How To Deadlift: A Beginner's Guide

Many new lifters fear the deadlift, but this important lift is one of the best for building total-body strength, size, and athleticism. Banish your fear and learn how to deadlift right here!

I consider the barbell deadlift one of the best damned exercises around, period. Whether you want to build muscle, burn fat, increase athleticism, or focus purely on gaining strength, I'd say it's the one movement every lifter must do.

The trouble is, many folks new to the iron don't know how to approach this beneficial barbell lift and use it effectively. Well, consider your trouble solved! After you read this beginner's deadlift how-to guide and spend some time at the bar, you'll be deadlifting like a pro before you know it.

Why Deadlift?

It's always important to start with why. Why? Because having a good reason for doing something makes planning easier.

So, why deadlift? Quite simply, the deadlift is one of the most effective exercises for developing the pure strength that's a precursor to bodily size and athleticism. Since it's a full-body exercise that recruits a lot of muscle mass, the deadlift also builds total-body muscle.1 It's also one of the few exercises that directly targets the hamstrings, a group of muscles often neglected in the weight room.2

The deadlift also improves posture. We live most of our lives in front of our bodies, ignoring our rears. In turn, we develop bodily frames without balance, leading to a host of postural issues—hunched shoulders and weak backs, for example. Deadlifting reintroduces us to our body's backside. Posterior training balances the body, giving us cause to stand taller and with greater strength.

In short, deadlifting will support your aesthetic goals, help you build better posture, correct various strength imbalances, help you build total strength, and turn you into a total gym badass. After all, there's nothing quite like ripping heavy weight from the ground.

Now, you're probably eager to practice deadlifting in the gym, but hang on a moment. I often work with lifters who want to rocket headfirst into a movement, when in reality it's important to pump the breaks and master the basics first.

Start With the Hip Hinge

The conventional deadlift is a heavily loaded iteration of the hip hinge, which is a basic human movement pattern. The hip hinge is exactly what it sounds like: hinging at the hips. It's not sitting down, but more like sitting back. The movement comes from your hips, not your knees. It's like a horizontal thrust; your butt goes back as you sit back, and then you fire it forward as you stand up.

Butt to Wall with PVC
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When you perform a good hip hinge, you maintain a neutral spine while loading the hips and posterior chain, or the muscles along the backside. To try hinging, stand near a wall facing out, softly bend at the knees, keep an arch in your lower back, and sit back by hinging at the hips until your butt touches the wall. Voila! You've hinged.

Learning to hinge before stepping up to a barbell enhances safety while promoting strength and longevity, so learn to hinge well before you deadlift! For an even more detailed guide, check out my article, "How to Hip Hinge for Ultimate Performance."

When to Deadlift

Before we dive into how to deadlift, let's talk when so you don't pull the bar willy-nilly and interrupt your other training goals.

Deadlifting requires the body to pay a heavy tax—the nervous system and the musculoskeletal system each contribute. Since the deadlift can drain the nervous system, it's best for a beginner to train it at the beginning of a workout. A fresh nervous system means productive reps, because the body more efficiently learns movement and better form is attainable. It's also safer. As fatigue builds, form declines and the potential for injury increases. It's best to plan deadlift training for the time period directly following your warm-up.

Don't think of deadlift day like you would a traditional body part, like back or chest. Instead, you'll work a number of important assistance exercises with it (see below). When training a muscle group with deadlifts, beware of training that same muscle group the day before or the day after your deadlift workout. Proper recovery allows for gains in both strength and size.

One caveat is when training for a powerlifting competition. The deadlift is the last event at a powerlifting meet—meaning that a lifter has already completed three maximal squat and bench-press attempts before mounting the platform for a first deadlift attempt. Fatigue is heavy and inevitable. In a powerlifter's case, training the deadlift while fatigued makes sense. But it's the only time it's necessary.

What to Deadlift

One more step before we talk how, which is what—as in, sets and reps.

I believe the deadlift thrives in the 1-6 rep range. Creep above 6 reps and you invite the Bad News Bears to your training party. Fatigue sullies form, and a good, productive lift becomes one rep away from a nagging injury. Deadlifts are great for building strength, so keep them in the rep ranges that do so.

Keep the total reps of working sets under 30 and reduce the number of reps performed as you increase intensity. For example, include 4-5 working sets of 3-6 reps. Do a few nonfatiguing warm-ups to work up to your first training weight. Then, you can either continue to increase weight for each subsequent set, or keep the same weight throughout your sets.

Training intensity, or the weight you use relative to your max strength for one rep on the lift, depends on skill. Advanced lifters max out (lift at 90-100 percent of one-rep max [1RM]) their deadlift at regular, but not frequent, intervals. Newbies, however, should keep the intensity low to moderate: around 50-60 percent 1RM. As skill improves, you'll add more plates to the bar, but at the beginning, keep the reps relatively light and crisp. No grinding, and no form breakdown.

How to Deadlift

Peruse YouTube and you'll find a multitude of videos of folks doing their best one-hump camel impersonations while dragging a barbell up their legs. These well-intentioned lifters are not to be emulated. Every time you deadlift, you should be totally focused on good form.

Good form's main purpose is no secret: It reduces injury risk. The risk is never completely eliminated, but good deadlift form distributes the lift's stress evenly across tissues rather than placing a destructive load on a specific area—the lower back, for example.

"When you lift with good form, the bar follows a path that allows for efficient use of the legs, hips, and back."

Secondary to limiting injury risk, good form also boosts performance: The right muscles work at the right times to crane the bar from the floor to the lockout position. When you lift with good form, the bar follows a path that allows for efficient use of the legs, hips, and back.

What does good deadlift form look like? Your feet should be spaced hip-width apart with your grip just outside your legs. Your back should be flat—neutral spine—from start to finish. The bar should remain in contact with your legs for the entire range of motion. Your hips and knees should move in concert to transfer the bar from the ground to an upper-thigh, locked position.3

If you can't maintain a flat back when setting up to deadlift from the floor, don't deadlift from the floor! There's no rule that says you have to. Elevate the bar on squat-rack pins or jerk boxes to a position in which you can flatten your spine. This wonderful deadlift variation is called a "rack pull," and it's especially good for those with mobility issues that limit their deadlifting range of motion.

Since many beginners have mobility issues, I recommend you start your deadlifting career with the rack pull and gradually progress to the full-range pull.

How to Progress Safely

How do you know if a weight's too heavy? For a beginner, the answer is simple: it's too heavy when your form breaks down. If your spine rounds or your hips and knees don't move in unison, the weight is probably too heavy.

The safest way to progress in weight is to hire a qualified coach to monitor your programming and cue your lift performance. Of course, if that option's not in the cards, it's best to simply add 5-10 pounds to the bar each week. It sounds slow and monotonous, but you'll achieve a lot of practice while earning the ability to lift heavy.

What Else to Lift

Since the deadlift is a stressful exercise, it's ill-advised to pair it in an aggressive superset, such as with another heavy lift. It pairs best with mobility and core exercises that will improve your deadlift performance and train your strength without the overbearing strain of another heavy lift.

I like to pair mobility exercises that address the thoracic spine (upper back), hips, and ankles, since the deadlift requires sufficient mobility in all of these joints. Choose core exercises that fight spinal motion since they help to reinforce deadlifting's neutral spine position.

Deadlift

Assistance exercises like these are designed to assist a lift's development. In our current case, assistance training is planned to train the posterior chain and core—the areas we've noted that improve deadlift performance. These exercises are categorized into different levels; the most demanding and impactful exercises immediately follow the deadlift, while secondary and tertiary lifts follow after. Here's a breakdown:

First-Level Assistance
  • Rack pull
  • Romanian deadlift
  • Good morning
Second-Level Assistance
  • Glute-ham raise
  • Kettlebell swing
  • Leg curl
Third-Level Assistance
  • Barbell roll-out
  • Pull-up
  • Squatting Exercises (focusing on hip extension)

Plan 3-5 sets of first-level assistance exercises in the 4-8 rep range, while secondary exercises should follow for 3-4 sets in the 5-10 rep range. Third-level assistance exercises can land in both rep ranges for 3 sets. They're categorized as "third level" because they don't have a direct movement application to the deadlift, but they do train muscles that prepare the body to pull heavily.

Long Live the Deadlift

The deadlift is a powerful strength-training and physique-altering exercise. It's a must-do for any training goal. Learn to hinge well, progress to the rack pull, and earn your way to the full-range deadlift. When you get there, stick in the prescribed rep ranges and plan your assistance exercises according to my categorized list. You'll pull successfully and enjoy a lengthy training career!

References
  1. Farley, K. (1995). Analysis of the conventional deadlift. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 17(6), 55-57.
  2. Wright, G. A., Delong, T. H., & Gehlsen, G. (1999). Electromyographic activity of the hamstrings during performance of the leg curl, stiff-leg deadlift, and back squat movements. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research,13(2), 168-174.
  3. Gotshalk, L. (1984). Sports Performance Series: Analysis of the deadlift. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 6(6), 4-9.