Few exercises have as many positive effects on the body as the deadlift. A staple among bodybuilders, fitness professionals and hobby gym-goers alike, the deadlift is a core-crunching, dynamic exercise that has laid the foundation for many exercises that have been developed along its lines over the years.

The essence of the deadlift lies in its simplicity as well as the amount of power one can generate while performing it. It essentially involves picking up a heavy dead weight off the ground - there couldn’t be a simpler (or more appropriate) way to name an exercise, however morbid the reason behind it may be.

It is believed that the word came from soldiers picking up the bodies of their fallen brothers in battle during the Roman empire. Some have an extension to this theory, saying that the technique was developed at the order of their commander who kept seeing his soldiers get hurt while picking up the fallen. As fascinating as they sound, there is no authenticity to either theory. The exercise itself traces its origins back to ancient Greece.

Compound exercises employ multiple muscle groups in a single exercise, resulting in a higher calorie burn as well as improving core strength. The deadlift is no different, as it engages a multitude of muscles, primarily in the lower half of the body, while boosting core strength.

Always perform this exercise under the guidance of a trained professional to ensure correct posture and technique and reduce the risk of injury. 

  1. Benefits of the deadlift
  2. Muscles worked
  3. Variations of the deadlift
  4. The correct way to do a deadlift
  5. Common mistakes, risks and tips to prevent injury
  6. Alternative exercises

By a long margin, the deadlift remains one of the most complete and easy exercises out there, due to the low level of technique involved and a reduced risk of injury. Because you pick the weight off the ground, there is no risk of dropping it on yourself. But the benefits don’t just end there:

  • Burns fat: It’s a well-known fact that weight-training is one of the most effective ways of burning fat and losing weight. And, as the deadlift involves multiple muscles, the rate of fat burn is naturally accelerated.
  • More muscle work: It’s no surprise that the deadlift rates No. 1 among the exercises that target the most number of muscles. According to some estimates, 60% of your body’s muscles are worked while performing the deadlift, which is more than other reputed exercises like the squat.
  • Improves posture: Deadlifts employ all of the muscles needed for the body for an erect posture, including the back as well as core muscles. You would feel a marked difference in your daily routines as you tend to sit up straighter throughout the day as a result of doing deadlifts.
  • Boosts hormonal growth: Deadlifts boost the amount of testosterone in the body, which is essential for muscle growth and recovery. The exercise also helps the body produce the growth hormone, which promotes fat loss and improves tissue and bone health.
  • Real-life benefits: The deadlift is one of those exercises which has a real-life benefit. Ever seen someone pick up a torch in an arm curl? Or lay under the bed and attempt to lift it like a bench press? Deadlifts help you perform daily chores more efficiently, and more effectively, like picking up a gas cylinder at home.
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No less than four key muscle groups are activated and work in unison during the full movement of the deadlift, hence its popularity as a compound exercise. The lower half of the body performs the bulk of the work, with the additional deployment of your arms as well as core muscles to lift the weight clean off the floor. Contrary to popular belief, glutes aren't the only muscles invited to the deadlift party.

A conventional deadlift uses the following muscles:

  • Quadriceps: Your front thigh muscles or quads are the ones responsible for the major ‘lift’ movement, which is while pulling the weight up off the floor. Deadlifts invoke the quads as they propel the extension of the knee. 
  • Adductor magnus: The long, inner thigh muscles need to be worked on, especially if you’re into running and playing outdoor sports. The deadlift does just that, sparing you the embarrassment of suffering from a groin strain by strengthening it.
  • Hamstring: The back of your thigh contains hugely important muscles for the movement of your legs, connecting your glutes to the knees, and the deadlift works particularly on the lower end of the hamstring muscles.
  • Soleus: Long, thin muscles connecting the mid-calf to the ankles work when the body is hunched down to pick up the weight off the floor, flexing the ankle, helping the shins return to their upright position at the end of the lift.

The muscle in your back, the erector spinae, also gets involved at the top of the deadlift’s movement as you’re required to extend your back as much as possible.

Much like many other exercises, even the deadlift has spawned multiple variations, depending on the skill level of the persons performing them, or even employing different equipment for their use. Some of the variations include:

  • Romanian deadlift: This exercise is often mistaken for the conventional deadlift and with good reason. Essentially it employs the same technique, but with more use of the hamstring and hip muscles, extending with the back. Due to more focus on the posture, Romanian deadlifts often result in less focus on the amount of weight one can pick up.
  • Sumo deadlift: One of the clues as to how this lift sets itself apart from the conventional deadlift is in its name. The set-up is like that of a sumo wrestler, feet wide apart with the hands inside the thighs. Sumo lifts put more pressure on the quads and inner thighs as opposed to the back in the standard deadlift.
  • Hex bar/trap bar: The hexagonal bar that is often less utilised in the gym is quite a good tool for deadlifts. For those who find deadlifts daunting and are unable to get the form down, the hex or trap bar eases the movement by keeping the hands on the sides, rather than in front of you, stopping you from tipping over from the conventional deadlift.
  • Wide grip/snatch grip: More utilized by weightlifters, the snatch grip is set wide apart on the bar and is more technical as a result.
  • Straight leg/stiff leg: Performing the same motion as the deadlift without bending the knees is a great alternative as it works the hamstrings very well.
  • Rack/block pulls: Instead of pulling the weight off the ground, this variation makes it slightly easier by elevating the height of the barbell, thereby decreasing the range of motion.
  • Dumbbell deadlift: Deadlifts performed with dumbbells, for the days you may not have access to a barbell.
  • Single-leg deadlifts: Performed with a dumbbell or a kettlebell, single-leg deadlifts can be beneficial for opening up the hip joint and focusing on core stability.
  • Hack deadlift: Perhaps the most technical of the lot, this movement is performed by standing “in front” of the barbell and lifting the bar from behind your back.
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Experience level: Advanced

Although a basic movement, maintaining the posture while performing the deadlift is critical in avoiding injuries, especially with heavier weights.

Equipment required: A barbell and a suitable pair of weights

Sets and reps: 3 sets of 10-15 reps

How to do it: 

  1. Stand with your legs less than shoulder-width apart and touching the bar.
  2. Bend the legs slightly, keep the back straight and extend the hips further back, with your shoulders pulled back away from the ears.
  3. Grip the bar from outside the legs, either with both your hands facing inwards or one facing outward and one inward.
  4. Push your heels down into the ground, look straight ahead while simultaneously lifting the bar off the floor.
  5. Keep the spine straight through the movement, stand erect and drive the hips into the bar.
  6. Come back down in the same motion, without bending the back, to the resting position. 
  7. This is one rep. Repeat at least 10 times.

Weight training exercises are a great way to build strength as well as keep your muscles and bones in good shape. However, not paying attention to the correct technique and form can have adverse effects and lead to injuries that can keep you from exercising for a long time. Here are some common errors people make while performing deadlifts:

  • Lifting too heavy: The testosterone-charged atmosphere of a gym can sometimes lead you to push yourself too far and quicker than you should. You gain practice and mastery by moving up gradually. Always remember to start with light weights, perfect your position and technique before moving up in weight.
  • Focus on form: As harmless as it looks, deadlifts can be dangerous if not performed correctly. Poor technique can lead to added pressure on the lower back and herniated discs thereafter. A slipped disc is a common injury from deadlifts due to improper loading and form.
  • Have someone spot you: Sure, you like to work out on your own with music blaring from the earphones. If a trainer is not available, have someone spot you while you perform deadlifts to see how you’re doing. If you like, you can also video yourself while performing the movements and check how you did later.
  • Don’t drop the bar: Delayed onset muscle soreness is a common phenomenon after a workout. But minimising the onset of muscle soreness can be done by focusing on the right processes. When completing the rep, don’t drop the bar straight down, as the sudden movement can be disconcerting. Instead, focus on lowering the bar with resistance.
  • Keep the back straight: Often people mistake the phrase of keeping the back straight with extending their neck further up. The spine can be kept straight by focusing on the core muscles in the stomach, and contracting them so that your back remains straight while picking up the bar. People also tend to arch their back too much in order to stick their glutes out, which is also not the correct way of going about the exercise.
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If you’re new to working out or do not for some reason enjoy the deadlift, here are some alternative exercises which you can perform in its place:

  • Rack pull deadlift
  • Farmer’s walk/carry
  • Barbell hip thrust
  • Single leg deadlift

References

  1. Camara, Kevin D. et al. An Examination Of Muscle Activation And Power Characteristics While Performing The Deadlift Exercise With Straight And Hexagonal Barbells. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2016 May; 30(5):1183-1188.
  2. Schellenberg F. et al Towards evidence based strength training: a comparison of muscle forces during deadlifts, goodmornings and split squats.. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 2017 Jul; 9:13. PMID: 28725437.
  3. Cholewa, Jason M. et al. Anthropometrical Determinants of Deadlift Variant Performance. J Sports Sci Med. 2019 Sep; 18(3): 448–453. PMID: 31427866.
  4. Del Vecchio, L. et al. The health and performance benefits of the squat, deadlift, and bench press. MOJ Yoga & Physical Therapy. 2018 Apr; 3(2):40-47.
  5. McGuigan M. and Wilson B. Biomechanical Analysis of the Deadlift. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 1996 Nov; 10(4): 250-255.
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