Deadlifts are high on the list of bang-for-your-buck strength training moves. With one fluid movement—hinging forward at the hips with a neutral spine and bent knees, coming back up to standing, and repeating—you’re working major muscle groups in nearly every zone of your body. “With proper form, your forearms engage from holding the bar; your shoulders, traps, back, and core help stabilize the body; and your glutes and hamstrings act as a lever to lift the weight,” says LaNiecia Vicknair, corrective exercise specialist and founder of Thrive Health Lab, a boutique gym in Los Angeles. No question, this is a complex move—and there are many benefits of deadlifts that go beyond the full-body burn you’ll feel when you complete a set.
Here, Vicknair breaks down some of the reasons why it’s worth adding deadlifts to your strength training routine, along with tips on how to do them the right way. Because let’s be honest, we’re all busy—the more multitasking moves we can master, the better, right?
How to do a basic deadlift
Before we get into the benefits of deadlifts, it’s important to understand what the move actually is. Traditionally, a deadlift requires a barbell or an empty barbell bar, although there are some variations on the move for beginners. (More on those in a minute.)
If you’re doing a deadlift with a barbell or bar, here’s the proper way to execute it, according to Vicknair:
- Stand behind it with your feet hip-width apart and your toes angled slightly outward.
- Bend over and grip the barbell with hands at shoulder-width.
- Bend your knees until the barbell just about touches your shins
- Flex your butt and brace your stomach, keeping your spine in a neutral position.
- Pick the bar up off the ground and act as if you’re pressing your feet into the ground.
- Bring the barbell up and thrust your hips forward until you are fully standing up.
- Reverse the movement until the bar returns to the ground.
10 key benefits of deadlifts (AKA one of fitness’ most multitasking moves)
1. Deadlifts can benefit posture
If you’re looking to work your back body, deadlifts are one of the most efficient exercises around. This is good news if you tend to slouch. “If you don’t have any injuries, deadlifts can help you develop a stronger back and lats so you can have better posture,” says Vicknair. She adds that they also put the glutes and hamstrings to work, which play a role in helping you stand up straighter.
2. Deadlifts promote booty gains
While deadlifts are most definitely a full-body burner, they’re extra effective for certain muscle groups in particular—including those that give you a perky-looking peach. “The primary muscles [worked] are your hamstrings, your glutes, and your core, depending on how you stand,” says Vicknair. If you’re bored with squats and lunges, deadlifts are an effective way to take lower-body day to a more advanced level.
3. Deadlifts can be helpful for weight loss
Like many strength-training moves, Vicknair says that deadlifts trigger the production of anabolic fat-burning hormones in the body, particularly when lifting heavy. What’s more, a 2016 study found that deadlifts are one of the most efficient exercises you can do from a metabolism-boosting perspective, given that they enlist so many large lower-body muscles.
4. Deadlifts can benefit us in everyday life
As Vicknair explains it, deadlifts are a form of functional fitness—they mirror movements that we do in our day-to-day lives and help strengthen the muscles associated with those movement patterns. Deadlifts essentially mimic the way we pick things up and put things down on the ground. When we add deadlifts to our workout routines, these motions become safer and easier over time.
5. Deadlifts can be adapted for all fitness levels
Picture a deadlift and you might imagine a bodybuilder lifting a giant barbell in the gym. While this is one way to execute the move, you don’t need to be able to lift heavy weights to do a deadlift safely. “Dumbbells are a good way to help establish technique for people that may not be able to lift a 35- or 45-pound bar,” says Vicknair. “I’ve even shown people how to deadlift without weights. And even if you’re a pro at doing deadlifts, you should always warm up with an empty bar first.”
Vicknair says the amount of weight someone should lift depends on their body type and gender. If you’re able to execute the exercise with ease using a given weight, she says you can gradually increase your weight by 5-10 pounds per set. But any time your form starts to suffer or you feel pain, you should go down in weight. “If it’s a little arduous you’re fine because you’re building muscle,” the trainer says. “But if you ever feel a pinch or pain in any exercise you do, you need to stop and get professional help to make sure your form is correct.”
6. There are many variations of deadlifts
Vicknair always recommends perfecting your basic deadlift technique before you move on to a more advanced variation. (More on that in a minute.) But once you’ve got the essential movement down, there are several ways you can modify it to target slightly different muscle groups.
- Romanian deadlifts: Legs are kept straight for the entire exercise, giving extra emphasis to the hamstrings.
- Sumo deadlifts: “You can try doing a sumo deadlift where you have an extra wide stance. This will work your quads and your hamstrings more than your back and core,” says Vicknair.
- Single-leg deadlifts: “You can do a single-leg deadlift, which is definitely a level up from a regular deadlift,” says Vicknair. “You’re shifting all your weight to one side, you’re really engaging your core, and it helps improve your balance, stability, and core control.”
- Trap bar deadlift: “Another option is a trap bar deadlift. You stand in the middle of [a hexagon-shaped] barbell, instead of having [a barbell] in front of you, so it helps with your core stability more than your hamstrings,” says Vicknair. “But most of the time, people don’t start off with a trap bar.”
Ready to graduate to a single-leg Romanian deadlift? Watch this video to make sure you’re doing it the right way:
7. A few deadlifts go a long way
If you want to reap the benefits of deadlifts, you don’t have to fit them into every workout. Vicknair says that twice a week is plenty for those who exercise six days a week. “If you’re just starting out, you could start with a lighter weight and do 10 reps [per day],” she says. “If you want to build muscle you’ll lift heavier and do 3-4 rounds of 8 reps. If you’re looking more for toning or lighter weights you can do 2 rounds of 10 or 12.”
8. Deadlifts can help make your workouts more mindful
For all the benefits of deadlifts, there is one downside: there are a lot of moving parts to the exercise and it’s easy to injure yourself if your form is off. At the same time, paying close attention to your body during the move is an exercise is mindfulness—it can help you stay present in the moment. So what, exactly, should you be focusing on? “I’ve noticed that for the everyday person, the hardest part is understanding that they’re hinging at the hips,” says Vicknair. “Sometimes I put a hand on their hips to make them understand that their shoulders and hips are moving at the same time… the shoulders shouldn’t be going down past the hips.” You also want to make sure your feet are firmly grounded into the floor, your neck and spine are neutral, and you’re squeezing your glutes as you rise up to standing, she adds.
9. Deadlifts can help improve bone density
A 2011 study found that a 6-month resistance-training regimen—which included deadlifts—resulted in an improvement in bone mineral density in college-age men and women. That said, pretty much any weight-bearing exercise that strengthens your muscles also strengthen your bones, so deadlifts certainly aren’t alone in this respect.
10. Deadlifts can shave time off your workout routine
If you only have time to fit a few moves into your workout, deadlifts should be one of them—as mentioned before, they’re essentially a full-body workout in one move.
There are many benefits of deadlifts, but should anyone avoid this exercise?
While most people can do some version of a deadlift safely, there are some exceptions. “If you struggle with spine or hip mobility, this isn’t a move you should jump right into,” says Vicknair. “Come see somebody like me and we’ll get you into mobility moves first.” Anyone who struggles with back pain or injury should also consult a fitness pro before attempting a deadlift—or just skip them entirely. “There are plenty of other moves you can use to strengthen your hamstrings and glutes. Deadlifts are not the holy grail,” says Vicknair. But for those who can do them without pain or strain, the many benefits of deadlifts are well worth the effort it takes to complete one.
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