If I had to pick a single exercise to do for the rest of my life, I would choose the deadlift without thinking twice.
And I’m a firm believer that, despite what prevailing wisdom suggests, most people should deadlift, no matter what their athletic goals are.
Aside from the dozens of incredible advantages the deadlift offers (all of which we’ll cover today), there’s something incredibly exhilarating about picking heavy objects off the ground. Ripping off a heavy barbell off the floor is among the best things you can experience (well, in the gym, anyways), and seeing your strength climb up steadily is oh so satisfying.
Plus, the deadlift is one of the best ways to push yourself physically and physiologically. When done properly, it’s also among the safest exercises you can do.
Well, enough rambling. I’m sure you’re already aware of just how awesome this exercise is. Let’s dive into the nitty-gritty.
What Muscles Do Deadlifts Work?
You’ve probably heard that the deadlift is a full-body exercise, and rightfully so. The move does indeed train a large portion of your body, but few are the muscles that significantly impact your performance on the exercise.
To get a better understanding, we’ll be looking at a total of seven muscles or muscle groups.
The glutes, also known as the largest muscle in the body, play a significant role in the deadlift. Thanks to their sheer size, origins and insertions, and power potential, the glutes are the primary (and strongest) hip extensors in the body which makes them crucial for the entirety of the deadlift.
And since they are heavily involved in the deadlift, you can expect to develop them quite nicely.
The hamstring muscles (which are located on the backside of your thighs) have three heads, which doesn’t matter much in the context of the deadlift as each head serves (more or less) the same function here.
Thanks to the fact that they cross both the hip and knee joint, they contribute to hip extension, which is very beneficial for the deadlift.
Though your quad muscles don’t play as significant a role as your posterior chain, they do matter. Three of the four heads of the front thigh muscle originate on your femoral shaft (thigh bone) and insert near the top of the tibia. Their main function is to extend your knees.
The fourth head – rectus femoris – has the same insertion point but originates farther up, just above the hip, which means it contributes to knee extension and hip flexion.
Since the deadlift has both knee and hip extension, your quads play a role in lockout and receive some work from that.
When it comes to hip extension, most folks imagine the spinal erectors and glutes. But your adductors (inner thigh muscles) are also quite important here. More specifically, your Adductor Magnus muscles which originate on the hip bone and insert into the inner side of each femur.
Since your adductors don’t cross the knee joint, they don’t contribute to knee flexion, but they are powerful hip extensors. Thanks to their position and sheer size, they’ve been shown to exert huge amounts of hip extension at the bottom of the squat (1). It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume that they work similarly on the deadlift.
A collection of several smaller muscles and tendons within the group form what we know as the spinal erectors. They run (more or less) the entire length of your spine – from your lower back up to the base of your skull – and are situated on both sides of it.
Now, the primary functions of your spinal erectors are to extend and rotate your back. When contracted, these muscles straighten your spine (hence the ‘erectors’).
Alongside your lats (which we’ll cover next), your spinal erectors are essential for a strong deadlift. If they are weak and underdeveloped, not only will you have trouble maintaining spinal position, but you’ll also find yourself failing the lockout on heavy deadlifts.
Latissimus Dorsi (Lats)
Much like the spinal erectors, latissimus dorsi is also situated on the back, but unlike the erectors, your lats play a role in more movement patterns.
Situated on both sides of your mid-upper back, your lats play roles in shoulder abduction (since they insert on the humerus), internal rotation, flexion and more. For the deadlift, their primary roles are:
- Producing shoulder extension – bringing your arms down to your sides from an elevated position.
- Synergistic work with your spinal erectors for a lumbar extension.
Okay, so does the deadlift work your abs?
Short answer: Yes, to a degree.
Long(er) answer: Your abs (and remaining core muscles) are needed to produce enough force to aid the spinal erectors and lats with keeping your torso rigid and spine in a strong and safe position during each repetition.
Four honorable mentions:
- Hands and forearms – the strongest posterior chain in the world won’t do you much good with the deadlift unless you also have respectable grip and forearm strength.
- Rhomboids and traps – though they are not primary movers, both muscle groups contribute to back extension and thus are needed for a strong deadlift. They also play critical roles in scapular depression and retraction.
Okay, enough anatomy for one day. Now that you’ve got a good grasp of the major working muscles in the deadlift, let’s take a look at other vital questions.
Effects of Deadlifts on Muscle Growth
Repetition for repetition, you’d be hard-pressed to find another exercise that trains so many muscle groups at the same time as the deadlift. And while some folks like to argue as to which muscles benefit the most from the deadlift, we can easily make the argument that it trains your entire posterior chain quite well.
Now, there’s also a bit of debate going around as to which deadlift variation is best. Some folks swear by the conventional deadlift; others prefer sumo. And some also prefer to deadlift with a trap bar or from an elevated position (blocks or rack).
So, who is wrong, and who is right? Well, each of these variations has its merits, and no single style is inherently superior to the others.
For example, the decision on whether you should deadlift conventional or sumo should primarily be based on your preferences, size, and anatomy. Girls and smaller men, in general, tend to do better with sumo deadlifts while taller lifters with long arms lean to the conventional style. As far as muscle growth goes, both styles tend to train your body similarly, but sumo is a bit more demanding on your quads than conventional (2).
Block and rack pull are great for back development because they eliminate the initial part of the deadlift and thus target your lower body to a lesser degree.
Trap bar deadlifts are another great way to build total-body musculature, as they are a bit easier to learn, have a smaller mobility requirement, activate your quads and back quite well, and most folks can lift a bit more weight when compared to a standard barbell (3, 4, 5).
Also, we have to remember the importance of volume and repetitions for muscle growth. Heavy deadlifts are excellent for strength and power development, but we need repetitions for hypertrophy (6).
Finally, there’s a bit of a debate going around on whether or not deadlifts (and similar exercises) impact testosterone. Research doesn’t seem to suggest so, at least in the short term (7). But, so long as testosterone is within the normal ranges, that shouldn’t be a concern.
Deadlift Benefits for Weight Loss
It’s no secret that lifting weights is great for weight loss. In fact, contrary to popular belief, resistance training is often better than traditional cardio in that regard.
Now, as far as deadlifts are concerned, there are a couple of great benefits when it comes to weight loss:
- Deadlifts burn a good deal of calories. In one study from 1994, researchers estimated that doing four sets of 8 reps on the deadlift with 175 kilos (385 pounds) burns about 100 calories (8).That may not seem like a whole lot, but keep in mind that it’s the result of a single exercise and just four sets.Plus, we aren’t even taking into account the EPOC (calories burned after the workout) and the extra calories your body would later need to expend to repair and grow the involved muscles (which, as we covered above, are quite a few).
- Deadlifts are an efficient way of training. Rather than doing ten exercises to target your posterior chain, forearms, and quads, you can hit them all with a few high-effort sets of deadlifts.And, as we know, the main goal of your training for weight loss should be efficiency. In other words, doing the least amount of work you can get away with while maintaining/increasing your muscle and strength during caloric restriction.This is important for fatigue-management and effective fat loss.
There’s also a bit of a debate going around on whether the deadlift helps burn belly fat or not. The fact is, while the deadlift is a great exercise to do while losing weight, it doesn’t burn fat itself, let alone on the stomach – spot reduction is a myth (8). In other words, you have to be in a caloric deficit over an extended period to lose fat (9).
Deadlift Benefits for Athletes
Many great sports and conditioning coaches deem the deadlift as one of the best movements for athletic improvements like speed, strength, and power.
A large number of fundamental sports skills like fast acceleration and deceleration, swift maneuvering, jumping, tackling, standing your ground, and throwing all involve one crucial element – power transfer. Each of these is possible only through a solid foundation, and each begins by putting power through the ground.
The deadlift helps because, though it is a simple movement pattern, it teaches athletes how to put force into the ground. That way, you can transfer the power through your core and into your upper body for better performance of the various skills.
The common cue of ‘pushing the floor away’ at the start of the deadlift is used to create as much force as possible from the ground up and allow us to lift heavier weights.
Take, for example, sprinters. While most people think that the act of running is the most important bit of the race, many coaches argue that how well a sprinter bolts off the start line is often the determining factor. This is because the stronger the transfer of power to the ground is, the quicker the subsequent acceleration would be.
Another huge benefit of the deadlift for athletes is its ability to develop whole-body strength, muscle mass, coordination, and balance. Undoubtedly, these factors play an important role, especially in contact sports like football and basketball. The stronger and better coordinated an athlete is, the more likely they are to pass their opponents without losing speed or balance.
Should You Deadlift Heavy?
This is quite a controversial topic in fitness, and there are a lot of opinions on the matter. On the one hand, folks recommend heavy deadlifts for total body strength, power, and musculature. But some demonize heavy deadlifts, claiming that picking heavy objects off the floor can only lead to injury.
Now, as with most fitness-related questions, the answer to this one also depends on the context. In other words, what are you training for? We have to follow the SAID principle – specific adaptation to imposed demand.
If your primary goals in the gym are muscle growth, then you would probably benefit from deadlifting in the 6-10 repetition range. If you want speed and explosiveness, then lifting lighter weights (55-60% of your 1 RM) as quickly as you can for fewer reps (2-5) might be best.
But, if your goal is to build strength, and you aspire to compete in powerlifting meets, you have to introduce heavy deadlift work into your training. You have to lift heavy to build strength – there is no other way.
And if you’re worried that heavy lifting itself is dangerous, consider these two examples of folks who’ve lifted absurd amounts of weights multiple times and are healthy and injury-free:
Eddie Hall’s 500-kilo (1102-pound) deadlift:
Konstantinovs’ 426-kilo (939-pound) deadlift:
And, yes, I know what you’re thinking:
“But these are just two examples. We can’t conclude from that alone.”
I agree. We can’t. But there are many more examples online of folks who’ve deadlifted incredible weights and are safe and healthy to this day. Plus, research also suggests that deadlifts are safe when done properly (10, 11).
Now, the importance of proper technique here is unquestionable. If your form is off, there is a risk. But as you saw in the video above (and the hundreds, if not thousands of other examples out there), you can very much lift well into the hundreds of kilos on the deadlift, near your maximum, safely.
Should You Use Deadlift Straps?
If you’re unfamiliar, deadlift (or lifting) straps are strips of material usually made of nylon or leather and are used by lifters to hold heavier weights more easily. Both straps go on your wrists, and you then wrap them around the barbell several times (depending on how long they are) to prevent the barbell from slipping during a set.
But should you use them? First, let’s take a look at who shouldn’t use them:
- If you’re a beginner and your deadlift as a whole isn’t anything heavy. In that case, it would be better to spend a couple of years building up your posterior chain and grip strength.
- If you’re a powerlifter. Most powerlifting competitions don’t allow the use of lifting straps, so it’s best to learn how to pick 1-rep-maxes off the floor without them, be it through a hook or alternating grip, or by using chalk.
Now, here’s when using them might be a good idea:
- If you have a hand injury that prevents you from gripping heavier weights. In that case, using straps might be better. But it’s always a good idea to consult with your doctor before trying to train heavy while being injured.
- You’ve gotten pretty strong. There will come the point where the conventional grip won’t suffice any longer, and you’ll have to think of something else. The reason is, your posterior chain will develop to a point where it can lift a lot of weight, but your grip won’t be able to hold it.
- You’re doing deadlift variations like block or rack pulls. Most folks can normally deadlift more weight from an elevated position. And, to prevent grip failure with a lot more weight on the bar, it might be worth doing these sets with deadlift straps.
Here’s Thor deadlifting 1042lbs/473kg
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Should You Deadlift With a Belt?
Lifting belts are commonly used by folks to improve performance and increase safety. So, wearing one for the deadlift seems like a no-brainer, right? Well, let’s take a look.
First off, keep in mind that lifting belts have a learning curve. You likely won’t be able to reap the benefits from one during your initial few sessions (12).
Second, much like lifting straps, I also recommend spending some time on building a solid foundation of strength before introducing gear like belts and straps. If you’re still a beginner or early-intermediate, you’ll probably do better without a belt.
Now, if you’re already strong and you want to compete in powerlifting eventually, then you should introduce belted work. Research suggests that belts offer a roughly 15 percent increase in intra-abdominal pressure on the deadlift (13). This not only limits the range of motion of your spine, but it can also provide you with a modest boost in performance. And, seeing as lifting belts are allowed in powerlifting, there’s no reason not to wear one.
Before we move on, though, I’d like to mention that you may want to pick a belt that is no wider than 10 cm (3.9 inches). Reason being, wider belts may obstruct your range of motion and make it difficult to get into starting position, especially if you have some belly action going on.
Proper Deadlift Form – How To Nail Perfect Technique Every Time
There are five simple steps you should follow to nail the perfect deadlift repetition.
1) Stand tall with your feet about hip-width apart, arms to your sides, and mid-foot directly under the bar. When you look down, the barbell should be cutting your feet in half (from heel to toe), and there should be about an inch of distance between your shins and the bar. This will ensure the barbell is lifted from the center of your gravity.
2) Bend over and place both hands on the barbell, just outside your shins and don’t move the barbell to or away from yourself.
3) While keeping the bar stationary, bring your shins in contact with the bar – this will place your hips at the correct height.
4) Lift your chest and bring your shoulders back to straighten your lumbar spine. If you’re particularly flexible, avoid overextending your spine. This will also pull the slack off the bar, which is particularly important when the weight gets heavy, and you’re using a deadlift bar.
*Don’t move the barbell and don’t bring your hips down as you squeeze your upper back.
5) Simultaneously push through your feet as you start lifting the bar in a straight line. As the bar reaches your thighs, lock your knees and extend your hips forward to maintain the straight line of the bar.
*Don’t hyperextend your lower back at the top position and don’t shrug the weight up.
Wait, but what if I’m doing multiple repetitions?
That’s not much different – the same rules apply, but there are a couple of additions:
1) Set the bar down by first breaking at the hips and, once the bar reaches your lower thighs, break at the knees. Lower the bar in the same straight line as when you lifted it.
2) If you’ve done everything right, the bar should always land over mid-foot, and thus all you would have to do is take a breath and make sure your upper back is squeezed to maintain a neutral spine before each new repetition.
If you feel the need, you can always set yourself up (following the five steps from above) before each repetition. But, that takes a lot of time and, in my opinion, makes the set harder than it should be.
The goal should be to set the bar down to a dead stop before lifting it for the following repetition without wasting time. And on the note of time-efficiency, avoid touch-and-go deadlifts because they often screw up your set-up and cause your technique to break down.
Deadlift Disadvantages – Potential Problems And What To Look Out For
The deadlift is a great exercise and delivers a lot of bang for its buck. But, there are a few potential problems you need to be aware of and look out for.
1) Touch and go – this refers to the act of doing multiple repetitions on the deadlift without setting the bar to a dead stop every time it hits the ground. The big issue here is that touch and go usually messes up your set-up and leads to poor technique.
Most folks use it to do more repetitions with a heavier weight, but the risk far outweighs the potential reward.
2) Bar swinging back and forth – this is a particularly significant problem for beginners and intermediates, and we must address it.
One of the most common reasons for bar swinging is an incorrect starting position – the bar not being over mid-foot and/or your shoulders not being slightly in front of the bar as you begin pulling. This forces your body to make last-second changes as you pull the bar off the floor (especially when the weight gets heavy) and often leads to bar swinging.
3) Copying others – we all have unique differences in our anatomies (limb and torso length, hip anatomy, etc.) and the correct starting position will vary slightly between individuals (as seen from the side).
So, it’s important to follow the five-step set-up process we covered above and find what the correct starting position is for you. Don’t copy others for the sake of it because what might be optimal for them, might not be for you.
Common Deadlift Injuries and How to Avoid Them
Lastly, here are the three most common deadlift injury scenarios and some actionable things you can incorporate into your training to avoid them.
So long as you’re mindful of these, the deadlift should be incredibly safe for you.
1) Bicep tear – this usually occurs when the weight on the barbell gets heavy, and the trainee doesn’t lift the bar off the floor with completely straight arms. This creates a lot of tension in your biceps and can lead to a strain or even a tear.
To avoid this, always strengthen your arms fully as you grab the bar and make sure to do step 4 of the 5-step deadlift process from above. Together, these two steps will ensure your arms are always straight for the deadlift, which is even more important if you begin using an alternating grip.
2) Lower back injury from improper descend – a lot of trainees can lift the bar well enough, but come time to lower it, and everything goes to hell. When lowering the bar, always break at the hips first, pushing your butt back. Once the bar reaches your upper thighs, begin breaking at the knees.
This whole sequence is going to prevent your lower back from rounding as you descend with a heavy weight in your hands.
3) Lower back injury from improper lift off the floor – this is perhaps the most common type of deadlift injury and the reason why some folks demonize the deadlift so much. No, the movement isn’t the problem, poor technique is.
Almost every lifter out there is going to be able to get in the correct (and safe) starting position for the deadlift if they follow the five-step process from above. The issue is, most folks who get injured off the floor usually don’t know the first thing about safely lifting heavy things, and their lower back is too rounded.
To avoid this, follow our instructions. If you’re still unsure or have some doubts, it doesn’t hurt to have a good coach to review your form – that’s always a smart decision.