Build Muscle and Strength Safely by Mastering the Deadlift

The barbell deadlift is one of the most effective strength building exercises in existence. Throughout the last two decades (or more), it’s made a surge in popularity and today, if you’re to go to almost any gym (aside from planet fitness where it’s not allowed), you’ll likely see someone using the deadlift platform. It’s an exercise that, when executed properly and programmed appropriately, will increase your total body strength significantly. Unfortunately, most people don’t do it correctly, which is one of the reasons I’m writing this blog post. 

The deadlift is safe and effective when executed with proper technique, but disastrous when executed poorly. It’s also one of the most popular “ego lifts”. Ego lifting (in this situation) is when people select as much weight as they possibly can lift with no regards to form and technique, with hopes to feel better about themselves and attract attention from other people at the gym or on social media. It’s a great way to hurt yourself and look like a fool, yet people continue to do it.

There is also heated debate as to whether it’s a smart exercise for most people to do, because while it’ll make you stronger, it’s not the ideal choice for gaining muscle (hypertrophy) in most situations.

In this post, I’ll highlight several aspects of deadlifting, including different types of deadlifts (sumo vs. conventional), how your anatomy affects your deadlift potential, deadlift technique, how to program it (frequency, volume, intensity), deadlift variations and assistance exercises that will help improve your deadlift. 

If you’re looking to get stronger and improve your deadlift, you’ve come to the right place.

Sumo Vs. Conventional

There are two different types of barbell deadlifts, each of which are considered deadlifts primarily because they’re both allowed in powerlifting competition. While conventional and sumo deadlift are both considered deadlifts, they’re quite different in regards to set up, range of motion, mobility requirements, movement cues, muscles worked, and of course, technique. 

The conventional deadlift is widely regarded as a more “pure” version of a deadlift. It involves the lifter’s feet being approximately hip-width, hands outside the legs when gripping the bar, a more bent over torso, and a true hip hinge motion to execute the lift. 

The sumo deadlift involves a wider stance, hands inside the legs when gripping the bar, a more upright torso, and significantly less of a hip-hinge. Generally speaking, whether you’re a competitive powerlifter or just a regular gym goer, practicing the sumo and the conventional deadlift can be a great approach. But for the purpose of this post, the conventional deadlift will be the main topic of discussion. 

Genetic and Anatomical Considerations

Like many popular effective compound exercises, some people are built perfectly for the deadlift, and others not so much. There is a certain build that lends itself well to conventional deadlifting. It includes longer limbs (especially arms) and a short torso. These anatomical advantages will decrease not only the range of motion required to complete a deadlift, but also the amount the person will have to bend at the hips to get into a powerful and safe deadlift position. 

Despite what some people say, regardless of your build, you can still make the deadlift work for you. However, many many people would be much better off deadlifting not from the floor, but from elevated blocks or bumper plates. Just because someone invented barbell plates decades ago, doesn’t mean they’re the right diameter for everyone. The deadlift is unique in that it’s one of the few lifts (aside from olympic lifts) where the starting position is dictated by the diameter of the plates on the bar because you’re starting with the plates on the floor. 

If you’re someone with shorter limbs (especially arms) and a longer torso, and you want to lift safely and prioritize longevity, you may want to consider utilizing 2-4” blocks or plates to elevate the bar. This allows your torso to be more upright and your glutes to take some of the load from your lower back. Obviously, If you’re a competitive powerlifter, while this particular build is highly advantageous in the squat and bench press, you may want to opt for the sumo deadlift since you’ll have no choice but to lift from the floor in competition.

Anatomy and anthropometry aside, there are other genetic factors that come into play in regards to deadlifting strength. Some people are blessed with a highly efficient neurological ability to tap into more strength potential than others. If you’ve ever seen someone who’s “strong for his/her size”, meaning they’re not huge and muscular but they can still lift a lot of weight, you’ve seen this at play. The deadlift, arguably more so than the squat and bench, often puts this on display. Although this ability is certainly genetic, it can also be trained. 

There are several powerlifters that can deadlift well over 3x their bodyweight, and it’s mainly due to their ability to maximize the use of the muscle they have due to their highly efficient nervous system. On the other hand, you’ll see people who are really jacked and muscular but are not as strong as they look. This means that while they’re able to build muscle, their nervous system is not as efficient at maximizing the use of their muscle fibers. These two people will benefit from two totally different training approaches (a blog post for another day).

Finally, deadlifting heavy involves a lot of skill and technique. The better your technique and the more efficient your nervous system is at recruiting strength, the more you’ll be able to deadlift (the same can be said for any lift). 

Overall, it’s important to consider someone's structure, technique, and neurologic efficiency when you’re wondering why someone like Stefi Cohen (who weighs 114 lbs) out-deadlifts most 200 lbs men.


Technique for the deadlift is important for several reasons. Sure, if your technique is better you’ll be able to lift more weight and increase your strength building potential. But if longevity is something you care about, technique is more important for the deadlift than arguably any other movement because of the unique motion of the deadlift, where the weight is loaded, and the muscles involved.

It’s difficult to describe technique through writing and I suggest watching my youtube video on how to deadlift properly. In an ideal world, you’d have an experienced coach or trainer with you when you’re learning the deadlift to ensure you’re building good motor patterns and being safe. But just know that if your technique is off, you’re doing more harm than good when you do deadlifts. 


Should I do deadlifts on back day or leg day?

If you’re a powerlifter, you likely don’t have a “leg day” or “back day”, but more of a “bench day”, “squat day” and “deadlift day”. But this article isn’t geared toward the powerlifting population. Most regular people have a lifting split that involves full body, upper/lower, or push/pull/legs (there are more, but these are the most popular). Deadlifts are completely unnecessary in a hypertrophy focused program, but they’re very fun to do, so I totally understand if you keep them in your program even if your goal is mostly muscle gain (that’s what I do!). 

You can program deadlifts on leg or back day, but the deadlift (when done correctly) is far more stimulating for the legs (hamstrings and glutes) than the back. Sure, the back is certainly involved but only to the extent of being a heavy isometric (static hold). The biggest consideration I would suggest is that if you’re doing deadlifts as part of your workout, do them as one of your first exercises (after a good warmup) to ensure that you’re fresh. 

If you’re a beginner or intermediate lifter, you’ll usually be fine doing another spine-loaded compound lift in the same session, but I suggest selecting a movement that is less posterior chain/lower back intensive like the front squat. Generally speaking, doing the deadlift prior to a heavy loaded squat is not the best idea, but the other way around is usually fine. 

However, if you’re more advanced and/or an older lifter, I highly suggest doing some pre-fatiguing exercises (hamstring curls, jumps/plyo’s, swings, back raises etc.) prior to deadlifting and for it to be your only heavy spine-loaded lift you do on that particular training day. This allows you to prime the major muscles used in the deadlift and will require you to use less weight, but still get the same or even better stimulus. 

To summarize, if you’re a beginner or intermediate lifter, you should do deadlifts as your first lift in the workout while fresh, or after a quad dominant compound movement or upper body movement. But if you’re advanced, do a few other less centrally fatiguing exercises first, and don’t perform spine-loaded squats in the same session (but you can on another day of the week). 


The deadlift is a unique lift, in that it’s arguably more neurologically demanding (and therefore systematically fatiguing) than any other movement. If you’re a beginner, you can certainly deadlift heavy more frequently. But as you get stronger, less frequency is usually a good strategy. The stimulus provided by heavy deadlifts will certainly lead to an increase in strength, but the full body nature of it will also cause a high degree of systemic fatigue. 

Generally speaking, most people should do heavy deadlifts only once per week (if you’re incredibly strong and have great deadlift skill, potentially even less often). That doesn’t mean you cannot do deadlift variations another day (or two) each week, but for your truly heavy near maximal strength building sets, more frequency is not your friend. 

Rep ranges/sets

Many of us are familiar with the fact that certain exercises lend themselves well to certain rep ranges. Usually, isolation exercises are programmed in a higher (8-20) rep range and compound lifts are programmed in a lower to moderate (1-8) rep range. Deadlifts are an example of a lift that should be executed mostly in the low rep range, and occasionally the moderate rep range if you’re advanced. Something to keep in mind is that the more reps you do in a set of deadlifts, the higher your injury risk tends to be. Because deadlift technique is so important on every single repetition, as your rep count gets higher and you get closer to failure, fatigue and loss of focus can cause small changes in your technique. Small changes in technique during a deadlift can be very costly, which makes it one of the most injury inducing exercises in existence. Overall, unless you’re a powerlifter, there's little need to do sets of less than 3 reps (unless you’re very advanced and like to push heavy singles and doubles) and no real reason to go over 6-8 reps. My favorite way to program deadlifts is to do several sets (4-8) with submaximal load (no more than 90% of your 1RM or a 8-9 RPE) for 3-5 reps per set. What this does is allow for technique improvements (more sets) while at the same time keeping you away from too much systemic fatigue in intra-set fatigue, which reduces your risk of injury and over-doing it. The deadlift is also not an exercise you should take to failure. Again, the deadlift is not an ideal movement for hypertrophy unless you’re a beginner, so doing more than 6 reps is, in my experience, more risky than rewarding.

Sample workout (advanced trainee, lower body day)

deadlift as the main lift/focus for the day (non-powerlifter, just a regular gym goer who wants to gain muscle and be strong)

After a good warmup:

  1. Kettlebell swing 3x10
  2. Hamstring Curls 3x10-12
  3. Bulgarian Split Squats 1x8 (glute bias) 1x8 (quad bias)
  4. Deadlift: 3-8 “ramp up” sets (this will depend on strength levels- stronger people need more ramp up sets)- working sets 4x3 (RPE 8 or 83-86%), 1x3+ (RPE 8.5)
  5. Leg Extensions 3x10-12
  6. Seated Calf raises 3x10-12

Yes, that it the whole workout. Remember that deadlifts are fatiguing and that you’re goal is to build muscle and not chase extreme fatigue! 

Sample workout (beginner- full body)

After a good warmup:

  1. Goblet Squat 3x12
  2. Deadlift: 2-4 “ramp up” sets (again, depending on strength) 5x5 with the same weight each set
  3. Bench press 4x6
  4. Chest supported row 3x8
  5. Walking lunge 2x10
  6. Incline DB press 3x8

Assistance/Accessory Exercises

Because the deadlift is a) highly fatiguing and b) an exercise that involves several different muscles, it can be very beneficial to add assistance/accessory exercises into your weekly training program that will assist with deadlift strength. In an ideal world, to get better at deadlifting, you’d just deadlift more often. But for this lift in particular, this strategy may not be the best idea if you want to feel good outside of the gym and also mitigate injury risk. 

Instead of increasing the frequency with which you deadlift, you can implement deadlift accessory exercises that are less fatiguing but will build size and strength in the muscles involved in the deadlift. You can do some of these on the same day as the deadlift workout, and others on a separate day. 

A rule of thumb is to program less fatiguing and less similar exercises to the deadlift itself on deadlift day, and deadlift variations on a separate day (not the day or 2 before or after a deadlift workout). Examples of deadlift accessories on deadlift day include hamstring curls, glute bridges, 45 degree back raises, glute ham raises, glute focused split stance exercises, and perhaps single leg Romanian deadlifts. These exercises are generally not overly systemically fatiguing or redundant, but they do strengthen the muscles involved and will help increase your deadlift strength.

Exercises to perform on a separate day to improve your deadlift strength will depend on what your weaknesses are in regards to the execution of the actual movement. Some people need more work on building the muscles involved in the lift (hypertrophy). These people will benefit from doing glute and hamstring hypertrophy exercises like RDLs, stiff leg deadlifts, and good mornings. 

Other people are muscular and strong enough, but may have some technique deficiencies they need to improve, fix a specific area of their deadlift (off the floor or lockout), or perhaps lack the explosivity required to lift big weight off the floor. These people would benefit more from doing the actual deadlift movement, but with a different focus. 

For example, if your deadlift technique is poor, you’ll want to do the actual movement, but with far less load than you use on your heavy deadlift day. This may look something like 8 sets of 5 with 60-70% 1RM while filming yourself or working with a coach to improve your execution. 

If you struggle with lockout (the last portion of the lift, common with sumo deadlifters), you’ll focus on block pulls with heavier loads or paused deadlifts with lighter loads. Or, maybe you have grip problems, in which case you’ll focus on developing grip strength by doing double overhand deadlifts with less weight. If you struggle off the floor (more common with conventional lifters) you can benefit from strengthening your quads (very active in the beginning of the movement), doing speed deadlifts, pauses 2-3” off the floor, or deficit deadlifts. 

Obviously, there are several options, and if you’re able to identify the reason your deadlift might be lacking, you can tailor your accessories accordingly. 

To Summarize

At the end of the day, the deadlift is one of the most enjoyable exercises for a lot of us, and whether we just want to be a bit stronger and more healthy or really maximize our deadlift strength and push the limits, it’s crucial to make sure we’re approaching deadlift training appropriately. Having a big deadlift is awesome, it can make you feel more confident in yourself and make you look forward to your training sessions. But being injured or constantly in pain is not cool. 

I hope the information provided in this blog post was helpful to you and you’re able to apply it to your training to keep making progress or break through a plateau. Just be patient! It’s not worth hurting yourself over. In reality, no one besides you cares about how much you deadlift. Drop your ego, work on your weaknesses, and have fun.

What are your favorite deadlift workouts? Is it a strong lift for you or do you have some work to do? Leave a comment below and let us know!

Thank you for reading!

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