There's a reason the deadlift has been dubbed the "healthlift" by some and "the daddy" of all lifts by others: It's one of the best, if not the best, exercises for strengthening every single muscle in your body.
"The deadlift primarily strengthens your hamstrings, glutes, calves and core, but when performed correctly, it also works your shoulders, traps, back and forearms," says physical therapist Grayson Wickham, DPT, CSCS, founder of digital movement platform Movement Vault.
An exercise that involves lifting something off the ground before placing it back down, deadlifting at the gym can help you safely lift and lower things (packages, pets, children, etc.) outside of the gym, too, he says.
Unfortunately, many people aren't able to lift weight off the floor or can't do so without next-day pain. That's why we asked fitness experts to outline the four common issues — ranging from form flubs to strength or mobility imbalances — that keep people from deadlifting safely.
If You: Can't Reach Down to Grab the Bar
You Need: to Stretch Your Hamstrings
So, you prepped the barbell or positioned your kettlebell for a solid deadlift session but can't quite reach it when you hinge forward —- or, at least, not without pain. Lack of hamstring mobility is likely the culprit.
"Our bodies adhere to the positions we spend the most time in," Wickham says. And these days, most people spend the bulk of their waking hours sitting, which puts your hamstrings in a shortened position. Over time, this can create hamstring tightness that limits your ability to bend down to pick something up.
While you may be able to force your way into picking up the weight, Wickham warns against this. "Usually, the next-closest muscle will take over the work," he says. In the case of the deadlift, it's typically the lower back that's forced to compensate for tight hamstrings, "which can lead to a traumatic or overuse back injury," he says.
Start incorporating hamstring mobilization movements into your routine — ideally, three times a week. The active banded stretch, active lunge and runner’s lunge are good stretches to start, Wickham says.
Second, while you don’t have to remove deadlift from your exercise list while your hamstrings are in the process of mobilizing, you do need to raise the height the weight starts at.
“Deadlifting a barbell from a squat rack or placing a kettlebell on a stack of weight plates will allow you to continue to get stronger in the ranges of motion you can safely access,” he explains.
To figure out the optimal height, he suggests hinging forward, then positioning the handle of your weight one inch above where you start to feel a pull along the back of your legs.
If You: Feel Your Last Set Is Your Best
You Need: a More Targeted Warm-Up
Your ability to deadlift might be getting blocked by a lackluster (or at least, non-specific) warm-up. A common symptom that your warm-up is the problem, says Wickham, is that you feel way better during your last set of deadlifts than you do during your first. This suggests that your hamstrings weren't properly prepped for your working sets, he says.
Before you do any kind of compound exercise, Wickham says you need a pre-lift routine incorporating a full-body warm-up, as well as a warm-up that specifically targets the muscles you're calling on to work during your strength session.
As far as a deadlift session is concerned, Wickham says that starting with 5 minutes of a general cardio warm-up (think: treadmill jog, 1000M row or jump-rope intervals). Then, transitioning to isometric hamstring work.
Isometric holds are an active form of stretching that involve isolating one muscle group (here, the hamstrings) and contracting it. “In a warm-up, these holds bring blood flow to the muscle group being activated, and help you gain range of motion very quickly,” he says.
Standing Hamstring Stretch
- Stand in front of a box or bench, feet under your hips, core braced.
- Keeping your right foot rooted to the ground, extend your left leg so that your left heel is on a box.
- Hinge your hips forward, folding toward the extended leg until you feel a stretch along the back of your left leg.
- Next, contract your left hamstring as hard as you can for 20 seconds.
- Rest, for 10 seconds.
- If you can, hinge forward to a greater degree and contract a second time.
- Repeat for 4 total reps on the left side.
- Switch sides, and repeat on the right side.
If You: Can’t Hold Onto the Bar
You Need: to Strengthen Your Grip Muscles
Does the bar slip out of your hands while you're lifting it? Do your forearms and fingers tap out long before your back and hamstrings do? Can you lift way more weight when you use lifting straps?
These are symptoms that your grip strength is what's preventing you from deadlifting as much weight or for as many reps as you'd like to, says certified strength and conditioning coach Jake Harcoff, CSCS, head coach and owner of AIM Athletic.
Anatomically speaking, the hamstrings are one of the biggest muscle groups in the body, Wickham says. So it makes sense that the hamstrings would be able to lift more weight than the forearm and hand muscles.
You can close this strength discrepancy by incorporating pulling and carrying exercises into your strength work: “pull-ups, chin-ups, dead hangs from the pull-up bar and heavy farmer’s carries,” Wickham says. Doing light(er) weight deadlifts will also build-up that strength over time.
If You: Experience Back Pain After Deadlifting
You Need: to Double-Check Your Form
Back soreness or pain after deadlifting may be common, but it isn't normal. It suggests that your deadlift technique is suboptimal — if not downright dangerous for your spine and its surrounding soft tissues.
"Intense back soreness in the days after a deadlift session suggests that your lower back muscles are doing the work of moving the weight," Wickham says. But you posterior chain muscles should be the main movers.
There's a tremendous difference between soreness and pain. If you would describe your back pain as “debilitating,” “sharp” or “tingling,” you may have an underlying issue, Wickham says. In this case, you should get checked out by a chiropractor or physical therapist before returning to physical activity.
How do you make sure your posterior chain is in the driver seat of your deadlifts? Perfect your hip hinge, which is the movement pattern that informs the deadlift, without weight or with a PVC pipe or broomstick, Harcoff says.
Proper Deadlift Form
- Grab onto a PVC pipe or broomstick (shown above with a barbell) with an overhand grip, hands shoulder-width apart.
- Stack your feet under your hips and brace your core.
- Keeping your shoulders above your hips, push your hips back as if trying to touch a wall behind you or close a car door with your butt.
- As you push back with hips, keep your arms straight and lower the bar down along your body.
- Continue lowering until the PVC pipe is at shin height or you feel a pulling sensation in your hamstrings — whichever comes first.
- Press through the floor to stand tall, pulling the bar up your legs as you do.