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What Muscle tissue Do Deadlifts Work? An Reply, In keeping with Science

What Muscles Do Deadlifts Work? | Legion

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Evidence Based

The deadlift is a strange exercise. 

It allows you to lift maximally heavy weights and leaves you feeling sore and spent, but it’s sometimes hard to tell exactly what muscles are doing the heavy lifting (literally). While your back and butt are obviously involved, what muscles do deadlifts work out, exactly?

Poke around online, and you’ll find many folks who say that deadlifts train nearly every major muscle group in your body; or that they’re good for building your “posterior chain;” or that they’re the best “back builder” you can do. 

None of these answers are wrong, but they also aren’t helpful for deciding if or how you should include the deadlift in your workout routine.

In this article, you’ll learn exactly what muscles deadlifts work, and answers to several other questions, including:

What muscles do sumo deadlifts work?
What muscles do trap-bar deadlifts work?
What muscles do Romanian deadlifts work?
How do you deadlift with proper form?
How do you include deadlifts in your weightlifting routine?

What Muscles Do Deadlifts Work?

Studies show that the deadlift trains all of the muscles of your posterior chain, (the muscles on the back of the body) including the . . .

. . . as well as the muscles on the front and sides of your body, including the . . .

That said, the deadlift doesn’t train all of these muscles equally. Instead, it’s best-suited for building your spinal erectors, glutes, traps, hamstrings, core, and forearms, and typically isn’t as effective for developing the other muscle groups listed above. 

This may strike some folks as odd, seeing as so many people say the deadlift is great for building, say, the lats, but research backs this up—although the lats are trained by the deadlift, they aren’t stimulated enough to maximize growth. The same goes for the deltoids, calves, and quads.

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What Muscles Do Sumo Deadlifts Work?

The sumo deadlift works the same way as the conventional deadlift, except you position your feet about twice as wide. This means your toes point outward more, your hands grip the bar closer together, and your hips are closer to the bar when you begin the pull.

Despite these differences, studies show that the conventional deadlift and sumo deadlift train more or less the same muscles to almost the same degree.

The only small difference is that the sumo deadlift trains your quads slightly more, while the conventional deadlift places more emphasis on your back muscles.

When it comes to putting together a workout program, then, you can think of the two exercises as more or less interchangeable. 

What Muscles Do Trap-Bar Deadlifts Work?

The trap-bar—or hex-bar—deadlift is the same as the conventional deadlift except it’s performed with a trap bar.

The same muscle groups are used in both the conventional deadlift and the trap-bar deadlift, with two important differences . . .

The conventional deadlift puts more stress on the lower-back and hamstrings, and the trap-bar deadlift puts more stress on the quads.
Weightlifters are able to pull trap bars faster than barbells, which means trap-bar deadlifts are better if you want to train your muscles to generate power.

Again, these are minor differences, and you can look at the trap-bar deadlift as another viable variation to use in your workouts.

What Muscles Do Romanian Deadlifts Work?

The Romanian deadlift—or RDL—is similar to the conventional barbell deadlift, except your legs stay straighter, bending only slightly at the knees as you lower the bar. You also only lower the bar to just below your knees or about mid-shin before standing up again (not all the way to the ground).

This emphasizes your hamstrings and glutes rather than your back and quads. It’s also considerably less fatiguing than the conventional deadlift, which means you can do it more often without wearing yourself to a frazzle. 

How to Deadlift with Proper Form


How to Deadlift with Proper Form


In order to wring the most muscle-gain out of your deadlift workouts, you need to perform this exercise with proper form. Here’s how: 

Position your feet so they’re a bit less than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed slightly out. Move a loaded barbell over your midfoot so it’s about an inch from your shins.
Move down toward the bar by pushing your hips back and grip the bar just outside your shins.
Take a deep breath of air into your belly, flatten your back by pushing your hips up slightly, and then drive your body upward and slightly back by pushing through your heels until you’re standing up straight.
Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.

How to Add Deadlifts to Your Workout Routine

Here are some general recommendations about how to include the deadlift, sumo deadlift, and trap-bar deadlift into your workout routine:

Do 3 sets per week of 4-to-6 reps.
If you follow a “bro split,” do deadlifts on your back day.
If you follow an upper/lower split, do deadlifts on one of your lower-body days (preferably not the same lower-body day as you do squats).
If you follow a full-body split, do deadlifts on your “pull emphasis” day. 
If you follow a PPL split, do deadlifts on your “pull” day.

Since the Romanian deadlift is significantly less taxing than other forms of deadlifting, you can include an additional three sets of RDLs on a separate day each week (on a leg, lower-body, or “squat emphasis” day, depending on your workout split).

+ Scientific References

Lake, J., Duncan, F., Jackson, M., & Naworynsky, D. (2017). Effect of a Hexagonal Barbell on the Mechanical Demand of Deadlift Performance. Sports 2017, Vol. 5, Page 82, 5(4), 82. https://doi.org/10.3390/SPORTS5040082
PA, S., A, S., I, A., JW, K., & R, L. (2011). A biomechanical analysis of straight and hexagonal barbell deadlifts using submaximal loads. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(7), 2000–2009. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0B013E3181E73F87
J Cholewicki, S M McGill, & R W Norman. (n.d.). Lumbar spine loads during the lifting of extremely heavy weights – PubMed. Retrieved August 9, 2021, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/1758295/
RF, E., AC, F., AV, K., KP, S., & CT, M. (2002). An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 34(4), 682–688. https://doi.org/10.1097/00005768-200204000-00019
RF, E., AC, F., GS, F., SW, B., CM, W., AV, K., KP, S., & JR, A. (2000). A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 32(7), 1265–1275. https://doi.org/10.1097/00005768-200007000-00013
Edington, C., Greening, C., Kmet, N., Philipenko, N., Purves, L., Stevens, J., Lanovaz, J., & Butcher, S. (2018). The Effect of Set Up Position on EMG Amplitude, Lumbar Spine Kinetics, and Total Force Output During Maximal Isometric Conventional-Stance Deadlifts. Sports, 6(3), 90. https://doi.org/10.3390/SPORTS6030090
UKnowledge, Uk., & Allen Beggs, L. (n.d.). COMPARISON OF MUSCLE ACTIVATION AND KINEMATICS COMPARISON OF MUSCLE ACTIVATION AND KINEMATICS DURING THE DEADLIFT USING A DOUBLE-PRONATED AND DURING THE DEADLIFT USING A DOUBLE PRONATED AND OVERHAND/UNDERHAND GRIP OVERHAND/UNDERHAND GRIP. Retrieved August 9, 2021, from https://uknowledge.uky.edu/gradschool_theses/87
N, H., DG, B., & WB, Y. (2007). Trunk muscle activation during dynamic weight-training exercises and isometric instability activities. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21(4), 1108–1112. https://doi.org/10.1519/R-20366.1
BM, K., BD, S., JC, S., AJ, T., H, C., HS, W., MJ, M., AC, K., & JW, S. (2021). Impact of Fat Grip Attachments on Muscular Strength and Neuromuscular Activation During Resistance Exercise. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 35(Suppl 1), S152–S157. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000002954
KD, C., JW, C., DD, D., LE, B., AJ, G., & PB, C. (2016). An Examination of Muscle Activation and Power Characteristics While Performing the Deadlift Exercise With Straight and Hexagonal Barbells. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(5), 1183–1188. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000001352
Garceau, L., Lutsch, B., Gary, A., Szalkowski, C., Wurm, B., & Ebben, W. (2010). HAMSTRINGS, QUADRICEPS, AND GLUTEAL MUSCLE ACTIVATION DURING RESISTANCE TRAINING EXERCISES. ISBS – Conference Proceedings Archive. https://ojs.ub.uni-konstanz.de/cpa/article/view/4415
RF, E., AC, F., AV, K., KP, S., & CT, M. (2002). An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 34(4), 682–688. https://doi.org/10.1097/00005768-200204000-00019
S, L., J, S., J, T., K, S., M, M., & Y, L. (2018). An electromyographic and kinetic comparison of conventional and Romanian deadlifts. Journal of Exercise Science and Fitness, 16(3), 87–93. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.JESF.2018.08.001
Camara, K. D., Coburn, J. W., Dunnick, D. D., Brown, L. E., Galpin, A. J., & Costa, P. B. (2016). An examination of muscle activation and power characteristics while performing the deadlift exercise with straight and hexagonal barbells. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 30(5), 1183–1188. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000001352
Carbe, J., & Lind, A. (2014). A kinematic, kinetic and electromyographic analysis of 1-repetition maximum deadlifts. https://gupea.ub.gu.se/handle/2077/36235
DA, N., RA, M., ME, J., JA, P., & MJ, A. (1992). Myoelectric activity and sequencing of selected trunk muscles during isokinetic lifting. Spine, 17(2), 225–229. https://doi.org/10.1097/00007632-199202000-00018

Legion Featured Author


Barney Moore

Barney Moore is a freelance writer and fitness enthusiast who is as interested in the mental side of getting into shape as the physical. When he isn’t strength training, he spends his time travelling, reading, cooking and doing Brazilian jiu-jitsu.

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