|Read time: 8 minutes||Written by: Blake Niemann, Founder|
The deadlift is a simple, no-BS way to measure your real-world strength, increase your power and explosiveness, and build lean muscle.
But simple isn’t the same thing as easy, and plenty of people shy away from the challenge of deadlifts.
Keep reading to learn more about deadlifts, 10 important reasons you (and everyone else) should be deadlifting, and 14 mistakes to avoid.
Deadlifts are the simplest barbell exercise, most likely the first, and still one of the best.
Here’s the short description: grip a barbell, stand up with it, and put it down. That’s it.
The deadlift gets its name from the fact that you’re picking a weight up off the ground, meaning it’s “dead weight.” In other words, it’s fundamentally different from lifts like the squat or bench press that start off with the eccentric (lowering) portion.
Historically, strongmen in circuses performed all manner of deadlifts as feats of strength as far back as the early 1800s.
And today, it’s one of the three “big lifts” (along with squats and bench presses) used to gauge pure strength in the sport of powerlifting.
Additionally, it’s a staple exercise for athletes, bodybuilders, and well-informed gym rats.
The Best Deadlift Variations
Along with the conventional deadlift, here are some of the most popular and effective variations:
- Sumo deadlifts: an ultra-wide stance version that’s legal in competitive powerlifting
- Rack deadlifts: a partial range-of-motion deadlift performed in a power rack or squat rack
- Trap bar (hex bar) deadlifts
- Snatch-grip deadlifts: an ultra-wide grip deadlift for an increased range of motion
- Deficit deadlifts: a deadlift standing on blocks to increase the distance the barbell travels
- Accommodating resistance deadlifts (with chains or bands fixed above or below)
- Romanian deadlifts: an assistance movement, typically used by athletes and bodybuilders to stimulate the glutes and hamstrings with higher reps
- Stiff-legged deadlifts: a deadlift variant that targets the hamstrings
However, you’ll get better results if you master the form of conventional deadlifts before you branch out into all the other types.
Keep reading to learn why mastering the deadlift is so important.
1. Develops Real-World Strength
What do we mean by real-world strength?
A full deadlift, off the ground without straps, is different from most other strength movements in the following ways:
- You’re standing flat on the ground as opposed to sitting down (like leg presses or most machines in the gym) or lying flat on your back (like bench presses).
- Your grip is a limiting factor, similar to lifting something heavy in real life.
- Unlike squats and bench presses, you lift the weight before lowering it.
All of those factors make deadlifts as close as possible to real-world conditions, meaning it has direct relevance to your ability to lift objects outside the gym.
Admittedly, a 1” thick, perfectly symmetrical barbell isn’t something you’re likely to encounter anywhere other than the weight room. But deadlifts are still the perfect way to develop brute strength that carries over to real life.
And if you want to make your body even more “functional,” you can pair conventional deadlifts with movements like sandbag training, fat bar lifts, lifting odd objects, and sport-specific drills.
2. Results in a Stronger Posterior Chain
Your posterior chain is a muscle group that stretches from the base of your skull down to your heels.
And the posterior chain is essential for generating power as well as explosive movements like sprinting.
Deadlifts engage your entire posterior chain, which can result in faster acceleration, higher vertical jumps, and across-the-board improvements in physical performance. That’s why they’re a favorite movement for athletes.
3. Likely Lowers the Risk of Injury
Just like any other movement, deadlifts are unsafe if you don’t perform them correctly.
But assuming you train smart and use proper form, deadlifts help to correct muscular imbalances, strengthen your back, develop muscles that protect your spine, and make your tendons tougher.
As a result, there’s a pretty good chance that getting stronger by deadlifting reduces your risk of many types of injuries.
4. Increases Grip Strength
Assuming you deadlift without straps, heavy deadlifts require a strong grip.
When you build your strength using the deadlift, you also build a stronger supporting grip.
5. Sculpts Powerful, Well-Developed Glutes
Your glutes are the largest and most powerful muscle in your body[*].
And according to research, the hip drive required to move heavy weights in the deadlift results in greater glute activation than most lifts, even compared to back squats[*].
Bottom line: if you want to strengthen and develop your glutes, you need to deadlift.
6. Crafts Muscular, Strong Hamstrings
Most people who train for looks tend to focus on the quads, but neglect their hamstrings. The reason might be as simple as the fact that your quads are more visible in the mirror, while your hamstrings are mostly out of sight.
Fortunately, performing more deadlifts can help balance out your leg muscles.
7. Builds a 3D Upper Back
So far, we’ve discussed the functional strength and lower-body benefits of deadlifts.
But ultimately, deadlifts change your entire body. They provide plenty of stimulation for your upper body, too.
After you deadlift for a couple of months, consistently, you’ll notice that your back is more muscular, especially your middle and upper back.
The reason is that when you lift hundreds of pounds off the floor, your thoracic spine (from the bottom of your ribcage to your lower neck) works incredibly hard not to flex (bend or fold forward).
And similar to hamstrings, many people tend to neglect their upper back. Deadlifts can help even the score, resulting in a more attractive, balanced, and robust upper body.
8. Creates Better Posture
Along with building your upper back, deadlifts also enhance your posture.
Again, because you’re resisting flexion, deadlifts train your mind and muscles to keep your spine straight and to resist bending forward at inappropriate times.
If you work a desk job or sit a lot, deadlifting once a week and frequently stretching your pecs, lats, and upper traps can help correct your posture.
9. It’s Time-Efficient
You can get all of the above benefits by deadlifting once a week.
Call it 20-45 minutes counting a quick warmup and a few additional strength training movements, and you can see how deadlifts lend themselves to effective and time-efficient full-body workouts.
10. Grants Bragging Rights
Maybe you don’t care about bragging, but have you ever wondered how strong you really are?
Many strength coaches consider a double bodyweight deadlift the universal standard for what counts as “strong.”
Strength benchmarks can focus your training and inspire you to improve. When you reach a double-bodyweight deadlift, you’ll have a rock-solid indicator of your strength.
And believe it or not, most men and women can get there with 1-2 years of diligent effort.
1. Not Deadlifting
Basically, if you’re lifting weights, you should include the deadlift in your repertoire. Now that you know how to do it, and the numerous benefits it offers, there’s no excuse.
2. Deadlifting Too Often
Deadlifts are incredibly taxing to both your muscles and your central nervous system.
For most people, once each week is the perfect frequency. If you perform heavy deadlifts more often than that, you’re more likely to get injured or overreach.
3. Not Warming Up Correctly
The worst warmup mistake you could make is not warming up at all for deadlifts. Never attempt to pull heavy deadlifts without warming up first.
And the second-worst mistake is warming up incorrectly. You definitely don’t need tons of cardio to prepare for deadlifting, and you probably don’t need complicated mobility drills either.
Instead, try working up to heavier deadlift sets with low-rep, lighter deadlift sets.
4. Too Many Reps, Not Enough Weight
Most strength coaches agree that as far as the conventional deadlift, you’ll get your best results using 1-5 reps. If you want to increase your volume, perform more total sets instead of more reps per set.
Some bodybuilders use more than 5 reps on conventional deadlifts, perhaps 8-12 reps max, but there are better deadlift variations (like rack deadlifts for the upper body, or Romanian deadlifts for the lower body) to achieve similar effects.
5. Using Straps Incorrectly
Straps are controversial, and there are benefits to using them as well as not using them.
If you always use straps, your grip will be weak relative to your deadlift strength.
But if you never use straps, you might miss out on some gains because your grip is a limiting factor, especially on heavier variations like partial rack deadlifts.
6. Improper Setup
The way you set up for the deadlift can determine your success or failure, as well as affect your injury risk.
Avoid these common setup mistakes:
- Weight on toes instead of heels
- Hips too high or too low
- Back too close to vertical (results in a squat-like movement that could damage your knees)
- Back too close to horizontal (inefficient and more likely to injure your spine)
- Starting the rep with too much slack and not enough tension
And finally, don’t rest or dawdle in the setup position. Get set up and then lift immediately. The longer you stay still after setting up, the less likely you are to succeed.
7. Insufficient Focus
Strength is a skill, and you have to bring your mental A-game to deadlift correctly.
If you’re distracted or unfocused, deadlifts will punish you. You don’t have to sniff ammonia or get slapped in the face like some powerlifters do at meets, but do give deadlifts the respect they deserve.
Also, you’ll be able to focus better if you deadlift first thing in your workout right after warming up. Don’t perform lesser exercises first.
8. Weak Hip Drive
Deadlifts aren’t a quad-dominant movement. Don’t turn your deadlifts into squats. Drive your hips forward to recruit your posterior chain.
9. Not Grinding Through Difficult Reps
Don’t slow down your repetitions intentionally, but don’t be surprised if you have to grind for 3-5 seconds or longer to complete some of your heavy reps.
Although you should explode as much as possible, to get good at deadlifts, you must also master the art of grinding.
10. Failing to Lock Out Fully
If you don’t lock out fully, your rep doesn’t count. And not only that, but your glutes and upper back don’t get as much benefit, either.
Pause and squeeze for a moment at the top of each rep, just to be sure.
11. Rounding the Lower Back
When you keep your lower back neutral, your lumbar muscles prevent dangerous shearing forces from harming your lumbar spine[*].
However, if you round your lower back during deadlifts — a common but dangerous beginner mistake — the lumbar muscles are powerless to protect your spine[*].
As a result, research shows rounding your back while bearing weight causes shearing forces and immediately leads to higher risks of acute injury, chronic injury, future injury, and lower back pain[*].
Long story short: don’t allow your lower back to round.
12. Resetting Incompletely
Pulling off the ground is what makes the deadlift the deadlift. And for a proper conventional deadlift, you need to reset fully, deweighting between each rep.
Some people use “touch-and-go” deadlifts without fully resetting, but we’re not fans. If you want time under tension for your back muscles, use a different lift.
13. Using Super-Slow Eccentrics
When you deadlift heavy, super-slow eccentrics (the negative or lowering portion of the rep) are a terrible idea. And you should always deadlift heavy.
Lower the weight under control, but don’t aim for a specific tempo. If you can count tempos during deadlifts, you probably aren’t going heavy enough.
14. Dropping or Throwing the Weights Down
If you always drop or throw the weights down after deadlifts, you’re cheating yourself.
Research is clear that the eccentric (lowering) portion of weights is exceptionally effective for building muscle and strength[*]. And it turns out that if you’re lifting heavy, a fast, controlled eccentric can be at least as effective as a slow one[*].
By all means, drop the weights for safety reasons if you’re fatigued, but don’t make a habit of it.
The benefits of deadlifts are many, and the risks are minimal — provided that you use proper form and build a foundation of strength over time.
No matter your goal, if you are lifting weights, you should be deadlifting. And regardless of who you are, unless you have a severe injury or disability, heavy deadlifts will benefit you.
If you’re already deadlifting regularly, congratulations. Keep on grinding.
And if you want additional tips on building a balanced physique, don’t miss The Ultimate Muscle Groups Guide & How To Best Train Them.