The deadlift is a fantastic way to build lower body size and strength. In this guide, we dive into detail about all things deadlift. We’re going to cover:
- Deadlift Muscles Used Diagram
- Deadlift Muscles Worked Explained
- Best Deadlift Variations
- Deadlift Programme
- Looking for a Reliable Bodybuilding Programme?
- Alternatives for Deadlift – 2 Exercises You Should Try
- What Muscle Does The Deadlift Work: Frequently Asked Questions
- Next Steps
Let’s jump right into it…
Deadlift Muscles Used Diagram
Deadlift Muscles Worked Explained
The deadlift mainly works three muscle groups, your hamstrings, your erector spinae and lower back, and your glutes.
Your Hamstrings: One of your prime movers for the deadlift, which means they’re going to be doing plenty of most work. When setting up for your deadlift you should feel some real tension in your hamstrings.
Your Erector Spinae and Lower Back: Your erector spinae can be considered back extensor muscles. They work in the deadlift to keep your back flat, and prevent you getting pulled into a ’round back’ position. Your lower back muscles also work to assist the deadlift by stabilising your back and torso position.
Lastly, your Glutes: Your glutes are your powerhouse hip extensors. These should be working maximally as soon as the barbell passes your knees, ensuring you achieve a strong lockout.
*What about the quads? I hear you ask: Yes, deadlifts do also involve your quads, especially if you have short legs and short arms and start with a much lower hip position. However, if you were looking to build really strong quads, deadlifts would not be the exercise you would use.
How to Deadlift Correctly
Of course, getting maximal muscle growth and strength development from your deadlifts also requires good execution of the movement. Here’s how to deadlift correctly.
1) Set up by standing over the bar, and placing the bar under your midfoot (which is often further back than you think)
2) Without bending your legs (or bending as little as needed) reach down and grab the barbell
3) Bring your shins to the barbell.
4) Squeeze your chest up and out to create a strong, flat back.
5) Push the floor away to initiate the movement, and drag the bar up your body, keeping it close the whole time.
Best Deadlift Variations
The romanian deadlift is a great deadlift variation that provides a slightly different training stimulus by having you set up at the top of the movement and then slowly control the eccentric (downwards) portion of the lift for a great stretch under load.
Romanian Deadlift muscles worked
The romanian deadlift still works your glutes and erector spinae, but it places more emphasis onto your hamstrings. The deep stretch under load will make them sore, but will also provide fantastic muscle growth.
Trap Bar Deadlifts
Trap bar deadlifts, a.k.a hex bar deadlifts, use a hexagonal bar that slightly changes the position of your body.
It can be a great variation for people with longer legs, as well as people who have a hard time keeping their back flat in a conventional barbell deadlift.
Trap bar deadlifts muscles worked
Trap bar deadlifts still work your hamstrings, erector spinae and glutes, but since your body is in a more upright position, they also bring a little bit more quadriceps involvement into the movement. In some ways, a trap bar deadlift is like a hybrid between a squat and a deadlift.
The sumo deadlift, as its name would suggest, is a deadlift variation where your foot placement is in a wider ‘sumo’ stance.
To perform the sumo deadlift, set up with your feet at approximately 1.5 times shoulder width and toes pointing at 30-45 degrees outwards. Your hands should be hanging straight down, in between your legs. For a full guide, see this sumo deadlift article.
Sumo Deadlifts Muscles Worked
The sumo deadlift still works your hamstrings, erector spinae and glutes, but it uses the hamstrings and lower back a bit less, and the glutes and quads a bit more.
Looking for a simple and effective programme to increase your deadlift strength and build size in your hamstrings, erectors and glutes? Here’s a deadlift programme I’ve put together for you to try…
Progression on the deadlift programme
Progressive overload comes each week through adding load to the bar, typically 2.5 to 5kg per week.
You’ll notice that there are not lots of sets, especially in workout 2 (which is a ‘moderate’ day) This is because deadlifts create a lot of fatigue, and a little goes a long way.
Looking for a Reliable Bodybuilding Programme?
I’ve put together a 17-week hypertrophy programme.
The programme is evidence-based and is designed with 3 distinct blocks of training that use different set and rep schemes, as well as different exercises, to maximise your muscle building.
It’s also designed with specific guidance so that you can adjust your amount of training to suit your recovery.
You can find out more about the programme here.
Alternatives for Deadlift – 2 Exercises You Should Try
We’ve covered the different types of deadlifts and muscles they work, but what if deadlifts don’t suit your build? Or what if you don’t have loads of weight and plates but still want an effective workout? Here are two deadlift alternatives you should give a try.
Barbell good mornings are a great alternative for deadlift that allows you to really use your hamstrings, glutes and erectors, only with a much lighter weight. Many people find that they can get a good workout with only 30-40kg, or even an empty bar.
If you’re looking for a deadlift alternative due to a bad back, then back extensions are a great option. They hit the same muscles worked by deadlift, just at a lower intensity.
I recommend sets of 8-15 reps, with a focus on maintaining a straight back position.
Back extensions can also make a great deadlift alternative to use on lighter training days.
What Muscle Does The Deadlift Work: Frequently Asked Questions
What are some benefits of the deadlift?
The main benefits of the deadlift include huge strength and size gains. This is because the deadlift provides a very high level of stimulus. Be warned, though, they are also very fatiguing.
How often do deadlifts?
Heavy deadlifts should only be performed once every 5 days or more. This is the time needed for bones, joints and connective tissue to fully recover. You can perform lighter movements such as back extensions in the meantime.
Which back muscles do deadlifts work?
Deadlifts work your erector spinae, as well as your lower back muscles. They also work your lats if you’re bracing them correctly.
Are deadlifts bad for you?
No, deadlifts aren’t necessarily bad for you. However, performing them too heavy and/or too often can lead to excess fatigue, overuse and potentially injury. Only perform them heavy once every 5 days or more.
Are deadlifts better than squats?
Deadlifts and squats are different movement patterns that work different muscles. Squats mainly work quads and glutes, with a little hamstring and erector, whereas deadlifts mainly work hamstrings, glutes and erectors, with a little quads. So for bigger quads, use squats, and for bigger hamstrings and erectors, use deadlifts.
What muscle does deadlift work the most?
Some EMG studies suggest that the spinal erectors work the most in deadlifts. Realistically, though, it will vary based on your body shape and deadlift set-up. It’s best to consider the deadlift as a ‘posterior chain’ exercise (hamstrings, glutes, lower back and erectors combined)
Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time for action…
1) Get in the gym and start training your deadlifts, maybe even run through my 4-week deadlift programme. Get stronger, add some size. Enjoy the muscle soreness.
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
3) And if you’re looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching, you can find more information about my services here.
‘Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex’s experience includes 8+ years within strength & conditioning, including supporting 2 major universities, 2 national talent pathways and a selection of international level athletes.
He is also a tutor and educator for British Weightlifting
Martín-Fuentes, I., Oliva-Lozano, J. M., & Muyor, J. M. (2020). Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review. PloS one, 15(2), e0229507. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0229507