Dumbbell Deadlifts (Can They Replace a Barbell Deadlift?)

The deadlift is arguably the most effective strength and mass building exercise in existence. The squat is likely the only other exercise that comes close in terms of number of muscle groups worked, number of muscle fibres recruited and overall potential for progression (in terms of load). 

It’d be difficult to find any reason not to include the deadlift in your routine regardless of your training goals and the only legitimate reason would be if you have any sort of back problem. 

When you think of the deadlift you instantly think of lifting a straight bar with numerous plates on either end straight off the floor however there is a variation that is far from common and never gets much consideration when it comes to building strength or muscle mass and that is the dumbbell deadlift. 

The dumbbell variation pales in popularity when compared with the barbell equivalent and there are a number of reasons why. In it’s own right however, the dumbbell deadlift can be an excellent addition to many peoples programs. 

Dumbbell deadlifts? Dumbbell deadlifts don’t have the same loading potential as the barbell deadlift however, dumbbell deadlifts offer a range of benefits that make them a great exercise, particularly for beginners. These benefits include a safe way to learn the deadlift mechanics at lower weights, it can help remove muscle imbalances and they are a compound exercise. 

Whether you are just starting out in the gym or you have a few years of training experience the dumbbell deadlift can be a great exercise for many people to add into your training routine and unless you are at an advanced level where you can’t get heavy enough dumbbells to stimulate muscle growth or strength increases then you should include them to some degree in your routine.  

What Are Dumbbell Deadlifts

Dumbbell deadlifts are exactly what the name suggests, they are a deadlift that is done with a dumbbell over a traditional barbell. 

Deadlifts are quite possibly the greatest exercise you could ever do for total body development and when looking at it as the best bang for your buck exercise then only the squat can compete for the title of best lift. 

It’s likely you already know the benefits of a deadlift but if not then you can check out the full rundown here. That’s an article by Stronglifts that will cover everything you would ever need to know about the basics of the deadlift. 

What we are going to look at in this article is the often overlooked variation of the deadlift and that is the dumbbell deadlift. 

Not everyone uses a barbell to deadlift however it’s often the case that if you are not using a barbell then you are likely using a trap/hex bar which offers a neutral grip and helps beginners-intermediate lifters use correct form. 

While the deadlift is a simple exercise (you pick the weight up off the floor from shin to thigh height whilst keeping a neutral spine) there are intricacies that make this more technical as you start to add weight to the bar. 

Keeping a neutral grip with a trap back allows you to easily retract the scapula and makes it bio-mechanically easier to hold a neutral spine and in fact it might be considered more difficult to break proper form when using a trap bar!

The main difference between these lifts is of course that a barbell and trap bar are fixed pieces of equipment meaning that the movement path is also fixed to a degree (the bar will move in a straight line but you need to control the bar path). 

The dumbbell variation on the other hand involves unilateral control and as is the case with most dumbbell vs barbell comparisons it means you need to utilize stabilizing muscle groups to help control the weight and the total load you can use is lower with a dumbbell variation. 

For the minute, we won’t look at any comparisons between the deadlift variations but will instead look at the dumbbell deadlift as its own exercise and imagine that the barbell hasn’t actually been invented yet. 

Dumbbell Deadlift Muscles Worked

The dumbbell deadlift could arguably be considered a compound movement. A compound movement or exercise is one that utilizes multiple muscle groups and joints, has a high loading potential and also requires significant input from the central nervous system. 

A leg extension uses a single joint movement (extension of the knee), works a single muscle group (quads) and requires a low level of neurological drive (you don’t need to get amped up to perform a set of leg extensions and will rarely feel fatigued afterwards). 

Now take the squat as a comparison, the squat is a multi joint movement (hips and knees, also requires ankle stability and a neutral control of the spine), works multiple muscle groups (hamstring, quads, glutes as well as stabilizing muscles of the abdomen, lower back and upper back) and takes significant nervous system involvement to recruit the large amount of muscle fibres needed for the lift. 

The deadlift falls into the second category of lift, it involves movement at the hip, knees and shoulder as well as stabilization of the spine (keeping the spine neutral throughout. The muscles worked during a dumbbell deadlift are:

  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Erector muscles
  • Rhomboids
  • Lats
  • Rear delts
  • Traps
  • Biceps
  • Forearms
  • abs

These are the major muscle groups active during a dumbbell deadlift however there are a range of smaller muscle groups and stabilizing muscle groups that are also active and engaged. 

Dumbbell Deadlift Benefits

As the deadlift is a compound exercise there are naturally a range of benefits to doing the exercise and the dumbbell deadlift is not different and has its own specific range of benefits.

Convenient

While weightlifting has increased in popularity over the years and even commercial/hotel gyms have an improved range of equipment we are still not at the point where all gyms cater to a more ‘hardcore’ lifter. 

Barbells are a staple in bodybuilding/strength training routines however they are not a piece of equipment that is readily available. The first gym that I was a member of in a leisure center only had a small range of dumbbells and a smith machine. My first barbell was also a standard 1 inch circumference that weighed around 7kg. 

When you consider these two factors, then you can imagine my surprise the first time I used an Olympic weight barbell (20kg) which needed stabilizing muscles and weight 13kg more than what I was used to lifting with. Lets just say the barbell came down to my chest during the bench press but then would not go back up again!

Dumbbells on the other hand tend to be readily available in most gyms and will range in weights depending on how large of a gym it is. Therefore having some dumbbell exercises as a staple in your program will mean that you can do them regardless of what gym you find yourself attending. 

Good Starting Point for Beginners

The deadlift is a very technical lift despite its simplicity. The more joints and muscle groups involved during an exercise the more technical the requirements. For a deadlift you need to tuck your elbows and pull your scapula downwards, keep your spine in a neutral position, drive your hips forward, push down into the ground, keep the bar over your mid foot and make use of a range of other exercise cues. 

This can be overwhelming for a beginner and it will take a while to learn the correct motor patterns. The dumbbell variation is much easier to learn and will have less loading of the spine as you can position your arms by your side with a neutral grip. 

With a dumbbell you can learn the deadlift at a lighter weight while gradually learning the movement pattern and correct form. That’s not to say that you can’t also do this with a barbell but holding a dumbbell by your side allows you to easily contract your lats, keep your scapula down and also keep a neutral spine. 

Notice that I’m emphasizing that you should use a neutral grip with dumbbells by your side when performing a dumbbell deadlift. If you place the dumbbell in front of you like a traditional barbell deadlift then the movement will become much more difficult for a beginner as you need to use the same form as a barbell whilst also controlling and stabilizing the dumbbells. 

Remove/Improve Muscle Imbalances

This is more relevant for an experienced lifter but a dumbbell deadlift can help improve muscle imbalance of the posterior chain and in particular the lats and upper traps. The reason for this is that many will take a mixed grip when performing a barbell deadlift to improve your grip strength and prevent the bar from rolling. 

A mixed grip means that one hand uses an overhand grip while the other uses an underhand grip and while it’s recommended that you alternate which arm takes which grip, most people will actually stick with the same grip due to comfort. 

If you naturally take an underhand grip with your right hand then it’s more likely you will stick with this grip for the right arm and will therefore always adopt an overhand grip with the left arm and underhand grip with the right arm. 

The reason this is an issue is because a different grip will activate different muscle groups starting at the forearm and working right the way through to your upper back and lats. Over time this will lead to muscle imbalances as one side will have certain muscle groups that are overactive and will become overdeveloped as a result. 

A dumbbell deadlift will force you to take the same grip style and work muscle groups equally that would otherwise have an imbalance. This is by no means a quick process and will take months of training with unilateral work to correct these imbalances but a dumbbell deadlift is a good way to do this. 

This is why I mention that it’s better for advanced lifters, muscle imbalances come with months-years training a movement incorrectly and therefore will take a long time to correct. A beginner is unlikely to have these imbalances from the outset but a dumbbell deadlift will still help to engage the muscle groups evenly as you learn the deadlift.  

Works Multiple Muscle Groups

Finally, the main benefit of the dumbbell deadlift is that it will work multiple muscle groups and you have the capacity to increase the weight by a significant amount. 

The deadlift utilizes large muscle groups like the hamstrings, glutes, lower back muscles and lats and therefore not only is the potential for loading the exercise great in terms of potential weight used but also the muscle hypertrophy effects are significant as well. 

An exercise that utilizes multiple muscle groups will typically mean you recruit more muscle fibres and can also fatigue a greater number of muscle fibres. The more muscle groups active the more weight you can also typically use and the more you can load a muscle group the greater the potential for muscle growth as a result. 

These are some basic requirements for muscle growth however it’s one of the key reasons why compound movements are essential when it comes to building muscle and ultimately a physique. 

Are Dumbbell Deadlifts Effective

Dumbbell deadlifts are certainly an effective exercise depending on your personal goals and training level. This is an important point to note because there is a much greater limit to your deadlift potential when using dumbbells over a barbell alternative. 

Firstly you are limited by the weight that you can use, not all gyms will have particularly heavy dumbbells and even those that do will not be able to compete with the loading potential of a barbell. For the average person a 405lb deadlift is attainable within 1-2 years of training however most gyms will only have dumbbells that go as high as 120lbs. 

To find 200lb dumbbells would only be common in elite level gyms and even then this is at a top range. Therefore as soon as you go past a 405lb deadlift which most trained individuals can aim for then a barbell becomes your only realistic route for further progression. 

With a barbell using 45lb plates (as standard) then the deadlift will be done with the bar starting from mid shin however the dumbbell variation will see your starting position being closer to your ankle due to a dumbbell being significantly smaller in diameter than a 45lb plate. 

This means you’d not only need to adjust your form to start the lift from a lower position but this is also a weaker starting position so your weight will need to be reduced. This is not ideal if you are training for total poundage however it can be good to do some specialized work from a weakened position. 

I’m making these points because a dumbbell deadlift is an effective lift but I’m not claiming that it is the most optimal lift. With a dumbbell deadlift you can more easily keep a neutral spine which is great for not only preventing injury from a breakdown in form but is also to work around any lower back issues you might have. 

The dumbbell deadlift will also allow you to train the smaller stabilizing muscles whilst also being able to use heavy weights in the process (great for muscle hypertrophy). A dumbbell can also provide a different training stimulus to mix up your routine. 

Therefore the dumbbell deadlift is certainly an effective exercise when used with a specific purpose and while I’ve made some comparisons throughout this article I’ll now look at the full comparison between a dumbbell deadlift and barbell deadlift. 

Dumbbell Deadlifts vs Barbell Deadlifts

While dumbbell deadlifts are a great exercise in their own right I would consider them to be a secondary/accessory exercise whereas a barbell deadlift would be your go to primary exercise. 

The reason for this is simply because you can use more weight with a barbell deadlift and while it’s not always a matter of lifting the most weight when it comes to training, with the barbell deadlift you engage so many muscle groups and have such a high strength potential that it really is a lift that focuses on maximal strength, muscle fibre fatigue and arguably growth potential. 

The dumbbell deadlift is convenient, offers less loading of the spine (which is why it is great for beginners and those with any back issues) and allows you to work the stabilizing muscles to a greater degree but the bottom line is that it just doesn’t offer the same stimulation as a barbell equivalent. 

I mentioned that a dumbbell deadlift would be considered a compound movement when compared with other exercises that utilize a range of muscle groups but in comparison to the barbell deadlift it would be a secondary movement because it doesn’t offer the same loading potential. 

Are Dumbbell Deadlifts as Good as Barbell Deadlifts

Many people ask whether a dumbbell deadlift is as good as a barbell deadlift because in certain exercises a dumbbell variation can be seen as a better exercise. 

The barbell bench press for example is a great upper body exercise for building strength and size however for a lot of people it is not necessarily the best chest builder. A dumbbell chest press can place more emphasis on the chest and allows you to better isolate and fatigue the pec muscles leading to greater growth. 

Unfortunately the same circumstances do not apply when comparing the dumbbell deadlift and barbell deadlift. The deadlift in general is a simple exercise that focuses on pure power and explosiveness and in terms of muscles being engaged the barbell version comes out on top. 

On average you can lift 20% more with a barbell than a dumbbell variation however when it comes to deadlift and squatting this percentage is significantly higher. Not only do your stabilizing muscles hold you back on a dumbbell deadlift but you also can’t generate the same level of force or muscular tension as you can against a single fixed object. 

While dumbbell deadlifts are a good exercise in their own right they simply cannot compare with a barbell and would rarely be considered as a direct substitute. With that said they can act as an alternative from time to time or as an accessory movement to work on technique, stabilizing muscles and imbalances. 

Summary

I wanted to provide a comprehensive overview for the dumbbell deadlift in this article because they are a great exercise. If you could only pick one exercise as a total body movement (that focuses on the posterior chain) then the deadlift would be the winner in my opinion with a barbell back squat coming in second place. 

If however you took the barbell out of the equation then I’d still go with a dumbbell deadlift over some other alternatives like a pull up. The dumbbell deadlift has many of the benefits that a barbell deadlift has and the only limiting factor is load that you can use. 

Therefore I’d recommend including dumbbell deadlifts into your routine even if you only use them as a secondary exercise to improve form, technique and muscle engagement.

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