You may be wondering how to build a bigger deadlift or how to target certain muscle groups over others while deadlifting. So an understanding of the muscles used in the deadlift and their roles is important.
What are the muscles used in the deadlift? The first half of the movement where you bring the barbell from the floor to knees will primarily be targetting the quad muscles. The second half of the movement to bring the bar from the knees to a lock-out will primarily be targetting the muscles of the low and mid back, as well as the glutes and hamstrings. Deadlift variations that target either the lower half or upper half range of motion will engage those muscle groups to more or less of an extent.
In this article, I’ll discuss what each muscle is responsible for in the deadlift, as well as break down how different muscles are used in specific variations of the deadlift. I’ll also talk about how to identify weak muscle groups and what to do about them.
Muscles Worked While Deadlifting (Basic Anatomy & Bio-Mechanics)
The deadlift is considered a total body movement because there are several muscles used in both the lower and upper body. The muscles used in the deadlift are:
- Adductor Magnus (Inner Thigh)
- Abdominals & Obliques
Certain muscle groups are more engaged than others based on which variation of the deadlift you’re doing. We’ll explain more on this later, but first, let’s breakdown each muscle worked in the deadlift and their role.
The quad muscles are used to extend the knee in the bottom half range of motion. This is why some lifters use the cue to ‘push the floor away’ off the ground — it’s to extend the knee and engage the quad muscles.
The glutes are used to extend the hips. This is an important function in the lock-out of the deadlift in order to bring the hips closer to the barbell. As the lifter starts the deadlift the hips are behind the barbell, but as they stand up, the hips need to come forward. This is where the glutes are most active.
Adductor Magnus (Inner Thigh)
The adductor magnus muscle of the inner thigh also has a role in hip extension. It performs a similar function to the glutes, which allows the hips to extend fully during the lock-out of the deadlift.
The hamstring has two roles in the deadlift.
First, the hamstring acts as a synergist to support the glutes in hip extension during the lock-out. As the knees straighten, the hamstrings are engaged more in order to bring the hips to the bar. However, the glutes are still the prime mover and the hamstrings are only contracting a small amount.
In our later discussion on the stiff leg deadlift, you’ll find out how to engage the hamstrings more based on how straight or bent your knees become.
Second, the hamstring acts as a stabilizing muscle to support the knee joint. When the lifter has their knees bent in the start position and pulls the weight off the floor, the tension of the hamstrings helps stabilize the knee joint by countering the forces of the quads to extend the leg.
The erectors are the muscles that run along the outside of your spine. They have two roles in the deadlift.
First, the erectors help prevent the spine from rounding. In other words, the erectors keep the back flexed and extended. This is an important position to maintain under load, as any rounding of the mid-back will lead to greater shear forces at the level of the spine.
Second, the erectors have a role in back extension, which allows the spine to move from a horizontal to upright position. If a lifter starts with their back more horizontal to the floor, then they will use more erector muscles to extend the back to an upright position as they lock the weight out.
If you want to learn about the most optimal angle of your back while deadlifting you can read my article on “back angle for deadlifts”. Based on your specific leverages you might have a back angle that’s more suited to you.
The lat muscles help keep the bar on the body throughout the duration of the lift.
As a technical principle in the deadlift, it’s important to maintain contact between the bar and the body. If the bar drifts off the body, you are more likely to lose your balance forward and fight the forces that allow you to stay upright.
Furthermore, if the bar comes off of your body, then your hip extensor muscles (glutes, inner thigh, and hamstrings) need to work a lot harder to bring the hips toward the bar in the lock-out.
For these reasons, the lats are an important muscle for maintaining an effective position throughout the deadlift.
The traps help support the shoulder position in the deadlift — especially the low and mid traps that run along the scapula (shoulder blade).
The shoulders in the deadlift should be in a neutral position with a slight depression (pulling your shoulders down to the floor).
The rhomboids are the muscles of the upper inner back and lower neck. They have a role in keeping the proper shoulder position while deadlifting. The rhomboids perform a similar function to the traps, which allows the shoulders to look upright and ‘not rounded’ in the lock-out position.
Abdominals & Obliques
The front and side of the abs help stabilize and maintain the position of the spine.
While the erectors’ job is to extend the spine, the front and side of the abs prevent hyperextension (i.e. extending too far back). If the spine extends too far back, then the erectors may disengage. As a result, the front and size of the abs maintain the tension potential of the erectors.
Identifying Weak Muscles In The Deadlift
Now that you know the muscles used in the deadlift, and what each of them does, it’s time to discuss how to identify any weak muscles so that you can target them more effectively.
Most often technique deficiencies occur because of a weak muscle group or an imbalance between muscle groups. While muscular weaknesses are not the only cause for technique deficiencies, it’s certainly an area to understand and possibly address.
Technique deficiencies in the deadlift could be an entirely separate article, but I’ll broadly address weak muscles based on the ‘bottom’ and ‘top’ end range of motion in the deadlift.
Struggling To Get The Weight Off The Floor
The bottom half of the deadlift should be about extending the knees and maintaining your torso position relative to the floor.
To accomplish this, your quad muscles will produce force in order to initiate knee extension and bring the barbell off the floor. Your back position will be maintained by having your erectors engaged and your lats actively keeping the bar on your body.
If you have weak quads then you’ll struggle to get the weight off the ground because your knees cannot extend properly. However, instead of simply not being able to break contact with the floor, your body will generally compensate for weak quads, and try to lift the weight by getting your hip and back extensor muscles more involved.
What this will look like is your hips shooting up in your start position, often before the bar leaves the ground, which will bring your torso angle more horizontal to the floor. This is your body’s way to leverage your glutes, hamstrings, and low/mid-back more and compensate for weak quads.
If you don’t struggle with getting the weight off the ground, and you can maintain your hip height in the start position as the weight lifts from the floor, then your quads are doing their job properly.
If you have weak erectors then you’ll struggle to maintain integrity through your spine.
What this will look like is your back rounding in the start position as you pull the weight off the floor. While back rounding can occur at any time throughout the range of motion, it typically occurs in the bottom range when the back is more horizontal to the floor. When the back is more horizontal to the floor, your erectors will need to work harder to assume an upright position.
With that said, your spine has a natural curvature. You’ll notice on the spine anatomy diagram that the mid-back has a slightly curved posture, which may look like the back is rounding.
This curvature is normal and should be maintained while deadlifting. What you’re trying to avoid is any more rounding than what is natural, which will be obvious if your back position starts to change while under load.
If you have weak lats then you’ll find it difficult to keep the bar on you throughout the duration of the lift.
The role of the lats is to prevent the barbell from coming off your body and pulling you forward. If the bar drifts away from your body during the bottom half range of motion, then you will most certainly fail the deadlift at the knees because you’ll be fighting lateral forces.
A lot of powerlifters use the cue ‘flex your arm pit’ in order to engage their lats while in the start position.
Struggling To Lock The Weight Out
The top half of the deadlift is largely affected by what happens in the start position.
If you have muscular weaknesses in the bottom half that cause you to be out of position at the knees, then you’ll struggle to lock the weight out. This is not due to any deficiency in the lock-out, but because you’re not efficient in the first half of the movement.
With that said, the lock-out of the deadlift will be initiated by hip extension, and to a lesser extent, back extension. The muscles responsible for hip extension are the glutes, with the low and mid-back facilitating back extension.
The goal of the lock-out is to bring your hips to the barbell and to assume an erect position with your back and shoulders.
Glute & adductor magnus weakness
Your glutes and adductor magnus will be weak if you fail to bring your hips to the barbell in the lock-out position.
If you track your hip position when the barbell goes from the floor to the knee it should look like a straight line. Once the barbell is at the knees, the hips should travel horizontally in the direction of the barbell.
You might have a weakness with your glutes and adductor magnus if you can get the barbell to your knee, or just above your knees, but your hips simply won’t transition to the horizontal range of motion. This is because your glutes are responsible for bringing your hips forward to the barbell.
Just like if you notice that your back is rounding in the start position, the same thing can happen at lock-out. This would mean that your erectors are weak.
However, your erectors may also be weak if you notice that your hips and knees are locked, but you can’t assume an upright posture with your back angle. This will be evident at the final end range where you’re within a few inches of locking the weight out.
The major reason why your erectors are weak in the lock-out, however, will be because you are using them too much in the start position. This is especially true if your back angle is too horizontal in the start position. While you can certainly pull using this back angle, the consequence is that your back will be fatigued by the time you get to your lock-out and may start to round or fail to assume an upright position.
Trap & rhomboid weakness
At the final stages of the deadlift, you need to pull your shoulders back into an erect position. This is especially true if you’re a competitive powerlifter because it’s part of the movement standard that the judges will be looking for.
If you fail to get your shoulders pulled back, then your trap and thomboid muscles may be weak.
You’ll know this happens if your upper back starts to round and pull forward at the final stages of the lock-out.
Muscles Used in Different Variations Of The Deadlift
Each variation of the deadlift will recruit more or less of the same muscles discussed above.
It’s important to understand how these variations change the muscle activation so that you can target areas of development that will allow you to get stronger.
The variations that will be discussed are:
- Conventional Deadlift
- Sumo Deadlift
- Romanian Deadlift
- Stiff Leg Deadlift
- Trap Bar Deadlift
- Deficit Deadlift
Muscles Used In The Conventional Deadlift
The conventional deadlift is considered a hip-dominant movement and will use more muscles of the posterior chain, such as the spinal erectors.
This is particularly true just off the floor to about knee height, because the angle of the torso will be more horizontal to the floor (when compared with other variations such as the sumo deadlift).
You can read more about the differences between the conventional and sumo deadlift and which one you should be doing to maximize strength in my latest article.
Everyone should learn how to do the conventional deadlift properly before moving onto any other deadlift variation. The conventional deadlift is a staple exercise that allows you to learn how to pull weight from the floor effectively.
Muscles Used In The Sumo Deadlift
The sumo deadlift is considered a knee-dominant movement and will use more quad muscles compared with other variations of the deadlift. This is because the hips generally start closer to the barbell and the torso is more upright.
A study by Escamilla et al. (2002), shows that the vastus medialis (inside of the quad), vastus lateralis (outside of the quad), and tibialis anterior (outside of calf) had greater muscular activation in the sumo deadlift.
Personally, I wouldn’t use the sumo deadlift as a variation to get more quad activation. Many people simply didn’t have the hip structure or mobility to effectively perform the sumo deadlift, and so other variations to target the quads may be more appropriate, such as the trap bar deadlift or front squats
Lastly, because of the wide foot width of the sumo deadlift, you’ll be required to have strong external hip rotator muscles in order to keep your knees tracking over your knees properly. External hip rotation is primarily a function of your glute medius, which is the side part of your glutes.
A lot of lifters like to cue their feet to ‘spread the floor apart’ in the start position’. This is to activate the glute medius and ensure the knees are pushing out over their toes.
Muscles Used In The Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift will target the glute muscles more than any other deadlift variation, specifically the glute maximus, which are the muscles you sit on in a chair.
This is because you are emphasizing hip extension over knee extension.
You’ll start the Romanian deadlift by holding the barbell at lockout. You’ll then crack the knees slightly, and hinge forward at the hips while bringing the barbell to the floor. The barbell will stay on your quads the entire time. You’ll stop when you get to the knees before returning to standing.
You won’t bend your knees any more than the initial crack at the top, which will emphasize the hip extension movement to complete the exercise. I always like to specifically cue my athletes to ‘squeeze’ their glutes at the top as hard as they can.
The Romanian deadlift has also shown to have strong muscular activation in the hamstrings.
McAllister et al. (2014) looked at the involvement of the hamstrings in the Romanian deadlift compared with other exercises that typically target the hamstrings, such as the leg curl, good morning, and glute-ham raise. They concluded that athletes who seek to maximize the involvement of the hamstring musculature should consider focusing on the Romanian deadlift because it had a greater effect.
With that said, the hamstrings would be more activated if the barbell comes off of your thighs as you perform the movement, which some people deem okay during the Romanian deadlift. It could be that the researchers allowed the barbell to come off of athletes’ thighs, which would actually turn the exercise more into a ‘stiff leg deadlift’.
Muscles Used In The Stiff Leg Deadlift
The stiff leg deadlift will target the hamstrings more than any other deadlift variation.
Unlike the Romanian deadlift where you stop at the knees, the stiff leg deadlift is performed through a full range of motion, feeling a stretch in the hamstrings. Furthermore, in the stiff leg deadlift, the barbell should come off of your quads as you lower the weight. Whether you start the stiff leg deadlift on the floor or from a standing position, doesn’t really matter.
When the knees are straight, the hamstrings contract much more to faciliate hip extension, which would otherwise be the glutes’ job.
One thing to keep in mind when it comes to a powerlifting style deadlift is that the eccentric range of motion is rarely trained. Once the lifter locks the weight out, they drop the weight to the floor before resetting their knee and hip position.
However, the stiff leg deadlift is one of the few deadlift variations where the eccentric range of motion is trained fully, which allows the hamstring to act as a prime mover.
If you have poor hamstring flexibility then you should choose the Romanian deadlift over the stiff leg deadlift. If you want the variation to be more glute focused, keep the bar on your thighs. If you want the variation to be more hamstring focused, let the bar drift off your thighs.
Muscles Used In The Trap Bar Deadlift
The trap bar deadlift will target the quads more than the back and hamstrings when compared with the conventional deadlift.
The trap bar and conventional deadlift are similar in their range of motion and stance; however, the trap bar deadlift uses a neutral grip on a specialty bar.
This change has shown that athletes can lift more weight in the trap bar deadlift compared with the conventional deadlift (Swinton et al., 2011).
In the trap bar deadlift there is less demand on the low back, hips, and ankles, but greater load demand at the knee. Camara et al. (2016) showed that the vastus lateralis (outside of quad) was more activated in the trap bar deadlift; however, the hamstring and erector spinae were more activated in the conventional deadlift.
I would use the trap bar deadlift to increase the strength of the quads, either for a squat or deadlift assistance movement.
Muscles Used In The Deficit Deadlift
The deficit deadlift can be used in either a conventional or sumo stance, and as such it will target all of the muscle groups previously discussed for those variations.
While the quads, hamstrings, spinal erectors, and glutes will all be used, the conventional deficit deadlift will target more of the spinal erectors, and the sumo deficit deadlift will target more of the quads.
As the deficit increases, there will be more end range on either the hip or knee extensors, which will place more loading demand on those muscle groups to complete the movement.
I typically only program 1-2 inch deficit deadlifts because any more will likely require mobility that falls outside an athlete’s normal biomechanical limits. Even a small deficit of 1-2 inches will make the movement significantly harder, especially if the athlete already struggles to pull the weight off the floor.
The deadlift will use the knee, hip, and back extensor muscles.
In the bottom range of the deadlift, you’ll use more quad muscles to extend the knee and break the bar from the floor. In the top end of the deadlift, you’ll use more glute muscles to bring the hips toward the bar.
Your back muscles will be used more or less depending on your back angle. If your back angle is more horizontal to the floor at the start of the deadlift like in a conventional deadlift, then your spinal erectors will be more activated. However, if your back angle is more upright like in a sumo deadlift, then your spinal erectors will be less activated.
If you want more quad dominant deadlift variations, use the sumo or trap bar deadlift.
If you want more glute and hamstring deadlift variations, use the romanian or stiff leg deadlift.
The deficit deadlift should be used if you want to further emphasize the muscles already used in the conventional or sumo deadlift.
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Pictures courtesy of Billy Buhler (@bigchunckey42)
Camara, K., Coburn, J., Dunnick, D., Brown, L., Galphin, A., Costa, P. (2016). An Examination of Muscle Activation and Power Characteristics While Performing The Deadlift Exercise With Straight and Hexagonal Barbells. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 30(5): 1183-1188.
Escamilla, RF., Francisco, AC., Kayes, AV., Speer, KP., Moorman, CT. (2002) An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine Science Sport Exercise, 34(4): 682-688.
McAllister, M., Hammond, K., Schilling, B., Ferreria, L., Reed, J., Weiss, L. (2014). Muscle Activation During Various Hamstring Exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditoining Research. 28(6): 1573-1580.
Swinton, P., Steward, A., Agouris, I., Keogh, J., Lloyd, R. (2011). A biomechanical Analysis of straight and Hexagonal Barbell Deadlifts Using Submaximal Loads. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 25(7): 2000-2009.