Hot To Squat: Deadlifts Deconstructed

If you learn nothing else from my steady stream of rants and fun facts, learn this: how to properly perform a deadlift. Considered by many to be the king of all lifts, the deadlift is held in the highest of esteem with regard to overall strength and injury prevention. Don’t just take my word for it, either. It’s getting around.

Of the six movements dissected in this functional movement series, our number three is by far the most important. And given the value of the remaining five, that’s saying a lot.

What is a deadlift?

If you were to Google the word deadlift you would get a pretty straightforward definition: a lift in weight lifting in which the weight is lifted from the floor to hip level (Merriam-Webster). In practice, the deadlift is anything but straightforward. We’ll get to the many variations in a bit, but I would define the word deadlift thusly: the complex action of safely lifting or lowering dead weight, using our hip joint as the primary fulcrum.

303 deadlift IWhat muscles are being used?

Primarily deadlifts work our:

  • Gluteus Maximus (glutes, butt)
  • Hamstrings (backs of thighs)
  • Quadriceps (quads, fronts of thighs)
  • Erector Spinae (back muscles responsible for straightening the spine)

Secondary muscles can include:

  • Adductor Magnus (muscles of the hip that stabilize the leg during a deadlift)
  • Rectus Abdominis (abs, “six-pack”)
  • Flexor Digitorum Profundus (forearm)

Why are deadlifts important?

The importance of deadlifts is simpler to absorb if you translate them to every day, relative movements. Anytime you bend over to pick something up from the floor, you are essentially performing a deadlift. When you pick up and set down those heavy moving boxes. When your squirmy four-year-old wants to be picked up. When you’ve had enough and set the squirmy four-year-old back down.

Another huge reason (no pun intended) is glute strength. Our glute muscles have been on hiatus for too long and need to get back to work. Hours upon hours of sitting have rendered our good old butt muscles pretty useless. When groups of muscles become inactive, others kick in to allow for the physical demands we still need to place on our body. Muscles that have no business doing what our glutes are designed for. These compensation patterns lead to overuse, inflammation and inefficient movement patterns. Think of the deadlift as the literal kick in the pants we need.

What could possibly go wrong?

I’ll say it again: deadlifts are the most important lift you can perfect. Why? Because of the enormous risk in executing them improperly. When your spine health is at stake, form is crucial. Approaching a deadlift, setting up is just as vital as the movement itself. In the traditional deadlift, your feet need to be about shoulder-distance apart. Your chest broad and your back flat. The bar needs to be up against the fronts of your legs. Another term used for this movement is “shin scrapers” because of how close your shins ought to be to the bar. Knees unlocked, weight shifted to your heels, and arms without slack. I tell my clients to pretend that the bar is glued to the floor before lifting. Taking a deep breath in, exhale on the lift. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement. Do not shrug your shoulders and do not bend your elbows (remember, this is dead weight).

Okay, these are getting boring. What else can I do?

With so many variations to choose from, you should never get bored with the deadlift. Try the single leg deadlift, holding dumbbells, kettlebells, the Smith bar or medicine ball. You can also do this with a low-anchored TRX strap. Romanian deadlifts are fantastic. Alternate grip Olympic deadlifts will keep you challenged for life, as will the Sumo deadlift. Vary your tempo on any of these for a whole new exercise. Set goals for yourself. Guys, work your way up: deadlifting your body weight, one and a half times your body weight, and eventually double your body weight in pounds. Gals, start at about 75 percent of your body weight and progress to around one and a half times your bodyweight.

Ready? Go.

PT-color-headshot-I3Jodilyn Stuart is the Health & Sports Senior Staff Writer for 303 Magazine, owner of ModaBody Fitness, and has been a professional fitness geek since 1997. If you have questions, feel free to email at:

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