At its core, weight training is about function. Sure, we like the way our bodies look when muscles get stronger, bigger and better defined. We like to burn the calories that lead to fat loss. The bottom line in judging how essential any particular lift is is easy, however: How many muscles does it work? To that end, it is extremely difficult to top the deadlift.

There are several variations on this tried-and-true lift, each of which is uniquely advantageous and also properly taxing to the body, specifically the muscles in the posterior chain — back, glutes, hamstrings, calves. Our aim this week is to give you three of the best and show you how to implement them into your exercise routine. Deadlifts are a MUST for several reasons: They build leg, core and back strength and they add much-needed balance to the overall physique.

Let’s start at the beginning today with the most common form of the lift, the standard deadlift. This is the one on Mt. Liftmore, if you will.

STANDARD DEADLIFT

deadlift-socks“Are you strong enough to pick that up?” If you can deadlift, you’ll probably be able to answer that question with a “Yes” in the future (and you can follow up with, “but I still won’t help you move.”). Some call the squat the No. 1 lift one should have in his or her arsenal; we like to think of them as 1 and 1A. A step-by-step approach to the deadlift:

  • Start, and end, with the bar on the ground. Seems like a no-brainer, but we see more people than we’d like starting with the bar dangling in the air. Yank that thing off the floor for the biggest gains.
  • Stand with the bar in front of you, over your feet and touching your shins, with your feet shoulder-width apart. Take a stance very similar to a squat — head neutral, chest up, thighs parallel to the ground, weight on your heels — and prepare to grab the bar.
  • You’ll lift the weight with a mixed grip; that is, one overhand and one underhand (be sure to switch the hands’ grips from set to set), with your hands just outside your thighs. Grab the bar hard — in addition to building full-body strength, deadlifts are a great way to enhance your grip strength. Forget gloves or straps, at least when you’re starting out. They won’t benefit you in the early stages. Chalk, however, is just fine.
  • The movement upward starts with a hard squeeze of the glutes, pushing forward with the hips and driving with your legs from the heels. DO NOT let your back or shoulders round, and DO NOT let your butt come up before your upper body does. Keep your spine straight and head neutral. Once you have stood up with the weight, stand tall and hold it for a second.
  • Note: The deadlift is an explosive movement — take a breath, hold it, and release it as you come out of your stance HARD, keeping your core tight.
  • You can either drop it if you’re going heavy (since 100 percent of your effort should be going toward the lift), or lower the weight back to the floor in a controlled manner. Don’t let the weights bounce off the ground while you’re holding it; many a deadlifter has jammed or broken a wrist this way.

ROMANIAN (STIFF-LEGGED) DEADLIFT

Probably the second-most common deadlift is this version, which puts more emphasis on the hamstrings and spinal erectors than does the standard deadlift, but also removing some of the larger muscle groups from the equation. Because of that, it’s not the deadlift you want to use most frequently, but it does have a place in your workout routine. The weight is typically much lighter, with a longer range of motion.

  • The bar starts in the same place — right over your feet, touching your shins and on the ground — but you’re set up a bit differently. The main difference is in your feet: They should be fairly close together, pointing straight forward.
  • Take the mixed grip at shoulder-width on the bar, keeping your back flat and not letting your shoulders round. You’ll bend at the waist to grab the bar, bending the knees only slightly instead of squatting down as you would with a standard deadlift.
  • As you lift the weight. start the movement by moving your hips well back. This will drive your glutes back as well and help prevent your lower back from strain, placing more emphasis on the hamstrings. As you lift the weight, your hips should come forward, as in the standard deadlift.
  • Reverse the motion, starting by pulling your hips and butt back, and keep your shoulder blades pulled tight together as well as you lower the bar. Keep your head and spine neutral, and set the bar down right over your feet.

SUMO DEADLIFT

Another big-time compound lift, the sumo dead shortens the range of motion but allows to again target the glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors and core, as well as really working the back as it stabilizes the motion.

  • Once more, bar on the ground, right over your feet. This time, however, take a wide stance — well beyond shoulder width, in fact, with your toes pointed out and your weight on your heels.
  • Squat down over the bar, again taking a mixed grip, but with your hands just about shoulder-width apart or slightly closer.
  • Start with a hard squeeze of the glutes and hamstrings, extending the hips and knees fully while keeping the back straight and shoulders upright — do not let them round. You can use your back muscles to maintain your upper-body angle, not allowing your butt to come up before your chest does.
  • Drop the weight. Because of the focus on explosive action in this variation, the concentric (lifting) phase of the lift is the most important — the eccentric (lowering) phase will be almost all lower-back because of the stance’s width.