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Do Deadlifts & Overhead Presses Work All Muscles?

by
author image Jeffrey Rice
Jeffrey Rice became an ACE-accredited personal trainer in 2007, and began writing about fitness to support his business. Soon, however, he found himself writing more than training, and has since written health, fitness and supplement articles for numerous websites. He holds a M.F.A. in creative writing from Cleveland State University.
Do Deadlifts & Overhead Presses Work All Muscles?
Woman preparing to do overhead press. Photo Credit Sheikoevgeniya/iStock/Getty Images

For a balanced physique, you need to perform exercises that promote growth in all the major muscle groups. According to "Strength Training Anatomy," the deadlift utilizes more muscles than any other single-movement lift, which is why it's one of the three powerlifting competition lifts. It displays full-body strength better than almost any other exercise. Most of the few muscle groups it misses are utilized during overhead presses. If you're low on gym time, these two exercises cover almost every muscle group.

Muscles Deadlifts Work

The deadlift intensely works all the thigh muscles: quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes. If you are tall, the deadlift works your quadriceps better than if you're short. Deadlifts are the best lower-back exercise, and in "The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding," Arnold Schwarzenegger writes that he believes deadlifts are essential for getting both a wide and deep upper back. At any weight, deadlifts strongly work the rhomboids and traps, which retract the shoulder blades back and hold the arms up. At heavy weights, deadlifts also strongly activate the latissimus dorsi. To support the spine, "Strength Training Anatomy" explains that the abdominal muscles block up. In other words, they all activate and expand to create internal pressure that prevents the spine from folding forward. A study published in the January 2008 issue of the "Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research" found that because of this, deadlifts stimulate abdominal muscle better than ab-specific exercise. Isometrically, the deadlift also develops great forearm strength because of the weight gripped, and bicep strength because of the stress at the elbow.

Muscles Deadlifts Miss

The deadlift hits a lot of muscle groups, but it misses a few. All of the pulling muscles are utilized, but the pushing muscles of the upper body aren't. These include the deltoids, the pectorals and the triceps. The calves also aren't worked. If you are using correct form, you push entirely through the heels when performing a deadlift, and not at all through the toes. This is one way in which deadlifts are different from the squat, which utilizes the calves heavily.

Muscles Overhead Presses Work

The upper-body push muscles missed by the deadlift are all hit by the overhead press, as long as you use a form that consciously hits the pectorals. When performing the overhead press, you have the choice to bring the bar down behind your neck or to the front, over the clavicles. Behind-the-neck presses work the deltoids and triceps, but miss the pectorals. But overhead presses to the front are the single-best upper-pectoral exercises, and they even utilize the lower pectorals to some degree. Caution should be used if you perform behind-the-neck presses because you place your shoulder muscles in a position where there's an increased risk of injury, states bodybuilder Sean Barker.

Muscles Missed by Both

Calves are the only muscle group missed by both exercises. That means that you need to either perform a calf-specific exercise, like calf raises, or perform one special type of overhead press: the push press. The push press is a heavy, standing overhead press that allows you to lift more weight by requiring you to squat slightly and then explode up while pushing the barbell overhead. The calves are an essential part of this explosive movement, and you'll definitely feel some soreness in them the next day.

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