It is certainly possible to name what muscles deadlifts work but before I begin, I should not that the deadlift is actually a total body exercise. In other words, to some extent, every muscle in the body becomes involved. It would be impossible to accurately outline the contribution of every single muscle group during the deadlift, especially since this can change as the weight on the bar is increased and the lift becomes more challenging. However, comparisons can be made to another core lift, the back squat. And the main active muscles groups can be listed.
See a full description of the lifting technique for the deadlift.
Where the squat is a knee dominant lift, the deadlift is a hip dominant lift. This means that the main muscles responsible for the movement of the deadlift are not the knee extensors, but the hip extensors. Also, the deadlift relies on lower back stability to a greater degree than does the squat, although both exercises necessitate a very stable and strong torso.
Also, unlike the squat, the deadlift starts with the bar on the floor from a “dead” stop: The lift starts with the ascent or concentric phase and then returns to a dead stop when the bar is returned to the starting position. Therefore, the lift relies more heavily on force generation by the muscles, since elastic energy is dissipated more in between repetitions. Some lifters may “bounce” the bar off the floor, lifting in a fast rhythm, in order to use stored mechanical energy in the muscles to a greater extent, but this can be dangerous and has no training advantage. It is more useful for a competition setting where many repetitions are being performed, such as a strongman competition.
The following list concerns the active muscles involved in the deadlift for the hips, trunk, and grip muscles. There are many other muscles involved in a secondary role, some of which are part of force couples, such as the abdominals, which co-contract with the spinal erectors.
Deadlift Ascent Phase (Lifting)
Hip Muscles Involved in Extension
- Gluteus Maximus
- Semimembranosus (Hamstring)
- Semitendinosus (Hamstring)
- Biceps femoris (Hamstring)
Trunk Muscles Involved in Maintaining Isometric Extension
- Erector Spinae
- Quadratus Lumborum
Forearm and Hand Muscles Involved in Flexion to Maintain Grip
All the major extrinsic and intrinsic grip flexion muscles are involved. The extrinsic muscles produce the strongest force involved.
Extrinsic Grip Muscles
- Flexor Pollicis Longus
- Flexor Digitorum Superficialis
- Flexor Digitorum Profundus
Intrinsic Grip Muscles
See intrinsic muscles of the hand. All the flexor and opponens muscles will contribute to gripping the bar.
The same muscles are involved in the descent of the bar. However, as the bar is being lowered, which is the reverse action of the ascent, the hip muscles perform an eccentric action.