If you backed a serious weight lifter or powerlifter into a corner and asked them the question, ‘If you could pick only one exercise to do for the rest of your life, what would it be?’, I guarantee that almost 90% of them would answer, the Deadlift. So what muscles do deadlifts work, and why is so much emphasis placed upon on them?
This compound hip-hinging move truly is the king of all exercises. And with good reason. But this exercise shouldn’t be thought of as being exclusive to the giants of the gym sweating over the iron 6 days per week.
Not only does it work 95% of the muscles in your body, but it also has the most functional cross over for everyday activities. So if grabbing your shopping off the back seat of your car, or getting out of your favourite chair in the living room are your pinnacles of physical exertion for the day, then the deadlift is for you.
Let’s get into the details.
What Muscles Do Deadlifts Work?
The deadlift and all of its variations are compound, posterior chain exercises. It’s typically performed as a strength-building exercise with a weight that you can lift for 1 – 6 reps.
Compound exercises are moves involving more than one joint. For the deadlift, we’re looking at the hips and the knees. Next, we need to know all the muscles that are involved with the posterior chain to truly understand how effective this exercise can be.
What is the Posterior Chain?
The posterior chain is probably the most overlooked part of the body. They’re not part of the ‘mirror-muscles’ like the chest and arms that most people like to focus on, so they tend to get ignored quite a bit. The posterior chain consists of the glutes, hamstrings, lower back, upper/middle back, rear delts and calves. But they are just as, if not more important for the overall health of your body.
All posterior chain exercises involve your lower back muscles to some degree. Strengthening the lower back is crucial if we want to avoid being in the 80% of Americans who suffer from chronic low back pain at some point in their lives.
Primary Muscles Involved in the Deadlift
The glutes are the largest muscle group in your body. They perform a variety of movements at your hips, but their main function is hip extension. They are the driving force behind the deadlift from the ground up.
The hamstrings comprise of 3 muscles, that act to flex the knee. As you push your hips back in the deadlift, you should immediately start to feel tension through the hamstrings. When you drive your heels into the ground, it’s your hamstrings that are working to stabilise the knees.
The stronger your hamstrings, the healthier your knees are going to be.
The muscles of the low back include the erector spinae (extensors) and the deeper abdominals (flexors). They also support the spine when you’re in an upright position.
It’s critical to maintain a neutral spine throughout the deadlift to avoid placing uneven pressure on the lumbar discs. Rounding of the lower back during the deadlift is the number one cause of low back injury with this exercise.
Make sure you’re creating that nice natural curve in your back before you lift.
The secondary muscles in a deadlift are engaged more for stability than for primary movement. Remember, the deadlift is about producing energy from the ground up. Once the bigger muscles get the weight moving, we need a ton of stabilisation for the shoulders and back.
A lot of people don’t realise that the lats (latissimus dorsi) are involved in the deadlift. From the bottom to the top of the lift, you want to think about rolling shoulders back, pulling the bar into your body and doing a lat spread. Like ‘spreading your wings’.
The involvement of the trapezius muscles are more isometric. They work hard at producing support and stabilisation for the upper back and shoulders.
All of your core muscles are involved when shifting heavy loads off the ground. During the deadlift, your spine is dependent on these muscles for stability. The abdominals act in the same way that a weight lifting belt does, by compressing the internal organs during the big lifts.
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How to perform the deadlift
The deadlift is a very technical exercise to perform. It’s about producing maximum energy and power from the ground up in the most efficient way possible:
The Set up:
- Step up to a barbell with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width
- Make sure the front of your shins are touching the barbell
- Squatting down, grab the bar with your hands outside your hips
- Roll your shoulders back and down while lifting your chest
- With your arms straight, pull up into the bar whilst pushing your heels into the floor (you should feel the tension in the glutes and hamstrings)
- Make sure you have a natural curve in your lower back
- Keeping your arms straight drive your heels into the ground
- Lift your chest and shoulders just before you lift your hips
- As the bar rises, keep it close to your body as you stand up (as if you’re pulling it back towards you)
- Stand tall at the top drawing your shoulder blades together and squeezing your abs
- Sumo deadlift
Sumo deadlifts are performed with a wider stance and the toes pointing out with your hands gripping the bar inside the knees. This variation targets the glutes and hamstrings, as well as the inner thighs. It’s more suitable for taller people with long legs.
Sumo deadlifts take the low back out of the equation and shift more work into the legs. Due to the wider stance, the weight is moved over a shorter distance.
- Romanian Deadlift
Romanian deadlifts are very similar to the traditional deadlift, only the bar is brought down to just the mid-shin area. The knees are slightly bent, keeping maximum tension on the hamstrings. It can also be performed as a single-leg RDL.
- Stiff-Legged Deadlift
As the name suggests, the legs are locked out for this variation. Huge emphasis on the hamstrings and low back. You hinge forward at the waist then drive your hips back. A strong core is a must for this one.
*All of the above variations can be performed with a variety of weights. Anything from barbells to dumbbells, kettlebells or a medicine ball.
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