“By honing in on the posterior chain—the muscles that make up your entire backside—deadlifts improve running form, economy, and power,” says exercise physiologist Polly de Mille R.N., C.S.C.S., coordinator of performance services at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City.
Runners tend to have weak hips, glutes, and hamstrings, which is responsible for both the sloppy form you see at race finish lines and a whole host of lower-body running injuries—IT band syndrome and runner’s knee just to name a few, de Mille says.
Learn to perform deadlifts properly—and boost your running performance—with these six versions for runners. All lifting levels welcome.
Wall-Tap Hip Hinge
To perform any deadlift safely, you first have to master the exercise’s primary movement pattern—the hip hinge—says Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S., owner of CORE in Boston. The wall-tap hip hinge is an easy, equipment-free way to practice the hip hinge whenever, wherever.
Do It: With your feet hip-width apart, stand with your back a few inches inches from a wall. Bracing the abs and, keeping your back flat, shoot your hips out behind you so that your butt just taps the wall. Without locking your knees, keep your legs as straight as possible. Reverse the movement to return to start. Once you can perform five reps with proper form, step slightly farther from the wall and repeat. Work up to standing a foot away from the wall. (See the video of Gentilcore demonstrating the movement above.)
Tip: To make sure the movement is coming from your hips, place the sides of your hands where your thighs and hips meet. As you perform each rep, you should feel your body “fold” around your hands.
Most newbs find this position to be more natural, helping them master form before progressing to other variations, Gentilcore says.
Do It: Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and a kettlebell between your feet. While taking a deep inhale, hinge at your hips and bend your knees just slightly to grab the kettlebell with both hands. Keeping a neutral spine and your arms extended, forcefully exhale and thrust your hips forward and straighten your knees to lift the kettlebell off the floor. Slowly reverse the motion, keeping your back straight, to return to start. Perform three sets of eight to 10 reps.
Do It: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold two dumbbells against your thighs with an overhand grip, your hands just wider than shoulder-width apart. Hinge at your hips and, maintaining a very slight bend in your knees, lower the dumbbells down your legs until it reaches just below your knees and you feel a slight pull in your hamstrings. Thrust your hips forward to raise back to start. Perform four sets of five to six reps, focusing on quality over quantity. (Perfect your form on the straight-leg deadlift by watching the movement from Men’s Health Fitness Director B.J. Gaddour below.)
This variation is ideal for runners who have tight hamstrings and can’t reach all the way down to a kettlebell or barbell without rounding their backs or excessively bending their knees, de Mille says. Start by loading the barbell with two light bumper plates; that will keep the bar stable on the ground and at the proper height off the floor. Many gyms also have thin pieces of wood cut in the shape and size of bumper plates that you can add to the bar without adding significant weight.
Do It: Stand with your feet hip-width apart in the center of a loaded trap/hex bar, and hinge at your hips and bend your knees to grab both handles. Your palms should face your body, and your knees will be slightly more bent than they are in other deadlifts. Take a deep inhale and then, while exhaling, drive through your heels and thrust your hips forward to pick up the bar and return to standing. Reverse the movement to lower the weight back to the floor, making sure not to round your back. Perform three sets of eight to 10 reps.
Single-Leg Kettlebell Deadlift
Do It: Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and a kettlebell in one hand. Lift the leg of the same side just off of the floor, making sure not to let one hip shift out to the side. Hinge at your hips to raise your lifted leg straight behind you and lower chest to the ground. Your kettlebell should hang straight down in front of you. Continue until your chest and lifted leg are nearly parallel to the floor in a straight line. Pause, then squeeze your glutes to raise your torso back to start. Do three sets of eight to 10 reps on each leg. (Perfect your form on the single-leg kettlebell deadlift by watching the movement from Men’s Health Fitness Director B.J. Gaddour above.)
The conventional deadlift is one to work on after mastering the other variations, Gentilcore says. But by mastering it, you’ll score major glute benefits by putting them through their entire range of motion and emphasizing concentric movement—what happens when you push into the ground with every running stride.
Do It: Stand with your feet between hip- and shoulder-width apart and a loaded barbell in front of you by your shins. (Use light bumper plates to start.) While taking a deep inhale, hinge at your hips and grab the barbell with an overhand grip, your hands just beyond shoulder width. Keeping a neutral spine and your arms extended, forcefully exhale and thrust your hips forward and straighten your knees to lift the barbell off the floor. At the top of the motion, continue squeezing your glutes so your hips push forward in front of your shoulders. Slowly reverse the motion, keeping your back straight, to return to start. Perform four sets of five to six reps. Prioritize quality over quantity. (Perfect your form on the barbell deadlift by watching the movement from Men’s Health Fitness Director B.J. Gaddour below.)