With the time-tested weight-room classic known as the deadlift, muscles from your shoulders to your calves are engaged. With full-body lifts like this one, it's little wonder that weight-lifting is making its way into programs for general fitness, sports performance and even rehabilitation.
As the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) puts it, "In terms of positive changes and strength progressions, there are few substitutes for the deadlift." But choose your variation wisely, because different deadlifts target different muscles.
Deadlifts primarily target the glutes, quads and hamstrings, but also engage an array of muscles from shoulders to calves for support and stabilization.
What Happens When You Deadlift?
Deadlifting is an integrated exercise (also known as a compound exercise), which means it engages muscle groups throughout the whole body, according to the American Council on Exercise.
The traditional deadlift mainly targets the gluteus maximus (yes, it's a butt-building exercise), but it also engages key muscles like the quadriceps, hamstrings and erector spinae (the muscles along your spine).
As you prepare to deadlift, your hamstrings stretch and your quadriceps stabilize your body to help flex your knees and hips (aka hip hinge). During knee flexion, the back of the thigh moves toward the lower leg to bend the joint.
During the main part of the lift, hip extension occurs when you "open" your hip joint so that the angle between your hip and thigh increases. In a deadlift, the glutes, hamstrings and adductors (the muscles along your inner thighs) work together to extend the hips.
Deadlift Muscles Worked
Target and Synergists
Call it the butt or the glutes, the hip extension that's so vital to the deadlift puts a critical focus on working those gluteus maximus muscles, which are located behind your hips. But the glutes aren't the only muscles invited to the deadlift party — not by a long shot.
No less than four key muscles act as syngergists during the full movement of the deadlift, according to ExRx.net. During exercise, synergists are the muscles that help other muscles complete a movement. For regular barbell deadlifts, these four muscles include:
- The quadriceps (quads) at the front of the thigh extend from below the hip to just above the knee.
- The adductor magnus of the inner thigh sit just below the groin on either side.
- The hamstrings at the rear of your thigh extend from below the glutes to just above the knee (deadlifts particularly engage the bottom half).
- The soleus are long, thin muscles on either side of the back of the mid-calf.
Deadlifts involve the quads as they propel the extension of the knee. Meanwhile, the soleus flexes the ankle, helping the shins return to their upright position at the end of the lift. The erector spinae also gets involved as you make your way to the top of the deadlift's motion.
Stabilizers are muscles that help, well, stabilize your body during exercise, per ExRx.net. As you complete an exercise like the deadlift, these muscles contract without making noticeable movements to help you maintain your posture.
And when you have heavy weight on that bar, the stabilizing contraction is enough to work those muscles, too. In a classic deadlift, stabilizers include:
- The erector spinae, which includes the heads of the iliocastalis, longissimus and spinalis muscles, extends from the base of your skull to the bottom of your pelvis.
- The middle trapezius is in the middle of the back of your shoulder blades.
- The upper trapezius sits at the tops of your shoulder, extending up into the base of your skull.
- The levator scapulae connects the outside of your neck and shoulders.
- The rhomboids of the mid-back extend from your spine to your shoulder blades.
The erector spinae is particularly important here, because it's what keeps the spine rigid at the top of the exercise and facilitates movement from the shoulders to the hips in its flexed position.
Once your torso is angled forward, the mid trapezius and rhomboids stabilize your shoulders. When you're more upright, the upper trapezius and levator scapulae kick in.
Dynamic, Antagonist Stabilizers
There's a bit more to the stabilizers than isometrically contracting. During compound movements, dynamic stabilizers shorten and lengthen to assist in joint stabilization, countering the force of the antagonist stabilizers to keep your body steady and balanced.
Often activated during isolated exercise, antagonist stabilizers are contracted at the extreme end of the movement in question to stabilize the joints, contracting against the forces putting the muscles into motion.
In a deadlift, those dynamic stabilizers include:
- The bottom half of the hamstrings. So, if you're keeping track, you're hitting those hams both as synergists and dynamic stabilizers in the same exercise (remember that the top half of the hams are key synergists).
- The gastrocnemius muscles make up the bulk of the upper rear calves and contract and expand just a little as your knees extend and your ankles flex during a deadlift.
- The rectus abdominis, or abs, come into play as antagonist stabilizers, as do the obliques (the large, flat muscles at the sides of your torso). These two muscles pull against the erector spinae during your deadlift, according to ExRx.net.
Proper Deadlift Form
- Fix the weight plates on your barbell and position the bar on the floor in front of you. If needed, position it on an elevated platform to allow for a reduced range of motion.
- Step up to the bar, shins almost against it, feet planted firmly hip-width apart. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
- Hinge from the hips, softening your knees as your hips sink low enough to grasp the bar with both hands shoulder-width apart.
- Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
- Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you push your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift the bar.
- Finish the motion by lifting your chest and engaging your lats to stabilize the bar in front of your hips.
- Return the bar by reversing the motion, pushing your weight back into your heels and softening your knees, letting the bar travel in a controlled path back down to the floor along your body.
3 Tips for Proper Deadlift Form
Performing the classic barbell deadlift — or any other sort of lift, for that matter — with proper form is crucial not only for safety and reducing the risk of injury, but also for effectively engaging your muscles.
1. Don't Let the Bar Settle
When performing more than one rep, don't let the barbell to "settle" into the ground. Instead, tap and lift quickly, which allows for a full range of motion while enhancing your overall muscle engagement.
2. Brace Your Core
Bracing your core from the start, as the American Council on Exercise recommends, and keeping it engaged as you push through your heels to stand keeps your abs working.
3. Engage Your Back
To keep your back engaged, avoid rounding your shoulders during the upward movement and involve the butt even more with a little glute squeeze at the top. Keeping the weight in your heels during the downward motion also helps keep your glutes and hamstrings in play.
When you perform it properly, you should feel a barbell deadlift in your glutes and at the backs of your thighs. What you should not feel during your lift is strain on your back. Keeping the back straight and flat and returning the weight to the floor by flexing the hips helps prevent back issues.
From differences in your stance to different types of bars, mixing up the way you execute your deadlift has a notable effect on which muscles are working more or less. The barbell stiff-leg deadlift, for example, focuses more on the erector spinae than a traditional deadlift.
By encouraging a wider stance, a lower hip position and a lower center of gravity, sumo deadlifts rely more on the hips than they do the spine. These also increase engagement by the glutes.
Bottom line: There's no shortage of deadlift variations you can test. Once you get comfortable with the traditional version and feel confident in your form, experiment with a few deadlift variations that work best for you.
More Deadlift Benefits
Alongside the many muscles this compound movement strengthens (as mentioned above), it can also help improve your general movement patterns in daily life, like when you lift a box or heavy suitcase.
The exercise can even help improve bone density, increase metabolic rate and even decrease back pain, according to the NSCA.
- National Strength and Conditioning Association: "The Deadlift and Its Application to Overall Performance"
- ExRx.net: "Hip Articulations"
- ExRx.net: "Knee Articulations"
- ExRx.net: "Trap Bar Deadlift"
- ExRx.net: "Barbell Deficit Deadlift"
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE Technique Series: Romanian Deadlift"
- ExRx.net: "Barbell Straight-back Straight-leg Deadlift"
- American Council on Exercise: "Mastering the Deadlift"