In this article, you will learn about the deadlift for seniors. Is it beneficial, is it safe, and of course how to do it.
Today I’m going to introduce a whole new category to ElderStrength: An exercise library. Its purpose is to provide a thorough explanation of all the exercises I recommend in my posts.
I thought there wouldn’t be a better option than to start with the king of all exercises, the deadlift. Deadlifts are one of the most functional movements of all strength training exercises and they challenge your whole body.
Any time you pick something off the ground, be it groceries, grandkids, sofas, car tires, or anything with a substantial weight you are essentially performing a deadlift.
So a deadlift is a foundational movement pattern that we use daily. It probably doesn’t come as a surprise to you that most lower back injuries happen while lifting or attempting to lift something heavy off the ground.
If only there were a way to prevent your lower back from giving out while lifting heavy (or even light) objects. Oh, wait! There is! It’s called doing deadlifts.
Benefits Of The Deadlift For Seniors
Here’s a great video about the benefits of the deadlift by Noregretspt (YouTube embed, content not created or owned by Elder Strength)
Of all the strength exercises the deadlift has the most capacity to improve. This is because it involves your whole body on a relatively short range of motion.
When you learn the correct movement patterns and then load that movement pattern progressively over time, you can become unbelievably strong.
There are many average-size senior women who can deadlift over 200 lbs safely. This proves it’s the perfect exercise for improving functional strength in seniors.
The trick is to start light, use perfect form (it’s wise to consult a qualified trainer), and progress gradually. This way your body will adapt over time and grow much stronger than it was before.
The deadlift is also excellent for seniors because it challenges the whole body but doesn’t require exceptional mobility. Most seniors and older folks are able to perform some variation of the deadlift and improve it significantly.
But there are some caveats, which we’ll talk more about a bit later on.
What is a deadlift
Before we go any further I would like to clarify what a deadlift actually is. Let’s start by breaking the word. It’s a dead lift. And no, it doesn’t have anything to do with it being deadly or involving dead bodies.
The dead part of the word refers to the fact that the weight being moved will be at a dead stop, i.e. laying dead on the ground when you lift it.
This is important because in many exercises there is a thing called stretch reflex that helps you change the direction of the weight after lowering it. For example in the bench press or the squat, you will lower the weight first before completing the rep. This helps to reverse the inertia.
In a deadlift, the weight is sitting still. This means that you will have to exert enough force to get the weight moving. This is typically the hardest part, except for some experienced lifters performing maximal lifts but that’s likely not who you are if you’re reading this.
Once you get the weight moving you can typically complete it. In a deadlift, this distinction is important, because the ability to produce force against an object without prior loading, as you would have in a squat, teaches your muscular and nervous system how to produce force efficiently.
How The Deadlift Is Performed
Now that we got the whole “dead” thing out of the way, let’s look at the lift.
The deadlift involves picking a “dead” object from the ground, using:
- Your hands to grip the object
- Straight arms to transfer force
- A rigid upper back and middle section (“core”) to transfer force
- Your legs and hips to produce force
So your legs and hips are the actual main movers in a deadlift, they produce the force required to move the object. But your whole body will have to support the weight and transfer force.
Typically deadlifts are performed from a high hips position, meaning that you don’t squat the weight up. In real life, some objects might require you to be able to start from a squat, so it’s useful to master both movement patterns.
The deadlift (with a barbell) is performed as follows:
- The lifter positions him/herself so that the barbell is located right at the middle of the foot.
- The lifter grips the barbell with both hands, either using a double overhand or a mixed grip (or a hook grip)
- The lifter lowers hips into position and takes a big breath
- The lifter lifts the bar of the ground while keeping a neutral back.
- The lift finishes when the lifter is fully extended and the barbell is in front of the hips
The barbell in the above example can be replaced with a kettlebell, dumbells, or real-life objects but the same principles apply.
The important part is that the hips and the legs do the lifting, the back remains neutral and the arms don’t assist in the lift.
One of the best ways to learn the deadlift is with a Starting Strength coach. Check out the article Starting Strength for seniors for more information,
Muscles Involved In The Deadlift
Because of the optimal high hips positioning the actual work in a deadlift is done by what’s known as your posterior chain. The posterior chain includes (from the bottom up) your hamstrings, glutes, and back musculature.
The quads are involved, especially in the first portion of the lift where you get the bar off the ground. Once the bar reaches the knees, it becomes completely a hip dominant movement.
The glutes will be most active at this part of the lift, which is essentially a hip hinge. At this point, you shouldn’t think about moving the weight up but instead pushing your hips through the weight.
Even though the back muscles only serve as support to transfer the force of the hips in a proper deadlift, the forces exerted especially on the lower back muscles are great.
This is why the deadlift is the best exercise for improving back strength and even treating lower back pain. The upper back has to remain neutral as well and the large muscles of your upper back are responsible for keeping the weight close to your body so the deadlift also activates the Latissimus Dorsi or lats. The traps will also have to be very active to prevent your shoulder from caving in.
Great For The Core
Your abdominal muscles will need to remain flexed throughout the whole movement to further support the spinal column. This will make the lift both easier and safer.
A heavy deadlift is something you really feel in your core. When you have the proper movement pattern in place you will automatically “brace” your abdominal muscles to tense up your middle section to support the weight.
One of the key muscle groups in a deadlift are the forearms. They are responsible for producing to force to grip the bar. If you can’t hold on to the bar, you can’t lift it. Doing a deadlift will over time improve your grip strength better than anything else.
So the deadlift directly activates at least these muscle groups:
- The legs
- The hips
- The lower back
- The abdominals
- The upper back
- The forearms
As you can see, that’s a large percentage of your muscle mass. Deadlifts will also to a lower extent activate your shoulder, upper arms, pectorals, and neck muscles so it’s no wonder it’s called the king of all exercises.
This makes it also a good exercise for seniors that are into bodybuilding. Deadlifts are also a competition lift in powerlifting and they are often used in Crossfit for seniors as well. In case you are interested in those sports.
Are Deadlifts Good For Seniors?
Many older people are afraid of lifting anything substantial in fear of injury. This is a justified fear. But if you are otherwise healthy, there really isn’t any reason to avoid lifting (relatively, use common sense) heavy objects.
You just have to make sure you know the correct way and then train your body to be strong enough to perform it safely. If there is a single strength training movement I would advise you to do, it would either be the deadlift or the squat, depending on your background, health and mobility.
This is because they are both functional movements that make your day-to-day life easier but because they are also very efficient at training most of your muscle mass.
The benefits of strength training for seniors are so diverse that I won’t even go to depth here (check the link), but in short, it improves your odds of living a longer healthier life without osteoporosis and sarcopenia (old age frailty).
Deadlifts will also strengthen all the key muscles that are required for balance and it will also require you to balance the weight, giving you some balance practice. Maintaining your balance skills is should be one of your greatest priorities as you age.
Deadlift Safety Precautions
There are a few risks you have to do your best to avoid. The deadlift is a relatively simple exercise that doesn’t require too much training. Yet many people these days can’t perform them correctly due to all the sitting around.
Since it requires excellent technique to perform safely, it’s not something you should learn on your own. Instead, find an experienced trainer that can guide you.
If you lose your stability in your lower back, it’s very easy to get injured while performing a deadlift. This typically happens when you don’t know how to use your hips appropriately and end up rounding your back and using the back muscles to lift the weight. They are not designed to do this.
Another common error is to overextend the lower back, or arching, which puts the spine in a compromised position, risking a herniated disc.
Now that all might sound dangerous, but remember that all these dangers are present even if you are just picking a sock from the floor.
But if you can safely lift 225 lbs in complete control at the gym, you can safely lift lighter objects in real life. That’s why the deadlift is so great for protecting your back from injuries.
That said, the deadlift shouldn’t be the first go to exercise for seniors just starting out strength training in my opinion. It’s important to improve core strength, flexibility, and leg strength. If you been very sedentary your grip strength can also be a limiting factor.
Seniors have more posture issues than younger folks. Bad posture can be detrimental for performing deadlifts and many other barbell lifts. You can learn more about posture in the articles Good Posture Exercises For Seniors [6 Tips], Exercises To Improve Posture In Elderly and Best Posture Corrector for Seniors [Quick Guide].
There are a few variations to the deadlift. It can be performed with two different positions and with several partial ranges to learn the movement. You can also use a barbell, dumbbells, or a kettlebell.
- Feet around shoulder width
- Hands outside of feet
- Leg and back dominant
- Longer range of motion
“Sumo” deadlift for seniors
- Performed with feet wide apart
- Hands between feet
- Hip dominant
- Shorter range of motion
Romanian deadlift for seniors
- Starts from the conventional deadlift ending position
- Is performed by lowering the bar by hinging the hips
- Teaches the “hip hinge” movement pattern
- Uses a special “trap” bar
- Allows a lower starting position
- Easier to perform because the bar doesn’t have to go around the knees
- Can be performed with one dumbbell between legs or two dumbells on the side
- Due to the low position of the handles, is more a mix between a squat and a deadlift
- Is performed using a kettlebell
- Resembles a sumo deadlift
I hope you found this post about the deadlift useful and will incorporate some form of the deadlift in your own exercise routine. If you have any questions, you can leave them in the comments section below and I will get back to you.
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See you next time.
24 thoughts on “The Deadlift For Seniors [Guide With Tips]”
this is great information for strength training older adults. many are afraid of the DL.
Glad you liked it Joe! I know many are afraid of the deadlift, which is a bit sad really. It’s one of the most fundamental movement patterns for keeping your back and legs healthy. In all honesty I don’t think people in the past needed to learn how to squat or deadlift, they are a natural consequence of physical lifestyle. The modern day life with all the sitting has caused people to lose these basic movement patterns/skills. It possible to live your life without actually lifting anything heavy. And that’s not a good thing according to medical science.
The deadlift is a very simple movement that is only dangerous if you perform it with poor technique or way too much weight. That said, most people shouldn’t try to learn it by themselves, for the reasons I just said.
I am 64 and my deadlift is at 175 lbs for reps. The goal is to get to 225 (roughly 100 kilos) by the end of the year. Blessed with a great trainer; love how back and legs are probably stronger than ever.
That’s great Leona! Those numbers are very good considering your age and gender. 100kg is a great round goal that even many young guys struggle to lift with good form. If you haven’t done strength training when you were younger your back and legs actually are likely stronger than ever! Age doesn’t prevent strength gains after all. It’s also great to hear you have a trainer that can watch your form and make sure you are recovered before the next workout. I’m sure you’ll hit your goal this year, it’s very realistic!
Please advise as to how seniors should deadlift by adapting an easy breathing
technique. For me, 54, inhale as you lift and exhale as you lower the weight
is easy compared to the reverse way. I do not want to try the Valsavar technique. Please advise.
Great question and a very complicated one. It also involves several health factors and in my opinion can’t be answered on a blog comment and I don’t give medical advice. In fact I recommend you get in person advice from a qualified strength coach that has experience with older lifters and can take into account your medical history. Here are a couple of considerations: The valsalva can help protect your back especially if you are doing seriously heavy lifting like competing for powerlifting. That said, it likely has some cardiovascular risks that are likely elevated in senior populations. Basically it drives your blood pressure through the roof for a short duration of time if taken to the extreme so you are wise to avoid it when training for health reasons.
with the deadlift try the valsalva /bracing from the floor to above the knees then exhale to the top. at the top inhale and brace again exhale as you start the lowering.
Good form is everything, I’m a 75 year old male, weigh 90kg (198 lb) and current single lift is 290 lb (130kg) with 3 warm-up sets of 220lb (100 kg) x 5 reps. Deadlifting is great for health, posture, fitness and wellbeing, thoroughly recommend but do it correctly. My best investment in life has been my gym membership.
Absolutely Chas! Form is everything and beginners should always have someone to teach them. Especially for seniors, since the risk of injury is higher and it takes longer to recover. Awesome stats considering your age Chas! Just goes to show that you can be strong at an older age if you train smart.
Great article, I am 80 and restarted a workout regiment 4 months ago. I look at it as my new job now that I have retired. I go 5 days a week from 10 to 1. My progress has been slow and steady. My question is, is it possible to regain a fair percentage of muscle mass that I had when I was 63 after a 18 year complete absence from the gym?
Great to hear you sticking to a routine and seeing results Len! It’s impossible to say what percentage of muscle mass you can regain because there are too many variables. It’s irrelevant really, the only thing that should matter is keeping healthy and functional. The older you get, the harder it becomes to build muscle mass but the basic principles still apply. All that said, your workload seems very high, just remember that you need more time for recovery as you age. Recovery is where the adaptation happens, workout is just the stimulus. Good luck with your training Len!
I’m a longtime lifter. At 72 not near as strong as I was at 30. But I recently DL 260 x 8 for 3 sets. My Max one rep now is probably around 300. Love the DL. Can no longer squat because or rotator cuff issues that prevents me from placing my shoulder in the proper position.
Those are great numbers Bill! I’m 30 years younger and my deadlift is pretty around the same as yours these days. I rarely go over 315 lbs. I can go a bit higher if I want to push it, but to be honest, my lower back has never liked heavy deadlifts, so I don’t like to risk it. 300 lbs is plenty for health, functional strength and longevity.
Have you ever tried a safety bar squat? It allows you to keep your arms in front of you which makes it great for people with shoulder issues. I know the squat can be hard on your shoulder as I’ve managed to pinch my nerves from shoulders and elbows in both arms doing heavy squats several times a week. The only thing that helped was mobility work and reducing squatting frequency. Couldn’t hold on to a barbell after a squat session because the nerves were so aggravated.
I have the same problem with left shoulder and to a lesser extent with the right shoulder. I use an SSB/yoke bar , safety squat bar. There are a bunch of them on the market And also Zercher squats.
am also over 70
After retiring I wanted to remain active, and joined a gym. After some time I added DL’s and Squats. Just turned 69 with my best squat number is 250 lbs and DL at 335. The program I follow is 12 week cycles, and has gotten me to those number. I agree adding those lifts has been very beneficial to overall strength. I do find most seniors at least at my gym reluctant to add those lifts to their routine while I try to encourage them to start slow and very light. I began with the trap bar till moving to the straight bar. A good trainer will have a beginner work on form first for a safe and productive training routine
Those are some very respectable numbers John, good work! I agree with you, these lifts are great for functional strength and maintaining muscle mass as you age. It’s great that you point out the need for a good trainer however. Unathletic people who have never performed these types of movements, especially as seniors, can have a very hard time learning the correct movement patterns. The biggest issue is usually with the hip hinge pattern which requires correct mobility and activation of the glutes and the hamstrings as you surely know.
I’m a 71 yr old 125 pound female
Seriously lifting for 41 years but DL was nothing I ever did a lot of
Just recently decided to work towards a 300 lb goal
Training without a trainer and currently only lifting about 175 but just getting started. I have trained 6 days a week since I was 30. Looking forward to having a goal to push for
Great to hear you are training the deadlift and have an ambitious goal Sharon! 300 lb would definitely be something at your weight and age. That said, it’s good to have goals but it’s also important to be safe and realistic. I definitely recommend you get a trainer, more specifically a powerlifting coach that has experience in training seniors. I think that’s your best to achieve your goal safely. Since you are a very experienced lifter I’m sure you can program your own training but the injury risk with heavy deadlifts is real. 300 lbs is an elite lift for your weight class, regardless of age after all. Good luck and be safe!
Hi There, I have been training with free weights at the gym for just over 3 months now after 5 years doing nothing and I get there early morning 3 times per week.
I am 60 years old and I only work composite muscles. I have been doing 5×5 Squats (done every visit) Military press and Deadlifts one session and the next session it is Squats with Bench and Bent over rows.
My Squats are no issue as I am up to 122.5KG 5×5 easy enough and all exercises increase by 2.5KG each session, except military press that is going up in 1 KG at a time and is 60KG 5×5 today.
My Bench is up to 75KG 5×5 no issues. Bent over rows are no issue at 85KG 5×5 increasing by 2.5KG each session but I am stuck on 120KG Deadlifts.
I do them at the end after the Squats and the Military press and only do 1 set of 5 Deadlifts but I run out of energy and cannot seem to progress at the moment. Maybe it is my technique? but I researched it and believe I am doing it correctly. After reading your article I will ask one of the more experienced lifters to check my form out as I think that I should be capable of lifting a lot more.
First of all Kevin, those are great for anyone. But especially at your age and after 3 months. They are in fact so great that I presume you have an athletic background or maybe even experience in some form of strength sport? Or manual labor and a large frame? Not questioning your progress, I’m just genuinely impressed. And I want other readers to know, that these are in no way typical strength levels for barbell lifts for seniors after a few months of training. So good for you!
Here’s are some observations based on your numbers. You probably have very good leverages for squats: Short femurs, long back. And probably shorter arms. This is almost always the case when squats are higher than the deadlift. The strangest thing in your lifts in my opinion is your overhead-to-bench ratio. Your overhead press is very good for anyone really, I rarely see anyone doing 60kg for reps for several sets at my gym. But your bench seems a bit weak compared to that, but if it’s progressing I’m sure it’s fine. I personally think that the overhead press is actually more important than the bench so good job.
For progressing your deadlift I have several suggestions. First of all, doing a 5×5 heavy squat before a deadlift is VERY taxing. I recognize this is the Strong Lifts (a Starting Strength 5×5 variation) progression. It’s mainly meant for young beginners with low working loads and stress. They can just eat and sleep between workouts. It also requires you to gain weight at a high rate during the whole progression. So the first solution is to always eat (and sleep) more. This is not a good long term strategy for older folks how ever in my opinion. It’s going to be counterproductive to have to lose that fat eventually, as you will likely lose more muscle than younger folks. So I would look at your programming if I were you. Your numbers are high enough to move to an intermediate/advanced program. If you like the current program, I suggest you Google the 5/3/1 and Texas Method programs. You can find the general outline of these free online. They are time-tested and proven to work just like your current program. And seriously consider if you might want to reduce your volume and frequency to peioritize recovery, which is reduced with age. Afformentioned programs have such ideas for older people.
You might also want to consider if your strength levels are sufficient (they surely are for general health) and focus on maintenance, fat loss, and general work capacity. You can also try to keep following the current program until your other lifts get stuck too before moving to an advanced program. The deadlift might just need a bit more time. If your squats and rows increase, eventually your deadlift will as well if your technique is in check. Just beware that doing the linear progression programs to fatigue and failure will increase your injury risk over time substantially. So be careful and prioritize health over progression. Nothing sets you back as much as injury. Sometimes permanently. Hope this helps and good luck with the training! And merry Christmas.
Thank-you for your very informative advice, I will surely check out these 5 3 1 and Texas methods. I have always had a background of physical labour and I was Wrestling until 5 years ago and some of that training is very tough.
I am 6 feet tall and my limbs are normal size not short but I have very strong thick set legs so this is probably why I find squats relatively easy.
I started with just a 20KG bar and progressed 2.5KG each session, 3 times a week.
Squats are every session so weight progressed faster and Military press is harder so I began increasing by only 1KG each session recently instead of the 2.5KG and this is why it has fallen behind bench press.
Bench is still very easy still for me but will increase 2.5KG each session until I fail to do 5×5.
As I said the only lift that I am finding tough so far is the deadlift which were increasing by 5KG each session but has stalled at 120KG.
I do feel genuinely tired after my 45 mins in the GYM so maybe my age is catching up with me.
Thanks for your sound advice and I will certainly give you some feedback on my future progress.
Merry Christmas to you and I hope you and your family have a fantastic New Year.
Glad to hear I could help Kevin! Your background and height confirmed my suspicions. Wrestling and manual labor both build functional strength and mobility. That gives you a serious edge on the barbell lifts over someone who has been sedentary. Oh, I didn’t mean that your proportions would be anything “abnormal”. The natural variation between limb and torso lengths is surprisingly high. A variation of just an inch in your femur length will have significant impact on your squat. A longer femur will have a significantly longer moment arm in the bottom position. This will affect your form and in most cases your ability to progress to lift. It’s important to realize this is not a weakness, it’s just a trade-off. People with different proportions will just have different strengths. But getting stronger always means you have improved. The barbell doesn’t lie.
That said I really wouldn’t worry about the deadlift or any of your lifts at this point. They’ve all progressed Give your body time to adapt and stick with it. The advanced programs with periodic programming should solve your problem in no time. As a final note I want to mention safety once again. You are moving serious weights and you should always respect them and never jeopardize safety over progression. Take this from someone who didn’t. I’ve injured my back on the deadlift AND the squat. It took a few rounds before I accepted that I’m not going to become a serious powerlifter. In fact I rarely go over 100kg on the squat these days. I kind of keep it as my safety limit and just increase reps when I want to progress. On the deadlift my safety limit is 140kg. I do both to keep my back strong and pain free though. The only really heavy leg work I do is with the leg press. Reducess the risk for back injuries significantly. Just some food for the thought.
Hi again, I took your advice and read through the differences between the 2 systems that you suggested may be beneficial and I think 531 is going to be perfect.
I went to the Gym this morning and got someone to spot me on my Bench Press and lifted 107.5KG as my best single lift, after this I military pressed 75KG as my best lift and I am calling 136KG my best for both Deadlift and Squats.
I have done the maths and worked out my 90% of these single best lifts and then worked out a chart for each of the 4 sessions a week and the various weight percentages each week with the final set to failure in the first 3 weeks.
This looks perfect for me and I am excited to try it out, thanks again for your sound advice, I can diet a bit too now and hopefully cut up a bit.
On my previous system I was gaining strength without aching afterwards but as the weights increased by 2.5KG a session and 5kg On deadlifts I had to eat like a horse, lol. best regards Kev.
Sounds Great Kevin! Very impressive 1 RMs. Especially the overhead press! As a last tip, I recommend you estimate the 1 RMs a bit down. Remember that you are looking for the lowest workload that still drives adaptation and strength progression. Overestimating can lead to overreaching, fatigue, and injuries. This can be counterproductive. Look at the big picture and focus on long-term gains instead of thriving to maximize short-term gains. So for the first round of 531, it would be completely fine to use 100kg/70kg/130kg for example. If you hit your training maxes no problem, just increase the 5% (if I remember correctly) for the next round.