Deadlift Exercise Guide – Muscles Worked, Variations, and Benefits

The deadlift can be generalized to encompass any movement that has a lifter lift an object from a dead start position (no momentum) off the floor from an unsupported position to standing. While this is a very vague movement definition, the information below can help clarify the purpose behind deadlifting and what are the most common and widely performed deadlifting movements for nearly every level competitive and recreational lifter/trainee.

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Muscles Worked

The deadlift is a potent movement to increase the size, strength, and explosiveness of the posterior chain. The posterior chain consists of:

  • Gluteals
  • Hamstrings
  • Spinal Erectors
  • Lattisum Dorsi
  • Trapezius
  • Rhomboids
  • Quadriceps
  • Calves
  • Forearms
  • Biceps

Why Deadlift?

Below are some of the key concepts one should grasp about deadlift training and how it can relate to enhancements in daily living, general fitness, and sports performance.

Movement Integrity

The deadlift movement is a highly valuable movement pattern and skill for all humans, regardless of fitness level, age, or goals. For starters, the ability to move, bend, and promote force via the hip extension while simultaneously supporting a neutral/flat spinal column is paramount for spinal integrity and injury prevention, such as herniations, slipped discs, and low back pain. Increases in daily quality of life, muscle mass, strength, and sports performance can often be seen (usually in that general order) after continual progressions based upon the fundamental movement patterning of the deadlift.

Muscle Hypertrophy

Muscular hypertrophy is at the root of all strength, power, and physical progressions. Without the foundational muscle tissue, motor neurons, circulatory systems and hormonal adaptations brought about by hypertrophy training, the body would have a difficult time producing maximal strength and power. When first starting a training program, it is widely recommended to promote muscular hypertrophy to build a healthier more capable athlete or lifter.

The deadlift is a movement the stresses a large mass of tissues, while allowing compete synchronization of the groups and systems to produce large amounts of force. The immense demands upon the body make the deadlift one of the most effective movement for overall size, strength, power, and sports performance.

Strength

As one would guess, the deadlift (like the squat, bench press, and other compound high force output movements) is a great way to promote and demonstrate maximal strength capacities of an individual. Strength sports like powerlifting and strongman completions specifically test the deadlift and some variations for such purposes. Due to the large amounts of muscle tissue stressed in the movement, the hormonal, neurological, and physiological demands are immense on the lifter, making the deadlift a very effective movement to produce muscle mass and maximal physical strength.

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Sports Performance

The deadlifting movement can be seen throughout nearly every strength, power, and fitness sport and competition. In addition, the joint angles and muscle contractions imitate many high level movement patterns seen in more formal athletics, such as;

  • Powerlifting: The deadlift is one of three formal lifts that powerlifters are judged upon, making it essential for success in sport.
  • Olympic Weightlifting: As discussed below in the clean pull, the muscle groups and movement patterns that are targeted with the deadlifting movement apply directly to the hamstrings, hips, and back strength needed for the snatch and clean and jerk.
  • Competitive Fitness/CrossFit®-style Competition: Competitive athletes in the sport must demonstrate many of the same attributes as the others on this lists making it important to dedicate training and development of deadlift strength, muscle hypertrophy and movement mechanics.
  • Formal Sports: Movements such as sprinting, tackling, jumping, and hip-centric movements are widely impacted by deadlift training.

Common Deadlift Styles and Variations

Below are some of the most common and effective deadlift styles (exercises) and variations (variations can be applied to many different styles) to build strength, muscle mass, technique, and movement integrity.

Barbell Conventional Deadlift

The barbell deadlift is one of the most widely performed deadlift variations seen today. Performed often from the conventional foot position (as opposed to the sumo style barbell deadlift), the conventional deadlift entails a lifter to have the feet about hip width apart, give or take. This positioning places great emphasis on the hamstrings, glutes, erectors, and lats when compared to the sumo style deadlift. In this article, we discuss the conventional barbell deadlift, and how it compares to other styles.

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Barbell Sumo Deadlift

Unlike the conventional style barbell deadlift, the sumo deadlift has a lifter assume a much wider starting position with the feet wider and slightly turned out to allow the lifter to keep a more upright torso positioning in the movement. By doing so, the hips are kept closer the the barbell, slightly decreasing the amount of stress placed upon the lower back. In this article we go in great depth regarding the sumo style barbell deadlift and what it can offer athletes of all types.

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Trap Bar Deadlift

The trap bar deadlift is a unique bar design that allows the lifter to assume a squat/deadlift hybrid set up within a hexagonal barbell. The trap bar deadlift can offer strength, power, and fitness athletes many unique benefits while also minimizing some of the inherent risk of deadlifting, making it a great way to train the deadlift movement and muscle groups to higher volumes, with beginners, or to add increased loading to boost other forms of deadlifts.

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Barbell Rack Pull / Elevated Deadlift

The barbell rack pull is a variation that can be implemented with the sumo and conventional style deadlifts, which entails a lifter to start the lift a various set heights, above ground level. By doing so, one can target certain limitation on pulling strength and/or technique, use as an educational and teaching movements progress toward the full lift, or even train for a specific competitor lift (such as in some strongman events).

Generally speaking, the height the starting position is off the floor, the more load a lifter can handle as the joint angles are larger and doesn’t require as much relative force as if the lift started at a lower potion. This is helpful to increase overall pulling strength and explosiveness at sticking points or develop certain muscles that a lagging (for example, to target traps and glutes when performing mid to higher height rack pulls).

Deficit Deadlifts

Unlike the rack pull or elevated deadlift, this deadlift variation entails a lifter to elevate themselves on blocks or plates to increase the range of motion of the pull. By doing so, the lifter challenges the movement and muscles while on the deepest amounts of joint flexion, which are often the hardest to overcome at the start of the deadlift. Lifters who fail to get a manageable weight off the floor explosively or who demonstrate technical breakdown (rounded back) at the start of the deadlift pull should try to implement these into their training programs. Deficit deadlifts can often be performed with any bar, equipment, and/or foot placement (conventional/sumo).

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Clean Pull

In an earlier article I discussed in detail the differences between a conventional deadlift and a clean pull. By the above definition, the clean is moving an object off the floor from a dead start, however the purpose and starting positions are much different that that of the conventional barbell Deadlift. This pulling movement is used specifically to improve the clean and jerk pulling strength and positional barbell mechanics in Olympic weightlifting training programs.

Fat Bar Deadlift

The fat bar deadlift can be done with a nearly every type of deadlift with added grips (such as Fat Gripz) or a custom barbell with a wider circumference. Fat bars are an excellent deadlifting variation to increase grip and back strength, which can help to promote proper deadlfit tension and set up. Many lifters will add this into their training to drive further progress into other forms of the barbell deadlift.

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Dumbbell Deadlift

While these deadlift variations can do wonders for conditioning and muscular hypertrophy purposes, it does not replace the barbell or trap bar deadlift. In this article, we discuss why dumbbell deadlifts are a good choice for higher rep based training, beginners, or even to increase stimulus and growth in the hamstrings and back.

Want More Deadlifts?

Check out some of the top deadlifting articles below to build stronger hips, increase your competitive lifts, and promote healthier human movement!

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