Barbell Deadlift: Benefits, Muscles Used, and More

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
June 2, 2022

Perhaps one of the most definitive compound exercises to exist, the barbell deadlift is a cornerstone of any serious strength training routine, with a variety of positive effects and an impossible-to-replicate muscle group activation set making it truly unique among barbell exercises.

Despite the variety of benefits and its highly effective training stimulus, the barbell deadlift is also considered to be rather complex; and as such, it is important for novice exercisers unfamiliar with the movement to fully understand its various aspects so as to maximize their own results.

In simplistic terms, the barbell deadlift is simply a barbell-based floor pull exercise that trains practically every muscle group of the body to a certain extent, especially when it is performed at high intensities - as it is done traditionally.

What is the Barbell Deadlift?

When diving into more technical descriptions of the barbell deadlift, we can see that it is a closed kinetic chain compound movement with a significantly high intended level of exertion that makes use of a free weight resistance implement (in most cases, a barbell) so as to induce excellent amounts of muscular hypertrophy and strength development, among other benefits.

barbell deadlift movement

The barbell deadlift is considered one of the most fundamental compound resistance exercises in athletic training, wherein it is a part of the “big 3” alongside the barbell squat and the bench press.

However, despite its popularity and distinguished effectiveness, many exercisers find the barbell deadlift intimidating or even dangerous due to its moderately complex form and the intensity involved in each repetition - placing it at an intermediate level of difficulty at best.

What are the Benefits of the Barbell Deadlift?

The barbell deadlift is capable of inducing numerous positive effects when performed in the appropriate manner, ranging anywhere from improved bone density to more specific and niche effects, such as enhanced anabolic hormone production and neutral spine mechanic reinforcement.

Considering the fact that it is indeed a free weight resistance exercise, we have elected to forego the more commonly known benefits that are characteristic of such exercises for the purposes of brevity - and will instead list the benefits that are rather unique to the barbell deadlift instead.

Functional Kinetics Reinforcement

The barbell deadlift’s form is less a single movement and more a multitude of smaller biomechanical motions being performed in unison - all of which require a level of bodily awareness and coordination in order to execute appropriately.

When performed repeatedly over multiple training sessions, this will not only reinforce the exerciser’s capacity to move their entire skeletal musculature simultaneously at such an intensity, but also aid in the development of muscle memory related to such motions, such as retaining a neutral spine or preventing the shoulders from rounding as the trapezius muscles are engaged.

This will not only reduce the risk of injury during exercise, but also aid in day to day activities, making the deadlift especially useful for improving the functional kinetics of an individual.

Significant Athletic Capacity Improvement

The deadlift provides a body-wide spread of training stimulus that can aid in the improvement of practically every form of athletic ability the exerciser may require; be it explosive strength, bodily coordination, muscular endurance or even simple muscle density, the deadlift can doubtless aid in developing such factors.

Such a varied spread of training results is generally due to the intensity and mechanics of the barbell deadlift’s form, making it significantly taxing to perform for even a few repetitions - but also proportionally effective at providing proper training stimulus.

Despite the many athletic improvements that may be achieved by performing the barbell deadlift over multiple training sessions, it is still an anaerobic exercise for the most part, and as such unfortunately does not provide cardio-related training stimuli.

Endocrinological Benefits

Due to the intensity and systemic stress placed on the body by the barbell deadlift, significant endocrinological benefits may be achieved - the majority of which are not only beneficial in an athletic capacity, but also for practically any individual regardless of health or goals.

Human growth hormone, testosterone, IGF-1 and a variety of other metabolic hormones are confirmed to spike after even one set of intense barbell deadlifts, as is evidenced by a multitude of clinical trials; aiding in not only the development and recovery of the exerciser’s muscles, but also the function of practically every organ system in their body.

These endocrinological benefits are also further compounded by other factors relating to the endocrine system that are not necessarily triggered by the barbell deadlift itself, such as an improvement in insulin sensitivity in cellular bodies, or certain neurochemical changes related more to the act of exercise rather than any specific training movement.

Body-Wide Skeletal Muscle Activation

Perhaps the most basic benefit of the barbell deadlift, the body-wide skeletal muscle activation that is characteristic of such an exercise is in fact quite unique to the deadlift, even if a portion of that activation is not necessarily in a dynamic contractive capacity.

Though there are many compound resistance exercises that activate more than a single muscle group simultaneously, the deadlift is considered to be the most definitive idea of a compound exercise as it is capable of activating muscle fibers in practically every region of the body - from head to toe, as one may say.

The caveat to this is in the manner of which these muscle groups are activated.

Such muscle groups as the hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae and trapezius are contracted both concentrically and eccentrically, placing them firmly in the large number of muscle groups simulated in a dynamic capacity by the barbell deadlift.

However, other muscle groups such as the pectorals, those of the forearms and the neck are otherwise only recruited in a static capacity - resulting in less training stimulus and thus less results, be it in strength development or pure muscular hypertrophy.

What Muscles are Worked by the Barbell Deadlift?

As was previously mentioned in this article, the barbell deadlift is considered the quintessential compound exercise; meaning that it is capable of working many muscles during each repetition.

barbell deadlift

However, as was also previously mentioned, this activation is not equal among muscle groups, with such muscles providing the most force during the performance of the barbell deadlift being dubbed the “primary mover” or “primary agonist” muscles in accordance to the importance of their roles.

Other muscle groups not otherwise recruited to such a capacity are instead called secondary mover muscles, or stabilizer muscles in the case of the muscle group solely being contracted in an isometric or static capacity.

Primary Agonist Muscles

The muscle groups seen to exhibit the most force output during a barbell deadlift repetition are primarily that of the glutes that make up the buttocks, the various muscles of the hamstrings that run along the rear of the femur, the quadriceps at the opposing side, the latissimus dorsi along the middle of the back, the hip flexors and the trapezius atop the shoulders.

Each muscle group is responsible for a certain biomechanical movement as well as resistance distribution throughout a certain range of motion, meaning that portions of the barbell deadlift’s form will activate one or multiple of the aforementioned muscle groups more than others at any given time.

This, then, equates to the primary agonist muscles also receiving the greatest benefit from the barbell deadlift - marking it as a posterior chain exercise, if such a strict classification is necessary.

Secondary Mover Muscles and Stabilizer/Synergist Muscles

Though the primary mover muscles play the greatest role in the performance of the barbell deadlift, other muscle groups are responsible for ensuring that they are capable of contracting in this capacity, as well as maintaining stability in the various joints involved in the exercise.

These are mostly the various muscle groups of the core, the erector spinae (of which is also considered a primary muscle during certain portions of the exercise), the forearms, the deltoids and the rhomboids along the upper back; all of which work in a synergistic or supportive capacity during the barbell deadlift.

How is the Barbell Deadlift Programmed?

For the most part, the barbell deadlift takes precedence over all other exercises in terms of exercise order and exertion - usually placing it as one of the first major compound lifts in a workout session, and even having entire workout sessions revolving around itself, depending on the purpose of the training program.

As the deadlift activates the posterior chain to the greatest extent among all other muscles, it is generally not combined with other highly intense lower body exercises such as barbell squats or the leg press, as the fatigue developed during the deadlift may result in poor form or reduced physical strength. This is also applicable to any intense leg exercises on the succeeding day, leaving the muscles little time to recover.

In training periodization, deadlifts will often be added to the competition macrocycle or “strength building” macrocycle, as the level of intensity and fatigue development of the exercise may be too high for periodization blocks not focused on exercises of such characteristics.

Are there Variations of the Barbell Deadlift?

The barbell deadlift’s popularity has spawned quite a number of variants that alter some major characteristic of the exercise in order to fulfill the needs of different training programs.

However, the most frequently encountered variation of the barbell deadlift is referred to as the sumo deadlift - an alteration of the conventional barbell deadlift’s form wherein the exerciser will spread their legs wider and place their arms between their knees instead of on the outside, making it more comfortable for exercisers of certain bodily proportions.

sumo deadlift form

Other variations of the barbell deadlift may include such changes as different equipment usage like in the case of the hex bar deadlift, altered ranges of motion such as in the deficit deadlift, changes in the grip style such as in the snatch grip deadlift or even different muscle group activation patterns, as one would see in the stiff legged deadlift.

Is the Barbell Deadlift Safe?

Among one of the most common reasons why exercisers shy away from the barbell deadlift is due to concerns about the relative safety of its performance, with anecdotal stories of compressed spinal discs, torn biceps brachii and dislocated shoulders painting the deadlift in a bad light.

However, just like any other exercise, the barbell deadlift is only considered to be unsafe when it is performed without the usage of strict and correct form, as well as when it is performed with weight far in excess of what is advisable for the exerciser’s strength level and training experience.

As such, the barbell deadlift is indeed safe to perform, so long as it is treated with proper respect and the exerciser is aware of their own physical limitations. When in doubt, consulting a professional athletic coach as well as a physician is always an advisable option.

How Much Volume and Resistance Should be Used for the Barbell Deadlift?

The barbell deadlift is often performed with lower volumes of repetition so as to avoid excessive fatigue, joint shear stress and central nervous system fatigue.

However, in order to also maintain its intended level of intensity, the exerciser will then need to compensate for this lower volume with a higher level of resistance - with a repetition range anywhere from 3 to 10 repetitions per set, often with multiple sets per workout session unless specifically training at near-maximal weight load.

Depending on the particular goals of the exerciser and their own relative training experience, the exact level of resistance will vary; with anywhere from 60-90% of the exerciser’s one repetition maximum load being suitable per set for the purposes of inducing hypertrophy, and somewhere between 80-95% for the development of muscular strength.

Results of the Barbell Deadlift

In conclusion, when the barbell deadlift is performed in an appropriate manner, the exerciser will see significant results in their total-body strength capacity, the physical size of their back and leg musculature, as well as significant developments in practically every other physical aspect of their life as well.

References

1. Wilk M, Petr M, Krzysztofik M, Zajac A, Stastny P. Endocrine response to high intensity barbell squats performed with constant movement tempo and variable training volume. Neuro Endocrinol Lett. 2018 Oct;39(4):342-348. PMID: 30531700.

2. McGuigan, Michael R.M.2; Wilson, Barry D.1 Biomechanical Analysis of the Deadlift, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: November 1996 - Volume 10 - Issue 4 - p 250-255

3. Martín-Fuentes I, Oliva-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.

4. Thompson, Brennan J.; Stock, Matt S.; Shields, JoCarol E.; Luera, Micheal J.; Munayer, Ibrahim K.; Mota, Jacob A.; Carrillo, Elias C.; Olinghouse, Kendra D. Barbell Deadlift Training Increases the Rate of Torque Development and Vertical Jump Performance in Novices, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: January 2015 - Volume 29 - Issue 1 - p 1-10 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000691

5. Farley, Kevin CSCS, Exercise Physiologist Analysis of the Conventional Deadlift, Strength and Conditioning: December 1995 - Volume 17 - Issue 6 - p 55-57

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.
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