The deadlift primarily works the quads, glutes, hamstrings, lats, traps, core, and mid-back muscles.
When you bring the barbell from the floor to knees, you primarily work the quads (thighs). When you bring the bar from the knees to a standing position, you strengthen the lower and mid back, glutes, and hamstrings.
The lats, traps, shoulders, inner thigh, and core are stabilizer muscles.
Don't miss below as I show you how to alter your deadlift or use variations targeting the lower or upper range of motion to engage your chosen muscles more.
I've coached Team Canada Powerlifting for over 10 years, and I hope to share ways you can improve your deadlift.
- Deadlift Muscles Worked
- How To Do The Deadlift
- Common Mistakes
- Deadlift Muscles Worked
- Who Shouldn't Do Deadlifts?
- Identifying Weak Muscles In The Deadlift
- Top Deadlift Alternatives
- Muscles Used in Different Variations Of The Deadlift
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Deadlift: Muscles Worked
The conventional barbell deadlift is a compound exercise because it works several lower and upper body muscle groups.
Prime mover muscles worked in the deadlift are:
- Erectors (mid-back)
Stabilizer muscles worked in the deadlift are:
- Adductor Magnus (inner thigh)
- Rhomboids (shoulders)
- Abdominals & Obliques (core)
The quad muscles extend the knee in the bottom half of the range of motion. This is why some lifters use the cue to ‘push the floor away' to extend the knee and engage the quad muscles.
If you find your quads getting overly sore from deadlifts, check out my article on Quad Soreness After Deadlifting to problem-solve why that might be the case.
The glutes or gluteus maximus play a crucial role in hip extension, especially during the deadlift lockout, to bring the hips closer to the barbell. Initially, the hips are behind the barbell; as the lifter stands up, the hips move forward, engaging the glutes prominently.
If your glutes get overly sore in the deadlift, check out my article on Glute Soreness After Deadlifts.
The erectors or erector spinae, running along the spine, are essential in preventing spinal rounding. Maintaining a straight spine under load is vital, as any mid-back rounding can lead to increased stress on the spine.
The erectors also facilitate back extension, transitioning the spine from a horizontal to an upright position during the lift.
To learn about the most optimal back angle while deadlifting, read my article on the best back angle for deadlifts.
The hamstrings support the glutes in hip extension during the lockout. They are more engaged as the knees straighten, but the glutes remain the primary movers.
The hamstrings also stabilize the knee joint, balancing the quad forces.
If you find your hamstrings getting sore from deadlifting, check out my article on Hamstrings Sore After Deadlifts: Is This Good or Bad?
Adductor Magnus (Inner Thigh)
The adductor magnus muscle of the inner thigh contributes to hip extension, aiding the glutes to fully extend the hips during the lockout.
The lats are critical for keeping the bar close to the body throughout the lift. Keeping the bar close helps maintain balance and reduces the extra workload on hip extensors during the lockout.
The traps support the shoulders, particularly the lower and mid traps along the scapula, ensuring a neutral shoulder position with a slight depression (pulling the shoulders down).
Located in the upper inner back and lower neck, the rhomboids maintain proper shoulder alignment, working similarly to the traps to keep the shoulders upright and prevent rounding during the lockout.
Abdominals & Obliques
The abs and obliques are your core muscles and stabilize the spine. While the erectors extend the spine, the abdominals, like rectus abdominis, and obliques, prevent hyperextension, ensuring the erectors stay engaged.
Give this article a read to understand more on how deadlifting works your abs.
How To Deadlift: Tips for Optimizing Technique
Whether you’re a beginner or an advanced powerlifter, executing your deadlifts with perfect form is important.
Use the following tips and cues for proper deadlift form:
- Prepare Your Breath: Before starting each rep, take a deep breath and brace your abdominal muscles to stabilize your core.
- Choose the Appropriate Grip: If you struggle with an overhand grip, switch to an alternate grip (one overhand, one underhand). Alternatively, try the hook grip, where your thumb wraps around the bar and your fingers lock over your thumbs.
- Feet position: Keep your feet hip-width apart.
- Pull the Slack Out of the Bar: Before lifting, eliminate any looseness or ‘slack’ in the barbell and your body to create tension.
- Contract Your Lats: Keep your lats (upper back muscles) contracted, and your shoulder blades squeezed back to maintain a straight spine.
- Drive Your Feet: As you start the lift, drive your feet firmly into the ground, using your legs' power.
- Keep the Bar Close: Ensure the bar stays as close to your body as possible throughout the lift to maintain better balance and leverage.
Common Mistakes in Deadlifts
- Arching The Lower Back
- Rounding The Shoulders
- Letting The Hips Rise First
- Bouncing The Bar Off The Ground Between Reps
Arching The Lower Back
By far, the most common mistake that people make when deadlifting is rounding the lower back. When the lower back rounds, the right deadlift target muscles are not targeted as effectively. It also puts excess strain on the smaller, weaker muscles in the lower back and the spinal joints, increasing the risk of injuries.
Rounding The Shoulders
It’s not just the lower back that you need to keep an eye on when you're doing deadlifts. Many people also tend to round their shoulders when lifting the bar, which is usually due to lifting a weight that is too heavy for them to handle or using poor form.
Excessive upper body rounding strains the cervical spine joints, increasing the risk of muscle strains and joint issues. It also reduces the effectiveness of the exercise by limiting the load on your glutes and lower back muscles.
Letting The Hips Rise First
When lifting the barbell off the ground, you might find that your hips rise before the rest of your body. This is a common deadlifting mistake that often results from lifting too heavy or adopting the wrong steadying position. Raising your hips too quickly can transfer the load onto your lower spine, leading to injuries.
Bouncing The Bar Off The Ground Between Reps
Using a small amount of momentum is okay to lift as much as possible. However, you shouldn’t rely on this to lift the bar off the ground with each rep. You should be lifting and lowering the bar with control at all times by activating your upper body, lower body, and core muscles properly, and doing so will maximize your muscle growth and strength gains.
Deadlift Training Program Examples
Depending on whether you are training for power, strength, muscle mass, or you want to focus on high-volume pyramid training, your workout program will look slightly different.
Below, I have included some examples of deadlift training programs.
Deadlift Training Program for Power
Most powerlifters will want to follow a deadlift program that follows low-rep workouts. Generally, this will follow a 1-3-5 approach, where you perform between 1 and 5 sets of 1 and 5 reps around twice a week.
Here’s a great example four-week deadlift workout program to follow.
- Monday – 1 x 5 at 70% 1RM, 1 x 5 at 75% 1RM, 1 x 5 at 85% 1RM
- Thursday – 5 x 5 at 65% 1RM
- Monday – 1 x 3 at 70% 1RM, 1 x 3 at 80% 1RM, 1 x 3 at 90% 1RM
- Thursday – 5 x 5 at 65% 1RM
- Monday – 1 x 5 at 70% 1RM, 1 x 3 at 85% 1RM, 1 x 1 at 95% 1RM
- Thursday – 5 x 5 at 65% 1RM
Week 4 (Deload Week)
- Monday – 1 x 5 at 45% 1RM, 1 x 5 at 55% 1RM, 1 x 5 at 65% 1RM
- Thursday – 5 x 5 at 50% 1RM
Deadlift Training Program for Muscle Growth
Deadlifting for strength is one of the most popular approaches. It’s a little more high-volume than power-focused deadlift programming, with three weekly sessions. Include plenty of deadlift progressions to increase your training volume and load.
Here’s a great example of a two-week hypertrophy-focused deadlift program to inspire your training. Alternate between each week.
- Monday – 1 x 10 at 50% 1RM, 1 x 6 at 65% 1RM, 1 x 3 at 70% 1RM
- Wednesday – 2 x 8 at 60% 1RM, 2 x 3 at 70% 1RM
- Friday – 5 x 5 at 65% 1RM
- Monday – 1 x 10 at 50% 1RM, 1 x 8 at 60% 1RM, 2 x 6 at 65% 1RM
- Wednesday – 2 x 5 at 70% 1RM, 2 x 3 at 80% 1RM
- Friday – 5 x 5 at 65% 1RM
Who Should Do The Deadlift?
Deadlifts are appropriate for most people and are hugely beneficial compound exercises. However, they’re not suitable for every lifter.
One major factor determining how easy and effective deadlifts will be for you is your limb proportions. If you have longer legs, the deadlift bar path is much longer, meaning you’ll have to work harder to lift the same weight as somebody with shorter lower limbs.
However, even those with longer limbs can still benefit from doing deadlifts with great form. Generally, sumo deadlifts are the best option if you have long legs, as this shortens the distance between the starting and ending position of the deadlift.
Deadlifts won’t always be appropriate if you’re recovering from an injury. You should always work with a professional coach or physical therapist to determine whether or not deadlifts are a suitable exercise for your recovery protocol.
Identifying Weak Muscles In The Deadlift
Struggling to Get the Weight Off the Floor
- Difficulty lifting weight off the ground due to inadequate knee extension.
- Signs include hips rising prematurely and a more horizontal torso as the body leverages glutes, hamstrings, and low/mid-back muscles.
- Cues: Focus on ‘pushing the floor away' with your legs to initiate lift.
- Inability to maintain a straight spine; noticeable back rounding in the starting position.
- Cues: Keep lats contracted, shoulder blades squeezed back, and avoid spinal rounding.
- If you have trouble keeping the bar close to your body, your lats might be weak. This is evident when the bar drifts away from your body, especially in the bottom half of the deadlift.
Struggling to Lock the Weight Out
Glute & Adductor Magnus Weakness
- Difficulty bringing hips forward to the barbell at lockout.
- Indicated by failure to move hips horizontally towards the barbell once it reaches the knees.
- Cues: Drive your feet into the ground and focus on hip extension.
- Back rounds or fails to achieve an upright position in the lockout phase.
- Often caused by overuse in the starting position, leading to fatigue in the lockout.
- Cues: Pull the slack out of the bar before lifting and maintain a neutral spine.
Trap & Rhomboid Weakness
- Inability to pull shoulders back in the final stages of lockout.
- Visible upper back rounding or forward pull at the end of the lift.
- Cues: Focus on squeezing shoulder blades together and maintaining a strong upper back position.
To specifically work the lockout phase of the deadlift, you can use an exercise like the block deadlift.
Top 3 Deadlift Alternative Exercises
Exploring deadlift alternatives can provide varied benefits, targeting specific muscle groups or accommodating individual needs and limitations.
1. Hex Bar Deadlift
The hex bar (or trap bar) deadlift shifts the emphasis more towards the quadriceps and involves less strain on the lower back compared to the conventional deadlift. It's ideal for those who have back issues or struggle with the hip hinge movement of traditional deadlifts.
Best For: Athletes seeking a quad-dominant exercise or those with lower back concerns. It’s also a great introduction to deadlifting for beginners due to its more upright posture.
2. Good Mornings
Good mornings focus intensely on the posterior chain, particularly the hamstrings and lower back. This exercise enhances hip-hinging abilities and strengthens the same muscles used in deadlifting, but with a different stimulus.
Best For: Lifters looking to improve their hip hinge mechanics and posterior chain strength, especially if they struggle with these aspects in the deadlift.
3. Bulgarian Split Squats
While not a direct alternative to deadlifting, Bulgarian split squats effectively strengthen the legs and glutes, improving overall lower body strength and balance. This unilateral exercise ensures that both legs work equally, addressing imbalances.
Best For: Athletes wanting to build unilateral leg strength, improve balance, and focus on leg hypertrophy without the spinal loading of deadlifts.
Deadlift Variations: Muscles Worked
Understanding the muscles involved in various deadlift variations is crucial to target specific development areas and enhance overall strength.
- Sumo Deadlift
- Romanian Deadlift
- Stiff Leg Deadlift
- Trap Bar Deadlift
- Deficit Deadlift
Sumo Deadlift: Muscles Worked
- Sumo deadlift emphasizes leg muscles, particularly quads.
- Starts with hips closer to the barbell and more upright torso.
- Requires strong external hip rotator muscles, such as the glute medius.
- Cues: ‘Spread the floor apart' with feet to activate glute medius and ensure proper knee tracking.
You can read more about the differences between the conventional and sumo deadlift.
Romanian Deadlift: Muscles Worked
- Romanian deadlift targets the glute maximus and hamstrings extensively.
- Emphasizes hip extension over knee extension.
- Begins with barbell at lockout, focusing on hip hinge and minimal knee bending.
- Cues: Squeeze glutes at the top intensely.
If you're looking for an alternative to the Romanian deadlift, check out my article on the Best Romanian Deadlift Alternatives.
Stiff-Leg Deadlift: Muscles Worked
- Primarily targets hamstrings.
- Performed through full range to stretch hamstrings, with the bar coming off quads.
- Suitable for hamstring-focused training, considering knee position and range.
Trap Bar Deadlift: Muscles Worked
- Trap bar deadlift focuses more on quads compared to conventional deadlift.
- Utilizes a neutral grip and specialty bar, allowing more weight lifting.
- Less strain on the low back, more load on the knees.
- Good for quad strengthening and as an assistance movement for squats or deadlifts.
Deficit Deadlift: Muscles Worked
- Engages quads, hamstrings, spinal erectors, and glutes.
- It incorporates a greater end range for hip or knee extensors due to the deficit, increasing the loading demand on these muscles.
- Commonly performed with a 1-2 inch deficit to balance enhanced difficulty and biomechanical limits.
To learn more, check out how you can build muscle mass with powerlifting.
Useful Equipment for Deadlifting
Although you can deadlift using just one or a few deadlift bars and some weight plates, there are additional pieces of equipment that you can use to improve your form and lift heavier. Some of the most helpful equipment includes lifting belts, lifting chalk, and lifting straps.
A lifting belt is used to improve your technique and strength. It can help you to lift heavier without compromising your form by squeezing your abdominal cavity, creating more tension and stability.
Lifting belts are compulsory for all powerlifting competitors, as stipulated by the International Powerlifting Federation.
Our Favorite Lifting Belt: Inzer Advance Designs Forever Lever Belt
For more options, check out the article: The Best Lifting Belts
Chalk is an alternative to lifting straps when you want to improve your grip strength. It increases the amount of friction between your skin and the barbell, preventing it from slipping out of your hands during sets of conventional, Romanian, or sumo deadlifts.
Our Favorite Lifting Chalk: Warm Body Cold Mind Liquid Chalk
For more options, check out the article: The Best Liquid Chalk for Lifting
Wrist straps or lifting straps improve your grip on the bar, allowing you to lift more and perform more reps, whether you’re using an underhand or overhand grip. No matter how sweaty your palms are, you can rest assured knowing that the bar won’t slip out of your hands!
Our Favorite Lifting Straps: Warm Body Cold Mind Lasso Lifting Straps
For more options, check out the article: The Best Lifting Straps
Frequently Asked Questions
Can Deadlifts Change Your Body?
Yes, deadlifts can change your body. Several groups of deadlift muscles are worked to gain size and strength in your upper and lower body and achieve your dream physique. Deadlifts are particularly helpful in increasing your lower upper back, body shape, and size.
Does Deadlift Burn Belly Fat?
Deadlifts can help increase the size of your upper back and leg muscles, increasing your metabolic rate. In turn, they can be effective in helping you burn fat in all areas of your body, including your belly. However, you will only burn fat if you’re in a calorie deficit, so deadlifting is just one part of the fat-loss equation.
What Happens if You Deadlift Every Day?
Deadlifting daily with proper form can help build power and strength in your upper back, abdominal muscles, and leg muscles. It can also help to improve your grip strength. However, compound exercises like the deadlift can be highly fatiguing. To avoid overtraining and injuring yourself, it’s better to practice deadlifts no more than three times a week, especially if you’re a beginner.
Are Deadlifts Dangerous?
Deadlifts are only dangerous if you don’t use proper form. As long as you use a moderate weight for your current strength and the right technique, deadlifts will not be dangerous and will not cause injuries.
What Are The Benefits of Deadlifts?
Deadlifting benefits include increased total body power and strength, targeting major muscles like glutes, quads, hamstrings, lower back, lats, biceps, and abs. It boosts fat burning by raising basal metabolic rate, aiding in weight management. Plus, it specifically enhances growth in glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings.
How Many Sets of Deadlifts Should You Do Each Week?
The ideal number of deadlift sets per week is up to 10, spread across 2-3 workout sessions. This volume stimulates significant muscle growth without the risk of overtraining. More than 15 sets a week can be less effective than 5-10 sets. It's crucial to evenly space workouts for recovery.
How To Warm Up For A Deadlift?
To warm up for deadlifting, start with general cardiovascular exercises like jogging or cycling for 5-10 minutes. Then, perform dynamic stretches focusing on the lower back, hips, and legs. Proceed with light deadlift sets, gradually increasing the weight, to prepare muscles and joints.
Can Beginners Deadlift?
Yes, beginners can deadlift. It's a fundamental exercise that builds overall strength. Beginners should start with lighter weights and focus on proper form. Guidance from a trainer is recommended to ensure correct technique and prevent injuries. Deadlifts are adaptable for all fitness levels.
Deadlift Muscles Worked: Final Thoughts
In short, the deadlift muscles worked include the knee, hip, and back extensor muscles. However, the long answer to the question, “What muscle groups does the deadlift work?” is that the targeted muscles change based on different points of the range of motion and different deadlift variations.
In the bottom range of the deadlift, you'll use more quad muscles to extend the knee and break the bar from the floor. At the top end of the deadlift, you'll use more glute muscles to bring the hips toward the bar.
Depending on your back angle, your back muscles will be used more or less. If your back angle is more horizontal to the floor at the start of the deadlift, like in a conventional deadlift, your spinal erectors will be more activated. However, if your back angle is more upright, like in a sumo deadlift, 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.
- If you want to emphasize the conventional or sumo deadlift main muscles, use the deficit deadlift.
Related Article: Jefferson Squat: How-To, Benefits, & Should You Do It?
Pictures courtesy of Billy Buhler (@bigchunckey42)
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