Give Yourself a Lift

A Simple Exercise Called the Deadlift Helps Make Everyday Actions Easier and Safer

Research shows that weight lifting is good medicine for healthy older adults. While there are many weight-lifting exercises, one move you should always include with your workouts is the deadlift.
The deadlift is a simple-looking movement. From a squatting position, you grab a weighted barbell and then stand while you lift the bar with straight arms. The barbell rises to about mid-thigh level. You hold for a second and return to the starting position.
It's a short, quick movement, but much happens during that time, says Shawn Pedicini, a physical therapist with Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Network. "Deadlifts give you a lot of bang for your buck."


This highly functional exercise carries over to many everyday movements. For instance, deadlifts can increase lower-body strength and power, which improves mobility, balance, and stability. Deadlifts are also great for working your hamstrings and core, particularly the gluteal muscles in the buttocks.
"These muscles help you to pick up things, lift and carry items, and protect your body from strains and injury," says Pedicini.
Worried about poor posture? Deadlifts strengthen a weak lower back that can cause stooped shoulders. They also can improve grip strength, and some research has suggested that performing compound movements like deadlifts may increase bone density.
Enlist a personal trainer or fitness coach to show you how to perform a deadlift properly. "If you don't do it correctly, there is a risk that you could put too much stress on your lower back," says Pedicini.
If you don't have access to a barbell, holding a dumbbell or a kettlebell in each hand also works. Another option, if available, is a trap bar, also known as a hex bar. The trap bar is shaped like hexagon or diamond. You stand in the middle and lift the bar using two handles that are placed shoulder-width apart. "The design distributes the weight more equally and takes further stress off the lower back," says Pedicini.
You don't need to do many deadlifts to feel the results. A typical approach is three sets of five to eight reps with a break in between, says Pedicini. "A higher number of reps can cause your form to break down and lead you to round your back."
However, a personal trainer or physical therapist can advise you on the ideal number of sets and reps based on your fitness level. A beginning safe weight would be 40% to 50% of your body weight. Then gradually increase the amount if you can complete a full set of eight repetitions with proper form.


You need some mobility in your hips and ankles to do deadlifts correctly. Otherwise, you risk putting undue stress on your lower back. A quick test is to see how close you can come to touching your toes with straight legs. If you have trouble, then it would be wise to first work on flexibility of your back muscles before attempting deadlifts. Also, check with your doctor if you have any health problems for which you need to avoid excessive straining.


The deadlift consists of three phases: the starting position, upward movement, and downward movement.
Starting position. Begin with the barbell on the floor. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your toes under the bar. Squat down, keeping your chest up to help maintain a neutral spine position. Make sure you don't round your back and that you squat and not just bending over. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip, with your arms just outside your thighs. Pull your shoulders down and back, so your chest sticks out. Brace your core to help stabilize and protect your spine during the movement.
Upward movement. With your core engaged, push through your heels to begin the lift. Engage your back and abdominal muscles, and keep your shoulders pulled back to avoid rounding the shoulders. Stand and pull the bar up with straight arms, keeping the bar close to your body as it moves upward. The bar should rise to about mid-thigh level and should always stay in contact with your legs and not lift away.
Downward movement. Hold the lift briefly, then slowly lower the bar toward the ground while maintaining a straight back. Bend your knees so the bar and your hips lower at the same speed. Finish with the bar on the floor, so the weight comes to a dead stop. You should end in the original starting position. This completes one rep. You can immediately go into another rep, or reset your position from the beginning.