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.
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