Dumbbell Deadlift: 7 Big Benefits and Muscles Worked

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
July 29, 2022

Simply the dumbbell variation of the more common barbell deadlift, the dumbbell deadlift shares quite a few characteristics with its barbell focused sister, with a few benefits that make it superior to such an exercise for the purposes of certain goals.

The dumbbell deadlift is usually performed with moderate to high amounts of resistance and utilizes a large majority of the body’s muscle groups, making it a minor variation upon one of the few compound exercises referred to as the “big three”.

The dumbbell deadlift is a full body compound exercise of moderate to high intensity meant to induce significant muscular hypertrophy, central nervous system adaptation and bodily coordination in individuals that perform it with the appropriate intensity and form.

What is the Dumbbell Deadlift?

The dumbbell deadlift is a high intensity compound exercise that activates large sections of the body’s musculature, such as the entire lower body and the entire posterior chain in a dynamic capacity as well as isometrically.

dumbbell neutral grip deadlift

This is in extension of its closed circuit kinetic nature, of which is usually in tandem with a unilateral activation that makes the dumbbell deadlift not only effective but also quite efficient in terms of inducing its various training and health benefits.

As such, the dumbbell deadlift is usually performed either on back muscle focused exercise sessions or in full-body workouts that utilize it as a main exercise that induces the majority of the training stimuli needed by the exerciser.

How is the Dumbbell Deadlift Different from the Barbell Deadlift?

Asides from the obvious difference in equipment used, the dumbbell deadlift can differ from the barbell deadlift in terms of how the resistance is loaded on the body and its various tissue structures, with most variations of the barbell deadlift drawing the torso forward as the arms hold it in such a position.

barbell deadlift movement

This is different from the dumbbell deadlift, which may be performed with the dumbbells held at either side of the legs instead, altering the angle at which the resistance is placed upon the body and as such allowing for a safer and more neutral loading of not only the skeletal muscles but also osseous structures like the spine and wrists.

By extension of this more variable nature, the dumbbell deadlift may be used by individuals that have the incorrect biomechanics to comfortably perform a barbell deadlift, allowing them to still attain the same training stimulus and intensity without placing themselves at the risk of injury.

This is also applicable for exercisers with muscular imbalances, with the grip strength of each hand acting as a limiter for the amount of weight the exerciser may use and as such preventing one side of the body from overpowering the other and thereby bearing more of the resistance during the exercise.

Is the Dumbbell Deadlift Safe?

While it is vitally important for the exerciser to reduce their risk of injury and strain through the utilization of proper form, coaching as well as the usage of reasonable amounts of weight, certain exercises may be considered safer than others due to the nature and angle of the resistance it places on the body.

The dumbbell deadlift is one among these safer alternative exercises, as the nature of using two separate weighted objects (the dumbbells) equates to the exerciser being able to shift said objects, and by extension their limbs, into a more natural position for their own individual biomechanics.

This is most noticeable in the way that the dumbbell deadlift allows for the exerciser to shift their arms further to the back and sides than the use of an ordinary barbell would, allowing an exerciser with poor shoulder mobility or wide hips to comfortably raise the weights upwards during the concentric portion of the exercise.

Additionally, the relatively lower amount of weight used in the dumbbell deadlift also equates to a significantly reduced chance of such things like soft tissue tears and crushed appendages from occurring, furthering the case of the dumbbell deadlift’s relatively better safety.

What Muscles are Worked by the Dumbbell Deadlift?

Being a large scale compound lift, the dumbbell deadlift makes use of a wide variety of muscle groups for differing purposes that ultimately lead to only some of the activated muscle groups being trained to a highly significant level.

dumbbell deadlift movement

These muscle groups that are otherwise not activated to the fullest extent are referred to as secondary movers, or even stabilizing muscles in the case that they do not contract dynamically and are instead only utilized in an isometric capacity.

Muscle groups that are fully activated and utilized in the exercise, however, are then referred to as primary mover muscles and as such receive the most benefit or “work” from the exerciser performing the dumbbell deadlift.

1. Primary Mover Muscles

Referred to as such due to the fact that they are utilized to the fullest extent during most or all of the exercise, the primary mover muscles involved in the dumbbell deadlift are that of the gluteus muscles, the quadriceps femoris, the latissimus dorsi, the trapezius atop the shoulders as well as the biceps brachii.

2. Secondary Mover Muscles

Activated in a lesser capacity to the primary mover muscles but of no less importance are the secondary mover muscles, of which are comprised of the triceps brachii, biceps femoris, semitendinosus, adductor magnus, and lower back.

The secondary mover muscles are considered as such either due to the fact that they are not completely activated during the exercise or are only activated for a comparatively short time, preventing the muscles from being completely fatigued despite bearing a portion of the dumbbell deadlift’s resistance.

3. Stabilizing Muscles

Though not contracted in a dynamic capacity, the stabilizing muscles found in the dumbbell deadlift work in an isometric capacity in order to both protect the exerciser from injury as well as ensure that the primary and secondary mover muscles can retain their function without being forced to also stabilize the load of weight.

These muscles are primarily the three deltoid heads, the erector spinae, the core stabilizing muscles, the various smaller muscles in the forearms, the trapezius – of which is also a primary mover muscle – and the soleus muscles in the calves.

What are the Benefits of the Dumbbell Deadlift?

The dumbbell deadlift, much like practically every other form of resistance exercise, is capable of presenting quite a few positive effects to the exerciser when combined with other healthy habits such as a protein rich diet and adequate rest.

While the number of these benefits is nearly innumerable, several of said positive effects stand out as either unique to the dumbbell deadlift and its variations or are of rather significant importance to the healthy living of a person, making them advisable reasons for the addition of the dumbbell deadlift into one’s workout routine.

4. Wide Ranging Muscular Activation

Though the technical definition of a compound exercise is one of multiple muscle group activation, there are few compound exercises that activate such a wide range of muscle groups as the dumbbell deadlift – of which is capable of inducing a level of training stimuli in practically every muscle group found throughout the body.

dumbbell sumo deadlift

This is due to the fact that the dumbbell deadlift’s form, at some point, activates every muscle group in a dynamic or isometric capacity.

Such a wide ranging level of activation does not equate to an equal level of muscular training, however, and as such the dumbbell deadlift should not be the only exercise one performs in a workout, despite the fact that it is capable of activating the entire skeletal muscle system in a single repetition.

5. Posterior Chain Training

Being a pull type exercise with a particular focus on the gluteus muscle group as well as the lower back, the dumbbell deadlift is considered one of the best possible exercises in terms of posterior chain training, being capable of inducing a truly excellent level of muscular hypertrophy, connective tissue reinforcement and neurological activation adaptation in most of the body’s rear plane.

This is even further reinforced by combining the dumbbell deadlift with other exercises that activate the posterior chain within the same workout, such as the squat or the row, two of the most common exercises that activate parts of the posterior chain in some capacity.

It is important for the exerciser to be careful not to fatigue or overtrain the stabilizer muscles responsible for protecting their spinal column, however, as any weakness in these muscles can result in injury and pain that may interfere with daily life.

6. Posture Improvements

An extension of the rather impressive level of posterior chain training the dumbbell deadlift is capable of inducing, regularly performing the dumbbell deadlift at a reasonable level and in combination with other healthy habits can result in significant improvements in the exerciser’s posture.

This is primarily due to the reinforcement in such muscles like the trapezius, rear deltoids and erector spinae, of which may be one of the reasons behind an exerciser’s poor posture as they grow unable to support the body’s weight if left weakened.

The dumbbell deadlift, however, will not aid in poor posture that is caused by the exerciser’s own consciously or unconsciously formed habits, such as that of a rounded back or hunched shoulders that are not caused by muscular imbalances or weaknesses.

7. Large Scale Endocrinological Systemic Improvements

As a consequence of being a rather intense compound exercise performed with high levels of resistance, the dumbbell deadlift is capable of imparting significant improvements in the hormonal function of the human body.

In terms of anabolic endocrinological benefits, the dumbbell deadlift can have such effects such as a large increase in the release of human growth hormone, testosterone, DHT, EPO, and a variety of other signaling and receptor hormones that trigger cellular anabolism in the individual’s tissues.

Even in the case of non-anabolic compounds such as cortisol and (to some extent) insulin, regular practitioners of the dumbbell deadlift may find that their relative cortisol levels have decreased as their cellular insulin sensitivity improves, especially over the course of many workout sessions.

Can You Use the Same Weight as the Barbell Deadlift for a Dumbbell Deadlift?

Despite their similarities in form, muscular activation pattern and general function in a workout routine, the dumbbell deadlift does not utilize the same amount of weight as the barbell deadlift itself. 

barbell deadlift

This is due to two primary reasons, the first of which is the fact that the exerciser is likely not well trained enough in terms of grip strength to safely hold the same amount of weight unassisted in each hand, a limit that may be addressed through the use of supplementary exercise equipment such as wrist straps.

The secondary reason behind this is the fact that the barbell deadlift uses both sides of the exerciser’s body in tandem, creating a collaborative effect between every muscle group in the body and thereby allowing it to output more force at once, something that the dumbbell deadlift is somewhat incapable of due to its use of two pieces of exercise equipment.

Who Can Perform the Dumbbell Deadlift?

The dumbbell deadlift is best utilized by exercisers of rather healthy function and either a passing level of experience in performing resistance exercises or some sort of athletic coaching so as to ensure that they are at as minimal a risk of injury as possible.

However, individuals of advanced age, connective tissue or neurological disorders, hernias or similar injuries as well as those with a history of lower back injuries should first consult a licensed physician prior to performing the dumbbell deadlift or any other sort of highly taxing compound exercise.

References

1. Schellenberg F, Taylor WR, Lorenzetti S. Towards evidence based strength training: a comparison of muscle forces during deadlifts, goodmornings and split squats. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 2017 Jul 17;9:13. doi: 10.1186/s13102-017-0077-x. PMID: 28725437; PMCID: PMC5513080.

2. McGuigan, Michael R.M.2; Wilson, Barry D.1 Biomechanical Analysis of the Deadlift, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: November 1996 - Volume 10 - Issue 4 - p 250-255

3. Martín-Fuentes I, Oliva-Lozano JM, Muyor JM. Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review. PLoS One. 2020 Feb 27;15(2):e0229507. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0229507. PMID: 32107499; PMCID: PMC7046193.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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