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One of the best total-body exercises, the deadlift is a foundational movement for powerlifters, competitors, and CrossFitters alike. When done right, this essential compound movement can recruit muscles from head to toe—including the core, back, glutes, quads, and hamstrings. Here’s how to best do one of its variations, the American deadlift (ADL). Florida-based trainer Sarah Grace likes to add the ADL to her clients’ workout arsenal to activate new muscles. “It not only targets the back, hamstrings, and glutes but also builds the quads and core,” she says. Start out light, then increase your weight as you progress. 

How To Do An ADL

  1. Stand behind the barbell with your feet hip-width apart. 
  2. Bend your knees slightly and grasp the bar in an alternate grip (one palm facing toward you, one palm away from you), just outside of shoulder width. Keep your knees in line with your toes, and your arms straight and back flat (a neutral spine), rather than a rounded spine. Shoulders should be in line with the bar, and keep gaze forward and downward. This is your starting position. 
  3. Ground your weight in your heels and initiate by loading your glutes and hamstrings and driving your feet into the floor. Keep the bar in a vertical line over your midfoot throughout the movement, rather than letting the bar float away from your body. Keep your spine neutral until standing. Note: Do not hyperextend your back at the top. Don’t complete the move with just your butt while finishing the pull with your lower back. 
  4. Return to the floor via the same pathway until the bar touches the floor. 

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Form Tips

All deadlifts are hinging movements at the hips, and they strengthen and build muscles of the glutes and hamstrings while isometrically strengthening the upper and lower back, says strength and conditioning coach Jim “Smitty” Smith. For the best results, follow these perfect-form tips.

  1. Make sure to keep the weight as close to your body as possible to max out your leverage and protect your lower back.
  2. For all hinging moves, do not think about just “bending over.” “Think ‘push your hips back,’ ” Smith says.
  3. Bending straight over forces the weight forward and drives you onto your toes. Instead, have a slight bend in your knees and keep weight in your heels. 

Smith’s best DL alternatives to develop the glutes and hamstrings

  • Glute bridge 
  • Hip thrust (with back on bench)
  • Goblet squat
  • Lunge
  • Hip thrust with band around upper knees (with back on bench)
  • Pulling a sled
  • Pushing a sled
  • Lateral shuffle (sidestepping) with band around knee Dumbbell/kettlebell swing 

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What’s The Difference?

(Illustrated from left to right.)

RDL: Romanian deadlifts are the most stable. Lowe the weight only as far as you can keep your back completely straight; do not let your back round.

Single-Leg RDL: This unstable moves requires coordination and balance, so try to anchor your stable foot by grabbing the ground with your toes and feel the weight on your midfoot. 

Stiff-Leg Deadlift: Not often recommended, because knees are locked. Most lifters allow the weight to move away too far from the legs, which can straight the back.