How to Do the Dumbbell Deadlift Without Wrecking Your Lower Back

Deadlifting is a classic exercise for a reason: It’s incredibly functional, and it hits a whole bunch of muscles at once. You don’t need a barbell, either: The dumbbell deadlift is actually a more accessible way to ease into this movement pattern—and it still fires up your glutes, hamstrings, back, and core just as effectively.

Not familiar with this strength training staple? It involves standing tall with a dumbbell in each hand and then pushing your butt back (a movement known as the hip hinge) as you keep your back straight and lower your torso until it’s almost parallel with the ground. Bracing your core, you push through your heels to return to standing.

Now that we’re clear on what the dumbbell deadlift exercise looks like, let’s chat about all the other important intel, like which specific muscle it works, why it can feel so damn hard, common mistakes to avoid, tips for weaving it into your weekly workout plan, and step-by-step instructions for nailing the move. Then grab a pair of dumbbells and give it a try yourself!

What muscles do dumbbell deadlifts work?

The dumbbell deadlift really hones in on your posterior chain, or the backside of your body. The exercise primarily works your hamstrings and glutes, Evan Williams, CSCS, CPT, founder of E2G Performance, tells SELF, making it great for lower-body activation. But it also incorporates upper-body and core work too. Deadlifting fires up your latissimus dorsi (lats, your broadest back muscles), rhomboids (upper back muscles), and trapezius (upper back and neck muscles), as well as your rectus abdominis (abs), obliques (side torso muscles), and erector spinae (a set of lower back muscles), as SELF previously reported. Because the move simultaneously engages muscle groups across your body, it’s considered a compound exercise.

Why are dumbbell deadlifts so hard?

Lots of gym-goers feel the struggle: They can pull a barbell from the floor relatively easily, but doing the same move holding dumbbells seems way more difficult. If that sounds like you, it’s not just your imagination—there’s a legit reason for that.

When you do barbell deadlifts, you often load up with big, wide plates (whether they’re lighter bumper plates or the OG cast-iron ones), which generally have a way bigger diameter than dumbbells. As a result, you don’t have to hinge down quite as far to complete the move, since the plates hitting the floor prevent you from going further. That means, depending on your stature and stance, you’ll likely use less range of motion in a barbell versus dumbbell deadlift, explains Williams. And when you have a greater range of motion, the move can feel harder since your muscles will be under tension longer. 

What’s more, dumbbells lend themselves to various deadlift variations that can feel more difficult than the traditional version. For instance, if you opt for a single-leg or single-dumbbell deadlift (meaning, you perform the move on just one leg, or just holding a weight in one hand), it requires more core stabilization due to the balance challenge.

Is a dumbbell deadlift a conventional or Romanian deadlift?

The dumbbell deadlift is an example of the Romanian deadlift (RDL), also known as a stiff-leg deadlift. In this variation, you push your hips back as you lower your torso forward. Your goal is to lower your weights to your shins and have your torso parallel to the ground before reversing the move. By contrast, in a barbell deadlift, typically considered a conventional deadlift, the movement starts by pulling a barbell off the floor, keeping a flat back as you stand up, and then reversing the movement to return it to the floor.

Typically, people are able to lift heavier loads in a barbell deadlift compared to a Romanian deadlift, says Williams. That’s why he recommends beginners often start with dumbbells. That way, they use lighter load until they get comfortable maintaining proper form.

What are some mistakes people make with the dumbbell deadlift?

One of the most common? Rounding your back during the eccentric phase—when you’re lowering the weight—of the movement, says Williams. This can be a problem because it could lead to lower back pain and injury, since those muscles will be taking on too much stress.

Activating your core and properly engaging your lats can help you maintain a more neutral back and avoid that rounding, says Williams. Not sure how to get your back muscles firing? Try this drill: Think about keeping a piece of paper tucked securely under your armpits, and squeeze your shoulder blades together. This will help activate your upper-body muscles and keep your spine in a neutral position, taking some load off your lower back. As you lower the weights down, make sure you keep them close to your body in order to keep your spine from rounding.

How can you include the dumbbell deadlift in your workout routine?

The dumbbell deadlift is a great move to weave into your usual strength training and hypertrophy or muscle-building sessions, says Williams. You can do it as part of a full-body or lower-body focused session. In terms of volume, aim for three sets of 8 to 12 reps if your goal is to build muscle. For more advanced lifters looking to build maximum body strength, target three to five sets of two to six reps, says Williams.

Beginners should start with light dumbbells, says Williams. Once you’ve mastered proper form and the move starts to feel easy, you can progress the move by choosing heavier weights. (Keep in mind: The more load you lift, the stronger grip strength you’ll need—here are some tips for improving that.) You can also switch things up by trying any number of dumbbell deadlift variations. For example, do the single-leg deadlift to challenge your balance and core stability, or experiment with the sumo deadlift to reduce the load on your lower back.

How to do the dumbbell deadlift

Katie Thompson

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at your thighs. This is starting position.
  • Hinge at your hips, bending slightly at your knees. Push your butt way back and keep your back flat. Your torso should be almost parallel to the floor, and the weights should reach your shins.
  • Keeping your core tight, push through your heels to stand up straight. Keep the weights close to your shins as you pull.
  • Pause at the top and squeeze your butt. This is 1 rep.

Demoing the move above is Anise Armario, creator and teacher of the Movement at Dancewave in Brooklyn and a powerlifter and strength coach with Queer Trans Strength NYC.


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