The dumbbell deadlift helps strengthen the posterior chain, specifically the glutes and hamstrings.
It is an excellent variation to use in place of the barbell deadlift and allows for a greater range of motion. It can also be used to work your way up to the bar.
I recommend the dumbbell deadlift to all lifters. However, it is especially beneficial to beginners because it can be easier to master than deadlifting with a barbell.
In this article, I'll discuss:
Table of Contents
How To Do The Dumbbell Deadlift
The proper form for the dumbbell deadlift is as follows:
1. Grab a pair of dumbbells off the rack or the bench to begin from the top.
2. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, with toes pointing forward.
3. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, with arms extended in front of your thighs, in an overhand grip.
4. Keep your back straight and chest up, and engage your core.
5. Hinge at your hips, pushing them back as you lower the dumbbells towards the ground.
6. Lower the dumbbells until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings while maintaining a flat back.
7. Push through your mid-foot, not just your heels, and engage your glutes to return to the starting position. This is one rep.
8. Keep the dumbbells close to your body throughout the movement.
Pro tip: Squeezing your big toe into the ground throughout the entire movement, especially on the way up, will help contract your glutes.
Check out more dumbbell back exercises in my full article.
Common Mistakes Doing Dumbbell Deadlifts
1. Rounding the Lower Back
Rounding of the lower back is a common mistake seen in various forms of deadlifts. The goal throughout the movement should be to maintain a neutral spine.
Rounding of the lumbar spine often occurs when the hips rise faster than the shoulders while performing a rep.
The hip and shoulders should rise at the same time. It is also important to create core stability by breathing into the diaphragm and trying to create 360 degrees of pressure in the abs, obliques, and lower back areas.
2. Not Keeping the Weight Close to the Body
As you lower the weight towards the ground, the dumbbells should stay in contact with the thighs. Keeping the weight close to the body allows you to feel the movement in the intended areas better, specifically the glutes and hamstrings.
The further the weight gets away from the body, the more likely you will feel stress in your lower back. It can also lead to rounding of the lower back, discussed above.
3. Bending the Knees Too Much During a Rep
There are different ways to teach the dumbbell deadlift. I think it should be treated as a Romanian deadlift, focusing heavily on the hip hinge aspect of the movement. A Romanian deadlift is done to try and emphasize the posterior chain, primarily the glutes and hamstrings.
A slight bend in the knees should remain consistent throughout the movement. You should not bend the knees more once the weight has passed the knees during the lift's eccentric (lowering) phase. This takes the focus off the posterior chain and places it on the quads.
Dumbbell Deadlift: Muscles Worked
The dumbbell deadlift is a great compound exercise for working many back and leg muscles. The muscles worked in the Smith machine deadlift can be broken up into primary and secondary muscles:
The primary muscles used in the dumbbell deadlift include the following:
- Hamstrings: the hamstrings help perform hip extension during the lockout and help bring the hips to the bar. They also help stabilize the knee as the quads extend the knee.
- Glutes: The glutes are the primary hip extensors during the lockout. They help bring the hips closer to the weight. The hamstrings aid them in this movement.
- Erector spinae: The erector muscles run along the outside of the spine. They contract to help keep proper posture and keep the spine from rounding in the deadlift. They also help extend the spine to help you stand upright.
The secondary muscles used in the dumbbell deadlift include the following:
- Quadriceps: In the dumbbell deadlift, the quads contract to keep the knee slightly bent and fully extend the knee at the top of the movement.
- Latissimus dorsi: The main function of the lats in the deadlift is to keep the dumbbells close to the body. Losing contact between the bar and the body can stress the lower back.
- Trapezius: The traps help maintain the shoulder position in the deadlift. The shoulders should be in a neutral and slightly depressed (pulled towards the ground) position.
- Rhomboids: The rhomboids, similar to the traps, help maintain a proper shoulder and upper back position during the deadlift.
- Abdominals: The abdominals play an important role in stabilizing the spine and helping prevent hyperextension of the spine.
- Forearms: The flexor muscles of the forearm are used to maintain grip on the dumbbells throughout the deadlift.
- Calves: The calves mainly act to stabilize the body throughout the movement. They help stabilize both the ankle and the knee.
How To Add Dumbbell Deadlifts To Your Workout
Just as with a conventional deadlift with a standard barbell, dumbbell deadlifts can be programmed in various ways. It depends greatly on your performance goals.
Increase Muscle Size
- If your current training aims to achieve muscle size or hypertrophy, you should perform more reps per set.
- Use 60-75% of your max or weight you could do for 6-12 reps per set, then perform 3-5 sets.
- Follow this up with another posterior chain movement to emphasize weak muscle groups. For example, for weak hamstrings, do leg curls.
- If you focus on improving strength, you should use heavy weights, and the reps should decrease.
- Use between 70-85% of your max or a weight that you could do for 4-6 reps per set, then 3-5 sets of 4-6 reps.
- Follow this up with another deadlift or posterior chain variation to target your weaknesses, using the same sets and reps. They can also be a great movement for an accessory lift after squatting.
In my training routine, and many of my athletes' workout routines, we will train using either a full-body or upper-body/lower-body split.
In either case, one of the ways I like to use them is with a unilateral squatting movement, such as split squats or lunges.
On one training day, we'll typically do a bilateral squatting movement with a unilateral hinge movement. On another day, we'll do a bilateral hinge movement, like the dumbbell deadlift, and a unilateral squatting movement.
Check out this article to learn more about many beneficial deadlift variations, such as the trap bar deadlift, rack pull, deficit deadlift, and many more.
Alternatives to Dumbbell Deadlifts
1. Single Leg Dumbbell RDL
- Stand on one leg.
- Keep a slight bend in the knee of the standing leg.
- Hinge at your hips, pushing your butt back, and leaning forward with your torso.
- Extend the other leg straight back for balance as you descend with the weight.
- Reach down towards the ground with your weighted hand, maintaining a straight back.
- Return to the starting position by using your glutes and hamstrings.
- Repeat on the other leg.
- If the right leg remains on the ground, the weight should be in your left hand, and vice versa.
The single dumbbell RDL is one of several great dumbbell deadlift variations to correct imbalances between the sides of the posterior chain. Many people have one side of the body that is stronger than the other, and it is important to try and even things out.
Learn how the dumbbell Romanian deadlift can transform your workout regimen and provide significant muscle gains.
2. Kickstand Dumbbell RDL
- Hold a dumbbell in each hand, with arms extended, resting on the thighs.
- Stand with one foot a short step behind the other, like a kickstand.
- Keep most of your weight on the front leg.
- Hinge at your hips, leaning forward.
- Descend until feeling a stretch in the hamstring of the front leg.
- Return to the starting position.
- Repeat on the other leg.
The kickstand RDL provides all of the same benefits as the single-leg RDL. It emphasizes one leg over the other and can help correct imbalances between sides. Another major benefit of this movement is that it is much more stable than the single-leg RDL, which allows for heavier weight to be used. It provides all the benefits of a single-leg hinge movement, requiring less balance.
3. Dumbbell Sumo Deadlift
- Hold a single dumbbell between your legs, positioned vertically.
- Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart, toes pointing outward.
- Bend at your hips and knees to lower your body toward the ground.
- Lower the dumbbell to the ground between your feet.
- Keep your back straight and chest up.
- Push through the mid-foot, straighten your hips, and stand up.
- Lower the dumbbell back to the ground with control.
- Repeat the movement for the desired number of repetitions.
The Sumo deadlift is a great option for people with lower back pain. It allows the lifter to maintain a more upright position and places greater emphasis on the quads. It can also be a great way to increase the mobility of the hips, as it requires a much wider stance than a standard deadlift.
For other great variations to try, especially if you don't have access to or aren't comfortable with a barbell, check out this article on the Smith machine deadlift.
Are dumbbell deadlifts harder?
Typically, a dumbbell deadlift would not be considered harder than a barbell deadlift. A barbell deadlift allows for greater loading and is typically harder from a technical perspective. However, the dumbbell deadlift does allow for a wider range of motion than the barbell deadlift.
Are deadlifts with dumbbells effective?
Yes, deadlifts with dumbbells are effective. They work the same muscles as the barbell deadlift, primarily the glutes, hamstrings, and erectors. Dumbbell deadlifts provide a load to the posterior chain to increase muscle growth and strength. They are also a great exercise to build grip strength.
What weight should I deadlift with dumbbells?
The simple answer is whatever weight you can deadlift with proper form. For more guidance, if the main goal is hypertrophy, choose a weight you can perform 6-12 reps with and execute 3-5 sets. If the goal is strength, choose a weight with which you can perform 4-6 reps and do 3-5 working sets.