Hwalk into the weight room of any gym and you’re likely to see someone deadlifting. And for good reason: Deadlifts are one of the foundational strength exercises. Some people even call them “the king” of all exercises. But which muscles do deadlifts work? Basically all the major muscle groups in the lower half of your body, plus your core, shoulders and forearms. Yeah, they’re not kidding.
Clearly, deadlifts can be one of the most effective exercises to work up to your leg day. But if you’re not already doing them, we get it: Barbell lifts in particular can be intimidating for beginners. We’re here to help, because understanding the muscles involved in deadlifts can help you focus how you should deadlift and what muscles you should feel working during this exercise.
What muscles do deadlifts work?
Conventional deadlifts are more complicated than meets the eye, says the associate professor of health and humanities at Loyola Marymount University. Jen Roper, PhD, CSCS. “It involves a triple stretch—you stretch the hip, the knee, and the ankle (plantar flexion to be exact),” he says.
Dr. Roper says this means the main muscles worked with deadlifts are the gluteus maximus, hamstrings and quadriceps. “The gluteus maximus and hamstrings are responsible for hip extension, while the quadriceps are responsible for knee extension,” he explains. (Note that in anatomical terms, extension refers to straightening a joint, so hip extension is straightening your leg at the hip, knee extension is straightening the knee.)
But your lower body isn’t the only thing involved. “With proper form, your forearms grip the bar, your shoulders, traps, back and core help stabilize your body, and your glutes and hamstrings act as leverage to lift the weight,” said LaNiecia Vicknair, Corrective Exercise Specialist and Founder Thrive Health Lab In Los Angeles he previously spoke to Well+Good about the full body benefits of deadlifts. If you’re wondering which muscles should be sore after a deadlift workout, the answer is all of the above.
That said, there are different types of deadlifting, namely conventional deadlifts, stiff-legged deadlifts, and Romanian deadlifts, and Dr. Roper points out that each challenges the muscles in slightly different ways. Although those hammies, glutes and quads will work no matter what.
How to deadlift
Dr. Roper walks us through how to perform a conventional barbell lift with proper technique:
- Stand with your feet flat on the floor about shoulder width apart. You can have the fingers pointed slightly outwards. Place the bar about an inch in front of your shins and over the balls of your feet.
- From this position, squat with your hips lower than your shoulders and grab the bar with a closed, overhand grip (above). For heavier loads, you can choose a closed, alternating handle (one position in the hand, one position under the hand). In any case, your arms should be fully extended.
- Before starting the movement, make sure your torso is in the right position: neutral spine, shoulders back, head in line with spine, heels on the floor, shoulders over or slightly in front of the bar, eyes looking straight ahead or even and upwards.
- Start by extending your hips and knees and lifting the bar off the ground. Make sure your torso and spine remain neutral throughout the movement and keep the bar as close to your shins as possible (think about scraping the bar along your shins as you continue the upward phase). Continue until you reach full extension at the hips and knees and your torso is upright.
- After reaching full extension, slowly lower the barbell to the floor by bending at the hips and knees while maintaining a neutral spine as you return to the starting position.
Watch trainer Roxie Jones demonstrate proper form with a kettlebell:
How to Avoid Common Deadlift Mistakes
Although deadlifts are fairly simple, there are several common mistakes that athletes of all levels sometimes struggle with. Here’s how to avoid and fix them:
Track your time and turn
Dr. Roper says a common deadlift mistake is letting your hips lift faster than your shoulders when you lift the bar.
“This can put a lot of pressure on the lower back,” he says. “You want to make sure you maintain your original trunk-to-floor angle as you go into the upward phase of the movement.” Read: Don’t let your upper body be parallel to the ground.
Keep your back straight
“As the load increases, sometimes people can start to round the back and hunch their shoulders,” says Dr. Roper. “Again, this can stress the back unnecessarily.” He says that bending the spine or rounding the back is especially common when you lower the bar back to the floor while performing the deadlift.
The solution: Focus on keeping those shoulders reaching back throughout the movement to help maintain a neutral spine.
Watch your foot position
People sometimes deadlift with their feet too close together or pointing too far out to the sides. Remember to keep your feet hip-width apart and shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointing forward or slightly outward, but not significantly turned out like a ballet dancer.
Use the right tools
To support your lower back and reduce the risk of back injuries during the deadlift, Dr. “Heavy” is a relative term, but if you’re lifting max or near max loads for your ability, a belt will come in handy.
“Weight belts can reduce the workout the abs get during the movements, so use them only when necessary. Also, its use Valsalva maneuver [holding the breath] during deadlifts can increase core stiffness, allowing you to better maintain proper posture throughout the lift,” he advises. “But don’t hold your breath too long, as it raises your blood pressure and can make you dizzy.”
How do deadlifts change your body?
Deadlifts are a great way to strengthen your lower body and core, says Dr. Roper. Doing them regularly can help you perform daily activities better. “The conventional deadlift uses a standing movement, so it will help strengthen the muscles used when picking things up off the floor or even just standing up from a seated position,” he says.
The hip hinge movement pattern can also help improve your performance for other exercises like squats or lunges, and explosive movements like jumping and rowing—basically, any movement that requires hip and knee extension.
What’s the best way to add deadlifts to your workout routine?
Dr. Roper says that because deadlifts are a compound exercise, meaning they work multiple joints and muscle groups at once, you should incorporate deadlifts at the beginning of a workout when your body is fresh rather than at the end of the session. .
The ideal volume and load for your deadlift training will vary depending on your goals. Here’s what Dr. Roper recommends:
- For strength: Up to 6 repetitions at 85% of one repetition maximum (1RM) for 2 to 6 sets
- For power: 3 to 5 reps at 75-85% of 1RM for 3 to 5 sets
- For bigger muscles: 8 to 12 reps at 67-85% of 1RM for 3 to 6 sets
- For muscular endurance: At least 12 reps at 67% or less of 1RM for 2 to 3 sets
What are the best deadlift variations?
According to Dr. Roper, stiff-legged deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts are great variations to try, especially if you’re rehabilitating an injury that can be aggravated by conventional deadlifts. This is because the reduced range of motion of these deadlift variations isolates the muscles that were primarily working those involved in hip extension. “The main muscle groups responsible for hip extension are the gluteus maximus and hamstrings (along with the erector spinae), with the Romanian deadlift emphasizing more of the gluteus maximus and the stiff-legged deadlift giving emphasis on the lower back because of the large range of motion in the hip,” explains Dr. Roper.
He also suggests trying trap bar deadlifts, especially if you are a beginner looking for deadlift alternatives. “The trap bar allows you to maintain proper posture, which can be difficult when you’re lifting heavy with the barbell,” he advises. “It also allows you to work the quads a bit more than conventional deadlifts.”
Also, don’t overlook it sumo deadlift. “This involves standing shoulder-width apart with toes pointed out and hands gripping the bar between the legs,” explains Dr. Roper. “It puts less stress on the lower back and knees, while improving hip mobility and increasing the emphasis on the glutes (due to the external rotation of the legs).”
And if you’re brand new to deadlifts? Consider starting with bodyweight lifts to familiarize yourself with the movement pattern and build strength in the deadlift muscle groups. Once you’re comfortable and have that core strength, the world of deadlifts is your oyster.