How to Deadlift with Perfect Technique to Set New PBs, Gain Strength and Build Muscle

How to Deadlift with Perfect Technique to Set New PBs, Gain Strength and Build Muscle

Often hailed as the ultimate compound exercise, mastering the deadlift is a game-changer for anyone aiming to build strength and gain muscle. However, many lifters avoid it, fearing that improper form and heavy weights could lead to injury.

In fact, few movements have endured quite the amount of negative press as deadlifts, then again, even fewer exercises allow you to lift as heavy.

The bottom line is this: by learning how to deadlift correctly, you’ll unlock an exercise that works more muscles simultaneously than nearly any other. It makes sense when you think about it. To prise the iron from the floor you need a powerful lower body, a rock solid core, incredible grip strength, as well as conditioned arms, shoulders and back.

It's a true full-body move.

Appealing to bodybuilders, powerlifters, crossfitters, and beginners alike, no moves unites lifters quite like the deadlift. Yet, even the most seasoned lifters can benefit from refining their technique now and then.

Here, MH covers the muscles worked by the deadlift, the benefits, how to deadlift, how many reps, sets and which weights are best for you, as well as variations and regressions, workouts and common FAQs. It's your complete deadlift Bible. So, chalk up and let’s get to it.

Muscles Worked by the Deadlift

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Here are the main muscles worked by this power move:

  • Quadriceps: Depending on the variation of the deadlifts you perform, evidence shows that the quadriceps will be recruited to varying degrees. However they will nearly always be one of the primary movers when driving the bar away from the floor as they are responsible for straightening the knees.

  • Glutes: The deadlift is a hip extension movement, taking the hips from a more closed positing through to being completely open and extended (thus, 'hinge'). The glutes are responsible for pulling those hips through to full lock out.

  • Hamstrings: One of the hamstrings’ primary functions is to extend the hip, bringing your torso upright. Depending on the exact set up, you will also get a good hit on the muscles that run down the back of your legs.

  • Back: A debate as old as time: is the deadlift a back exercise or a leg exercise?. Although the muscles of the back – latissimus dorsi, erector spinae and trapezius – mainly work isometrically to hold the bar in place and stop it drifting forward during the deadlift, evidence shows that the back is still one of the main muscle groups working in the deadlift, meaning it’s a good exercise to place on both upper and lower body training days.

  • Core: The muscles of your core or trunk, including the internal and external obliques and transverse abdominis, engage during the entire movement in an ‘anti-flexion’ capacity. By consciously creating tension and ‘bracing’ through you core during the deadlift, you can help to stabilise and protect your back.

  • Hips: During the deadlift, the hip flexors work to contract against resistance and extend during the hinge movement.

  • Calves: The calves play a role during knee flexion, stabilising the ankle joint during the deadlift.

  • Forearms: This one’s a no-brainer. Holding onto the bar for the duration of your sets places a huge demand on you grip, working the muscle of your forearms and hands like no other movement. The grip built here is potentially incredibly beneficial for other lifts in your programme.

Deadlift Benefits

Not sold yet? Here’s three reasons why you need to start incorporating deadlifts into your training plan:

Gaining Muscle

Using progressive overload (increasing weight, reps, sets, etc) effectively is the only way to ensure gains. Deadlifts, through the huge number of muscle groups necessary to perform them, and the sheer amount of weight you’re able to lift, are a sure-fire way of adding serious muscle mass.

Increased Testosterone

Because the deadlift uses multiple muscles groups, and the usage of heavy weights will majorly up the intensity of your session, you can expect to see a rise in natural testosterone. According to evidence, hard resistance training induces growth hormone and testosterone release, and the more muscles worked the higher a hormone hit you can expect.

Improved Bone Health

Like all resistance training, deadlifts can also improve bone mineral density and bone width. According to research, greater bone health and exercise have been shown to reduce the occurrence of falls in the elderly, suggesting that exercise is a good preventative measure. But you don’t have to wait until you’re elderly to get started, the bigger a buffer against muscle and bone loss you can build now, the better.

How to Deadlift: 7 Simple Steps

You should be sold by now, so it’s time to learn proper form. We break down the conventional deadlift technique to help you peel some serious plates from the floor. You'll be deadlifting like a pro before you know it:

Phil Haynes - Hearst Owned
  1. Walk towards a bar until the middle of your feet are beneath it, feet shoulder width apart, with the bar intersecting the centre of your shoelaces.

  2. The deadlift is a hinge movement. So with soft knees, push your hips back, imagine shutting a car door with your bum as you reach your hands towards the bar. Your knees will bend in order to maintain a relatively flat back, but try to keep your shins vertical and not let your knees pass too far over the bar.

  3. Your shoulders should be over the bar with the middle of your feet underneath, arms straight and hips down low.

  4. Keeping your back and head in line, imagine squeezing two satsumas in your arm pits to create tension through your torso. Keeping your arms straight, grip the bar and pull your hips down, receiving the weight of the bar in a strong, tensile position before we start lifting.

  5. Take a deep breath, filling your trunk and bracing your core. Drive your feet into the floor and push the ground away aggressively while keeping the bar close. Don’t let your hips shoot up too quickly, your hips and knees should extend at the same time. Keep those arms straight, avoid trying to lift the weight with your arms, think of them as hooks.

  6. At the top of the lift, bring your hips right through so you’re standing upright, but avoid leaning back too far.

  7. Slowly reverse the movement to lower the weight to the ground, keeping your focus and avoiding just dropping the bar. Work the movement both ways with full focus to build strength and swerve injury. Once the weight is on the ground, start again from step one. Remember we’re learning how to deadlift, so no bouncing!

Eddie Hall's Guide to Deadlifting

If anyone knows how to deadlift, it's Eddie Hall. The man who deadlifted half a tonne has explained to us what every part of your body should be doing as you approach the bar. Not always orthodox, Hall's advice will help you lift more than you ever thought possible.

eddie hall
Eddie Hall - YouTube

Foot Positioning

'The number one mistake guys make with the deadlift is incorrect foot positioning,' says Hall. 'You should always put the bar in the middle of your feet – when you’re standing over the bar, it should be halfway between your heels and the end of the toes.'

'Make sure your feet are pointing straight like train tracks and shoulder-width apart. That’s how you lift safely – and with power.'

Back Positioning

'People say that a straight back is a must have, but I actually find that a rounded back works fine,' says Hall. 'It’s all about training your body to withstand that roundness. Training with smaller weights with a slightly untaught back will prepare your muscles for a massive 1 rep max.

'If you’re rounding it to the point that you can feel your spine popping out of your back or your muscles pulling, then it’s too far. Otherwise, round is sound.'

Head Positioning

'Whatever you’re most comfortable with will improve your lift,' advises Hall. 'However, I tend to look down at the bar – that’s my way of concentrating on what I’m doing. If you look away at what else is going on around you then your mind could start to wander and you’ll lose your mental edge.'

Those of you who admire each rep in a mirror, consider that a warning.

Hand Positioning

'Keep them an inch wider than your shins either side. It’s quite a wide grip, but that’s where you get power and stability,' instructs Hall. 'And make sure you’re lifting with an overhand grip with the bar deep into your palms. That way you prevent your biceps ripping off your arm.'


'I may slightly inhale on the way up, but I’ll keep hold of my breath and not let out anything until it’s over,' says Hall. 'Steering clear of big breaths is a great way of stabilising your body.'

The Pull

'Move the bar from A to B,' says Hall. Can't get much simpler than that.

Supportive gear

'I train all year round without a belt or any supportive gear. That’s the best way to build all-round strength, and the only way to hit your stabilising muscles,' says Hall.

But if you're prepping for a half ton lift (or your 1RM)? Then’s the time to grab the gear: 'Wearing a weight belt for the big lifts makes sure your body is properly supported. I don’t wear the knee braces though – if you do the right form then your knees shouldn’t strain.'

Deadlifting: How Many Reps, Sets and Which Weight?

Whatever the lift, it’s always best to choose rep ranges and weights to suit your abilities and goals. A well worn rule of thumb suggests that for strength, 3-5 sets of 2-6 reps works best, and for hypertrophy (building muscle) 4 sets of 6-12 reps seems be sufficient. However, more recent evidence suggests that everything from 5-25 reps can elicit hypertrophy if performed at a suitable intensity, so experimentation is important.

It must be noted, though, that due to the highly fatiguing nature of deadlifts, many coaches warn against heavy, high rep sets, for risk of form breakdown and injury. This is why the deadlift is often saved for low rep, strength building efforts, such as the 5x5, or 5/3/1 protocols.

For muscular gains, to help find the ideal weight, it’s best to familiarise yourself with the RPE scale (rate of perceived exertion). This is a scale from 1-to-10, 10 being maximum exertion, 1 being minimum exertion. For strength and muscle gain, towards the end of your deadlift sets, you want to be sitting at around an 8 out of 10. This means that at most you could complete 2 more reps on your working sets. While you shouldn’t push yourself to the point your form breaks down, if you’re consistently finishing sets knowing you could have performed at least 3+ more reps, you’re leaving gains on the table.

Why Is It Important to Have Good Deadlift Technique?

Perfect deadlift technique, if such a thing exists, will look different on everyone, depending on their build, biomechanics, training history, past and current injuries, and even their age. As well as this, because of the sheer amount of weight we can shift with deadlifts, there’s no denying that it opens us up to the possibility of injury more so than movements that limit us to lighter loads.

In a study that looked at powerlifting moves including the deadlift, it was mentioned that since all such lifts engage multiple joints and expose the lifters’ bodies to high physical demands – often several times a week – their injuries might simply be related to the excessively heavy loads, as opposed to the specific movements.

This research, with other contributing evidence, suggests that while the deadlift in itself may not be inherently more dangerous than any other lift, it’s the weights you’re able to use that ramp up the risk factor. Effectively, the deadlift may well allow for some parts of your body to write cheques that other parts may not be able to cash.

How to Deadlift for Beginners?

It's worth highlighting that while deadlifting is an effective tool in your muscle-building armoury, it's a move that you need to take care over. If you're a beginner, follow these tips before trying to lift heavy. As ever, nail your form first.

How to Master The Hip Hinge

The deadlift is a hip hinge exercise. One way to ensure we're hinging correctly and safely is to start with the dowel hip hinge exercise. This ensures a flat back during the movement. To perform the dowel hip hinge, hold a dowel rod or PVC pipe from the base of your spine to the back of your head using both hands. Send your hips behind your heels with a slight bend in the knees while hinging at the hips.

Try to keep the rod in contact with your lower back, between your shoulders and back of head, throughout. Reverse the movement back to standing. This ensures you're maintaining a relatively flat back throughout the range of motion. Once you're confident, have partner or coach hold the dowel in place while you perform the movement with load.

Choose the Right Variation

Trying other deadlift variations and regressions before the barbell deadlift is a great way to ensure you remain injury free and hone your deadlift form. For example, after you've mastered the dowel hip hinge, continue onto the kettlebell deadlift and dual kettlebell deadlift. The trap bar deadlift is also a fantastic option for beginners learning how to deadlift due to it being easier on the back. But more on variations, later.

Don't Lift with Your Ego

Know your limits and work within them. Don't try to lift your 1 rep max in your first week of deadlifts. In fact, you may never need to know your 1rm. Start well within your lifting capabilities and work from there. There is no harm in scaling the weight to just a kettlebell or a stripped bar. There's nothing wrong with heavy weights, we love them, but going too heavy and courting injury is a surefire way to halt progress.

Top 10 Deadlift Workouts

Now you know how to deadlift, try incorporating them into a workout. Here's ten of our favourite workouts featuring deadlifts and deadlift variations for you to test out your newfound deadlift form on.

  1. Take Leg Day to Another Level with Our Squat and Deadlift Ladder

  2. Arnold Schwarzenegger Shares an Advanced Chest & Back Workout from His Bodybuilding Days

  3. Eddie Hall Shares a Bodybuilding Back Workout Designed to Pack on Size

  4. Mat Fraser's Strength Wave Workout to Build a Bigger Deadlift

  5. Get a Taste for the CrossFit Games with This Brutal Workout

  6. Build Full-Body Muscle Using The ‘Push, Pull, Legs’ Method

  7. Master Three True Tests of Fitness with These Hacks

  8. Burn Calories and Build Muscle With This All-In-One Barbell Burpee Workout

  9. This 10-Minute WFH Version of a CrossFit Classic Will Pump Up Your Arms and Shoulders

  10. Crush Calories and Stack On Serious Strength With This 200+ Rep Challenge

Are Deadlifts Bad for Your Back?

Despite their reputation for causing injury, deadlifts can be used as a rehabilitation tool. A 2015 study by Swedish researchers found that patients with low-back pain could benefit from performing deadlifts, depending on the intensity of their pain. In a 2021 study on chronic lower back pain, the following key points were concluded upon:

  • Posterior chain resistance training is more effective in reducing pain and disability and improving muscle strength in patients with chronic low back pain than general exercise.

  • Posterior chain resistance training does not have significantly more adverse events than general exercise in patients with chronic low back pain.

  • Clinicians should strongly consider the prescription of 12–16 weeks of posterior chain resistance training to maximise outcomes in their patients with chronic low back pain.

So, while it is of paramount importance to be mindful of technique and weight choices, there is some evidence to suggest that when performed correctly deadlifts could potentially help back pain. As if we needed another excuse to include deadlifts in our programme!

The Research

Check out the following links for further reading on the studies cited in this article.

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