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November 15, 2022 12 min read

Many people believe that bigger weights mean bigger muscles or better results. However, deadlifting using smaller weights like dumbbells is very effective if you use proper form and get the technique just right.

As with any exercise using weights, an improper form could cause injury or back pain. In this article, we’ll help you master the perfect form for doing perfect dumbbell deadlifts.

Similar to the  bench press  and  the squat,  the dumbbell deadlift is a classic exercise for strength training and is included in most well-programmed fitness routines. And for good reason: The move hits many muscle groups, and along with benefitting other gym moves, it will change your daily life for the better.

The dumbbell deadlift is a popular exercise practiced by many people to improve posterior chain strengthening and is especially common among certified personal trainers and athletes.

It consists of one simple apparatus—a pair of dumbbells, and if you have those, all you need is an area with a radius of about 4 feet around you, and you’ll be good to go.

Dumbbells – Image from Shutterstock

The dumbbell deadlift is assumed to have originated in the gym, owing to the fact that it bears significant similarities with the  barbell deadlift. 

Deadlifts can be performed with almost any object. From a medicine ball to a kettlebell, the deadlift can be carried out effortlessly with any suitable tool.

So, what is the objective of dumbbell deadlifts?

It is to use the hip-hinge movement to lift a pair of dumbbells while maintaining a neutral spine throughout the range of motion. If you can do that, it will strengthen your hip extensors—hamstrings and glutes, midsection, back, shoulders, quads, arms, and your grip. Regular dumbbell exercises improve hypertrophy and strength in all the muscles listed below.

WHAT MUSCLES DO DUMBBELL DEADLIFTS WORK?

Dumbbell deadlifts improve whole-body stability through intramuscular coordination and build strength. It is an exercise suitable for all, from fitness enthusiasts to powerlifters. Like conventional deadlifts done with barbells, the dumbbell version features a great overloading potential and a good range of motion, making the exercise excellent for developing the posterior chain, which comprises the glutes, hamstrings, and back.

All deadlift varieties will target the posterior chain muscles, which are not only the back muscles but just about everything from the back of your neck and upper back to the back of your heels. That is what makes it such a beneficial exercise as it is a full-body exercise that works the upper body, lower body, and more. Here are some of the main muscle groups activated during dumbbell deadlifts.

Glutes, quads, and hamstrings – Image from Shutterstock

Glutes

The deadlift targets the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus, mostly during the lockout portion. This is where the glutes work to bring your hips into the standing position. Strong glutes benefit athletes because they help in jumping, sprinting, throwing, walking, and more. They also work with your core to protect your spine.

Hamstrings

As you complete each rep of the dumbbell deadlift, your hamstrings facilitate hip extension to move you into the standing position. Dumbbell deadlifts are excellent for strengthening these thick muscles on the back of your upper legs, essential for when you sprint, walk, and jump. In fact, they work every time you bend over or flex your hips. Along with the glutes, your hamstrings further work together to protect your back.

Quadriceps

Although your quads are not primary targets in deadlifts, they are activated because they work opposite your hamstrings. Strong quads are important because your knee extensions activate them when you push your feet and legs down to come back to the upright standing position.

Back Muscles – Image from Shutterstock

Lower back

For perfect form during dumbbell deadlifts, your back must be flat and never arched. This is where strong erector spinae come in. This muscle group keeps your back flat to improve your posture and prevent back injuries.

Lats

The latissimus dorsi are large upper back muscles that help you to maintain a neutral back throughout the dumbbell deadlifts and help you hold the dumbbells close to your body. They function isometrically to allow the rest of the muscles the ability to work more. The deadlift isn’t the most efficient way to make them grow, but it does improve their muscular strength.

Traps

Like the lats keep your back neutral, the trapezius muscles function similarly to keep your shoulders in a neutral position during the dumbbell deadlift performance. The deadlift strengthens your traps as part of full-body hypertrophy.

Forearm and Hand Muscles

Arm and hand muscles - image from Shutterstock

Holding something heavy is the best way to improve your grip strength. To enhance grip strength even more, dumbbell deadlifts require you to hold a weight in each hand and work them independently. While all your forearm and hand muscles are taxed, your grip is sure to become stronger with the regular lifting of dumbbells.

Abdominal and Oblique Muscles

Abdominals - image from Shutterstock

To ensure your lower back doesn’t overextend when you do dumbbell deadlifts, your inner and outer obliques and your abdominal muscles work opposite the spinae erector. In unison, these two muscle groups also keep your back flat and your spine stabilized throughout the deadlifting exercises.

How to Do the Dumbbell Deadlift

Just like the conventional barbell deadlift, proper form is crucial for effective results and helping to avoid injury. Follow this step-by-step guide to start dumbbell deadlifting like a pro.

Starting Position

Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, legs straight but not locked at your knees. Position a pair of dumbbells parallel to your feet, with each dumbbell to the side of your midfoot. That placement is crucial for maintaining your center of gravity once you lift the dumbbells. It is unlike the barbell deadlift where you have the barbell in front of your feet, with the bar at your shins.

Here's how to do it

  1. Bend forward, hinge at your hips, and push your butt out behind you. Focus on keeping a straight back to ensure you don’t arch it.

  2. Grab the dumbbells while keeping your arms straight.

  3. Push your chest out and don’t lift your head to look up. Let your gaze move naturally with your spine movement, gazing straight ahead when you are standing upright.

  4. Inhale as you initiate the deadlift by pressing through your heels and engaging your upper body and legs.

  5. Extend your knees and hips simultaneously as the dumbbells pass your knees, and continue up to a standing position with the dumbbells by your sides.

  6. Maintain your neutral back throughout the lift, taking care not to hyperextend your lower back at the top of the repetition.

  7. That is one rep.

  8. Before descending into the next repetition, squeeze your thighs and glutes, and hold the upright position for two or three seconds.

  9. Exhale as you hinge at your hips, push your butt back, and slowly lower the dumbbells while maintaining a straight back and a neutral spine throughout. Beginners might find it too difficult to lower the dumbbells all the way to the floor, so depending on what’s comfortable, lower the weights as far as possible before bracing the core and returning to the upright position.

  10. Inhale, brace your core, push your chest out again and lift the dumbbell repeating the full range of motion.

FORM TIPS AND COMMON MISTAKES TO AVOID

Form is everything when it comes to the dumbbell deadlift or deadlift variation, and getting the small things right can ensure you get the maximum benefits from your dumbbell deadlift workout. Form errors are typically caused by too-heavy dumbbells, so ensure you use weights that you can handle comfortably.

  1. Keeping your back straight throughout

To protect your spine and avoid back problems, keep your back straight throughout. Take a deep abdominal breath and pull your belly button in toward your spine, engaging your core as if you’re preparing to receive a punch to the gut, and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Engage your lats, which are the large back muscles that stretch from underneath your shoulders all the way down into your lower back. All this will protect your spine.

  1. Don’t look up

There is an outdated tip advising you to look up at the ceiling. If you focus on the ceiling, the position of your head and neck will make it harder to keep your back flat. 

  1. Hinge Properly

A common mistake is bending over at the spine, which is a sure way to cause back problems. It is absolutely vital to hinge your hips instead of your back. Imagine peeking over the edge of a very high cliff, pushing your butt back to keep you from falling over the cliff. Strengthening the muscles in your back and core, and mastering the hip hinge will help keep your spine locked in a neutral position.

  1. Keep the Weights Close

When you do dumbbell deadlifts, it is essential to keep the weights close to your body. If you’re not in control and let the weights drift away from your sides, the exercise will become more difficult with increased injury risks.

  1. Center of gravity

Performing the dumbbell lift with proper form will ensure your movements don’t challenge your center of gravity. If you have to compensate for your body wanting to fall forward or lean backward, you’re probably holding the dumbbells in the wrong position.

You might find you need to put the weight on your toes and lift your heels to maintain your balance as you lower the weights. When that happens, you are putting too much of the load on the front of your body, which is a sure way to develop low-back pain, and you’re not maintaining the center of gravity through your ankles, legs, and through your core to your shoulders.

Dumbbell Deadlift Benefits

There is an almost endless list of benefits offered by dumbbell deadlifts. Here are the most significant ones.

Beginner-Friendly

Novice weight lifters often find the barbell intimidating. However, dumbbells offer similar benefits while being more accessible and less scary for beginners. Furthermore, dumbbells are exceptional for teaching you about bodily coordination, and proprioception, which is the sense of self-movement, force, and body position. These are crucial qualities for all, from bodybuilders to fitness enthusiasts. Dumbbells also allow beginners to start with light weights and build up to heavier weights as they progress.

Increasing Muscle Mass

The traditional deadlift using a barbell is great for building overall strength and power, but the dumbbell deadlift is a compound exercise, especially suited for hypertrophy, or muscle growth. Hypertrophy results from periods of high stress and mechanical tension; however, only if you refuel and allow the muscles to recover sufficiently. This allows increased muscle mass in the muscles activated by the deadlift: quads, hamstrings, glutes, core, lats, traps, and lower back.

Performing deadlifts with dumbbells further allows you a greater range of motion because you can target more with more intense tension. That makes up for the fact that you can’t lift weights as heavy as with barbell deadlifts because you can keep your muscles engaged while busting out more reps with dumbbell deadlifts.

Boosting Grip Strength

Grip strength affects everything you do in the gym and most things you do in your daily life, and the dumbbell deadlift can help improve the strength of your grip. Dumbbell deadlifts put more stress on your grip than barbell deadlifts would.

Since you would likely perform significantly more reps with dumbbells, your forearm and hand muscles that work your grip will be more stressed and therefore receive stronger stimuli to improve the strength of your grip.

Fixing Imbalanced Muscles

Balanced strength on your left and right side is vital, especially if you lift weights and do clean & jerk movements. If you have problems with muscle imbalances, adding dumbbell deadlifts to your workout routine would be a great way to deal with the issue. Unlike barbell deadlifts, which won’t allow your body’s stronger side to pick up the slack for your weaker side.

Extending Range of Motion

Whenever you lift weights, a sufficient range of motion is equally important as proper technique and form for effective results. The fact that dumbbells don’t limit the weight plate size allows for a significantly greater range of motion for deadlifts, which leads to more potential for muscle growth.

Calorie Burning

Dumbbell deadlifts are great exercises for strength building and adding muscle mass. Added benefits include a significant number of calories deadlifts burn, and the positive effect this has on your health as it helps you get rid of body fat and become leaner and healthier.

Research indicates  that deadlifts burn more calories than most other exercises, while also increasing your metabolic rate. Furthermore, along with calories to provide energy, deadlifts require loads of oxygen and serve as a cardio workout that also improves muscular endurance.

Improved Hormone Profiles

The deadlift is a full-body movement that stimulates the sympathetic nervous system. At rest, our nervous system maintains a parasympathetic tone which affects the respiratory rate, cardiac output, and various metabolic processes. During exercise,the sympathetic nervous system induces an integrated response from your body.

This results in increased hormone levels such as growth hormone and testosterone. These hormones bring about better health, strength, and muscle mass. Higher testosterone levels help with muscle recovery and growth following your workouts, and growth hormones are also responsible for slowing down the aging process.

Benefit day-to-day Activities

The movements you do when you perform dumbbell deadlifts are the same movements you employ throughout your daily activities. Thus, it makes sense that the deadlift is regarded as the ultimate functional exercise that will benefit your day-to-day life. On the other hand, lifts like bench presses involve movements that we hardly ever need to perform outside the gym.

The muscles you activate and train during deadlifts are those that we use to move things around the house, carry groceries, pick up a child, and do more everyday movements that are all easier with the improved muscle coordination and power gained from doing dumbbell deadlifts.

To make progress in your quest to achieve the optimal body, head-to-toe sturdiness and stability are crucial. Fortunately, this is precisely where the dumbbell deadlift helps you to excel. Dumbbell training increases core activation and involvement of stabilizer muscles.

Improved Posture

The dumbbell deadlift is not a one-track pony. It is an exercise well-known for building strong legs and a strong back as well, a significant help for people with back problems or posture issues because the muscles the deadlift trains are the ones that increase core strength and stability. Thereby improving overall posture and strengthening back muscles.

It also works the muscles that prevent rounded shoulders by keeping your shoulder blades back.

Here’s how your muscles do that. When you perform dumbbell deadlifts properly, they will target your trapezius muscles, which are the muscles that extend from your neck down through your mid-back. Together, the traps are shaped like a kite, acting like a sturdy coat hanger that keeps your spine balanced, lined up, and stable. It helps you keep your back straight throughout the day, reducing the chances of back pain from regular walking.

Another large muscle pair the deadlift targets is the erector spinae. They run along your spine and are responsible for the lumbar spine alignment. All these muscles are trained when you do dumbbell deadlifts, providing the strength you need to prevent slouching and accompanying back pain.

Preventing Injury

The muscles that are strengthened can go a long way in preventing injuries. The hamstrings are the weakest muscles in your body, and deadlifts strengthen them and your lower back muscles, reducing the risk of pulled or torn hamstrings. Similarly, deadlifts strengthen the muscles around joints, ligaments, and tendons, and with stronger support of joints, injury risks are further lowered.

Variations and Modifications of the Dumbbell Deadlift

There are several variations of the dumbbell deadlift, some of which are listed below.

1. Romanian Deadlift

Romanian deadlifts are one of the best-known and most popular dumbbell deadlift variations to keep workouts interesting. What makes the Romanian deadlift different is that it is performed from the top down.

Unlike the basic dumbbell deadlift where each rep starts by lifting the dumbbells from the floor and bringing them down to complete each rep, the Romanian deadlift starts in a standing position, lowering the dumbbells to the floor and lifting them back to the standing position to complete one repetition.

Also different is the knees that must be kept slightly bent throughout the range of motion. The Romanian deadlift focuses mostly on working the hamstrings effectively.

2. Stiff-Leg Dumbbell Deadlift

Similar to Romanian deadlifts, the knees are also slightly bent throughout this version of the dumbbell deadlift. But this time you start as you do with the basic dumbbell version, by deadlifting the dumbbells off the floor.

However, instead of hinging your hips, and flexing your knees as you descend, this version requires you to keep your hips elevated, bending your torso horizontally when lowering and lifting the dumbbells.

3. Sumo Deadlift

This modification of the dumbbell deadlift starts with a wider stance with your legs quite a bit wider than shoulder-width apart, and your feet placed so that your toes are pointed diagonally toward the sides. Your arm position is also different.

They should hang down in front of your body, holding the dumbbells between your legs. This deadlift version targets the hips even more, and many tall people find it more comfortable than performing deadlifts with their feet closer together.

4. Single-Leg Deadlift

If you want to spend time working on your balance, then this deadlift variety is for you. With the single-leg deadlift, you keep all of your weight on one leg, as you balance on it with your other leg raised and stretched out straight behind as you lower the dumbbells. Remember to switch sides after you’ve completed the desired number of reps.

FINAL NOTE

If you have a pre-existing or previous health condition, it’s best to consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. Proper technique is essential when performing exercise routines, to ensure the safety and effectiveness of your exercise program. Your physician can work with your personal trainer to modify any exercises that will make it safe for you to still achieve optimal results based on your unique needs.

Avoid selecting a weight that doesn’t allow you to have full control of your body throughout the movement. Always pay close attention to your body while performing exercises, and stop immediately if you notice discomfort or pain.

You are also advised never to disregard the importance of warming up before workouts and doing post-workout stretches afterward. Make those part of your workout routine never to be skipped. Add proper rest and nutrition, and you may see continual progress and build body strength. incorporate proper warm-ups, rest, and nutrition into your exercise program.

Your results will ultimately be based on adequately recovering from your workouts. Rest for 24 to 48 hours before training the same muscle groups to allow sufficient recovery. 

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