Are Deadlifts For Back Or For Legs? Muscle Activation Explained

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
June 7, 2022

Among the most famous points of contention in bodybuilding and powerlifting communities is in concerns to whether the deadlift should be considered a leg or back exercise, as classifying it as either type of movement can have large implications about how it is performed and its place in a training routine.

Fortunately, the answer is relatively simple, as one simply needs to look at the mechanics and muscle group activation of the deadlift and its many variations in order to understand the answer to the question.

For general intents and purposes, the deadlift is considered a leg exercise - specifically, one that primarily targets the posterior chain portion of the legs, with such muscle groups like the glutes and the hamstrings being recruited to the greatest degree and therefore solidifying this classification if needed.

What is the Deadlift?

The deadlift is a closed kinetic chain compound exercise that usually makes use of a free weight implement such as a barbell or set of dumbbells in order to induce body-wide muscular activation at an unrivaled level of intensity.

barbell deadlift

It is generally classified as a pull-type movement due to the manner of which the exerciser moves the barbell from the ground, and is best known for involving a multitude of joints throughout each repetition, such as the hips, knees, shoulders and ankles - with subsequent variations altering the loading manner among these differing joints.

As a member of the “big 3” group of lifts, the deadlift is considered to be indispensable from any serious strength training or powerlifting routine, and is usually meant to be performed with low volume and high levels of resistance in order to provide the majority of the lower-mid back and posterior chain training stimulus of a training program.

Why Does the Deadlift Need to be Classified as a Back or Legs Exercise?

Exercises are generally classified by the muscle groups they utilize as primary movers because it is these same muscle groups that receive the most training stimulus during said exercise.

In the case of the deadlift, this equates to not only what sort of training stimulus the exerciser should expect from performing the deadlift - but also how to structure their training program around the deadlift, as performing posterior chain exercises in the succeeding day after a deadlift session may lead to reduced performance or overtraining.

As such, though the deadlift is generally considered to be a leg exercise and is usually programmed to be performed on heavy leg days in most training programs, it may also be added to back days so long as there is no subsequent leg day or significant posterior chain exercises in the next day or two.

In certain cases, whether or not the exerciser considers the deadlift to be a back or leg exercise can also have implications on their injury recovery or athletic capacity - with pre-season periodization training programs in certain sports requiring less focus placed on the posterior chain or back so as to aid in recovery and preparation.

What Muscles are Worked by the Deadlift?

Though the deadlift’s activated muscle groups are not trained in the same intensity or capacity, they are nonetheless quite numerous and as such make classifying the deadlift as either a back exercise or leg exercise quite difficult due to the spread of such muscle groups activated.

barbell deadlift movement

Primarily, the deadlift activates the glutes muscle group, the various muscles of the hamstrings and the quadriceps femoris muscle group to a significant extent throughout its entire performance - while also simultaneously training the erector spinae along the spine, the latissimus dorsi, trapezius atop the shoulders and the rhomboids along the mid back.

As one can infer from this, if going entirely by muscle group activation alone; the conventional barbell deadlift is both a back and leg exercise and difficult to classify as simply one or the other.

Fortunately, however, studies utilizing EMG as well as rate of muscular hypertrophy have demonstrated that the deadlift does not activate the aforementioned muscle groups in an equal manner, with the glutes and hamstrings being activated and therefore trained to a far more significant degree than any of the muscle groups located in the back.

Though the deadlift is simultaneously a back and a leg exercise, when accounting for muscle activation intensity and capacity - we can see that it is in fact more of a leg-based movement than a back movement.

Do All Variations of the Deadlift Work the Same Muscles?

Though we have established that the conventional barbell deadlift is in fact a leg exercise, certain variations of the deadlift can somewhat alter the distribution of resistance among the various muscle groups activated - thereby requiring subsequent alteration of the workout’s programming in regards to the deadlift variation.

Certain minor variations of the conventional deadlift will not alter its programming or require it to be moved to a back training session instead, such as the sumo deadlift or Romanian deadlift wherein the primary mover muscle groups are retained as the glutes and hamstrings.

barbell Romanian deadlift

Other, more drastic variations of the deadlift with large scale changes in equipment used or exercise mechanics involved such as the rack pull or the hex bar deadlift will require subsequent changes be made in the structure and distribution of the workout session, if not the training program itself.

These differences between deadlift variations are far too numerous to address on a case by case basis, and as such it is advised that the exerciser either seek out the services of an athletic coach or make their own informed decision based on research concerning the characteristics of their chosen deadlift variation instead.

Where Do Most Training Programs Place the Deadlift?

Whether a training program considers the conventional deadlift a back or leg exercise depends on the expected training experience of the exerciser, as well as the intensity of which the deadlift is meant to be performed.

With certain novice training programs such as Starting Strength placing the deadlift alongside other leg exercises such as the barbell squat and leg press, and others such as GreySkull LP placing it with back exercises such as the barbell row or chin-up - it can be surmised that at such a low level of intensity, the deadlift may be classified as either a back or leg exercise regardless.

However, at higher levels, advanced training programs may even dedicate entire training days to the deadlift itself - with subsequent exercises performed after the deadlift simply isolating the muscle groups already activated by the deadlift, such as with good mornings and hamstring curls, thereby eliminating the need to classify the deadlift as either type of exercise.

For the most part however, training programs that group the deadlift with leg exercises in the same workout session will generally expect a reduced amount of volume or level of resistance in whatever exercise is performed secondary to the other due to the muscle groups already being pre-fatigued.

How to Program for the Deadlift on Back Days

As the deadlift primarily activates the trapezius, forearms and rhomboids in a stabilizing capacity and barely recruits them in an isotonic manner, back isolation exercises targeting these particular muscle groups may be utilized to their fullest extent in terms of resistance and volume of repetitions.

However, this is not so much the case for the erector spinae, latissimus dorsi and other lower back musculature - as these muscle groups will doubtless be fatigued significantly if the deadlift is performed in the correct manner, requiring any subsequent exercises be of a lower intensity if activating said muscles.

As such, if the exerciser wishes to somewhat retain the intensity and volume of their back workout exercises while still incorporating the deadlift into their back day, it is best to utilize the deadlift with a moderate level of resistance and low volume of repetitions - somewhere between a 7-8 on the Borg’s modified RPE scale.

At such a low level of intensity, additional back compound movements such as the barbell row or pull-up should not be affected by fatigue in any too-significant capacity.

One may even alternate the presence of the deadlift and the intensity of other back muscle exercises, if multiple back workouts are present within a single training week or training block - with the intensity of said back exercises being increased on days wherein the deadlift is not performed.

How to Program for the Deadlift on Leg Days

Unlike in the case of the deadlift being added to a back-focused workout session, adding the deadlift to a leg day is not only commonplace but far more simplistic - so long as the exerciser keeps in mind that the intensity of the deadlift will have a direct effect on the maximum intensity of other leg exercises performed later in the session.

Generally, it is best to program the deadlift as the first exercise to be performed in the workout’s order of exercises, as any break in proper form or already fatigued musculature may result in injury due to the risks of performing the deadlift in an incorrect manner.

As such, it is during a leg workout session that the deadlift may be performed to maximum effort - allowing for either high volume or high levels of resistance in accordance to the needs of the exerciser, and with subsequent leg compound movements such as the leg press or barbell squat simply acting as secondary compound exercises that help round out the training stimulus of the session instead.

In Conclusion, is the Deadlift a Back or Leg Exercise?

On paper, in the majority of novice and intermediate training programs and in regards to muscle activation, the deadlift is clearly a leg exercise.

However, it does not necessarily need to be constrained to such a definition, as it is technically also a back exercise. 

At the end of the day, it is more up to the exerciser, their training goals and their training program - allowing for the deadlift to be classified as a leg exercise, back exercise, or even neither definition so long as correct workout programming is accordingly followed.

References

1. Coratella, Giuseppe, Gianpaolo Tornatore, Stefano Longo, Fabio Esposito, and Emiliano Cè. 2022. "An Electromyographic Analysis of Romanian, Step-Romanian, and Stiff-Leg Deadlift: Implication for Resistance Training" International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 19, no. 3: 1903. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19031903

2. Martín-Fuentes I, Olivia Lozano JM, Muyor JM. Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review. PLoS One. 2020 Feb 27;15(2):e0229507. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0229507. PMID: 32107499; PMCID: PMC7046193.

3. Schellenberg, F., Lindorfer, J., List, R. et al. Kinetic and kinematic differences between deadlifts and good mornings. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil 5, 27 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1186/2052-1847-5-27

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
Inspire US serves as an informational hub for people looking to start their fitness journey.
The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The information being shared is for educational purposes only. You must consult with a medical professional before acting on any content on this website.
Copyright © Inspire US 2022