Valued for its simplicity and the raw power it demands, the deadlift is a straightforward gym exercise embraced by a variety of athletes. Drawing a diverse crowd, including CrossFitters, powerlifters, bodybuilders, and those just starting out, few exercises garner as much consensus as the deadlift. However, even experienced lifters find value in enhancing their knowledge of the deadlift, from proper technique and variations to muscles engaged, safety, recovery, and common mistakes to avoid.

What Is a Deadlift?


A deadlift is a weight training exercise that involves lifting a loaded barbell or bar from the ground to hip level, then lowering it back to the ground. It is one of the few standard weight training exercises where you lift the weight from a dead stop on the ground with each repetition. There is no momentum to lift the weight like in the bench or shoulder press where an initial push or lift off the chest or shoulders helps move the weight. In a deadlift, you have to generate all the force yourself from a static position which makes it both straightforward in concept but challenging to perform.


How to Deadlift


Before performing a deadlift, you need to prepare properly with yoga posses, dynamic stretches, and mobility exercises such as leg swings, hip circles, and lunges with a twist.


Yoga enhances flexibility and balance and prepares your body for the intense lifting session. Dynamic stretches and mobility exercises warm up your muscles which makes them more flexible and allows them to stretch further. This extended stretching activates more muscle fibers, and this enables you to produce more force and improves your lifting efficiency.


In addition to warm-up exercises, you may want to include a few light sets of the deadlift itself. This practice helps establish correct form before progressing to heavier lifts. Once warmed up, you are ready to start the actual lift.


To perform a deadlift, line up the barbell with the center of your feet, your shins slightly apart from it. Then lean down and grip the bar outside your shins without shifting them forward. Advance your knees toward the barbell so that your shins make contact with the barbell and simultaneously lower your hips to prepare for the lift. Expand your knees outward until they touch your forearms. Lift the barbell by sliding it up your legs until you are fully upright. To lower the barbell, hinge your hips backward and guide the barbell down your legs. Keep it close to maintain control until it reaches the floor.



The deadlift has several variations, each with its unique technique, including the sumo, Romanian, snatch-grip, and stiff-legged.


The sumo deadlift uses a wider stance the width of which can vary based on your height and what feels comfortable for your hips. A good starting point is just wider than your shoulders, with your knees aligning with your toes. Then you grip the bar with your hands inside your legs, using either a double overhand or over/under grip.



Another variation is the Romanian deadlift where your legs are shoulder-wide apart, ankles just touching the barbell and hands in an overhand grip slightly outside the legs. You start from a standing position, holding the bar at hip level, and slide it down your legs without lowering it to the ground. Then you pull the bar back up.



The snatch-grip deadlift is a third variation where you use a much wider grip, usually set well beyond shoulder width. You start with a low squat, using a hook grip and extending your arms out. You pull the bar from the ground and stand upright, bringing the bar to the upper thigh or lower abdomen, depending on your arm length and the width of your grip. Then, lower back down to the floor in a squat with good posture.



Lastly, in the stiff-legged deadlift, your feet are shoulder-width apart and your legs stay nearly straight throughout the movement. You grip the bar at shoulder width, with your knees almost straight and your back flat. You lift the bar to hip level, pull back your shoulders, and extend your knees just short of locking them—this is the starting position. From here, you lower the bar towards the ground without touching it and then raise it back up to the starting position.





Muscles Worked


The deadlift engages multiple muscle groups across the body, including the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and lower back muscles, which makes it one of the most comprehensive compound exercises in strength training.


One of the primary muscles it targets is the erector spinae or lower back which help lift the barbel and stabilize the spine to prevent rounding or arching that can lead to injury. Another engaged muscle group is the glutes which drive the hips upward as you straighten your body and lift the barbell to hip level. In tandem with the glutes, the hamstrings contract to extend the hips as you pull the barbell upward. When they contract, the hamstrings also stabilize the back of the knee joint which prevents the knees from collapsing or buckling inward.


Simultaneously, the upper body muscles, including the latissimus dorsi and trapezius, ensure that your shoulders stay in a fixed position and prevent them from rounding forward or pulling backward. Rounding the shoulders forward can cause the spine to curve unnaturally and stress the spinal discs which can lead to pain and injury. Conversely, pulling the shoulders backward too much can cause excessive arching of the back and put strain on the shoulder joints and upper back muscles which can lead to potential injury.


Benefits of Deadlifting


Beyond enhancing muscle strength and coordination, deadlifting offers several additional benefits, including improved posture, increased bone density, better grip strength, enhanced body mechanics, and better mental health.


Specifically, regular deadlifting strengthens the muscles surrounding the spine which enables them to hold it in its correct position more effectively. This prevents the spine from deviating into unhealthy postures such as excessive rounding or arching and reduces the risk of posture-related issues such as chronic back pain and spinal deformities.


Deadlifts also enhance bone density as the weight lifted creates a mechanical load on the bones involved in the movement, primarily in the spine, hips, and legs. This mechanical stress signals the bone marrow to convert stem cells into osteoblasts, which then activate and generate new bone material. The resulting tissue strengthens the bones which is especially beneficial for counteracting age-related bone density loss. It also reduces the risk of fractures and conditions like osteoporosis and arthritis.


Improved grip strength is another benefit of deadlifts as the sustained holding required to lift and control the barbell enhances it. This stronger grip is beneficial for daily activities such as carrying groceries, opening tight jars, and handling heavy tools. Additionally, a stronger grip improves performance in various sports that require robust hand strength, including rock climbing, racquet sports like tennis, and rowing.


Furthermore, incorporating deadlifts can lead to better body mechanics by teaching you how to safely and effectively lift objects off the ground. You learn how to bend at the hips and knees while keeping the spine neutral which can help with safe lifting during routine activities such as lifting heavy boxes or moving furniture.


Lastly, deadlifting has a positive impact on mental health. Successfully lifting heavy weights requires addressing physical challenges such as mastering proper form, maintaining endurance throughout the lift, and enduring muscle fatigue during and after the exercise.  It also requires overcoming mental challenges such as maintaining focus despite discomfort, pushing past perceived limits, and dealing with setbacks or plateaus in progress. These experiences can build confidence and enhance resilience to stress.

Safety Tips


When lifting weights, particularly during exercises like the deadlift, key safety measures include selecting appropriate weights, wearing supportive gear, maintaining a controlled tempo, and watching for signs of fatigue and pain.

Appropriate Weights


For the right weight selection, it depends on your experience level and the type of deadlift being performed. If you are a beginner, a safe starting weight might range from 50% to 70% of your body weight, depending on your comfort levels. Initially, you may start with just the barbell which typically weighs about 45 pounds to focus on form.  As you build strength, you can start adding smaller plates, such as 5 or 10 pounds per side, to assess your ability to lift with the same precision.


Experienced lifters, familiar with their capabilities and deadlift mechanics, might start with a higher base weight up to 100% of their body weight. They can also increase weights in larger increments such as 10 to 25 pounds per side to continue challenging their muscles while adhering to safe lifting practices.


Additionally, different variations of the deadlift may require different weights. With the Romanian deadlift, for example, the weights do not touch the ground between repetitions, and muscles are under constant tension throughout the exercise. This continuous strain requires using lighter weights to ensure the movements are controlled and safe. In contrast, sumo deadlifts require a wider stance that offers more stability and lowers the lifting height which allows you to handle heavier weights.


Support Essentials


Next, wearing supportive gear such as weightlifting belts, wrist wraps, and flat-soled shoes can enhance your performance and safety during deadlifts. A weightlifting belt supports your lower back and stabilizes your spine under heavy loads, thus reducing the risk of injury. Wrist wraps help prevent excessive movement or bending which can cause strains or more serious injuries such as sprains, tendonitis, or even fractures in severe cases. Flat-soled shoes provide a stable base by keeping your feet flat and evenly grounded, which improves stability and allows you to lift heavier weights more effectively.

Controlled Lifting Speed


Even with the right gear, the speed of your lift is important for safety. Maintaining a controlled tempo is best such as lifting the weight for two seconds and then lowering it back to the ground over three seconds. This consistent pace helps prevent abrupt, uncontrolled motions that can strain muscles.


Assessing Fatigue and Pain


Additionally, you need to monitor for signs of fatigue and pain because these symptoms can indicate that your body is at risk. Fatigue might show up as a noticeable decrease in muscle strength, trembling during lifts, or difficulty maintaining proper form. These signs signal that your muscles are becoming overworked and increase the risk of injury if you continue without sufficient rest.


Sharp or persistent pain should also be closely watched, particularly in the lower back and knees, along with muscle pain that feels different from typical muscle soreness. Such discomfort could signal a strain or more severe conditions like muscle tears that require immediate attention.


Proper Recovery


Proper recovery helps repair and rebuild muscles after intense activity and restores strength for subsequent workouts. Key aspects of effective recovery include adequate rest between workouts, proper hydration, nutrition, and enough sleep.


Rest between Workouts


Adequate rest between workouts typically ranges from 24 to 48 hours, which gives muscles enough time to repair and strengthen. In the first 24 hours, the body actively repairs damaged tissues and reduces inflammation. Extending recovery to 48 hours allows for a full cycle of cellular repair and growth.


For lighter sessions that tax muscles less, a 24-hour rest period may be adequate for recovery because the damage is typically minor. Meanwhile, intense workouts that push muscles to their limits benefit from the full 48-hour recovery period to ensure a complete cycle of cellular repair.


Adequate Hydration


Proper hydration also supports recovery after a deadlift. Before and during exercise, it keeps muscles lubricated, which makes them more flexible and allows for smoother and more efficient contractions. These smoother contractions reduce the stress and strain on muscle fibers during workouts, minimize damage, and thus lead to quicker recovery after lifting. After exercise, hydration supports the transportation of nutrients essential for muscle repair, including proteins, amino acids, glucose, and electrolytes like sodium and potassium.


A general guideline from the American Council on Exercise is to drink 17 to 20 ounces of liquid a few hours before exercising, 8 ounces during your warm-up, and 7 to 10 ounces at regular intervals of 10 to 20 minutes during your workout. Additionally, you need an extra 8 ounces about half an hour after you finish exercising.


Recovery Nutrition

In addition to hydration, adequate nutrition supports muscle recovery and involves eating a balanced diet that includes carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Carbohydrates help replenish depleted glycogen stores which are the primary fuel for muscle metabolism and recovery. Proteins provide the amino acids required to rebuild muscle fibers damaged during lifting while fats offer a longer-term energy source for muscle repair. An example of a balanced meal with all three macronutrients is grilled chicken breast, a side of quinoa or sweet potatoes, and a salad dressed with olive oil.

Ample Sleep


Sufficient sleep supports muscle recovery because it is during this time that most of the body’s repair processes occur. During deep sleep stages, in particular, the body releases growth hormone which aids tissue growth and muscle repair. Consequently, aiming for 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night ensures adequate time for these essential recovery processes. This amount of rest also ensures that energy levels and mental focus are restored for future workouts.


Common Mistakes and How to Avoid Them


When performing deadlifts, there are a few common mistakes that increase the risk of injury, including lifting with a rounded back, keeping the bar too far from your body, neglecting foot positioning, and gripping the bar incorrectly.

Rounded Back


When the back is rounded, the hips start too high and causes the glutes and hamstrings to be in a lengthened position. In this state, they cannot produce maximum force to efficiently extend the hips. If the hips are not properly extended, they fail to generate sufficient force to lift the weight, which forces the lower back muscles to compensate and bear the additional load.


These muscles are not designed to be the primary lifting force but to stabilize the spine and quickly become fatigued. Moreover, when the lower back muscles are overworked, the weight they bear gets transferred to the spinal discs. This weight is more than they are built to handle and can push them out of their normal position, leading to a slipped or herniated disc. This not only causes severe pain but can also lead to longer-term spinal health issues such as chronic back problems and nerve damage.


Bar Too Far


Keeping the bar too far from your body is a common mistake that shifts the center of gravity forward and forces the lower back muscles to work harder to maintain balance and support the spine. As these muscles exert extra effort, there is an increased risk of straining them.


Improper Foot Positioning


Setting your feet too wide or narrow can increase strain and lead to injury. When your feet are too wide, the main muscles that become engaged are the muscles of the inner thighs which help stabilize the body sideways. However, these muscles are not as powerful or effective at lifting heavy weights vertically as the glutes and hamstrings are. This increases the strain on these muscles as they are not designed to handle heavy lifting which raises the risk of injury.


On the other hand, if your feet are too narrow, you might not have a solid base to lift from, which makes you unstable. This instability can cause you to lean forward or sideways to try and keep the weight balanced which puts a lot of strain on your lower back.


Incorrect Grip


Gripping the bar incorrectly can compromise your safety in several ways, depending on the grip. For example, if the bar is gripped too loosely, it can shift to one side and prompt you to lean to the opposite side to counterbalance the weight. This sideways bending of the spine causes the muscles on one side of your back to overstretch while those on the other side overly contract. This imbalance leads to strain as the muscles are forced to function outside their normal range and capacity.


Conversely, holding the bar too tightly can create excessive tension in the forearms and shoulders. This can lead to stiffness that might prevent maintaining a natural, fluid motion during the lift.


Additionally, a grip that is too wide or too narrow can also pose problems during the deadlift. Under normal circumstances with a standard grip, your arms and shoulders remain closer to your body. Thus the shoulders align straight with the hips and legs, and the force generated by them moves straight up which results in equal weight distribution across the body.


However, when your hands are placed too far apart, the shoulders are pushed outward which disrupts their alignment with the hips and legs. As a result, the weight is no longer directly supported by these stronger muscles and the shoulders must bear more weight to compensate.


Similarly, a grip that is too narrow can create challenges during the deadlift. With an overly narrow grip, your arms and shoulders might be constricted too close to your body. This tight configuration can lead to the shoulders hunching forward which misaligns them with the hips and legs. Consequently, the weight is not optimally supported by the hip and leg muscles, and the shoulders take on an increased load, which they are less equipped to handle efficiently.



Wrapping Up


Deadlifting challenges you to lift more weight than most other exercises, engaging every muscle group for impressive results. Not only this but it is conceptually straightforward, you either complete the lift to lockout or you miss it entirely. However, despite its apparent simplicity, the deadlift involves much more than walking up to the bar and pulling. There are many nuances to master, from correct technique and variations to common mistakes and proper recovery. Understanding these aspects is what differentiates a successful, safe lift from one that could lead to injury and undermine your training progress.




How to breathe during a deadlift?


Take a deep breath in and fill your abdomen with air to create intra-abdominal pressure which helps stabilize your core and spine under the heavy load. Lift the barbell off the ground. Once the barbell passes your knees, you can start to exhale slowly but controlled. This gradual exhale helps maintain the intra-abdominal pressure that supports your spine and core. Continue exhaling until you’ve completed the lift and are standing fully upright with the bar at hip level.


Should I deadlift on an empty stomach or after eating?


Deadlifting is an intense exercise that requires a lot of energy, so most people find it beneficial to eat beforehand. However, eating too soon before your workout can cause problems such as cramps or an upset stomach because your body is still trying to digest the food while you are physically active.


The ideal timing to eat is about 1 – 2 hours before your deadlift session so that the body has ample time to digest the meal and avoid discomfort.


Even with this optimal timing, you should avoid eating too much as overeating can lead to issues like bloating and nausea and make it difficult to focus on proper lifting techniques. Opt for a light to moderate meal, typically around 300 – 500 calories, to provide the necessary fuel without overburdening your digestive system. Such a meal could be a smoothie made with a banana, a handful of spinach, and a scoop of protein powder or a bowl of oatmeal topped with berries and a few almonds.


If you prefer to deadlift on an empty stomach, particularly during early morning sessions or due to sensitivity to pre-workout meals, ensure you’ve had a substantial meal the night before to maintain enough energy reserves. In this case, if you feel you need a little something to kickstart your session, consider a small, easily digestible snack. Choices include a piece of toast with a thin spread of jam or a few slices of apple. This light option, around 50 – 100 calories, provides a quick source of energy without weighing you down.


Can weightlifts help with weight loss?


Yes, deadlifts can be a highly effective exercise for weight loss. This exercise helps you build muscle mass, and the more muscle tissue you have, the more calories you burn to maintain it. Additionally, deadlifting boosts your metabolic rate for hours after you finish your workout. This happens because your body needs more energy for muscle repair and recovery and continues to burn calories at a higher rate long after your session has ended.


Can deadlifts help improvе balance?


Yes, deadlifts engage multiple muscles that help stabilize the body, including the core, legs, back, and shoulders. As you practice, your body learns to activate these muscles at the right time which enhances your ability to maintain balance.


Can deadlifts help reduce the risk of injury?


When you strengthen your lower back and core muscles, you enhance your spinal alignment and posture. Proper posture helps distribute stress evenly across your body and reduces the likelihood of developing abnormal strain patterns. Such abnormal patterns can lead to injuries in activities that involve lifting, reaching, and bending.


How do deadlifts assist with daily activities?


Strengthening the leg muscles, including the hamstrings and glutes, prepares your body to handle daily activities more effectively. Strong hamstrings stabilize your knees and hips as you climb stairs while robust glutes improve pelvic stability which is key in movements that involve carrying heavy loads such as groceries, lifting children, and moving furniture.


Does deadlifting benefit women?


Deadlifting offers several key health benefits for women, including boosting bone density, increasing muscle mass, and enhancing metabolism.


First, deadlifting is particularly valuable in increasing bone density and reducing the risk of osteoporosis to which women are more vulnerable. Second, deadlifting builds muscle mass which benefits women at different stages of their lives. During pregnancy, for example, stronger muscles support the added weight and help reduce the severity of back pain. After childbirth, strong pelvic floor muscles help return the bladder and rectum to their normal positions, as they have been shifted by the growing uterus. During and after menopause, strengthening multiple muscle groups helps counteract the muscle loss that accelerates due to declining estrogen levels.


Third, deadlifting helps boost metabolism by increasing calorie burning, which in turn supports weight management—a common challenge during peri- and menopause. Additionally, enhanced metabolism helps regulate blood sugar levels, reduces the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, and supports overall cardiovascular health.


Who should avoid deadlifting?


Deadlifting is a highly effective strength training exercise but it is not suitable for everyone, particularly those with preexisting back conditions, cardiovascular concerns, recent surgical history, and pregnant women.


Persons with back issues such as herniated discs, spinal stenosis, and chronic lower back pain should generally avoid deadlifting. Even with proper form, the substantial force applied to the spinal structures can aggravate these conditions and lead to increased pain, further disc injury, or nerve compression.


Those with cardiovascular conditions, including persons with coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, and a history of stroke, should exercise caution when considering deadlifting. The intense physical exertion required for deadlifting can cause spikes in blood pressure and put excessive strain on the heart which increases the risk of cardiovascular events.


Additionally, people who have recently undergone surgery, particularly involving the joints, spine, or abdominal areas, should avoid deadlifting during their recovery phase. Engaging in this strenuous activity too soon can strain surgical sites and delay the healing process. Complications can also occur, including torn stitches, reopened wounds, inflammation, and dislodged implants which can extend recovery times and increase the risk of chronic issues.


Furthermore, people with neurological conditions such as Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, or peripheral neuropathy may find deadlifting unsuitable due to movement instability, reduced muscle strength, and diminished sensory perception. For instance, Huntington’s disease causes involuntary movements, multiple sclerosis can lead to muscle weakness and spasticity, and peripheral neuropathy results in numbness and weakness in the hands and feet. These symptoms can impair the ability to maintain proper form, stability, and hand grip and can lead to improper weight distribution and increased risk of falls.


Lastly, pregnant women should approach deadlifting with great caution or avoid it altogether, as the physiological changes of pregnancy can make such high-intensity exercises risky. Hormones like relaxin increase during this time and loosen the ligaments and joints, which can compromise stability during heavy lifting. Furthermore, as the pregnancy progresses, the expanding abdomen shifts the center of gravity which alters posture and balance. This shift can make maintaining correct form challenging and increases the risk of musculoskeletal injuries such as pelvic misalignment and lower back strains.