Among the exercises that can be performed with a barbell, the Deadlift is the one that recruits the most muscle groups, making it mandatory if your goal is to achieve a strong and functional body.
Let’s briefly look from top to bottom of the muscles involved:
- Back: Trapezius, Latissimus Dorsi, Rhomboids, Levator Scapulae, Erector Spinae (those are just the main ones, there are also other smaller ones).
- Torso: Core (Rectus Abdominis, Internal and External Obliques).
- Legs: Quadriceps (front), Hamstrings (back) and even the calves.
Who can do Deadlifts?
Any healthy adult regardless of gender and age can (and should) incorporate Deadlift or one of its variants into their training program.
I do the exception of healthy since if you have problems in the lower back (e.g. a herniated disc) or strong hip mobility limitations it is better to consult a physiotherapist or another similar specialist before fully getting into this exercise.
Some benefits of Deadlift:
The most obvious is its efficiency. You work a large part of your muscle groups in a single exercise.
Functionality/utility: it is a quite replicable movement in our daily activities (lifting a box, a child, etc.)
Strengthens the muscles of the lower back, so if you suffer pain in that area, the Deadlift can help you (source).
Improves posture and stability.
Increases your general strength.
Although lifting a weight from the floor seems simple, there are some technical tips to keep in mind first for safety and then for efficiency.
After an appropriate warm-up that includes dynamic stretching (more info) you proceed as follows:
1. Position the barbell at a proper height: it should be almost halfway between your feet and knees. If you use 20 kg discs and have an average height this is not a problem.
If you are very tall or don’t use that type of disc, you will have to use something to raise the barbell. It can be other piled discs or the spotter supports of a power rack.
2. Your position: feet below the bar approximately hip-width apart. When you look down the barbell should be covering the center of your insteps. By this way it will be placed about 3-5 cm from your legs.
This space is necessary so that you can go down, bending your knees, to take the barbell. If you were too close, you would push it away from its place.
Let’s go with your arms. They should be in a natural position, hanging just outside of your legs without or barely touching them and with relaxed shoulders.
You crouch first by bringing your hips back and then flexing your knees to grab the barbell.
You take the barbell by wrapping it with your fingers, palms towards your legs and squeezing them tight. You can also opt for an alternate grip (one palm facing each side) when you are lifting a lot of weight in order to get greater stability. In this case, consider alternating hands in each set to avoid muscle imbalances.
Your neck should be in a straight line with your eyes towards the floor and not the wall.
From here take out the chest, and maintain the natural curves of the spine (known as “straight back”). This is key for reducing the risk of injury.
The lift begins with your legs. You push against the floor to extend your knees. The barbell rises close to your legs, even slightly touching them.
When it reaches your kneez height, the hip kicks in. You push it forward activating all the muscles in the back of your body (back, glutes and hamstrings) until it is fully extended.
The return is basically the reverse movement (like when you went down to grab the barbell): the hip goes back until the barbell reaches the knee height, and then just bend your knees to place it on the floor.
- The barbell rises and falls vertically. This is to prevent force leaks and maintain the efficiency of the movement.
- The arms simply connect the barbell to your body. You shouldn’t bend them like trying to pull the barbell.
- The arms can barely touch your legs but not have close contact since that eventual friction would harm the lift.
- It is better to do it barefoot or with low-heeled shoes to avoid shifting the axis of the push forward which can generate instability and an excess of pressure on the knees.
- Once again: in the bottom position, before lifting, it is essential to have a straight back and chest to reduce the risk of injury.
How to start and how much to lift?
If you have never done Deadlifts, I recommend starting with other “bend and extend” family exercises like glute bridge or Deadlift with resistance bands so that your nervous system becomes familiar with movement.
After a couple of workouts you go to practice with an empty barbell, and you then progress by adding more weight over the weeks.
If you already have experience with the movement, the best option is to work in an strength range (more info) that is, 3-5 sets with a load that allows you to do 2 to 6 reps. You will achieve excellent results in terms of strength and muscle mass gain in addition to the benefits discussed above.
Variants of Deadlift and what they are for
There are a few more variations of the exercise, but I’m going to focus on the 4 best known and when to apply them.
Instead of starting by lifting the barbell from the floor, in this variant the barbell is placed on the rack supports at your hips height (or if you don’t have the supports you can lift it by doing a classic Deadlift).
From there you go down, bringing your hips back and just slightly bending your knees. As in the classic version, the barbell barely touches your body.
When you reach about halfway down your shin, you come back up extending your hips forward (video).
This exercise is used if you want to put more emphasis on your hamstrings.
In this one the difference is in the position of your legs, which are more separated than in the classic version (always with the heel in a straight line to the knee) staying outside your hands.
This arrangement makes your quads work harder and takes some pressure off your lower back.
This exercise is excellent if you want to focus the greatest effort on the glutes since the weight is directly on them and also offers a great range of motion with each repetition.
In addition to the loaded barbell you will need a bench to support your back and perhaps a mat to protect your pelvic area (video)
Here we do find more differences since we changed the barbell for a Kettlebell. In this case the movement is more dynamic, starting with the KB a few centimeters in front of us to generate some momentum.
The movement of the hip and knees is basically the same as in the classic Deadlift. However the arms swing pendulously (video)
The KB swing is often used in aerobic or high intensity intervals sessions where more repetitions are required.
So those are the basic concepts of the Deadlift.
Later we will see other exercises that are also essential to incorporate into any training program.
Until next time!