Welcome to Alter This Action, the ongoing series where you’ll find everything you need to revise a standard exercise to meet your objectives, your physique, and your disposition. Each story breaks down how to execute a foundational fitness move, then offers various adjustments based on your current fitness or energy level, present or prior injuries, or the muscles you want to focus on most. So leave your pride at that entrance and ensure every workout meets you where you’re at today.
The uncomplicated, everyday task of hoisting hefty objects (ponder: your latest purchase from Amazon or a fully packed laundry basket) off the floor has the capability to really disrupt your back if you aren’t doing it correctly. But practicing one practical strength-building exercise — the deadlift — can aid in keeping your back and the muscles surrounding it feeling sturdy and free from discomfort, says Keri Harvey, a NASM-certified personal trainer in New York City.
“The deadlift is something that everyone should acquire the ability to do,” says Harvey of the exercise, which entails lowering weights to the floor and lifting them back up by pivoting at the hips. “It’s exceedingly important you apprehend that movement pattern to, one, alleviate the lower back pain that you already have and, two, hopefully, evade injury in the future.” If the possibility of alleviating your pains and diminishing your risk of injury isn’t convincing enough, know that deadlifts engage both lower- and upper-body muscles. Specifically, the exercise will challenge your glutes, hamstrings, quads, back, lats, and forearms, says Harvey.
That being said, the conventional deadlift isn’t the sole way to attain those advantages. Weight training novices and individuals in need of a mild workoutcan attempt a altered deadlift variation that permits them to concentrate on form, rather than how much load they can lift. Similarly, individuals dealing with lower back pain can opt for a deadlift variation that’s devised to keep their discomfort in check while still aiding them in enhancing their fitness. And when you’re looking to target a particular muscle group to rectify any potential imbalances, you have deadlift variations to select from, as well. Irrespective of your rationale, you should feel empowered to adjust the exercise so it functions optimally for you — your body, goals, needs, experience level, and so on.
Ready to put the classic strength-building exercise to the test? Follow the directions below to master the traditional deadlift, and then observe as Harvey demonstrates how to vary the exercise with five distinct deadlift variations she shared that work for all abilities and fitness goals.
How to Perform a Deadlift
A. Stand with feet hip-width apart and grasp a dumbbell in each hand in front of thighs, palms facing body.
B. Activate core and pull shoulder blades down and back. Then, while maintaining straight arms, move hips backward to lower both dumbbells down to the ground in front of the legs. Continue descending until the hips are fully pushed back and the weights are as close to the ground as possible.
C. Keeping the chest lifted, push through the feet to return to a standing position, while contracting the glutes at the top.
5 Variations of the Deadlift
After trying out the traditional deadlift, you may want to adjust the exercise to suit your specific needs and goals. Whether the regular version feels too difficult or too easy for a particular muscle group, feel free to attempt a deadlift variation that meets all your requirements.
Here, you will discover deadlift variations that can increase or decrease the intensity of the exercise, including a variation for individuals experiencing lower back pain and variations aimed at targeting the glutes and hamstrings. Regardless of the option you choose, make sure to continuously listen to your body as you complete your repetitions, and switch to a different exercise if it doesn’t feel right or, more importantly, if you are experiencing lower back pain, advises Harvey. In these cases, “you must stop immediately, and it’s time to return to the fundamentals,” she explains. “Most of the time, if people feel pain while deadlifting, it’s because they are squatting the weight rather than properly hinging their hips and sitting them back far enough. You want to emphasize and exaggerate that part of the movement to ensure correct execution.”
Deadlift Variation to Reduce Intensity: Kettlebell Deadlift
This deadlift variation is especially beneficial for beginners, as it teaches them how to effectively move their hips back and engage their lats, according to Harvey. “You position the kettlebell right between your feet, so you are already required to push your hips back in order to reach the bell,” she explains. “Once you grasp the bell, you can immediately feel your lats stretching forward, which signals your brain to retract your shoulders and then you are ready to rise up.” Even experienced lifters who are familiar with the movement pattern can utilize this variation if they notice their form deteriorating.
A. Stand with your feet positioned hip-width apart, arms at your sides, and a kettlebell resting on the ground in the middle of your feet.
B. Engage your core and retract your shoulder blades down and back. Then, move your hips back to lower your upper body towards the ground until both hands can grip the handle of the kettlebell. Place both hands on the handle, with your palms facing your legs.
C. Keeping your chest lifted, push through your feet to return to a standing position, while contracting your glutes at the top.
D. Retain your shoulder blades down and back and keep your arms straight as you move your hips back to lower the kettlebell towards the ground in front of your legs until it is as close to the ground as possible.
Keeping torso upright, press through the soles of your feet to come back up to a standing position, contracting the muscles in your buttocks at the peak.
Elevate Your Deadlift Game with the Single-Leg Deadlift
If you hardly break a sweat while performing a traditional deadlift, consider increasing the intensity by doing it on one leg at a time. “This will test your equilibrium and also help you identify potential asymmetries in your body,” states Harvey. “Everyone has one side that’s less strong than the other, and you may notice it during the single-leg deadlift.” Since it’s effortless to let your arms dangle loosely in front of your body during this deadlift variation, you’ll need to exert even more effort to keep your lats activated, she adds.
A. Stand with your feet apart at hip width, and keep your arms at your sides, gripping a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing your body.
B. Tighten your core and retract your shoulder blades. Shift your weight onto your right leg and slightly bend your right knee.
C. While keeping your arms extended, push your hips back to lower both dumbbells towards the ground in front of your legs. Simultaneously, lift your left leg off the ground and extend it behind you. Continue lowering until your hips are fully pushed back and the weights are as close to the floor as possible.
D. Maintaining an upright chest, press through your right heel to lower your left foot back to the ground and return to a standing position. Squeeze your glutes at the top.
Engage Your Hamstrings with the Romanian Deadlift
The difference between this deadlift variation and the standard one is subtle, but it significantly targets your hamstrings. During this exercise, your knees won’t flex as much, and you won’t bring the weights all the way down to the floor, explains Harvey. “With this movement, you exclusively rely on your hips to lift and lower the weight,” she says. “As a result, you’ll experience a much more intense stretch in your hamstrings.”
A. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs, with your palms facing your body.
B. Tighten your core and retract your shoulder blades. Then, while keeping your arms straight, push your hips back to lower both dumbbells towards the ground in front of your legs. Continue lowering until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, approximately when the weights reach your lower shins.
C. Keep your chest lifted and push through your feet to return to a standing position. Squeeze your glutes at the top.
Activate Your Glutes with the Sumo Deadlift
This deadlift variation ignites your glute muscles mainly due to the wider position, says Harvey. Nonetheless, it is crucial to maintain a strong mind-muscle connection, she explains. “I truly want you to concentrate on the glutes,” she adds. “As you descend, consider pushing the glutes outward to fully activate and target them.”
A. Stand with feet spread wider than the width of your shoulders, toes pointed outwards, and grasp a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs, with your palms facing your body.
B. Contract your core and draw your shoulder blades down and back. Then, while keeping your arms straight, push your hips back to lower both dumbbells to the ground in front of your legs. Continue lowering until your hips are fully pushed back and the weights are as close to the floor as possible.
C. While keeping your chest lifted, push through your feet to return to a standing position, squeezing your glutes at the top.
Deadlift Variation for Lower Back Pain: Good Morning with Dowel
This deadlift variation — referred to as the good morning exercise — not only helps you learn the correct form without any additional elements, but it also provides a comforting stretching sensation for your lower back when you’re experiencing discomfort in the area, says Harvey. “It’s something you would train until you feel confident with it, and then you would remove the dowel and practice it using only your bodyweight,” she adds. Once you are free of pain and have mastered the bodyweight deadlift, you can progress to a kettlebell deadlift, she suggests.
A. Stand with your feet at hip-width apart and hold a dowel resting against the top of your shoulder blades, with your palms facing forward.
B. Engage your core and pull your shoulder blades down and back. Then, push your hips back to lower your upper body towards the floor. Continue lowering until your hips are fully pushed back.
C. While keeping your chest upright, push through your feet to return to a standing position, squeezing your glutes at the top.
Photography and art: Jenna Brillhart
Model and fitness expert: Keri Harvey
Hair and makeup: Tee Chavez
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