ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, CPT, Deadlift, Deadlift: The Forgotten Exercise

How To Deadlift: Benefits, Technique, Variations

Reading Time: 9 minutes

By: ISSA

Date: 2022-04-29


The deadlift is an integral, yet often missing component of a strength-building program. That’s not to say that everyone should be performing this movement or one of its variations, but the benefits of the deadlift for a power- or strength-building program are innumerable.

Muscles Worked During a Deadlift

The deadlift is a compound exercise targeting several muscle groups. Some of the main deadlift muscles worked include the following: 

  • Gluteals 

  • Hamstrings

  • Quadriceps

  • Erector spinae

  • Latissimus dorsi

  • Trapezius

Glutes

The largest muscle group in the body is the gluteus maximus. The glutes are made up of three main muscles. These include the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. Since most clients sit eight hours or more per day, their glutes are commonly weak and inactive. The lower back and core are also affected.   

These are a few reasons why the deadlift is an effective exercise. It demands hip extension and glute strength to execute. Whether you perform a conventional deadlift, Romanian deadlift, or sumo deadlift, the hips still extend during the movement. With proper deadlift technique, you experience a high amount of glute activation. This leads to muscle and strength gains.

Hamstrings

The deadlift not only requires hip extension but is primarily a hip hinge exercise. The traditional deadlift and sumo deadlift are still hip hinge exercises. Though deadlift variations like the Romanian deadlift or stiff leg deadlift require more hamstring strength. As a personal trainer, understanding deadlift technique is important for optimal results and injury prevention.

This requires adjustments during a workout. If deadlift form is compromised or the weight is too heavy, you must adjust the exercise. With numerous deadlift variations, this shouldn’t be a problem. The deadlift exercise is only as effective as your form is. Even though multiple muscle groups work, every client's deadlift style is unique. Keep this in mind when offering deadlift variations.

Quadriceps

Although the deadlift is a posterior dominant strength exercise, the quadriceps are still worked. Certain deadlift variations target the anterior chain more than others. For example, the trap bar deadlift shifts a lot of the stress onto the quads. Whereas the straight leg deadlift is more posterior dominant. The quads are activated even more with heavier weight. 

Erector Spinae Muscles

The erector spinae muscles run from the back of the skull all the way to the pelvis. Anytime you bend forward and return back to the erect position, these muscles are used. This is important during the deadlift because its form requires effective bending. 

Whether your client performs a trap bar deadlift, kettlebell deadlift, or dumbbell deadlift the erector spinae muscles are worked. Strength in the erector spinae muscles is crucial. As they help maintain a neutral or flat back during the deadlift. This prevents injury in clients who might be learning the deadlift for the first time.

Latissimus Dorsi or “Lats”

In addition to the erector spinae muscles, the lats are also worked during the deadlift. This dominant posterior chain exercise requires lat strength and power to execute. The deficit deadlift is a beneficial variation that targets all the muscles in the upper and lower body, but especially the lats. The deficit deadlift improves strength off the floor and lifting posture.

Core Muscles

The abdominal muscles stabilize the spine. The core is the midline of the body and supports you in all movements. The major muscles of the core are the transverse abdominis, internal and external obliques, rectus abdominis, and multifidus. 

During the deadlift, your core must be active and strong. The abs work together with the glutes and lower back. Strengthening your core muscles for the deadlift and during the deadlift is beneficial. 

Shoulder Muscles 

The deadlift also works the shoulder muscles, including the medial deltoid and the trapezius. The shoulder blade and scapula specifically play a major role when deadlifting heavy weight. As scapular protraction is important. A lot of times you will hear to squeeze your shoulder blades together or roll your shoulders back. This is common at the top of a deadlift.

Instead of squeezing smaller muscles in your back together, it’s important to protract your scapula. The lats assist with this movement and help you avoid placing the heavy weight only on the smaller muscles in the back. This makes your deadlift stronger.

Arm Muscles 

Although the deadlift is mainly a lower body and posterior dominant movement, all muscles in the body are working together to execute. This includes the arms, mainly the forearms and grip or finger flexors. 

The deadlift will tax your hips, back and more. But if you don’t have grip strength your ability to barbell deadlift, kettlebell deadlift and dumbbell deadlift is limited. You can’t deadlift without grip strength. As the deadlift weight increases, grip strength should as well. 

When clients perform the barbell deadlift, there are two options for grip. One option is a pronated or overhand grip. The other is an alternating grip, where one hand is overhand and the other is underhand. 

Typically as the weight increases, clients will alternate the grip to avoid any rotation of the barbell during the deadlift. This helps, but should only be used at the heaviest sets if needed. Focus on building grip strength with your clients to use the overhand grip mostly. 

Benefits of Deadlifting

As a compound exercise, the movement spans three joints with extension occurring at the hip, knee, and ankle joints, thus utilizing several large muscle groups. (2) When compared to isolation exercises, compound movements that involve larger muscle groups elicit a hormonal training response that results in greater strength gains. (1) The dynamics of the lift itself may also lead to greater gains in hypertrophy. (1)

The deadlift also has possible rehabilitation benefits. It has been hypothesized that the moderate to high hamstring activity elicited during the exercise may help to protect the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) during rehab. (2)

The movement translates well into real life as it mimics bending and lifting. Anyone who has a toddler is quite familiar with the motion of the lift already.

Deadlift Technique: Performing the Lifts

Beginning position:

  • Feet should be flat on the floor about shoulder-width apart in the conventional style and slightly farther apart in the sumo-style

  • Grip bar with a closed, alternate grip

  • Legs should be flexed, as in a squat position

  • Bar should be as close to the shins as possible

  • Back posture should be straight

Upward movement:

  • Begin pull by extending at the knees

  • The hips and shoulders should move at the same rate, keeping back posture straight, with the shoulders above or slightly in front of the bar

  • At the end of the concentric phase, thrust hips forward and abduct lats. The hip and knee joints should be fully extended.

Downward movement:

  • Flex hip and knee joints to slowly lower the bar to the floor, ending in the squat position

Points to remember:

  • Your torso should be straight throughout the movement

  • At no portion of the lift should your back be rounded

  • Keep the bar as close to the shins as possible throughout

  • feet should always be flat on the floor, pushing from the heel

  • Exhale through the sticking point of the concentric movement and inhale through the eccentric phase

  • Do not jerk the movement, it should be smooth throughout

  • If your knees are moving laterally from side to side, reduce the amount of weight

  • Because of the many muscles involved in the lift, the deadlift may require more rest between sets than normal

Biomechanics of the Sumo Deadlift and Conventional Styles

There are two basic styles of a bent-leg deadlift: sumo and conventional. The key difference between the two styles is the placement of the feet and the width of the grip. In the sumo-style, the grip is medial to the feet; that is the grip is on the inside of the legs. The feet in the sumo-style are at about a 45-degree angle pointing outward. This style utilizes a slightly wider stance than the conventional method.

In the conventional lift, the grip is lateral to the feet (on the outside of the legs) and the feet only slightly turn outward.

The sumo-style has gained a reputation for decreasing the stress placed on the lower lumbar by as much as 10% when compared to the conventional deadlift. (2) Those who are leaner and have longer than average torsos often favor it as well. Since the sumo-style requires less hip flexion and a more upright trunk position, this may benefit people of this phenotype by reducing the torque on the lower spine. We also know the sumo-style deadlift requires much larger knee and ankle moments and more flexion of these joints when compared to the conventional style. (2) This implies that the quadriceps may be more active in the sumo-style lift.

The sumo-style lift requires less mechanical work than the conventional because of the wide stance. (2)

Additional Deadlift Variations

Single Leg Deadlift

Not only does this deadlift variation help build stability but the unilateral movement can also help prevent one side of the body from dominating the movement. In a single leg deadlift, all or most of the weight shifts to one leg. The movement can be completed without weight or with a variety of different types of resistance (dumbbell deadlifts, barbell deadlift, kettlebell deadlift, etc.) depending on the skill level of the individual. 

The client will either balance on one leg or shift the bulk of the weight to one leg with the toes of the opposite foot resting lightly on the ground. Keeping the hips square and the knee soft, the client will slowly hinge forward at the hips until the torso is almost parallel with the ground while the opposite (supporting) foot comes off the ground. The client should focus on keeping their shoulders back, hips square, and their torso straight throughout the movement. To complete the rep, the focus should be on utilizing the glutes and hamstrings to hinge the body back to the starting position. 

Hex Bar Deadlift (Trap Bar Deadlift)

This variation helps protect the lower back and prevents clients from shifting the weight too far away from their body.

Clients will step inside the center of the trap bar and stand with feet about shoulder with apart. Hinging at the hips and then bending at the knees, the client should squat down to grip the bar keeping the spine straight. Pressing through the heels, the client should extend the knees and then the hips in a fluid motion and press the hips forward at the top of the lift. They will slowly lower the trap bar back down to the ground by hinging very slightly at the hips and then bending the knees.

Deficit Deadlift

This deadlift variation helps increase the range of motion and increase the muscles’ time under tension. The form for the deficit deadlift is very similar to the traditional deadlift. However, the main difference in the deficit lift is that the feet are slightly elevated off the ground (typically no more than a couple inches) while the weight rests on the floor. Utilizing a platform, the client will complete a conventional deadlift allowing for a slight increase in the range of motion of the movement. 

What About the Romanian Deadlift?

The Romanian deadlift (RDL) is like a straight-leg deadlift, but it requires a slight bend in the knees as found in the hip hinge form. The RDL focuses on the eccentric part of the movement—that is the way down toward the ground—which is often an undertrained aspect of a deadlift. Most athletes or lifters will allow gravity to bring the bar to the floor and, often, allow it to bounce to begin the concentric contraction instead of controlling the movement down. 

To improve your RDL, focus on improving your hip hinge movement. A hip hinge is a movement that utilizes the posterior chain to drive flexion and extension of the hips with a posterior weight shift. The musculature involved in the movement pattern includes the hamstring muscle and glutes, erector spinae, the rhomboids to aid in a neutral spine, and the core muscles for bracing the upper body.

Conclusion

As with all exercises, the deadlift is not for everyone. If you are training a client with special needs such as lower lumbar injuries or any other joint injuries, it is important to get the doctor or chiropractor to release the client for such a movement before adding this lift to their regime.

And don’t forget to consider the other deadlift variations to accommodate your clients’ needs. Use barbells for lighter weights or use a limited range of motion if the situation calls for it. Try the specialized bars may be more comfortable such as the combo bar or trap bar.

Because of the wide range of muscles the deadlift targets, some people use it as a warm-up lift before their workout. In whatever form you use, the deadlift should play a key role in your training program.

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References

  • Baechle, Thomas R., 1943- and Roger W. Earle, Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2008.

  • Escamilla, R., et al. A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 2000;32:1265-1275.

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