You might be aware that deadlifts are not just a lower body exercise but that they also incorporate a significant amount of muscle recruitment in your back. If you’re looking to grow your back, you might wonder – can I just do deadlifts to grow my back?
The deadlift should not be the only tool for growing your back. Because the upper back muscles mostly work to stabilize your hold on the barbell throughout the lift, they don’t experience the same muscle contraction and range of motion needed for hypertrophy as with other back exercises.
That said, lifters who include deadlifts as part of the back training arsenal are absolutely benefitting from it. It’s all about how you program your deadlifts and your execution to determine the impact it will have on your training and physique.
In this article, I’ll discuss when deadlifts are and aren’t enough for training your back. I’ll also go into detail about which muscles of the back are and aren’t worked in the deadlift, how you can use deadlifts to target your back more, and the limitations of only doing deadlifts for your back training.
Are Deadlifts Enough For Training Your Back?
As I said above, the short answer is no. Whether your goals are a stronger back or a bigger back, deadlifts are just one variable you should include in your formula for training your back. Let’s dive into the main reasons below.
What Areas of the Back Do Deadlifts Target?
When a person new to the deadlift begins training, they’ll usually experience the most soreness and fatigue in their lower back as a result. These are your erector muscles, or the muscles primarily used to bring your body from a bent-over position into an upright, or erect, position.
Because the deadlift is a mechanical movement in which you bend over and pick up a weight to an erect stance, you can understand why these back muscles are heavily used in the deadlift.
Secondly, your lats, rhomboids, and traps—which are all located in your mid to upper back—work to keep your spine in the ideal, neutral position (straight, not curved in either direction), keep your shoulders back, and keep the bar close to your body while you hold the barbell in your hands.
Were it not for your rhomboids and traps, the weight in your hands would pull your shoulders forward, rounding your spine and upper back and making it impossible to stand up straight at the end of the deadlift.
Were it not for your lats, you wouldn’t be able to keep the bar close to your body, giving you less than ideal leverages to get the weight up.
Want to learn more about all of the muscles used in the deadlift? Check out our complete guide on the muscles used in the deadlift.
What Areas of the Back Are Not Targeted with Deadlifts?
If you look at the anatomy of the back muscles, you might feel like we’ve covered the important ones in the last section, and you’d be right. However, what the deadlift doesn’t train is the full range of motion of these muscles and their intended movements.
The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published an article exploring the differences between full range of motion exercises versus partial range of motion exercises.
They recorded that there may be a similar hypertrophic response with partial range of motion exercises (such as block pulls in which the barbell is at a higher starting position) to full range of motion exercises. However, strength gains were greater in those who performed full range of motion exercises.
In terms of the deadlift, your lats, traps, and rhomboids are not being contracted along their full range of motion. To do so would be wasteful, as these motions are not necessary for the lift, and would put the lifter in a suboptimal position, to say the least.
While this partial range of motion may benefit their size and growth, if you’re interested in strength, the research shows you should be incorporating full ROM exercises on your back to make these muscles stronger.
If you’re interested in improving your deadlift overall, your ability to hold your technique soundly, and keep heavier barbells in your hands, this is your sign to do your assistance exercises for your back and not simply deadlift as a back exercise.
Wondering what else you should add to your deadlift programming? Check out my guide on other exercises to do on deadlift day.
When Are Just Deadlifts Enough for My Back?
After all this, you may still think there’s a case for relying on the deadlift to train your back, and you’re right. There are certainly more scenarios than I can imagine or write about, but here are the three main reasons that come to mind to only use deadlifts for back training.
Based on what I’ve shared above, it might make sense to only train deadlifts for your back if you compete in bodybuilding, where you’re judged on the appearance of your back muscles. You may find that deadlifts hit your back muscles just right to get them to look the way the judges like without throwing off your proportions and ratios.
A common question I get is whether you should deadlift on leg day or back day. The truth is, you can do it on either day. Find out more in my article Are Deadlifts Back Or Legs? (What Day To Put Deadlifts On).
The Time Crunch
In another scenario, you might be short on time each week, trying to get the most bang for your buck in the limited time you have to get to the gym. In this case, it makes sense to prioritize compound movements like the deadlift to train as much of your body as you can in a single workout (or across a few limited workouts weekly).
By deadlifting, you check the boxes to train 3 major back muscles while also training your glutes, hamstrings, quads, and abs. This would be a great scenario for deadlift-only back training.
The Peaking Powerlifter
A third scenario is the powerlifter peaking into a competition. For the final few weeks going into your powerlifting meet, you’ll want to crank your total volume way down so your body can recover from the accumulated fatigue of an intense training block.
In these workouts, it makes perfect sense to just perform a few sets of deadlifts at a submaximal weight to keep blood moving, focus on the lifts you’ll be performing in competition, and forget about the rest of the ways you might train your back.
For just about everybody else, you’re going to need a really good reason to exclude other back work if you want to see any gains back there.
Not sure how to peak for your upcoming powerlifting meet? Check out my 6 mistakes to avoid when tapering for powerlifting.
Want to improve your deadlift technique?
How to Make Deadlifts Target Your Back More
Now so far I’ve only discussed the deadlift in its standard format. You can modify the deadlift to target your back in different ways to better align with your training goals. This can be done through deadlift variations and through slight technique tweaks.
Deadlift variations are deadlifts with a twist that make them emphasize (or deemphasize) one part of the lift or another.
For example, the sumo deadlift takes a wider stance than the conventional deadlift. By opening up your legs, the bar sits closer to your body, allowing you to push against the floor with your quads and reducing the angle your upper body needs to bend forward to grab the bar.
Wondering why you push against the floor even though the deadlift is a pulling exercise? Learn more in Is The Deadlift A Push or Pull? (Simple Explanation).
This reduces the ROM you need to pull your upper body back to an upright position. It exaggerates the quads and reduces the demand placed on the erectors. In this example, the sumo deadlift may not be favorable for someone trying to focus on erector strength and size.
The reduced ROM in the sumo deadlift is one of the main reasons why people call it cheating. However, it can actually be more difficult to perform than the conventional deadlift. Learn more in my article about why sumo deadlifts aren’t considered cheating.
On the contrary, a deficit deadlift increases the angle the upper body needs to bend forward to grab the bar, thereby increasing the ROM for the upper body to travel backward to get into an erect position.
The lifter stands on a stack of mats or boards, typically 1-4” high, while the bar sits on the floor as usual. This added distance between the lifter’s feet and the floor the barbell sits on adds a corresponding distance to their ROM to complete the lift. This might be a great option for a lifter focused on improving erector strength.
Other deadlift variations include (but are not limited to) the following:
- Romanian Deadlifts – no change to knee/quad position, emphasis on hamstrings and erectors
- Stiff Leg Deadlifts – similar to the Romanian deadlift, but with a dead stop on the floor
- Block Pull/Rack Pull Deadlifts – Isolates the lockout/top ROM of the deadlift and emphasizes the erectors and all back muscles involved
- Paused Deadlifts – Emphasizes whatever muscles are working hardest during the portion of the lift you are pausing (for example, just off the floor or at the knees)
- Negative Tempo Deadlifts – Emphasizes the upper back muscles and erectors to maintain spinal position as you lower the bar back to the floor at a set tempo
- Isometric Deadlifts – Similar to pauses, emphasize whatever portion of the lift is working hardest at the point where the bar hits the obstruction that you’re pulling against
You can always make a few adjustments of your own to make the deadlift more back-focused.
Grip changes are the easiest solution to implement for directly targeting the back. By moving your hands wider on the bar in a “snatch grip,” you increase the need for your lats, traps, and rhomboids to work together to hold on to the bar.
For lifters whose upper back rounds during deadlifts, this is a great adjustment to make for a period of time to build that upper back strength.
By placing your hands wider, your ending position also puts the barbell 2-3 inches higher up on your waist than a deadlift with your hands shoulder-width apart. This increases the total ROM of the weight and increases the emphasis on your erectors, which also makes the snatch grip deadlift a great variation for lifters needing to focus on strengthening their erectors.
Learn how to correctly perform the snatch grip deadlift in my snatch grip deadlift guide.
Another technique option is to change the angle of your torso relative to the ground. This can be done by doing stiff leg deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, and deficit deadlifts, which either increase or decrease how much you have to bend over to lift the weight, as I explained above.
In many cases, you can combine these technique changes, like by performing a snatch grip, deficit deadlift off a 2” mat. You might even torture yourself and add a 5 second eccentric, or downward motion of the lift, as with negative tempo deadlifts.
Limitations of Only Using Deadlifts to Train Back
At the end of the day, someone who only deadlifts for their back is much better off than someone who doesn’t train their back at all. However, there are a few obvious limitations to only deadlifting to train the back.
Ask anybody that deadlifts with intensity, and they’ll tell you deadlifts wipe them out harder than any other compound lift. They’re taxing! They take a lot out of you when you do them with intensity.
For that reason, relying on them as a back exercise means there is an upper limit to how much deadlift volume you can do each week—and that upper limit isn’t very high when you’re dealing with something as taxing as deadlifts.
One reason isolated exercises (which only work one muscle at a time) are so valuable is that they allow you to keep training a muscle or muscle group even when you’re too fatigued or zapped to keep doing compound lifts that require better technique and focus to do properly.
In order to get results in resistance training, we have to have the right amount of volume. It’s very unlikely you’re getting enough back volume to make a change if you only do deadlifts for your back work. This is especially true if you’re been at this for a while and your body has adapted beyond beginner gains stages.
Wondering how often you should deadlift each week? I recommend that most lifters deadlift 1-3 times per week, but your ideal deadlift frequency may vary. Read more in How Many Times A Week Should You Deadlift?
Range of Motion Limitations
We touched on this above, but the erectors in your lower back are the only back muscle that really gets a full ROM of muscle contraction during the deadlift.
The research I linked earlier showed that strength gains are superior in those who train the full ROM.
While the deadlift is an important and effective element of back training, when done alone, it misses out on training the rhomboids, lats, and traps to their full abilities.
To learn more about how exactly deadlifts work the lats, check out Do Deadlifts Work The Lats? (Yes, Here’s How).
Finally, the deadlift only moves your back muscles in one way each.
Sure, holding the bar against your legs as you drag it up your body engages your lats, and that is a snapshot of one second of a lat pulldown motion, but it’s not the same motion. Training your lats to stabilize a load is a different motion than training them to move a load by themselves.
The same goes for your rhomboids and rowing exercises. The rhomboids are well engaged in stabilizing your shoulders and keeping them retracted back during the deadlift, but that’s missing out on the motion of performing a horizontal row that requires them to fully contract and retract.
Furthermore, the deadlift never calls for the lifter to shrug their shoulders at the top, which is why shrugs aren’t enough to help with your deadlift.
You better believe your traps keep your shoulders from falling out of their sockets due to the hundreds of pounds or kilos in your hands while you deadlift the weight upward, but you don’t get the full motion of the trap shrug just by deadlifting.
If all you do is deadlift, you are missing out on mechanical movements and patterns your back is designed to perform that you can strengthen and grow.
I shared a few scenarios where back training is enough with deadlifts alone, but it’s worth framing this from a practical standpoint. Here are a couple of practical situations where you will be just fine only doing deadlifts to train the back.
Short on Time
I shared it before, but it bears repeating. If you are pressed for time, don’t worry about whether or not your back training is perfect. Using deadlifts as your main exercise for the day is a great way to check a lot of boxes (more muscles worked, more calories burned, less time spent in the gym, just a couple of pieces of equipment, one exercise).
If your goals are not focused on getting a bigger or a stronger back, you probably don’t need to worry about doing more than deadlifts.
Let’s be honest, if you’re actually training deadlifts weekly and progressing them, your back health and strength are better than just about everyone else who doesn’t deadlift at all.
But we all have limited time and focus, and if you’re prioritizing other things, you don’t need to beat yourself up or suck more time into training by adding extra back work that doesn’t drive you to your goals.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do Deadlifts Build a Thick Back?
Deadlifts can build a thick back. Because the rhomboids, traps, lats, and erectors are used, deadlifts can be programmed in conjunction with a caloric surplus to grow a thick back.
Is the Deadlift a Back Exercise?
The deadlift uses back muscles as well as leg and abdominal muscles. It is sometimes classified as a lower body exercise, but the incorporation of several back muscles in conjunction with leg muscles means it can be categorized as a back exercise.
Does the Sumo Deadlift Work Your Back?
The sumo deadlift does work your back. Although the positioning alters the lifter’s leverages, angles, and range of motion, the same back muscles are still used to perform a sumo deadlift as a conventional deadlift, just with different levels of emphasis.
Do Deadlifts Hurt Your Back?
Deadlifts can only hurt your back when doing them poorly. When done correctly, including proper technique and an appropriate load, the deadlift should work to strengthen and improve your back, not damage it.
What Back Muscles Are Used in the Deadlift?
The deadlift works the erectors, rhomboids, lats, and traps. Along with your hamstrings, quads, glutes, and abdominal muscles, these back muscles work together to bend over and lift a load from the floor to an upright standing position.
Can Deadlifts Be Used for Back Hypertrophy?
Yes, when programmed with the right rep range (10-16 reps per set), the right load, and when combined with a caloric surplus, deadlifts can be used to grow the muscles in your back.
Check Out Our Other Training Resources
- Are Squats And Deadlifts Enough For Legs? (Pros & Cons)
- Do Back Extensions Help Deadlifts? (Yes, Here’s How)
- Do Front Squats Help Deadlifts? Yes, Here’s How
- Do Leg Curls Help Deadlifts? Yes, Here’s How
- Do Good Mornings Help Deadlifts? (Yes, Here’s How)
- Do Hip Thrust Help Deadlifts? (Yes, Here’s How)
- Do Pull-Ups Help Deadlifts? (Yes, Here’s How)
- Do Shrugs Help Deadlifts? (No, Here’s Why)
About The Author
Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.