Whatever exercise that you do, it is always important to know about what muscles are being worked when you perform the exercise.
For this reason, you may be wondering how you can build a bigger deadlift, or how you can more specifically target particular muscle groups over other ones when you perform a deadlift. An understanding of what muscles are used when you deadlift and the roles they play in your deadlift is very important.
So, let’s ask ourselves what muscles are used when we deadlift? Well, the first half of the movement, when you bring the barbell from the floor to your knees, primarily targets the quad muscles. Then the second half of the movement, when you bring the bar from your knees to a lock out, primarily targets the muscles in your low and mid back, as well as your glutes, and your hamstrings.
However, deadlift variations that target either your lower half or upper half range of motion, will engage these muscles groups more, or less, depending on the lift variation.
Today, we will discuss with you everything that you need to know about your muscles when you perform your deadlifts, so that you can get the most out of it. We will talk to you about what muscles are responsible for what in the deadlift, how different muscles are used in specific variations, and how to identify and fix weak muscle groups.
Let’s get lifting!
What muscles are worked when you deadlift?
Thinking about anatomy and biomechanics.
The deadlift is considered to be a full body movement. This is because there are several muscles used in both the upper body and the lower body when you do this type of lift. These are the muscles that are used when you perform a deadlift;
- Adductor Magnus
- Abdominals and Obliques
Depending on which variation of the deadlift you perform, certain muscle groups will be more engaged than others. We will explain more about this, in more detail later on, but first we want to tell you about every muscle that will be used in the deadlift, and its roles.
Let’s take a look at those quads.
Quad muscles are used to extend the knee in the bottom half motion. This is why some lifters will use to cue, ‘ to push the floor away’ off of the ground. This is to extend the knee and engage the quad muscles during the lift. If you find that your quads get especially sore during the deadlift then they may be a bit weak, we will tell you more about this later.
There are few people who do not want to get great glute muscles. The glutes are used in the deadlift to extend the hips. This is a very important function in the lock-out stage of the deadlift, they bring the hips closer to the barbell.
As the lifter will start the deadlift the hips will be behind the barbell, yet, as they stand the hips need to come forward, it is at this stage that the glutes are engaged.
Adductor Magnus (i.e. Your inner thigh)
If you do not know the adductor magnus, it is the muscle of your inner thigh. This is a muscle that also has a role in the extension of your hips. It performs a similar function as the glutes do, allowing the hips to fully extend during the lock-out motion of your deadlift.
Your hamstrings have two roles during the deadlift. First of all the hamstring will act as a synergist, supporting the glutes in the hip extension as you lock-out. Then, when the knees straighten, the hamstrings engage even more in order to bring your hips out to the bar. However, in this case the glutes still do much more than the hamstrings. Your hamstrings only contract a small amount during this movement.
Secondly, your hamstrings act as stabilizing muscles to support the knee joints. When the lifter has bent their knees, in the starting position, and they pull the weight off of the floor, the tension of the hamstrings helps to stabilize the knee joint. They counter the forces of the quads in order to extend the leg.
Later on we will talk about how you can engage your hamstrings even more based on how straight or bent your knees are if you perform the stiff leg deadlift.
Erector muscles are the muscles that run along the exterior of your spine. These muscles have two roles when you perform a deadlift, such like hamstrings do.
Firstly, the erectors will help prevent your spine from rounding. Basically, this means that the erectors keep your back flexed and extended. This is a very important position to maintain whenever you are lifting a load. Any rounding of the mid-back will greater to greater shear forced at the level of your spine, which you do not want.
Secondly, the erectors also have a role in the extension of your back. This allows the spine to move from a horizontal position to a vertical and upright position. If a lifter starts with their back more horizontal to the floor, then they will use more erector muscles in order to extend their back to an upright position when they lock out the weight.
The lat muscles are imperative. They help to keep the bar on the body throughout the performance of this lift.
Technically, it is important to maintain contact between the bar and the body during the deadlift. If the bar drifts too far off the body, you will likely lose your balance forward. and you will end up fighting the forces of gravity, and your body to keep you upright.
Even more so, if the bar comes away from your body, then your hip extensor muscles will need to work even harder to bring the hips in toward the bar during lock out. For this reason alone, the lats are extremely important muscles for maintaining and effective position throughout your deadlift.
Your traps help to support your shoulders position during the deadlift, especially the low and mid-traps that run along the ‘scapula’, what you know as you shoulder blades.
Your shoulders should be in a neutral position with a very slight depression when you perform a deadlift. This means that your shoulders should be pulled very slightly down toward the floor.
Rhomboids are muscles that are found in the upper inner back and the lower neck. These too, have a role in keeping a proper and safe shoulder position while you deadlift. Your rhomboid performs a very similar function to your traps. This allows the shoulder to look upright and anything but rounded when you are in the lock out position.
Abs and Obliques
The fronts and sides of your abs help to stabilize and maintain the position of the spine, this is pretty standard for any exercise, however it is even more important when you are performing a deadlift.
While the job of the erectors is to extend the spine, the front and side of your abs prevent any hyperextension, which means extending too far backward. If the spine was to extend too far back, then the erectors might disengage. This is why they are so important.
The front and size of the abs maintain the tension potential of the erectors, so that you can be kept in the perfect stance and stability.
Finding Those Weak Muscles
Now, we know the muscles that you use when you deadlift, and what each of them do. It is time for us to talk to you about how you go about identifying weak muscles so that you can effectively target them more when you work out.
Most of the time technique deficiencies will occur due to a weaker muscle group, or an imbalance between muscle groups. While a majority of muscular weaknesses are not the only cause of technique deficiencies, it is definitely an area that you will want to understand and consider addressing if this is the problems.
While there is a lot to consider here, we want to go into detail and address the weaker muscles based on the bottom range of motion, and the top range of motion in the deadlift.
Let’s consider this issue.
What if you struggle to get that weight up?
The bottom half of the deadlift is all about extending the knees and maintaining your torso position in relation to the floor.
In order to do this, your quad muscles have to produce force to initiate the knee extension and bring the barbell off the floor. Your back position should be maintained by having your erectors engaged, and your lats should actively keep the bar on your body.
So, if you are struggling to get the weight up off of the floor, there could be issues in weak muscle groups. What are the possibilities? And, how can you fix these issues?
On a side note: you can try a different variation – such as the kettlebell deadlift – which shifts some of the emphasis of the lift onto to different muscles.
Weaknesses in the quads
If you have weakness in your quads, then you will probably struggle to get the weight off of the ground, simply because your knees will not be able to extend properly.
However, instead of simply not being able to break the contact with the floor, your body will often times try to compensate for the weakness in your quadriceps, and then try to lift the weight by getting your hip muscles and back extensors more involved in the lift.
This will end up looking like your hips are shooting up in your starting position, often this will happen before the bar has even left the ground, which will bring your torso angle even more horizontal to the floor.
This will be your body’s way to leverage your glutes, hamstrings and lower/ mid back even more, and compensate for your weaker quadriceps muscles.
If you do not struggle with getting the weight off the ground, however, then you can maintain your hip height in the starting position as the weight lifts from the floor. If this is the case then your quads are doing their job properly, and you are fine.
Weaknesses in the erector muscles
If your erectors are weak, then you will likely struggle to maintain any integrity in your spine. This will look a bit like your back has a hunch as you pull the weight off of the floor, this is called ‘rounding’.
While back rounding can occur at any time at all, throughout the range of motion, it will typically occur at the bottom range when your back is more horizontal to the floor.
When your back is more horizontal to the floor, your erectors need to work extra hard to get that upright position. This is why they will struggle at this stage, and why this is the most common time to see back rounding due to weak extensors.
That being said, your spine does have a natural curve, you will notice this on spinal anatomy, this can look like the back is rounding, but this is the natural curvature of your spine. You should maintain this natural curvature of your spine when you deadlift.
What you want to avoid is any more rounding of your spine than is normal. This would be obvious if your back position starts to change when you are lifting a load, it will typically look more like a hunch than a curve if there is an issue.
Weaknesses in the lats
If you find it difficult to keep the bar on you throughout the duration of the lift, then the issue is probably that you have weak lats. Remember that the barbell should not break contact with your shins.
Remember that the role of your lats is to prevent the barbell from pulling away from your body and therefore pulling you forward. If the bar drifts away from your body during the bottom half range of motion, then you will almost definitely fail the deadlift at the knees because you will be fighting lateral forces.
A lot of powerlifters will use the cue to ‘flex your arm pit’ in order to engage their lats when they are in the starting position, you can use this to help train yourself.
‘I’m struggling to lock the weight out’
Despite what you may think, the top half of the deadlift is greatly affected by what happens, and what you do at the start position.
If you have any muscular weaknesses at the bottom half of your body that cause you to be out of position at your knees, then you will struggle to lock the weight out. No matter how strong you are at the top half.
This is not due to any issues in the lock-out, it is simply due to not being efficient in the first half of the movement. It is a bit like how you cannot try to run if you can’t walk.
That being said, the lock-out of the deadlift will be initiated by the hip extension, and to a slightly lesser extension, the back extension too. The muscles that are responsible for the hip extension are the glutes and the low and mid back, facilitating the back extension.
When you lock-out, the goal is to bring your hips to the barbell and then to assume an erect position with your back and shoulders. To work the lock-out phase of the deadlift, you can use an exercise like the block deadlift. This can be especially useful.
Weaknesses in the glute and adductor magnus muscles
Your glutes and adductor magnus are weak if you fail to bring your hips into the barbell in the lock out position.
Track your hip position when the barbell goes from the food to the knee, and it should look like a straight line. Once your barbell is at your knees, your hips should travel horizontally in the direction of the barbell. This means that your hips travel up and then forward, almost like a ninety-degree angle, but not perfectly.
You may have weakness in your glutes or adductor magnus if you cannot bring the barbell to your knee, or just above, however, your hips simply will not transition to the horizontal range of motion. This would be due to your glutes being responsible for bringing your hips forward to the barbell.
Extra erector weaknesses
Much like we mentioned weaknesses if you notice that you back is rounding, or hunching, in the starting position, the same thing can happen when you lock-out. This, again, means that you have weak erectors.
That being said, your erectors might also be weak if you notice that your hips and knees are locked, but you cannot assume an upright posture with your back. This would be obvious at the final end range where you are within just a few inches of locking out the weight.
The primary reason why your erectors may be weak in the lockout, will be because you are over exerting them in the starting position. This can be especially true if your back angle is way too horizontal when you start off.
You can certainly pull using the back angle, however, the consequence is that your back will already be fatigued by the time that you get to your lock-out, and you may start to round or fail at this point in the deadlift, you may simply not be able to assume an upright position.
Weaknesses in the trap and rhomboids
During the final stages of your deadlift, you will need to pull your shoulders back to an erect and posture perfect position. This is very true for competitive powerlifters as it is part of the movement standard that judges look for in these competitions.
If you fail to get your shoulders pulled back perfectly, then there is a chance that your trap and rhomboid muscles are weak.
This, like everything else, will be plainly obvious if your upper back starts to round and pull forward in the final stages of the lock-out.
What muscles are used in the different deadlift variations?
Every variation of the deadlift will require more or less of the same muscles that we have already discussed, some will require more of certain muscles, while others will require less of other muscles. Understanding which muscles you seek to develop most is a key in figuring out which deadlift will work best for what you seek to get out of your lifting.
Understanding how these different variations will change the muscle activation is key to being able to target the areas of development that will allow you to grow stronger and build your weaker muscles and focus on certain body points.
There are six variations we want to discuss with you today. These are;
- Conventional deadlifts
- Sumo deadlifts
- Romanian deadlifts
- Stiff leg deadlifts
- Trap bar deadlifts
- Deficit deadlifts
The conventional deadlift
The conventional deadlift is considered to be a hip-dominant movement and will often use more muscles of the posterior chain, by this we mean those muscles that keep you standing upright, such as the spinal erectors.
This is mainly true just off the floor, to about the knee height. Simply due to the angle of the torso, and its horizontal positioning to the floor. We mean this in comparison to the other variations of deadlift.
Everyone who wants to deadlift, should learn how to do the conventional deadlift perfectly before they move onto any other forms of deadlift. The conventional deadlift is like the entry deadlift variation, it is a staple exercise that will allow you to learn how to pull weight from the floor with skill and precision.
The sumo deadlift
The sumo deadlift is considered to be a more knee dominant movement that uses more quad in comparison to the other variations. This is because the hips will generally start close to the barbell and the torso if more upright that in the other variations.
There are studies that show that the vastus medialis, which is inside the quad, the vastus lateralis, which is outside the quad, and the tibialis anterior, which is the outside of the calf, have greater muscular activation in this variation of the deadlift.
Many people may not have the hip structure for this type of deadlift, it is also possible that you may not have the hip mobility to do it either. Other variations such as the trap bar may be more suitable.
You will also need to have strong external hip rotator muscles in order to keep your knees tracking over your feet properly, this is due to the wide foot width of the sumo deadlift.
A lot of lifters would like to cue their feet to ‘spread the floor’ in their start position. This activates the glute medius and ensures that the knees are pushing out over their toes.
The Romanian deadlift
The Romanian deadlift targets the glute muscles more than any other deadlift variation there is. It specifically targets the glute maximum, which are the muscles in your rear, that you sit on. This is because you emphasize hip extension over knee extension in this lift.
To do a Romanian deadlift, you start by holding the barbell at lock-out, then crack the knees slightly and hinge forward at the hips while bringing the barbell to the floor. The barbell will stay on your quads the whole time, then you will stop when you get to your knees before you return to a standing position.
You do not bend your knees any more than the initial crack at the very top, which will emphasize the hip extension movement that completes the exercise. When performing this lift, you should squeeze your glutes at the top as your cue.
This deadlift has also been shown to have strong muscular movements in the hamstrings too. In comparison to other exercises that use the hamstrings such as the leg curl, and the glute-ham raise. It is believed that the Romanian deadlift actually has more effect than these typical glute and hamstring based exercises.
That being said, hamstrings will be more activated if the barbell comes off of you, however, this is seen to be more like the action of a stiff leg deadlift.
The stiff leg deadlift
Speaking of the stiff leg deadlift, this is the deadlift that targets your hamstrings more than any other variation of deadlift.
Unlike the Romanian deadlift where you stop at the knees, the stiff leg deadlift is actually performed as a full-range motion, which feels like a stretch in your hams.
Even more so, in the stiff leg deadlift, the barbell should come off of your quads as you lower the weight down. Whether you start off your stiff leg deadlift from the floor, or from a standing position, it doesn’t really matter, it will generally have the same overall result.
When the knees are straight, your hamstrings will contract much more to facilitate the hip extension, which would otherwise be done by the glutes.
One thing that you should keep in mind when it comes to doing any powerlifting styled deadlift, the eccentric range of motion is not often trained. Once the lifter locks the weight out, they will drop the weight back to the floor before resetting the knee and hip position.
However, the stiff leg deadlift is one of the very few deadlifts where the eccentric range of motion is trained fully; it allows the hamstring to act as the prime moving muscle.
If you have poor hamstring flexibility, then the Romanian deadlift is probably a better deadlift for you. If you wanted the variation to be more glute based then you can keep the bar on your thighs, if you wanted the variation to be more focused on your hamstrings, then you should let the bar drift off of your thighs.
The trap bar deadlift
For a deadlift that focuses more on your back and hamstrings in comparison to the conventional deadlift, the trap bar deadlift is a good option.
This deadlift is similar to the conventional deadlift, especially in the range of motion, and in the stance. However, the trap bar deadlift uses a neutral grip on a specialty bar instead.
This unique change has seen athletes lifting more weight in this type of deadlift than in the conventional deadlift.
There is a lesser demand on the lower back, hips, and ankles, but there is a greater demand at the knees. The outside of the quad is more activated in the trap bar deadlift too. However, the hamstrings and erectors are more activated in a conventional deadlift.
The deficit deadlift
Deficit deadlifts can be done in either a conventional stance, or in a sumo stance. Whichever stance you choose, it will target all the muscle groups that are specific to those deadlifts.
While the quads, hamstrings, erectors and glutes will all be used. Conventional deficit will target the erectors more, and sumo deficit will target the quads more.
As you increase the deficit there will be more of an end range on either your hips or knee extensors, this places a more demanding load on said muscle group in order to complete the motion.
It is best to stick to deficit deadlifts of only 1-2 inches, as anymore may require mobility that is beyond your normal biomechanical boundaries. Even an inch can make the movement much harder. Take it slow, and build according to your abilities.
Deadlifts use a wide array of muscles throughout your body. In the bottom range of your deadlift, you will use more quads to extend your knees and break the bar from the floor. In the top range, you will use more of your glute muscles to bring your hips forward toward the bar.
Your back muscles will be used depending on the angle of your back, in terms of how horizontal your back is to the floor.
If you want more quad dominant deadlift variations you can try out sumo, or trap bar deadlifts. For glutes and hamstrings, you can use the Romanian or stiff leg deadlifts.
Deficit deadlifts are only used if you wish to further progress the muscles that are already used in either the conventional deadlift or in the sumo deadlift.
Either way, lift well, lift smart, and lift strong.