Training and Workouts

Compound movement: The Deadlift


Here we are with another compound exercise featured in my “Compound movement series”. The first post was all about Its Majesty The Squat, and today the focus is on another royal movement – the deadlift. Much like the squat, the functionality of the deadlift is transferrable to everyday life, and learning the proper technique for it is one of the best things you will ever do for your body – not only if you are a gym-goer.

The deadlift is a full-body exercise, which targets just about every muscle in your body. This makes it amazing for building a strong movement foundation. What’s even better, there are a ton of different variations you can do to make subtle tweaks to which muscles you primarily target.

And while it might look quite simple to go and just rip some weight off the floor, there is actually quite a technical aspect to picking things up and putting them down. In this article, I am going to go into the technical details and main cues for 4 of the most common deadlift variations – the conventional, the Romanian, the straight-leg deadlift and the sumo deadlift.

Conventional Deadlift

It makes sense to start with the conventional one, doesn’t it? Not just the article, but if you are a beginner and you want to incorporate deadlifts in your fitness regimen (and you most definitely SHOULD), start with mastering the conventional deadlift.

Why do you need to practice the conventional deadlift?

  • Like we mentioned earlier, the deadlift is a full-body exercise, with a main focus on the posterior chain – your hamstrings, glutes, upper and lower back, while also working your core.
  • It helps to fix bad posture like forward-rolled shoulders, weak back and strength disproportion between the anterior and posterior muscle chains.
  • To sum up: deadlifting will balance out your full-body strength, improve your posture, build muscle, and create safe movement habits that will make you much less prone to injuries in your everyday life. Need I sell it more?!
The deadlift creates safe movement habits that help to prevent injuries in your everyday life.Click To Tweet

First things first: Master the hip hinge

The hip hinge is basically the same movement pattern as the deadlift, minus the weight. As with the squats – you first learn the proper form for the air squat, before you move on to adding weight, the same principle applies here. In order to avoid injuries, you first need to feel comfortable with the hip hinge, before moving on to the actual deadlift.

The hip hinge is exactly that – hinging at the hips. Unlike the squat, you don’t sit down, but rather sit back. You start the movement with the hips, not the knees and you keep a neutral spine throughout the whole movement. If you are having trouble with flexing your spine (rounding your back) while hinging, try to hold up a stick along your spine. When done correctly, the stick will have three touchpoints with your body – your head, mid-back, and your butt. The best and easier way to practice the hip hinge is by standing near a wall, start sitting back by hinging at the hips and softly bending the knees until your glutes touch the wall. Of course, don’t forget to keep your back straight the whole time. Once you feel comfortable with the pattern, it’s time to move to the actual deadlift.

Conventional Deadlift Cues

A young girl in sports apparell performing a conventional deadlift.

Here are the main points that you need to keep in mind about the deadlift:

  • You start with a hip-width stance, toes can be to 15 degrees pointing out.
  • The barbell should be over your mid foot at the beginning of every rep.
  • The grip is just outside your legs; Start with an overhand grip – keep the bar closer to your fingers, than to your palms, in order to prevent hand pain and building of callus.
  • Your elbows are locked.
  • Shoulders are in front of the bar, hips are higher than parallel.
  • Head is in line with your spine, don’t knick your neck.
  • Maintain spinal position, grip tight, brace your core, take a deep breath into your stomach and pull.
  • Finish by locking your hips and knees and squeezing the glutes. Don’t hyperextend your spine!
  • Put the weight down the same way – hinging until you passed the knees and then bending them to reach the ground.

Who would have thought that picking up the weight off the ground could be that technical, right?! I hope that you don’t get discouraged by that. It does take some practice, but it is for sure worth it, I promise you that!

Sumo Deadlift

The sumo deadlift is another variation of the conventional deadlift, so obviously they have a lot of similarities to each other. As far as muscle activation goes, the sumo deadlift targets just about every muscle that the conventional does, but involves a little more of your quadriceps and inner thighs. You can implement the sumo deadlift in your workouts, if you want to focus more on legs, rather than your back.

Sumo deadlift cues:

A young woman performing a sumo deadlift.

  • The stance is about twice the shoulder width. Toes are pointing out.
  • The barbell is closer to the shins compared to conventional deadlifting.
  • Arms are inside the legs, directly below the shoulders, which stay relaxed.
  • You can use a grip of your choice; If you are a beginner, better start with the overhand grip, palms facing you. When your grip starts failing, switch to a mixed one.
  • Hinge at the hips until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
  • Keeping your back straight, bend and push out the knees to reach the bar.
  • Before pulling, lock your lats and get your armpits over the bar.
  • After passing the knees, push your hips through and squeeze the glutes. Again – don’t hyperextend your spine.
  • Reverse the motion by hinging your hips back and returning to the starting position.

The Romanian Deadlift

Unlike the conventional and the sumo deadlift, the Romanian deadlift has a lot higher activation of the glutes and hamstrings and much less of the quads. It focuses much more on that hip hinge, which we mentioned in the beginning, and it is a great way to improve the dynamic flexibility of your hamstrings and lower back. Stance, grip and all that stay the same as of the conventional deadlift, that’s why I’m just going to point out the differences:

  • Unlike the conventional deadlift, when you move down the loaded barbell, your torso stays relatively parallel to the floor.
  • You hinge at the hips, sit them back and only bend your knees, once the weight goes past them. You shouldn’t bend your knees more than 20 degrees.
  • Maintain that natural arch in the lower back throughout the whole movement.

A young woman in sports apparel performing the Romanian deadlift.

Practicing the RDL is an incredibly useful way to better your pull in Olympic weightlifting. (Wink, wink at the Crossfit-lovers reading this!)

Practicing the Romanian deadlift is a great way to improve your pull in Olympic weightlifting! Click To Tweet

The Stiff Leg Deadlift

There’s a lot of confusion around the differences between the stiff leg deadlift and the Romanian one. And that’s to no surprise – they are very similar, but the most obvious difference is right there in the title – one is performed with straight/stiff legs. This subtle change in the performance of the movement makes up for a change in muscle activation as well. The stiff leg deadlift is great if your goal is to isolate glutes and hamstrings and put the emphasis on them. Of course, your range of motion will be considerably affected by your flexibility level, but in general, you should be able to go below your knees. Due to the same fact, this variation of the deadlift often starts at the top – you hold the bar at thigh hight and from there you initiate the movement by sitting your hips back. Keep your spine straight, legs straight, shoulders relaxed, the weight is close to your body and you go as far down as your flexibility allows it. Once you reach your endpoint, activate your glutes and hamstrings and pull the barbell back up in the same movement pattern.

My advice is to use lighter weights, especially if you are a beginner until you feel completely comfortable and confident with performing the exercise.

What about you?

  • How often do you deadlift?
  • Which is your favorite variation of the deadlift?
  • Do you have problems with performing any of the deadlift variations?


  1. Lyosha
    December 9, 2017 at 2:40 pm

    very useful tips! I see the great technic you have even through photos!

    • Lily
      December 11, 2017 at 8:02 am

      Thank you! 🙂

  2. Shameka
    December 12, 2017 at 1:46 am

    I realize that dead lifer are great for your butt, but my thighs become huge also. Is there any way to keep thighs from becoming huge?

  3. Bethany
    January 2, 2018 at 2:34 am

    This is actually really helpful, thanks! Now, if only I could figure out how to stop hurting my neck and shoulders when squatting heavy.

  4. incalexandra
    October 20, 2018 at 2:28 pm

    Your post has motivated me to start working out again – it has been a long time coming, but I am really keen to now. Thank you for sharing! 🙂

    • Lily
      October 22, 2018 at 3:25 pm

      Thanks! Keep that motivation going!

Reply your comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*