August 28, 2021 10 min read

In its purest form, weightlifting comes down to simply picking something heavy up and then putting it back down. And if we want to take it a step further, the deadlift can be seen as the purest form of this action.

Known as the king of lifts, the deadlift is a sure-fire way to challenge several major muscle groups that span your entire body. If you’re looking for explosive strength and power, look no further than the deadlift.

The list of individual muscles that the deadlift involves is in the dozens, but we’ve broken them down into the largest counterparts down below. And, as always, if you want to get the biggest bang for your buck, proper form is an absolute necessity.

The Many Deadlift Benefits

Along with the bench press and the squat, the deadlift makes up the three bread-and-butter lifts that should be in pretty much everyone’s training routine. But more than the bench press or squat, the deadlift is all about lifting heavy.

Deadlifts with a barbell, legs straight. 3D illustration

Lifting heavy over such a wide range of muscle groups signifies to your body that it should release testosterone and growth hormone. Not only will this compound the gains you’re already developing from the lift itself, but it’ll also keep you leaner and over the long term, more shredded.

The deadlift is weightlifting in its purest form, and including it in your workout routine is a great way to not only become more powerful but also feel more powerful.

The Many Muscles Used in the Barbell Deadlift

Most of the benefits outlined above stem from the mechanics of the deadlift. While there are many compound exercises out there that utilize many muscle groups across the whole body, the deadlift comes out on top. The key muscle group worked by the deadlift is the posterior chain.

This includes the glutes, calves, hamstrings, erector spinae, lats, and rear shoulder muscles. If you want to better avoid injuries, improve posture, and boost your overall athletic performance, the posterior chain is a necessary group of muscles you need to be developing.

Training the posterior chain is especially important if you often find yourself at a desk throughout the day. Sitting down pretty much “turns off” the posterior chain muscles, and can leave them underdeveloped. There are many different muscles utilized in this powerlifting movement, some more important than others.

For example, even grip strength comes into play. However, the primary movers are going to be in the lower body, upper back, and lower back muscles. Here are some of the muscles you can expect to develop through the deadlift, in more detail:

Glutes

Strong glutes don’t just mean a good-looking posterior, but they’re also essential for pulling off the deadlift successfully and without injury. The largest of the glute muscles is called the gluteus maximus. With the deadlift, the primary role of the glutes is to extend the hips in the hip hinge movement.

This comes into play at the very end—during the lock-out phase where the hips come into contact with the barbell. It’s important to squeeze the glutes during this part to get the most you can out of the deadlift.

Quadriceps

The quads are all about extending the knees. They come into play in the first part of the lift, where you’re meant to push into the ground. That’s why the cue to “push the ground away” is so important. Instead of trying to pull the weight up, you need to be activating the quads to help you push. The quads are one of the biggest movers in the deadlift, and developing them will significantly impact your other lifts and athletic movements.

Hamstrings

There are two ways that hamstrings help us complete the deadlift. The first is how they work together with the glutes in locking out at the top of the lift. While your knees straighten and hips un-hinge, the hamstrings will be engaged along with your glutes in order to bring your hips closer to the bar. Nevertheless, the glutes are still the stars of the show in this respect.

The second role of the hamstrings is as a stabilizing force in the knee joints. The hamstrings work in conjunction with the quads as they extend the leg since they act against these forces in order to stabilize. Working together, the hamstrings and the quads help to keep your knees stable and the path of the bar optimal.

Inner Thigh (Adductor Magnus)

Along with the hamstrings, the inner thighs help the glutes when it comes to hip extension at the top of the movement. Outside of the deadlift, the inner thighs help keep you stable and balanced, especially when it comes to your knees, hips, lower back, and core. Although not as major as some of the other movers on this list, they are just as important.

Erector Spinae

Moving on from the leg muscles, the erectors are found on either side of your spine. These muscles also have two roles to play in the deadlift. The first role they play is in back extension. Essentially, the erectors help to move your body from a bent-over position to an upright one. Depending on the angle you start the deadlift in, you’ll be utilizing more or less of the erector spinae.

Secondly, the spinal erectors will help you maintain a flat back throughout the movement. You’ll find that in a lot of lifts, keeping your back straight is important for preventing injury and engaging the right muscles. This is even more true when it comes to the deadlift since it places a large load on your back muscles. If you don’t properly engage the erectors during the deadlift, it’ll lead to significant shear forces on the spine which will lead to injury down the road.

Latissimus Dorsi

The lats are the wing-shaped muscles that extend from your armpit down to the base of your spine. The key role of the lats during the deadlift is to keep the bar on the path it’s supposed to be in. That is, close to your body. Having the bar close to your body will ensure that you’re not also fighting any forward forces when bringing the bar upward.

You’re more likely to lose balance and will have to take attention away from the muscles that should be spotlighted. If the bar is too far away from your body, your hamstrings, inner thigh, and glutes are also going to need to put in overtime to bring the hips into contact with the bar at the top of the movement.

Trapezius

The traps are found at the back of your shoulders, and they help to support your shoulders during the deadlift. It’s the mid and lower traps that do most of the work during this lift. Although your shoulder blades should be in a neutral position throughout the movement, you do want to slightly pull them down and back to the floor. This will help to avoid any unnecessary tension in your shoulder joints.

Rhomboids

The rhomboids are found at the lower neck and the upper/inner back area. Along with the traps, they’re important for keeping your shoulders in the correct position during the lift. Again, it’s important not to allow your shoulders to round during the movement. Keeping them neutral and back is necessary for proper power output and to avoid any injuries.

Obliques and Abdominals

Finally, we have some of our main stabilizers. The obliques are found to the sides of your rectus abdominis, and along with them, they help to prevent the hyperextension of the spine at the top of the movement. This happens when you extend too far back in the lock-out phase of the deadlift.

Engaging the obliques and the abdominals will keep you stable, ensure that the bar is on the right path upward, and will also keep the tension that’s necessary for a proper lock-out.

How to Deadlift for Full Muscle Engagement

But with all of its muscle activation and benefits, the deadlift is also not an easy exercise to pull off. Especially if you’re looking to get the most out of it and avoid injuries (this should include everyone), then the deadlift can be a tricky movement to master.

The fact that deadlifts are usually performed with heavy weights means that the potential for injury is that much higher, and they should be approached with an appropriate amount of caution. The first step, as always, is preparation. When beginning, first make sure that you’re using weights that aren’t too heavy—you want to get the form down before going too heavy.

The barbell should also be placed on the floor, with plates on either side so it rises off the ground. Your initial stance should have the bar positioned midway up your feet, with your feet between hip-width and shoulder-width apart. Reaching down, your shoulders should be just slightly in front of the bar, with the bar being very close to your shins.

The key with the deadlift is to pull in a path that allows for the most power to be transferred. If the bar is too close or too far away from your body, you’re not going to get the most out of the movement and risk injury—that’s why set-up is so important.

The Motion of the Deadlift

Once you’ve positioned the barbell in the correct place, and your feet are planted to the floor, it’s time to begin the movement. It’s generally broken down into the hinge, the pull, and then the lockout. There are a lot of things to keep in mind, but we’ll go over the general steps down below.

  1. Initiate the movement by hinging your hips backward, feeling the tension in your hamstrings. Once you can’t go any lower, bend the knees and lower your hands down to the bar. You’ll want to grasp the bar with either an overhand grip or an alternate grip (one palm facing in and the other one out). Your grip should be just outside of your legs.

  2. A good cue to have at this point is to imagine your hands as hooks. Although upper body muscles do come into play, the primary mover will be your legs—let them do the work.

  3. The next step is all about getting in the correct position to pull. This means keeping your back flat: a good way to do this is by bringing your shins in contact with the bar, all the while lifting your chest and looking straight ahead. This should ensure that your hips are hinged and your back is flat.

  4. Inhaling, engage the core and maintain the tension throughout the whole movement. Also, engage the lats—try to think of “lengthening” your arms, which should help to contract your lats along with your triceps. Another good cue to keep in mind is to think of bending the bar around the legs. This will help to engage the right muscles and keep the bar on the right path close to your shins.

  5. Next up is the pull itself. First, you’re going to want to remove any slack in your arms by slightly moving your body up (remember not to remove the slack with your arms—they’re only meant to hook the weight).

  6. Much like with the squat, you’re going to want to focus on pushing the ground away from you, rather than pulling the weight up. This is done by pressing into the floor through your feet while simultaneously unhinging your hips when the barbell reaches your knees. Once the barbell gets to this point, push your hips forward, with your knees also unhinging to stand up.

  7. You’ll be at the top of the movement once you’ve locked out your knees and are completely upright. However, you don’t want to hyperextend at the top. This is marked by leaning back and placing unnecessary stress on your back, increasing the risk of injury.

  8. Depending on the weight you’re using and your overall goals, you can either drop the weight down or reverse the motion to lower it back into the starting position. Make sure that you go through the full range of motion. If using an extremely heavy weight and training for explosive energy, it’ll be best to just drop it.

Mistakes to Avoid

The above steps should put you on the right path for your muscles to get the most out of the deadlift. The best way to learn is by getting someone more knowledgeable to teach you, like a personal trainer. They’ll be able to walk you through some keys and help you avoid common mistakes.

Primarily, you want to be engaging (and disengaging) the right muscles. It goes without saying that this step is necessary for getting the most development out of the exercise. For example, your lats need to be engaged so your shoulders don’t round during the lift. At the same time, your arms should only be used to hook the weight, rather than do any lifting.

Variations and their Muscle Focus

As with all big lifts, there are many deadlift variations for you to try out. While the conventional deadlift is always going to have a special place in any training routine, you should also experiment with the variations. All the variations are going to roughly train the same muscle groups (most of them, that is), but there will be different parts of the body emphasized in different deadlifts.

Which variation you choose will be up to your starting fitness level and the goals you’re trying to reach. For example, you can use different weights such as kettlebells or even dumbbells. Or, opt for the trap bar deadlift to make things easier on your joints.

The Sumo Deadlift

As the name suggests, the sumo deadlift has you adopt a much wider stance. This puts your hips closer to the barbell, while also allows your torso to stand more upright from the beginning. These differences allow for much more quad activation to take place.

Muscular man lifting deadlift In the gym

The fact that you’re starting out from a more upright position also takes off a part of the load from your back, making it primarily a leg movement. While your traps and lats won’t get as much attention, you’ll be feeling an extra burn in your hamstrings, hips, and quads.

However, don’t immediately switch over to the sumo deadlift if you’re having a difficult time keeping your back straight in the standard deadlift. This issue often arises when the back is simply too weak, rather than mechanically disadvantaged.

The Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift (RDL) is essentially just the top part of the regular deadlift. Instead of lowering the weight all the way back down to the ground, you’re only lowering the barbell down to your knees. Like with the sumo deadlift, this will make things easier on your lower back.

Since you’re not starting the lift from the floor, the weight you’ll be using will also be much lighter. Nevertheless, the RDL is a great way to pack some extra muscle onto your hamstrings and hips.

The Nutrients for Building Muscle

If anything is obvious by this point, it’s that the deadlift requires a lot of muscles working in close synergy with one another. It takes a lot to pull off, and therefore, requires a lot of energy to build muscle mass. Maintaining a proper diet with clean, healthy sources of nutrition is the best way to ensure consistent gains.

After implementing the deadlift into your workout routine, your muscles will be aching for more protein, and healthy sources of carbs and fats. If you’re having a difficult time getting enough muscle-building protein in you, a quality whey protein shake can turbocharge your deadlift gains and leave you more powerful than ever.


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