deadlift, How to improve your technique, powerlifting

What Muscles do Deadlifts Work?

Are Deadlifts good for building muscle?

The deadlift is an essential compound movement that when programmed properly is an incredibly effective tool for building muscle.

It activates so many fundamental muscle groups and strengthens your entire posterior chain, abdominals and upper back.

That aren’t the be-all-and-end-all for it, as you can use isolation exercises to systematically target each of the muscle groups the deadlift activates. But you won’t reach the same level of thickness or quality of muscle if you don’t utilise it.

Powerlifter in a red vest deadlifting towards the end of his training cycle with greater specificity and weight
Powerlifter engaging his hamstrings and about to tighten his upper back when conventional deadlifting

The deadlift does have a number of sticking points, including:

  • Required thoracic and ankle mobility
  • A pain-free and strong lower back
  • Abdominal strength
  • Adequate hip strength and flexor flexibility
  • A basic understanding of your CNS and endocrine system

The ideal number of deadlift reps for mass building?

If you have a coach or understand how to program, you will be employing some form or periodisation.

If you were looking to gain strength your volume would decrease slightly as the program elapsed. If you’re looking to gain size however, the volume should increase to properly stimulate hypertrophy.

Read More: Powerlifting vs Bodybuilding

For example, the first deadlift day of the week might require 4(6) at an RPE of 80% 1RM. Week by week, you’ll either increase the reps or add in additional isolation exercises to elevate total volume.

So the crux of the matter isn’t around ‘is there a perfect number of reps for mass?’ Because there isn’t. If you train in a periodised format, then total volume or weight must increase over time.

However you do need a certain level of volume and if your aim is size, working in sets of 2 isn’t going to stimulate sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

I would recommend an optimal rep range of 6-12 for muscle growth when deadlifting. The work should be between 75-85% of your 1RM.

What muscles does Deadlifting work?

Deadlifts works your entire posterior chain, from the bottom right the way to the top. Hamstrings and quads right the way up to the upper trapezius. But the deadlift style you decide upon needs to carefully thought out and based on your weak points.

It’s crucial to decode your strengths and weaknesses as you grow. Clearly you’re primarily going to choose your competition style pull based on your strongest muscle group, as your body will revert to type under stress.

Now Read: Do you need powerlifting shoes?

If your quads and glutes outweigh your lower back and hamstrings, you’re going to choose sumo over conventional. But there’s more to it than that.

It completely depends on the type of deadlift style you pull. Most people pull conventionally, which is fantastic for power production and hamstring development. But tends to lead to more lower back injuries.

These are the core muscle groups that deadlifting works:

  • Lower Back (Erector Spinae)
  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Upper neck muscles (Upper Trapezius)
  • Middle neck muscles (Middle Trapezius)
  • Muscle between jaw and shoulder (Levator Scapulae)
  • Inner back muscles right below your neck (Rhomboids)
  • Lats
  • Abdominals
  • Obliques

Muscles worked when Sumo Deadlifting

Muscles Worked Degree Benefits
Glutes High Lower back and hamstring injury prevention
Quads High Power production & knee injury prevention
Hamstrings Medium Explosive power production & functional motion improvement
Erector Spinae (Lower Back) Medium Hip flexor and abominal stability*
Lattisimus Dorsi Medium Lockout strength & balance through antagonistic muscle training
Trapezius & Upper Back Medium – Low Lockout strength & neck injury prevention
Abdominals & Obliques Low Core strength improvements & lower back stability

*The lower back and core work in tandem to create a fully supportive base for your training. A weak one or the other will be the first thing that holds you back.

Good for: Quad and glute development, de-emphasising the load on your lower back

Weakness: Less explosive than conventional pulling, so not one to use if you’re looking to develop explosive power

Muscles worked when Conventional Deadlifting

Muscles Worked Degree Benefits
Hamstrings High Explosive power production & functional motion improvement
Erector Spinae (Lower Back) High Hip flexor and abdominal stability
Glutes High Lower back and hamstring injury prevention
Quads Medium Power production & knee injury prevention
Lattisimus Dorsi Medium Lockout strength & balance through antagonistic muscle training
Trapezius & Upper Back Medium Lockout strength & neck injury prevention
Abdominals & Obliques Medium – Low Core strength improvements & lower back stability
Inner Thigh Adductors Low Knee injury prevention & knee cave mitigation when squatting

Good for: Explosive training. You can typically lift more weight when conventional deadlifting

Weakness: More likely to result in lower back issues as the load is primarily held there

Muscles worked when Romanian Deadlifting

Muscles Worked Degree Benefits
Glutes High Lower back and hamstring injury prevention
Erector Spinae (Lower Back) High Hip flexor and abdominal stability
Hamstrings High Explosive power production & functional motion improvement
Abdominals & Obliques Medium – Low Core strength improvements & lower back stability
Trapezius & Upper Back Medium – Low Lockout strength & neck injury prevention

Good for: Posterior chain development and explosive training

Weakness: No power off the floor development and limited quad strength requirement

Muscles worked with the Snatch Grip Deadlift?

Muscles Worked Degree Benefits
Glutes High Lower back and hamstring injury prevention
Hamstrings High Explosive power production & functional motion improvement
Latissimus Dorsi High – Medium Lockout strength & balance through antagonistic muscle training
Erector Spinae (Lower Back) Medium Hip flexor and abdominal stability
Trapezius & Upper Back Medium – Low Lockout strength & neck injury prevention
Quads Medium – Low Power production & knee injury prevention

Good for: Power off the floor gains and upper back / lat development

Weakness: Potential lower back issues, but a fantastic all round accessory movement

Muscles activated with Rack Pulls

Muscles Worked Degree Benefits
Erector Spinae (Lower Back) High Hip flexor and abdominal stability
Trapezius & Upper Back High Lockout strength & neck injury prevention
Latissimus Dorsi Medium Lockout strength & balance through antagonistic muscle training
Hamstrings Medium – Low Explosive power production & functional motion improvement
Glutes Medium – Low Lower back and hamstring injury prevention

Good for: Overall back development and lockout improvements

Weakness: Lower back reliant

Does wearing a belt change muscle activation when deadlifting?

A powerlifting belt increases your intra-abdominal pressure which acts as a brace, supporting the spine under heavy loads. Wearing it has been shown to support your spine and allow you to lift more weight, as your abdominal wall has something to push against.

A diagram of a body, explaining how intra-abdominal pressure can support the spine
A diagram to explain how intra-abdominal pressure can support the spine

This particular study demonstrated the change in IAP (Intra-abdominal pressure) when using a belt with 90% of 1RM. Having something to brace against will force your abdominals to work harder. So using a belt will increase the work your abs will do.

It won’t give you a 6-pack, but it will make you more comfortable under heavy loads. However whilst your abs will work harder, using a belt will put less emphasis on your external oblique activation.

This means that consistently using a belt can cause muscular imbalances. Overdeveloped abdominal strength when compared to your obliques. There are two ways to combat this:

  1. Train without a belt for part of each cycle
  2. Specifically target your obliques with isolation exercises

You’re the sum of all your parts… Your weakness will always hold you back!

In short, you need to choose your deadlift of choice wisely.

Weigh up your muscular strengths and weaknesses and don’t neglect either. If something feels harder than you’d like, the chances are you should do it.

What are you favourite deadlift variations? Let me know in the comments

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