Deadlifts are a great way to develop lower body strength and generate muscle growth (hypertrophy). With some adaptations, deadlifts can be used to help athletes generate power too. Here we cover what muscles traditional deadlifts work, along with how to adapt the exercise to fit your training needs.
What muscles do deadlifts work?
Deadlifts work three major muscle groups, with some additional muscle groups depending on the deadlift variation used:
- Lower back & Erector Spinae muscles
- Gluteals (glutes)
- Quadriceps (depending on variation used)
- Upper back, abdominal & forearms muscles
Your hamstrings play a key role in hip extension. Your hamstrings work eccentrically during the downward phase of the deadlift, then concentrically as you move upward during the deadlift.
The hamstrings play an important role in running, jumping, and most athletic movements. They also help stabilise your knee joint, making strong hamstrings a key ingredient in minimising the risk of knee injuries.
Lower back & Erector Spinae
Your Erector Spinae muscles are a key muscle in controlling the shape of your lower back (along with a host of smaller muscles). These work throughout your deadlift to ensure you keep your form in your lower back and minimise unwanted strain on your spine.
Your glutes are the prime mover in hip flexion/extension (hip hinging). Hip hinging is the core aspect of all deadlift variations. Your glutes also create a foundation for all jumps, sprints and lower-body movements in sports.
Do deadlifts work your quads? The real answer is that it depends on the variation of deadlift you are using. Your quads are the prime mover in knee extension and may work eccentrically during knee flexion.
For most deadlift variations (Romanian deadlifts) your knees shouldn’t be flexing and extending much, whereas in others (trap bar deadlifts –covered later on), they will travel through a wider range. EMG studies have shown that your quadricep muscles are more ‘active’ during many deadlift variations, compared to gluteal and hamstring muscles.
What does this all mean? Most deadlift variations are not the best exercise for training your quads (think more squats and squat variations such as front squats), but your quadriceps will be highly active through all deadlift exercises as they try to stabilise your knee joints through the exercise.
Upper back, abdominal & forearm muscles
During a deadlift, the mass of the bar is held by your hands, while you create a hinging pattern from your hips. This makes deadlifts a great all-around conditioning exercise as you have to control your body shape throughout the lift.
Muscles in your upper back are used to maintain form in your upper body, abdominals are needed to maintain form in your upper body too and most athletes will find their forearms fatigue during deadlifts as they progress to deadlifting heavier loads.
Why deadlifts are such a great exercise
With the ‘muscles worked’ section above, you can see why deadlifts are central to any athletes training. They offer you a wealth of benefits and strength gains all from one exercise.
They require you to use multiple joints in coordination to perform the lift (known as compound lifts). These movement patterns transfer to nearly all sporting movements, including running, jumping and hitting a golf ball.
Muscles worked for variations of deadlifts
What we’ve covered above are the muscles groups worked for conventional deadlifts. Below we’ll cover some of the most common variations of deadlifts and how it changes the muscle groups that are targeted.
Romanian deadlifts (RDL) muscles worked
Romanian deadlifts are an adaptation where you perform a deadlift with straighter legs (little knee flex). This places emphasis on your hamstrings working more and your quads working less – you can think of RDLs and a hamstring-dominant deadlift.
They also require your hamstrings to work towards full extension as you reach the bottom of the lift with straighter knees. As you reach the end of this range of motion in your hamstrings, you’ll find muscles have less capacity to generate force – this makes RDLs a great exercise for strengthening your hamstrings, thanks to the full range of the muscle being used through the lift.
A quick note, the same concepts apply to single-leg RDLs. Performing an RDL with one leg challenges your balance, meaning less (relative) weight can be lifted, but it ensures athletes maintain a good level of strength in both legs. Something that is often hidden if athletes just perform bilateral exercises.
Trap bar (Hex) deadlifts muscles worked
The trap bar deadlift fits between a conventional deadlift and a back squat (it’s like a hybrid of both). Trap bar deadlifts require more knee flexion than most squats, and due to your posture being more upright these work your quadriceps more and your hamstrings less compared to a conventional deadlift.
We LOVE trap bar deadlift for athletes, they provide a super safe way to train and reduce load through your spine, but don’t offer the same hamstring stimulus as a conventional deadlift or RDLs.
Sumo Deadlifts Muscles Worked
Sumo deadlifts are a variation where an athlete has a wide stance and toes pointed out. In general, sumo deadlifts create more of a hip hinge, making them great for training your glutes. Your quads will also work as you lift and drive off the floor using knee extension.
The degree to which you will use your quads will depend on how much knee flexion you have. Your limb lengths and how high you have the barbell from the ground will dictate this.
There are some EMG studies showing sumo deadlifts generate higher levels of activity in your quads and tibialis anterior (muscle in the front of your lower limbs) compared to standard deadlifts. However, higher EMG activity doesn’t always mean it will be ‘better’ for training these muscles, just that they are ‘more active’ throughout the exercise.
Because of the wider stance and externally rotated hip position required for a sumo deadlift, you will find your gluteus medius are more active during this lift (they adduct and externally rotate your hips).
This is useful to know but doesn’t mean sumo deadlifts will explicitly strengthen your gluteus medius muscles, as there is little load or range of movement performed by this muscle group during a sumo deadlift.
Deadlifts are the foundation of any strength and conditioning program. The type that you should choose will depend on a range of factors including your training goals, level of experience, preference and training loads outside of the gym.
We hope this article has given you a deeper insight into the muscles worked during deadlifts and key variations. Check out the references below for a deeper dive into this topic.
Rodgers & Raja (2022) Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Hamstring Muscle
Martín-Fuentes , Oliva-Lozano , Muyor (2020) Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review
Escamilla et. al. (2002) An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts
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Will is a sport scientist and golf professional who specialises in motor control and motor learning. Will lecturers part-time in motor control and biomechanics, runs Golf Insider UK and consults elite athletes who are interested in optimising their training and performance.