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What’s in a name? If it happens to be “deadlift,” then a whole bunch of fear and loathing among the lifting gen pop. The moniker is apt, though. Not that a deadlift will literally kill you, but if you’re doing it right, you’ll be dead tired afterward. Deadlifts engage every major muscle group in your body, especially those in your posterior chain, including the calves, hamstrings and glutes up through your spinal erectors, lats, traps and shoulders. For that reason, proper deadlift form is imperative.
To help you make the most of every rep, we’ve assembled four elite training experts and gleaned their insider tips on deadlift form, function and everything in between. At the end of this master class, you’ll be able to bring your deadlifts back to life and resurrect your progress.
Use this six-step guide to perfect the exercise with the intimidating name.
6 Steps to a Perfect Deadlift
Place a barbell on the floor in the center of an Olympic platform or in a designated area in the gym with rubber or reinforced flooring. Clear the space around you of extra equipment, then load your plates on each side and secure them with clips. Whenever possible, use rubber Olympic lifting plates, aka “bumper” plates, rather than smaller metal/rubber-coated plates. Bumper plates are easier on the equipment and the floor if you drop the bar, and they also raise the bar higher off the floor, decreasing the distance you need to lift the weight.
Before lifting, check your alignment; your spine should be straight from head to tailbone.
2. Assume the position
“Take a narrow stance, approximately hip width, with your hands placed on the bar just outside your thighs,” instructs Zachary Long, aka The Barbell Physio, DPT, SCS, physical therapist and strength coach based in Charlotte, North Carolina. “The bar should be positioned close to your shins, with your hips higher than your knees, shoulders higher than your hips and armpits directly over the barbell.” In this position, your angle of pull is directly vertical, maximizing your power potential.
Crew Cue: Lace Lineup
Position your feet so your shoelaces are directly underneath the bar, says Denise Cervantes, personal trainer, group health instructor and certified Level 1 USA Weightlifting coach. “Think of this as ‘point A,’” she says. “At the top, ‘point B,’ the bar should also be aligned with your shoelaces. And the fastest and most efficient way to get from point A to point B is in a straight line.” Straying from the vertical dramatically decreases the efficiency of the lift and ultimately limits the amount of weight you can handle. Like any exercise, good deadlift form will facilitate heavier lifts — just be patient.
Crew Cue: An Apple a Day …
“Your shoulders should be drawn back and activated — like you’re trying to hold an apple between your shoulder blades,” says Samantha Parker, MS, CPT, C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, author of Yoga for Chronic Pain … WTF? (Neoteric Movement Systems, 2018). “This helps [protect] the smaller muscles, specifically the delts and rotator cuffs, and helps keep your chest lifted.”
Error Alert: Don’t Be a Slacker
Before initiating the lift from the floor, “pull” the slack out of the bar by applying some upward tension — just enough so that the bar presses up against the top of the center rings in the plates. “In the same way a sprinter leans forward before they take off, a deadlifter should pull the slack out of the bar before the lift,” Cervantes says. “This allows you to build tension through your [posterior chain].”
3. Pull Your Weight
With your hips low, knees bent, core tight and spine aligned from your tailbone to the top of your head, initiate a powerful upward pull. “The chest and hips should rise at the same rate until the barbell gets to the knees,” Long says. “From the floor, the quads are the primary muscles moving the barbell, but as the lift continues, the load shifts toward the muscles of the posterior chain. The spinal erectors work hard throughout, and the chest will start to come upright as [you stand] and the hips open up.”
“Ideally, the movement is smooth from start to finish,” Parker adds. “When lifting off the floor, you should not feel like you are jerking or swinging the bar; the same holds true as you place it back down.”
Crew Cue: Lat Me Go
The closer the bar is to your person, the more vertical your line of pull will be. “To engage the lats during the lift, imagine you are trying to squish an orange in your armpit,” Long says. “That helps keep the bar close to the body.”
Error Alert: Round and Round
Deadlifting is an amazing move for your back — but more often than not, newbies do it improperly. “I often see those new to deadlifting rounding their back as they pull,” Parker says. “It is very important to keep the spine in neutral alignment, with the shoulders drawn down and away from the ears, not rounded forward, to protect the spinal column from strain or injury.”
4. Stand and Deliver
“As the bar reaches knee level, drive the hips through,” Cervantes says. “Continue shifting the shoulders back and straightening the hips, knees and back until you’re standing up straight with your body vertically aligned from head to heels.”
Crew Cue: Get Cheeky
“As you’re pulling, squeeze your glutes like you’re pinching a penny between your cheeks,” says Whitney Jones, NASM-CPT, co-owner of Pro Physiques in Gilbert, Arizona, and Fitness International and Fitness Olympia champ. “Once the bar passes your knees, squeeze your glutes, thrust your hips forward and stand up.”
Crew Cue: Close call
The bar should be in constant contact with your clothing (or skin), both on the way up and on the way down. Ask any serious deadlifter and they will most certainly show you the barbell battle scars they’ve incurred on their shins and knees.
5. Control Freak
What goes up must come down, and to return the barbell to the floor, you have to reverse the steps you executed during the pull. “Unlock your hips and slowly move them backward until the bar passes your knees, then bend your knees and slowly lower the bar to the floor,” Long says.
“Lower it deliberately so the plates touch the ground softly, controlling the weight on the descent while keeping the bar close to your body throughout,” Cervantes says.
Error Alert: Eek-centric
Lengthening your muscles under load — e.g., the eccentric contraction — is always riskier than the concentric action. “You’ll want the lower-
ing phase to be relatively quick — under control but not too slow,” Jones says. Descending too slowly also takes a lot out of you, which may
compromise your strength on subsequent sets and reps.
6. Rest Stop
Between sets, you should rest anywhere from one to five minutes, leaning toward the higher end if you’re working within 20 percent of your one-rep maximum and the lower end if you’re focused on lighter sets of 12 reps or more. “During a three-minute rest period, the body works to replenish its adenosine triphosphate and phosphocreatine system,” explains Dana Ryan, Ph.D., former professor of exercise physiology at California State University, Los Angeles, and director of sports performance, nutrition and education for Herbalife Nutrition. “While the body can certainly still produce energy through other pathways, you really want to tap in the ATP-PC system for power. In addition, if most of the work was done in an anaerobic state, breathing and heart rate will remain elevated to help deliver and replenish oxygen levels.”
Crew Cue: Air Supply
You won’t be deadlifting long if you’re not getting adequate oxygen. “There are two places you can get your breath during reps — at the top or at the bottom,” Cervantes says. “During a set of heavy deadlifts, I like to take my initial breath at the bottom before pulling. I hold that pressure in and then lift the weight. I exhale once the bar passes my knees and inhale again at the top. Then I hold that breath until I lower down to the start.”
Our experts answer these common deadlifting questions.
Should you use an overhand or a mixed grip when deadlifting?
Denise Cervantes: “I recommend beginners start with an overhand grip until they learn the proper mechanics and get stronger. Use a switch or mixed grip when the weight gets heavy and the bar starts to roll out of your grip. Another option is the hook grip, where you overlap the index and middle fingers over your thumb, locking in the bar during a heavy lift or a high-rep set.”
What about lifting straps?
Zachary Long: “If your goal is to overload the legs and back and you are limited by grip strength, then straps are a great option.”
Whitney Jones: “Consider using straps strategically when doing high-volume deadlifts, but don’t rely on them regularly for max lifts. Instead, do exercises to improve your grip strength over time.”
Are there any variations that can improve your deadlifting performance?
Samantha Parker: “I really like single-legged deadlifts, which help correct muscle imbalances and improve flexibility while also strengthening the stabilizers, especially in your feet and ankles. The movement of your head through the full range of motion also can help improve the vestibular function needed for balance, posture, equilibrium and spatial awareness. I also recommend deficit deadlifts — performed on an elevated surface like blocks or plates — to build strength at the end range of movement, as well as cable pull-throughs, which allow for more control.”
Fact or Fiction: The deadlift is only valuable as a low-rep, strength- building exercise.
Whitney Jones: “Fiction. The deadlift is one of the best exercises for building muscle strength and all-around athleticism.”
Denise Cervantes: “Fiction. The deadlift is not only great for strengthening but also is a very functional movement to train you for everyday chores — carrying grocery bags or luggage or picking up things up off the floor. I coach deadlifts in all rep ranges and in all rep loads, and I’ve witnessed athletes of all ages make amazing gains — safely.”
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