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The Muscles Recruited to Deadlift: Activation Explained

deadlift muscles

The deadlift is considered one of three basic compound exercises that every lifter – both beginners and professionals alike – should perform. Its overall effects on muscle composition on both the upper and lower body make it a crucial component of strength and muscle-building.

The deadlift engages major muscles as prime movers in the upper and lower body such as the glutes, hamstrings, lats, and traps. It also engages stabilizing and synergizing muscles such as the obliques, traverse abdominals, spinal erectors, and forearms.

Deadlifts as a Compound Exercise

The deadlift is one of the fundamental compound exercises that target almost every part of the body. It targets not only the core muscles but also the stabilizing and synergistic muscles. Some of the muscles are engaged as assistive to the prime movers. This compound and multi-joint exercise aims to improve maximal strength and improve joint stability.

At its core, the deadlift exercise mimics a basic real-life movement, picking an object up off the floor. The hip hinge movement during deadlifts drives the hips backward and engages specific upper and lower body muscles.

Both beginners and professionals perform deadlifts to improve strength. It is an efficient exercise for reaching muscle hypertrophy by using various weights such as dumbbells, barbells, and other specialty bars.

Strength athletes perform deadlifts to improve overall strength and maintain muscle mass on prime movers such as the back, glutes, and hamstrings. Weightlifters perform deadlifts to improve technique and sustain positional strength when performing clean-and-jerks and snatches.

Muscle gained through deadlifts differs based on the amount of weight and number of repetitions. Similar to other exercises, low-repetition deadlifts with challenging yet controlled weight can lead to improvements in strength. Usually, performing 3-5 sets of 1-5 deadlifts at controlled weight can lead to muscle and strength gains.

Performing a high number of repetitions on deadlifts, however, are one of the leading causes of injury for the exercise. One of the signs of eventual injury is the lifter’s difficulty in maintaining the bar path throughout the exercise. This manifests when the prime movers of the body abnormally protrude while performing a repetition.

Deadlift: Target Muscles

The deadlift is a compound exercise but it targets specific muscles and muscle groups greater through the concentric and eccentric motion. The lifting motion of the deadlift activates the quadriceps through the knee extension or the push from the floor movement. Placing the bar back on the floor activates the middle and low back sections as well as the hamstrings and the gluteal muscles.

The glutes are also engaged during the lockout of the deadlift as the hips extend through the upright position. The adductor magnus or the inner thighs are also engaged in this process, especially as the hips are extended at their maximum capacity.

The hamstring muscles fulfill the supportive and synergistic role during the deadlift. It aids the primary mover, the glutes, when lifting the barbell from the ground. Its engagement is usually related to the ankle of the knee. It functions as a supportive muscle for the knee joints to prevent injury.

The lifting motion of the deadlift also engages the spinal erectors which prevent the spine from rounding throughout the exercise. Weak spinal erectors can induce spinal rounding which happens when the lifter has difficulty in remaining upright during the exercise.

The latissimus dorsi or the lats also perform a crucial role in the exercise. It allows the lifter to maintain contact with the bar and promotes balance. It prevents the hip muscles from overextending and causing injury. 

The trapezius or the traps supports the shoulder during the lifting motion. Strong traps allow the shoulders to maintain a neutral position and maintain balance while lifting the barbell.

The abdominal and oblique muscles as well as the rhomboids support the spine and the torso from the back, front, and sides while maintaining position during the deadlift. They prevent the overextension of the spinal erectors and maintain multidirectional balance.

Deadlifts also engage smaller muscles such as the gastrocnemius, soleus, forearms, and sternocleidomastoid, or the neck muscles. Training these stabilizing muscles improves deadlift performance and also prevents injuries.

The deadlift also promotes a stronger spine through the improvement of the spinal bones and tendons. It also promotes muscle mass growth by improving bone density. Great spinal loading during deadlifts forces the muscles and bones to adapt and increase work capacity, promoting higher lift volumes. 

Differences in Muscle Activation Depending on Deadlift Type

Muscle activation during deadlifts also depends on the type of deadlift. Some deadlifts change the ankle of knee flexion and extension, resulting in alteration in muscle activation. Similarly, changes in the angle of the back to the floor can also change how the spinal muscles and spinal erectors are activated.

Two of the most common types of deadlifts are sumo and conventional deadlifts. The sumo deadlift places the feet greater than shoulder-width and the hands lie inside the legs during the lift. This is a knee dominant movement that promotes greater engagement of the glutes.

The Romanian Deadlift (RDL) and the stiff-leg deadlifts both promote greater engagement of the hamstring muscles. The increased knee extension during stiff-leg deadlifts increases the load on the hamstring muscles leading to an increase in strength and size. Moreover, the higher hip extension in RDL promotes similar activity to the hamstrings.

The trap bar deadlift provides different muscle activation mechanics. This type of deadlift provides a lesser load on the lower back, hamstrings, and ankles and diverts the load to the knees; This increases the pressure on the quad muscles.

Lastly, rack pulls, which is an assisted form of deadlift, shifts the load to the shoulders, traps, and upper back muscles. This exercise eliminates the lower body muscles to strengthen and balance the upper body muscles.