With the time-tested weight room classic known as the deadlift, muscles from your back to your thighs and beyond are engaged. With full-body lifts like that, it's little wonder that strength training is finding its way into programs for general fitness, sports performance and even rehabilitation.
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As the National Strength and Conditioning Association 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 a whole lot of different muscles.
Deadlifts target the glutes and quads, but engage a whole array of muscles as synergists and stabilizers.
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.
In addition to engaging the muscles in a somewhat similar fashion to a lower-body targeting squat, it also recruits the shoulders and forearms to bear the load of the weight (typically on a barbell, but open to variations like the Smith machine).
The traditional barbell deadlift primarily targets the gluteus maximus (yes, it's a butt-building exercise), but it also engages key muscles like the quadriceps, hamstrings and erector spinae as stabilizers. It activates the glutes because it encourages hip extension, an articulation in which straightening a joint increases the joint's angle.
During exercises, hip extension occurs when you move your thigh or top of your pelvis backward. In a deadlift, the glutes and adductor magnus work together to extend the hips.
During the back half of the lift, your hamstrings stabilize your body and the quadriceps put a full knee extension into motion. During knee extension, the movement of the lower leg away from the back of the thigh straightens the joint.
Read more: Deadlift vs. Squat Muscles
Deadlift Muscles: Target and Synergists
Call it the butt or call it 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 just below the rear of 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. During exercise, synergists are the muscles that help other muscles complete a movement. For regular barbell deadlifts, those four synergist muscles include:
- The quadriceps, also known as the quads, right at the front of the thigh — these muscles extend from below the hip to just above the knee.
- The adductor magnus of the inner thigh, just below the groin on either side.
- The hamstrings at the rear of your thigh, extending from below the glutes to just above the knee joint (deadlifts particularly engage the bottom half of the hams).
- The soleus, which are long, thin muscles on either side 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 a synergist, just briefly, at the very top of the deadlift's motion.
Read more: What Are the Benefits of Deadlifting?
Deadlift Muscles: Stabilizers
As ExRx.net points out, stabilizers are muscles that help stabilize your body during exercise. As you complete the motions of an exercise like the deadlift, these muscles contract without making broad movements to help you maintain your posture.
And when you've got heavy weight on that bar, that stabilizing contraction is plenty of motion 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 and extends from the base of your skull to the bottom of your pelvis to form the key muscles of your lower back.
- The middle trapezius, right in the middle of the backs of your shoulders.
- The upper trapezius at the tops of your shoulders, extending up into the base of your skull.
- The levator scapulae, which connects the outside of your neck and shoulders.
- The rhomboids of the mid-back, extending 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 then facilitates movement from the shoulders to the hips in its flexed position.
Once your torso is angled forward, the mid traps and rhomboids stabilize your shoulders. When you're more upright, the upper traps and levator scapulae kick in.
Deadlift Muscles: Dynamic, Antagonist Stabilizers
There's a bit more to the stabilizers than just standing there and 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, which make up the bulk of the upper rear calves, also act as dynamic stabilizers in this exercise because they contract and expand just a little as your knees extend and your ankles flex to keep your feet in place.
On the other end, the rectus abdominis, or abs for short, come into play as antagonist stabilizers, as do the obliques, the large, flat muscles around the middle of your rib cage. These two muscles pull against the erector spinae during your deadlift, as ExRx.net notes in its kinesiology analysis of the exercise.
Deadlifts, Muscles and Proper 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 for effectively engaging your muscles. For instance, keeping the bar close to your body improves your mechanical leverage.
During rep training, allowing the barbell to "settle" into the ground — rather than tapping and lifting it quickly — encourages a full range of motion. Both of these seemingly small details enhance your overall muscle engagement.
Bracing your core from the starting position, as the American Council on Exercise recommends, and keeping it engaged as you push through your heels at the beginning of the lift keeps those abs working.
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 of the lift. Keeping the weight in your heels during the downward motion also helps keep your glutes and hams 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 bending the hips helps prevent back issues.
Read more: Muscular Endurance Training
About Deadlift Variations
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 more or less engaged. The barbell stiff-leg deadlift, for example, focuses more on the erector spinae than a traditional deadlift, as does a deadlift performed with a hexagonal trap bar.
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.
The popular Romanian deadlift shifts most of the work to the muscles that extend the hip and knee from the posterior, making it an effective tool for lifting from the hips rather than the back. For more focus on the hamstrings, the straight-back, straight-leg deadlift is your ticket.
Heavier barbell loads significantly increase the focus on your latissmus dorsi, the muscles on either side of your upper torso, just below the armpits. That's because these muscles are primarily responsible for pulling the bar closer to the body and maintaining a consistent, close distance from your shins.
Read more: Romanian Deadlift vs. Stiff-Legged Deadlift
More Deadlift Benefits
Because of the muscles that the deadlift and its many variations target, this exercise makes for stronger glutes and hams, a tighter and more stable core and a stronger shoulder girdle.
The compound movement that the deadlift emphasizes can potentially even improve the general lifting mechanics you use outside of the gym. Some of the deadlift's benefits, however, are a little less obvious.
According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the deadlift accomplishes more than just dynamic strength development (which it does exceptionally well).
Just a few of the potential deadlift benefits cited by the NSCA include increased muscle mass, as well as positive changes in bone density, a healthier resting metabolic rate and even decreased back pain when they're incorporated into a rehabilitative regimen.
Because the deadlift challenges you to stabilize your trunk and spine while exerting maximal effort, it leads to full-body engagement and intense musculoskeletal coordination.
As part of a regular strength training regimen, this type of compound exercise can increase overall resiliency and athletic performance — no wonder it seems to have been around forever and shows no signs of leaving the gym any time soon.
- National Strength and Conditioning Association: "The Deadlift and Its Application to Overall Performance"
- American Council on Exercise: "Deadlift"
- ExRx.net: "Deadlift Analysis"
- ExRx.net: "Barbell Deadlift"
- ExRx.net: "Hip Articulations"
- ExRx.net: "Knee Articulations"
- ExRx.net: "Kinesiology Glossary"
- ExRx.net: "Barbell Stiff Leg Deadlift"
- ExRx.net: "Trap Bar Deadlift"
- ExRx.net: "Barbell Sumo 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"