We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again – the deadlift is probably THE most productive exercise you can do with a barbell. Sure, squats are often called the king of exercises, but that title may be somewhat undeserved. In many ways, deadlifts are better and may even deserve a bigger place in your workouts.
In this article, we explain what’s so good about the deadlift, reveal the muscles involved, and discuss some of the best deadlift variations.
- What’s So Good About Deadlifts, Anyway?
- Muscles Worked During Deadlifts
- Deadlifts Variations and Muscle Activation
- Closing thoughts
What’s So Good About Deadlifts, Anyway?
Before you start typing a comment in defense of squats, it’s important to stress that they’re an excellent exercise, and everyone who lifts should include squats in their workouts. However, as great as squats undeniably are, deadlifts also deserve a place in your workouts.
You don’t have to choose between these two awesome exercises, and most people should do both.
However, there are several compelling reasons for putting a little more energy into deadlifts. These include:
A truly functional exercise
Functional training is an often-misused term. Some people use it to describe overly complicated exercises that are basically circus skills, like doing biceps curls while balancing on a stability ball or single-leg squats with your eyes closed.
In reality, functional training is something that improves your performance of everyday or athletic activities outside of the gym.
There are very few exercises more functional than deadlifts. After all, they teach you how to lift heavy objects off the floor using your legs and back, and hopefully without hurting yourself.
Given how many people injure their lower backs when lifting grocery bags, suitcases, their kids, etc., learning and mastering the deadlift should be compulsory.
An almost full-body exercise
As you’ll learn in the next section, the deadlift involves virtually every muscle in your body. From your feet to your hands via everything in between, the deadlift is the epitome of a full-body exercise. In fact, the only muscles that don’t get much of a workout are your pecs. That shortfall is easily remedied by supersetting some push-ups between sets of deadlifts.
So, whether you are short on time or just want to get the biggest bang for your workout buck, deadlifts are a must.
A very accessible exercise
In a world of complicated workout machines and convoluted exercises, the deadlift is a breath of fresh air. All you need to do deadlifts is a barbell, some weights, and a bit of space. As such, even home exercisers can do deadlifts, which may not be the case for squats, where a squat rack is usually required.
While good deadlift technique is critical, the movement is pretty natural, and most lifters can pick it up relatively quickly. As such, lifters of all ages, abilities, and genders can and should do deadlifts.
Easier to judge a successful lift
If you watch a lot of videos on YouTube, you’d be forgiven for thinking that shouldering a heavy weight and then twitching your knees counts as a good squat. People are claiming successful lifts when they are clearly a long way from hitting parallel – the accepted standard for squat depth.
There is much less room for interpretation with deadlifts. The exercise starts with the weight resting on the floor and ends when standing upright. You either lift it or you don’t – there are no degrees of success. Judging a good deadlift is simple, and it’s a very hard exercise to cheat.
Failure IS an option
Squatting to failure is a risky endeavor – even in a squat or power rack. Getting stuck under a heavy bar can cause catastrophic knee, hip, or back injuries. Athletic careers have ended as a result of failed squats.
In contrast, being unable to complete a deadlift is far less risky. You can simply let go of the bar or lower it quickly back to the floor with no mess and no fuss. As such, the deadlift is suitable for intense solo training.
Build a butt you can be proud of
The deadlift is one of the best glute-centric exercises around. In fact, they’re great for your entire posterior chain, which is the collective term for the muscles on the back of your body. A strong posterior chain is critical for locomotion (running, walking, jumping) and many other athletic and everyday activities. So, if you want a butt you can be proud of, you’d better start deadlifting.
The deadlift can be a brutally challenging exercise, but that’s also what makes it so satisfying to perform. You get behind the bar, bend down and grip it, drive your feet into the floor, and pulling with every fiber of your being, you lift it off the floor. It’s a battle of wills – you against mean old Mr. Gravity!
If you are successful, you’ll feel great, experiencing a wave of satisfaction that’s hard to describe and highly addictive. If you fail, you’ll be more determined to beat the weight next time.
While you might never break any deadlifting records, you can always compete against yourself for a new one-repetition maximum, and even small weight increases deserve celebration.
The deadlift really is one of the most productive things you can do with a barbell, and whatever you are training for, deadlifts will probably help you get there faster.
Muscles Worked During Deadlifts
It’s no exaggeration to say that deadlifts are a full-body exercise. In fact, the list of muscles not involved in deadlifts is very short (yes, we’re talking about you, pecs!).
That said, some muscles work harder than others, getting the most stimulation from deadlifts. The main muscle movers and shakers during deadlifts are:
Deadlifts are often described as a back exercise. While they are much more than this, deadlifts will give you a broader, thicker upper back. That’s because you must use your latissimus dorsi or lats to keep the bar pressed against your legs and stop it from swinging away from you. Performed alongside pull-ups and rows, deadlifts will help you develop a show-stopping back.
Known as the traps for short, this is a large diamond-shaped muscle that covers much of your upper back. The traps have three sets of fibers – upper, middle, and lower. All three groups of fibers are involved in deadlifts, but the upper and middle fibers are the most active. Heavy deadlifts will help you develop thick, high traps and get you “yoked.”
The rhomboids are located between your shoulder blades and work with your middle trap fibers to keep your shoulder girdle retracted or pulled back. Strong mid-traps and rhomboids give your upper back its thickness and are also good for your posture.
Known as the glutes for short, this is the largest and potentially strongest muscle in the human body. Responsible for hip extension, the glutes are the engine that drives your deadlift. The glutes are basically your butt.
Located on the backs of your thighs, the hamstrings work with your glutes to extend your hips and are also involved in knee flexion. There are three muscles in the hamstring group – semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris. Deadlifts are a very hamstring-centric exercise.
Contrary to popular opinion, the quadriceps are strongly involved in deadlifts – or at least they should be. The quads extend your knees and are most active at the start of each rep; weak quads can stop you from breaking the weight away from the floor. The four quadriceps muscles are vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, vastus medialis, and rectus femoris.
Hip abductors and adductors
Your knees should not cave in or fall outward during deadlifts. Doing so would limit your performance and increase your risk of injury. The hip abductors (outer hips and thighs) and the adductors (inner thighs) work to stabilize your hips and prevent unwanted knee movement. The hip abductors are gluteus minimus, gluteus medius, and the tensor fascia latae, while the hip adductors are longus, brevis, and magnus.
The core is the collective term for the muscles that encircle your midsection. During deadlifts, these muscles act like a weightlifting belt to support and stabilize your lumbar spine.
The muscles of the core include the rectus abdominis, obliques, transverse abdominis, diaphragm, and pelvic floor. Contracting these muscles to prevent movement of the lumbar spine is called bracing, which is critical for safe deadlifting.
Deadlifts are a very back-centric exercise. In fact, there isn’t a muscle in your back that isn’t working during deadlifts. The erector spinae is a group of three muscles that runs up both sides of your spine. Each one is subdivided into three sections. During deadlifts, the erector spinae must work hard to stop your spine from flexing or rounding.
It’s bad form to try and bend your elbows during deadlifts, and doing so can cause serious injuries. However, you’ll need to use your biceps to stop your elbows from hyperextending, so they’ll still be under a lot of tension. This is especially true if you use a mixed grip, and your supinated (palms forward) biceps will be working especially hard.
Surprisingly, the triceps play a significant role during deadlifts. Working with your lats, you must use the long head of your triceps to keep the bar pressed back against your legs. As such, if you have any kind of triceps weakness, you’ll feel this small but essential muscle working overtime.
The deltoids are your main shoulder muscles. There are three groups of fibers, called heads, that make up the deltoids – anterior (front), medial (middle), and posterior (rear). The posterior deltoids are the most active during deadlifts, although the other two heads are also involved.
A big deadlift requires strong forearms. After all, these muscles are responsible for your grip, and if you cannot maintain your hold on the bar, you won’t be able to lift it. You could use lifting straps to reinforce your grip, but anything more than a liberal application of gym chalk is considered cheating by many people.
Using a mixed grip can help improve your hold on the bar, but you may need to work on your hand strength if you want to deadlift bigger weights.
Deadlifts Variations and Muscle Activation
There are several different types of deadlift you can use to add variety to your workouts. Each one uses many of the same muscles as conventional deadlifts. However, they often emphasize some muscles more than others and have a slightly different training effect.
This the following information to help you choose the best deadlift for your training goals:
1. Romanian deadlift
Deadlifts are so-called because you’re lifting a dead weight from the floor. That said, Romanian deadlifts start with the weight at hip height, and it never touches the ground. As such, it’s not really a deadlift.
However, the name has stuck, and the Romanian deadlift is a very popular exercise. This variation all but removes your quadriceps from the movement and focuses on the muscles of your posterior chain, i.e., the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.
2. Deficit deadlift
The deficit deadlift involves standing on a low platform or a bumper plate or two. This puts you in a lower starting position, increasing your range of motion. With a deeper bend in your knees and hips, deficit deadlifts involve more quadriceps and glutes engagement and increase your strength off the floor.
3. Sumo deadlift
Sumo deadlifts are performed with a wider-than-shoulder-width stance and a more upright torso. This increases glute and quadriceps activation and also uses the hip abductors and adductors more. A lot of powerlifters use sumo deadlifts as they find it lets them lift heavier weights with less low back stress.
4. Trap bar deadlift
A trap bar or hex bar is a specialist barbell that allows you to stand between the weights. This shifts the load closer to your base of support, taking stress off your lower back. However, this change makes trap bar deadlifts more quad-dominant than conventional deadlifts, so this exercise often feels more like a squat than a deadlift. As such, it’s sometimes called a squat lift.
5. Dumbbell deadlift
No trap bar? No problem! You can simulate trap bar deadlifts with a pair of dumbbells. Like trap bar deadlifts, the weight is next to you instead of in front of you, putting more stress on your quadriceps and less on your lower back. However, most people find this exercise awkward with heavy weights as the dumbbells tend to swing in against the legs.
6. Jefferson deadlift
The Jefferson deadlift is like a cross between a lunge and a conventional deadlift. You perform this exercise standing astride your barbell. Jefferson deadlifts use your quadriceps, abductors, and adductors more than regular deadlifts. They also allow you to maintain a more upright posture, which may be a little more lower back-friendly.
7. Deadlift with bands or chains
Deadlifting against bands or chains increases the load as you approach lockout. This deloads your quadriceps and puts more tension on your glutes and hamstrings. Powerlifters use band and chain deadlifts to strengthen their lockout. This is also an excellent way to take pressure off your lumbar spine while still putting plenty of tension through your muscles.
8. Rack pulls
Rack pulls are a partial deadlift where each rep starts with the bar at about knee height. The bar is raised in a power rack or on blocks. The partial range of motion allows you to lift heavier weights and focus on the top part of each rep, strengthening your lock out. Rack pulls emphasize your glutes, hamstrings, and upper back.
9. Snatch grip deadlift
Most deadlift variations feature a shoulder-width grip. However, with snatch grip deadlifts, your hands are much wider apart, which increases your range of motion and also forces you to use your upper back more. As such, using a snatch grip for your deadlifts increases trap and rhomboid engagement and also uses your glutes and hamstrings more.
10. Suitcase deadlift
Most deadlift variations are bilateral, meaning they use both arms and legs at the same time. The suitcase deadlift is unilateral or one-sided. Holding the weight with one hand will force you to use your core more to keep your torso upright. So, as well as being an effective leg and back exercise, this move will also hammer your lateral core muscles. You can do suitcase deadlifts with a dumbbell, kettlebell, or barbell gripped in the middle.
Do you have a question about deadlift anatomy or deadlifts in general? No problem, because we’ve got the answers!
1. Are deadlifts safe?
Deadlifts are a reasonably safe exercise, provided you perform them correctly. This means you avoid rounding your lower back, keep your core braced, and don’t try to lift more weight than you can handle. You won’t get pinned under a heavy bar if you cannot complete your rep, so you won’t need spotters or a squat rack.
However, because of the magnitude of the loads involved in the deadlift, muscle strains are not uncommon, and poor form could result in potentially serious lower back injuries.
2. Are deadlifts a leg exercise or a back exercise?
You may have noticed that some programs include deadlifts for legs, while others put them into back workouts. While this may seem confusing or contradictory, both approaches are correct.
Looking at the hips down, you can see the deadlift is a powerful leg exercise that targets the glutes, hamstrings, and, to a lesser degree, the quads. In contrast, the lats, traps, and rhomboids are also very active, so it’s an upper-body exercise, too.
As such, you can do deadlifts in your leg or back workouts – they’re fine in both situations.
That said, if you want to do deadlifts for your back but also want to include them in your leg workouts, you should probably use different variations to avoid doing the same movement twice in one week, e.g., something like rack pulls for your back and Romanian deadlifts for legs.
Doing the same type of deadlift twice per week will probably lead to overtraining.
3. Do I need to wear a belt for deadlifts?
While a lot of lifters wear a lifting belt for deadlifts, they are not compulsory. Wearing a belt allows you to generate more intra-abdominal pressure as your abs will have something to push and brace against. This may allow you to lift heavier weights more safely.
However, if you are training with sub-maximal loads, you should have no problem bracing your abs without the extra support afforded by a weightlifting belt.
So, use a belt if you want to push your limits in the deadlift, but go belt-free if you plan on keeping things light. Finally, remember that a belt doesn’t protect you from bad form or the dangers of trying to lift too much weight. People who wear belts get injured, too!
4. Do you have any good deadlift programs for novice powerlifters?
We sure do! This nine-week program is designed to slowly but surely increase your deadlift one-repetition maximum. It uses several progression methods and accessory exercises to turn you from a novice powerlifter into a deadlifting machine. It’ll also add bulk to your back and posterior chain.
Run through it once, deload for a week, and run it again to see your deadlift 1RM record crumble.
5. My grip is weak – can I use lifting straps for deadlifts?
While you can use lifting straps to bolster a weak grip, doing so will not fix your problem and actually could make matters worse. The more you use straps, the more reliant on them you’ll become, and the weaker your grip will get.
Instead, make it your mission to improve your grip by a) NOT using straps for anything other than your heaviest deadlift sets and b) adding dedicated forearm and grip training to your routine.
You can’t ignore a weakness and hope it’ll get better by itself. Instead, you need to focus on it and work it so it catches up with the rest of your body. While this can be humbling at first, in a few months, your weak grip could become one of your strongest assets and will improve your performance in any exercises that involve your hands, including rows, pull-ups, and even bench presses.
6. Deadlifting with a mixed vs. double overhand grip – what’s the difference?
Using a mixed grip, where one palm faces forward, and the other faces backward, stops the bar from rolling out of your hands. This gives you a more solid grip on the bar and should help you lift heavier weights.
However, using a mixed grip is hard on your supinated (palms forward) biceps and could cause muscle tears. Using the same mixed grip could also lead to muscle imbalances.
For these reasons, if you do choose to use a mixed grip, make sure you switch your hands around set by set. This will probably feel weird initially, and one side will invariably be stronger than the other, but it’s the best way to avoid imbalances and injuries. You should also endeavor to use a double overhand grip for lighter loads, switching to a mixed grip only when needed.
7. Why do a lot of people do deadlifts barefoot or in minimalist shoes?
A good deadlift requires a stable platform. Soft-soled sneakers with raised heels compress when loaded and push your weight forward onto your toes, making you much less stable. Taking off your shoes and lifting barefoot or wearing flat, uncushioned minimalist athletic shoes ensures your feet won’t move during your reps.
Powerlifters wear very thin shoes called deadlift slippers to ensure their feet are as flat and low to the ground as possible.
All that said, if you are deadlifting light to moderate weights for general fitness, you probably don’t need to resort to going barefoot or minimalist shoes. But, if you have a tendency to fall forward during deadlifts, flat-soled shoes could be the solution.
More on Deadlifts:
- Beginner Deadlift Program
- Three Deadlift Workout Programs To Enhance Strength and Performance
- 9 Weeks to a Bigger Deadlift Program
- Ten Ways to Boost Your Deadlift
- Partial Deadlifts vs. Full Deadlifts – Which One Should You Do?
- B-Stance RDL Guide: Muscles Worked, How-To, Benefits, and Variations
- Deadlift Calculator – Calculate Your One Rep Max Deadlift
From bodybuilders to fitness models to powerlifters to runners to moms to athletes – deadlifts are good for everybody’s body. It’s no surprise that Victorian physical culturists used to call deadlifts the health lift. Even back then, the experts of the day recognized the benefits of this potent lift.
Some coaches and trainers will be quick to tell you that the deadlift is dangerous and it could hurt your back. However, this is only half-true. A poorly performed deadlift can undoubtedly be a back-wrecker. But, done correctly, very few exercises can strengthen your back like deadlifts can.
Squats deserve their title of the king of exercises, but deadlifts are every bit as valuable. So, include both these exercises in your workouts, and enjoy all the benefits that they offer; there is no need to choose between them.