Don’t be fooled by its name, ladies, deadlifts can breathe life into the most stubborn of physiques. If you aren’t including them into your current routine, now is the time to start. No glute blasters or machine rows are going to put as much strength and size into your posterior chain as the deadlift will. You can add them to your leg day or back day (since they work both), so no excuses! Now, if you’re confused by all the different variations of deadlifts, welcome to the club. Conventional, Romanian, from the rack, from the floor, knees bent or straight, chest lifted or not lifted, eyes up or down…it is no wonder we can’t figure this out! The good news is that it doesn’t have to be complicated. With my tips and instructions below, you’ll be ready to rock this must-do exercise.
Get It Right
You’ll be off to a great start if you keep these five rules in mind. And, with repetition and practice, you’ll begin to perfect the movement and your form.
Rule #1: ALWAYS start the movement at your hips. The exercise should be initiated by moving your hips backward. Your torso will follow naturally.
Rule #2: Keep the weight in your heels the entire time.
Rule #3: Look straight ahead or just slightly over the top of your head (if you are looking in the mirror). This will help keep your chest lifted, your back straight and your lower back arched.
Rule #4: Keep your back straight and your lower back arched the entire time. Do not ever round your back!
Rule #5: Practice, practice, practice. Your body will never learn the correct form if you do not consistently practice your deadlifts. This doesn’t mean doing them every day, but it does mean doing them 1-2x per week.
Favorite Deadlift Variations
Here’s a list of my favorite deadlift variations, including why and how you should be doing them.
The Queen Bee of all deadlifts. Practicing these will recruit your hamstrings, glutes and your entire back, including your rear delts. On the days that you perform deadlifts, always start your workout with them, so that you have the most energy and strength to perform the exercise.
Warm-Up. Start out with 3 warm-up sets, adding weight each set. Keep the weight light during these warm-up sets – you don’t want to fatigue your muscles for the working sets. The point of your warm-up is to get your body used to the movement, warm-up your muscles and get the joints ready for action.
Get Set. With your feet between hip and shoulder width, roll the barbell over the tops of your feet so that the bar touches your shins. With your arms hanging naturally at your sides, roll your shoulders back and straighten your back. Stick your butt out, and begin to move your hips backward.
Work. Allow your knees to bend (keeping your bodyweight in your heels) and your hips and shoulders to lower simultaneously as your body lowers down toward the bar. Grasp the bar with a double overhand grip outside of your legs. Look down quickly at your feet to check that you are keeping the weight in your heels and that your knees are behind your toes. (They will be if you are keeping the weight in your heels and “sitting” back with your hips). Now, look straight ahead, tighten (and straighten) your entire back and shoulders to lift the weight up—coming up the exact same way you went down. At the top of the movement, exhale fully, squeeze your glutes toward the bar (without thrusting forward too much) and squeeze your shoulder blades.
Remember. Your hips and shoulders should rise simultaneously – DO NOT initiate the movement by lifting your hips up first followed by your shoulders and then bringing your hips toward the bar. Rather, it should be one fluid movement.
Conventional Deadlift with a Hex/Trap Bar
If your gym has one of these, try it out! This bar is fantastic because it keeps the bar and weight in line with your hips, instead of in front of your hips. This is a great one to use if you have any existing back issues, as it reduces the amount of stabilization stress placed on your back during regular deadlifts. Your form can be exactly the same as a regular conventional deadlift, or you can lower your butt and lift your chest at the bottom a bit more with this version (in comparison to regular conventional deadlifts), which puts slightly more focus on the quads.
These target your hamstrings, glutes and spinal erectors – with the majority of the focus being on your hamstrings.
Get Set. The set up instructions are identical to conventional deadlifts, but I prefer to have the bar rolled out a little farther away from my shins with these. Specifically, I roll the bar just over the tops of my toes.
Work. Initiate the movement the exact same way as the conventional deadlift, starting with moving your hips backward. However, for this variation, you won’t bend your knees and squat to lower to the bar. Instead, you’ll keep your legs straight with knees just slightly bent and continue to stretch your hamstrings as you bend at the waist. Keeping your back straight, you’ll grasp the bar with a double overhand grip outside of your legs and look straight ahead as you lift the weight up. You want to initiate the lift with your hamstrings, then your glutes. Squeeze your glutes toward the bar at the top (without thrusting forward too much) and pull your shoulder blades back.
Safety Note. You’ll know on the first rep of your warm-up set if your hamstrings are too tight to do this safely. If they are, try setting the rack on pins that are slightly above the ground and set the bar there to start. Remember, you can do ALL of these variations with dumbbells and/or kettlebells, too!
Secret Tip. One of my secret tips on this one is to try a variation with your grip about twice as wide as your shoulders. This will indeed take away a bit of strength, but you will get more work out of your upper back muscles, which will help to create that V-taper.
Following the same instructions above, try standing with your feet twice as wide as your shoulders, your toes pointed outward and your grip just inside your shoulders at the center of the bar. Depending on your flexibility and hip anatomy, these may come very easily to you or be very difficult. If your hips are tight (like mine), you’ll definitely want to practice hip flexor stretches throughout the week (a great time to start that yoga class you’ve been thinking about!) to get you primed for sumo squats.
Single Leg Romanian Deadlift
Again, following the same instructions as Romanian Deadlifts above, you’ll use dumbbells or kettlebells and just one leg instead of two. Single-leg exercises like this one are great, because it helps improve muscle imbalances and stability, along with putting less stress on the back.
Get Set. Holding the dumbbells naturally at your sides, bend one knee to bring the foot behind you. You should be standing on one leg.
Work. Initiating the movement by moving your hips backward and allow your arms to naturally move out in front of you without effort. Look straight ahead and keep your back heel (the foot that is off the ground) in line with your torso as you lower down in a pendulum fashion. At the bottom, keeping the weight in your grounded heel, initiate the movement with your hamstrings, then your glutes, standing up tall at the top.
Final Tip – How To NAIL IT!
My last and favorite tip on deadlifting, which I’ve shared many times before, always act like there is a nail in the wall behind you and you must reach your butt back to touch the nail, squeeze your glutes to grab the nail and pull it straight out of the wall. If you imagine that during your deadlifts, you’ll nail it every time! ;)