The barbell deadlift is a beast of an exercise. For building raw strength in the big muscles of the legs and back barbell deadlifts have no equal. It’s for this reason that deadlifting is a favourite among powerlifters and those who want to develop whole-body strength.
But the barbell deadlift does more than increase pulling power. In the book Strength Training Anatomy, author and illustrations-extraordinaire Fredric Delavier tells us that the barbell deadlift works ‘virtually every muscle . . . [and] it builds terrific hip, lower back, and trapezius muscles mass.’
In support of Delavier’s high praise, strength coach and fitness author Anita Bean identifies the barbell deadlift as a ‘fundamental exercise for increasing overall mass, strength and power in both the lower and upper body.’ And like barbell squats, deadlifting ‘is a maximal-stimulation movement’ – meaning you get more strength-gain bang for your buck (The Complete Guide to Strength Training).
So, if you’re looking for a one-stop-shop exercise that increases strength in the major muscle groups while also adding mass, you must include the barbell deadlift into your training routine.
This article will help you perfect your technique so that you can deadlift safely and effectively.
Barbell deadlift benefits
So, we know that the barbell deadlift develops strength in the muscles of the leg, lower back and upper body. However, because it’s a maximal-stimulation compound exercise, deadlifting also encourages strength gains across the posterior chain.
The posterior chain, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, refers to the muscle structure at the back of the body. Originating at the calves, the posterior chain also includes the hamstrings, gluteus maximus, erector spinae, and latissimus dorsi.
Why is the posterior chain important?
In addition to controlling backward force, the posterior chain helps to stabilise your hips and spine. From deadlifting to everyday tasks, a strong posterior chain can enhance performance across a multitude of movements.
Furthermore, developing posterior chain strength has been shown to improve posture. Improved posture reduces injuries in the hips, lower back and neck.
More benefits of deadlifting
Increases strength in the major muscles of the legs and back.
Develops power in the posterior chain
Stimulates growth across a wide range of muscle groups
Improves sports performance
Muscles targeted by the barbell deadlift
The barbell deadlift primarily targets the gluteus maximus, erector spinae, trapezius, and muscles of the forearms. However, in truth, deadlifting stimulates in some way or another pretty much every muscle of the body.
When heaving that Olympic barbell off the floor the muscle of the core must constantly fire to stabilise the movement. Also, the deltoids and latissimus dorsi work in tandem to steady the bar and fix it in position.
Related: The Best Olympic Barbell for the home gym
How to perform the barbell deadlift
Important point: When deadlifting for the first time it is advisable to have an experienced trainer coaching you through the movement. If you don’t have such a luxury, you can always video record your lift. This enables you to assess your technique and identify flaws. Also, novice trainers should practice the technical application with an unloaded barbell.
Prior to deadlifting organise your weight and make sure that your training environment is safe. Do this by removing obstacles that may catch the bar and, if possible, use spacers and cushioned lifting mats.
Start with your feet under the bar adopting a stance slightly over shoulder-width.
Bending at the knee and ensuring to keep the back perfectly straight, grasp the bar. The palms face toward you and your hands should be spaced slightly wider than your feet to prevent your arms and knees clashing.
Before executing the lift take the strain by applying force against the load.
Keeping your eyes fixed on a point to your front, stand up ensuring to force the hips forward as you do so.
Once fully erect, there should be a slight bend in the knees. Also, from a side angle, a vertical line could be drawn from your shoulders down to your heels. A common mistake is to lean back. DO NOT do this! All you will succeed in doing is compressing the intervertebral discs in the lumbar region.
To conclude the exercise, simply return the bar to the floor under control. Or, if you're using bumper plates, drop the bar.
Related: Bumper Plates | Strength training essentials
How to modify the deadlift
Methods of modifying the deadlift include applying chains or resistance bands to the bar. These modifiers serve to increase the load at the point of peak contraction. There is also the option of including a plyometric jump at the end of the upwards phase of the movement – but I would only ever advise this when using low resistance.
Barbell deadlift dos and don’ts
Do make sure you are in a comfortable position before executing the lift.
Don’t round the back.
Do select a weight commensurate with your current strength.
Don’t snatch the bar from the floor.
Do keep the muscles of the core actively engaged throughout the lift.
Don’t arch your back at the top position.
Do use deadlifting shoes as they improve the stability of your base.
Don’t ratchet the bar up your quads – the movement from start to finish should be smooth and continuous.
When you've mastered the deadlift, start working your way through this list of compound exercises.
Put the barbell deadlift to the test in this Upper Body Strength Workout.