How to Barbell Deadlift With Proper Form


THERE ARE FEW more direct expressions of strength than the deadlift. The movement is as simple as anything else you’ll find yourself doing in a gym: You pick a heavy load up off the ground, then you put it back down (or drop it with a resounding crash, if you’re working on just one rep and you’re in that type of training space). Gauging success doesn’t take a long checklist of requirements to be met, especially if you’re simply performing the movement for your workout rather than in a competition. You either lift the weight up to the point of lockout, or you don’t.

This staple exercise isn’t just useful for powerlifters looking to pile on as many plates as possible to their barbells to break new PRs and world strength records. Regardless of your chosen implement (barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, or trap bar), the deadlift is also one of the most reliable compound movements for building big-time muscle. It’s a tremendous exercise for developing the posterior chain. The biggest muscles of your body are involved in the deadlift, with your lower body—glutes, hamstrings, quads—providing much of the work. But your upper body muscles like the erector spinae, traps, and even your forearms (since you need a vise-like grip to hold the heavy loaded bar) are essential to completing reps, too.

As simple as the deadlift is conceptually and as uncomplicated it looks to the untrained eye, putting the movement into practice is more technical than just stepping up to a platform, grabbing the bar, and letting it rip. There are some important form cues to follow—especially once you begin working with heavier weights. Like many other physical feats, there are a surprising number of subtleties that separate an effective and successful rep from an ineffective and potentially dangerous one. There’s more to the deadlift than just brute strength. To make the most out of your hard work, you’ll need to nail the technique, too.

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How to Do Barbell Deadlifts

Follow these form cues to learn how to do the barbell deadlift properly. Let Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. and senior fitness editor Brett Williams, NASM-CPT guide you through the exercise’s subtleties, saving you from the bad habits that are keeping you from unlocking your fitness potential. Once you’ve read the step-by-step directions, follow along for some higher-level tips from Samuel to dive deeper into the exercise.

  • Step up to the loaded barbell, starting with your feet about shoulder-width apart (this might vary by your anatomy and personal preference with experience), with your feet under the bar. Your shins should be close to or actually touching the bar.
  • Push your butt back and hinge at the waist to bend down to grab the bar on either side of your legs. Grasp it in both hands using an overhand grip.
  • Make sure your hips are lower than your shoulders. Squeeze your shoulder blades together to set your lats, then engage your core. Keep your neck in a neutral position; don’t look up.
  • Push your feet through the floor and pull the weight up, keeping the bar close to your body. You might find that you scrape your shins with the bar, that’s okay. Invest in long socks or wear pants. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the list, but don’t lean back.

Important Deadlift Tips

Before you approach the barbell (or dumbbells or hex bar) and prepare to pull, there are a few things you should know to deadlift properly (and therefore, safely).

Leave the Gear at Home

Eb says: First lesson: if you’re just starting out, leave the accessories at home. You might have seen more experienced-looking lifters kitting up with belts and wrist straps before they pull heavy weight. Gear like this can be helpful when your goal is to pile as many plates as possible onto the bar—but if you’re a beginner, you should have different goals. Namely, establishing the proper form.

Tighten Your Lats

Eb says: This is very much a lower body exercise, but your shoulders are heavily involved too, with the load hanging from your arms. That means you want your back to be live on this movement; if it’s not, your upper back is going to round forward, which can lead to shoulder and upper back issues. To avoid that, tighten both your lats and rhomboids. Once you’ve gripped the bar, squeeze your shoulder blades, as if trying to pop a walnut in your mid-back. Then try to flex your lats; think about twisting your arms so your elbows face directly behind you. Finally, pull the slack out of the bar. There’s a micrometer between the bar and the plates, right? You want the bar bumping directly up against the tops of the plates.

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Brace Your Core

Eb says: You’ll see plenty of guys wearing belts when they deadlift, but the best belt you have is the one nature gave you: Your lower back, obliques, abs and deeper abdominal muscles working together to stabilize your spine in a straight, natural line. As you lift heavier and heavier weight on the deadlift, this becomes more critical. You’re working to hinge from your hips on the deadlift (more on that up next), but if your torso doesn’t stay rigid, you’ll tend to move from your spine during the lift. (Not good for your spine.)

Take a deep, breath a split second before each deadlift, really filling your belly with air, and tighten your entire core. Think of being as rigid as you can be in your lower back.

Hips Lower Than Shoulders

Eb says: You want your glutes and hamstrings to be the prime movers in this lift—not your lower back. To do that, you need to make sure your lower back isn’t in a position where it’s the main leverage point. So think “hips lower than shoulders” on every single rep. That should lead you to sit down and back a little bit, possibly bending your knees a little more and tensing your hamstrings.

Think of Every Rep as Its Own Rep

Eb says: The deadlift, especially as you start to move serious weight, is not an exercise to be rushed. Even if you’re doing a set of 6 to 8 reps, take your time. Don’t be afraid to go through every single step on your checklist after each rep. Your goal should be to be fluid and clean on each individual rep.

Common Deadlift Mistakes

You Mix the Grip

Eb says: Use an overhand grip whenever you can on the deadlift, instead of going to the often-used mixed grip. The mixed grip has you grabbing the bar with one hand overhand and one hand underhand, and it’s commonly used if you’re going incredibly heavy on the deadlift because it keeps the bar from slipping.

In the short run, this doesn’t seem like an issue. But over time, the mixed grip engages and utilizes your lats and mid-back in slightly different patterns on both sides of your body. It also adds an anti-rotation quality to the deadlift, which isn’t something you want here. Think about this: We actively choose a mixed grip on the pullup to make it a more challenging anti-rotation move that taxes our core. But we don’t want our core doing that kind of extra work on a deadlift; it has another job to do.

You Start Too Far Away

When you’re using a barbell, you need to keep the implement as close to your body as possible when you lift the weight. That means starting with your feet under the bar, then pulling straight up—even if that means that the bar scrapes your shins. If you’re working to pull the bar from too far in front of you, you’ll be starting from a compromised position and putting your lower back at risk. Invest in long socks or wear pants if this is a problem for you.

Your Hips Are Higher Than Your Shoulders

This is just an inversion of the tip above, but it’s worth repeating. If you’re not able to initiate your pull with your hips lower than your shoulders, you’re putting your lower back in a compromised position and putting yourself at risk of pain and injury. If you can get into the proper position, another deadlift variation like a dumbbell or trap bar deadlift might be a better option for you.

You Overextend at the Top

Yes, the squeezing your glutes to emphasize hip extension at the top of the movement is an important factor in finishing off a deadlift rep—but too many people take that cue to the next level and overextend, bending their spine backward. Don’t do this. You’ve already taken the lift to completion at lockout; there’s no reason to risk injury by going beyond that point.

Top Benefits of Deadlifts

Compound Movement

Deadlifts are a compound (or multi-joint) movement, which means you recruit several muscle groups to work together to perform the exercise properly. These are some of the most effective exercises for building total-body strength and muscle. More specifically, you’ll build muscle in your legs (specifically your glutes and hamstrings), back, and the rest of your posterior chain while putting a big strain on your central nervous system, too. Because of this, you can point to the deadlift as a leg day exercise, or a back-building move.

Train the Posterior Chain

The deadlift is one of the best exercises for training your posterior chain, the muscles on the backside of the body that are incredibly important for spinal health, athletic performance, and everyday movement. Key members of that group for the deadlift include the traps, lats, erector spinae, glutes, and hamstrings. You’ll strengthen them and see results in everything from your posture (upper back/traps) to your ability to for powerful, athletic movements (glutes and hamstrings).

Everyday Function

While you might not be picking up a barbell in a real world setting, you will likely find yourself reaching down and picking heavy things up off the floor. This movement is repeated when you grab everything from groceries and luggage to your hauling your young kids and pets up off the ground. The deadlift helps you learn to do this safely, and builds a baseline of strength that will pay off when you’re able to move in the ways you want outside the gym.

Heavy Weights

The deadlift is, for most people, the exercise that they’ll be able to load up the most weight out of any in their strength training repertoire. This is important for more than just your ego. Working with progressively heavier loads is essential for building strength and (to a slightly lesser degree) muscle.

Grip Strength

The deadlift is an excellent exercise for your grip, if you use the standard, pronated (overhand) approach. You’ll be challenged to hold onto the heavy bar throughout the entire movement. Once you begin to train for pure strength and poundage (and you’re outside of a strict competition setting), you might flip to a mixed (or alternated) grip and reach for wraps or straps to help you hold on—but if that’s not the case, try to use the standard orientation for as long as possible.

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Muscles Trained By the Deadlift

Again, you’ll hit the muscles of the posterior chain with the deadlift. These are, most specifically, the muscles of your upper and mid-back (traps and lats), erector spinae, glutes, and hamstrings. But there are other muscles involved in holding the weight; your forearms are essential for grip, especially if you use the pronated position, and if you’re not using a belt, you’ll hit your front core muscles (abdominals and obliques) as you brace to stabilize your spine and lift the weight.

Why Proper Deadlift Form Is Important

Having perfect form is essential to help you to lift heavier weights and, just as importantly, keep your back and spine safe. Unlike some other lifts, there aren’t multiple schools of thought on the best ways to do the deadlift—whether you learn from a powerlifter, a bodybuilder, or a performance coach, you’ll be focused on the same thing. While there are different types of stances, approaches, and cues, you’ll find that all stem from the same basic framework of movement that is focused on generating strength from hip extension.

Still, some people even avoid deadlifts entirely on the grounds that they consider the exercise to be too dangerous to include in their workouts. That type of avoidance is more of a personal preference linked to individual anatomy than a hard line for everyone; performed properly, deadlifts can be safe and effective for just about any type of person who wants to get get bigger and stronger.

There are also multiple options for which implement you can use, which can help people with different anatomical needs find a version that works for them. But even if you’re not concerned about safety when it comes to deadlifting, you should absolutely understand how to do it properly.

How to Add the Deadlift to Your Workouts

Samuel suggests that beginners learn the form with light weights, beginning with three to four sets of six to eight reps to start. As you progress, you can begin adding the load and working with lower rep schemes to build up strength. The deadlift should generally be the first exercise you do in your lower body, back, or total body-focused workouts since it’s a demanding compound lift; you want to approach it without being fatigued to get the most out of the movement.

Common Deadlift Variations

There are many varieties of the deadlift, since it’s such an essential movement. You can switch up the implement for a slightly different experience (dumbbell deadlifts, kettlebell deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts), the way you stand (sumo deadlifts, single-leg deadlifts), or even the range of motion (Romanian deadlifts, stiff-leg deadlifts). All of these options have their own place in a strength training program.

Want to master even more moves? Check out our entire Form Check series.


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