If building HUGE amounts of muscle and strength are part of your lifting agenda, then this is the article for you!  In this article I am going to show you which muscle groups deadlifts should work.  

When done properly, deadlifts should work your glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors, traps, calves and lats.  The deadlift is a powerhouse of an exercise much like the squat.  It works well over 300 muscle groups.  

But you have to remember, the deadlift has many different forms and variations.  

In this article I am going to tell you which muscle groups the deadlift AND it’s variations works.  

I hope your as excited as I am, this is going to be fun.

P.S.  If you are new to deadlifting and have no idea where to start, be sure to read my Check Your Deadlift Form article.  It goes into FULL DETAIL on how to learn the deadlift even if you are a complete beginner.  

What Muscle Groups Does The Deadlift Work?  

What do most people mean when they think of deadlift muscles being worked?  

Chances are they are probably thinking of the conventional deadlift.  This is the version where your feet are about shoulder width apart and your chest is leaning more forward.

Conventional Deadlift Ground
Conventional Deadlift Ground View
Conventional Deadlift Side
Conventional Deadlift Side View

This is the most classic deadlift variation being performed in various gyms all across the world.  

Conventional Deadlift Top
Conventional Deadlift Top View

Muscle Groups Worked

Strictly speaking, the deadlift works various muscle groups ranging from the calves all the way up to the neck.  

Here is the FULL list of muscles worked in the deadlift:

  • Glutes (Butt Muscles)*
  • Hamstrings (Back of Thighs)*
  • Spinal Erectors (Lower Back)*
  • Rhomboids, Lower Traps, Middle Traps (Scapula Retractors)
  • Latissimus Dorsi (Lats)
  • Gastrocnemius (Calves)
  • Rectus Femoris (Quads)
  • Vastus Medialis (Quads)
  • Rear Delts (Shoulders)
  • Biceps
  • Forearms (Grip Strength)
  • Neck Muscles

This is just a condensed list, you could probably write an entire book on just deadlift muscle groups alone.

The muscles that have an asterisk (*) next to them are the primary muscle groups that you work in the deadlift.  All of the others play the role of either stabilization or assistance.  

What Muscle Groups SHOULD The Deadlift Work

The earlier list also points out something else you should consider.  What muscle groups SHOULD the deadlift work?

All of the points with the asterisk are the key muscle groups that should be worked.  Everything else has it’s place and function, but primarily you want to have your glutes, hamstrings and lower back doing most of the work.

Glute Muscles
The deadlift should primarily target your hips (aka your glutes). Also the hamstrings and lower back are the PRIMARY areas that get trained.

If you want to get very technical, then there are other advanced techniques you can do with the quads and the lats to lift more weight.  

But unless you plan on competing on the national stage, you don’t have to worry too much about those.  

As long as your hips are doing the majority of the lifting, then you should be well on your way to lifting big poundages.  

This also applies to all of the deadlift variations as well. 

The Deadlift Variations

When you are doing a variation you have to remember, it is still a deadlift.  Therefore all of the same rules apply.  

Most of the variations have a different emphasis on them.  Some may actually stress different muscle groups.  While others manipulate the leverage of the exercise itself.  

Below are some of the most popular deadlift variations you will find yourselves doing. 

Sumo Deadlift

This is probably the most popular deadlift variation second to the conventional deadlift.  

The sumo deadlift positions your feet in a wide stance with your toes pointed out to the side.  Hence the name sumo.

Sumo Deadlift Bottom
Sumo Deadlift Bottom Position

Your grip is about shoulder width apart and your chest is more vertical than on a typical conventional deadlift.  

Sumo Deadlift Side
Sumo Deadlift Side View

Since your chest is going to be higher than a conventional deadlift, you are going to work your legs and hips more than you would in a conventional deadlift.  

Sumo Deadlift Top
Sumo Deadlift Top Position

If your lower back typically acts up during conventional deadlifts then sumo deadlifts may be a better choice for you.  

If you want to learn more about sumo deadlifts, then be sure to check out my article on sumo deadlifts to learn more about them.  

Rack Pulls

Rack pulls are commonly used by powerlifters to add more weight to their deadlift total.  

Simply place the bar on the pins in a power rack above the ground level and perform a conventional style deadlift.  

Rack Pulls Bottom
Rack Pull Bottom Position. Notice the bar is starting just above the knees in this example.

The bar can be placed in several places.  Either above knee level, at knee level or below knee level.  Each placement may seem small, but it makes a HUGE difference in the amount of weight you can lift.

The rack pull is so effective because it helps to work your deadlift muscles at their sticking points.  

Rack Pulls Top
Rack Pull Top Position. With a shorter range of motion you can lift more weight and overload your sticking points to blast through plateaus.

You see, the rack pull essentially works the same muscles as the conventional deadlift.  But the main difference is not what muscles it works but which muscles it is currently working.  

When you deadlift heavy weights, you will begin to notice that the bar begins to slow down at certain points.  You probably lose the lift during these points.  We call them sticking points.  

You could either have a technique issue, strength issue or an endurance issue at these points.  Heck you could even have a mental problem with these points.  

Whatever the case may be, you need to train them, preferably with heavy weights.  

This gives your muscles a super jolt of stimulation around this area to get stronger and help you lift more weight.  

Deficit Deadlift

Rack pulls shorten your range of motion, deficit deadlifts expand your range of motion.  

Deficit Deadlift Bottom
Deficit Deadlift Bottom Position. Seen here standing on a 2 inch box. You can choose any height from 1-4 inches but 2 inches usually works best.

Deficit deadlifts are done with a conventional deadlift stance, maybe even narrower in some circumstances.  You want to be standing on an elevated surface around 1-4 inches off the ground.   

Deficit Deadlift Top
Deficit Deadlift Top Position

With deficit deadlifts you cannot lift as much weight as you can with rack pulls.  

Deficit Deadlift Side
Deficit Deadlift Side View. They will help you build tremendous power off the floor and give you a lower back made of steel.

I know, it sucks, you probably didn’t want to hear that, but don’t worry deficit deadlifts still have a very important place in your training program.

For one thing they help to focus on your hip mobility in the bottom position.  

If your hips are stiff, then you will not be able to effectively engage your glutes off the floor.  Which means you will be placing your lower back at risk for injury.  Not good.

With a deficit deadlift, you will immediately be able to determine if you have a hip mobility problem within the first few reps.  

Overall though deficit deadlifts work your hamstrings and lower back much more than a conventional deadlift will.  

This will help to build tremendous power off the floor.  

Plus it will also solidify your form so you won’t slip into a bad position when you are ripping heavy ass weights off the floor.  

Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift is a partial deadlift just like the previous two, but there is no power rack needed for this one.  

You just lift the barbell off the ground and drag it down your legs from the top position and lower it about 2 inches below your knee.  

The most important thing here is not to rush the exercise.  You want to work on controlled good form.  

Aside from your typical deadlift muscles, Romanian deadlifts place a special emphasis on the hamstrings and the lats.  

We haven’t talked about the lats very much, but they play a VERY important role in your deadlift.  

They don’t actually lift the bar, rather they stabilize the bar as your lifting and lowering it.  

You see, if the bar gets too far in front of you, then you will not only make the exercise much tougher, but you will also injure your back.  

The bar ALWAYS needs to be close to your body.  This takes the load off your lower back and keeps it on your hips.  

This is the true value of the Romanian deadlift.  

Suitcase Deadlift

Not your common deadlift variation, but extremely effective nonetheless.  

The suitcase deadlift is a fantastic assistance exercise that works not only your hips and hamstrings, but it primarily works your obliques and your grip.  

Suitcase Deadlift Bottom
Suitcase Deadlift Side View. With one side of the body doing most of the work, the other side has to work like crazy to stabilize. Great for your oblique development.

If there are two areas that are weak in most lifters it would be your grip and your abs.  

During the deadlift, the oblique muscles contract to stabilize and protect the spine while the spinal erectors are helping the glutes and hamstrings lift the heavy weight.  

Suitcase Deadlift Top
Suitcase Deadlift Top Position. The bar will try to wobble A LOT when lifting this so you will also get a killer grip workout as well.

If your obliques are weak, then your body will have a harder time stabilizing the spine which could cause you to either miss the lift, or worse, injury.  

Your deadlift not only benefits from stronger obliques, but all of the barbell exercises benefit from stronger obliques.  

In the bottom position of the squat, the obliques stabilize your spine.  When you are bench pressing heavy weight, your obliques stabilize your torso on the bench.  I could go on and on but I think you get the idea. 

Likewise grip is extremely important.  Sure you could use straps to make up for a weaker grip.  But having a weak grip is severely limiting to your maximum strength potential.

Research has shown that having a stronger grip activates more muscle fibers in your arms and shoulders when exercising.  

Also having a stronger grip will also protect your shoulders from injury.  

Straps may help you get a quick win for the day, but it WILL end up biting you in the ass if you keep relying on them.  

Trap Bar Deadlift

We all know and love the trap bar.  But it is very misunderstood in most fitness circles as primarily a leg exercise.  

I hate to break this to you, but the trap bar does NOT just work your legs.  It works ALL of the same muscles that a regular deadlift does.  The only difference is where you place your hands.

During the all the other deadlift variations, except the suitcase deadlift, your hands are in front of your body.  

With the trap bar, your hands are to your sides and aligned with your spinal column.  This actually makes the bar a little easier on your shoulder girdle than the regular bar does. 

But the consequence is the bar loses stability.  

With the bar in front of you, you typically have one hand over and one under.  Why?  Because it STABILIZES the bar.  

With the trap bar, you can’t do this so the first thing you will notice is the bar will actually start to swing a little bit forwards and backwards.  

So you are gonna have to stabilize that bar in another way.  

You know what stabilizes it?  It’s your TRAPS.  That’s why it’s called a trap bar!

All the same rules that apply to the regular deadlift also apply to this one as well.  

Aside from your traps getting a huge stimulus, your grip stability also has to work overtime to stop that bar from swinging.  

If you want to really blast your traps and grip, you can also use the trap bar to do farmer’s carries.  Walking with the trap bar will really challenge your deadlift muscles.  And it will boost your regular deadlift as well.   

Conclusion

That just about does it.  I have given you everything you need to know.  So now what are you going to do?

The best way to take all of this information is to use each of these variations to target the necessary muscle groups.  

So if your glutes are extremely weak and you notice it is affecting your squat, then you should add sumo deadlifts to your regular training program.  

Also if you are performing an advanced strength training program, then you could use one of these variations as a core exercise to replace the regular deadlift.  

It’s all up to you.  I have given you the tools, now you need to use them to build the body of your dreams.  

Good Luck!

If you liked this article please be sure to let me know in the comments below, I would really appreciate it!

Also if you are having trouble with your deadlift because of poor hip mobility, then be sure to check out my Hip Mobility Course to get your hip back on track and working again.  


Tony G
Tony G

Anthony is a fan of all things gym related. Growing up very overweight and out of shape, Anthony whipped himself into shape and stunned his entire community becoming a "fitness guru". Tony then set his sights on strength sports (Weightlifting/Powerlifting/Strongman) and learned all about body mechanics, mobility work and injury prevention. Tony found his true love in the strength sports, particularly Olympic Weightlifting. He earned a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) degree from Fitchburg State University in Exercise and Sports Science. He is also a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the NSCA.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.