Deadlift Muscles Worked – Introduction
Did you ever imagine that the muscles worked by the deadlift could change your life?
The deadlift is only one exercise, you might think. How good can it be?
However, the truth is that the deadlift is more than a prescription for looking and feeling more powerful.
You can also beat obesity, get fit, and lift your mood with the main muscle groups worked by the conventional barbell deadlift.
For example, the ‘simple’ deadlift can dramatically change your body if done with proper form.
And not only if you use heavier weights.
Even deadlifting lighter weights can have a profound impact on your health and fitness.
This post will explain the muscles used in the conventional deadlift, how to deadlift, and why one lift – the deadlift can be so good for you.
Table of Contents
- What Muscles Do Deadlifts Work the Most
- Muscles Worked by the Deadlift
- Muscles Worked by the Sumo Deadlift
- Muscles Used by the Romanian Deadlift
- Deficit Deadlifts Muscles Exercised
- Why Are Deadlifts So Good for You
- How to Deadlift Correctly
- Common Deadlift Mistakes
- Head to Toe Strength from Only One Exercise
- Final Thoughts
- Infographic of Muscled Used in the Deadlift
What Muscles Do Deadlifts Work the Most?
The deadlift works most of the muscles of your entire body, from your feet to your head.
And most importantly, the posterior chain, all the muscles along the backside of your body.
Typically, many exercisers neglect the massive posterior chain muscles and instead focus on minor mirror muscles, meaning the muscles they can see in the mirror, such as your biceps.
While the mirror muscles are essential, think of the size of your biceps!
If you spend 45 minutes working these small muscles, you can expect a relatively small change in your body.
Spending too much time working small muscles is the reason that so many dedicated gym-goers see little change in their body.
I know because I experienced the same.
After decades of spending much of my workout time on the mirror muscles, some weight machines, and the treadmill, I was still obese.
But then, I started to deadlift at the age of 55.
Imagine my shock six months later, at the age of 56, when I found myself leaner and stronger than I thought possible.
Why are deadlifts are so good for you, no matter what your age?
The answer is because a conventional deadlift uses most of the major muscle groups of your body, as follows:
Muscles Used While Deadlifting
The muscles worked in the deadlift are:
- Arms & Grip
Deadlift Muscles Used in Your Lower Body
#1. The Glutes
There are about 640 muscles in the body.¹
Believe it or not, the biggest muscle in your body is the one you’re likely sitting on now – the gluteus maximus. (Library of Congress)
Your gluteal muscles include:
- The Gluteus maximus
- Gluteus medius, and the
- Gluteus minimus
And the biggest of the three gluteal muscles, the gluteus maximus, is known as the buttocks.
The Gluteal Muscle Group
The Weakest Muscles Today
Your glutes are the most significant underactive and weak muscles for most adults, besides the erector spinae muscles.
Your glutes are weak because you sit too much due to no fault of your own.
You probably sit on your glutes ten hours a day at work and during your commute.
If you include sitting to eat your meals and watching TV into the mix, you now realize why your glutes are weak.
Only your hip flexors, the muscles that flex your hips, are activated and engaged when you sit.
After many years of chronic sitting, your glute muscles are lengthened and get progressively weaker.
However, do not despair, as the great deadlift comes to your rescue! How?
The reason is that your glutes are the prime mover muscles (aka agonist) in the deadlift, which means they produce the primary force fueling the deadlift and just about any other athletic activity of the lower body.
Over time, with a progressive deadlift program as well as flexibility training to release your tight hip flexors, your glutes will once again be fire on all cylinders.
For this reason, the deadlift is an excellent exercise to reactivate and train your glutes and hamstrings.
Consequently, keep deadlifting, and you will move better during all functional activities in real life, not only at the gym.
#2. Leg Muscles
The leg muscle groups targeted include your quadriceps on the front of your thigh and your hamstrings on the back.
While the hamstrings only act as synergists during the deadlift, the quadriceps are the primary muscles the deadlift works in the legs.
Your quadriceps are a four-headed muscle that includes:
- Rectus femoris
- Vastus Lateralis
- Vastus Intermedius
- and Vastus Medialis
Primary deadlift muscles used – quadriceps Image Credit – rugby store blog
- Biceps femoris
Muscles used by the deadlift – hamstrings – Image Credit HealthJade.com
Legendary Bodybuilder and Strongman Franco Columbu deadlifting
Deadlift Muscles Used in Your Upper Body
Your Entire Back
The deadlift is not a squat.
While squats, on the one hand, will work your legs, specifically your front quadriceps, the deadlift is primarily a:
- massive push with your feet against the floor,
- drive your hips forward and simultaneously
- pull with your back compound movement,
which involves your lower back muscles as well as your upper back muscles.
All of your back muscles.
As a result, you build a more muscular back and can help prevent back pain.
Back pain is the most common type of chronic pain in adults in the United States.².
Therefore, use the deadlift to strengthen your back, not to injure your back.
To do so, you must deadlift with the correct form as described below in how to deadlift.
Keep your back straight and in a neutral position when you deadlift.
Never perform a deadlift with a rounded spine.
#3. Erector Spinae Muscles
The Erector Spinae consists of three columns of muscles:
- Longissimus, and
Each muscle column runs parallel to the outer sides of the vertebra.
They extend from the lower back of the skull down to the Pelvis.
‘The Erector Spinae provides resistance that assists in bending forward at the waist.
Also, they act as powerful extensors to promote your return of the back to the erect position.’ Source Credit: Learn your erector spinae muscles
These are powerful muscles, which help you bend forward and return to a standing position.
The spinal erectors run down your back, from the base of your skull to the lower vertebrae.
As a result, when you deadlift, you work your entire posterior chain, from your hips and knees up to your head.
Warning: You must maintain a neutral back, a flat back, throughout the deadlift. From when you lower your hips to grip the barbell through your deadlift and return to the floor.
#4. Latissimus Dorsi Muscles
Besides the erector spinae muscles, the deadlift also works your latissimus dorsi muscles.
Having powerful lats helps to give you the coveted V shape in your back.
#5. Arm and Grip Muscles
The deadlifts muscles trained in the arm region include many muscles in your arms—for example, your flexor digitorum profundus (forearms) and finger flexors (grip).
Strengthen your grip
The deadlift will tax your grip muscles like no other weight training exercise.
As the deadlift weight increases, your grip strength will increase as well.
There are two basic ways to grip for the conventional barbell deadlift:
- Use a pronated or overhand grip where both palms face you.
- Or use an alternating grip where one hand is overhand and the other is underhand.
As your deadlift weight increases, you will likely begin to use the alternating grip.
The change in grip is necessary to prevent unwanted rotation of the barbell.
However, you need to be careful not to injure your biceps when using the underhand grip.
Keep your elbows locked and arms straight to reduce the risk of injury to your biceps.
Never, ever try to pull the bar up using your arms alone.
#6. Shoulder Muscles
The deadlift also targets the medial deltoid of your shoulders.
You develop stronger shoulder muscles as you continue to deadlift.
You pull your shoulders back and work your trapezius muscles in the completion phase of the deadlift.
World record dead lifters usually have tremendous trapezius and shoulder development.
#7. Abdominal Core Muscles
The deadlift activates almost every muscle in your body, including your abdominal muscles, as well.
Also, according to Jody Braverman, a NASM Certified Personal Trainer and Writer – ‘During a deadlift, the rectus abdominis and the obliques are both hard at work. The rectus abdominis is a pair of long muscles that extend the length of the torso, and the obliques extend along either side of the torso.’
Therefore, you stabilize your spine in the deadlift with your abdominal muscles.
And by targeting your abdominals, lower back, and gluteal muscles, you can see why the deadlift is a great exercise to build core strength.
To sum up, the standard deadlift targets all the major muscle groups of your body.
For this reason, many exercisers consider the deadlift to be the best compound exercise for overall strength.
Is it any wonder that many consider the deadlift as the King of all Exercises?
Here is a well-known diagram of the muscles worked by the deadlift illustrated by Frederick Delavier:
Muscles Worked by the Sumo Deadlift
With the Sumo deadlift, you use a wider stance than shoulder-width, with your toes pointing outward.
This change in position is the main difference between a sumo deadlift and the conventional deadlift.
When it comes to muscles used in the Sumo style deadlift, it targets the same muscle groups as conventional deadlifts listed above, such as; your quad muscles, hamstrings, core midsection, erector spinae (lower back), and latissimus dorsi muscles.
So, what’s the difference in muscles targeted between Sumo and traditional deadlift styles?
Rafael Escamilla was a powerlifter and is the Professor of Physical Therapy at California State University at Sacramento.
He conducted an electromyographic study of sumo and conventional style deadlifts.³
Dr. Escamilla found that the most significant distinction in muscle recruitment is that “sumo deadlifts work the vastus medialis (inner quads), vastus lateralis (outer quads), and tibialis anterior muscles harder than the conventional deadlift.”
On the other hand, your posterior chain does more of the work in the conventional deadlift.
As a result, conventional deadlifts are better for building muscle mass because the muscles of your posterior chain run down the entire back half of your body and are thus much more extensive than your inner and outer quads.
However, there are other pros and cons of Sumo vs. conventional deadlifts to consider, such as:
- Lower back stress – (as such, the Sumo deadlift is an excellent alternative to the traditional deadlift for exercisers with back problems)
- Quads vs. Glute engagement
- Range of motion
- Flexibility requirements
- Your height
- Building muscle
- Ease of learning
- Lifting the heaviest weight
To answer these common questions of whether you should lift Sumo or conventional style, see Sumo Deadlift vs. Conventional: Which Is Better for You?
Muscles Worked by the Romanian Deadlift
There are two primary phases of a traditional deadlift.
In the first stage, you deadlift the weight off the floor.
The second stage is when the barbell approaches your knees, and you finish the deadlift by driving your hips forward and standing up straight.
Completing the lift in an upright position is also known as when you’ lockout.’
When you first begin deadlifting, you might not have the mobility necessary to lift the weight up to your knees.
In contrast to the conventional deadlift, the Romanian Deadlift starts from a standing position.
You hold the barbell in the top position, hip hinge, and let the barbell reach your knees.
Because the Romanian deadlift begins from a standing position, it is an excellent exercise for beginners.
Then, you lower the bar to your knees by pushing your hips back (hip hinge), and while maintaining a flat back, you push your hips forward to return to your starting position.
Starting from a standing position will be more comfortable for most exercisers.
Plus, the Romanian deadlift will help you get the feel of the hip hinge, an essential movement to master for the deadlift.
Additionally, the Romanian deadlift works as a stand-alone exercise to target your glute and hamstring muscles.
See the 7 Best Romanian Deadlift Benefits to Maximize Your Athletic Potential for more details on why the Romanian deadlift is an excellent deadlift variation.
Why You Should First Learn the Romanian Deadlift – Alan Thrall
Muscles Used by the Deficit Deadlift
The deficit deadlift will target the same muscles as the traditional deadlift described above.
However, this deadlift variation increases the range of motion and distance you need to lift the bar.
While a standard deadlift starts with your feet on the floor and the barbell 8.75 inches from the ground (when you load 45lb plates on the bar), a deficit deadlift begins with your feet on a 2 – 4 inch raised platform.
As a result, the bar is now only 4.75 to 6.75 inches from your elevated position.
This lower bar position forces you to lower your hips closer to the ground at the starting point of a deficit deadlift, which requires greater activation of your quad muscles, improving your leg drive against the floor.
As you start to lift heavier weights, you will likely find it more challenging to break the bar away from the floor.
Because the deficit deadlift helps you strengthen your leg drive against the floor, it is one of the more effective exercises to improve the bottom half of the conventional deadlift.
That said, do NOT deficit deadlift if you cannot maintain a neutral back in the start position as the increased range of motion and time under tension could lead to injury.
And even if you can maintain proper deadlift form, do not attempt to deficit deadlift the same weight you use with the conventional deadlift.
Instead, use a lighter weight, for example, 50% of your typical deadlift weight, so you can focus on strengthening not only your quads but your hamstrings, glutes, and back muscles as well.
See the 7 Big Deficit Deadlift Benefits + How-To for more details on why this one accessory exercise increases your deadlift strength, plus how to do it correctly.
Why Are Deadlifts So Good for You?
Targeting all the muscles of your body is the reason that deadlifts are so powerful.
Therefore, a progressive deadlift workout program can change your body even if you’re a beginner.
And changing your body is the first step to change your life.
In short, deadlifts build muscle, fight obesity, build confidence, and boost your mood.
You could become fabulously wealthy if you could package the benefits of deadlifts in a pill.
But, you do not need medicines; you need to deadlift.
Deadlifts Boost Your Mood Too
The practice of deadlifting is an excellent natural alternative to antidepressants and can help you fight obesity faster than you could ever imagine.
No matter what your age, you will benefit from deadlifts, even if you are over 80.
The deadlift is an incredibly effective exercise for building strength and confidence.
A healthier you will be an enormous asset to yourself, loved ones, and friends.
This article will now reveal how-to deadlift and the most common deadlift mistakes to avoid.
Along with the most critical deadlift muscles mentioned above, you can better understand why deadlifting is an excellent mental and physical fitness tool.
How to Deadlift Correctly
While the deadlift does not look very complicated, you must work on your technique to deadlift safely and effectively.
You can hurt yourself doing the deadlift unless you use the proper form.
It was a mystery to me, so it is essential to share it with you, as you might be a deadlift beginner like myself.
The following directions are for the traditional barbell deadlift.
As always, consult with your physician before you start a deadlifting program.
Rich “HashiMashi” Deadlifting at 64 – Credit HashiMashi.com
- Set your feet under a barbell loaded with Olympic plates
- Your feet should be between hip or shoulder-width apart
- Test how wide apart you would position your feet to get the most leg drive for a jump – that is the correct width
- Check to see the bar is over the middle of your foot.
- Use the laces of your shoes as a cue.
- Stand straight over the bar and focus on using the best technique possible
Hinge and Grip
- Hinge your hips backward
- You will feel your hamstrings engage, and when you cannot move your hips back any further, lower yourself to the bar.
- Grip the barbell using an overhand or alternate grip just outside of your legs
- I prefer overhand unless it is impossible to hold the weight on the bar
- Imagining your arms and hands as hooks is an essential and effective cue
- Never attempt to lift the barbell using your hands or arms
- Instead, you will use your leg and hip drive to lift the barbell
Flatten Your Back and Engage Your Lats
- Bring your shins in contact with the bar
- Do not move the barbell, only your shins
- Lift your chest to straighten your back
- You must keep your back flat
- Your shoulder blades (scapula) should be directly over the barbell before you begin your pull.
- Take a deep breath and brace your abs by quickly breathing out and tightening your core.
- You need to maintain this inter-abdominal pressure throughout the lift
- Contract your lats by pulling the bar into your shins
- An excellent cue is to think long arms because you automatically contract your triceps and lats when you lengthen your arms
- Another great tip is to imagine bending the barbell around your legs, which will help you engage your lats and solidify the connection between your lats and hips
- The barbell should stay in contact with your shins throughout the lift (hence the need for shin protection)
Push the Floor Away From You
- Take out the slack of the bar by shifting it up slightly
- You will hear the clang of the barbell against the weights
- Now, imagine doing a standing leg press
- Concentrate on driving the ground away from you
- Focus on pushing the floor with your legs, NOT lifting the weights
- When the barbell reaches about your knees, drive your hips forward
- The proper full range of motion is when you get to an upright position
- Do not lean back and hyperextend your back at the top of the deadlift
Common Deadlift Mistakes
#1. You are wearing regular tennis or running shoes
Do NOT deadlift wearing squishy shoes.
Instead, make sure you use flat-soled deadlift shoes for the best stability.
See the 5 Best Deadlift Shoes On The Market Today In 2021 for more details on wearing the right shoes.
#2. You’re not wearing shin protection
I like Moxy deadlift socks with jeans over them these days since I’m lifting at home.
See the 5 Best Deadlift Shin Guards on the Market in 2021 for additional options to protect your shins.
#3. Stop doing touch and go deadlifts
In the video above, you will see that I reset for every deadlift repetition.
My suggestion is to reset and NOT do touch-and-go deadlifts.
With touch-and-go deadlifts, you do not pause at the bottom, you keep going, and you use the slight bounce off the floor to lift heavier weights.
I attribute ending up with incredibly painful elbow tendonitis, aka tennis elbow, which sidelined me for a good four months till I could lift again.
#4. Using your arms to deadlift
Attempting to use your arms instead of your leg drive to lift the weights can have severe consequences.
For example, if you use an alternate grip, you could injure your bicep.
Instead, push against the floor to initiate the lift, and then drive forward with your hips to complete as you pull with your back.
#5. Not engaging your lats
If you do not contract your lats, you might round your shoulders during the lift.
Another result of weak lat engagement is the bar will tend to move away from your shins.
Instead, an excellent cue (credit Juggernaut!) is to imagine someone trying to tickle your underarm and tighten your triceps and lengthen your arms downward to protect your armpit.
However, my favorite lat engagement suggestion is to imagine bending the barbell around your legs, as I mentioned above.
Watch this great video of Mike Tuchscherer describe how to use the lats in your deadlift:
How to Deadlift Summary
- hip hinge to bend your knees
- hips still higher than your knees (the deadlift is not a squat)
- keep a neutral back by lifting your chest
- hip width grip
- vertical leg press off the floor
- bar close to your shins (which is why you need adequate shin protection)
- hip extension and drive when the barbell reaches your knees
- Simultaneous pull by your entire back muscle groups, not your arms
- remember, your arms are simply hooks latched onto the barbell
Note: if you have never deadlifted before, the trap bar deadlift could be a better alternative because it puts less pressure on your lumbar spine.
See 11 Great Trap Bar Deadlift Benefits You Didn’t Know for more details.
5 Most Common Deadlift Mistakes
Head to Toe Strength from Only One Exercise
The deceptively simple conventional deadlift will work the largest muscle groups of your body.
The bottom line is that these seven muscle groups used in a deadlift include most of the muscles of your body!
The short answer to the question of what muscles do deadlifts target is “all of them!'”
If you only have time for one exercise, do the deadlift. Deadlifts will add a layer of metabolically active muscle that burns fat everywhere.
You will change your body. And you can even save your life.
In a Crossfit Journal article on the importance of deadlifts, Greg Glassman, the creator of CrossFit, made the following statement:
“The deadlift is unrivaled in its simplicity and impact while unique in its capacity for increasing head-to-toe strength.”
Above all, deadlifts helped me improve my mental and physical health and fitness after 55.
They can do the same for you, no matter what your age.
Why Should You Deadlift Over 40, 50, and Beyond?
Do deadlifts if you want to transform your entire body, even if you’re over 50.
My before and after 6-month deadlift results:
Disclaimer: If you are starting exercise for the first time, please consult with your physician beforehand to ensure that exercise will not exacerbate any medical issues.
Conventional Deadlift Muscles Worked – Wrapping up
You cannot compare the number of muscles worked by deadlift to most other strength and conditioning exercises.
Take the ever-popular biceps curl, for example.
Think of the size of your bicep.
Now, think of the size of your back.
Although you cannot see the rear of your body, you know your back muscles alone are much larger than your biceps.
If the deadlift only worked your back muscles, the deadlift would still be superior to curls.
But, the deadlift works many more muscles than just your back.
- This total muscle usage of deadlifts is why you should not waste your time doing only curls,
- squeezing a handgrip, or
- only the bench press.
(Yes, the deadlift will also work the muscles of your hand and strengthens your grip.)
By now, you know that deadlifts are one of the most potent compound exercises you will ever do.
The bottom line is that few weight training exercises can match the number of muscles worked with the deadlift.
Infographic of Muscles Used in the Deadlift
Please take a moment to read and share this infographic, which illustrates the main muscle groups targeted by the deadlift:
Learn more about deadlifting from the following related posts:
- What Is A Deadlift And Why You Need Them
- 37 Remarkable Benefits of Deadlifts to Unleash Your Fitness Fast
- 27 Sensational Ways How Deadlifts Change Your Body
- How to Deadlift for Beginners – A Step by Step Guide
- 50 Essential Deadlift Tips and Tricks Every Beginner Should Know
However, if you first need to lose weight, no worries, follow these 5 Simple Steps to Lose 20 Pounds In 3 Months, and you will be ready to deadlift in no time.
This guide is a template of the Fit Apprentice™ plan – the one I followed to lose 75 pounds in 6 months.
- Deadlift Everyday Without Burning Out or Hurting Yourself – Get Stronger Faster
- Why Sumo Deadlift: Form, Muscles Worked, Benefits + How-To
- Sumo Deadlift vs. Conventional: Which Is Better for You?
- Romanian Deadlift VS Deadlift: What’s The Difference + How-To
- 11 Great Trap Bar Deadlift Benefits You Didn’t Know
- 3×5 Workout Plan: The Only Strength Training Program You Will Ever Need
- 7 Powerful Squats Muscles Worked Will Improve Your Life
- 11 Best Steph Curry Deadlift and Training Secrets
- The Simplest DIY Deadlift Platform for Beginners
- Best Deadlift Equipment: Home Gym Guide; Start Lifting Today!
- How Many Deadlift Reps and Sets Should You Do – A Beginners Guide
- 15 Safest Deadlift Alternatives to Protect Your Back