The deadlift…one of the most iconic barbell exercises of all time and a prominent member of the “Big 3” of powerlifting fame.
Walk into any gym worth its salt (or chalk!) and your ears will be greeted by beautiful music that 8 steel plates make as they clang against the (heavily) platformed floor.
…but is the deadlift’s reputation actually warranted? Are the deadlift muscles worked really that numerous?
Short answers: yes and yes
Let’s explore why!
Table of Contents
The Barbell Deadlift
If you’re reading this, you probably have a pretty good idea of what the deadlift looks like and have at least a basic understanding of how it is executed. For those that don’t a very quick rundown:
The lifter positions himself over the barbell, feet slightly narrower than shoulder width (for most lifters) and bends over the bar. The back should remain flat and in the 40-45-degree angled range with the completely straight arms grasping the bar just outside of the knees.
With a braced torso, the athlete pushes their feet into the ground while simultaneously standing up. The arms should remain almost entirely straight and the bar should remain in close contact with the legs, hips, and waist through the duration of the lift.
The lift ends with the “lockout”, the lifter standing tall, bar held motionless against the waist.
Rundown of Deadlift Muscles Worked
The deadlift is an exercise that can really help you build muscle and build strength, targeting a number of muscle groups. At first glance, it might seem that deadlifts mainly work the hips or possibly the back. However, deadlifts actually work a lot more of your body.
Is it possible that the “King of Exercise” (the squat) has a competitor?
The main muscles activated deadlifts are:
- Back extensors & lats
- Adductors & knee extensors
- Forearm flexors
Let’s explore each of these in detail!
Glutes, or gluteal muscles, are the muscles of your butt, including the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. The gluteus maximus is actually the largest and one of the strongest muscles in your body. Glutes have the function of extension, abduction, and rotation of your hip. These muscles are activated when you’re finishing the lift, getting the bar from just over your knees to lockout.
Back Extensors & Lats
Back extensors are the muscles on the back of the spine. These muscles allow you to stand and lift objects. Naturally, you activate them during the deadlift when raising your torso from the more angled and horizontal position, upright to a lockout position. This specifically works the erector spinae muscle group, including the iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis.
Another major area of the back worked when deadlifting are the latissimus dorsi muscles or lats. This is a pair of flat muscles located in your lower posterior thorax. These muscles are responsible for producing movements of the shoulder joint.
Hamstrings are located on the backs of the thighs. This group of muscles is made out of three muscles: the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and the bicep femoris. They are essential for many leg movements, including walking and squatting. Hamstrings have the function of bending the knee joint, as well as extending and rotating the hip joint.
The core represents a number of muscles, including:
- rectus abdominis
- internal and external obliques
- transversus abdominis
- erector spinae
- quadratus lumborum
- pelvic floor muscles
The function of this muscle group in the deadlift is to stabilize your spine and abdomen. In other words, core muscles are the ones that keep you upright while lifting something heavy. Think about trying to lift some heavy weights without bracing…that’s the difference between having a strong, engaged core during a deadlift and…not!
The trapezius, or traps is a large muscle on your upper back that looks like a trapezoid. This is one of the broadest muscles in the upper back and trunk. Its function is stabilizing and moving shoulder blades. The traps are activated when you pull your shoulder blades back and together in the final stage of the deadlift.
Adductors & Knee Extensors
The adductors are the muscles in your hip that bring your thighs together. This group includes:
- Adductor brevis
- Adductor longus
- Adductor magnus
- Adductor minimus
- Obturator externus
The function of these muscles is to flex and extend the hip. During the deadlift, these muscles work together with knee extensor muscles(quads) which include:
- Vastus medialis
- Vastus lateralis
- Vastus intermedius
- Rectus femoris
During a deadlift, the adductors and knee extensors contract against the bar’s weight, pulling the legs into a straight and upright position.
Forearm flexors are the anterior compartment of the forearm, which includes:
- flexor carpi radialis
- palmaris longus
- flexor carpi ulnaris
- pronator teres
- flexor digitorum superficialis
- flexor digitorum profundus
- flexor pollicis longus
- pronator quadratus
The function of these muscles is to flex and extend the hand. By lifting the barbell, you activate your forearm flexors and strengthen your grip.
In some cases, you’ll definitely notice if your forearm flexors are weak, relative to the rest of the muscles used during the deadlift.
Because your grip can give out before anything else!
(it sucks missing a deadlift because your grip is too weak…I know from experience!)
Variation Deadlift Muscles Worked
Certain deadlift variations can shift the focus of the muscle group worked. This allows other muscle groups to get more of the “priority” treatment while still working many of the same muscles as the traditional barbell deadlift.
Ahhh…the sumo deadlift…a deadlift variation beloved by competitive powerlifters everywhere!
When you “sumo” there is a much greater emphasis on your leg muscles. Your legs are much wider apart and the much more upright position shifts work from much of the back to much of the legs.
The sumo deadlift activates the quads, glutes, and traps primarily. However, the forearms, lower back, core, and lats get some work, as well.
The Romanian deadlift, (or “RDL”) largely focuses on working the hamstrings. The difference between this variation and a traditional barbell deadlift is that each traditional rep starts from the ground whereas RDL reps begin (and end) with the barbell just off the ground
RDLs primarily work the:
- Spinal erectors
However, RDLs also activate the forearms, quads, upper back, and core.
Stiff Leg Deadlift
The stiff-leg deadlift is similar to the RDL and the two are oftentimes confused.
Like the traditional barbell deadlift, the stiff-leg deadlift starts from the ground. Like the RDL, the hips start from a higher position, putting greater emphasis on working the hamstrings.
…and no; your legs don’t have to be completely straight on these!
Apart from hamstrings, this variation will also activate your spinal erectors, glutes, quads, lats, and calves. The secondary muscles worked are quads. forearms, upper back, and core.
The hex bar, or trap bar, is a piece of equipment that allows you to lift weight while keeping the stress off your lower back. Because the weight is closer to the center of gravity, most lifters are able to hex bar deadlift more than they can traditional barbell deadlift.
Hex bar deadlifts primarily activate the:
- Spinal erectors
You will also work your hamstrings, forearms, upper back, and core.
This variation of the deadlift includes standing on a short platform usually (1 to 4 inches high). I usually just stand on a standard, competition bumper plate when performing these (per Mat Fraser’s recommendation in his HWPO programming…these come up a lot on there!)
The increased range of motion leads to more work for the posterior chain muscles and quads.
Frequently Asked Questions
After all that, you still have questions about the deadlift muscles worked? Thankfully, we got answers!
Wow…you really went there?!
(to be fair, I did drop the “better than ‘King of Exercise;” gauntlet earlier!)
The answer depends on your goals. However, both have yuge roles in a well-rounded strength training or dedicated powerlifting program (both are prominently included in Starting Strength and 5/3/1 programs).
Deadlifts are safe and beneficial if you do them properly. However, a disadvantage of the deadlift is that it can cause injury when poor or improper form is utilized.
Not engaging your core enough or attempting to lift significantly more weight than you can handle can lead to rounding your spine, which can cause acute and chronic injuries.
How often you should deadlift will depend on your age, goals, experience, and many other factors. However, the silver lining is from one to three times a week.
Some have advocated for a “deadlift every day”, but most lifters won’t be able to handle the extremely heavy volume that such a program entails.
The lifters and coaches at the legendary Westside Barbell Gym have a saying:
Some people just really like to poke the hornet’s nest of the (imagineray?) deadlift vs. squat debate?
…but with good reason!
The deadlift muscles worked are numerous and due to the amount of weight people can shift when deadlifting, the opportunity is there to pack on a lot of size and strength.
The seemingly endless number of variations ensure that the deadlift muscles worked extend throughout almost the entire body.
If you want to work a lot of muscles at once, you really don’t have an excuse not to deadlift.
If that’s not enough, you look cool deadlifting, too!
Our article on the muscles that shrugs work might even be more interesting than this one. You should read it immediately!