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Columns: Do It Right

The Deadlift


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ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: 3/4 2020 - Volume 24 - Issue 2 - p 31-36
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000559



The deadlift is a multijoint lower-body strength exercise and also is one of three lifts performed in the sport of competitive powerlifting (1–3). It entails lifting a barbell from the floor to a mid-thigh height by extending the ankles, knees, and hips and by maintaining a neutral to slightly extended spine with the elbows fully extended. The stroke or upright range of the deadlift is depicted in Figure 1 and consists of the liftoff, pull through the knee, and lockout phases (1,2,4–6). When performed with loads equivalent to a 5-repetition maximum (5RM) or heavier, it is considered a good test of overall strength (2). The deadlift and a number of its variations require and involve dynamic force generation in the muscles around the ankle, knee, and hip joints and significant static and stabilizing actions around the spine and shoulder girdle (1,2,6–8).

Figure 1:
The deadlift.


The deadlift and its variations are often performed as a means of enhancing lower-body and full-body strength of strongman competitors (9), competitive powerlifters (1,3–7), athletes (1,5,10), power (7,10–12), and individuals learning and performing the weightlifting snatch, clean, and jerk and their derivatives (4,10).


The deadlift is typically taught to individuals interested in enhancing their lifting and carrying strength as well as their jumping and sprinting abilities during initial or general preparation stages of power enhancement training (1,2,5,7,9). Training protocols using the deadlift and its variations have produced significant increases in vertical jump height and lower-body power (7,12). Two styles of performing the deadlift with a barbell include the standard and sumo styles (1,2,5–8). The sumo style deadlift uses an extrawide stance with feet turned outward and a relatively narrower grip width than the conventional deadlift. The sumo style deadlift enables lifters to maintain a more upright spine, to keep the bar closer to the body, to reduce the resistance arm, and to reduce the distance required to complete the lift (5,6,8). The standard and the sumo style deadlifts appear in Figures 1 and 2, respectively. The standard deadlift depicted in Figure 1 will be the focus of this column article.

Figure 2:
The sumo style deadlift.

To perform the conventional deadlift, sumo style deadlift, or variations like the Romanian deadlift (RDL), vertical raising of a weighted bar is accomplished by forceful extension of the ankles, knees, and hips and stabilization of the trunk and shoulder girdle in an upright or vertical position (1,2,4–7,10,11). Extension of the ankles, knees, and hips is essential for actions that include but are not limited to jumping, running, hopping, lifting objects from the floor, and rising from a seated position. For demonstrations of the deadlift with a pronated grip and an alternating hook grip, please refer to Supplemental Digital Content 1 (


Gluteus maximus, hamstrings, quadriceps, erector spinae, soleus, and gastrocnemius provide dynamic actions, whereas the trapezius, rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, teres major, deltoids, biceps brachi, brachialis, brachioradialis, and the hand and wrist flexor and extensor muscles provide stability through primarily static or isometric muscle actions (1,2,4–8). Figure 3 depicts the muscles activated during the deadlift.

Figure 3:
Anterior and posterior muscles activated.


The conventional deadlift and variations like the RDL require that the lifter maintains an upright and rigid torso aligned with the head and neck with the bar kept close to the body throughout all phases of the lift (1,2,4–7,10,13). The use of unloaded Olympic weightlifting-type bars, large light weight (teaching) plates, fastening collars, and a rubberized floor or a lifting platform can all facilitate safe and effective learning of the deadlift, the clean and snatch, and each of their respective variations and derivative exercises. To prevent injuries to lifters and to personal trainers, the deadlift is best coached either from the side or from a 45° angle facing the lifter. Clients should be screened for and free of musculoskeletal injuries and should learn how to perform a hip hinge exercise with a polyvinyl chloride pipe, broomstick, or body bar before performing the exercises discussed in this column article. When in an upright standing position, the spine should be held in an upright and neutral position, which supports the natural lumbar lordosis (concave curve). This position should be used during all lifting tasks and can reduce the compressive and shearing stresses on the lumbar spine compared with those imposed on a rounded, flexed, and/or flattened lumbar spine (5–8,13). The bar or broomstick should maintain three points of contact at the back of the head, between the scapulae on the thoracic spine, and against the sacrum (between both posterior superior iliac crests). The feet should be flat and turned out slightly and kept at or slightly wider than the shoulders. The head, neck, shoulders, and spine should be directly aligned with the hips throughout the hip hinge. The knees should be slightly bent and remain at approximately 10° to 15°, and the arms should secure the bar along the mid axis of the torso. While looking diagonally in front of the feet, the hips are pushed backward beyond the heels until the torso assumes an angle of between 30° and 40° with the floor, the weight is shifted back over the heels or just before the lumbar spine, and knees beginning to flex. At this point, the torso returns to the starting vertical position by active hip extension while the knees remain motionless (1,10). The lumbar spine remains motionless in an upright position throughout all phases of the exercise (1,4,5,10). Proper hip hinge mechanics is an important component of the RDL, which is in turn a fundamental part of the clean, snatch, and deadlift exercises (1,5,10,13). Clients should demonstrate proper movement technique during each learning stage of the deadlift and its variations before progressing the level of exercise complexity or the amount of weight lifted. Figure 4 depicts the hip hinge exercise.

Figure 4:
The hip hinge exercise.


Proper alignment in the starting position is fundamental to performing all lifting tasks from the floor and should be taught to novices engaging in all forms of resistance training. With feet between hip and shoulder width and pointing outward slightly, squat down with hips lower than shoulders and grasp the bar with approximately a slightly wider than shoulder width spacing. Elbows are fully extended, and an alternating pronated and supinated handgrip is typically used when attempting to maximize lifting loads (2). With the scapulae retracted and depressed and with the shoulders directly above the bar, keep the head and neck parallel with the trunk. Maintain a rigid torso and flat back at an angle approximately 30° to 45° to the floor (1,2,4–6). Alternatively, the hands can be placed in either a pronated or a wide width pronated position when performing deadlifts as prerequisites to the clean or the snatch lifts, respectively (1). The bar is kept just in front of the shin at mid-shin height and just above the balls of the feet (1,2,4–6). Figure 5 depicts the alternate hook grip with the right and left hands in pronation and supination, pronated, and wide snatch grips, respectively. Figure 6 depicts proper starting position.

Figure 5:
The alternate hook grip.
Figure 6:
The starting position of the deadlift.

Verbal teaching cues for this stage of the exercise include the following: “keep back flat or slightly arched,” “hold the chest up and out,” squeeze the shoulder blades together,” “look straight ahead or slightly upward,” and “keep the shoulders above or slightly in front of the bar” (1,2,4–6). Common errors include rounding the upper and lower back, looking downward, and bending the elbows (1,2,4–6).


The upward phase is often subdivided into the liftoff, pull through the knees, and lockout phases but can and will be described as one phase during this article (2,4,6). Proper alignment and technique during the deadlift are fundamental to performing all lifting tasks from the floor and should be taught to novices engaging in all forms of resistance training. Lifters should maintain a rigid spine with a constant torso angle to the floor; keep the scapulae retracted; keep the head, neck, spine, and hips aligned; and keep the elbows straight with the shoulders directly above or slightly in front of the bar (2,4–6). The bar should remain close to the body as it is lifted by “pressing the feet into the floor” and forcefully extending the hips and knees. The shoulders and hips should rise together at the same time as the torso and bar return to the upright and starting positions, respectively (2,4–6). Exhalation should occur as the bar passes the knees. Verbal teaching cues include the following: “keep the bar close to the shins,” “keep the chest up and out and the back slightly arched,” “keep the shoulders above the hips,” “press the feet into the ground and stand up” and “exhale through the sticking point.” Common errors include pulling the bar off the floor too fast, rounding the upper and lower back, flexing the torso forward, letting the hips rise ahead of or faster than the shoulders, letting the bar travel too far in front of the body, and straightening or extending the knees before the hips, breath holding, and bending the elbows (1,2,4–6,10). Figure 7 depicts the proper performance of the upward pulling phase.

Figure 7:
The upward pulling phase of the deadlift.


While maintaining a neutral spine and the same head, neck, torso, hip, and knee positions and alignment as the upward lifting phase, the bar is then returned to the floor by triple extension of the hips, knees, and ankles and by controlled eccentric actions from the same muscles responsible for lifting the bar from the floor to the vertical, upright torso position (1,2,4,6).

As previously mentioned, the deadlift can be performed with a hexagonal “hex” or trapezius “trap” bar and with dumbbells as well as a number of other objects (1,7,11). Figures 8 and 9 depict proper performance of the deadlift with a “hex” bar and with dumbbells, respectively. Please refer to Supplemental Digital Content 2 ( and 3 ( for demonstrations of the deadlift with a “hex” bar and with dumbbells.

Figure 8:
The hex bar deadlift.
Figure 9:
The dumbbell deadlift.


The RDL, which was previously mentioned, is also a variation of the deadlift. Once the bar is lifted off the floor, the body maintains the same alignment as in the hip hinge exercise. The knees remain slightly bent with the head, shoulders, spine, and hips aligned. The torso remains rigid with a neutral spine, and the scapulae remain retracted throughout the exercise. The bar maintains contact with the thighs as the weight is lowered to the patellar tendon by flexing the hips while pushing them back over the heels. The torso returns to the upright starting position by active hip extension with the bar against the thighs, knees slightly flexed, and the spine in a neutral position (1,2,4–6,10). Figure 10 depicts the proper performance of the RDL. Figure 11 depicts proper performance of the dumbbell single leg RDL with dumbbells (Supplemental Digital Content 4,; Supplemental Digital Content 5,; RDL Multiple Grips.MOV and RDL Dummbell.MOV depict the RDL performed with a standard pronated and a wide snatch grip and single leg dumbbell RDL variation).

Figure 10:
The RDL.
Figure 11:
The dumbbell single leg deadlift.

To prevent muscle fatigue and improper lifting techniques in novice lifters, short sets are composed of 3 to 5 repetitions. Loading, repetition, and set number as well as rest periods should reflect the training cycle goals and objectives of the client (1,14).


The deadlift is performed to enhance lower-body strength, torso stability, power, and rate of muscle force development. It is often taught along with the RDL as a preparation for learning the clean and snatch lifts. The deadlift and the RDL can be easily adapted for use with dumbbells, a hexagonal (Hex) bar, kettlebells, and other objects as needed. Their utility as a safe and effective strength and/or power development tool is predicated on sound instruction, repetitive and precise practice, and effective supervision.


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