Once reserved for powerlifters and weight-room addicts, the deadlift has gone mainstream. It targets the glutes—the body’s biggest, strongest muscles—and the fitness it builds helps prevent injury, teaches functional movement, and boosts performance, explains Tony Gentilcore, founder of Core Gym in Boston.
It doesn't take long to see gains from your deadlifts in performance times. In one study, endurance runners who integrated twice-weekly strength sessions—including deadlifts—into their running workouts for six weeks improved their 5K times by 45 seconds, while those who stuck with running alone saw no improvement.
“The deadlift imitates real life,” says Gentilcore. Any time you bend and extend at the waist—it doesn’t matter if you’re driving through your foot in an ultra, navigating a rocky trail on a thru-hike, or skinning up the mountain—you’re performing a hip hinge. The body moves as one solid unit as you fire through your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back and brace your core. Just like you’d train to push a certain pace, training to master the deadlift will yield significant improvement in how you execute these motions in your sport.
Plus, by focusing on the posterior chain—the muscles that form your entire backside—deadlifts go a long way toward preventing injury by making sure your quads, for example, aren’t bearing all your weight, says Gentilcore. Strength discrepancies between the posterior and anterior (front-side) chains can result in poor posture, muscular compensations, and, ultimately, injury.
Deadlifts can be intimidating, but they don’t have to be. “It’s important to remember that doing a deadlift doesn’t have to mean lifting a straight, heavy bar from the floor,” Gentilcore says. “There are endless ways to tweak it to adjust for ability level and mobility.”
Here, Gentilcore shares three progressions, ending with the conventional deadlift. Start with the first variation, moving on once you can perform it consistently with proper form and no pain. For each, prioritize quality over quantity of reps.
What You’re Learning: This move teaches the hip hinge without loading the spine. Use it as a starting point or stick with it if you have back issues.
How to Do It: Stand tall several feet in front of a cable station, back facing the machine and feet hip-width apart. Hold a rope attachment (connected to the station at its lowest setting) by both ends, palms facing each other and arms extended down in front of you so that the cable runs between your legs and is pulled taut. From there, slowly push your hips back and lean your torso forward so that your hands extend behind you. Allow a slight bend in your knees and focus on keeping your core tight, back flat, and shoulders back. Pause, then squeeze your glutes to thrust your hips forward and return to standing. That’s one rep. Perform three to five sets of three to five reps.
What You’re Learning: This variation doesn’t bring the bar all the way down to the floor, so you’re shifting the weight to the front of the body to increase the load on the glutes and hamstrings but maintaining a limited range of motion. You can use a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells.
How to Do It: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold the barbell (or other weight) against your thighs, hands shoulder-width apart and palms facing your body. With your core tight, back flat, and shoulders back, push your hips back and, allowing a slight bend in your knees, slide the bar down your body until it’s just below your kneecaps or you feel a slight pull in your hamstrings. Pause, then squeeze your glutes to thrust your hips forward and return to start. Perform three to five sets of three to five reps.
What You’re Learning: This is it. You pull the bar straight from the floor, taking your body through the greatest range of motion while placing most of the load on your posterior chain. Start with a lighter weight before scaling up.
How to Do it: Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. With back flat and chest up, push your hips back and allow a slight bend in your knees as you grab the barbell with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip, palms facing your body and arms fully extended. Your knees should be higher than your hips and shoulders higher than your knees. The bar should be situated about one inch in front of your shins and just slightly behind your shoulders. Keep your core tight, shoulders back, and back flat. From there, thrust your hips forward and straighten your knees until you're standing, hips extended in front of your body and against the bar. Pause, then slowly reverse the movement to return to start. Perform three to five sets of three to five reps.