How to Do a Deadlift, Arguably the Single Best Exercise of All Time

young, fit black woman performing a barbell deadlift exercise
The deadlift is a compound movement that strengthens your glutes, hamstrings, core, lats and forearms.
Image Credit: yacobchuk/iStock/GettyImages

Fact: If you want to feel like a total pro walking into the gym, learn how to deadlift. If you feel strong and secure in your movement, you'll get a bit of a confidence boost doing this compound exercise (one that uses multiple muscles).

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  • What is a deadlift?​ It's a lower-body exercise that involves hinging your torso forward, pushing your butt back and pulling weight up from the ground up.
  • What muscles do deadlifts work?​ They strengthen your entire body, with an emphasis on your glutes, hamstrings, core, lats and forearms.
  • Who can do the deadlift?​ Almost everyone at any fitness level, including beginners, can do this move in some form. If you have an existing or past back injury, consult your doctor or physical therapist before adding this move to your routine.

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How to Do a Deadlift With Perfect Form

Before you start repping out your deadlifts, it's crucial to practice your form. Many classes and instructors will have you practice with a PVC pipe or your body weight to learn the movement pattern before adding weight.

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Start With the Hip Hinge

The crux of the deadlift is the hip hinge. It's a foundational movement pattern — and critical to learning first if your goal is to deadlift heavy weight.

"It's important to nail this movement with body weight first to avoid any lower back or knee injuries when it comes time to load the exercise with weight," Dan Partridge, CPT, personal trainer at Life Time in Minnetonka, Minnesota, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

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"When performing a hip hinge, keep your shoulder line above your hip line and your hip line above your knee line," Partridge says. "If your shoulders lower further down than your hips, your lower back will be overloaded and if your hips travel lower than the line of your knees, you are technically squatting and no longer in a correct hinge."

Practicing the hip hinge also differentiates the deadlift from the squat (more on that below).

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Christine Torde, CPT, a strength coach at Body Space Fitness in New York City, demonstrates how to do the hip hinge in the video below. Some helpful cues to keep in mind:

  • Place your index fingers on your hip bones and think of pushing your hips back.
  • Keep your core engaged and back neutral — straight spine, no arching or rounding.
  • When standing up, push the floor away and stand up tall like you're getting your height measured.

How to Hip Hinge

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Activity Body-Weight Workout
Body Part Butt
  1. Stand a foot away from a wall, facing away from it.
  2. Place your feet shoulder-width apart with your heels under your hips and a soft bend in your knees.
  3. Move your hips back toward the wall.
  4. Lean your torso toward the floor with your back long. Keep your core braced and spine completely flat.
  5. Once your torso is parallel to the ground, drive your hips forward and reverse the motion to return to standing. Be careful not to hyper-extend your hips.

How to Deadlift

How to Deadlift
Image Credit: Dan Partridge/LIVESTRONG.com
Type Strength
Activity Barbell Workout
Body Part Butt, Legs, Back and Abs
  1. Add weight plates to a barbell and position it on the floor in front of you. If needed, position it on an elevated platform to allow for a reduced range of motion.
  2. Step up to the bar, shins almost against it, feet planted firmly hip-width apart. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
  3. Hinge from the hips, softening your knees as your hips sink low enough to let you grasp the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart.
  4. Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
  5. Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you press your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift the bar.
  6. Finish the motion by lifting your chest and engaging your lats to stabilize the bar in front of your hips.
  7. Return the bar to the ground by reversing the motion, pushing your weight back into your hips and softening your knees, letting the bar travel in a controlled path back down to the floor along your body.

Tip

No barbell? No problem, you can deadlift with just about any equipment you have: dumbbells, kettlebells, resistance bands, cable machines and landmines. Check out the deadlift variations below for how to use each type of equipment.

Watch the Full Tutorial

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What’s the Difference Between a Deadlift and a Squat?

"Both exercises are compound and functional movements, and both have amazing benefits," Torde says. The main differences include:

1. Hip vs. Knee Dominant

The deadlift is a hip-dominant movement, and the squat is a knee-dominant movement.​ Both work the lower-body muscles, but the squat focuses more on the quads (front of the legs), whereas the deadlift targets the hamstrings (back of the legs).

2. Location of the Weight

"Traditionally, a deadlift will start with the weight on the floor and ends with it back on the floor," Patridge says. On the other hand, when you're doing a squat, your own body weight is the load.

And if you're using external load (dumbbell, kettlebell or barbell), it can be in your hands by the floor (suitcase squat), at your chest (goblet squat) or racked across your shoulders (front squat) or back (back squat), Torde says.

3. Straight Spine vs. Upright Spine

When doing a squat, you want to keep your spine straight and as vertical as possible, Partridge says. This ensures your hips can stay open and your hip flexors aren't overloaded. By comparison, deadlifting requires a straight spine but not an upright one.

"When performing the hip hinge that is required when deadlifting, the person's torso will start to angle toward the floor," Partridge says. "The spine is still straight, but it cannot stay upright in order to perform a deadlift correctly."

4. Ankle Flexion vs. Vertical Shins

"Squats require a certain amount of ankle mobility to be able to perform one correctly," Partridge says. The ankles need to flex when you bend your knees and squat down. But when deadlifting, your shins stay vertical, meaning there's little to no flexion in the front of the ankle, he says.

"If your shins are flexed and not vertical in the deadlift, your toes and balls of the feet will have too much weight loaded into them which can cause strain on your lower back."

How Much Weight to Use for a Deadlift

If you're new to deadlifts, focus on learning the hip hinge until you feel comfortable with the movement, Tatiana Lampa, certified personal trainer, tells LIVESTRONG.com.

Once you can do it weight-free with good form, progress to a kettlebell, Lampa says. You may feel inclined to jump right to the barbell, but the kettlebell is the safest next step, as the weight can be easier to control but still mimics the bar pretty closely.

Knowing when to progress is personal, but Lampa instructs her clients to go by their rate of perceived exertion (RPE). In other words, judge your effort on a scale of one to 10, one being extremely easy and 10 being extremely difficult.

"If you feel like you're somewhere between one and six, I'd highly suggest going heavier," Lampa says.

How Many Deadlifts Should You Do?

You should keep your deadlifts to one, maybe two days per week, Lampa says. Once you find a comfortably challenging weight, aim for 8 reps. As you get stronger, increase the number of reps you perform.

You can also choose the reps and sets specific to your goals, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). If you're new to strength training, stick to 1 or 2 sets of 8 to 15 reps. Or, if your goal is to improve muscle strength, try 2 to 6 sets of 4 to 8 reps.

4 Deadlift Benefits and Muscles Worked

1. It’s an Efficient Full-Body Exercise

Like squats or push-ups, deadlifts are a compound exercise, which means they work multiple joints and muscles at the same time. Unlike isolation movements, which target one muscle at a time, compound exercises will help you burn more calories and improve muscle coordination and exercise efficiency.

2. It Targets the Hamstrings and Glutes

Deadlifts are a great way to strengthen your posterior chain (back of the body), Lampa says. They target your hamstrings, glutes, back, hips and abdominals.

By targeting the posterior chain, deadlifts can help address some of the negative effects of sitting for long periods of time or staring down at your phone. Over time, these sedentary activities can lead to poor posture, muscle imbalances and even injury or pain.

"Today, we are spending much of our day working from home, which means we're sitting down, rounding our shoulders and decreasing our steps," Lampa says. "It's really important to focus on the posterior chain to build your strength and decrease the risk of injuries."

3. It’s Extremely Functional

"Deadlifts are a part of our daily activity but some people don't recognize them," Lampa says. "When you're placing your baby in the crib or picking something up from the ground, you're performing a deadlift."

Training this movement in the gym will allow you to do these everyday tasks better — that's what we mean when we say it's "functional" — without hurting yourself.

4. It Builds Grip Strength

Deadlifts also improve your grip strength. A strong grip is associated with tons of positive health outcomes, including increased bone density, better sleep and improved brain health. A weak grip is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular mortality, stroke and heart attack.

That's because you've likely been hitting weights and reaping all the health benefits of strength training. Lifting weights leads to better grip strength, and better grip strength means you can lift bigger and heavier things. As you deadlift, you're building this important grip strength that will let you progress in the gym and also make it easier to hold, carry or grab onto things IRL.

7 Deadlift Tips for Better Results

1. Use Your Core

Yes, a deadlift is a lower-body movement, but it's also a core workout. Engaging your core throughout the entire movement is what keeps your spine stable — so that you can avoid overarching it and straining as you lift.

"Maintaining tension throughout the entire movement is key," Torde says. Before lifting, take a big breath in and brace your core. At the top of the movement, exhale, then inhale and brace again before lowering the weight back down.

2. Grip the Bar — Hard

Partridge recommends over-gripping the bar — meaning you should be squeezing as hard as you can.

"Working with a stronger/harder grip gives you a much stronger connection and feedback from the bar, since [the hands] are your first and only constant points on contact with the weight during the deadlift," Partridge says. "It translates to a more focused mindset as well."

He recommends using a 'white knuckle' grip. You can also think about crushing a soda can in your hand. "Think of how satisfying and how much you could squeeze your grip if you could keep continuously crushing a can in your hand. If you think you have some grip strength left in the tank, keep squeezing harder."

3. "Pack" Your Shoulders

It's normal for your shoulders to try and naturally raise up during a deadlift, Partridge says. But if you let it happen, it can result in rounding your upper back, which leaves your lats (the large muscle that runs along each side of your back) out of the movement.

When this happens, your body will use other muscle groups to compensate, which can put unwanted pressure on your lower back, Partridge says. It can also mess with your shoulders. You may not end up injured the first time you deadlift, but it can cause issues over time.

Instead, focus on "packing the shoulders," or pushing them down in their sockets, when you set up for the lift, Partridge says. This will keep the lats and shoulders engaged in a safe, powerful way.

4. Push Your Butt Back

Squats and deadlifts are similar, but they're not the same. Lampa often sees people mistakenly turn their deadlift into a squat, forgetting the hip hinge motion. With a deadlift, think about shooting your hips back and moving horizontally, rather than vertically.

5. Hinge From Your Hips

As mentioned earlier, a deadlift shouldn't involve your knees coming forward and ankles flexing. If that's happening, you're doing more of a squat than a hip hinge.

If you find your ankles flexing, put down the weight and go back to the body-weight hip hinge. Focus on pushing your butt back as your torso comes forward. Your feet and shins should stay in the same position from start to finish. Try bending your knees a little more — tight hamstrings could also be interfering.

6. Maintain a Flat Back

As you lift the weight up or lower it back down, keep your back flat and long. Often, though, Lampa spots exercisers rounding their back as if they were performing a stretch or roll down.

"I definitely don't want to see that in a deadlift," she says. "That's loading their low back and not activating their hamstring, glutes, lats and core."

To avoid rounding your back, brace your core and think about moving the top half of your body (head to hips) in one straight plane. And don't bend over too far. If you lean over too far, you're likely to see the shoulders and upper back start to round. Instead, once you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, squeeze your glutes and stand back up.

7. Keep the Weight Close to Your Body

A big part of proper deadlift form involves keeping the weight close to your body as you lift and lower.

"It should feel like you are pulling up your pants," Torde says. If it's too far away, you won't have much power during the lift "since the weight is too far away from your center of mass. It also increases the chance of injuring your back, she says.

If you see the weight drifting away from your body, your lats (side and mid-back muscles) probably aren't engaged, Lampa says. To avoid this, think about pulling your shoulders back and down, locking your lats in place.

10 Deadlift Variations to Try

1. Dumbbell Deadlift

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
  1. Place a dumbbell on one end on the floor in front of you between your legs.
  2. Stand with your feet planted firmly hip-width apart. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
  3. Hinge from your hips, softening your knees as your hips sink low enough to let you grasp the end of the dumbbell with both hands.
  4. Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
  5. Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you press your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift the weight.
  6. Finish the motion by lifting your chest and engaging your lats to stabilize the weight in front of you.
  7. Return the weight to the ground by reversing the motion, pushing your weight back into your hips and softening your knees, letting the weight travel in a controlled path back down to the floor along your body.

2. Double Dumbbell Deadlift

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Activity Dumbbell Workout
  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs.
  2. Stand with your feet planted firmly hip-width apart. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
  3. Hinge from your hips, pushing your weight back into your hips and softening your knees, letting the weight travel in a controlled path down to the floor along your body.
  4. Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
  5. Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you press your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift the weights.
  6. Finish the motion by lifting your chest and engaging your lats to stabilize the weight.

3. Single Kettlebell Deadlift

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Activity Kettlebell Workout
  1. Place a kettlebell on the floor in front of you between your legs.
  2. Stand with your feet planted firmly hip-width apart. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
  3. Hinge from the hips, softening your knees as your hips sink low enough to let you grasp the handle with both hands.
  4. Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
  5. Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you press your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift the weight.
  6. Finish the motion by lifting your chest and engaging your lats to stabilize the weight in front of you.
  7. Return the weight to the ground by reversing the motion, pushing your weight back into your hips and softening your knees, letting the weight travel in a controlled path back down to the floor along your body.

4. Double Kettlebell Deadlift

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Activity Kettlebell Workout
  1. Place two kettlebells on the floor in front of you between your legs.
  2. Stand with your feet planted firmly hip-width apart. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
  3. Hinge from the hips, softening your knees as your hips sink low enough to let you grasp the handles of each kettlebell
  4. Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
  5. Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you press your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift the weight.
  6. Finish the motion by lifting your chest and engaging your lats to stabilize the weight in front of you.
  7. Return the weight to the ground by reversing the motion, pushing your weight back into your hips and softening your knees, letting the weight travel in a controlled path back down to the floor along your body.

5. Cable Machine Deadlift

Type Strength
  1. Stand tall in front of a cable machine, holding the cable handles between your legs.
  2. Stand with your feet planted firmly hip-width apart. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
  3. Hinge from the hips, pushing your weight back into your hips and softening your knees, as you let the cable travel in a controlled path down and behind you toward the anchor.
  4. Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
  5. Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you press your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and pull the cable back up.
  6. Finish the motion by lifting your chest and engaging your lats to stabilize the weight behind you.

6. Landmine Deadlift

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Activity Barbell Workout
  1. Stand in front of a landmine with your feet planted firmly hip-width apart. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
  2. Hinge from the hips, softening your knees as your hips sink low enough to let you grasp the end of the bar with both hands.
  3. Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
  4. Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you press your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift the weight.
  5. Finish the motion by lifting your chest and engaging your lats to stabilize the weight in front of you.
  6. Return the weight to the ground by reversing the motion, pushing your weight back into your hips and softening your knees, letting the weight travel in a controlled path back down to the floor along your body.

7. Cook Band Deadlift

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Activity Resistance Band Workout
  1. Stand in front of an anchor with a band attached and wrapped around your waist.
  2. Stand with your feet planted firmly hip-width apart. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
  3. Hinge from the hips, pushing your weight back into your hips and softening your knees, as you let some slack out of the band in a very controlled manner.
  4. Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
  5. Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you press your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift your chest and extend your hips to return to standing.

8. Sandbag Deadlift

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Type Strength
  1. Hold a sandbag by the handles in front of your thighs.
  2. Stand with your feet planted firmly hip-width apart. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
  3. Hinge from the hips, pushing your weight back into your hips and softening your knees, letting the weight travel in a controlled path down to the floor along your body.
  4. Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
  5. Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you press your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift the weights.
  6. Finish the motion by lifting your chest and engaging your lats to stabilize the weight.

9. Barbell Sumo Deadlift

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Activity Barbell Workout
  1. Add weight plates to your barbell and position it on the floor in front of you.
  2. Step up to the bar, shins almost against it, feet wider than shoulder-width apart and toes angled out. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
  3. Hinge from the hips, softening your knees as your hips sink low enough to let you grasp the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart.
  4. Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
  5. Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you press your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift the bar.
  6. Finish the motion by lifting your chest and engaging your lats to stabilize the bar in front of your hips.
  7. Return the bar to the ground by reversing the motion, pushing your weight back into your hips and softening your knees, letting the bar travel in a controlled path back down to the floor along your body.

Tip

Because of the wider stance, the sumo deadlift tends to be gentler on the back, especially for those who are tall or have long legs and struggle to keep a vertical spine with conventional deadlifts. It’s also a great option for plus-size athletes and those with large breasts who can’t comfortably get into that knees-to-chest scrunched position when your legs are closer together.

10. Barbell Romanian Deadlift

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Activity Barbell Workout
  1. Add weight plates to your barbell (optional) and position it on the floor in front of you.
  2. Step up to the bar, shins almost against it, feet planted firmly hip-width apart. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
  3. Hinge from the hips and soften your knees as your hips sink low enough to let you grasp the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart.
  4. Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you press your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift the bar.
  5. Lift your chest and engage your lats to stabilize the bar in front of your hips.
  6. Pushing your hips as far back as possible, bend the knees slightly and lower the bar right below knee height.
  7. On an exhale, brace the core and push the hips forward to return to standing.

Tip

Unlike standard deadlifts, the Romanian deadlift requires less of a knee bend and more hinge from your hips. This helps you target the hamstrings more than the conventional deadlift (see above).

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