Bodybuilding is about molding muscle into a living, breathing artistic sculpture. But before you work on such aesthetic qualities as shape, proportion, and symmetry, you first have to build the mass to sculpt. Achieving this requires multijoint exercises that work the most muscle possible, such as the bench press, overhead press, bentover barbell row, and squat. But one of the most valuable exercises— and perhaps the most underutilized mass-building move out there—is the deadlift. Doing deadlifts involves intense effort of both the upper and lower body; the legs, back, shoulders, traps, and arms are all called into play (though most bodybuilders do this exercise on back day, not with legs). In simple terms, you’re squatting down, grasping a barbell, then standing up with it. But doing this in a way that minimizes injury (most often to the lower back and knees) requires astute knowledge and technique.


  • With your feet shoulder-width apart, stand with your shins touching a loaded barbell placed on the floor.
  • Bend your knees and squat down, grasping the bar with an overhand grip just outside your legs. Using a staggered grip (one hand pronated, the other supinated), however, will actually allow you to lift more weight. 
  • Arch your back and try to keep it as straight as possible during the lift to minimize stress on the lower back.
  • Keeping your arms straight, drive through the floor with your feet as you pull up on the bar, keeping your head straight and back tight. Allow the bar to slide along the front of your shins and thighs as you pull upward.
  • At the top, shift your shoulders back and hips forward slightly, as if “coming to attention”. Squeeze your legs, glutes, and back as you hold that position for a moment.
  • Of course, once you’ve lifted the bar, you’ll have to lower it again. If you try to put it down by simply bending forward at the waist, you can injure your lower back. Instead, concentrate on keeping your back flat and your head straight, and lower the weight by bending your knees and hips, reversing the path of the positive rep.

As mentioned earlier, deadlifts seem to fit best in a back workout, since the muscles of the upper and lower back are highly targeted, but the legs are just as involved as the back. I recommend doing deadlifts no more than every other back or leg workout, because this exercise taxes the body so much that overuse could interrupt adequate recovery. Schedule deadlifts, squats, and bentover barbell rows in different workouts to keep from overtraining and overstressing the lower back. Finally, drop down to 5–6 reps only when you’re in a strength phase. If building muscle is the goal, you’ll want to stay in a mass-building rep range, which is 8–10 reps per set.

Here’s a sample back workout in which the deadlift is Arnold’s fatured mass-buidling exercise.


  • Deadlift | SETS: 4* | REPS: 8
  • Lat Pulldown | SETS: 4 | REPS: 8-10
  • Seated Cable Row | SETS: 4 | REPS: 10
  • Straight-Arm Pulldown | SETS: 3 | REPS: 10-12

*Not including 2-3 light warmup sets