How to Do a Deadlift

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Targets: Full body, hamstrings, quadriceps, gluteals, lower back, trapezius

Equipment Needed: Barbell

Level: Advanced

The deadlift is a great way to build good-looking legs and backside. In a deadlift, you lift the weight from the ground to thigh-level using primarily your leg and hip muscles, but with the assistance of most of the large muscle groups of your body. The deadlift is usually performed with a bar and plates or a fixed barbell but can be done with dumbbells. It is a specialty of powerlifters that shouldn't be ignored in general fitness weight training. To build muscle and functional fitness, make the deadlift part of your strength training workouts.


The deadlift uses the hamstrings (back of thigh), quadriceps (front of thigh), gluteals (butt), and lower back muscles (erector spinae). The stabilizer muscles of core, abs, shoulders, and upper back also come into play. It is highly regarded for building muscle mass, which is desirable not just for bodybuilders, but also for people who want to boost their metabolism or prevent muscle loss due to aging. You can use the deadlift to build overall strength as well as core strength and stability. The deadlift is one of the best exercises for mimicking the lifting you do throughout the day, so it is a functional exercise. Learning to deadlift with good form, you will be able to lift and carry items with less risk in daily life.

Step-by-Step Instructions

Select a barbell of light weight to begin with.

  1. Position the feet shoulder-width apart (or not much more) with toes under the bar. The feet point straight ahead or they can angle out slightly. Heels should stay flat on the surface. When you lift, the bar will travel close to the shins and may even graze them. Your head (and eyes) should reflect a neutral spine position—neither crooked noticeably up or down, although a very slight upward tilt is not uncommon or unsafe when putting the effort in.
  2. Stabilize the abdominal muscles by bracing them.
  3. Squat down, bending at the knees. The form for descending to the bar is similar (but not identical) to the squat, with back straight or arched in slightly and not rounded at the shoulders or spine.
  4. Grasp the bar just outside the line of the knees with an overhand or mixed grip.
  5. Lift the bar by pushing upward with the legs from the knees. Breathe out on exertion. Be careful not to raise the hips first so that the trunk moves forward and the back becomes rounded. Don’t try to haul the bar up with the arms. The arms stay extended under tension while gripping the bar as the legs push up. Think of the legs and shoulders moving upward in unison with the hips the balancing point.
  6. The bar should almost graze the shins and come to rest around thigh level as you reach full height. Pull the shoulders back as much as possible without bending backward.
  7. Lower the bar to the floor with a reverse motion ensuring a straight back again.
  8. Repeat for your desired number of repetitions.

Common Mistakes

Avoid these errors so you can get the most out of this exercise with less risk of strain or injury.

Rounding Back or Shoulders

Keep the back straight with no rounding at the shoulders and spine. You should be hinging at the hip. Keep those hips down, butt out. Brace the abs to support your straight back.

Lifting With the Arms or Back

The key to the lifting process for beginners is to lift with the legs and hips, not the arms, shoulders, or back—although their stabilizing role is important. Keep your arms straight throughout the lift. Bending your arms can strain your biceps.

Too Heavy of Weight

When starting out, practice with a light weight until ​your form is satisfactory. A personal trainer or gym trainer can check you for correct form. Practice in a mirror if necessary.

Partial Lifts

With a light weight you can do repetitions in which you lower the bar to your shin or even floor and then straighten again without releasing your grip on the bar. This is not really a deadlift repetition. It is better to practice a full lift and lower to the floor and then start again from standing position.

Bar Too Far From Body

The bar should travel close to the body for maximum lift efficiency and safety.

Modifications and Variations

The deadlift can be done in different ways to suit your goals and fitness level. Several advanced variations are possible with alternative leg and grip positions.

These are the possible grip types:

  • The standard overhand grip has both hands with palm down. If you can see the backs of both hands, that’s the overhand grip. This is suitable for lighter weights.
  • The mixed grip has one hand grasping the bar with the palm under the bar (supinated) and the other hand with the palm over the bar (pronated). The mixed overhand-underhand grip is for heavier weights. This grip provides some reassurance that heavier weights will not slip from the hands.

The grip can be wider or narrower on the bar. A common starting position is a grip perpendicular to the point of the shoulder with arms straight down. A slightly wider grip may suit some people and a wide-grip deadlift is a valid variation. The standard grip utilizes the quadriceps (rather than hip and back with the wide grip) and is more suitable for heavier lifts.

Need a Modification?

As for all exercises, when you are new to the deadlift you should lift only light weights or even a bar without any additional weight. Have a trainer coach you and give you feedback on your form. Only when you are performing it correctly should you begin to increase the weight.

If you don't have access to a barbell or the weight of the bar is too challenging, you might try a kettlebell or vertical dumbbell deadlift with a lighter weight. You grasp the object with both hands and hinge at the hip to lift it, as with a barbell.

Up for a Challenge?

You can progress with the weights you use in the deadlift as you perfect your form. When you are doing it correctly, you can experiment with which grip works best for you. There are also a few variations you can use to change up your routine.

With the sumo deadlift variant, the feet are wide apart but the arms still fall vertically, only now inside the knees.

The Romanian deadlift is done with straighter legs, lowering the weight from thigh height to just below your knees, then repeating. It is especially good for strengthening the hip extensors and spinal stabilizers.

You can also do the Romanian deadlift with offset feet, which may more closely mimic real-life situations in picking up and moving heavy objects.

Safety and Precautions

The deadlift is an advanced weightlifting exercise. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist to see if it is appropriate for you if you have any injuries or conditions affecting your legs, knees, ankles, hips, back, shoulders, or wrists. Be sure you receive appropriate coaching for the correct technique. Use light weights to start and stop if you feel any pain. In pregnancy, it is best to use lighter weights and you may wish to use the wider sumo stance.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move and similar ones into one of these popular workouts:

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