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May 09, 2021 9 min read

Looking to up your leg day game? You might be killing your squats and leg presses, but if you’re not incorporating deadlifts into your routine, you’re missing out on a lot of gains. 

You may have heard of "The Big Three”  in weightlifting, which refers to the three main lifts: bench press, squat, and deadlift. The deadlift is a classic movement loved by powerlifters and bodybuilders alike for its ability to build vital muscles. Deadlifts are a highly efficient compound movement that may seem intimidating to some, but when done right can yield amazing results. 

While it may be no news to you that deadlifts are amazing, it is likely you have battled the age-old question of how many repetitions and sets you should be doing in the gym. The good news is these numbers may prove much easier to determine than previously thought.

bodybuilder doing deadlifts in a gym

What Muscles Do Deadlifts Work?

Deadlifts are a compound movement, meaning they require work from multiple muscle groups throughout the lift. They have long been incorporated into leg days for building some serious lower body muscle mass, but did you know deadlifts are also an amazing back strengthening exercise? 

In total, deadlifts should engage your hamstrings, glutes, lats, traps, rear delts, which includes pretty much your entire posterior chain, as well as forearms and even core.

Benefits of Deadlifts 

Deadlifts will not only help you get jacked, but they will also benefit you in numerous other ways, such as: 

  • Improving Posture: When done correctly, deadlifts will engage your upper and lower back muscles. Over time, building mass and stability in these muscles will improve your posture and, in turn, help eliminate certain types of back pain. 
  • Increase Stability: Those with a stacked back supported by a strong core are able to maintain stability much easier than those without. This can help improve other lifts or athletic pursuits. 
  • Improve vertical jumps: The strengthening of the posterior chain that happens when training deadlifts may improve vertical jumps, a movement largely popularized by Crossfit training. 
  • Increase Grip Strength: Because deadlifts require a strong grip on the bar, your grip strength should improve as weight is added. This will inevitably aid you in other movements, as well as in day-to-day life. 
  • Release anabolic hormones and help boost testosterone: Deadlifting, and really any other weightlifting movement, promotes the release of anabolic hormones. Testosterone is the main anabolic hormone released by our bodies, which helps regulate sex drive, body fat, strength, and other vital bodily functions. 
  • Decrease likelihood of injury: Our backs are very prone to injury, especially as we age. We can also develop back issues due to too much screentime, being overweight, or having poor core and back strength. Strengthening these muscles will help prevent injury both in the gym and outside of the gym, improving your overall quality of life.

How to Do a Deadlift Properly

Deadlifts are truly a complex movement, so don’t feel bad if you feel your form is less than ideal. However, you should strive for perfection when doing deadlifts, as bad form can cause some serious damage. This is especially true since deadlifts engage your back, which can be a sensitive part of our bodies. 

It is best to start with conventional barbell deadlifts at a lightweight if you’re new to the movement. While deadlifts are great for moving a lot of weight, you will get nothing from a heavy lift without the correct form. Here are the steps to successfully completing a conventional deadlift with a barbell: 

  1. Foot Placement: Place your feet shoulder-width apart with half of your foot underneath the barbell, you should see your toes on the other side of the bar. 
  2. Gripping the Barbell: Gripping the barbell correctly really depends on where your arms tend to naturally fall. A general rule is one thumb length away from your shins. If you cannot feel your lats properly engaged during the movement, your grip may be too narrow. If you feel like you’re working too hard to pull the weight, your grip may be too wide. As for the type of grip, you can use an overhand grip, in which both palms are facing your body. Once you have gotten used to the movement, a mixed grip may be more comfortable. This involves one hand in an overhand position and the other in an underhand position. 
  3. Preparing for the Movement: Before you start the movement, straighten your back and avoid rounded shoulders. It usually helps to feel as if you are squeezing your shoulder blades together, but not so much that it results in pain. Hinge at the hips, keeping your hips lower than your shoulders. This is vital in preventing back injury. Next, make sure your arms are tightly engaged, not just loosely hanging. 
  4. Start the movement: Right before you lift, engage your core. This will help support your back throughout the movement. Now, pull the weight from the floor, feeling engagement in your hamstrings and glutes. Keep the barbell as close to your body as possible, dragging the weight up your shins. Note that this may cause bruising or scraping if not done carefully, but you can always wear long socks, athletic leggings, or even shin guards. 
  5. Lockout: As you lift the weight, be sure to help yourself by engaging your lats, traps, and rear delts. At the top of the lift squeeze your glutes and push out your chest, maintaining a good upright posture. Avoid overextending, or thrusting your pelvis out too much, as this can easily result in injury. 
  6. Finish the movement: Slowly place the weight back down, maintaining good posture throughout the extension back down to the floor.
Muscular man preparing to deadlift a barbell in modern fitness center

Deadlifts: Reps and Sets

While achieving proper form is the first step in maximizing your gains from deadlifts, the next thing you should aim to tackle is your intensity goal. Intensity refers to the reps, sets, weight, and rest period of a movement, all of which have a large impact on your results. 

The topic of how many repetitions and sets yield maximum benefits has long been a hot debate. All the conflicting opinions and data make it no easy task to figure what you should be doing in the gym. However, determining these numbers really just depends on what you wish to achieve, a rule that can be applied to most any movement not just deadlifts. 

Endurance Goal

If you want to achieve long-lasting muscle endurance in the gym, then you’ll want to do a large number of repetitions. If you think about it, training like this for endurance makes a lot of sense. Essentially, you are teaching your muscles to handle stress over long periods of time. 

This type of training can be especially helpful if you are a long-distance runner, a cyclist, or a triathlete. Most endurance athletes train exclusively with cardio, missing out on a lot of the benefits weightlifting has to offer. 

Typically, training for endurance requires anywhere between 12 to 20 or more reps with 30 seconds or less of rest between sets. The number of sets should be around 3 to 6, utilizing a pattern of more sets with fewer reps and fewer sets for more reps. Reps at this high of a number will require a lighter weight since even 20 pounds can quickly start to feel like 100 by your last dozen reps. 

Those who target endurance are likely to be smaller in appearance since the amount of weight you can typically handle when doing high reps is not enough of a shock to trigger major muscle growth.

This is not to say your muscles won’t be defined or capable when working for endurance, but the volume of these muscles may appear smaller in comparison to someone who trains exclusively for hypertrophy. 

Hypertrophy Goal

If you’re looking to get absolutely jacked, then you’ll need fewer reps than those looking to achieve endurance. Increasing muscle size lies in a rep range of about 6 to 12 reps over 3 to 6 sets with a rest period of about one minute. This is typically the favored choice for those interested in bodybuilding. A moderate rep and set range also helps to prevent injury. 

The weight amount for hypertrophy will likely be more than an endurance weight, but less than a powerlifting weight. You should be hitting close to failure by the end of your 6 to 12 rep sets of deadlifts. This is because muscle growth is maximized by fatigue. 

You may be wondering, then, wouldn’t endurance also promote hypertrophy? The answer is yes, but not nearly as much since the rest period is much smaller. This is because the weight you can handle at a higher rep amount is not enough to tear down your fast-twitch, or Type II, muscle fibers, which are the fibers mostly responsible for big growth. 

Power Goal

If you’re more concerned with power and performance over appearance or endurance, then you’re looking at 3 to 6 reps per set at heavier weights. This is the amount most powerlifters strive for when strength training. Because you’re only stressing your muscles for a short amount of time, hypertrophy is not the main result of doing low reps.

However, this is not to say you won’t achieve some hypertrophy when training purely for powerlifting, or even for endurance. Sometimes, even just one rep is great for building power, but this is typically reserved for the absolute heaviest weight you can move. Performing just one rep at your maximum weight is referred to as your one-rep max. 

Other Tips

Beginners: If you’re new to deadlifting, it may be better for you to do a higher amount of reps at a lower weight in order to practice form and avoid injury. This may even mean training at a weight lower than your body weight. 

Trial and Error: Perhaps most important when determining rep and set goals are simply observance. It may mean some trial and error, but if what you are doing is not working long-term, you may need to switch up the numbers in your plan. 

Weightlifting Belts: If you have ever stepped foot in a gym, you have likely seen a lot of people wearing weightlifting belts. For deadlifts, these should really be avoided until you're moving some seriously heavy weight. Belts are great for helping to stabilize your core and back when doing heavy deadlifts, but you want to create as much stabilization on your own as possible before relying on gear such as a belt. 

Mixing: Sometimes achieving your results means mixing different training methods. This is because, over time, your body will adapt to what you put it through in the gym. Switching things up and swaying from your program numbers slightly may provide that much-needed boost. This is especially true if you feel you are plateauing in your progress. 

Attractive blonde woman doing trap bar deadlift exercise with help of her personal trainer

Deadlift Variations 

Deadlifts are an incredible movement, not just because they are a compound lift that can help build muscle, but also because they are easily varied. Sure, you can vary the rep and set amounts you do, but you can also vary the deadlift movement altogether. Incorporating this type of variety in your training may make all the difference in achieving your personal goals. 

Sumo Deadlift 

You’ve likely heard of a sumo deadlift as they are perhaps one of the most popular deadlift variations. Sumo deadlifts are very similar to the conventional deadlift, except you take a much wider stance. This takes a lot of the work away from your lower back muscles. 

Dumbbell Deadlift 

This is a great variation when confined to smaller spaces, like when doing at-home training sessions. These utilize the same form as the conventional deadlift but replaces the barbell with one dumbbell in each hand. You can also use just one dumbbell in both hands for this movement, or even substitute a kettlebell.

Romanian Deadlift 

The Romanian deadlift, also known as “RDL”, is a lot like the conventional deadlift, except you do not set the barbell back down at the end of each rep. Instead, you end the rep about halfway down your shin, or wherever you feel that your glutes and hamstrings are most engaged, and then begin the next rep. 

Snatch Grip Deadlift 

A snatch grip deadlift is the same as a conventional deadlift but changes the position of your hands. Instead of placing your hand just outside of your legs on either side, you’ll take a much wider grip on the bar. This will really help engage your back muscles. 

Rack Pull

Rack pulls are very similar to regular deadlifts. The only difference is you are using a weight rack rather than pulling the weight straight from the floor. You can set the pins to whatever height you want to fit your personal available range of motion. This is a great option for anyone who suffers from rounded shoulders at the beginning of the lift. 

Trap Bar Deadlift 

Trap bar deadlifts are simply deadlifts done with the trap bar. This can be a good option if the gym is busy and no barbells are available, or if you want a deadlift that is more lower-body focused than the conventional version. 

Last Take on Sets and Reps for Deadlifts

Deadlifts are truly a gamechanger and should be a part of every workout program. With the numerous variations to choose from, there is a deadlift for nearly any goal. When done correctly, this movement alone has a huge amount of benefits, including strengthening your entire posterior chain, saving you time and unnecessary stress in the gym. 

When it comes to determining the repetitions and sets of deadlifts you should be doing, we admit this can be challenging. The truth is, there are no magic numbers as we are all very different from one another. However, taking a few moments to determine your personal goals may be all it takes to solve this troubling mystery.

Even if you’re pretty confident in your numbers, it will ultimately take some trial in the field. So, when it comes to the reps and sets of your deadlifts, get in the gym and figure out what works best for achieving your personal goals.