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Deadlifting – Why Every Woman (and Man) Should Do It

The deadlift is a core exercise for developing mass and thickness throughout the back as well as overall upper body size and strength.  From a bodybuilding perspective, deadlifting is a compound exercise that engages not only the back muscles, but also the shoulders, trapezius muscles (traps), and the legs.  Heavy deadlifting will also build forearm and grip strength.  However, many people – women especially – do not incorporate deadlifting into their training program.  Deadlifting is very taxing on the body and can lead to physical fatigue rather quickly, so many beginning lifters tend to shy away from it and ultimately never incorporate it into their training program.  It can also be quite mentally challenging.  These are the things that make it such a great exercise.

I think that a lot of women fear that deadlifting will cause them to develop a thick midsection and look “blocky.”  It is also perceived by many women to be a dangerous exercise that can lead to back injury.  While it is certainly important to learn proper form to avoid injury, this is the case with all exercises.  And while it does strengthen the lower back and may increase thickness through the back and upper body, it does not widen the waist.  I believe that incorporating deadlifting as part of regular, consistent back training will benefit any woman’s fitness/training program.  Deadlifting, as a matter of fact, is a critical exercise to build core strength and help prevent injuries to all of the upper body muscles.

Deadlifts build back strength

When performing the exercise, your back works to stay straight while the weight of the bar tries to bend it.  The positioning of your back during this movement will make it stronger.

Deadlifts build leg strength

The first part of the exercise – bringing your hips forward for leverage and driving through your legs will strengthen your hamstrings and glutes.  Finishing the lift and straightening your knees will strengthen your quads.

Deadlifts build grip strength

When you perform heavy deadlifts, you need to grip the barbell hard so it does not drop or roll out of your hands. Grip and forearm strength are an important elements of deadlifting; there are not many exercises that will train this area of your arms like deadlifts will. 

The back is a complex structure consisting of many muscles that support the upper body and drive basic functions like walking and running.  For bodybuilding purposes, training is usually focused on the upper, middle, and lower latissimus dorsi (lats, the largest back muscle), trapezius muscles (which make up part of the upper back and traps), and rhomboids (which make up part of the middle back).  A thick, well-shaped back is a fundamental element of any winning physique and requires a variety of exercises to fully develop.  Several varieties of deadlifts can and should be incorporated into anyone’s back training program:

Conventional Deadlift:

Deadlifting consists of bending over from a standing position, picking up a barbell from the floor, and bringing it to resting around your hip level.  Stand behind a barbell that is placed on the floor in front of you.  Place your hands about shoulder width apart, lift the bar by standing up and using your legs and hips for leverage while keeping your chest up to help keep your back from rounding during the lift.  In this exercise, “conventional” refers to your stance/position during the lift, which is with your hands placed on the bar outside of your legs.

Sumo Deadlift:

This variation is used by some people to reduce stress on the lower back.  It is also a very popular stance for powerlifters who use equipment to deadlift heavy weight (briefs, squat suits, wraps).  The difference between the sumo and conventional styles is primarily the foot positioning and grip.  When lifting sumo, place your feet wider with your grip in-between your legs.  Your hands should be more towards the center of the bar. Sumo deadlifts engage the glutes, hamstrings, and hip flexors more than conventional deadlifting.

Straight Leg Deadlift (SLDL):

Also known as stiff-leg deadlifts, this is a great exercise to build hamstring and glutes.  It is performed similar to the conventional deadlift except the legs are kept straight.  When the back stays straight as well, the hamstrings and glutes become the focus of the exercise.  The Romanian deadlift is a very similar variation of the SLDL that further isolates the glutes and hams by keeping the barbell in contact with the legs at all times.

A thick, well-developed back is a fundamental element of any winning physique and requires a variety of exercises to fully develop.  To achieve this, deadlifts should be a fundamental exercise included in a back training program.  While training approaches can be quite variable depending on the goal (strength/size/tone), a thorough back workout that incorporates deadlifts might be structured in the following manner: conventional deadlift (4 sets); wide-grip lat pulldowns (3 sets); low row (3 sets); close-grip lat pulldowns (3 sets); t-bar upper back row (3 sets).  This is just one example – the options are almost limitless when it comes to training your back!

There are so many exercises that can be selected to train the back muscles, and deadlifting is a good compound movement to engage many of them.  For additional benefits, SLDLs can be incorporated into a separate lower body/leg training day.  Rack deadlifts are also another great option.  The rack deadlift is a partial version of the deadlift that focuses on the upper portion of the lift.  For this exercise, you deadlift from a rack with pins set so that the bar is located at, just above, or just below your knees.  This is an excellent option for beginners to learn the basics of the exercise without using a full range of motion and can also be performed more easily by people who have experienced back injuries and may be reluctant to pull the weight from the floor.  It is also a popular exercise with powerlifters to train the upper portion of the deadlift with heavier weight than they may be able to lift from the floor.

Dumbbells (DBs) can be used as an alternative to the barbell deadlifts to mix up your training routine.  Dumbbell presses allow for a full range of motion and engage the core for stability and balance.  However, it can be more difficult to maintain proper form when using DBs instead of a barbell.  This is especially true when deadlifting.  DBs can often end up too far in front of you or too close to you when deadlifting, which can compromise the position and angle of your back.  While it can be productive to mix up your training routine and dumbbell deadlifts are a good option, keep in mind that the weight used for dumbbell deadlifts will likely be less than barbell deadlifts.  Be sure not to compromise your form.

Your grip selection for deadlifting can affect how comfortably you lift the weight and how much weight you can lift.  It can also help to prevent injury if you are lifting heavy weight.  The most common grips are overhand and over/underhand.  In the overhand grip, both palms of the hands face the floor, and your thumbs are placed underneath the bar.  It can be difficult to hold on to heavy weight with an overhand grip, though, so an over/under grip is used more often when deadlifting heavy.  With an over/under grip, one hand is supinated (palm facing the ceiling, in an underhand grip), and the other hand is pronated (palm towards the floor).  This can help prevent the bar from slipping.

It is unfortunate that deadlifts have a reputation for being a dangerous exercise that can cause injuries because it is such a good compound movement for building strength and ultimately preventing injury.  However, understanding the mechanics of the lift and maintaining proper form is critical, or injuries can occur.  One of the most common mistakes is rounding your back during the lift.  This can increase your risk of spinal disc injuries and hernias.  The most common mistakes that lead to injury when performing deadlifts include:

Rounding/Bending Your Back

This can increase pressure on your spine and contribute to back strain/injury.  To keep your back straight, it helps to lead the lift with your head and chest (looking upwards while you lift).

Rolling Your Shoulders

There should be no shrugging during a deadlift; it is improper form and can lead to shoulder/trap injuries.  Focus on moving the weight with your hips, legs, and back.
Over-extending Your Back at the Top of the Lift.  This can be as bad as rounding your back during the lift.  Once you are upright with the weight and your hips and knees are locked, there is no need to arch yourself backwards at the top and hyper-extend your back.

Training deadlifts primarily for strength and power requires a somewhat different approach than training for overall muscularity and thickness.  The deadlift is one of the three exercises performed in powerlifting competitions (along with squat and bench press).  While bodybuilding and general chest training focuses on overall muscle development through isolation exercises, powerlifting focuses more on technique, and exercises are more specific to achieving higher numbers, whether performing the lifts raw (no supportive briefs or suits) or with equipment.  Deadlifts are a major component of strength training for powerlifters and are performed with several variations at least once, if not twice per week.

Regardless of your goals, deadlifting should be a very important component of your training program.  Women especially should not shy away from deadlifting.  The benefits of deadlifting and back training in general can be seen throughout all of the upper body, both aesthetically and in terms of overall thickness, strength, and conditioning.  For bodybuilders especially, the importance of back thickness, width, development, and overall shape cannot be understated.  Deadlifting is a critical exercise that is well worth investing the time and effort to learn proper form and technique – the work you put into your deadlift will pay of in your numbers and your physique! 

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