What Muscles Do Deadlifts Work? + 6 Deadlift Variations To Try Out

Of all of the big compound lifts, the deadlift is generally considered to be the best exercise to strengthen the posterior chain muscles.

But, what muscle groups do deadlifts work? Are the “deadlift muscles worked” different depending on how you perform deadlifts? What muscles do Romanian deadlifts work? 

In this guide, we will discuss the benefits of deadlifts, how to perform deadlifts, whether there are differences between Romanian deadlifts muscles worked vs traditional barbell deadlifts muscles worked, and ultimately answer your question, “What muscles do deadlifts work?”

We will look at: 

  • How Do You Do Barbell Deadlifts?
  • What Muscles Do Deadlifts Work?
  • How to Vary the Muscles Worked By Deadlifts
  • What Is the Difference Between Traditional vs Romanian Deadlifts?

Let’s jump in!

A person doing a deadlift.

How Do You Do Barbell Deadlifts?

Before we look at the deadlifts muscles worked list, let’s cover how to do deadlifts since there are a number of common types.

The standard deadlift generally called the conventional deadlift or traditional deadlift, is a powerlifting exercise performed with a barbell.

Here are the steps for how to perform traditional deadlifts with a barbell:

  1. Place the loaded barbell on the floor and stand facing the bar so that it’s hovering over the middle of your foot.
  2. Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointing forward and your shins vertical.
  3. Brace your core as you sit your hips back to squat down and grasp the barbell with an overhand grip (palms facing down). Make sure to keep your chest up, shoulders down, and back straight (do not round your back).
  4. Contract your glutes and hamstrings as you press through your heels to extend your hips and knees to stand upright, keeping your back straight.
  5. Allow the barbell to track up along the shins, and once the barbell passes your knees, drive your hips forward, sliding the bar against your quads as you stand all the way up.
  6. Once you are standing fully upright, squeeze your glutes to achieve the full lockout position in hip extension.
  7. Slowly reverse the motion, bringing the bar back down to just above the floor as it tracks in front of your quads and shins by sitting your hips back and allowing a gentle bend in your knees. Remember to keep your chest up, your core tight, and your back straight.

Note that bracing your core and locking your shoulders down will help stabilize your spine.

What Muscles Do Deadlifts Work?

So, what muscle groups do deadlifts work?

The primary muscles worked by deadlifts are considered to be the posterior chain muscles and include the glutes, hamstrings, erector spinae muscles, quads, and calves.

The reason that these muscles are referred to as the “posterior chain muscles“ is that they are found on the backside of your body, which is anatomically referred to as the “posterior” side of the body. 

Furthermore, the “chain” portion of the posterior chain muscles terminology stems from the fact that these muscles function as a sequential but cohesive unit in a chain-like fashion.

Here are the main muscles worked by deadlifts:

  • Glutes: These are the three muscles (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus) in your buttocks that work to extend your hip joint.
  • Hamstrings: This muscle group, located on the back of your thigh, is responsible for hip extension (along with the glutes) and knee flexion. 
  • Erector Spinae Muscles (low back extensors): These muscles run along the length of your spine, particularly in the lumbar region (low back). When you perform a deadlift, the erector spinae muscles help you maintain a neutral spine and assist in standing back up to the erect position.
  • Quads: The quads are a group of four muscles in the front of your thigh that help to extend the knee joint and flex the leg at the hip. 
  • Calves: These are the muscles on the back of the lower leg that plantarflex the ankle (like pressing the gas pedal), help flex the knee, and stabilize the tibia (shin bone).
A person doing a deadlift.

In addition to the primary deadlift muscle groups, additional muscles worked by deadlifts include the following:

  • Upper Back Muscles (trapezius, rhomboids, and latissimus dorsi muscles): These muscles help to stabilize your torso and maintain a proper posture during the deadlift exercise.
  • Abdominals and Core Muscles: The core muscles help stabilize the spine and help maintain intra-abdominal pressure while deadlifting. 
  • Forearms and Grip Muscles: The muscles in your forearms (mainly the brachioradialis), wrists, hands, and fingers work to hold onto the barbell against gravity.

As can be seen, the list of deadlift muscles worked includes most of the major muscles in the trunk and lower body, making the deadlift one of the best full-body strengthening exercises.

A person setting up to do a deadlift.

How to Vary the Muscles Worked By Deadlifts

Although the conventional barbell deadlift is the go-to deadlift exercise for competitive powerlifters since it is the standardized deadlift form for weightlifting competitions, there are other deadlift variations that you can add to your deadlifting workouts.

Although any deadlift variation will target the same primary muscles worked by deadlifts, changing up the deadlift exercise, varying your technique, and/or the type of weight that you use can shift the muscles worked by deadlifts.

You can target different deadlift muscle groups more than others or different fibers within the same deadlifting muscle groups.

Here are some deadlift variations to target different deadlift muscles worked:

  • Romanian deadlifts (RDLs)
  • Sumo deadlifts: Target the glutes (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus), other small muscles in the hips, and adductors in the inner thighs more than traditional deadlifts.
  • Single-leg deadlifts: Target the gluteus medius and core muscles worked by deadlifts more than traditional deadlifts.
  • Hex bar deadlifts or trap bar deadlifts: Allow you to lift more weight with the deadlift muscle groups due to the ergonomics of the trap bar deadlift vs barbell.
  • Heels-elevated deadlifts: Target the quads more.
  • Toes-elevated deadlifts: Target the hamstrings more.
A person in the extension phase of a deadlift.

What Is the Difference Between Traditional vs Romanian Deadlifts?

Although conventional deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts share many of the same characteristics and strengthen the same muscle groups, there are also some nuanced differences between the RDL vs traditional deadlift exercises.

What muscles do Romanian deadlifts work?

Both types of deadlifts mainly work the muscles of the posterior chain, but the main difference between the conventional deadlift and the Romanian deadlift is in the range of motion of each exercise.

Conventional barbell deadlifts have you lifting the barbell all the way up from the floor, whereas the Romanian deadlift exercise starts with the barbell higher up, near mid-shin level.

This means that the range of motion is larger for the traditional deadlift vs RDL.

A greater range of motion can potentially lead to bigger gains in mass and size if you are able to use the same amount of weight safely.

A weightlifter doing a deadlift with a lot of weight.

However, this tends not to be the case, and most strength coaches highly recommend performing the Romanian deadlift versus the conventional deadlift.

The reduced RDL range of motion vs conventional deadlift range of motion can potentially reduce the risk of injuries, particularly low back pain or excessive stress on the intervertebral discs and smaller ligaments in the lower back when performing RDL vs traditional deadlifts.

The primary difference between conventional deadlifts vs RDL muscles worked is in the phase of muscle contraction that is emphasized by the particular movement.

Typically, traditional deadlifts focus on emphasizing the concentric contraction of the hamstrings, glutes, and calves.

Note that the concentric phase of a muscle contraction is when the muscle is shortening, as with the portion of the biceps curl when you curl the weight up to your shoulder.

In contrast, the RDL exercise focuses on the eccentric contraction, which is when the muscles are lengthening under tension.

Two people doing deadlifts.

Put into practice, what this means is that with the Romanian deadlift exercise, the emphasis should be on the portion of the exercise where you go from the end position standing upright with your hips locked out and the barbell up near the top of your hips down to the lowered position where the barbell has returned to just above the ankles or mid-shin level.

On the other hand, with traditional deadlifts, the focus is on the pulling portion when you are pulling the barbell up from the floor into the standing position.

Of course, both RDLs and conventional deadlifts have you lifting and lowering the bar, but the mind-muscle connection or true focus of the phase of the exercise that is emphasized is somewhat different between RDLs vs traditional deadlifts.

If you are a competitive weightlifter, powerlifter, or training for CrossFit competitions, you still might prefer to focus on conventional deadlifts vs Romanian deadlifts.

However, beginners and everyday athletes are generally best served by the RDL vs traditional deadlift while still working the same main deadlift muscle groups.

To supplement your deadlift workouts, check out our guide to the best posterior chain workout here.

A class of people doing deadlifts.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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