Deadlifts are a core exercise in any athletic training programme, with wide-ranging benefits including enhancing lower body strength, power and offering a learning platform for learning more complex weightlifting movements like the barbell deadlift.
However, they can be challenging to learn and if not performed correctly can cause injury. Dumbbell deadlifts potentially offer an easier route into learning how to deadlift, they also offer some additional benefits to your regular barbell deadlifts.
Here we cover how to perform dumbbell deadlifts, variations of dumbbell deadlifts, key benefits, and examples of when and where athletes should consider them as the right exercise.
Let’s dive into the steps to ensure you execute this movement safely and effectively.
How to do Dumbbell Deadlifts
- Setup: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointing straight ahead or slightly turned outward. Place a pair of dumbbells on the floor, parallel to your feet, with the handles aligned with the middle of your feet.
- Grip the dumbbells: Hinge at your hips by pushing your hips back and bending your knees slightly. Maintain a neutral spine by engaging your core and keeping your chest up. Reach down and grab the dumbbells with an overhand grip, keeping your arms straight and your shoulders directly over the dumbbells.
- Prepare for the lift: Before initiating the lift, make sure your shoulder blades are retracted and your lats are engaged. b. Take a deep breath and brace your core to create tension throughout your body.
- Upward phase: Drive through your heels and extend your hips and knees simultaneously to lift the dumbbells off the floor. Keep the dumbbells close to your body and maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement. As you reach the standing position, fully extend your hips and knees, and stand tall with your chest up.
- Lower the dumbbells: Begin the descent by hinging at the hips and pushing them back, while maintaining a neutral spine. As your hips move back, bend your knees slightly and lower the dumbbells to the floor, keeping them close to your body. Return the dumbbells to the starting position and reset your grip and body position before performing the next rep.
The steps above explain how you can perform a standard two-dumbbell deadlift, however, you can also adapt the exercise to hold one heavier dumbbell at the top of the weight with two hands. This can be better suited for sumo dumbbell deadlifts (we cover these later on).
Coaching points for dumbbell deadlift
Along with the step-by-step guide above, here are some useful coaching points to help you perform an effective dumbbell deadlift:
- Maintain a neutral spine throughout the entire movement to protect your lower back.
- Keep your chest up and shoulders back to ensure proper posture and muscle engagement.
- Ensure the dumbbells remain close to your body during both the lifting and lowering phases.
- Drive through your heels and engage your glutes and hamstrings as you lift the dumbbells.
- Control the descent of the dumbbells to avoid excessive stress on your lower back and hamstrings.
- Breathe in as you lower the dumbbells and exhale as you lift them.
- Progressively increase the weight or number of repetitions over time to challenge your muscles and promote growth and strength gains.
Practice these steps regularly, focusing on proper form and technique. If you’re unsure about your form or need additional guidance, consult a certified strength and conditioning coach to help you master the dumbbell deadlift.
Dumbbell Deadlift Variations
There are several variations of dumbbell deadlifts that athletes can incorporate into their training programs to target specific muscle groups, address weaknesses, or add variety to their workouts. Below are some popular dumbbell deadlift variations along with reasons why and when an athlete should consider using them:
Single-leg dumbbell deadlift
Why: This variation targets the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back while improving balance, stability, and coordination. It’s an excellent exercise for addressing unilateral imbalances and enhancing overall athletic performance.
When: Athletes should consider incorporating single-leg dumbbell deadlifts if they have muscle imbalances, want to improve their stability, or need to work on their balance for their specific sport.
Romanian dumbbell deadlift
Why: This variation places more emphasis on the hamstrings and glutes due to the minimal knee bend and increased hip hinge. It also helps improve hip mobility and hamstring flexibility.
When: Athletes should consider using Romanian dumbbell deadlifts if they want to focus on strengthening their posterior chain, specifically the hamstrings and glutes, or if they want to improve hip mobility and flexibility.
Dumbbell sumo deadlift
Why: Sumo Deadlifts change the stance to a wider position, targeting the inner thighs, glutes, and hips more effectively. It can help athletes develop lower body power and strength in a slightly different movement pattern.
When: Athletes should consider incorporating dumbbell sumo deadlifts if they want to target their inner thighs and hips or if they want to develop power and strength in a wider stance, which may be beneficial for specific sports.
It’s essential to choose the right dumbbell deadlift variation based on an athlete’s specific goals, needs, and weaknesses. Regularly incorporating different variations of deadlifts into a training program can help athletes build well-rounded strength, address imbalances, and improve their overall performance. Always ensure proper form and technique when performing any exercise, and consult a certified strength and conditioning coach if needed.
Benefits of Dumbbell deadlifts
There are many situations and benefits that make the dumbbell deadlift an appropriate choice over the regular barbell deadlift:
Beginners learning to deadlift
A barbell weighs 15kg or 20kg without any additional plates added, meaning there can be a steep learning curve for someone wanting to learn a traditional deadlift, and a relatively high load if they have never performed the movement pattern.
Dumbbell deadlifts provide a graded approach (2 x 2kg dumbbells, 2 x 4kg dumbbells…) as performers learn the movement pattern and gradually increase the load.
If your training facility has limited equipment or lacks access to barbells and weight plates, dumbbell deadlifts can be a viable alternative that still allows athletes to train their posterior chain effectively.
This is a common problem for professional golfers I work with. They move from event to event with limited gym facilities. In this instance, dumbbell deadlifts offer a great solution to maintain lower body strength.
Improved grip strength deficits
All deadlifts help improve grip strength. However, dumbbell deadlifts ensure both hands are equally targeted as each hand must work independently to hold onto the dumbbells. Whereas one hand can be working harder during barbell deadlifts.
Dumbbell deadlifts also have more degrees of freedom (the weights can rotate). This can be a small, additional benefit for athletes where pronation and supination strength are important (golf and tennis are two examples of where forearm rotation is associated with club/racket speed)
Progressing from the point above, dumbbell deadlifts can help address broader unilateral imbalances since each side of the body is forced to work independently. This can lead to better overall muscular balance and reduced risk of injury.
Variety and muscle activation
Incorporating dumbbell deadlifts into an athlete’s training program can provide variety and stimulate different muscle groups. The dumbbell variation may activate additional stabilizer muscles in the core, hips, and upper back due to the independent nature of the movement.
While the dumbbell deadlift offers numerous benefits, as always consider your specific training goals, the athletes’ experience, preferences and how training fits into their wider athletic development and training.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this guide to dumbbell deadlifts. They are sometimes undervalued over the more traditional barbell deadlift, but as we’ve covered here dumbbell deadlifts offer some additional benefits, require less specialised equipment, and are fast and easy to set up.
They also offer one of the safest routes for beginners learning a deadlift/hinge movement pattern.
Ronai (2020) The Deadlift; Do It Right
Camara et al (2016) An Examination of Muscle Activation and Power Characteristics While Performing the Deadlift Exercise With Straight and Hexagonal Barbells
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Will is a sport scientist and golf professional who specialises in motor control and motor learning. Will lecturers part-time in motor control and biomechanics, runs Golf Insider UK and consults elite athletes who are interested in optimising their training and performance.