When deadlifting you want to ensure your legs and back are primed and ready for the main work of the day. Therefore, having a warm up routine is critical for your performance in the gym.
So what does a good deadlift warm-up look like? Based on strength and conditioning research, your deadlift warm-up should include four steps: (1) a general warm-up to increase core body temperature, (2) mobility exercises to facilitate motion in your joints, (3) dynamic stretches to increase muscle length, and (4) activation exercises to ensure the stabilizing muscle groups are ‘turned on’.
Most people have parts of this routine covered in their deadlift warm-up, doing one phase or another, but lack putting everything together in a proper warm-up structure. The downside of not effectively warming up for deadlifts is that your strength may be limited and you could put yourself at a higher risk of injury.
Let me share with you what I’ve learned about how to warm up effectively for deadlifts.
1. The General Warm-Up
The purpose of a general warm-up is to increase core body temperature.
The primary way to increase your core body temperature is through light cardiovascular training, such as biking, walking/running, or rowing.
Many powerlifters will skip this phase of their warm-up because they have a negative association with doing ‘cardio’. However, there is good research to suggest that the general warm-up is a key part in boosting overall performance.
A study by Barroso et al. (2006) concluded that a low intensity warm-up of 15-minutes was superior in improving 1 rep max strength when compared with other styles — “low intensity” was defined as breaking a ‘light sweat’. The difference in 1 rep max strength was 3-4% higher for the group that performed this style of warm-up.
Understandably, not everyone will have 15-minutes to budget toward a general warm-up, considering I’m going to suggest three additional warm-up steps. However, other studies have shown that even a 5-minute general warm-up where you’re ‘breaking a light sweat’ can have a positive impact on performance (Wilson et al, 2012).
The lesson here is not getting your core body temperature up before moving to the next phase of your warm-up is a big deadlifting mistake.
2. Mobility Exercises for Deadlifts
The purpose of mobility exercises is to facilitate motion in your joints.
The primary way you can facilitate motion in your joints is by using self-massage therapy technique, such as foam rolling, to relieve tight muscles.
Every exercise in the gym, the deadlift included, will require a certain level of mobility at the level of the joint to perform successfully. For deadlifts, you need adequate mobility through your knees, hips, and thoracic/lumbar spine As such, you’ll want to release muscular tightness that would otherwise reduce the natural mobility of your joints.
A quick note on the research of using a foam roller to facilitate motion in your joints. The techniques used by foam rolling have only been shown to increase motion in the short term (i.e. for the specific workout), but those benefits do not seem to last long term. While this is good temporarily, because you’re using it as a method of warming up, long term mobility changes require additional tools and interventions (such as static stretching) (Peacock et al., 2014).
My recommendation is to pick 1-3 exercises listed below, apply pressure to the muscle, and perform 5-10 strokes for 60-90-seconds. Feel free to choose different mobility exercises over time.
Inner & Outer Thigh
Place the foam roller on the quad and find a tender spot where the muscles are tight. You can do more inner or outer thigh depending on where you feel you need it. The bent leg will allow you to roll forward and back on the foam roller.
The wider you stand in the sumo deadlift, the more mobility you might have to perform in the inner thigh.
Apply pressure with the foam roller to the hamstring. Use your arms behind you to roll forward and back.
If you find your hamstrings getting sore from deadlifting, then check out my article on Hamstrings Sore After Deadlifts: Is This Good or Bad?
Place your glute on the foam roller and bend one leg on top of the other. By doing this, you’ll apply more pressure to the glute of the non-bent leg. Use your arms behind you to roll forward and back.
Start by applying pressure on your upper back, and work your way lower. Try and keep your abs engaged as you apply pressure to your back.
Lie sideways on the foam roller and apply pressure on the lat muscle. Roll areas that you feel tight whether that’s higher or lower.
This is a great exercise to do if you get shoudler pain while deadlifting.
Dynamic Stretches for Deadlifts
The purpose of dynamic stretching is to increase muscle length.
Dynamic stretching is the means of putting your muscles through a range of motion 15-30 times.
On a basic level, you can think of dynamic stretching for the lower body to include things like ‘leg swings’. You will feel a stretch in your hip and hamstring as you are doing leg swings, but you are not holding this stretch for any amount of time. You’re simply in and out of the range of motion ‘dynamically’. In contrast, ‘static stretching’ is when you hold a muscle in a specific range of motion for a prescribed amount of time (30-60 seconds).
In a study by McMillian et al. (2006), dynamic stretching showed to improve performance across a number of outcomes, including strength, speed, and power, when performed before the workout. On the contrary, static stretching either had no impact on performance or a negative impact when conducted before the workout.
The lesson here is to perform dynamic stretching before your deadlifts (and static stretching afterward).
The following is my favorite lower-body dynamic stretching routine for deadlifts. Feel free to pick 2-3 of these stretches and perform 1 set of 15-30 reps.
Downward Dog to Inch Worm
Leg Swings (Front-to-Back & Side-to-Side)
World’s Greatest Stretch
Leg Cradle to Lateral Lunge
Knee Hug to Inverted Hamstring Stretch
Muscle Activation Exercises for Deadlifts
Muscle activation exercises ensure the stabilizing muscle groups are ‘turned on’.
During the deadlift, you have the prime movers that contribute to producing maximal force, such as the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors. However, you also have smaller muscle groups that stabilize the prime movers in order to restrict inefficient movement patterns and support the joints. These stabilizing muscles should be primed before you start deadlifting and ready to allow the prime movers to do their job to the fullest.
My favorite activation series for deadlifting is below. Perform 1-2 sets of 10-15 reps with a light band or bodyweight resistance. The goal here is to use a controlled tempo so that you don’t compensate with bigger muscle groups. Feel free to rotate through different activation exercises over time, even if they’re targeting the same stabilizing muscles.
Don’t ‘overdo it’ the activation exercises, as you don’t want to fatigue the stabilizing muscle before you deadlift. You simple want to prime them and keep them fresh for the main work.
Each one of these phases of the deadlift warm-up builds on top of each other. It’s not enough just to do one or another, but performing them together to create a warm-up system will improve performance and reduce the likelihood of injury. The total time going through each of these steps should take you no longer than 15-minutes to complete.
If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend you read the Ultimate Guide to Warming Up for Powerlifting, since it will cover these concepts in further detail, as well as give you a step-by-step guide on how to do a ‘barbell warm-up’, which wasn’t covered in this article.
What To Read Next
Barroso, R., Silva-Batista, C., Tricoli, V. Roschel, H., Ugrinowitsch, C. (2013). The Effects of Different Intensities and Durations of The General Warm-Up on Leg Press 1RM. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 27(4), 1009-1013.
McMillian, D., Moore, J., Hatler, B., Taylor, D. (2006) Dynamic vs. Static Stretching Warm Up: The Effect on Power And Agility Performance. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 20(3) 492-499.
Peacock, C., Krein, D., Silver, T., Sander, G., Carlowitz, K. (2014). An Acute Bout of Self-Myofascial Release in The Form of Foam Rolling IMproves Performance Testing. International Journal of Exercise Science. 7(3), 202-211.
Wilson, J., Marin, P., Rhea, M., Wilson, S., Loenneke, J., Anderson, J. (2012). Concurrent Training: A Meta-Analysis is Examining Interference of Aerobic And Resistance Exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 26(8), 2293-2307.