The Deadlift – The Essential Weight Lifting Exercise

Start and end position of the deadlift

The Deadlift

The deadlift is another of the core weight training exercises. It targets the muscles that support the spine (erector spinae) and also works the glutes and quads. As a very heavy weight is often lifted it also helps to improve grip strength and provides isometric like training for the shoulder muscles.

On the surface it is a very simple movement compared some others. A barbell is generally lifted from the ground to the hips with straight arms. The whole movement is powered through the ankles, the knees, then hips and the lower back and main back.


The feet start beneath the bar so that your shins are close to the bar. Starting from a squat position you grasp the bar and then lead with the hips then the knees to stand up straight. Lift the shoulders up and back is you lift but do not lean backwards.

The deadlift is a good exercise for anyone involved in impact sports such as martial arts and running because increasing the supporting muscle around the spine helps to add cushioning to prevent injury.

The deadlift is really the simplest of exercises as it just involves lifting a dead weight up off the floor.

The following video clip explains in some more detail how to perform a deadlift. It is advisable to seek a professional strength coach if you plan to start weight training as it is important to avoid developing bad lifting habits.

How To Deadlift

1. Preparation for Lift

Start with your feet shoulder width apart and the bar close to your shins. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip and position your body so that your shoulders are above the line of the bar. This is to ensure that when you lift to a standing position the body does not need to perform any lateral movement, the entire force should be upwards.

Make sure that you back is flat and that your pelvis and head are aligned with your back, i.e your entire body is facing forwards. This is to ensure that there is no unnecessary twisting movement when you lift.

2. Immediately before you Lift

Take the ready position by extending your legs and contract the abdominals and the glutes to tighten the entire core. Your whole body should now be tense and ready to lift. Keep eyes forward and not down.

3. First Pull – from ground to just above the knees

In the initial pull you focus entirely on your legs. Push with all your might down and through your feet while using the glutes to heave up. In the initial lift your hips and shoulder stay still (relative to the torso) all the work is in the legs and glutes. The back remains flat. The bar should be dragging up the shins. Remember to drive the push through your heels.

4. Second Pull – from the knees to standing

As the bar reaches the knees it is time to drive with the hips from the glutes. Thrust the hips forwards while keeping the bar in contact with the body as you lift up. Focus on lifting straight upwards, do not lean back or roll the shoulders back either. Squeeze your glutes when finishing the lift.

5. Lowering the bar

To lower the bar you need to simply get it to the floor again as safely as possible. Avoid leaning forward too much but aim to allow the bar to descend naturally but quickly without a hard impact with your shins. A steady, swift, controlled descent is the order of the day.

Deadlift Exercise Weight Training Workout Video

Deadlift Variations

There are many different ways to perform a deadlift, here is a selection of the most common variations.

Romanian deadlift

A Romanian deadlift requires that you perform a continuous movement. After the weight is initially lifted from the floor you do not return it to the ground until the end of the set.  The actual start position of each exercise is the standing position.

From the upright position perform the same movement as you do in standard deadlift but instead pause briefly in the lower position (bar not touching the floor) before retuning to the standing position. Some people do allow the weight to touch the floor, however, this is not actually the correct method for a Romanian deadlift.

The Sumo deadlift

The Sumo deadlift is designed to work the legs more by taking a wider stance than with a standard deadlift. The lift you keep the bar close to your shins and the front of the legs all the time. Feet are wider than shoulder width and angled outwards at about 45 degrees. Arms grasp the bar from the inside of the legs. Sumo deadlifts do put extra stress on the ankles, knees, hips and hamstrings so care should be taken if you chose to perform these lifts. Finally, as your legs are spread wider apart you do not have to lift the bar so high, which means slightly less work (effort) is required.

Stiff Legged Deadlift

This is almost identical to the standard deadlift. The difference  is that the legs remain much straighter. Although called stiff legged there is some flexion at the knee. All the power is coming from the hips the the knees and ankles are just supporting the movement. It is important not to pause or bounce at the bottom of the lift as this can easily put too much pressure on the lower back.

If your hamstrings feel too tight do not stretch any further. The range of movement can vary a lot between people so do not be concerned if you never seem to lift as well as others.

Holding the Deadlift Bar

The standard deadlift grip is the overhand grip with both hands grasping the bar with palms facing down / knuckles on top. There are two alternative grips, the underhand grip with palms facing upwards and the mixed grip with one hand up and the other down.

The main reason to vary the grip is to ensure that your grip is strong enough to complete the weight training session. With the deadlift a weak grip can be the weakest link and although grip supports are available it is best to try to increase your grip strength. A mixed grip also prevents the bar from rolling.

Another method that helps prevent the bar rolling out of the grip is to adopt a hook grip. It is similar to a normal overhand grip but the thumbs are kept tight to the fingers and help to “hook” the bar rather than clamp the bar.

Deadlift Safety and Dangers

Because the deadlift is working the back it is extra important that correct form is followed. However, the back is not the only area that can be injured, the stresses applied to the knees and hips can potentially cause injuries. For this reason it is vital to ensure good form is followed. It is always better to lift a lighter weight to start with and build your strength slowly while improving your form.

A weight lifting belt can help to stabilize the lower back to prevent injury. Guidance is required on using weight lifting belts though. Put it on too loose and it gives no benefit and leave it on for too long and it constricts blood flow.

Further Instruction and Advice on Deadlifts

As the deadlift can be such as hard exercise on the body it is vital to ensure that your form is perfect. For this reason is is a good idea to study other sources of information as well as ideally seeking a certified strength coach to check your form and provide additional instruction.

EXRX.com provide some excellent advice here; Barbell Stiff Leg Deadlift. Their instructions are actually a little briefer but the provide many additional comments on the lift. Also you will find some advice on alternative lifts, such as the Straight Leg Deadlift.

For specific advice on keeping your back strong, healthy and injury free then read 5 Reasons Why Deadlifts Are Killing Your Lower Back at StrongLifts.com. The tips get you to re-think the movement, such as considering it a push exercise (you push with your feet, not pull with your arms and back).

Image by Luis Javier Rodriguez / Yupi666.

More like this in the Strength Training section

  1 comment for “The Deadlift – The Essential Weight Lifting Exercise

  1. gloria papelian
    October 4, 2012 at 2:04 am

    I love weight training. I worked out about ten years ago. I am now 63 and began lifting in July. I am always looking for other information on lifting to get the full muscle tone I am looking for. This site has given me some great information on lifting and squats.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *