Deadlifts: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

by Eleanor
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The deadlift is a great way to build strong legs and butt. In a deadlift, you lift weight from the ground to thigh level using primarily your leg and hip muscles, but with the assistance of most of the large muscle groups of your body. The deadlift is usually performed with a bar and plates or a fixed barbell, but you can do it with dumbbells. It is a specialty of powerlifters that you shouldn’t ignore in general fitness training. Make deadlifts part of your strength-training workouts to build muscle and functional fitness.

How to Perform a Deadlift

Select a lightweight barbell or two dumbbells.

  1. Grasp the bar just outside the line of your knees with an overhand or mixed grip.
  2. Position your feet shoulder-width apart (or not much more) with toes under the bar. Your feet point straight ahead, or they can angle out slightly. Heels should stay flat on the surface. As you lift and lower the bar, it will travel close to the shins and might even brush them. Maintain aneutral spine
  3. Engage your abdominal muscles.
  4. Slowly bring the weight down as far as you can while maintaining proper form, softening your knees, and keeping your back flat.
  5. Lift the bar by pushing upward with the legs from the knees. Breathe out on exertion. Be careful not to raise the hips first so the trunk moves forward and the back becomes rounded. Don’t try to haul the bar up with your arms. The arms stay extended under tension while gripping the bar as the legs push up. Think of the legs and shoulders moving upward in unison with the hips, the balancing point.
  6. The bar should almost graze the shins and rest around the thighs as you reach full height. Pull the shoulders back as much as possible without bending backward.
  7. Lower the bar toward the floor with a reverse motion ensuring a straight back.
  8. Repeat for your desired number of repetitions.

Benefits of Deadlifts

The deadlift uses the hamstrings (back of thigh), quadriceps (front of thigh), gluteals (butt), and lower back muscles (erector spinae). The stabilizer muscles of the core, abs, shoulders, and upper back also come into play. Deadlifts: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Builds Muscle Mass

Deadlifts have a great reputation for building muscle mass, which is desirable for bodybuilders and people who want to prevent or reverse muscle loss due to aging. You can use deadlifts to build overall strength, core strength, and stability.

Boosts Metabolism

Your metabolism determines how many calories you burn at rest. Lean muscle speeds your metabolism. By increasing the amount of lean muscle in your body, you can help give your metabolism a boost. Since deadlifts work with some of the largest muscle groups in the body, they are a good choice for building a greater percentage of lean muscle in your body. Deadlifts: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Builds Functional Fitness

The deadlift is one of the best exercises for mimicking the lifting you do throughout the day, so it is a functional exercise. Learning to deadlift with good form, you will be able to lift and carry items with less risk in daily life.

Other Variations of Deadlifts

You can do deadlift variations to suit your goals and fitness level. Many sophisticated variants are possible with alternative leg and grip positions.

As with all exercises, if you are new to deadlifting, lift only light weights or even a bar without any additional weight. Have a personal trainer coach you and give feedback on your form. Increase weight when you are performing it correctly. Deadlifts: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Dumbbell Deadlifts

If you are unable to access to a barbell or the bar’s weight is too challenging, try a kettlebell or vertical dumbbell deadlift with a lighter weight. Grasp the object with both hands and hinge at the hips to lift it, as with a barbell. Alternatively, workout sandbags can be used for a variety of full-body exercises, including deadlifts.

Romanian Deadlifts

The main difference between Romanian deadlifts and regular deadlifts is that instead of starting the lift from a squat, Romanian deadlifts start the lift from a standing position. This variation works the posterior chain muscles, which include the muscles that run along the back side of your body, such as the glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

You can also do the Romanian deadlift with offset feet, which may more closely mimic real-life situations in picking up and moving heavy objects. Deadlifts: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Stiff-Leg Deadlift

In this version of deadlifts, you remain standing during the entire motion, keeping your legs stiff and your knees almost locked. Maintain a neutral spine and keep the bar close to your body as you bend forward and return to standing. The stiff leg deadlift activates the hamstrings and gluteus maximus more than standard or Romanian deadlifts.

Suitcase Deadlift

Lifting weight is necessary for this version on one side of the body at a time, using only one hand. Imagine the movement of picking up a suitcase. It is excellent for strengthening your core, as you engage those muscles to prevent your body from leaning over to the side with the weight. This movement requires bending as if to squat, as in a standard deadlift, rather than keeping straight legs. Deadlifts: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Change Your Deadlift Grip

These are the possible grip types while performing deadlifts:

  • The standard overhand grip has both hands with palms facing the body. If you can see the backs of both hands, that’s the overhand grip. This grip is suitable for lighter weights.
  • The mixed grip has one hand grasping the bar with the palm under the bar (supinated) and the other with the palm over the bar (pronated). The mixed overhand-underhand grip is for heavier weights. This grip provides some reassurance that heavier weights will not slip from the hands.

The grip can be wider or narrower on the bar. A typical starting position is a grip perpendicular to the point of the shoulder with arms straight down. A slightly wider grip may suit some people, and a wide-grip deadlift is a valid variation. The standard grip utilizes the quadriceps (rather than the hip and back with the wide grip) and is more suitable for heavier lifts. Deadlifts: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Deadlift Common Mistakes

Deadlifts have so many benefits, but doing them correctly is paramount. Injury from deadlifts could leave you unable to exercise while you recover, so it’s not worth taking risks. Avoid these errors so you can get the most out of this exercise with less risk of strain or injury.

Rounding Your Back or Shoulders

Maintain a straight back with no rounding at the shoulders and spine. You should be hinging at the hip. Keep those hips down, butt out. Engage your core to support your straight back.

Lifting With Your Arms or Back

For beginners, the key to the lifting process is to lift with the legs and hips, not the arms, shoulders, or back—although their stabilizing role is important. Keep your arms straight throughout the deadlift. Bending your arms can strain your biceps. Deadlifts: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Using Too Much Weight

When starting, practice with light weight until ​your form is satisfactory. A personal trainer or gym attendee can check you for the correct form. Practice in a mirror if necessary. You can add weight as your fitness increases, but it’s better to do so modestly so you don’t strain your muscles. As with all weightlifting exercises, proper footwear, like these best CrossFit shoes, is essential.

Partial Lifts

With a light weight, you can do repetitions in which you lower the bar to your shin or even floor and then straighten again without releasing your grip on the bar. This is not truly a deadlift repetition. It is better to practice a full lift, lower to the floor, and start again from a standing position.

Bar Too Far From Body

Occasionally, when someone deadlifts, they position the weight too far away from the body. The bar should travel close to the body for maximum lift efficiency and safety. It’s OK to skim the front of your legs as you lift and lower. With Deadlifts: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Safety and Precautions

The deadlift is an advanced weightlifting exercise. Talk to a healthcare provider to see if it is appropriate for you if you have any injuries or conditions affecting your legs, knees, ankles, hips, back, shoulders, or wrists. Be sure you receive appropriate coaching for the correct technique. Use light weights to start, and stop if you feel any pain. In pregnancy, it is best to use lighter weights, and you may wish to use the wider sumo stance. Women should consider wearing a high-neck sports bra for extra support.

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