Why Women Should Do Deadlifts

Strength Training

Many women who exercise are intimidated by doing the "big lifts" meaning squats, deadlifts, and bench presses. Let's face it, seeing someone squat and deadlift a lot of weight can be intimidating. Women think that only bodybuilders and powerlifters deadlift. They think that they will get "too big" or will look like a professional female bodybuilder if they do these big lifts. Many women think that they can't do these "big lift" exercises. The truth is that you can learn them and add in certain exercises that can prevent injuries. Another advantage is that these exercises can help with weight loss.

Deadlifts Should Be an Essential Part of a Solid Strength Training Program

A study suggested that women can get a lot of benefits from deadlifts.

Deadlifts won't make women look like a bodybuilder.

study was published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that men activate their hamstring muscle during back squats greater than women.  There were 14 men and 14 women in the study.  They monitored muscle activation using electromyography.  Electromyography is a method to test the nerve's response in a muscle to a stimulus.  The stimuli in this study are movement during the squat.  The subjects performed 3 sets of 4 reps.  The key to the intensity in this exercise is that the subjects used 85% of their one-rep max in this test.  Intensity will be addressed later in this blog.  An important key factor will be explained on how using the RIGHT intensity can make the differences in your strength routines.  


The study tested 6 muscles in the legs- the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, rectus femoris, gluteus maximus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris.  The test revealed that men had a much higher muscular activation of the biceps femoris muscle during the descending phase of the squat.  The descending phase is more commonly known as the negative or eccentric phase of the lift.  Using this technique will also be addressed later in the blog. If you want to learn how to make your training more effective and reduce the chance of injury, keep reading!


What's interesting in this study is that no other muscles tested showed any differences between the sexes.  The only difference was the biceps femoris muscle.  For some reason, men seem to activate that muscle more in the squat exercise.  


So what does this mean for women?  

Include hamstring specific exercises to help decrease the chance of injuries.

Hamstring exercises can help reduce ACL injuries

Include isolated hamstring exercises into programming to make strength training more effective. Also consider replacing squats with hamstring specific exercises. Hamstring emphasis can help with ACL issues since the rates of ACL injuries are much higher in women than in men.  This is especially true with younger female athletes so pay attention parents of rising young female soccer stars!


Now let's consider the general female population who follow a particular habitual pattern that is common in men also.  This habitual pattern is prolonged sitting.  We are a sitting society. We are spending more hours sitting on our butts daily.  Being in seated postures for prolonged periods causes weaknesses in the entire posterior chain.  What muscles are involved in the posterior chain?  Take a look at someone when they are facing away from you.  The larger muscles that you see are the posterior chain muscles (hamstrings, glutes, lower, mid, and upper back muscles). 

Weaknesses of the biceps femoris (the hamstring) and the other muscles of the posterior chain can be a contributing factor to low back problems.  To help combat this issue and other issues from occurring in the future, hamstring work is a must in strength training programming.  Other muscles may need to be addressed but for this blog, we will be focusing just on the hamstrings.


So now you are probably wondering how you can start to make hamstring exercise a part of your strength training program.  Here are some programming suggestions that you may want to consider.


Beginner Level- (no strength training experience or one-year training experience)

  • Back Squats 1-3 sets; 6-12 reps/set

Even though the study suggests that exercises that target the hamstrings are more beneficial to females, Holly Gatto, a Pittsburgh personal trainer, advises that squats be a part of their lower body programs. 

"Squats are one of the kings of lower body strength exercises.  Plus, squatting is something that we do regularly in our daily lives. Ever pick up your child or your family pet from the ground?  You are doing a squat essentially.  That is if you are using correct squatting form and not lifting from your lower back."

Holly Gatto

Squatting properly can hit other muscles of the lower body as indicated in the study (vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, rectus femoris, gluteus maximus, semitendinosus).  These muscles can also get weakened from prolonged sitting recall the posterior chain discussion earlier.  Holly Gatto, a Pittsburgh-based personal trainer, advises adding squats into lower body strength training programs.

  • Deadlifts 1- 3 sets; 6 -12 reps
  • Hamstring leg curl (either seated leg curl or lying leg curl) 1- 3 sets; 6 -12 reps

Start at one set especially if you are new to exercising or you are coming back from a lengthy layoff from strength training.  Perform that first set for 6 reps.  The next time you come back to that routine, try to increase the set by one rep.  Once you can build up to 12 reps, it's time to add in another set and perform that set for the minimum amount of reps. In this example, it's 6 reps.  


In a follow-up video, more detail will be explained about how to structure your sets and reps based on intensity and frequency. Exercise techniques for the execution of a proper deadlift will also be explained.  Deadlifts can be done by anyone.  Beginners to advanced exercisers can benefit from deadlifts.  The key is to perform the exercise effectively just using bodyweight first before adding any type of external load.  

Intermediate Level (1 to 2 years of weight training experience)

  • Back Squats 3-4 sets; 6-12 reps/set
  • Deadlifts 3-4 sets; 6-12 reps/set
  • Hamstring leg curl (either seated leg curl, standing, or lying leg curl) 3 - 4 sets; 6 -12 reps
  • Stability Ball Leg Curl 1-2 sets; 6-15/20 reps

The advantage of adding in this exercise is that it will work your core.  To do the stability ball leg curl effectively, that requires a strong core to keep your hips off the ground.  Performing stability ball leg curls can help to strengthen your core which could help with low back pain.  This exercise will also hit those muscles that are weakened from prolonged seated postures.

Home Exercise Options (minimal equipment)

  • Squats- 1-3/4 sets; 6-12 reps/set
  • Deadlifts 1- 3/4 sets; 6 -12 reps
  • Stability Ball Leg Curl- 1-2 sets; 6-15/20 reps


The programming suggestions above can help get beginner and intermediate exercisers to get started on changing or beginning a strength training program that is more effective and safe.  For the advanced exerciser, the goals are an entirely different ballgame. Discussing those goals and exercise techniques involved for this group of individuals is completely different and not the purpose of this blog.  


The purpose of this blog is to educate, promote awareness and boost confidence to individuals who are new to strength training. Learning and performing deadlifts and squats just isn't for the hardcore bodybuilders, power athletes, and crossfitters.  These exercises can be done by anyone safely and effectively.


Are you looking to improve your strength training by exploring better exercises and methods?  Or do you want to start on an exercise program but just don't know how to start?  Get in touch with Holly Gatto, a top Pittsburgh personal trainer, by sending a message here.

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