Jul 24, 2023

What Muscles Do Deadlifts Work? Fitness Trainers Explain

There's a reason it's one of the most essential exercises in your workout plan.

EVEN IF YOU'VE never stepped foot into a gym in your life, you've likely performed a deadlift (or at least the key movements behind the classic compound exercise). If you've ever hinged over to pick your child or dog up off the ground, reached low to grab some grocery bags, or bent down to pull something out of a low cabinet—you've dipped your toe into the deadlifting waters.

Deadlifts have some of the greatest functional carryover of all the standard lifts. The mechanics and strength that's built with deadlifting "carries over into our day to day lives of picking stuff up off the ground and being able to do so in a way that's efficient and in a way that's safe," says Kurt Ellis, C.S.C.S., owner and coach at Beyond Numbers Performance.

"Efficient" is the key word here. Not only does deadlifting make our movement patterns more efficient, but programming deadlifts into our workouts is efficient in itself, since the exercise involves training so many different muscles all at once. This movement "work(s) almost every muscle in the body," says Faris Khan, C.S.C.S. From your hamstrings to your core and even your forearms, "pretty much everything is working."

Since you're working with so many muscles in concert to pull off a good rep, you can pull some pretty seriously weight, too. Here are seven of the main movers of a deadlift.

The glutes are the muscles that make up your backside and butt. They're one of the main movers in a deadlift since they're "responsible for the extension—that's what's going to really drive that powerful pull within the lift," Khan says.

The hamstrings make up the back of the thigh, and work closely with the glutes to extend the hip through the deadlifting motion. You'll feel them stretch out as you lower the weight to the ground.

You may have heard the cue 'keep your back straight' when deadlifting. The spinal erectors do just that—they tighten to keep the spine neutral when the weight wants to curve it forward, "keeping you in alignment during the entire lift," Khan says. Maintaining a straight back ensures the tension is centered on the glutes and hamstrings rather than the low back.

"The entire core is working from the moment the bar comes off the floor, until the moment you put it back down," in a deadlift, Khan says. Like the spinal erectors, the muscles of your core (we're referring in this case to the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and obliques, which people commonly think of as your abs) help stabilize the spine.

Some people consider the deadlift a secondary back exercise because of its major recruitment of the spinal extensors and the latissimus dorsi. Simply known as the "lats", this is the largest muscle in your back. In a deadlift, it's responsible for stabilizing the spine and maintaining that extended upright posture, Ellis says. Engaging your lats also helps to keep the weight close to the body.

The traps are a big back muscle that sits around your upper back and neck. You might not expect this to be an important muscle for performing a deadlift, but they actually help stabilize the shoulders as you move, Khan says.

The mighty forearm muscles are important to help you to grip whatever bar, dumbbell, or kettlebell you may be using as a load for the deadlift. You might reach for grip aids like straps to help you to hold on as you progress to heavier weights, but if building muscle is your goal, stick with a standard pronated (overhand) grip for as long as possible.

As evident by the long list of muscles above, the deadlift recruits many different muscles at once. It's a gold standard compound, or multi-joint, lift. You'll train several muscles at once, maximizing your time in the gym. Plus, you'll be able to load up heavy weight given the amount of muscle recruitment, which will help build strength.

The posterior chain is the group of muscles that make up the back portion of you. It's responsible for posture, spinal alignment, core protection, and basic strength. "I like to think of [the posterior chain] as the workforce for a lot of performance in general," says Ellis.

The deadlift emulates a movement that we do almost everyday—picking things up off the ground or a low surface. Even if you've never step foot on a lifting platform before, if you've ever hinged to grab something from the floor, you've completed a deadlift (but maybe not a safe one). Training deadlifts helps us build strength and proper biomechanics with hip hinging so that we can safely pick up things situated down low.

The more muscles involved, the more complicated the lift—which makes the deadlift a bit perplexing if you don't know what you're doing. That also means it can also quickly cause injury if done incorrectly. Follow along here to ensure you're deadlifting stays perfect.

How to Do It:

Changing up the style of your deadlifts is important to keep your fitness well-rounded, Khan says. Variations allow you to emphasize different aspects of the exercise. For example, you get to home in on the adductor muscles when doing a sumo squat, or hit the hamstrings extra hard when doing Romanian deadlifts.

Incorporating variations will also simply help avoid "stagnation and redundancy, basically just doing the same thing over and over again," says Ellis. Here's a few variations to try on your next deadlift day.

If you're looking to put a little more pressure on the posterior chain, try out the Romanian deadlift, or RDL. This variation reverses the conventional deadlift—the movement begins in the standing position, which is where the conventional version finishes.

How to Do It:

If you're especially tall, you may take a liking to the sumo deadlift over the conventional version of the exercise. This style widens the stance and brings the legs outside of the hands when they're placed on the bar. That means you'll be moving through a shorter range of motion, so you will probably be able to move heavier weight once your master the lift.

How to Do It:

Utilizing a trap bar for your deadlifts allows for a more natural lift. In a trap bar, the weight is at your sides, so it's a better emulation of the ways you're probably picking something up in real life.

How to Do It:

"If you think about our day to day life, a lot of it is spent on a single leg," Ellis says. "When we look at gait mechanics, really everything is a single-leg dynamic."

Unilateral training is especially great for training balance and fixing strength discrepancies. An extra challenge will be placed on your core, as your body fights to keep the torso level against the imbalance from one side to another.

How to Do It:

Cori Ritchey, NASM-CPT is an Associate Health & Fitness Editor at Men's Health and a certified personal trainer and group fitness instructor. You can find more of her work in HealthCentral, Livestrong, Self, and others.

Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men's Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.

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