The deadlift is a full-body exercise that can (and should) be a central component of any strength training program. Everyone from beginners to competitive bodybuilders benefits from deadlifting.
“Lift heavy things” is one of the 10 Primal Blueprint Laws because building and maintaining muscle is mandatory for metabolic health, mobility, and being able to participate in your favorite pursuits now and well into old age. Anyone who plans to be a spry and active nonagenarian—hopefully that’s you—must lift heavy things. More specifically, “lifting heavy things” should mimic the activities of everyday life and build the strength necessary to make these activities easier. The deadlift is the quintessential example of a compound movement that builds that kind of functional strength.
Deadlifting targets primarily the posterior chain—the muscles running along the back of your body, especially the hamstrings and glutes in this case. It also builds stronger quads, forearms, core, and grip (which is notably associated with longevity), as well as balance and stability. It’s the kind of all-around fitness our ancestors enjoyed, whether they were building shelters on the savannah or working farmland. And it’s the same kind of strength and physical competency you need to lift bags of groceries or grandchildren off the ground safely.
The deadlift has become my favorite full-body resistance exercise hands-down and a centerpiece of my workouts. Many novices are intimidated by the deadlift, so they avoid it, which is a mistake. It’s true that you have to use impeccable form to avoid injuring yourself, especially the vulnerable muscles of your lower back. However, there are enough deadlift variations that you should be able to find one you can do safely. Folks with back, shoulder, or knee issues, or who are recovering from any kind of injury, will want to work with a physical therapist or (with your physician’s approval) a properly certified trainer to start.
How to Deadlift
Before describing some popular variations, it’s important that you understand the basics of proper deadlift form. The steps below describe how you would perform a conventional deadlift using a straight bar (as shown in the gif above), but most of the same cues apply no matter what type of deadlift you’re doing. Always begin with some gentle movement and dynamic stretching to get the blood flowing and warm up the body, then do a set or two with light weight before attempting a heavy lift.
Put your feet in a jump-width stance—about shoulder width apart, at a distance where it would feel comfortable and natural to jump up in the air. The bar should be over your midfoot.
Exhale, then inhale against your diaphragm, pushing your air into your pelvis to center your strength there. Keep your core column solid and straight. Maintain a straight back throughout the movement.
Bend forward at the waist while pushing your hips back. Allow your knees to bend until your shins nearly touch the bar and you can grip the bar with hands slightly outside your legs.
Visualize driving through the ground with your feet as you stand up in one fluid motion, pushing your hips forward, until you’re fully upright. The bar should rise straight up touching your legs the entire time.
Reverse the motion, keeping the bar close to your legs, until you can put the weight back on the ground.
Common deadlifting mistakes include rounding or arching the back, standing too far away from the bar, and using your lower back to initiate the movement instead of your lower body. If you feel a strain in your back, shoulders, neck, or upper arms, you’re trying to pull the weight off the ground with your upper body. Instead, your glutes and hamstrings should be doing the bulk of the work.
Practice proper form with a PVC pipe or unloaded barbell before trying to deadlift heavier weights. Check your form in a mirror or have a friend watch you to make sure you’re hitting the mark.
Hex bar deadlift
Aka the trap bar deadlift, aka my favorite way to lift heavy things. If there is one exercise that I believe just about everyone should be doing, it’s the hex bar deadlift.
Layla McGowan (co-author of The Keto Reset Instant Pot Cookbook) put together this awesome video that demonstrates proper form and execution. Particularly if you’re new to deadlifting, are getting back in the game, or have wrist issues, a hex bar can be a more accommodating choice. The multiple grip options also mean that you can do numerous different exercises with one piece of equipment.
Similar to a conventional deadlift, but feet are further apart and toes are turned out. Grip the bar inside your legs, and keep your knees directed over the midfoot. Your torso will be more upright, which is easier on the back.
Romanian deadlift (RDL)
The RDL is similar to the conventional deadlift in terms of the muscles worked, but it features some important form differences:
The move initiates from the top of the stance. Instead of lifting the weight off the ground and returning it to the ground on each rep, you start from a standing position, lower the weight to just below knee height, then return to standing.
The legs are relatively straight (but not locked out) throughout the lift.
These make RDLs more of a hamstring-focused, eccentric exercise. Because the hamstrings aren’t as strong as the glutes or quads, you won’t load up the bar with as much weight, which means you can perform RDLs more frequently than conventional or trap bar deadlifts.
Single-leg Romanian deadlift
Same as above but balancing on one leg at a time. Single-leg RDLs are great for working on balance and ankle stability in addition to hamstrings. It is especially important to move slowly and with control on this one so you don’t pitch over. Beginners should practice without holding weights at first and standing near a wall or pole they can use for balance if needed.
Usually, you perform single-leg RDLs with the non-standing leg extended behind you, either straight or with knee bent. As you lower your torso toward the ground, the back leg lifts to counterbalance. Alternatively, you can keep your back foot down, touching the ground with your toes about 6 to 12 inches behind the standing leg. Still load most of your weight in the front leg. This variation is called a split-leg, split-stance, or kickstand Romanian deadlift.
Same as conventional or hex bar deadlifts, but you stand on weight plates or low risers so you have to lower down farther to reach the bar and return the weight to the ground at the end of each rep. This increases the range of motion for the movement and increases the work you have to do to lift the weight off the ground.
What is the Best Type of Deadlift?
This is like asking what’s the best style of intermittent fasting. It depends on your goals and what works best for your body. Anyway, each variation is challenging in its own way, so why stick to just one?
Proper Equipment for Deadlifting
Weights: Any of the variations described above can be accomplished using a straight bar or a hex bar, but you can also hold lighter dumbbells or kettlebells in each hand or a single heavier kettlebell clasped in both hands. You can even use a resistance band looped under your feet. A bar (straight or hex) will allow you to pull the most weight, which is what you usually want. However, there are times when lighter weights make more sense—when rehabbing an injury, focusing on form, or doing single-leg variations for example. If you’re traveling and only have the resistance bands you threw in your carry-on, those are certainly better than nothing.
Shoes: I exclusively perform deadlifts barefoot or wearing my Vibram FiveFingers. Lifting barefoot (or in the most minimal shoes possible) is highly preferable to lifting in regular athletic shoes that disconnect you from the ground and actually weaken your feet. Powerlifters will often wear shoes with elevated heels that make it easier to achieve an ass-to-grass squat and maintain a safe position when performing Olympic lifts under serious load. However, for deadlifts and for the average fitness buff, I generally recommend a less-is-more approach to footwear.
Weightlifting straps: For many folks, grip strength is the weak link when trying to increase their deadlift. Weightlifting straps wrap around your wrists and the bar to help support the weight so you can lift more than your hands are able to hold. While straps aren’t bad, there’s a chance they sever valuable feedback between natural grip and hip/back/leg strength. Plus, your grip will never get stronger if you don’t force it to. Use straps sparingly and only when you really need them.
How Often Should You Deadlift?
Big, compound movements tax the system with an emphasis on intensity and power. Deadlifts are particularly rigorous. Start by incorporating deadlifts just once a week. As you progress, there’s generally no need to do them more than twice a week.
For beginners, aim to do 4 to 6 reps per set and up to 3 to 5 sets total within a workout. Choose weights that are heavy enough that any more than this is challenging. Don’t sacrifice form to get in that last rep or set; listen to your body’s signals. If your body is done, it’s done, and your workout is over.
Thanks for stopping by, everybody. Let me know if you have requests for future fitness videos.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.