EXERCISE IS ONE OF THE BEST medicines for preventative health, not only for strengthening the physical body, but the mental and emotional clarity it provides.
Every year, I go through spurts of being a gym rat then hiking for months then training for triathlons and sporting events. I flip-flop because I get bored easily and travel a ton. But I’m also in maintenance mode, which means I don’t have any particular goals but to feel good, be healthy and think clearly.
If you have particular goals to slim down, bulk up or for health benefits make sure to keep consistent with your program to ensure results. Switching from one workout to another without giving it at least 1-3 months of dedicated progressions will keep you from reaching your target goals.
This article focuses on a slightly more advanced exercise, but one that I always use in my workouts to build strong and sexy legs:
They are versatile and all encompassing when it comes to building fabulous and strong legs. They take a bit more time to learn correctly, so make sure to start off slow and get a skilled personal trainer to watch your form for your safety. I’ll be covering the following topics with many videos to help guide you:
- Proper technique
- Common mistakes
- Variations to the exercise
- Using weights
- Advanced variations
- How to build them into your exercise
The deadlifts is a compound exercise that work many large muscle groups. The focus should stay on the posterior chain vs the typical squat that uses the anterior chain. The muscles used are the same as in the squat, but with emphasis on the muscles on the back side of your body:
- Hamstrings (biceps femoris, semimembranosus and semitendinosus)
- Gluteus muscles (aka your booty)
- Back (erector spinae, mid and lower trapezius and latissiumus dorsi)
- Core (rectus abdominus, transversus, obliques, low back stabilizers, etc)
- Less quadriceps (rectus femoris, vastus intermedius, vastus lateralis and vastus medialis)
- Slight calves
These muscles are necessary any time you bend over to pick something up, climb stairs or hike up a steep hill. And if you need more enticing, here’s 55 Reasons to Deadlift from thePTDC.
Proper Technique —
Basic Barbell Deadlift – watch the video below for proper instructions
- Stand directly behind the bar (without weight and elevated off the ground for beginners) with it lightly touching your shins
- Begin with a shoulder width stance with feet facing forward or slightly turned out
- As you bend down to grab the bar, make sure your back is straight back, chest is lifting, eyes forward and your body is hinging forward at the hips
- Your hips should stay higher than the height of your knees (or else this will be more of a squat pattern)
- Keep your knees following over top of your 2nd toes
- Grab the bar with an overhand grip just outside of your knees
- Before you pick up the bar, press your shoulders down and back while activating your core and maintaining a flat back
- Hold the bar tightly and keep your elbows stiff with a natural bend (this is your STARTING POSITION)
- As you stand up, the bar should graze along the path of your shins with your weight pressing into your heels
- Push your hips forward, exhale, and finish standing straight up with your butt squeezing tightly
- Hold the top for 2 seconds before pressing your hips backwards and hinging at the hips to lower the bar to the ground with control
- Gently touch the bar to the ground, while keeping tension on the posterior chain of your legs before repeating
If you’re a stickler for form and details, here a great overview on How to Deadlift With Proper Form from StrongLifts.
- Deadlifts are bad for the knees and lower back
— If you have a physical deformity or limitation in your knees then deadlifts may be bad. However, if you have sore or weak knees/ back and it isn’t a structural issue, deadlifts may be exactly what you need. The hamstrings, glutes, low back and quadriceps are targeting with this exercise and can help relieve pain. That being said, make sure to consult with your primary care physician if you have any concerns and ensure you have a skilled personal trainer start you off slow to be as safe as possible
- Deadlifts make your legs bulky
— If your definition of “bulky” is having muscles then yes, any strength training will make your muscles stronger and more visible. But they again, it will also allow you to be active in life, live a healthier life and lose more fat (if that’s your goal).
Your ability to put on more muscle than another person comes down to hormones and genetics. If you are the type that easily puts on muscle, you need to embrace your body. Being fit, active and strong is more beneficial than trying to change your body to be socially accepted. Surround yourself with positive people who accept you as you are and try the Love Your Body Challenge.
- Deadlifts are for experienced exercisers only
— Although deadlifts take a bit more time to perform properly, they are by no means meant for only skilled weight lifters. Deadlifts are an ideal compound exercise that increases core strength and can reduce low back issues. However, if you are new or less comfortable with weight training I recommend getting a skilled personal trainer to take you through the movement patterns and starting off without any weights on the bar.
Common Mistakes —
These are the ones that happen the most. Having a personal trainer evaluate your form is always a good idea.
- Bending the knees too much without hinging at the hips (this is more like a squat pattern)
- Starting with the bar too far away from you
- Rounding back and shoulders (especially upper back)
- Upper trapz creeping up to your ears, especially at the top of the lift
- Going too deep with tight hamstrings or twisting hips
- Using straps and support belts unnecessarily
- Bending the elbows and pulling the bar with your arms
- Hyper-extending the hips at the top of the deadlift
- Lack of control, falling into the bottom of the deadlift and dropping the bar
- Core not engaged
- Using too much weight with poor form
Variations of the Basic Barbell Deadlift —
It’s always a good idea to try different variations to your foot stance, form of weights and movement patterns so that you continue to progress your deadlift.
1. Foot Position – Each position has it’s own benefits. They target slightly different muscles and stabilizers. With a more narrow stance you will hold the bar outside of your knees and with a wider stance between your knees, aim for shoulder width grip.
- Narrow – feet closer than parallel
- Parallel – feet facing forward and in line with your shoulders
- Turned out – heels in line with your shoulders, feet turned out 30˚
- Wide – heels outside of shoulder, feet turned out ~45˚
- Sumo – maximum external rotation of hips, with knees and feet in line
But no matter what, have your knees following over your toes to avoid aggravating your knees and leg compensation.
2. Degree of knee flexion — When you have little or no knee bend you will accentuate the tension on your hamstrings. You can perform a romanian deadlift (RDL) with a slight knee bend or a stiff-leg deadlift where you won’t actively bend your knees. Use a lighter weight than with a traditional deadlift.
3. Depth of movement — If you have tight hamstrings and glutes you may need to stack your bar on blocks to limit the depth of your deadlift. As you improve in flexibility you can start to deepen your range of movement.
Variations with weight —
1. Resistance Bands — band work is great for beginners, elderly and home workouts. Using a circular, long stiff band, stand on the bottom portion of the band with both feet and hold the top section of the band. You can control the tension of the band by the placement of your feet. For added tension, hold onto both the top and bottom band in between your feet. Watch this video to get a better idea.
2. Dumbbell or Kettlebell — hold the dumbbells/kettlebells angled in front of your body or by your sides (esp with kettlebells). Using divided weights challenges your stabilizing muscles and core while maintaining a symmetrical movement pattern. Keep a flat back and use a total weight less than your barbell weight.
3. Trap or Hex Bar
— this is a great alternative to the classic deadlift because it moves your weight distribution more over your center of gravity, thereby putting less stress on your back. Be careful not to perform a squat pattern and keep your hips higher than your knees.
Advanced Deadlifts —
There are lots of variations. These are some of my favorites.
1. The Jefferson deadlift – This technique utilizes a staggered stance with the bar in between your legs and a mixed grip. It’s slightly awkward to perform at first, so start off with a lighter weight. Here’s my girl Jen Sinkler to demo the Jefferson.
2. Single Leg Deadlift/ RDL —
3. Band Resisted Deadlift —
4. Deficit Deadlift —
5. Sumo deadlift (with bar or kettlebell) —
Numbers Game —
Building your deadlift variation into your exercise routine is normally reserved for higher weight with less repetitions. Here are the 2 typical exercise types:
- High rep and Low weight (this is not a common rep range for the deadlift)
— These are either body weight, light weight, or plyometric movements that can be worked into a routine as ‘active rest’ for 10-20 repetitions or a time duration (ie. 30 seconds)
— High repetition as a metabolic activator of fast twitch muscle fiber
— Form is not as critical to safety, but still important due to the high repetitions
- Low rep and High weight
— High weight in repetitions of 3-10 and sets of 3-6 with an adequate amount of rest
— Strengthens slow twitch muscle fibers to build and tone quads and glutes
— Form is absolutely critical due to the heavy weights that could cause serious injury
Finally, here’s a hilarious deadlift video that you will probably take offense to. -Enjoy
Learn more about the great benefits of exercises such as:
- Squat like a champ
- Love your Lunges
- Glute Thrust your way to nice buns
- Activate Your Core with the Deadbug
- Proper Posture to Build Confidence
- Upper body strength: Push-up and Standing row