If your quads are feeling sore after deadlifting, you might be alarmed if you didn’t expect that particular muscle to be so affected by a lift that’s commonly said to target your back and hamstrings.
So, why are your quads sore after deadlifts? Quad soreness after deadlifts is perfectly normal, and can be caused by Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS), normal fatigue, or injury. You can typically identify which of these factors caused your soreness by reviewing the deadlift variation performed, the total volume, and when the soreness began.
3 Reasons For Quad Soreness After Deadlifts
As stated, there are three main causes for soreness in your quads after deadlifting. They are (1) DOMS, (2) fatigue, and/or (3) injury.
Let’s look at each one to understand how to identify what’s causing your soreness.
1. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS)
The American College of Sports Medicine concisely defines the cause DOMS as “any type of activity that places unaccustomed loads on muscle may lead to delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS).”
DOMS is perfectly normal.
Any time you introduce an “unaccustomed load” to your muscles, you’re inviting the onset of DOMS. But DOMS is not the same as the soreness you feel DURING an exercise (like “the pump” or the burning, swelling sensation that makes you feel like it’s impossible to get one more rep)
The ACSM continues, “[DOMS] is different from acute soreness, which is pain that develops during the actual activity. Delayed soreness typically begins to develop 12-24 hours after the exercise has been performed and may produce the greatest pain between 24-72 hours after the exercise has been performed.”
Remember that “unaccustomed load” doesn’t only refer to the amount of weight you put on the bar when you deadlift. You can increase your total load by adding additional reps per set, or more total sets. You can also exaggerate the load by adding Time Under Tension (TUT), or performing very slow, controlled movements that make the muscle strain longer under load.
DOMS is particularly extreme in people who have never lifted or haven’t lifted for an extended period of time.
As far as your quads go, if you recently changed the load (weight, reps, sets, or dynamics of your lift), if you’ve had a decent break from training your quads much, and your soreness began 12-24 hours after exercising, you probably are just experiencing DOMS.
The next reason you may be feeling soreness in your quads after deadlifting is because of a new emphasis of your quads. Quite simply, it means they are tired or fatigued.
This could be a result of switching your deadlift stance from one to another and requiring great use of your quads.
Let’s briefly cover how your deadlift uses the quads in both the conventional and the sumo stance (for a full breakdown sure to check out our full comparison of the Sumo vs Conventional Deadlift)
The Use Of Quads In The Deadlift
When you perform a conventional deadlift (feet shoulder width apart, hands gripping the bar outside of your feet position), you begin the pull with your quads to extend your legs and get the weight off the floor.
Essentially, the first half of the deadlift until the barbell gets to the knee has a high level of quad activation.
Your quads work to straighten your leg at the knee and push your legs against the floor, like a leg press machine, but standing upright.
As the bar ascends past your knees, your hamstrings, lower back, and glutes work together to get your hips to push forward and your back upright to complete the lift in a fully erect, upright position.
So although we often see the deadlift simplified as a glute, hamstrings, and lower back exercise, your quads play a big part in getting the bar off the ground in the first place.
Now think of the sumo deadlift variation.
In this deadlift variation, the lifter’s stance is wider than the shoulders (typically much wider) and the hands grip the bar inside of that foot position.
The mechanics of this variation allow the lifter to “sink” into the starting position with their hips opened wide, instead of bending over to grip the bar. This allows the lifter to begin the lift with their torso almost perfectly upright, and the bar much closer to their body throughout the whole lift.
Since there is very little need to pull the upper body upright (since we already started with our upper body upright), the hamstrings don’t have to work nearly as much as in a conventional deadlift, where we begin bent over the bar.
This leaves the quads to do much more work on their own to push against the floor and extend the knees, especially at the bottom of the lift.
The sumo deadlift is much more quad dominant than the conventional deadlift for these reasons.
So if you’ve recently switched to deadlifting with the sumo deadlift and your quads are sore, that’s probably your answer.
If you like learning more about how certain muscle groups contribute to different deadlift variations and ranges of motion, be sure to check out our complete guide to the Muscles Used In The Deadlift.
The final reason your quads are sore is that you might have sustained an injury.
Note that with injuries, it’s best to consult a medical professional for advice. I can’t diagnose or treat any injuries. However, injury may be the simplest cause of soreness to identify out of the three.
I say that because if you have an injury, it’s likely you felt the pain or soreness in your quad very suddenly, like a pop, snap, or crack in the middle of the lift.
If you recall the pain suddenly appearing during your exercise, making the exercise difficult or impossible to continue, even with some extended rest between sets, you likely have an injury.
If you believe your quad is injured, seek the advice of a medical professional.
Check out our other guides on muscle soreness:
Should You Be Worried If Your Quads Are Sore After Deadlifting?
Based on the three causes of soreness we explored above, there’s really only one reason to be concerned about quad soreness after deadlifting, and that’s if you think it’s from an injury.
So run through the checklist as you think of your last deadlift workout:
- Did you increase the load in some way (weight, reps, sets, or dynamics)?
- Have you had an extended break from lifting at all or particularly deadlifts and/or quads?
- Did you change your deadlift variations to a more quad-dominant version? (For example Trap Bar Deadlift, Deficit Deadlift, Semi-Sumo Deadlift)
- Did you feel a sudden pain while deadlifting that made it difficult or impossible to continue?
The only answer you should be worried about is the last one.
And if that’s the case, you should speak to a physician to get professional advice.
Technique To Implement If You Want To Reduce Quad Soreness From Deadlifting
If you’re regularly experiencing soreness after deadlifting, it could be a function of technique that needs to be improved.
With the conventional deadlift, you will be using more quad recruitment than necessary if your hips are starting too low. I cover this in my article on how to pick the best deadlift back angle.
Imagine the starting point of a conventional deadlift. The bar is against your shins, your hands gripping the bar as you’re slightly bent over it, crouched down.
If you wanted to, you could keep your hands on the bar and drop your butt almost all the way to your heels. Alternatively, with a little flexibility, you could keep your knees locked, bend 90 degrees at the hips, and grab the bar from there. Neither of these is ideal for deadlifting maximal weight.
So the ideal start position for your hips is right in the middle, where we can start the lift by engaging our quads to push our feet against the floor.
If our butt is too low, our quads will need to lift our butt up a few inches before it’s in the right position, making them work more. If our butt is too high, our quads won’t be used at all, because we are past the point where they get utilized.
So check your start position and see how much quad recruitment you’re using.
Finally, with the sumo deadlift, if your quads are tired, that probably means you’re doing it right, because so much quad recruitment is required to get the weight off the floor in the first place.
In this case, you simply need to get your quads stronger, which you can do by continuing to train the sumo deadlift, or adding in quad-dominant exercise variations, such as the leg press, front squat, or safety bar squat.
Which Deadlift Variations Can Make The Quads More Sore?
As we stated above, the sumo deadlift naturally calls on the quads to do much more work than the conventional deadlift, which uses more lower back and hamstrings.
That’s not to say a conventional deadlift won’t make your quads sore ever, because they do get used, but the sumo deadlift and its variations will almost always make your quads work more than a conventional deadlift.
Additionally, any deadlift from a deficit will add range of motion to the bottom of the lift and will require greater quad recruitment.
Here’s our list of deadlift variations that will use more quads:
- Sumo Deadlift
- Deficit Sumo Deadlift
- Paused Sumo Deadlift
- Deficit Conventional Deadlift
What To Do If Your Quads Are Sore After Deadlifts (6 Things To Follow)
Here are six things to implement into your training to minimize sore quads while deadlifting.
Always Warm Up
Never underestimate the power of a good warmup.
There’s a reason warming up is critical advice by all coaches, trainers, and athletes. If we are demanding intensity from our muscles and body (and you are, if you’re lifting regularly), we have to warm the body up to meet those demands.
I recommend sitting on a stationary bike for a few minutes before touching a barbell for deadlifts. Just getting some blood moving and the legs working will work wonders before you start pulling.
Check out exactly how I warm up for deadlifts.
Improve Your Form
Check out our deadlift technique category to improve your deadlift form.
If you find you are consistently sore in one area or another, chances are you need to improve your technique, or strengthen the muscle that’s always sore.
Break Up Your Volume
DOMS is most common when intensity and duration is long, so try spreading out your sets.
For example, you could break up for 5 sets of 5 reps into 8 sets of 3 reps. That way, your muscles aren’t activated for as long with each set, reducing the potential for DOMS.
Training More Often
Try training your quads more often throughout the week instead of all at once.
This may seem like backwards advice – train your quads more often if they are sore – but since DOMS is most frequently associated with infrequent training, it might serve you well to hit your quads an extra time a week, even if just for a few sets.
That way, when you train deadlifts, your quads won’t be too distant from the last workout and ready to go for your pulls.
Check out our other resources on deadlift training frequency:
Similar to warming up, take a few minutes to cool down after deadlifting.
The stationary bike, or even walking around a bit after deadlifting can help your muscles.
Keeping your muscles moving after an intense workout can help reduce the effects of DOMS.
Keep At It
Lastly, you may just need to keep training until your muscles have adapted to the workout.
At the end of the day, soreness is what we expect from a good workout, so don’t be afraid of it, and recognize that (1) it’s part of the process, and a good indicator things are going to plan, and (2) you just need to keep developing your quads to meet the demands of your deadlifting goals.
Stay the course, trust the process, and learn to love the burn.
Can You Still Train If Your Quads Are Sore From Deadlifting?
The only reason you shouldn’t train with sore quads is if they are sore from injury, and even then, you can possibly train other parts of your body. But as always, seek medical advice before doing so.
Otherwise, you can absolutely keep training even with sore quads. Oftentimes, the best way to get over DOMS or muscle fatigue is to get back in the gym and keep training the rest of your body.
My only caution would be training additional exercises that use your quads. Just be aware of the soreness and know that you may not be able to perform your squats, deadlifts, or other quad-dominant exercise as well as you would with fresh legs.
Although the quads are not commonly thought of as the main muscle in the deadlift, they play a huge part in the overall lift and can (and will) absolutely get sore from deadlifting from time to time.
Whether you pull conventional or pull sumo, your quads are pivotal in getting the bar moving off the floor and building momentum for your other muscle groups to jump in and finish it off. The more you train your ability to break the bar off the floor, the more your quads will be used, no matter how you slice it.
Remember that soreness is normal, but if it feels like the soreness is new, or out of the ordinary, run through the checklist to determine if it’s caused by DOMS or normal fatigue, or if you have an injury.
As long as you’re not injured, keep training hard through that soreness and enjoy the process.