Ever stooped down to clean up dog feces from the pavement? Congrats! You’ve performed a deadlift. The same applies if you’ve ever lifted a kitten or child, carried your most recent package delivery indoors, or dropped and then retrieved your phone from the ground.
In fact, any movement that involves bending at your hips and lifting something to a standing position technically qualifies as a deadlift, according to strength and conditioning specialist Alena Luciani, M.S., C.S.C.S., the founder of Training2xl. Unfortunately, many weightlifters avoid performing deadlifts with added weight at the gym because they fear injuring their backs (or their pride!).
But here’s the catch: “As long as you execute the deadlift with proper form and load the barbell intelligently, you will not harm your back — or any other part of your body,” says Luciani. On the contrary: “Performing and mastering the deadlift can help you age gracefully, remain free from injuries, and become stronger,” she explains.
Read up on everything you need to know about this strengthening exercise in this guide to the deadlift, featuring advice from both Luciani and Alan Shaw, a certified CrossFit Level 2 coach and owner of Rhapsody Fitness in Charleston, South Carolina. Below, they answer the question, “Which muscles does the deadlift target?” and provide insights into the benefits of the deadlift, how to perform it correctly, and the most effective variations of the deadlift to incorporate into your workout routine.
The Advantages of Deadlifts
Why should you deadlift? Two words: injury prevention. “If you are unable to deadlift properly, the likelihood of pulling a muscle or straining your back while lifting something increases,” says Shaw. Particularly as you age, knowing how to deadlift can make a significant difference in maintaining your independence, he suggests.
Furthermore, the deadlift is an exceptional movement for making progress.
Which Muscles Do Deadlifts Target?
All of them! No, this is not an exaggeration. “The deadlift is a genuinely whole-body exercise,” says Luciani. Notably, deadlifts target the following muscles:
– Hamstrings (the muscles on the back of your thighs)
– Latissimus dorsi (or lats, the large back muscles that extend from your armpit to your hip)
– Core (For your information, here’s a comprehensive guide to the muscles in your core)
- erector spinae (also known as the muscles along your spine)
For individuals with sedentary occupations, deadlifts are particularly advantageous. “When you spend the entire day seated, your posterior chain weakens while your anterior chain becomes more dominant,” explains Luciani. This imbalance increases the risk of injury in both everyday life and sports. “Performing posterior chain exercises like the deadlift helps bridge the strength gap between these two body parts and reduces the risk of injury,” she states. (See also: What Exactly Is the Posterior Chain?)
Furthermore, the deadlift actually engages your core better than most common (read: monotonous) core exercises such as the sit-up or crunch. In fact, according to Luciani, the deadlift can entirely replace the sit-up in your exercise routine. “Movements like the crunch only target your superficial [also known as the most surface level] abdominal muscles,” she explains. On the other hand, the deadlift activates the deep muscles of your core that promote good posture, protect your spine, reduce the risk of injury, and assist in activities such as kicking a ball or throwing a frisbee.
6 Diverse Variations of Deadlifts
Now that you are aware of the answer to “Which muscles does the deadlift work?” you are probably eager to incorporate it into your workout routine. However, before doing so, it is important to master the conventional barbell deadlift. Then, explore the other variations of deadlifts provided below (including tips on form for each variation). All of these deadlifts engage your hamstrings, glutes, core, quadriceps, and upper and lower back. By alternating between different types of deadlifts, you can specifically target certain muscles, enhance overall strength, and prevent workout monotony.
Conventional Barbell Deadlift
If you are new to this movement, seek the guidance of a trainer or coach to assess your deadlift form. Alternatively, record a video of yourself and carefully analyze it, comparing it to the performance points listed below. If your lower back rounds at any point during the lift, reduce the weight. If this doesn’t correct the rounding, it may be a mobility issue. Instead of lowering the weight all the way to the ground, Shaw recommends lowering it only to your knees. (See also: Barbell Exercises Everyone Should Master)
Are you looking for an additional challenge? Try performing a deficit deadlift by elevating yourself on a platform, such as a box, bench, or step, while executing the lift. This elevation encourages a wider range of motion, thus engaging more muscles. However, note that the deficit deadlift requires a significant level of hamstring flexibility. Therefore, only attempt the deficit deadlift if you have been complimented on your flexibility or can fully touch the ground with your hand, as recommended by Luciani.
A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, barbell pressed up against shins, and core engaged.
B. Maintaining a level back and expanded chest, pivot at the hips to lean forward, pushing buttocks backward, until hands can reach the barbell with extended arms.
C. Grasp the bar with palms facing shins, hands shoulder-width apart. Rotate pinkies into the bar to activate lats. (Consider: rotate hands slightly outward).
D. Look straight ahead to maintain a neutral neck. Then, keeping arms extended and core tight, contract glutes and pull the bar up along the front of legs until standing upright.
E. Maintaining a level back, pivot at the hips and slide the bar in a straight path down the front of legs to return to the starting position.
Traditional Dumbbell Deadlift
Time for a quick visualization exercise. Ponder a barbell with a significant ‘ole plate on each end. Now envision two dumbbells. The handles on a dumbbell are much lower to the ground than a loaded-up barbell, Luciani explains. That means you can extend your reach towards the ground with the dumbbells, causing the hamstring muscles to go through a larger range of motion compared to the usual barbell deadlift. Admittedly, there is no need to bring them all the way down to the ground — you can and should halt where your mobility restricts you. (More here: How to Perform a Traditional Deadlift with Appropriate Technique)
Moreover, since the weights are controlled independently, “dumbbell deadlifts are an excellent method to address any muscular imbalances between the right and left side,” states Luciani. “And pulling two separate dumbbells instead of one barbell truly compels you to engage your midline for stability, thereby providing additional core-strengthening advantages,” she explains.
The one drawback? Due to the unwieldy shape of dumbbells, it becomes slightly more challenging to maintain a grip, resulting in the inability to lift as much weight as you could with a barbell.
A. Stand with feet hip-width apart, one dumbbell in each hand, and palms facing thighs.
B. Engage core. Then, keeping arms extended, push buttocks back to slide both dumbbells down the front of legs simultaneously.
C. Continue descending until the weights touch the floor or until a tight sensation is felt in the hamstrings — whichever happens first.
D. Maintaining an expanded chest, press into feet to return to the standing position, squeezing glutes at the top of the movement.
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
“When it comes to exercises targeting the posterior chain, in my perspective, the single-leg Romanian deadlift is the best,” says Luciani. Why? Because the single-leg RDL not only works your hamstrings, glutes, lats, and rotator muscles…it engages them individually, one at a time. “Forcing your limbs to work independently is vital for correcting muscular imbalances and ultimately developing a stronger body and midsection,” she asserts.
(P.S. You ought to focus on pistol squats, as well.)
The initial time you attempt this motion, don’t be arrogant. Begin with significantly lighter weights than you believe you can handle. You can execute this with a barbell, like a traditional deadlift, or you can opt for lighter options such as dumbbells or a kettlebell. “I propose lifting a fraction of what you are capable of lifting with a traditional deadlift, and gradually increase from that point,” suggests Luciani.
A. Stand with feet aligned beneath hips. If utilizing a dumbbell or kettlebell, grasp the weight in both hands in front of hips. Shift the weight onto the left leg, with the right foot slightly behind, maintaining balance on the toes of the right foot.
B. Actively press the left leg into the ground and extend the right leg backward while forwardly pivoting at the hips, lowering the weights along the front of the left leg to a height around the middle of the shin. (If employing a barbell, securely grasp the barbell with both hands, arms completely extended and positioned shoulder-width apart, with palms facing towards the shins.)
C. While keeping the core tight and the back straight, simultaneously pull the right leg downwards to meet the left leg, while elevating the weight up the left leg to return to an upright stance, squeezing the glute of the left leg at the pinnacle of the motion.
Instead of adopting the hip-width position employed in the conventional deadlift, you will widen your stance for the sumo deadlift. “This decreases the distance the barbell needs to travel to reach the top of the repetition, which enhances the amount of weight you will be capable of lifting,” elucidates Luciani. The wider stance also intensifies the effort required from your glutes, quadriceps, and hip adductors during the movement.
A. Stand with feet approximately twice the width of the shoulders apart, toes angled outwards at 10 and 2 o’clock.
B. Position the barbell against the shins, so that when gazing directly downwards, the toes are perceptible from the front of the bar.
C. Engage the core. While maintaining a straight back, flex the knees and pivot forward at the hips to seize the bar with both hands using an overhand grip, hands positioned shoulder-width apart.
D. Generate force through the heels to raise the bar off the ground, propelling the hips forward and contracting the glutes swiftly while standing up.
E. Lower the bar back to the floor, keeping it in close proximity to the body and maintaining a straight posture without curving the back.
Hex Bar Deadlift
Surprise, surprise! For this category of deadlift, you will require an apparatus known as a “hex bar” or a trap bar. The hex bar possesses the shape of a sizable hexagon with handles on each side. “You step into the bar, and instead of reaching in front of you to grasp and lift the weight, you grasp the handles at the sides,” elucidates Luciani. (Here’s a guide to all the distinct types of barbells you can find at the gym — and their corresponding weights.)
The advantage? It could compel you to adopt better deadlift form. “It is substantially easier to attain an advantageous starting position when you do not have to lean forward,” remarks Luciani.
You’re less inclined to round — or apply unnecessary force on — your spine, she adds. In fact, one 2016 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research discovered that hex bar deadlifts stimulate greater leg musculature and lesser back musculature in comparison to a straight barbell. The greater your knowledge!
A. Step directly into the center of the hexagonal bar with feet positioned at a distance equivalent to the width of your hips.
B. Push your buttocks backward and bend your knees until your hands can reach the handles while keeping your arms straight.
C. Extend your chest outward and pull your shoulders backward and downward. Then, while maintaining a flat back and fully extended arms, straighten your legs to assume a standing position.
D. While keeping your back straight, pivot at the hips and bend your knees to carefully lower the barbell back to its initial position.
All these variations of deadlifts will vigorously target your hamstrings — however, the Romanian deadlift primarily emphasizes this muscle group. This is because each repetition begins with you standing upright and the weight positioned at thigh-level (in contrast to the weight being against your shins). Additionally, instead of lowering the weight all the way to the floor, you lower it until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings before returning to a standing position. Luciani provides this explanation.
In a conventional deadlift, your hamstrings experience a brief period of rest at the top and bottom of each repetition. Romanian deadlifts remove this rest, thereby increasing the amount of time that your hamstrings remain under tension. As a result, your hamstrings will experience more significant growth.
Please note: Do not load the barbell to the same weight you would typically use for conventional deadlifts. Opt for a lighter weight instead. Although the Romanian deadlift supports your strength goals, the way the weight is distributed in this exercise and the prolonged period of tension on your hamstrings will prevent you from lifting as heavy.
Additionally, if you don’t have access to a barbell, there’s no need to worry. You can perform this exercise using dumbbells, kettlebells, or a smaller barbell as an alternative. (Learn more: How to Properly Do a Romanian Deadlift with Dumbbells)
A. Position yourself with your feet at the distance of your hip-width, pressing the barbell against your shins.
B. Activate your core and slightly lean your torso forward to grasp the barbell with straight arms. Ensure that your hands are spread apart at a shoulder-width distance. While maintaining a flat back, lift the barbell to assume a standing position. This marks the starting position. (If you are using a different type of weight, pick it up and hold it in front of your thighs to begin.)
C. Keep your knees slightly bent and maintain a flat back as you push your hips backward and lower the weight along the front of your legs. Instead of completely lowering the weights to the ground, halt when a stretch is felt in your hamstrings.
D. Contract your hamstrings and core to bring the barbell back to the starting position. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement.
How to Incorporate All Types of Deadlifts Into Your Workout
Ultimately, the number of repetitions and sets you should perform, regardless of the deadlift variation, depends on your duration and consistency in strength training, your comfort level in the weight room, and your fitness objectives. However, it is recommended to attempt four to six sets of six to eight repetitions while taking at least 90 seconds of rest between each set, as advised by Luciani.
Do not cut corners on the rest. Your body requires the rest in order to recover so that you can successfully lift and move the heavy weights,” she clarifies. A back massager can assist in alleviating some of the discomfort caused by deadlifts. Additionally, you may want to consider using compression boots like Therabody RecoveryAir to expedite your recovery if you begin powerlifting heavy weights, such as 300 pounds.
If you are uncertain about how much weight to lift, commence with a lower and slower approach, as suggested by Shaw. “An ideal objective for individuals new to weightlifting is to progress towards lifting their own body weight. Once this is achieved, a secondary goal is to lift 1.5 times their bodyweight,” he remarks. Experienced lifters can lift two or even three times their body weight. (Further information can be found here: Training Volume Basics If You’re New to Lifting)
“If you perceive any negative sensations or if you are experiencing pain, cease immediately. The numerous benefits of the deadlift become nullified when your technique is inadequate,” Shaw points out. Fair enough.