Head to the weight room of any gym, and you’re likely to see someone doing a deadlift. And for good reason: Deadlifts are one of the foundational strength-training exercises. Some people even call them “the king” of all exercises. But what muscles do deadlifts work? Basically all the biggest muscle groups in the bottom half of your body, plus your core, shoulders, and forearms. Yeah, they’re no joke.
Clearly, deadlifts can be one of the most efficient exercises to work into your leg day. But if you aren’t already doing them, we get it: Barbell deadlifts in particular can be intimidating for beginners. We’re here to help, because understanding the muscles worked by deadlifts can help you focus on how you should be performing deadlifts and what muscles you should feel engaging during this exercise.
What muscles do deadlifts work?
Conventional deadlifts are more complex than they might seem to be at first glance, says Loyola Marymount University associate professor of health and human sciences Jen Roper, PhD, CSCS. “It includes triple extension—you are extending at the hip, knee, and ankle (plantar flexing to be exact),” she says.
Dr. Roper says that this means the main muscles worked by deadlifts are the gluteus maximus, the hamstrings, and the quadriceps. “The gluteus maximus and the hamstrings are responsible for extension at the hip, while the quadriceps are responsible for extension at the knee,” she explains. (Note that in anatomical terms, extension refers to the straightening of a joint, so hip extension is straightening your leg at the hip, knee extension is straightening the knee.)
But your lower body isn’t all that’s involved. “With proper form, your forearms engage from holding the bar; your shoulders, traps, back, and core help stabilize the body; and your glutes and hamstrings act as a lever to lift the weight,” LaNiecia Vicknair, a corrective exercise specialist and founder of Thrive Health Lab in Los Angeles previously told Well+Good about the full-body benefits of deadlifts. If you’re wondering what muscles should be sore after a deadlift workout, the answer is all of the above.
That said, there are several types of deadlifting exercises, namely conventional deadlifts, stiff-legged deadlifts, and Romanian deadlifts, and Dr. Roper points out that each of these challenges the muscles in slightly different ways. Though those hammies, glutes, and quads will get worked no matter what.
How to do a deadlift
Dr. Roper walks us through how to perform a conventional barbell deadlift with the proper technique:
- Stand with your feet flat on the floor about shoulder-width apart. You can have the toes pointed slightly outward. Place the barbell about one inch in front of your shins and over the balls of the feet.
- From this position, squat down with the hips lower than the shoulders, and grasp the bar with a closed, pronated grip (overhand). For heavier loads, you may opt for a closed, alternated grip (one overhand position, one underhand position). Either way, your arms should be fully extended.
- Before beginning the movement, make sure your torso is in the correct position: neutral spine, shoulders back, head in line with the spine, heels on the floor, shoulders over or slightly in front of the bar, eyes looking straight ahead or even upward.
- Start by extending the hips and knees and lifting the bar up off of the ground. Ensure your torso and spine remain in a neutral position throughout the movement and keep the bar as close to the shins as possible (think of scraping the bar along your shins as you continue through the upward phase). Continue until you reach full extension in the hips and knees, and your torso is upright.
- After you’ve reached full extension, slowly lower the bar to the floor by bending the hips and knees while maintaining a neutral spine as you return to the starting position.
Watch trainer Roxie Jones demonstrate proper form with a kettlebell:
How to prevent common deadlift mistakes
Although deadlifts are fairly straightforward, there are several common mistakes that athletes of all levels sometimes struggle with. Here’s how to avoid and correct them:
Watch your timing and sequencing
Dr. Roper says that a common deadlift mistake is allowing your hips to rise faster than your shoulders when you lift the bar.
“This can put a lot of stress on the lower back,” she says. “You want to make sure you keep your initial torso-to-floor angle as you progress through the upward phase of the movement.” Read: Don’t let your upper body become parallel to the ground.
Keep your back straight
“As the load increases, sometimes people can start to round at the back and hunch their shoulders,” says Dr. Roper. “Again, this can stress the back unnecessarily.” She says that flexing the spine or rounding the back is particularly common when you are lowering the barbell back to the floor during the deadlift execution.
The fix: Focus on keeping those shoulders reaching back throughout the movement to help maintain a neutral spine.
Be careful of your foot position
People sometimes deadlift with their feet too close together, or pointing too far out to the sides. Remember to keep your feet between hip-width and shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing forward or slightly outward, but not turned out significantly like a ballet dancer.
Use the proper tools
To support your lower back and reduce the risk of back injuries while deadlifting, Dr. Roper recommends that you use a weightlifting belt if you are planning to lift heavy weights with your deadlift workouts. “Heavy” is a relative term, but if you’re lifting maximal or near-maximal loads for your ability, a belt will come in handy.
“Weight belts can lessen the training the abdominals do during the movements, so only use them when necessary. Also, use of the Valsalva Maneuver [holding the breath] during deadlifts can increase the rigidity of the torso, allowing you to better maintain proper posture throughout the lift,” she advises. “But, don’t hold your breath too long, as it increases your blood pressure and can make you lightheaded.”
How do deadlifts change your body?
Deadlifts are a great way to strengthen your lower body and core, says Dr. Roper. Doing them regularly can help you better perform everyday activities. “The conventional deadlift uses a standing up motion, so it will help strengthen muscles used when picking up things from the floor or even simply standing up from a seated position,” she says.
The hip hinge movement pattern can also help improve your performance for other exercises like squats or lunges, and explosive movements like jumping and rowing—basically, any movement that requires hip and knee extension.
What is the best way to add deadlifts into your workout routine?
Dr. Roper says that because deadlifts are a compound exercise, meaning that they work multiple joints and muscle groups simultaneously, you should incorporate deadlifts into the beginning of a workout when your body is fresh, rather than at the end of the session.
The ideal volume and load for your deadlift workout will vary based on your goals. Here’s what Dr. Roper recommends:
- For strength: Up to 6 reps at 85% of your one-rep max (1RM) for 2 to 6 sets
- For power: 3 to 5 reps at 75-85% of your 1RM for 3 to 5 sets
- For bigger muscles: 8 to 12 reps at 67-85% of your 1RM for 3 to 6 sets
- For muscular endurance: At least 12 reps at 67% or less of your 1RM for 2 to 3 sets
What are the best deadlift variations?
According to Dr. Roper, stiff-legged deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts are great variations to try, especially if you’re rehabbing an injury that may be aggravated by conventional deadlifts. That’s because the reduced range of motion of these deadlift variations isolates the muscles worked mostly to those involved in hip extension. “The major muscle groups responsible for hip extension are the gluteus maximus and the hamstrings (alongside the erector spinae), with the Romanian deadlift emphasizing more of the gluteus maximus and the stiff-legged deadlift emphasizing the lower back due to great range of motion at the hip,” explains Dr. Roper.
She also suggests trying trap bar deadlifts, particularly if you’re a beginner looking for deadlift alternatives. “The trap bar enables you to maintain the correct posture, which can be difficult when lifting heavy with the barbell,” she advises. “It also allows you to work the quadriceps a bit more than conventional deadlifts.”
Also, don’t overlook the sumo deadlift. “This involves a wider than shoulder-width stance with the toes pointed outward and hands grasping the bar between the legs,” explains Dr. Roper. “It places less stress on the lower back and knees, while improving hip mobility and increasing emphasis on the glutes (due to the external rotation of the feet).”
And if you’re brand new to deadlifts? Consider starting with bodyweight deadlifts to get accustomed to the movement pattern and to build up strength in the deadlift muscle groups. Once you get comfortable and build that base strength, the world of deadlifts is your oyster.