There seems to be a lot of debate these days on whether the deadlift is a push or a pull exercise, because we pull the bar off the floor but we often use the cue of “pushing the floor away”.
So, I think it’s important to set the record straight, especially for those who are wanting to do the push-pull or push-pull-legs (PPL) workout splits.
Is The Deadlift A Push Or Pull? The deadlift is a pull exercise because we are exerting force towards our body, and therefore we’re using our muscles to pull the bar off the floor to the lockout position. Although, it is often thought to be a push because lifters use the cue of “pushing the floor away“.
To understand why the deadlift is a pull and how to program it into workout splits, it’s important to discuss what determines whether exercises are classified as a push or a pull and why there may be some confusion around the classification of the deadlift.
In this article we’ll discuss:
- What makes a push exercise
- What makes a pull exercise
- Why we often cue pushing the floor away, and
- How to program the deadlift into a push-pull-legs split
What Makes A Push Exercise?
An exercise is classified as a pushing exercise when we are exerting force away from our body. With push exercises the main muscle groups involved are contracting as the weight moves away from us, and lengthening as the weight comes towards us.
Typically lifters will perform lots of pushing variations in their training naturally – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but can cause strength imbalances and movement patterns deficiencies if we’re not pulling as often as we’re pulling.
It is generally recommended to perform pushing exercises less than pulling exercises to reinforce a more upright posture.
This is because most individuals struggle to maintain proper posture (especially as we age) as throughout the day we’re typically slouched forwards, causing the pushing muscles to become tight and pull the shoulders forward.
Upper body pushing exercises are grouped into 2 categories: vertical pushing and horizontal pushing exercises.
Lower body exercises do not have the same categorization and instead are simply evaluated based on the movement patterns they are involved in (remember pushing muscles contract when exerting force away the body).
Examples of popular pushing exercises for the lower body are squats and lunges, and pushing exercises for the upper body are bench press (horizontal push) and shoulder press (vertical push).
What Makes A Pull Exercise?
An exercise is classified as a pulling exercise when we exert force towards our body, with our muscles contracting as the weight moves toward us and lengthening as the weight travels away from us.
The muscles involved in pull exercises are generally the muscle of the posterior chain (the muscles of the backside of the body). It is generally recommended that we include pulling exercises that target these musculature more often than we include pushing exercises.
Both the conventional deadlift and the sumo deadlift are pull exercises because of the direction that we exert force and the hip hinge movement patterns.
For accessory movements, it is generally recommended to pull twice as much as we push, but for compound movements like the squat (push) and deadlift (pull) we typically don’t adapt the same philosophy.
This is likely because compound movements are more fatiguing as they involve multiple muscle groups and training more often with one compound movement will affect the performance of other compound movements.
Some common examples of pulling exercises for the lower body are deadlifts, and hamstring curls, but examples of upper body pulling exercises are pulldowns (vertical pull), and rows (horizontal pull).
Which Category Do Deadlifts Fall Under (Push or Pull)?
The deadlift is characterized as a pull exercise because it involves exerting force to move the weight towards us. This means that the muscles involved in the deadlift are contracting as the weight moves towards us to the lockout position, and are lengthening as the bar travels back down to the ground.
Oftentimes it is thought of as a push exercise because lifters may use a cue of “pushing the ground away” to break the bar off the floor and initiate the lift. However, it is still a pull because of the direction of the force and pulling the bar into us, rather than away from us.
Why Do Some Lifters Use The Cue “Push The Floor Away” If The Deadlift Is A Pull?
The cue of pushing the floor away from us is often used to get the lifter to drive the legs into the ground to elevate the bar off the ground. To get the bar moving we need to extend the knees (using our quads), which is best done by treating the deadlift like a “leg press”.
Although knee extension happens first, the main movement of the deadlift is still hip extension, which involves the muscles of the posterior chain and is why the deadlift is considered a hip dominant movement.
All in all, we refer to the deadlift as a pull exercise because we are exerting force towards ourselves in a hip hinge movement pattern by engaging the muscles of the posterior chain. But, the cue of pushing the floor away is still useful because we do require the knees to extend in order to bring the bar high enough off the ground to extend the hips.
Using the cue of pushing the floor away is useful when we struggle with our deadlift off the floor – to learn more, check out our article “Is Your Deadlift Weak Off The Floor? (Try These 7 Tips)”.
In A Push, Pull, Lower (PPL) Split, Where Should You Put Deadlifts?
The deadlift could be used on either the pull or lower day, but is probably placed on the pull day most often because on the lower day we will likely be squatting. Having squats and deadlift on the same day can be taxing, and so it is common to put them on separate days.
However, I would recommend taking a rest day in between the pull day and the lower day because the fatigue from deadlifts on the pull day will likely carry over to the squat on the lower day (especially if low bar squatting).
That being said, if you do prefer to do deadlifts and squats on the same day it can be done but I would suggest picking which lift is more important and doing that one first. Whichever lift is done second will be slightly impacted because we will have generated some fatigue from the first lift.
Curious to know whether deadlifts are a back or leg exercise? Check out my article on Are Deadlifts Back or Legs? (What Day To Put Deadlifts On).
The deadlift is a pull exercise but does involve pushing through the floor to extend the knees and therefore often uses cues to accomplish this action. Programming the deadlift doesn’t have to be complicated, it simply comes down to managing fatigue to get quality training volume in.
About The Author
Amanda Parker has a passion for competing and coaching in both powerlifting and weightlifting. She uses her knowledge from her Kinesiology Degree, CSCS, and Precision Nutrition certification to coach athletes and lifestyle clients for performance in training and nutrition. Connect with her on Instagram.