The deadlift is one of the most popular and effective exercises for building functional strength. Why? Because it requires you to lift a heavy load from a deadlift position against gravity — like you’d lift an object off the ground in real life. Deadlifts are one of the best exercises for building strength, power, and muscle. They work your entire lower body, from your calves to your hamstrings to your glutes and quads.
Deadlifts also help you build core strength and stability by forcing you to brace your abdominal muscles and keep your back straight as you lift the barbell. A stronger core can help prevent injuries in other parts of your body when you’re lifting heavy weights. Deadlifts are also a compound exercise, meaning they work multiple muscles at once, making it an ideal exercise for burning calories and building lean muscle mass.
There are a variety of ways to approach a deadlift and advantages to each one. Let’s look at the five most popular types of deadlifts, how to do them, and the advantages each offers.
Here’s how to do a conventional deadlift:
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and toes pointed straight ahead. Bend at your hips and reach down to grip the bar with an overhand grip. Your hands should be outside your knees.
- Squeeze your glutes, push through your heels, and pull the bar up toward your shins using your back muscles and glutes.
- Don’t lean forward as you lift; keep your chest up throughout the movement.
- Pause briefly at the top before lowering under control back down to the floor again.
If you have never done a deadlift before, it’s best to start with an unloaded barbell first. You can either hold onto a broomstick or use no weight at all. You should feel comfortable enough to keep your back straight and knees slightly bent throughout the entire lift, while keeping your chest up and shoulders back as if you were standing erect with arms at your side. Practice the conventional deadlift until it feels natural before moving on to an actual weight.
It’s important not to let your knees collapse inward during this exercise because it’ll reduce the effectiveness of the movement. Also make sure that when you’re in a standing position, you don’t lean on anything for support — this is an exercise that should be done without any support other than your own body weight.
A conventional deadlift places a strong emphasis on your posterior chain, your glutes, and hamstrings. One downside of the conventional deadlift is it places stress on your lower back. So, there may be better deadlift alternatives if you have chronic lower back pain.
A Romanian deadlift, or RDL, is a variation of the conventional deadlift that targets your lower back. While the conventional deadlift is more about power and strength than flexibility, the RDL is more about flexibility and mobility.
The RDL can help you improve your hamstring flexibility and enhance your posture by loosening up tight hip flexors. This makes it an ideal deadlift for athletes with tight hamstrings and poor body alignment. It can help you functionally too by teaching you to keep your hips and pelvis from rounding forward when you’re lifting heavy objects or performing other athletic movements.
The RDL helps build lower back strength without putting your spine at risk for injury because you’re lifting less weight than you can handle in an ordinary deadlift. Here’s how to do one:
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart, holding a barbell with an overhand grip, and your arms extended down by your sides. Your knees should be slightly bent and your arms straight.
- Slowly bend at the hips, lowering the barbell toward the floor until the barbell is just below your knees
- Keep your back flat and don’t let it round as you go down.
- Pause for one second at the bottom of this motion before slowly returning to the standing position.
The RDL places more emphasis on the posterior chain, your quads, and glutes, as opposed to your quadriceps while being safer for your back since you’ll use a lighter barbell than you would for a conventional deadlift. Being a half movement, it targets your hips more than a conventional deadlift.
The sumo deadlift is a deadlift version where your feet are wider than shoulder width and your center of gravity is lower to the ground. You also grasp the barbell from between your knees. Because your center of gravity is closer to the ground, you don’t lower your body as far as with a conventional deadlift.
The sumo deadlift is a variation of the conventional deadlift. The sumo deadlift is more hip-dominant than the conventional deadlift, which means it targets your glutes and hamstrings more than your quads. The sumo deadlift also places more emphasis on the stretch reflex at the bottom of the movement.
- Spread your legs as far as you can — in a comfortable position — with your toes slightly pointed outward at a 45-degree angle.
- Bend over and grab the bar shoulder-width apart (mixed grip optional), with your hands inside your knees.
- Hinge at your hips, keep your shoulders protracted back, and straighten your head and chest, then pull the barbell up. Keep the barbell as close as possible to your body throughout the movement.
- Extend at the top until your body is upright.
- Slide the barbell down your body — while keeping control of the weight — to return to the starting position.
The important thing to know about the sumo deadlift is it targets your inner thighs more than your hamstrings and glutes.
Trap Bar Deadlift
The trap bar deadlift is a safer alternative to the conventional deadlift if you have back pain or mobility issues. The bar allows you to maintain a more neutral spine and more upright positioning than the conventional deadlift, while still lifting a heavy load. The range-of-motion is also more limited.
The secret sauce is the trap bar you use with this deadlift variation. The trap bar is like a squat rack with vertical posts on each side and a flat bar in the middle that allows you to stand inside the rack. The trap bar deadlift works your legs, back, shoulders and arms. You can lift more weight safely than with a regular barbell because it distributes the load between your upper and lower body evenly. A trap bar deadlift has the characteristics of a deadlift and a squat.
With the trap bar, you can maintain a more upright back during the deadlift. This variation is more quad focused than the conventional deadlift.
How to do a trap bar deadlift:
- Step into the middle of the trap bar and place your feet hip-width apart.
- Bend your knees slightly and bend over and grab the handles of the trap bar on either side with your palms facing toward you.
- Slowly stand while holding the trap bar as you tighten your glutes.
- Once you’re standing straight, push your hips back and lower the trap bar back to the floor while keeping your spine neutral.
The trap bar deadlift is easier to execute and places less load on your spine, so is a safer option for your back. It’s also a good variation for improving posture and requires less grip strength than a conventional deadlift.
Unlike barbell deadlifts, which require you to keep your back straight, dumbbell deadlifts allow you to bend forward slightly as you lift. This helps activate the posterior chain muscles—the ones in the back of your body that are so important for athletic performance and injury prevention.
It’s also easier to use heavier weights with dumbbells than with a barbell.
How to do a dumbbell deadlift:
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand by your sides.
- Bend your knees slightly and push your hips back, lowering the weights until they’re just below your knees. Keep the dumbbells close to your body and don’t arch your back.
- Return to standing position, squeezing your glutes as you come back up.
The Bottom Line
Now you know how to do the five most popular forms of deadlifts and the pros and cons of each. Choose the one that helps you best meet your goals and feels most comfortable for you.
“The Deadlift and Its Application to Overall Performance – NSCA.” https://www.nsca.com/education/articles/tsac-report/the-deadlift-and-its-application-to-overall-performance/.
Bird, Stephen PhD, CSCS; Barrington-Higgs, Benjamin Exploring the Deadlift, Strength and Conditioning Journal: April 2010 – Volume 32 – Issue 2 – p 46-51 doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3181d59582.