September 22, 2021 10 min read
When it comes to describing what lifting is all about, there’s no lift that does it better than the deadlift.
Simply picking up weight and then putting it down, the deadlift promises to get you yolked if you properly incorporate your deadlift sessions.
However, with so many benefits, it can be difficult to tell what type of workout the deadlift should be considered. For example, the deadlift is an amazing way to work both your leg muscles and your back muscles. This leaves us with the question: so which muscle group should it be used for?
The answer is more complicated than it might first appear. Not only does it have a lot to do with the mechanics of the movement itself, but also with your personal goals and starting fitness level.
The list of deadlift benefits is long and familiar to most people, so we won’t spend too much time on it here. Being a compound movement, the deadlift relies on pretty much every major muscle group in your whole body. While your legs and your back do the majority of the heavy lifting, you’ll also be engaging your core and various other stabilizers, including in your forearms when it comes to grip strength.
Because it’s a full-body movement and it uses a lot of energy, you’re bound to burn calories while also improve your endurance (if not using a weight that’s too heavy). This also plays into better athleticism and an improved vertical, since deadlifts are terrific for the development of explosive strength.
Since deadlifts tend to use heavier weights, your body will also be more prone to releasing anabolic hormones. These will compound the gains you’re already getting from the lift itself, and they’ll make you leaner and more ripped over the long run. All in all, the deadlift is a mainstay in lifting circles for some very good reasons.
There are three main components to the deadlift when it comes to the mechanics of joint movements.
The main joint movements are the first two: the knee extension and the hip extension. This means that the deadlift is primarily a lower body exercise, with most of the movement happening due to the muscles in the legs. However, there are several different muscle groups hit, including muscles in the back.
The quads are one of the primary movers in the deadlift. They’re all about extending the knees, and so they come into use during the first part of the lift when you’re pushing off the ground. The cue to “push the ground away” is important because it better engages the quads compared to thinking that you’re supposed to pull the weight off the ground. Giving your quads some TLC will have massive carry-over benefits to your other lifts and athletic movements.
The largest of the glutes is called the gluteus maximus, and it’s necessary for both a good-looking posterior and a successful deadlift. When performing the deadlift, the biggest job of the glutes is to extend the hips when you’re going through the hip hinge. Especially at the very end, when you’re meant to straighten out your legs and push your hips forward, the glutes are essential. Squeezing the glutes at the top will help you get the most out of the exercise.
The hamstrings have two jobs when deadlifting. For one, they help to stabilize our knee joints by working together with the quads to extend the leg. Strong hamstrings mean that you’ll be able to keep the bar more stable, and therefore have an easier time transferring power through the optimal path. The second job of the hamstrings is to help your glutes in the locking out at the top of the lift when your hips unhinge and are pushed forward.
Moving on from the lower body, we have the erector spinae. The spinal erectors are placed on both sides of your spine, helping to extend your back as you go from a bent-over position to an upright position. The spinal erectors are also essential for keeping your back flat during the entire movement.
A flat back will help you avoid injury, and will lead to a better transfer of power. This is a key point since deadlifts place a large amount of stress on the back muscles. Stronger back muscles mean that there won’t be as much of a damaging shear force on the spine.
The latissimus dorsi make up the wing-shaped muscles on your back, extending down from your armpits. The lats are important when deadlifting because they help you keep the bar close to your body, which helps to activate the muscles that are supposed to be activated.
Keeping the barbell on the correct path upwards will make sure that you’re not fighting any forward or backward forces as well as top-down. Not only are you more likely to lose balance if the bar is too far away from you, but you’ll also be engaging more secondary, stabilizing muscles that aren’t meant to be the focus of deadlifts.
The rhomboids are part of the upper and inner back, along the lower neck. They work with the traps to keep your shoulders stable throughout the lift. In order to be safe during the movement, it’s important to pull your shoulders back and down—something that the rhomboids are essential for.
The traps are located at the back of your shoulders, helping to support them during the lift along with the rhomboids. Pulling your shoulders down and back to the floor will help to reduce any unnecessary tension in the shoulder joints.
Here we have the main stabilizers of the lift. The rectus abdominis is your classic six-pack muscle, and the obliques are found to either side of them. This group of muscles helps you avoid hyperextension at the top of the movement when you push out your hips. Engaging these muscles will keep your body stable while the bar travels the optimal path upwards.
To better be able to pick which day we should do deadlifts, it’s a good idea to check out the mechanics of the movement more closely. The deadlift is a compound exercise using a heavy, free weight, and therefore, it’s a complex lift that shouldn’t be approached lightly.
Not only will perfect form help when it comes to getting the most out of the exercise for your lower body and back muscles, but it’ll also help you avoid injuries. As always, remember to properly warm up so you can eke out all the possible gains.
If it’s your first time trying out the deadlift, it’s best to use either a lighter weight or just the bar so you can get used to the movement.
While the deadlift may be complex, this complexity lends itself to a lot of utility. The deadlift, although primarily a lower body exercise, is still effective for the legs and the back muscles. Whether you choose one or the other will largely depend on the application and your fitness goals. Knowing where you currently stand and having a well-defined goal is the best way to approach deadlifts when considering what day to put them on.
As we’ve seen above, the mechanics of the movement make the deadlift a primarily leg exercise. The initial power comes from the legs, to get the weight moving. Your quads engage along with your hamstrings and glutes, and you slowly lift the bar up off the ground by “pushing” into the floor.
Since the legs are utilized so heavily, the deadlift tends to be grouped in with leg days. However, there are some important considerations to make beforehand.
One aspect to factor in is that deadlifts are very taxing on the body. This obviously garners great benefits, but it’s also something to consider when planning your workout routine. Moving such a heavyweight from a dead stop, without the use of momentum, is going to take a lot out of you.
This is why it’s best to put deadlifts at the end of a leg workout. This way, you can hit your legs with squats, which are still difficult, but they’ll leave you with more energy to do other leg exercises. Starting your leg day with a heavy deadlift is a great way to derail your routine and gas out too much before you can really get going.
Furthermore, squats are a great warm-up for deadlifting. The hip hinge has its similarities, and you’ll also be warming up your entire posterior chain which is essential for pulling off a successful deadlift. This will help you get the full range of motion, adding more to the gains.
For example, some powerlifters will even focus completely on squats during the off-season, since the gains you get from squatting translate so well to deadlifting. The biggest negative with this kind of setup is that you won’t be able to move as much weight with the deadlift. If you’re looking to do heavy deadlifts and improve this lift, in particular, putting them at the end of a workout isn’t going to get that much closer to your goals.
Once you’ve gotten the bar clean off the ground, most of the moving is going to be coming from your upper body and back muscles. This begins with the lower back, as your hips unhinge and end in a lockout. Then, your upper back will be keeping your shoulders stable and pulling the bar up to the top of the lift. Although the back muscles are a secondary role to the leg muscles, they’re still extremely engaged with the deadlift.
Opposite to deadlifts on leg day, you’re going to want to put deadlifts first on a back day. This is because you want to get enough volume on your back muscles, which aren’t as utilized in this lift. You won’t be risking gassing out your legs at the beginning, so there’s no harm in going big from the very beginning.
A lot of powerlifters also enjoy doing deadlifts along with bench pressing, in the same workout session. This is because deadlifts come after the bench press during competitions, and so it’s a good way to practice.
While these rules can generally apply to most lifters, it’s important to note that they don’t apply to powerlifters. For powerlifters, the decision on what exercises fall on which days comes down to the lifts or the objectives of the training period. For example, a lot of people would work on their deadlifts and squats on the same day in order to simulate the powerlifting meet.
On the other hand, some powerlifters separate the two in order to be able to give their all on the deadlifting session. This is then usually broken up as a three-day split throughout the week. Powerlifters have gotten far with both methods of training, so choose the one you prefer more and get you better results.
It’s all going to come down to your goals. If you want a shredded physique that emphasizes aesthetics and hypertrophy, deadlifts are going to work much better on leg days. This is because they can be performed as an accessory lift, using higher reps along with lower weights.
If you’re either looking to compete, or you just want to be really strong, then heavy deadlifts are the way to go. Doing deadlifts on a back day will make them the priority since they’ll be coming at the beginning of the workout. But it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
Another option is to do heavier deadlifts on back day, paired with lighter, accessory deadlifts on leg day. This will get you the best of both worlds if you’re looking for more of a middle path. On the other hand, if you want to emphasize the deadlift, you can also have a dedicated deadlift day for your training needs.
There are also many deadlift variations to choose from if you want to hone in on a particular deadlift skill or muscle group. The sumo deadlift, for example, has you take a wider stance and it’s an acceptable variation in competitions. It mainly shifts the focus from the hamstring to the quads, making it a good option for leg days.
The Romanian deadlift and stiff leg deadlift are another two very popular choices that also happen to be quite similar. The barbell starts at the hips in both variations, but the RDL lowers it to the shins while the stiff leg deadlift lowers it down to the floor with the knees locked.
Finally, there are kettlebell and dumbbell variations that will help to train your body unilaterally, allowing you to make up for left/right discrepancies in strength and muscle mass.
The conventional deadlift is a full-body exercise that is guaranteed to lead to development, whether you’re working towards bodybuilding or body strength. Whether you use it as a back exercise or a leg exercise, as a full-body workout you’re going to need to fuel up properly.
You’re going to need to be eating healthy, whole foods that consist of carbs, fats, and a lot of protein. This is especially necessary with the full body activation of the deadlift since you’re going to be emphasizing some of the largest muscles in your body—and big muscles need a lot of food.
If you’re struggling to build muscle and your strength training is lagging behind, chances are that you’re not getting enough protein in your diet. Pair this great exercise with a great protein powder, and you’ll be smashing through muscle mass and body strength plateaus before you know it.