and lessening the posterior chain involvement slightly.  Requires somewhat less flexibility.trap bar deadlift
  • Rack Pull – Performed from low-set pins within the squat rack.  Pins are set at around knee height, which limits the range of motion to the top of the range.  Requires much less flexibility and increases the weight that can be used, but may decrease hamstring and glute involvement.rack pull
  • Romanian (Straight Leg) Deadlift – Performed from the floor or from pins with a fixed and only a slightly flexed knee angle.  All motion occurs at the hips.  Requires a high degree of hamstring flexibility to perform from the the floor, and greatly increases hamstring activation.  Decreases weight that can be used.

Check out Nia Shanks’s article Super Deadlifts for videos of many of these flavors of deadlift!

Aren’t deadlifts dangerous?

Like squats, Deadlifts are safe when performed correctly.  Deadlifts performed from the floor require a high level of hamstring flexibility and general hip mobility.  For those with limited hamstring flexibility, start with rack pulls from the knee to maintain a neutral spine.  Leave your ego at the door.  Stick with light weights until you are comfortable with form.  If you can’t lift it with a neutral spine (no rounding your low back EVER), don’t try it.  Too many people injure their backs because they try to lift from the floor without the required flexibility, or they use too much weight and lose their neutral spine.  See the video on form below for a good overview of performing deadlifts safely.

Performing a deadlift correctly

With any deadlift, there are several important things to remember about form.

  • Push through your heels - Your weight should always been on your heels, not the balls of your feet.
  • Keep your back neutral – Never allow your lower back to round forward.  If it does, decrease the load or the depth.  You either aren’t strong enough for the load, or you don’t have the hamstring flexibility to bend down to the bar with a straight back.
  • Don’t look upKeep you head aligned with the angle of your spine.

The most dangerous area during the deadlift is the low back right where the spine connects to the pelvis.  Many people bend forward to deadlift, do not have the required flexibility, and don’t even feel their pelvis and lower spine rounding underneath them.  I cannot emphasize enough that you watch out for this error.  Please lift from pins (rack pull) until you can ensure a neutral lower back.

Deadlift Instructional Video (Via Bret Contreras)

Bret just did a great video series on form for squats and deadlifts.  Below is his deadlift demonstration.  It’s about 7  minutes long, but absolutely essential for anyone learning to deadlift correctly (which should be everyone).

Major props to Bret – everyone read all his posts to thank him for this video.


Take home points on deadlifts

  • The deadlift is considered the best overall muscle-builder
  • Hamstring flexibility is crucial to a safe deadlift from the floor
  • Start with rack pulls if you are new to deadlifting until you can ensure a neutral spine when you lift from the floor
  • Be vigilant about form at all times (see video above)

Leave questions!