Deadlift – a great exercise for hamstrings, glutes and back muscles

What is a deadlift?

The deadlift may sound scary by name, but it’s actually a perfectly natural and common movement that we perform often, just not usually with a barbell. It is a simple lifting of an object off the ground to waist height (with arms extended), in which we try to follow a few rules (see below).

Whether we are lifting a dumbbell off the ground, a heavy bag of groceries, or a piece of furniture, the proper way to perform this movement remains the same. Let’s first look at what muscles are performing this movement and what we need to watch out for.

What do we strengthen in the deadlift

The object we are lifting must be held in our hands, so many muscles in the forearms and in the fingers themselves are involved. The weight of the object is transferred through the shoulders and the entire torso all the way down to the feet.

This means that the muscles of the entire back have to work in the correct stroke – the interscapular and broad back muscles fix the shoulder blades and shoulders to prevent them from overstretching and flexing the thoracic spine, while the extensors of the spine, in cooperation with the abdominal muscles, fix the “lower” part of the back (the lumbar region).

However, all this does is keep the body (and the object being lifted) in the correct position, none of the above muscles “lift” the barbell, nor are they involved in generating force against the ground and hand in hand with it in transferring force (upwards) to the object itself.

The actual agonists (movers) of this exercise are the gluteal muscles, hamstrings, and quadriceps. Since these are the largest and strongest muscles in the human body, it is easy to lift even relatively heavy loads in this way. Of the three exercises in powerlifting, it is the deadlift in which competitors usually lift the most kilograms.

You should also practice the deadlift

Thedeadlift is, in my opinion, the best strength exercise precisely because it engages almost the entire body, it’s a natural and (when performed correctly) safe movement, and it can be performed with any weight (like any loading axis exercise), so its difficulty is easily scalable. If I could only practice one exercise for the rest of my life, I would definitely choose the deadlift.

Unfortunately, there used to be a very widespread myth that the deadlift was a dangerous or even harmful exercise. Fortunately, this view has lost popularity in the last decade due to widespread awareness of the principles of strength training, but perhaps it’s not redundant for the sake of argument to set the record straight. Any exercise can be dangerous if performed incorrectly or with excessive load!

It has nothing to do with the deadlift itself!

Photo: Stocklib

Deadlift technique and common mistakes

The deadlift technique may seem strange and complicated at first, but it’s actually one of the more technically simple strength exercises. Only three rules are needed to execute it correctly:

  • Your spine must always be in a neutral position (popularly speaking, you should have a “straight back”).
  • The axis must always be level above the centre of the feet (when vertical, the shins must be about one inch from the foot), which in practice means that the bar should touch the shins on ascent, as the position of the knees will be slightly in front, not directly above the ankles.
  • The trajectory of the axis must be straight (vertical), and in particular the axis must never be away from the body, as this lengthens the lever acting against us and makes the exercise unnecessarily difficult.

All technical aids and advice regarding the deadlift are either to ensure adherence to these points, or are a matter of preference based on individual physique (such as stance and grip width). In my opinion, the simplest guidelines for performing a deadlift correctly are these few steps:

  • We get to an axis that is 20 cm from the ground (standard disc width), so the shins are only about 2 cm from the axis. The width of the stance is an individual matter, but to start I recommend a stance about shoulder width with the feet only slightly turned out.
  • Go into a squat (bend at the knees) only until your shins touch the bar, and bend at the waist the rest of the way, keeping a neutral spine (straight back).
  • Grasp the bar with the narrowest grip that the position of your knees allows (usually a slightly wider grip than shoulder width), so as not to push your knees together with your outstretched arms.
  • Inhale into your abdomen, hold your breath, pull in your abdominal and back muscles, and hold the axis as tightly as possible in your hands.
  • Push your feet into the ground, not losing the bucking (point 4), until you are fully upright, then use the same (but opposite) motion to bring the dumbbell back down to the ground. We can then exhale and repeat points 4-5 as many times as we want to do the repetitions of the exercise in one set.

This is certainly not the only correct way to perform a deadlift, but in my opinion it is the easiest way to learn proper technique. For example, I personally exhale and inhale lightly even in the overhead stretched position, but a beginner can theoretically put themselves in danger of losing mid-body strengthening by doing this.

Among the most serious errors is an unfixed, hunched back, which should be easily correctable if the practitioner has sufficient mobility. However, if you can’t bend deeply enough (break at the waist) with a straight back, you’ll need to work on expanding your mobility, specifically hamstring stretching.

Another aforementioned mistake is moving the axis away from the shins. To correct this mistake, simply pull the bar towards you throughout the entire stroke, which incidentally will also help you properly engage the broad back muscles. Some people find the friction of the barbell against their shins annoying, but this problem is easily solved with high socks or long pants.

Sumo deadlift, Romanian deadlift and other variations

There are many variations of the deadlift, so I’ll just mention a few of the most popular ones. Variations of this exercise may put more emphasis on one muscle than the other, but it is still a deadlift, so more or less all of the above rules regarding technique and muscle involvement apply similarly.

The Romanian deadlift is limited to the top of the movement, or the waist break and the forward bend, bringing the barbell to a stop before we have to bend the knees and therefore before the rolls touch the ground. It’s a great supplementary exercise to train the hamstrings, and among other things, can be used to extend mobility (with a light load, of course) if bending at the waist without loosening the back gives you trouble.

Other variables that we can change in the deadlift are the height of the axis from the ground or the axis itself. Choosing a thicker axis (such as an axle or thick bar) means a much harder grip, and therefore more stress on the forearm muscles. If the axis is closer to the ground than 20 cm, it is a deficit movement, which is more difficult because of the longer movement path, but also because it is difficult to fold so low to the ground into the correct position with a straight back.

On the other hand, if the axis is further from the ground (we put blocks under the rolls), it is a move that can usually lift a heavier load due to the shorter travel, thus stimulating more the muscles responsible for the upper part of the movement.

A special example of a deadlift is the sumo deadlift, in which a wider stance is chosen and the hands are inside between the knees, not the other way around. This deadlift technique has its own specifics, which I won’t go into in this article, but in general, the sumo deadlift favors leg strength and slightly lightens the work of the back, but on the other hand requires more mobility in the hips (due to the wide stance).

Dumo deadlift
Photo: Stocklib

Deadlifts for back and leg muscle strength, not just for power triathlon

The deadlift unfortunately has a pretty bad reputation among the uninitiated, but if you follow proper technique and don’t overdo the load, you have nothing to worry about at all. If you go to a gym or have access to axes and discs, I wouldn’t hesitate to include the deadlift in your training plan!

How often and how intense is it appropriate to include this exercise? Here it depends on how advanced and experienced you are in strength sports, but exactly the opposite of what you would expect – the stronger you are (the more weight you lift), the lower the frequency of the deadlift should be.

How often and how intensely to perform deadlifts

If you are starting out and training the technique with a moderate load, you can perform the deadlift up to 3-4 times per week. On the other hand, if you are already lifting more than 150kg in a series, the body will need more time to recover, so 1-2 deadlifts are sufficient.

When it comes to the number of sets and reps, a similar rule applies. A beginner can easily do 8 sets of 8 reps, for example, because they’re not working with such a massive load, whereas I’d recommend advanced lifters stick to a roughly 5×5 scheme (five sets of five reps).

Aside from strengthening all of the above muscles, the main benefit of deadlifts in my opinion is strengthening and preventing back injuries. If you practice deadlifts regularly, you won’t collapse after a day of heavy manual labor and you’re much more likely to be able to lift and carry heavy objects without injury during moving, construction, remodeling, and the like. If you want to have a healthy and durable back, deadlifting is the obvious choice!

  • Effectiveness
  • Simplicity of technique

Overall rading of deadlift

The deadlift is one of the most core exercises that is suitable for a comprehensive exercise of the back and legs.

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