Deadlifts Sculpt *Everything* From Your Butt To Abs To Shoulders

·9 min read

Looking for an epic way to show off your strength? How about picking up 100, 150, even 200-plus pounds from a weight-room floor? You're probably capable of deadlifting that impressive weight, and you may not even know it. Which is exactly why deadlifts are so badass—and an effective workout move.

Deadlifting allows you to move more pounds than you can with almost any other exercise, using all of your muscles, giving you serious results. Hiii, newfound sense of power!

Deadlifts aren't just about showing off. “Now that research shows it’s a myth that women shouldn’t lift heavy, I find more and more women are curious to try deadlifting,” says women’s strength coach Allison Tenney, CSCS. “Then they get excited about it, and then they’re hooked—not just on the physical benefits but on feeling strong, capable, and empowered as well.”

Meet the experts: Allison Tenney, CSCS, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist. Betina Gozo is an ACE- and NASM-certified personal trainer, Apple Fitness+ Trainer, and Nike Master Trainer.

The deadlift engages one of the most innate human movement patterns—hinging forward at the hips—and sculpts everything from the glutes and hammies to the core, lats, and shoulders. “Most of us are very quad dominant, and strengthening the back side of your body will help balance you,” says Betina Gozo, CPT.

There are different types of deadlifts (more on that later) with varied benefits and equipment required. All you need for a traditional American deadlift (where you’re picking up weight from the ground) is a barbell with plates, or one or two kettlebells. On the other hand, for a Romanian Deadlift (where you’re starting at the top and sliding the weight down your thighs), you can use a barbell, kettlebells, or dumbbells.

Convinced to give deadlifting a go? Here's a complete guide to deadlifts according to expert trainers. You'll master the deadlift with proper form, learn the biggest payoffs from making them part of your regular routine, fun variations to challenge yourself, and more.

How To Do A Perfect Deadlift

How to:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-distance apart, with a barbell positioned in front of you.

  2. Hinge at your hips and lower down, with a slight bend in your knees, until you're far enough down to grab the bar (you can choose an overhand grip, underhand grip, or mixed grip). Keep your spine neutral by looking forward, not up.

  3. While grasping the bar, keep your shoulders back, then squeeze your glutes and your core as you stand up straight, tuck your pelvis, and lift the barbell.

  4. Pause for a moment at the top, then slowly lower back down to the ground. That's one rep.

Reps/sets for best results: Start off with lighter weight, and go for three sets of 10 to 15 reps, recommends Gozo. Then, as you get stronger, increase your weight and decrease your reps.

Deadlift Form Tips

  • Focus on hinging your hips, not lowering into a squat. To do so, think about loading through your hips and engaging your glutes for support. "It's really tempting to look up, but you want to keep your spine nice and neutral with your head down," Gozo says.

  • Direct your gaze about a foot in front of you.

  • Keep a neutral spine. (Look forward, not up.)

  • Shift your butt as far back as possible.

  • Maintain a minimal bend in your knees. (These aren't squats!)

  • Line up your shoulder blades over the barbell.

  • Hold the barbell over the center of the feet throughout.

All The Muscles Deadlifts Work

There are many, many muscles involved in deadlifting. Most deadlifts primarily engage your hamstrings and glutes. When done properly—which you definitely will with those directions above—your core, back, and shoulders are also hard at work to "hold your weight and keep your posture strong," says Gozo.

When you're doing an American deadlift or a trap bar deadlift specifically, you'll be using your quads as well because you have to bend your knees more. That's 360-degree leg sculpting at its finest.

Benefits Of Deadlifts

Once you start deadlifting, you'll never want to stop. And, that's a very good feeling. Here are a few of the rewards of adding deadlifts to your routine:

  1. Amped Athleticism. Whether you’re running marathons or shooting baskets, deadlifts will make you better. “Deadlifts build power, the lifeblood of any successful athlete,” says Tenney. The hip hinge (pushing your butt back, then thrusting hips forward) is your body’s ultimate force move, propelling running strides, jumps, and other lifts.

  2. Superior Cardio. Women who performed heavy strength training improved their blood pressure more than those who stuck with cardio, according to an Appalachian State University study. That may be because lifting can act as super-high-intensity interval training, prepping your arteries to dilate more easily. (Buh-bye, elliptical sessions!)

  3. Stronger Bones. You have to put weight on bones to strengthen them. Luckily, deadlifts let you load the spine and hips (which are prone to osteoporosis) with multiple times your body weight. After each lift, cells called osteoblasts fill in any stressed areas of your skeleton. Once those spots are calcified, they turn to rock-hard bone.

  4. Tighter Core. Deadlifts beat the plank when it comes to training the deepest muscle in the abs, according to a study in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy. Known as the transverse abdominis, it acts as an internal corset, keeping your torso strong and firm.

  5. Fast-track Fat Loss. By working every muscle and jacking up your heart rate, deadlifts burn major calories both in the gym and after you cool down, through excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), says physical therapist and strength coach Mariel Schofield, DPT, CSCS. EPOC refers to the energy your body uses in the recovery process.

  6. Glorious Glutes. Deadlifts are a hip-dom­inant move: Your glutes and hamstrings are doing the brunt of the work with each rep, Tenney says. That means they should be a mainstay of any butt work­out—adding size and shape to your behind for a visual perk.

Photo credit: Women's Health
Photo credit: Women's Health

Common Deadlifting Mistakes To Avoid

  • A rounded back. "Posture is very important in your deadlift," Gozo says. It's important to keep your spine as neutral as possible and your core engaged. You can even strengthen your back muscles with standard anti-flexion core exercises, like planks, Gozo recommends. She adds that you can also change your grip so that your palms are facing out, opening up your chest. "Pretend like you have a stick on your back and you have to keep your back as straight as the stick the whole time."

  • Letting your posture slip. In this case, "only go as far as you can while keeping the neutral position," Gozo advises. When you get stronger, you'll be able to hinge lower without rounding your back.

  • Leaning back too much at the top of the deadlift. "Try to stack everything from your head, shoulders, ribcage, hips, knees, and feet," says Gozo. "Focus on pulling your ribcage in and finding a neutral pelvis at the top so that you can recruit more of your glute muscles."

5 Deadlift Variations To Mix Things Up

You don't have to stick to just the classic, either. Here are five simple variations on the conventional barbell deadlift you can mix into your routine.

1. Staggered-Stance Kettlebell Deadlift

This single-leg switcheroo helps improve stability, balance, and oblique strength and will ID any strength differences between sides.

How to:

  1. Grab a kettlebell with your left hand and stand with your weight over your right foot and your left foot slightly behind you, heel lifted. (Think of it as a kickstand for balance.)

  2. Keeping your back flat and chest upright, hinge forward at the hips to lower the weight toward the floor, keeping a soft bend in both knees.

  3. Pause, then squeeze your glutes to return to stand. That's one rep. Do all reps, then switch sides and repeat.

2. Sumo Barbell Deadlift

By spacing your feet farther apart, you put even more emphasis on the glutes as opposed to the quads.

How to:

  1. Position your feet wider than hip-width, toes pointing out slightly.

  2. Bend at the knees and hips to grasp the bar with both hands just inside your knees (using a mixed grip—one overhand, one underhand—can help with grip strength).

  3. Perform the deadlift the same way you would a conventional barbell deadlift.

3. Hex-Bar Deadlift

Easier to get into, this squatty deadlift targets your quads more than conventional deadlifts do, according to research from California State University at Fullerton.

How to:

  1. Step into the middle of the hex bar and place your feet hip-width apart.

  2. Push your butt back and bend your knees to lower your body to grab the handles at your sides, keeping your spine neutral.

  3. From this position, push the floor away from you as you stand as tall as possible.

  4. Pause, then slowly lower back to start. That's one rep.

4. Dumbbell RDL

An ideal variation for at-home workouts when you have only dumbbells. It’s also great for newbies who might not be able to deadlift 45 pounds (a bar’s weight without plates) yet.

How to:

  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing your thighs and feet shoulder-width apart.

  2. Keeping your core tight and spine neutral, push your butt back and hinge forward at the hips, bending your knees slightly as you lower the weights toward your shins.

  3. When you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, stop and reverse the movement, squeezing your glutes to return to standing. That's one rep.

5. Single-Leg Deadlift

This type of deadlift is unilateral, using one leg at a time, and engages both your hamstring and glutes while challenging your balance.

How to:

  1. Start standing, holding weights in each hand with palms facing toward thighs.

  2. Shift weight into left leg and keep it slightly bent while hinging forward at hips, extending right leg straight behind you, until torso is parallel to the floor.

  3. Lower weights straight down as you move until they're almost touching the floor.

  4. Drive into left heel to return to standing. That’s one rep. Do all reps, then switch sides and repeat.

Want to work on more deadlift variations? Try these takes on the strength-training move below:

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