Dumbbell deadlifts can be underrated, especially in a CrossFit gym where there are barbells and plates lying around. But a barbell deadlift isn’t always best, even if you’re able to lift heavier weight that way. A dumbbell deadlift set can provide a little variety to your daily workout routine and add some challenge for your balance and core. In fact, deadlifts are now standing up next to bench presses as a test of strength for elite athletes, making them one of the most popular exercises for athletic training and standard workouts alike.
Deadlifts Work Almost Everything
Enough said. Dumbbell deadlifts (well, really any form of deadlift) are really full-body movements. They work many of your major muscle groups. You probably think about booty gains and a fired lower back when it come to deadlifts, but they also work your quads, hamstrings, hip adductors, traps and forearm flexors.
And, surprise! Deadlifts do pay off in your core strength – in the erector spinae muscles at the back just lateral to the spine. They aren’t part of the six-pack, mind you, but they do help your stabilizer muscles significantly.
Deadlifts Keep You Strong For the Long Haul
Gaining strength is great, but that’s not all you’ll get with a dumbbell deadlift. Researchers at Harvard University found a dumbbell deadlift can help improve mobility and balance. That’s because deadlifts are known as a “lengthening exercise,” which means they help keep you flexible and to even complete functional movements that sometimes get more difficult as you age, like walking or even bending over. That might not seem like a big deal now, but it might later on!
Unsurprisingly, a dumbbell deadlift improve your grip strength. For athletes, obviously, grip strength is important for completing strength movements safely and effectively. For every day folks, it helps open stubborn jars. But as you get older, it can help prevent falls and be able to perform functional moves (again, the jars). According to researchers at Campbell University, having a strong grip strength can additionally contribute to good bone density and arm strength, even as you age.
A Step by Step Guide to Correct Technique for Dumbbell Deadlifts
A dumbbell deadlift obviously packs a punch in strength building, but they really need to be done with proper form to get the full benefits and to avoid getting hurt. And that starts with picking the weight you’ll use. You might be anxious to be hitting some heavy sets, but you could risk injury to your posterior chain if the lift causes you to lose your good form. You might want to start with a few light sets (think 10-lb to 15-lb dumbbells) to make sure your technique is on point before moving to heavy weights. And if something starts hurting, STOP.
To do a dumbbell deadlift:
– Hold a dumbbell in each hand with an overhead grip. The dumbbell heads (or ends) should be parallel to the floor, palms facing in. You can also do dumbbell deadlifts with the dumbbells directly in front of you, the heads still parallel to the floor.
– The starting position is standing with your feet shoulder width apart.
– Engage your core strength, drive your heels into the core as your hips hinge forward. Knees should be bent to prevent hunching. Lower your torso until it’s almost parallel with the floor. Keep the weight close to your body.
– SUPER IMPORTANT: Don’t let your back round. Keep it in a neutral position.
– One head of dumbbell should graze the floor (if they’re at your sides instead of in front of you) in the bottom position before you push back up.
– Stand back up straight. Squeeze your glutes at the top. That’s one rep.
Technique Tips for the Traditional Deadlift
– Make sure it’s a DEADLIFT and not a SQUAT. You should not be bending your knees deeply or dropping your butt to the floor.
– Neutral spine the entire time. Rounding your back can cause lower back injuries in a hurry. If you notice your back rounding through the movement, drop weight or do fewer reps with substantial rest periods in between.
– Arms straight the whole time. Bending at the elbows can cause bicep tears.
– Keep the dumbbells close to your body the whole time.
Dumbbell Deadlift Variations
After properly warming up with a few reps at a lighter weight, start with 3-5 sets of 5. These can be done with more weight (safety first!) over sets or with the same weight across and are an excellent addition to your fitness journey.
There are also several dumbbell deadlift variations that can be added into your strength training workout for variety and for some different benefits.
Dumbbell Sumo Deadlift
The wider stance with a dumbbell sumo deadlift can help you lift heavier if you’re after the strength gains.
– Stand with your legs shoulder width apart, with your feet turned out (30 to 45 degrees).
– Hold your dumbbells directly in front of you, parallel to the ground.
– Keeping your chest up, bend at the hips to bring the dumbbells down (remember not to bend your knees like a squat). Bend forward to comfort.
– Thrust your hips forward and squeeze your glutes as you raise the dumbbells and straighten.
– Do 3-5 sets of 5.
Use a staggered deadlift to test your balance and isolate one side at a time. This is also known as a Romanian Deadlift (RDL).
– Your starting position is a staggered stance for a Romanian Deadlift, with one foot back behind the other. On your back leg, your toes should be touching the ground, heel in the air. You will put the majority of your weight on your front leg.
– Hinge your hips forward as you bring the dumbbells and your upper body slowly down to parallel. Reverse to standing.
– Perform 5 reps on one side. Switch sides.
Dumbbell Stiff Leg Deadlift
This deadlift targets your posterior chain, including your glutes, calves, lats and hamstrings. This is another common barbell deadlift variation.
- Begin in a standing position.
- Keep the dumbbells in front of you, the heads parallel to the floor.
- With your knees slightly bent, bend at your hips and lower the dumbbells down. Lower until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings and glutes.
- Slowly straighten back up. Squeeze your glutes at the top. With a stiff leg deadlift, it’s especially important to keep the reps slow and controlled.
Single Leg Deadlift
When you’re ready to take your balance to the next level and work the same muscles, a dumbbell deadlift isolating a single foot can really fire up your muscle groups.
- Begin in a standing position. Your foot position can be with your feet side-by-side, or slightly staggered.
- Holding two dumbbells (a kettlebell is great here too), hinge forward, lifting one stiff leg straight behind you. Keep the knees slightly bent in the standing leg.
- Lift your back leg up to parallel with the floor, keeping the weights close to your standing leg. Slowly lower your back leg back to the ground. Switch sides.
When It All Comes Down to It…
It’s clear that the dumbbell deadlift has earned it’s place alongside the barbell deadlift in the gym for testing your range of motion, gaining some bodily coordination (especially in that single leg deadlift – WOOT!) and just swapping up your regular routine with some other exercises that work the same muscles.
Add these into your workout and enjoy the variety!
Kendra Whittle is a writer, novice CrossFitter, marathon runner and triathlete. She lives in St. Louis with her husband, three kids and two dogs.