All About Deadlifts

The deadlift is one of the most cut and dry ways to build or test your strength, you simply grab a heavy object and lift it off the ground.

While there are a ton of variations on the deadlift (we’ll get to them in a second), and a good deal of subtlety to performing it effectively, it really is quite primitive.

When deadlifting, there’s really only two things you have to remember: keep your back straight and your weight in your heels.

Proper deadlift form with the back straight

However, “keep your back straight” is an often misunderstood cue. People think it means they can’t lean forward, but in fact, you must lean forward in order to deadlift properly. The important thing is to make sure that you bend from your hips, not through your spine. You need to squeeze your shoulder blades together to keep your thoracic vertebrae aligned. Your back should not be anywhere near perpendicular to the ground, but it shouldn’t be bent either.

Don't bend your back like this when deadlifting

Barbell Deadlifts
The most common way to deadlift is with a barbell. It’s easy to grip and the weight distribution makes it ideal for lifting. Stand with your feet about hip width, then squat down and grab the bar with your hands just outside of your legs (overhand grip or alternated, whichever you prefer). Lift your chest, retract those shoulder blades and stand up. Think about pushing your heels down, thrusting your hips forward and squeezing your thighs and butt as you lift up the bar.

Romanian Deadlifts
The Romanian deadlift puts more emphasis on the hamstrings than the quads because more of the muscle action happens at the hip joint. Since your knees don’t bend very much when you do this variation, you may need to work on the flexibility in your calves and hamstrings in order to achieve a full range of motion. Also bear in mind that most people will have to go a bit lighter on this variation than on a standard Olympic-style barbell deadlift due to the decrease in quad involvement.
Sumo Deadlifts
The sumo deadlift involves taking a wide stance and keeping your arms inside of your legs. You’ll need to externally rotate at your hips to get into this position, which resembles the stance of a sumo wrestler. These are great for putting extra emphasis on the muscles of the inner thigh and groin area.

Strongman Deadlifts
As with all exercises, get creative with the deadlift! You can experiment with deadlifting kettlebells, medicine balls, sandbags or really anything! Different objects will present their own unique challenges. It is common in strongman contests for competitors to deadlift anything from huge concrete spheres to the axle and wheels of a hummer.

Every Body Needs Training
This is the part of the blog where I tell you to get a trainer if you’re at all nervous about deadlifting for the first time. This is one exercise you want to be extra careful with. Even though there is a video tutorial below, some people will not be able to properly learn this movement pattern without someone physically guiding them through it. (Thanks to Bell Fitness Company for letting me shoot this tutorial in their facility.)

24 thoughts on “All About Deadlifts

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  • By Jenifermparker -

    the real trick about deadlifts that is often tough for beginners is the lack of hip and lower back flexibility to prevent rounding, plus a lack of strength between the shoulder blades to keep the chest lifted.

    shall i write up a yoga routine that can help develop that, such that deadlift form will be improved? ๐Ÿ˜€

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Good point. I actually use the sun salutation to teach clients of mine the proper alignment for this exercise sometimes. Going from a forward fold into a monkey pose can help people learn to retract their scapula while stretching their hamstrings.

      • By zak -


        I would love a yoga routine to improve my lifts

        • By Al Kavadlo -

          Sounds good, Zak. Keep an eye out for something like that in the weeks to come.

      • By Jenifermparker -
  • By Stallion -

    Great stuff, Al!

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks, Stallion!

  • By Nelly -

    Yay deadlifts! This is probably my favorite of all the lifts – it just feels so beast! One of my goals for 2011 to deadlift over 1.5 times my weight for a 1 rep max (I work out in a gym with conscientious trainers always on duty). I’m at 185 right now, so only about 25 lbs to go!

    So that’s what a Romanian deadlift is. Looks like fun!

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      I think 185 is already a solid lift for a woman who weighs 140 (I got math skills, eh?) but I see no reason why you can’t break into the 200’s if you keep training hard.

      And make sure to give the Romanian Deadlift a try some time – I think it might help with your goal!

      • By Nelly -

        Yep, I’m definitely giving the Romanian version a try next time I’m at the gym (might be a little while, since everything’s closed on account of NC getting slammed with an omgblizzard, which translates to about an inch and a half on the roads >_<). This might be the girly-girl in me talking, but it just looks like the best booty exercise!

        Al, you got math skills LIKE A BOSS.

        • By Al Kavadlo -

          Deadlifts are indeed a great booty exercise.

          And you definitely don’t need a gym to work out – but you know that already!

  • By George -

    Deadlifts are my favorite exercise!! They pretty much a full body workout! It good to see other people who do them without shoes, I always get strange looks in my gym when I do that ๐Ÿ™
    Another tip that helped me keep my back straight to look at where the ceiling meets the wall. Just my two cent! Great video Mr. Kavadlo!!

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks George! I wouldn’t go barefoot at a commercial gym, but Bell Fitness Company is hardcore. They don’t even have an eliptical trainer!

      And yeah, finding a spot to focus your eyes on can often help with alignment. Thanks for sharing!

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