The deadlift is amongst one of the heaviest compound exercises performed by both competitive powerlifters and the average gym-goer. Less commonly used in physical therapy, however, the deadlift is still occasionally prescribed for physical rehabilitation patients with only minor strains or injuries.
With a significant level of compound muscle recruitment and being known as one of the “big three” primary compound lifts used in many bodybuilding or powerlifting exercise routines, the deadlift is often prescribed by athletic coaches and physical therapists in order to provide a more well-rounded training regimen.
As the deadlift is a significantly taxing exercise both on the connective tissue and the central nervous system, only experienced weightlifters and other types of athletes should attempt to deadlift numerous times in a week, up to a maximum of three to four heavy deadlift-included workouts per week.
This is because it is important to have a rest day between deadlift workouts in order to allow the fatigued central nervous system and connective tissues to recover.
Beginner weight lifters and members of the population with more fragile constitutions should first consult a coach or physician before attempting to deadlift, regardless of whether it is often or even just once a week.
What Muscles Does the Deadlift Target?
The deadlift, being one of the most wide-reaching compound exercises in common usage, activates a large variety of muscles involved in the act of pulling, particularly when performing the concentric portion of the movement wherein the exerciser will raise the barbell to their waist from ground level.
The Posterior Chain
The posterior chain is a term that refers to the muscular groups that make up the rear side of the legs and the lower back. Consisting of the hamstrings, gluteus maximus, erector spinae and various others, the posterior chain acts as both the scaffolding that holds the human bone structure together as well as the basis behind much of the power behind our movements.
The posterior chain is activated uniformly throughout both eccentric and concentric phases of movement while performing the deadlift exercise, and as such neurological adaptation and muscular hypertrophy will doubtless be developed so long as the deadlift is performed with proper form and sufficient training stimuli.
Latissimus Dorsi, Erector Spinae and various other back muscles (also part of the posterior chain)
While technically part of the posterior chain, the various muscles located on the rear of the torso receive less mechanical stress while performing the deadlift exercise owing to the fact that the legs act as the primary mover behind the exercise, so long as the exerciser is utilizing the proper form.
The latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, trapezius and various other smaller muscle groups placed along the back are all activated particularly well in the eccentric portion of the deadlift wherein the bar is lowered in a controlled manner as the exerciser completes their repetition.
The Abdominal Stabilizer Muscles
While the abdominal muscles are activated by nearly every exercise to some degree, they receive a significant portion of the mechanical tension caused by performing the deadlift, so long as the exerciser maintains a straight back as is seen in proper form. However, the exact sort of contraction that the abdominal muscles utilize while stabilizing the torso during a deadlift is only that of the static type, meaning that it is unlikely any significant muscular hypertrophy will occur in this area from deadlifting.
How is the Deadlift Performed?
The deadlift is one of the most important exercises to utilize proper form in, as gym goers that perform the deadlift with improper or unbalanced form often result in all types of injuries, usually varying in severity depending on the particular weight used.
These injuries can be as minor as light sprains in the calves and hamstrings to injuries as serious as slipped spinal discs and cases of sciatica.
The deadlift is performed by first placing a barbell on the floor, either on a raised platform in order to elevate it or parallel to the exerciser’s feet. Loaded with a moderate to high amount of weight depending on the direction of a coach or physical therapist, the barbell is then moved approximately two to three inches away from the exerciser’s shins.
The exerciser will position their feet approximately shoulder-width apart and lower themselves towards the bar using their knees and hips. Keep in mind that the back must remain absolutely straight and the exerciser’s core must remain braced throughout the entire deadlift movement.
The exerciser, now bent over the bar, will extend their hands to both sides of their legs. While a pronated grip is ideal for deadlifting as it reduces the chance of a tear in the biceps brachii muscle, this is entirely up to individual preference, and either supinated or pronated grips are perfectly acceptable.
Barbell firmly gripped, the exerciser will then drive their heels into the ground and press their hips forward, still retaining a braced core and straight back. If performed correctly, the torso of the exerciser should be upright, with their chest pointed outward and the barbell resting against their upper thigh or hips, depending on their arm length.
Do not attempt to overextend the back by leaning backwards, as this may both destabilize the exerciser and cause injury.
The concentric phase now complete, the exerciser will then allow the bar to enter a controlled descent, bending at their hips and knees while keeping their head facing forward in order to maintain a straight spine.
There is no need to return the deadlift to the ground unless the exerciser is only performing a single repetition. If subsequent repetitions are being performed, they may simply allow the bar to lower below their knees before performing the next repetition.
Who Can Perform the Deadlift?
The deadlift is considered one of the heaviest compound lifts performed in most workout routines, and as such it is not suitable for members of the population who are too young or too old to have significant tendon and bone strength, as performing the deadlift may cause injury and impingement.
Additionally, people with a history of certain types of injuries such as hip dislocations, any sort of spinal injury and injuries related to the patella should first consult a physician or physical therapist prior to attempting the deadlift. It is also our recommendation that these people begin the exercise at a relatively low weight in order to acclimate their connective tissue to it, reducing the chance of injury.
Ideally, the perfect candidate for performing the deadlift is a healthy athlete with at the least a small amount of background experience in weightlifting, as their joints and neurology will have become used to the stressors of lifting heavy amounts of weight. This athlete should also be monitored by a physical therapist or coach in order to ensure that their form is impeccable and that their workout routine does not induce overtraining, which may fatigue the central nervous system.
How Often Should You Max Out the Deadlift?
Choosing to “max out” a particular weighted exercise is primarily done in order to ascertain the upper limits of an athlete’s current strength level, and as such is generally not a good idea if the exerciser is inexperienced or otherwise unsupervised by an experienced coach or physical therapist.
While maxing out can refer to a variety of different types of one hundred percent or near one hundred percent RPE (rate of perceived exertion), in the term of deadlift maxing-out, it is most usually used in the case of an athlete performing the maximum amount of weight they are capable of lifting in a single repetition with good form.
As such, it is best to only max out the deadlift at a minimum of every three months, which is approximately the length of most intermediate to advanced training regimen cycles. Note that this does not apply if the particular athlete is applying periodization training to their powerlifting or bodybuilding routine.
In the event that the athlete or exerciser wishes to ascertain their maximum strength level, a far safer way to do this is to instead perform a five-repetition maximum and enter the weight into a one repetition maximum calculator, which will perform mathematical estimates to calculate the exerciser’s estimated one repetition maximum.
What Are the Benefits of Deadlifts?
Deadlifts are considered one among the most difficult weightlifting exercises to perform owing to the high resistance that is often used while incorporating it into a workout routine. This, however, can be quite beneficial, as there are few exercises capable of causing such wide-spread mechanical tension and muscle recruitment throughout the body.
Apart from hip thrusts, non-Romanian deadlifts can train the various smaller muscles throughout the hips particularly well, so long as proper form is followed and the repetition is completed to its full range of motion.
Asides from significant training stimuli being applied to the hip muscles, few exercises can approach the level of static activation that the deadlifts cause in the abdominal muscles and obliques. Rivalling that of planks, the deadlift is an excellent way to provide adequate training stimuli to the abs, of which will provide a more stable core and help reduce the chance of injuries in other exercises.
Why do Novice or Intermediate Programs Use Low Deadlift Volume?
The majority of popular beginner and intermediate workout routines that have not been customized towards an individual often prescribe a relatively low volume or amount of deadlift sets per week. This is due to a variety of factors concerning the routine’s creator accounting for individual preference, or the purpose of the routine being a focus on other kinds of exercises, or even due to the fact that the routine is using a significantly high level of resistance when prescribing the deadlift.
While the deadlift is an excellent addition to any sort of strength training routine or physical rehabilitation program, it is important to remember that our bodies have a set limit, and can be quite fragile if mechanically stressed in the wrong position.
As a general guideline, unless you are an experienced powerlifter being supervised by a coach or medical professional, it is best to allow at least one day of rest between sessions involving the deadlift.
Even then, it is best not to deadlift at extremely high intensities multiple times a week, as this may lead to injury and provide poorer training stimuli, reducing muscular hypertrophic gains and slowing the muscle activation of the central nervous system.
1. Ketchum, Dan (1 July 2019). "What Muscles Does a Deadlift Work Out?". LIVESTRONG.
2. Martín-Fuentes, I., Oliva-Lozano, J. M., & Muyor, J. M. (2020). Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review. PloS one, 15(2), e0229507. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0229507
Luke Del Vecchio, Hays Daewoud, Shannon Green. (April 2018) “The health and performance benefits of the squat, deadlift, and bench press” MedCrave MOJ Yoga and Physical Therapy