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The Deadlift

By Jennifer Cornelius, ATC, BS, AS

Performing a deadlift primarily activates the posterior chain muscles focusing on the gluteals, hamstrings, and latissimus dorsi. Depending on the deadlift being performed, you may also notice activation through the quadriceps. When performing this pulling exercise, we must also focus on isometric contraction of our secondary muscles, which consist of our abdominals, erector spinae, posterior deltoid, trapezius, and rhomboids. Since the deadlift is a full body exercise, it is important to strengthen each muscle individually to optimize our ability to perform this exercise. Below is a list of just a few different exercises to add to your workout routine that play an important role in performing a deadlift.

Exercises to assist in optimizing deadlift:

  • Rear deltoid fly

  • Row variations (high, mid, low)

  • Plank variations

  • Bird dog

  • Lat pulldown (wide grip or close grip)

  • Pull up

  • Hamstring curl (bilateral & unilateral)

  • Glute bridge

  • Prone supermans

Now that we briefly touched on the various muscles incorporated into a deadlift, we will move on to a few different deadlift variations. To keep it basic, there is a 1) Romanian Deadlift, 2) Conventional Deadlift, and 3) Single Leg Deadlift, all of which can be performed with different pieces of equipment, modified, and progressed as tolerated.

  • Romanian dumbbell and barbell deadlift: This deadlift is focused primarily through the glutes and hamstrings as primary movers. You will want to keep your scapulae engaged, shoulders back, spine in line, including a chin tuck to protect your cervical spine, and keep your abdominals contracted to protect your spine.

  • Conventional barbell and dumbbell deadlift: This deadlift is focused through the quadriceps and glutes while pulling weight from the ground. With this exercise you will want to pull from the ground with hip flexed, shoulders back, core engaged, and abdominals braced to decrease strain on the lumbar spine.

  • Single leg barbell and dumbbell deadlift: This deadlift variation combines quadriceps (to stabilize), hamstrings, and glutes. Since this exercise involves stability, you want to focus on keeping your hips in line to avoid shifting weight to the stabilized leg. To prevent your hips from shifting, engage your core, plant your foot by spreading your toes to incorporate intrinsic muscles in your foot, engage your scapulae, and keep your spine in line.

Deadlifts are performed in your day to day activities as well as in the gym. It is important to focus on proper form, progression, and strengthening to ensure that you deadlift to your full potential without setbacks. We want to decrease or even eliminate the possibility for injury and improper mechanics while focusing on the bigger picture of this movement. When renaming this exercise from a lower extremity exercise to a full body movement, we are able to switch our focus and move our body as a whole rather than pieces and parts.


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