There are very few exercises that recruit the entire body the way deadlifts do. Referred to by many as “the king of all exercises,” the deadlift mainly works your hamstrings, glutes and lower back, but it recruits the rest of your body as a support system, and thus leads to overall body strength increases.
There are a few different ways to perform the deadlift, with the two most common varieties being the barbell and the dumbbell deadlift. These exercises are similar, but there are some key differences that can weigh into your decision on which version of this excellent exercise to perform.
There are also some circumstances which lend themselves to preference of one version of the deadlift over the other. We’re going to take a look at each exercise’s pro’s and con’s to help you determine which one you should be including in your routine.
The Barbell Deadlift
The barbell deadlift is a widely implemented and respected exercise. This weight room staple is regarded by many as the single most effective exercise one can perform – and that saying isn’t without merit, as you’ll very rarely meet a strong deadlifter who is a weakling on other lifts. The sheer force needed to get a loaded bar off of the ground and into position at the top of the rep commands strength from the prime movers and stability EVERYWHERE else.
Oh boy, where do I start? The deadlift promotes muscle growth in your whole body, but the main movers that are stimulated are the hamstrings, glutes and lower back. The position of the bar and the fact that you are picking it up from a “dead” position (on the floor, not moving) really allows you to load up the bar with weight and blast those muscles.
Deadlifts are also an extremely functional movement that will give you strength that will not only carry over to your other lifts, but to your daily movements.
Do you have poor grip strength or are you trying to put a little size on your forearms? The deadlift can help with both of those; in fact, to really get your PR’s up in deadlift, grip strength is absolutely necessary and will develop naturally as you increase weight.
Lastly, the deadlift is an exercise you can perform with complete safety without a spotter. If you fail on a deadlift, you simply drop the bar. In exercise like bench press or squats where the bar is on top of you, failure can mean imminent injury, so you’re really able to load that bar up with weight on the deadlift without fear of injury.
Very strict form is required for the deadlift. Back straight, push with legs then pull for rep. If you have bad form on this exercise and start raising the weight, you can open yourself up to injury. With a rounded back and a bar loaded up for a 1 rep personal record, you’re running a pretty high risk for lower back injury. Check out the image below from StrongLifts demonstrating the correct back form for a deadlift:
Another drawback of the deadlift is the setup and the amount of space required. Whether you’re in a commercial or home gym, you’ll need an area of at least 7 feet by 3 feet to do your pulls.
Also, getting plates on and off the bar while it’s on the ground can be a real hassle. There are some tips and tricks to get around this, but the initial load and deload of the bar will be a pain no matter what, especially when you get up to the higher poundages.
The Dumbbell Deadlift
The dumbbell deadlift is, you guessed it, just a deadlift performed with dumbbells. The motion of this exercise is the same as a barbell deadlift, but the placement of the dumbbells cause the stabilizers to be engaged a little bit differently, so let’s jump right into what sets the dumbbell deadlift different than its bar-bound brother:
The dumbbell deadlift is going to have all of the same muscular benefits of the barbell deadlift, with the addition of working those stabilizers a bit more to keep those dumbbells still. There is also a bit of versatility with the dumbbell deadlift, as you can perform the exercise with the dumbbells laying in front (like the barbell deadlift), or at your sides with the handles parallel to your feet (suitcase deadlift).
These different varieties allow you to shift the load and switch the engagement levels of the muscles in your legs and back. The suitcase deadlift shifts the weight more to your quadriceps and takes some stress off of the back, which is great if you’re just learning the movement.
Another great thing about the dumbbell deadlift is that it requires no setup, you simply grab your dumbbells and get to pulling.
With all of the benefits of the deadlift, and the dumbbell deadlift especially, there is one HUGE drawback to the dumbbell deadlift: weight. If you’re doing deadlifts to gain a bit of strength and stability, get in shape or stay in shape, then dumbbells will be fine. However, if you’re really looking to gain some strength and size, you need lots of weight, and dumbbells simply don’t have the weight capacity that barbells have.
Most dumbbells at commercial gyms only go up to 100lbs, and getting them onto and off of the rack can put you at risk for injury through jerking motions and leaning with certain joints. Once you’ve got the form down as a beginner on the exercise, you’ll be able to increase your load relatively quickly, and 200lbs can come sooner than you think.
So, Which Deadlift Is Better?
This round goes to the barbell deadlift, simply due to the accessible volume. Dumbbell deadlifts are great for getting used to the movement, getting your form down or as part of a stability training routine to help familiarize your body with weighted exercise. However, if you’re really looking to challenge yourself in the weight room and make some gains in size and strength, barbell deadlifts are the way to go.