The Deadlift: A Complete Guide

What is the Deadlift?

The deadlift is regarded in both powerlifting and strongman circles as the ultimate test of strength.

The Wikipedia definition of the deadlift says that a loaded barbell must be lifted off the ground to hip level and then lowered again.

No other movement utilises more energy and power, allowing the lifter to build slabs of muscle to both the upper and lower body and strengthen all major muscle groups.

Why the Deadlift is the Best Exercise

Much like the squat, deadlifting can help delay the onset or likelihood of diseases such as osteoporosis, releasing minimal amounts of testosterone and HGH which can help aid depression like symptoms.

Likewise for longer term body composition and fat burning potential, it’s an essential muscle builder and fat burner. The number of muscles involved and shear weight lifted forces your CNS to become more efficient.

What do Deadlifts do?

Heavy deadlifts involve the entire posterior chain, from hamstrings all the way up to the upper back. This is the most influential muscle group in the entire body, so prioritising it’s development for athletic performance is essential.

Hence why it’s such a effective movement and is so commonly utilised across sports performance.

But there really is nothing like ripping an enormous weight from the floor. When done properly it will prevent injury, build muscle, increase your power potential and reduce the chances of back injury. One of the leading cause of disability in American citizens.

It’s the king of the compound exercises.

Can you Deadlift Everyday?

No. You can squat everyday if you’re an elite level athlete (a la the Bulgarian Method), but even that is incredibly difficult and definitely not recommended.

But the deadlift is different. Deadlifting is so, so taxing on your body.

  • It recruits virtually every muscle fibre
  • You can typically handle the heaviest weight
  • You are pulling the weight from a dead stop (hence the name!)

But the ideal deadlift frequency is around twice a week. I typically have one day as a close variation and the other day focusing on the core lift.

So how many Sets should I do for Deadlifts?

So firstly there are some key points to consider when discussing deadlifting:

1. Each workout isn’t as important as the overall volume

2. You must work under your MRV (Maximum Recoverable Volume)

3. If you participate in sport or other strenuous activity you can’t deadlift with as much volume as someone focusing on powerlifting

4. You can’t go too close to your 1RM frequently

I don’t think any deadlift workout should comprise more than about 30 reps at the very top end.

Typically 5(5) is a good set(rep) starting point for deadlift workouts as you’re able to build volume without overtraining or straining your body too much. Typically start at around 75% of your 1RM.

Then you can look to build muscle with rows or deadlift variations such as snatch grip rack pulls. I would advise against using high repetition deadlift sets frequently to stimulate muscle growth as it’s such a taxing lift. Keep the overall volume as low as possible – but still enough to stimulate strength progress.

What Muscles do Deadlifts work?

So I have written a more in-depth guide to what muscles deadlifting works which goes into detail regarding what each type of deadlift requires.

Sumo deadlifts, for example, are far more quad dominant than conventional. So if you pull sumo you need to prioritise quad strength for you to improve.

Simple! Kind of…

Muscles Worked Degree Benefits Primary Deadlift Type
Glutes High Lower back and hamstring injury prevention Both
Quads High Power production & knee injury prevention Sumo
Hamstrings Medium Explosive power production & functional motion improvement Conventional
Erector Spinae (Lower Back) Medium Hip flexor and abominal stability Conventional
Lattisimus Dorsi Medium Lockout strength & balance through antagonistic muscle training Both
Trapezius & Upper Back Medium – Low Lockout strength & neck injury prevention Both
Abdominals & Obliques Low Core strength improvements & lower back stability Both

Top 7 Benefits of The Deadlift

The deadlift is such a taxing, all-encompassing lift it makes sense that it provides the widest range of benefits.

From explosive power production to core stability, if programmed and performed correctly the deadlift is the perfect lift.

benefits of the deadlift infographic

1. Full Body Muscle Building: Total posterior chain development, essential for long-term strength gains. Whether the focus is on quad or hamstring development depends on whether you pull in a sumo or conventional style.

Sumo style is typically easier on your lower back and more quad dominant. A conventional deadlift is more hamstring and lower back focused.

2. Improve Core Strength: Deadlifting may not create visible abs, but lifting a weight 2-3 times more than your own bodyweight creates enormous stress on your core and force your abdominals, obliques and your erector spinae. If you’d like to know more about the types of muscles the deadlift works, then this article is ideal.

3. Improve Explosive Power: You need to treat the deadlift like a leg press. Your legs provide almost all of the power and you drive through the floor, pulling up and back as hard as you can. It requires tremendous ATP expenditure and can help increase your vertical jumping power.

4. Rehabilitation & Injury Prevention: This may sound like an odd claim, but by starting with a low weight and building up your posterior chain, quads and your overall strength, you’re far less likely to get injured in the long-term providing your technique is sound.

If you program correctly, then deadlifting should mitigate your chances of injury in sport.

5. Grip Strength Improvements: There’s almost nothing that works your grip strength better than the deadlift if you use a double overhand grip. For weights above 80% of your 1RM a double overhand grip is tough, but I typically warmup with double overhand until I can’t use it any longer.

Grip is often the first thing to go when lifting, so don’t neglect it. Jujimufu’s deadlift routine is effective for this.

6. Enhanced Fat Burning Potential: Compound movements fire your metabolism to the next level. None more so than the deadlift. Typically you can handle more weight when deadlifting, so it makes sense that the compound movement that activates the most muscle fibres and uses the most weight burns more calories.

But repeatedly picking up double or more of your bodyweight off the floor is incredibly taxing and requires fuel.

7. Absolute Strength: Deadlifting has exceptional carryover to so many lifts and facets of sports performance. Lifting weight safely from the floor is an essential tool for every aspect of physical activity. Utilising accommodating resistance such as bands or chains improves speed strength, whilst rack pulls are a phenomenal upper back builder.

There’s nothing like the deadlift for pure strength that carries over so effectively. The only downside is how taxing it is!

How many times a week should you Deadlift?

There are so many variables and I would highly recommend you now read: What’s the Optimal Deadlift Frequency for you?

If you’re in a calorie surplus (bulking), highly taxing exercises are much easier to perform. Any compound movement (particularly the squat or deadlift) requires significant energy expenditure. Trying to build muscle requires you having a substantial calorie intake, giving you more energy and a greater ability to recover.

If you’re in a calorie deficit (to lose weight) the opposite applies and your overall volume cannot be as high as the aforementioned. So how much you eat and the additional stressors you currently have in your life really matter. As does your experience level.

If you’re a beginner lifter you shouldn’t be deadlifting more than twice a week at most. And one of those times would be a variation on the lift.*

As an intermediate lifter your body is more accustomed to training and the peaks and troughs that come with it. You’ll have overtrained before, worked around injuries, taxed your nervous and endocrine systems properly. You’re aware of what it takes to take your deadlift to a good level.

Because of that an intermediate lifter should be deadlifting twice a week. I use one of those sessions to PR in an accessory lift to prevent overtraining as the accessory lifts typically force you to handle less weight.

Advanced lifters really can do whatever they want and I am in no place to tell them otherwise. If you’re looking to increase your deadlift frequency, then add in another session per week, use variations and drop the overall volume per session.

*I would recommend deadlifting once a week as a true beginner

And how can I make it stronger?

Now that’s trickier.

The deadlift is the hardest exercise to recover from, so if you constantly overreach, you’ll push yourself to the point of overtraining. Too little and you won’t see progress.
You must accumulate volume in order to grow. Rep after rep is essential. But unlike other activities it’s not so much a skill based move. as opposed to a pure strength one.

Of course there are nuances with regards to technique, but you’re lifting a barbell from A to B, keeping a straight back and tension in the posterior chain.

Also, you can’t keep accumulating volume. Sure starting with lower weight, higher rep sets is a smart way to build a strong base. But as you increase the intensity (weight) you need to drop the overall volume to prevent burnout.

Really you need to read this post on how to increase your deadlift as it’s in-depth enough to be useful on this topic.

But don’t deadlift more than twice a week. If you’re using it as a tool for improving sports performance that’s fantastic, but it’s so taxing you should limit a ‘true’ deadlift to once a week.

Deadlifts for Fat Loss

Like any compound exercise, the deadlift recruits so many muscle fibres that it does burn a substantial amount of calories.
And it really can be an effective way to lose weight.

If burning fat is what you’re after and you don’t see the deadlift as an effective way to improve body composition and lose weight in the long run you couldn’t be more mistaken.

Read this: Beginners Guide to Weight Loss if you’re keen to drop a few dress sizes.

Whilst you cannot selectively spot reduce fat* (i.e. specifically remove belly fat), the most time efficient and effective way to burn fat in the long run is to build muscle. Every additional lb of muscle you hold burns around 10 calories per day.

So if you’re happy to play the long game you can build muscle and size with compound exercises like the deadlift. Then begin to reduce your calories slowly and perform isolation exercises that are less taxing.

*There are actually fat loss creams that do work at spot reducing fat, but who on earth wants to use that?

Do Deadlifts work your Abs?

There are a few studies that take the position that multi-joint, free-weight compound exercises like squats, deadlifts and clean and jerks activate core muscles better than any isolation exercise ever could.

There’s no doubt that weighted deadlifts and squats create greater trunk activation than with comparable bodyweight exercises.
But they’re doesn’t mean they’re an efficient ab exercise.

If you’re looking for a six-pack, deadlifts are not the perfect exercise. One they’re incredibly draining, so require substantial calorie intake to perform and recover from. Two they don’t isolate the abs in a way that leg raises, or other ab specific exercises can do.

They’re a great exercise to get big, average to get shredded.

That’s not to say they can’t help you with achieving your perfect physique. Nothing builds muscle and density like compound exercises – especially the deadlift. But deadlifting for a six pack is a long-term game.

Build muscle with compound exercises and isolated hypertrophy stimulus. Then lose fat by being in a calorie deficit to reveal the six pack underneath.

Beginner Deadlift Workouts

Beginners improve on a form of linear periodisation. This means that all you need to do is increase weight on the bar by a small amount each session, week or microcycle.

Your reps can largely stay the same as your body will become accustomed to the training relatively quickly and there shouldn’t be any danger of overtraining with comparatively light weights and low-medium intensity training.

So as a beginner, I would ask that you deadlift conventionally as a starting point once per week and train the muscle groups involved frequently. I’d suggest an 8 week program that has you working deadlifts with muscle group isolations 2 days per week:

Day 1

Exercise Sets Reps
Deadlift 3 8
Single Leg RDL’s 3 (each leg) 5
RDL’s 3 12
Leg Press 4 12+

Day 2

Exercise Sets Reps
Deadlift Variation 1 (Block Pulls) 4 6
Barbell Row 4 10-12
Pull-Ups 4 To Failure

This program allows you to trial a variety of different deadlift variations, work on your grip strength, lockout, posterior chain development and isolate muscle groups.

The goal outside of this is to include lots of GPP (General Physical Preparation) so that you develop as an athlete and as a lifter.

There should be jump variations to increase explosive power, cardiovascular fitness for recovery and to increase your MRV (maximal recoverable volume) and hypertrophy work for your core muscle groups.

Specificity and intensity aren’t a core concept as of yet. As a beginner you won’t be competing or looking to test your 1RM. Your aims should be to improve body composition, build muscle (with hypertrophy), increase overall performance and find what you love to do. Remember, if you’re going to take it seriously you need to love what you do.

Intermediate Deadlift Workouts

If you ask what classifies an intermediate lifter, I’m not really sure. I don’t think there’s a fast and hard rule that signifies it. I would say if you’ve been weightlifting seriously for 3 years plus you’re probably there.

Some people have fortuitous circumstances that allow them to progress than others or are genetically advantaged. Just because you can lift more than someone else, that doesn’t make you a more experienced lifter in my eyes.

Do you understand the complexities behind programming? Are you in touch with your body’s demands for nutrition, rest, how hard you can push yourself without overtraining and when you need a deload? If you say yes to all the above you’re at least an intermediate lifter.

I’m going to use my 9 week intermediate powerbuilding program as an example here. The examples below will show week 1 and week 9 to highlight how they’ve changed and the core concepts behind them.

  1. Specificity must increase over time
  2. Intensity must increase over time
  3. Frequency stay largely the same

Week 1

week 1 deadlift

week 1(2) deadlift

Week 1 has 2 separate deadlift days. The first day is a competition style deadlift where we’re looking to build volume with our primary lift. As a sumo puller, I utilise front squats to build quad strength and size and good mornings for lower back strength. All absolutely crucial for long-term improvements and injury prevention.

Day 2 is your ‘heavier‘ day. Whilst the weight is less taxing than on day 1, holding the deadlift for paused reps is a fantastic way to build back strength and reinforce positioning in the lift.
Pause lifts have phenomenal carryover and coupling it with some deficit pulls makes this an explosive day.

So day 1 is for competition style volume and day 2 is a heavier day in the first 4-5 weeks of the program.

Week 9

week 9.PNG

week 9 2

The final weeks of the program see the days switch around.

As we increase specificity, deadlift day 1 becomes our heavy day as we pull in our competition style close to our 1RM. The ‘fluff’ work decreases and we solely focus on the competition style lifts.

Deadlift day 2 becomes more of a speed day, where we get rid of the pause and use a smaller % of our 1RM with chains. Chains force you to work throughout the lift and improve lockout strength without taxing you as much.

I find them an excellent accessory to use to build absolute power, especially with deadlifts and squats.

The final element to be aware of in this program is the loss of a day. Post week 4 or 5, the shoulder hypertrophy day is thrown out to make way for recovery. It’s absolutely crucial to still work antagonistic muscle groups, but not at the expense of your core lifts.

We want to build strong, athletic bodies, but the primary goal is still to improve our bench press, deadlift and squat.

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