Ariel Winter often gives fans a glimpse of her workouts on Instagram, and this week, she showed us how she keeps her backside strong: deadlifts. The exercise is considered to be one of the foundational strength exercises, in part because it’s so simple: You pick something off the floor, then put it back down. This basic move is one of the most effective exercises for the glutes (butt muscles) and hamstrings (back of the thighs), and can be modified in countless ways.
“A lot of people forget they do deadlifts in everyday life, whether they’re picking up a child during the day or carrying groceries,” says strength and sports performance trainer Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S. “The benefit of the deadlift is then that it carries over to those real life activities, and if it’s done correctly, it’s a great way of building resiliency in the body. If you’re training to get stronger or add muscle to your frame, it’s a great exercise in that regard, too,” Gentilcore tells SELF.
Because it involves multiple muscle groups and more than one joint, a deadlift is known as a compound exercise. “If we were to compare it to a bicep curl, a bicep curl is a single joint exercise, you might hit eight muscles with a single joint exercise, whereas a deadlift is hitting a whole lot more,” says strength expert Holly Perkins, C.S.C.S. The deadlift is primarily an exercise for the glutes and hamstrings. But when you perform it correctly, you’ll also be working your abs, back, arms, and hips. (If you’re curious, here’s why compound exercises get more done in less time.)
Due to the nature of the movement, it’s also beginner-friendly, as long as you know a few basic form pointers. “It’s a very easy exercise to cater to the ability and experience level of the trainee and the person,” Gentilcore says. “There’s no rulebook saying you need to lift a heavy barbell off the floor for the count of the deadlift. I have people deadlift dumbells, I have people deadlift kettlebells, I have people do cable pull throughs.”
That said, there is a very real risk of injury if you deadlift incorrectly while you’re lifting a substantial amount of weight. (The risk of injury is much lower if you’re using lighter loads.) “It’s such a valuable exercise, but you need to dedicate yourself to learning the proper technique of it,” Perkins says. “Have someone help you, study videos online, or work with a trainer,” she says. “I’ve been doing deadlifts for 15 years and I’m still refining my technique.”
Practice with lighter weights first while you master the basic movement. (There are still plenty of benefits to lifting light weights!) Once you feel comfortable, you can add more resistance. Only really test your limits, though, when you’re fully comfortable with the movement and confident in your form.
Ready to give it a try? Here’s how to perform a basic stiff-legged dumbbell deadlift. It’s one of the easiest variations to learn, and you’ll definitely feel it in your butt in thighs:
Stand with your feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent and a dumbbell by each foot.
Hinge at your hips and bend your knees to lower your body.
Grab each weight with your arms straight.
Push your butt way back and keep your back flat. Your torso should be almost parallel to the floor.
Keeping your core tight, push through your heels to stand up straight. Keep the weights close to your shins as you
Pause at the top and squeeze your butt, then slowly lower the weight along your shins.
It’s especially important to pay attention to the shape of your back when you’re deadlifting. Make sure you keep a natural curve in your lower back, but don’t arch. (Use a mirror, as Winter does, to check your form.) “A lot of people think of it as a pulling exercise, like they’re pulling the weight off the floor with their backs, which is wrong,” Gentilcore says. Gentilcore suggests conceptualizing the exercise differently: “Think about pushing yourself away from the floor to get the weight up.”