Deadlifts are one of the only true full-body lifts, challenging our muscles from our fingers down to our toes, stressing our bodies from the skin on our palms all the way down to our bones. They’re hard, tiring, and absolutely amazing for building muscle, gaining strength, improving our fitness, and becoming much better looking.
When it comes to bulking up, the only lift that can rival the deadlift in terms of sheer muscle growth is the squat (and especially the front squat). Even then, the deadlift has a few unique advantages:
- Deadlifts bulk up our traps, backs, glutes, and forearms, which is great for improving our aesthetics.
- Deadlifts are one of the best ways to increase the density of our bones and the health of our spines, making them great for our health and longevity.
- The strength we develop with deadlifts transfers near-perfectly to our daily lives, making us look strong because we are strong.
- Squats and deadlifts train different muscles, with the front squat emphasizing the quads and upper back, and the deadlift emphasizing the hamstrings, glutes, and entire back.
As with all the big lifts, though, there are several different ways of deadlifting, each with different pros and cons. And given how many different sorts of adaptations deadlifts provoke, it’s not surprising that some ways of deadlifting are much better for building muscle than others.
Most guys who are interested in strength favour the conventional deadlift, which is wise—and we’ll explain why—but they deadlift for low reps and drop the bar to the ground after every repetition, making it worse for building muscle mass.
The most heinous sin, though, belongs to the bodybuilders who forego the deadlift altogether, thinking that it’s not a good lift for gaining muscle, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The Deadlift as a Back Lift
There are a few ways of deadlifting, ranging from the Romanian deadlift, which asks more of our hamstrings, to sumo deadlifts, which demand more from our quads. The conventional deadlift is the normal, “conventional” way of deadlifting, where we set up with a fairly narrow stance and lift the barbell from the floor, like so:
Part of what makes the conventional deadlift unique is that it demands so incredibly much from our backs. We’re muscling the weight up with our hips, yes, but our spinal erectors are doing just as much work to hold our backs in place, and so are just as likely to be our limiting factor. And so as much as the conventional deadlift is a hip exercise, it’s also a back exercise.
Because bearing the load with our backs is such an integral part of the lift, one of the defining features of the conventional deadlift is maintaining a proper “neutral” spinal position.
For example, here we see a deadlift done with a neutral spine (left) and with a rounded back (right). The neutral position on the left is generally considered better, although it’s not quite that simple. Our bodies adapt to the stresses we expose them to, and so if we wanted to become better at lifting with a rounded back, then deadlifting with a rounded back would help to strengthen our bodies in that position.
For example, strongmen often train with rounded backs because round-backed lifts are an integral part of their sport, and they need to prepare to withstand that stress. However, the spinal researcher Dr Stuart McGill found that deadlifting with a rounded back puts nearly ten times as much shear stress on our spines, and there’s only so far we can adapt. No surprise, then, that strongmen have twice the injury rate as other competitive lifters (such as powerlifters).
Since we aren’t strongmen or powerlifters, we want to drop that risk of injury as low as we can get it. We’re just training to be bigger, stronger, fitter, and better looking, so why risk injuring our spines, right?
I’m not trying to catastrophize back injuries. Our spines are stronger than most people think, and even if we were to get injured, most back injuries do heal. But it’s a long process that often requires 12–18 months of some degree of back pain and lighter lifting. It’s a real pain above the ass. And so it’s better to treat the deadlift less like a competition lift where we show off our strength, more like a tool that we can use to develop our strength. That way we can not only avoid injury while deadlifting but also minimize the risk of back injuries in our day-to-day lives. After all, most back injuries stem from weakness and inactivity. The deadlift can ward against that.
The other thing to consider is that, as mentioned above, our bodies adapt to the stress we expose them to. And it’s not just our muscles that adapt, either. Our bones, connective tissues, and spinal discs all adapt to the stresses we expose them to. That means that if we want to use the deadlift to help us stand taller and straighter, then that’s the position we want to train in.
Now, that isn’t to say that any particular posture is better than another. Sprinters often benefit from having hips that are tilted forwards (lordosis), and powerlifters often benefit from having upper backs that cave inwards (kyphosis). We might be tempted to think that they have “bad” posture, but it’s more accurate to say that their posture is specialized. After all, top-level athletes harden themselves into these positions for a reason. However, most of us want to stand tall, breathe deep, and look great, and so we can deliberately build backs that hold a strong neutral position. And so for most of us, it’s wiser to deadlift with a neutral spine.
Moving to a more nuanced example, here we have a “strict” neutral spine (left) compared with a spine that’s kept within the neutral “range.” Like all of our joints, the vertebrae in our spines have a range of motion they’re comfortable moving in. If they bend by a couple of degrees at each vertebra, they’ll be within that comfortable range of motion, which is fine, and the shear stress on our spines will still be fairly minimal, keeping the risk of injury low.
The difference between strict neutral and the neutral range tends to be how heavy the load is and how close to failure we’re lifting. As beginners, it’s often best to stop our sets before our form deviates even a little bit. Now, obviously beginners won’t be lifting with stellar form. Lifting with great form takes practice. All the more reason, then, not to let overly heavy weights interfere with that practice.
As we get bigger and stronger, though, we’ll need to continue challenging ourselves if we want to continue growing, and as we drive our deadlifts ever heavier, those loads might force a bit of bend in our backs. As long as we keep within a neutral range, that’s usually fine, especially if we’ve been gradually working our deadlifts heavier over time, building a stronger and tougher back as we go. That slip away from strict neutral is just our spinal erectors finding the length where they’re strongest. They’re still bearing the load. No problem.
Conventional deadlifts are hard on our backs no matter how we do them. That’s kind of the whole point. Even so, we want to minimize the shear stress relative to the recruitment of our spinal erectors. To do this, we keep our spines in a neutral position, we brace our cores, and we bear the load with our back muscles, not with our spines. This keeps the risk of injury low and does a tremendous job of developing backs that are thick, strong, and tough.
So to summarize, one of the main purposes of the conventional deadlift is to expose our backs to controlled stress, causing it to grow bigger, stronger, and more robust while keeping the risk of injury low.
Why Back Angle Matters
Okay, now that we’ve gone over why we heap so much praise onto the conventional deadlift—the king of all bulking lifts—let’s talk about how different deadlift variations alter the training effects on our backs.
To figure out which muscles are being emphasized in different variations of a lift, it can be helpful to plot out the moment arms:
We’ve got a full article on moment arms, but without diving too deep into the physics, what we’re seeing here is that conventional deadlifts, at least in theory, are more challenging on our spinal erectors than sumo deadlifts. This pans out in the research, which shows that conventional deadlifts are about 10% harder than sumo deadlifts on our lower-back muscles.
One thing to point out is that in our article on front-loaded squats, we were drawing attention to the moment arms in our upper backs, whereas now we’re looking at the moment arms in our lower backs. That’s because while the front squat emphasizes the spinal erectors in our upper backs, the deadlift emphasizes the spinal erectors in our lower backs. This is important because our spinal erectors are tiny little muscles that only cross a couple of vertebrae. It’s not one set of muscles running all the way up our backs like a rope, linking our hips to our necks, it’s a series of little muscles that run up our backs like a chain, each link responsible for its own vertebra. Building a big and strong back means training all of our spinal erectors, and pairing front squats with conventional deadlifts is a great way to do that. (You may also want to include some neck extensions to bulk up the spinal erectors on the back of your neck.)
Now, there are plenty of skinny guys who have weaker backs, and thus are able to sumo deadlift quite a bit more than they can conventional deadlift. I’m one of those guys. The sumo deadlift is hard on my traps and hips, whereas the conventional deadlift is hard on my entire back. If I were a powerlifter, I’d do better pulling sumo, but I’m not. I’m interested in building a bigger, stronger, healthier, and better-looking body, and so the conventional deadlift suits my goals better.
This effect becomes even more exaggerated if we look at trap-bar deadlifts:
And the same logic holds. If our backs are our limiting factor, then any variation the minimizes the demands on our backs will allow us to lift more weight, and so trap-bar deadlifts would allow us to lift heavier without being limited by our back strength. Is that good? It depends. Are you trying to lift heavier or are you trying to build a bigger back?
Trap bar deadlifts also reduce our hip angle, increase our knee angle, and allow our quads to help us lift the weight. That makes trap-bar deadlifts a nifty blend of a squat and a deadlift, and perhaps the single best bulking lift of all time. However, we’re also minimizing what makes the deadlift so special and turning it into more of an all-around lower-body bulker.
To be fair, trap bars allow our knees and ankles to move any which way we like, so there’s nothing stopping us from driving our hips back and using the conventional technique even while holding a trap bar. That would allow us to get the back-bulking benefits of a conventional deadlift while still getting to take advantage of the trap bar (which is quite a bit easier to grip).
This is all to say that regardless of whether we use barbells or trap bars, if we’re using the deadlift to bulk up our backs, we’ll want to drive our hips back and lift with a conventional movement pattern.
The deadlift is a surprisingly intuitive lift. After all, we’ve been doing them our entire lives, every time we pick something up off the floor. On the other hand, we may have ingrained some bad habits over the years, and if our default posture is poor, it might be hard to set up with a neutral spine.
When I first tried deadlifting, I had a lot of trouble bending in my hips instead of my lower back, even more trouble trying to brace and keep a neutral spine while lifting that weight up.
If you’re struggling with the conventional deadlift, it’s often better to start with an easier variation, such as a dumbbell sumo deadlift or a Romanian deadlift. Once those start to feel natural, try going deeper and heavier, eventually progressing to barbell deadlifts from the floor.
Range of Motion
The next thing to consider is the effective range of motion of the deadlift. We’re using the word “effective” because we don’t want to extend the range of motion so much that our back needs to bend at the bottom of the lift. That wouldn’t give us a greater training effect, it would just make the lift more dangerous.
So with the deadlift, what we want to do is set up the bar as low as we can comfortably go while still maintaining good technique. There are some guys who simply don’t have enough range of motion in their hips to do conventional deadlifts from the floor, but the vast majority of intermediate lifters won’t have a problem with it.
Lacking the mobility to deadlift properly is a super common issue for beginners, though, and so a lot of us benefit from starting with dumbbell sumo deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, raised deadlifts, or even a below-the-knee rack pulls before progressing to full deadlifts. Over time, we gain more mobility in our hips, our technique improves, and we can move down to the floor.
Once we can deadlift from the floor, we probably should deadlift from the floor, and there are a few reasons for that:
- The deeper we deadlift, the more we’ll need to bend in our hips, and so the larger the range of motion for our hips will be, improving our muscle and strength gains.
- The further down we go, the more our hips will drive back, and more horizontal our backs will go, improving the muscle growth in our backs.
- The longer the range of motion, the longer each rep will take, increasing the time under tension. Since our backs are working isometrically all through the lift, this further improves back growth.
- We’ll get more growth with less weight, reducing the fatigue that the deadlift generates, and reducing our risk of injury.
Where this gets even more interesting, though, is that even the deadlift variations that are done from the floor have different ranges of motion. The sumo deadlift uses a wider stance, which means we don’t need to lift the weight as high, and the trap-bar deadlift uses a higher grip, which means we don’t need to sink as low. Those are good solutions for people who lack the mobility to do conventional deadlifts from the floor, but most of us can learn to deadlift from the floor. And so again, the conventional deadlift shines.
Now, there’s also such thing as a deficit deadlift, where we raise our feet up on plates and extend the range of motion even further. There are also wide-grip and snatch-grip deadlifts, which force us to bend down deeper and then lift the bar higher. These are great bulking lifts for people who can handle them, but because they can be quite a bit lighter, we often use them as secondary lifts in addition to our heavier deadlifts.
There are also Romanian deadlifts, where we start in the top position and then drive our hips back as we lower the barbell down to our knees. These remove our quads from the lift entirely, and they create an even larger moment arm for our hips to overcome, forcing us to use far lighter loads. As a result, they’re great for bulking up our hips and hamstrings, but not nearly as good for bulking up our spinal erectors, traps, and forearms. Again, they’re best used as a secondary lift to the conventional deadlift.
Of the deadlift variations, a conventional deadlift tends to have the best balance of range of motion and heaviness for building muscle, but this will vary from person to person.
Most people know that when trying to build muscle, it’s best to lift explosively (to accelerate the bar) and then to lower the weight under control (often taking 2–3 seconds). Lifting explosively helps to recruit as many muscle fibres as possible right from the beginning of the lift, and lowering the weight slowly helps to sneak in some extra muscle growth from the eccentric part of the lift.
With the deadlift, though, a lot of us toss these rules of thumb out the window. Instead of accelerating the bar smoothly off the ground, people are often tempted to jerk the bar up, as if gathering speed before our muscles are even pulling tautly on the bar will help us lift it. That doesn’t work, though. Instead of being able to lift extra heavy, we just put extra stress on our joints and spine, making the lift more dangerous.
Better to pull the slack of the bar, put some tension into our hips, flex our armpits (to turn on our lats), and bring our chests up (to turn on our spinal erectors). At that point, we rapidly—but gradually, like pressing on a gas pedal—put our full force into the bar and try to accelerate it upwards.
When it comes to lowering the deadlift, it’s popular to just kinda drop it. Or even if we don’t drop it, we kinda just guide the barbell as it falls. If we’re trying to use the deadlift for building muscle, though, we want to approach it like we do our other lifts: lower it back down fully under control.
Once we’ve lifted the weight up, better to set it gently back down. We don’t need to dawdle. We aren’t aiming for a ten-second eccentric. But lower it down slowly and under control. Let it touch the ground, maybe even settle, and then begin your next rep.
There’s this idea that lowering the barbell quickly makes the deadlift safer, but that’s just a myth. It saves energy, perhaps, allowing people to do more reps without feeling as tired or worn down, but it’s actually more dangerous, especially if you’re letting yourself lose position as you do it, bouncing the barbell, or even just not resetting fully between reps.
Also, keep in mind that lowering the barbell is the eccentric part of the lift for our hips, but for our spinal erectors, traps, and lats, the entire lift is isometric. If anything, we’ll stimulate more growth in our backs as we lower the barbell down because it will provide more time under tension.
As a result, the ideal deadlift tempo looks something like this:
- The setup: pull the slack out of the bar, get into a strong position, feel the tension on your muscles
- The lift: rapidly but gradually put all of your might into accelerating the barbell upwards.
- The lower: gently put the barbell back down, keeping your muscles fully in control of the bar, and keeping a strong position.
- Repeat: you don’t need to reset between reps if you never lost your positioning in the first place. Once you’ve put the barbell gently back on the ground, simply lift it back up again.
If you’re using the tempo to build muscle, you’ll want to use a similar tempo to your other muscle-building lifts. Accelerate the barbell up and then lower it down slowly and under control.
Deadlift Rep Ranges
As we covered in our strength training and hypertrophy training articles, there’s no strict hypertrophy rep range, and we can technically build muscle with reps ranging anywhere from 4–40. Even so, more practically speaking, we tend to get more muscle growth more easily when doing 6–20 reps per set.
However, with deadlifts, we’re engaging a huge volume of muscle mass and lifting heavy weights through a large range of motion. There’s a lot of work being done, which can become extremely metabolically taxing as the rep ranges get higher.
Consider someone who can deadlift 405 pounds. For three repetitions, they’d be able to lift around 365 pounds, for a total of 1095 pounds lifted per set. But for twelve repetitions, they’d be able to lift around 285 pounds, for a total of 3420 pounds lifted per set. Even though the weight is lighter, lifting in the higher rep range still means doing about three times as much total work.
Now, because we’re talking about the amount of weight being lifted, the amount of work being done scales with our strength. For newer lifters who are in good cardiovascular shape, even higher-rep sets of deadlifts might not be that taxing. But for stronger lifters who don’t do very much cardio training, even low-rep sets of deadlifts can leave them gasping for breath on the ground for several minutes.
Another factor to consider is which variation of deadlift you’re doing. Conventional deadlifts have a larger range of motion and engage more of our back muscles, requiring more work to be done with every rep, and thus making them quite a bit more tiring than sumo, trap-bar, and Romanian deadlifts. Not by a small margin, either. This study found that conventional deadlifts used 25-40% more energy than sumo deadlifts.
Doing more work tends to be great for muscle growth and also has the advantage of being great for our cardiovascular systems. When we’re working so much muscle mass so intensely, it’s not so different from doing a bike sprint. Doing deadlifts for sets of 8–10 often becomes a form of high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which is absolutely brilliant for building muscle, gaining strength, and improving our general health and fitness.
However, if we push the rep range so high that we’re limited by our cardiovascular systems instead of by the strength of our muscles, then we’re transforming our bulking workouts into cardio workouts. Our bodies will see no need to gain more size and strength, just to improve our heart health and oxygen delivery. (This is why high-rep, low-rest circuit routines like CrossFit are good for our physical fitness but poor for building muscle.)
The goal is to find that happy middle ground where our sets of deadlifts are metabolically taxing, but not so taxing that they interfere with our ability to stimulate muscle growth. So when deadlifting for muscle size, we usually want to program sets of 5–8, occasionally dipping down to heavier sets of 3–4 or reaching up to sets of 9–10.
- Sets of 3–4: ideal for gaining strength, good for gaining muscle.
- Sets of 5–8: ideal for gaining strength and size, good for improving our cardiovascular fitness and work capacity.
- Sets of 9–10: ideal for gaining size and improving work capacity, but can be quite fatiguing for stronger guys.
When deadlifting for muscle size, we want to aim for heavy (3–5) and moderate (6–10) rep ranges, ideally becoming good at doing both. You might want to spend one phase focusing on volume and work capacity (8–10 reps), another phase focusing on pure hypertrophy (5–8 reps), and then a third phase focusing more on strength (3–4 reps).
Volume and Fatigue
The final thing to consider when using the deadlift for muscle growth is that although it stimulates more muscle growth per set than any other lift, it’s also disproportionately fatiguing.
What I mean is this:
- Doing three sets of deadlifts will build more muscle than doing three sets of any other lift.
- Doing three sets of deadlifts is a fairly fatiguing way of stimulating that amount of muscle growth.
Put another way, deadlifts are incredibly efficient per set (a high magnitude of hypertrophy stimulus), but also kind of inefficient per unit of fatigue (a lower stimulus-to-fatigue ratio).
For those of us who only have time to do a few short workouts per week, that’s no problem. We can just plough through our deadlifts. We won’t accumulate too much fatigue because we aren’t spending that much overall time or energy lifting weights.
But for those of us who lift hard, who lift often, or who are already managing higher levels of stress, we need to be mindful of the fatigue we’re accruing when deadlifting. While most people can get away with squatting a few times per week, attempting the same thing with deadlifts will often leave people feeling worn down.
There are a couple of rules of thumb that can help keep deadlifts from being overly fatiguing:
- Keep your back within the neutral range, limiting the stress on your spine—one of the main reasons that deadlifting can be so fatiguing.
- Stay at least a couple of reps away from technical failure (most of the time). The closer we go to failure, the lower the stimulus-to-fatigue ratio becomes. If we stay 2–3 reps shy of failure while deadlifting, we’ll get almost all of the muscle growth as if we went to failure, but not nearly as much fatigue. (Note that “failure” on a big compound lift like the deadlift occurs when our form starts to break down, not when we fail to lift the barbell. If our backs are coming out of the neutral range, then that counts as failure, and we want to stop our sets before that happens.)
In addition to that, though, we can also keep our fatigue in mind when programming deadlifts into our hypertrophy routines:
- Deadlifting once per week is usually enough to get great muscle growth, and doing just 3–5 sets is often fine.
- We can use plenty of secondary exercises to boost the volume on our target muscles much higher: Romanian deadlifts, split-stance Romanian deadlifts, good mornings, Zercher squats, barbell rows, and so on.
- If we’re struggling with fatigue, there’s no harm in taking a break from conventional deadlifts and switching to a variation that’s easier to recover from, such as Romanian deadlifts.
Deadlifts stimulate a tremendous amount of muscle growth, but given how many adaptations we’re provoking—bigger muscles, denser bones, stronger tendons, tougher palms, and better cardio—deadlifts are also quite fatiguing. It’s often best to keep our deadlift volume low while adding in plenty of volume from assistance lifts.
Deadlifts are arguably the single best lift for stimulating muscle growth, but they’re also hard, heavy, and fatiguing.
When we’re deadlifting for hypertrophy, here are some good rules of thumb:
- It’s important to keep our backs within the neutral “range” to reduce shear stress and to minimize our risk of injury.
- Conventional deadlifts are the best default deadlift variation for bulking, given that they’re heavy, they’re great for bulking up our backs, and they use a large range of motion.
- When we’re deadlifting for muscle growth, we should use a similar tempo to our other bulking lifts: accelerate the bar as we lift it, and then set it slowly and gently back down.
- If we can maintain our positions while lowering the barbell, we won’t need to reset between reps. And if we’re setting the barbell down slowly, we won’t need to worry about bouncing.
- Deadlifts are fatiguing, so it often helps to keep our weekly deadlift volume low, and then to bring in the extra volume with plenty of assistance lifts.
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