Deadlifts: you either love ’em or are afraid of ’em. To the casual eye, this exercise looks like a great way to throw out your back (and you certainly can if you’ve got terrible form), but they’re actually one of the best and most practical movements in or outside of the gym. Here’s what you need to know about this not-so-deadly exercise.
When you’re performing a conventional deadlift, you are essentially lifting “dead weight” off the ground and then putting it back down on the ground. You can guess how this carries over to practical uses in your everyday life: moving some heavy furniture, picking up bags of dog food, shoveling snow, and pretty much doing any movement that requires bending over (which, in actuality, is a hip hinge, but we’ll get to that shortly) and picking something up. Truly, the benefits are myriad and, let’s be honest here, badass AF.
Deadlifts Make You a Badass. Period.
Maybe you’re not terribly impressed by the ability to lift groceries more easily. Then how about the fact that deadlifts translate to being better at sports, moving better, improving your posture, and building a wickedly strong-as-hell body? (And if you want some inspiration, here’s 40-something-year-old “Huge Jacked-Man”, a.k.a. Wolverine, rocking this 186kg deadlift. So awesome.)
Deadlifts provide such a wide range of benefits because they’re a total-body compound exercise that mimics movements in real life and in sports (extension of hips and knees), and uses so many different muscles at the same time. A lot of people initially think that deadlifts emphasise the lower back or legs, and they’re not exactly wrong. The deadlift works both, plus the muscles that run along your entire backside (collectively called the posterior chain): from your trapezius muscles that sit at the base of your skull all the way down to your heels, and more.
Even long-distance runners could benefit from getting better at deadlifts and including strength training in general. According to running and strength specialist Jon-Erik Kawamoto, CSCS:
Middle- to long-distance runners tend to develop weak gluteals compared to other leg muscles, like the quadriceps, due to the muscles involved in the running stride and the fact that [running] is such a repetitive motion. Therefore, runners can benefit greatly from performing deadlifts, as deadlifts can help “bring up the glutes” and help correct for this strength imbalance. Plus, strong glutes are associated with a lower injury risk among runners.
Moreover, since deadlifts work numerous muscles, they’re a very metabolically costly exercise. That means they’re really effective at helping you lose weight, build more muscle, and overall feel like a superhero (provided your diet is in order).
Deadlifts Are Safe Unless You Do Them Wrong
Contrary to what your instinct tells you, deadlifts are safe compared to many other movements in the gym. You’re not going to get crushed under weight, for one thing. The issue arises when your form is bad, as Jon-Erik notes:
The primary concern with deadlifts is performing the exercise with a rounded spine. This results in the stress of the exercise being placed on the spine structures and ligaments rather than to the back, hip, and leg muscles.
It turns out that picking things off the ground is a lot more technical than what most people would instinctively do. Think about picking up a dollar bill from the floor: you'd probably bend your lower back and get back up using your lower back again, placing a lot of undue pressure on your spine. Your back likely won't give out from the weight of a dollar bill, but add about 50, or even 136kg to the mix and you can see where things can go horribly, horribly wrong (sup, herniated disc!).
In reality, picking things up is less reliant on bending your back and far more on bending your hips. This flexion at the hip is referred to as the "hip hinge." The hip hinge is not a movement that comes naturally to most of us, at least initially, mostly because we're rarely ever taught to move this way. What's more, many people confuse this movement pattern with an actual squat. Here's Tony Gentilcore, a strength and conditioning coach at Cressey Performance, on the difference between the hip hinge versus a squat, from an article on his blog:
Hip Hinge = maximal hip bend, minimal knee bend.
Squat = maximal hip bend, maximal knee bend.
When doing a hip hinge, you want to imagine trying to push your butt directly out towards, say, a wall behind you while still keeping your back straight, or "neutral", and core braced -- both of which keep your spine from rounding or caving in -- with a slight bend in your knees (you should feel a slight stretch in your hamstrings). Ultimately, it looks like this:
Tony delves into great detail here on helping you learn and "groove" the hip hinge pattern into your movement, including this drill to help you get started:
Deadlifts are just like any other exercise: correct form and technique are tantamount to your own safety. Most gym-goers would benefit from getting better at deadlifts, but not all. Jon-Erik recommends that those with a history of low-back and/or joint issues, like arthritis, avoid heavy deadlifting, or deadlifting altogether.
If deadlifts cause you pain, no matter if you're being properly supervised and/or done with as perfect a form as your body lets you, stop doing them. At that point, they aren't worth it! Alternatively, you can try using the trap bar or substitute them completely with just as awesome exercises, like hip thrusts, cable pull-throughs, glute bridges (weighted or bodyweight), and kettlebell swings.
Which is Better: Sumo or Conventional?
In the fitness world, wars have been waged and nations have fallen over this hotly contested topic of "best" deadlift stances. Should you pull "conventional" or "sumo?" First, let's go over the differences in a nutshell:
- Conventional: This is the more technical and common stance that most lifters typically associate deadlifts with. Feet stand at shoulder width apart and you just "grip it and rip it."
- Sumo: A sumo style starts with feet spread farther apart (way past shoulder width for most people), with toes pointed outward a bit. Together, this makes it easier for some people to reach the bar. Plus, sumo deadlifts tend to be easier on your back due to the nuances of their movement. There's no universally correct width to the sumo stance; go as wide as you think is comfortable for you.
The differences seem simple enough, but there are a few rules of thumb that often obfuscate this discussion, including:
- Flexibility issues: Conventional deadlifts typically require the lifter to improve flexibility in his or her ankles, upper back (thoracic spine), and hips, in order to get down to the bar and maintain proper form throughout the movement. Sumo deadlifts, on the other hand, are a bit more forgiving (but still require good form) because of the shorter range of motion, but mobile, flexible hips are still ideal for getting into the correct position and lifting the weight without unwanted stress.
- More or less pressure on certain joints: The nature of conventional deadlifts will place greater pressure (or shear stress) on your back because the bar position is farther away from the center of gravity. So, those with iffy backs are advised to try sumo stances because, according to researchers from University of Waterloo in Canada, sumo's spinal demands are 10% less than they are in the conventional stance. At the same time, a ton of sumo deadlifting (especially if you're also squatting a lot) can irritate your hips.
- Your preferred stance is (sometimes) based on your body's proportions: From the width of our hips to the length of our torso, arms, and legs, everyone is built differently. These structural variations can heavily influence our movements during weight training in general, and makes some movements harder or easier. For example, if you have shorter arms or a longer torso, you might like sumo deadlifts better. Regardless of your body type and what you think you should pull, you still want good hip flexibility. Unfortunately for most of us who sit for long hours at desk jobs, in cars, and what have you, improved hip mobility doesn't come without consistent, concerted effort.
So, which should you pull? In Greg Nuckols' excellent article on the topic, he pretty much tells people to "train both hard for a while, then stick with whichever is strongest and most comfortable." It's very straightforward and wise advice. It's not easy for someone else to simply tell you which lift would make you most comfortable -- you alone know what your body is telling you.
How to Incorporate Deadlifts Into Your Workouts
Since deadlifts work so many muscles, they can pretty taxing and tough to incorporate into a program. Strength and performance coach Omar Isuf, who also makes helpful fitness YouTube videos, recommends:
The frequency depends upon your goals and experience level. The more intense you go with deadlifts, the lower the total volume (amount of work) you'd do.
For beginners, it is fine to start deadlifting 1x per week. After you feel comfortable with the movement, most individuals train it 2x per week. Typically, one day heavier (going for sets of 5 or 3) and another day for volume (lighter loads for more reps).
Additionally, Jon-Erik notes that he prefers to do deadlifts on the days he trains his legs or back. Either way is fine and mostly depends on how you've split your weekly workout. Also, because a deadlift is a "big movement", Omar recommends that you do them at the beginning of your workout session, like as your first or second movement, when you have the most energy to perform the movement well.
As for additional equipment, like gloves, straps, and a weightlifting belt, save your money -- you don't need them early on. You should avoid going heavy on deadlifts until you've nailed down your form. Omar also notes that using a belt too early and often can reinforce bad form.
Common Mistakes Lifters Make, and How to Fix Them
By now you hopefully understand that deadlifts have perks, but you have to do them correctly to cash them in. The best way to make sure is to have a trained professional coach you through it, or shoot a video of yourself doing a deadlift and have a professional critique your form.
Here are just a few of the common things people tend to do wrong and what can be done about them:
- Your starting position sucks: The starting position of the deadlift is a big deal. Most people tend to lean too far forward, as that feels more natural, but this would then place too much stress on the back. Similarly, many jam their shins up against the bar which could cause them to subconsciously move the bar forward to get around the shins. Visualise getting your armpits above the bar and leave a few inches between your shins and the bar.
- Your back rounds or arches: There are many reasons. In most cases, it's a matter of the weight being too heavy, not bracing and keeping your spine neutral (i.e. aligned), and/or having a weak back overall. Omar notes, "At first it might feel impossible to maintain, but that's because the spinal erectors haven't been taught to maintain this strong neutral position. Once you work on this, you'll be stronger with the neutral spine position." If you can't reach the bar without rounding and/or you're leaning too far forward, raise the height of the bar until you can get a neutral spine position and try partial deadlifts (or rack pull), Jon-Erik suggests.
- The weight is too heavy: In general, if your form starts to crumple, the weight is too heavy. Drop the weight lower until you can perform deadlifts at a certain weight like a boss.
- Your arms are doing too much work: The only thing your arms do is help keep the bar steady throughout the movement. There is no actual pulling action from the arms themselves. Lock your arms straight and keep them close to your body through the lift.
- You're overextending your back at the top of the movement: When some people "lock out," as it's called at the top, they tend to thrust their hips too far forward and overextend their back. Avoid emphasising your back and instead imagine clenching your butt (to squeeze your glute muscles, duh).
- You're not hip hinging: If deadlifts were a rack of delicious ribs, the hip hinge pattern is the smoker. Real talk: without learning the proper hip hinge, it's only a matter of time before you hurt yourself trying to deadlift. So, keep practicing it, even without any weight.
- The bar drifts away from you: The bar needs to travel in a straight vertical line, and when it doesn't it usually means your hips started too low, you didn't "brace your core," or you have weak quad muscles, according to Omar. "Usually, you'll see great deadlifters with bloody shins, a sign of keeping the bar close to their body," he says. Not that you need bloody shins, but when the bar is close to the body, the movement becomes safer on the back and is "easier" to do in general.
All in all, the deadlift is a nuanced movement with many moving parts. It's impossible to paint over the things that could go wrong with a broad brush. What's important is that you work your way up to a full deadlift, with mastering the hip hinge as your priority and getting properly taught by someone who really knows what he or she is doing.
Other Resources to Help You Master Your Deadlift
In the words of Jake from the cartoon Adventure Time, "Sucking at something is the first step to getting sorta good at something." It's the real icy truth of anything in life, especially fitness. Practice, in the gym and outside of it. See a box lying around? Use the hip hinge technique and lift it! See a dime on the ground? Hip hinge and pick it up! The more you practice, the more you can work on good form.
Meanwhile, here are other resources to help you get comfortable with the deadlift:
- Guide to Deadlifts by Mike Robertson (Article)
- Dean Somerset's Shows How to Do the Hip Hinge on PTDC (Article)
- Troubleshooting the Deadlift by Jon-Erik Kawamoto (Video)
- Nerd Fitness' Strength Training 101: The Deadlift (Article)
Finally, here's Daisy Ridley (Rey, from the new Star Wars) smashing a 80kg deadlift. Enjoy, and may the force be with your deadlifts.
Illustration by Fruzsina Kuhari. Image by Omar Isuf.