The deadlift is by far one of the most physically demanding exercises that you could perform with free-weights.

This structural exercise utilizes vast amounts of your core and lower body musculature and is used ubiquitously for strength or power development in athletes by athletes and non-athletes alike. Long story short… I love dead lifts!

But the big question that I hear is “what muscles are used during this lift pattern?”

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The answer I usually give… Everything.

Here’s a breakdown of the technique and muscles utilized during this functional exercise

Everything I am going to explain is in reference to the Olympic deadlift. This lift is the classic “ass to grass” movement pattern where the hips and knees are flexed deep, chest is tall, and shoulders are engaged keeping them retracted and extended.

In this position you will then “hang off of the bar” and drive your force through your heels, pulling the bar seemingly backward off the floor; maintain a nice tall posture with your chest keeping your spine neutral. Do not hyperextend the low back at the top of this lift, instead “scoop” or roll your pelvis posteriorly, squeezing your glutes and maximizing your body’s hip extension. This is the purest form of deadlift, because in this “neutral” position the anterior and posterior chain both get utilized.

muscles used in deadlift In your starting position, pre-lift, you’ll notice a few muscle groups that are being activated; quads and hip flexors are engaged maintaining your deep posture, your abdominals and erector muscles are creating a neutral posture for your spine, and your lats are engaging in order to help maintain retracted shoulders and an extended back.

You’ll also most likely will feel this in your dorsiflexors, the muscles in the anteriolateral aspect of you lower legs. These guys help manage your balance and allow for you to “dig” your heels into the floor for the actual lifting phase of this movement.

Now time for the lift phase. “Hang off of the bar”… meaning load your force through your heels and pull up the bar using your hips. If you do this correctly you’ll feel this in your hamstrings and glutes at the beginning of the lift, followed by some work completed by the quads for the final amount of knee extension to standing.

If you posteriorly rolled your pelvis successfully, you will feel your hips extend to their fullest and feel those glutes fire on max. You should also feel your abdominals tense up as well.

muscles used in deadlift

The way back down flips the pattern; you will notice increased tension in the erector spinae muscles which stabilize your back, and you will notice a massive increase in work being done via your quads on the way back down to starting position.

Maintain a “hanging” position on the way down, and be sure to push your hips back so the bar clears your knees; your glutes will increase in load once again after the bar clears them.

Once down in that pre-lift position, rinse and repeat for 7 more reps… grind those legs!

Now not all deadlifts are created equal. I choose the Olympic movement because it provides a balanced load on the anterior and posterior chains of your lower body. The second reason why I prefer this method is due to the fact it incorporates your core musculature as well as a neutral spine… which is critical to maintain.

muscles used in deadlift

Romanian deadlifts, also known as a straight or stiff leg deadlift, activate only your posterior chain… hamstrings and glutes. However, this lift also puts a tremendous shearing load on your spine and requires either lower weights or a lot of strengthening of your back.

muscles used in deadlift Conversely, a sumo deadlift (wide stance) activates more of your inner thighs and requires more weight to get a burn. You’re not going to activate your posterior chain as much in this lift because you cannot flex your butt down low enough; people are also prone to flexing their spine forward if their hips can’t drop as well.

Training in limited range of motion rarely has long term benefits, so keep that in mind if you want to work these into a workout.

I have folks perform Olympic DLs, squats, Romanian DLs and then sumo DLs in that order when they train for legs. 

The first two lifts end up working more body mass, and the second two isolate specific leg regions. Try this order out sometime and add some isolated machine based movements afterwards. Next legs day – crush that workout and prepare for some DOMS!

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