Originally published on April 20, 2011
What Muscle Should I Feel Working When I Do Deadlifts and Why Do I Feel It Most in My Lower Back?
One of the most common questions about deadlifts is what muscle group you should predominantly feel working during the deadlift. Many people tend to feel the deadlift mostly in their lower back, for instance. Is this normal? Or, should you expect to feel the lift working a different muscle? Also related to this is where you should expect to get DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) after you deadlift. Before I answer these questions, you may find out how to perform the deadlift correctly.
These questions presented here occur because many trainees have been told, rightly, that the deadlift is not a “back exercise” but more of a hip dominant exercise that utilizes the entire posterior chain. So, when trainees feel that most of the work seems to be centered in the lower back, they become concerned that they are not performing the lift correctly.
Of course, it may well be that they are not performing the deadlift correctly as at least 90% of those who use the deadlift do not deadlift correctly. Yes, that is an exact estimate based on statistical evidence…not. Let’s just say that a lot of people don’t know how to deadlift and deadlift instruction is among the worst instruction, in general, you’ll come across. However, the muscle group that you feel working, where you get a pump (if any) and where DOMS occurs is not necessarily an indication of correct or incorrect form.
Beginners to the deadlift typically feel the work concentrated mostly in the lower back. However, this is based on the typical volumes and densities that are used for beginners. After repeated exposure with reasonable progression, the heavy DOMS in the back tends to go away unless you detrain the deadlift and then return to it or add a great amount of volume. Although the lumbar extensors are a very strong muscle group, their role as stabilizers during the deadlift make them subject to great fatigue. Coupled with the tendency for most beginners to use fairly high volumes this means that the back feels like it is doing more than its fair share of the work. What is happening, in reality, is that the back is being used in an unaccustomed way. To be fair, many of these trainees do feel soreness in the glutes and hamstrings, also. It is simply that the back seems to be attacked all out of proportion to the other muscle groups involved. The lower back soreness is usually sidestepped or much lessened in trainees who use more appropriate modes of training the deadlift.
Another reason for this is the relative weakness of the core group as a whole and what we could simply call weak or unconditioned abdominal muscles. For the torso to be stabilized against the heavy barbell the abdominal muscles and the back muscles must co-contract.
Returning the Bar to the Floor Incorrectly
Still another culprit, which is easily underestimated, is the manner in which the bar is returned to the floor. Although the trainee may perform the deadlift correctly he often fails to reverse the process when returning the bar. The back should perform much the same action in deloading the bar as when lifting it. This means that the hips will come back and the knees will bend until the body and the bar is returned to their starting positions…or at least as much as it is possible to do this under control. During this movement, one should avoid flexing the lumbar as much as possible. When the bar is deloaded incorrectly and lumbar flexion is used instead of hip flexion to initiate the descent, the muscles are forced to into eccentric action against a very heavy load, resulting in all the symptoms we started with above, including marked soreness in the back. Any back injury during the deadlift is very likely to occur during the bar’s descent.
Provided that the bar is returned correctly and your progression is steady and sure you should feel that the work is spread out to the posterior chain but not really stronger in the back.
Using the Back as the Prime Mover
Many people who rely on the back as the prime mover in the deadlift (the back is primarily a stabilizer) either feel that only the back is being worked, or they feel a lot of soreness in the back. This shouldn’t be the case and if it persists you are probably performing deadlifts wrong. Keep in mind that DOMS is self-limited and it doesn’t tend to come back unless you introduce something novel such as a drastic change in volume, a new exercise, etc. If you always get sore after the deadlift even though you are progressing slowly and steadily without any drastic changes, this may be an indication of strain. Keep in mind that some mild soreness should be expected to be the norm when strength training.
Even if you are doing everything right if your glutes are not up to the job the lower back will have to do more than its share of the work. In that case, gluteal strengthening exercises may help you to learn to differentiate (isolate) hip extension from lumbar extension. Cross-training for the hips may also help. Use exercises such as pull-throughs (hip pulls).
An obvious reason that you keep getting soreness in your low back from deadlifting may be that you aren’t deadlifting regularly. You can’t expect to get “used to” something if you do it in a haphazard, unpredictable way. So, if the last time you trained deadlifts was two months ago and you want to know why you are “still” sore, well, you have your answer.
What Muscle Should be Sore After Deadlifts?
So, if it’s not the lower back, per se, what muscle or muscles should feel sore after deadlifting? If you ask this question then you have verified that you are a bodybuilder and think that either you should always be sore after a workout or that being sore (i.e. developing DOMS) is an actual goal. So basically you are asking the wrong question.
Although at times you will be sore after deadlifts, exactly what muscle is sore owes much to your training status and the stage you are at in learning and perfecting the deadlift. As stated, beginners will tend to feel more sore in the lower back, even when performing the lift correctly. After the back is more conditioned it is always possible to feel some soreness in the area after a particularly high volume or demanding session, such as, for instance, after performing cluster sets. Do not discount the role of training parameters in this. Many people, trainers and trainees alike, focus almost exclusively on technique when load, volume, and frequency may play a bigger role.
The glutes and hamstrings may experience soreness, of course, for the more accomplished lifter. But marked soreness from deadlifts like you’d expect from high volume biceps curls and the like should not be expected to be the norm. Remember, as I stated above, DOMS is the product of novel and non-habituated stimulus. So when you become sore it is usually because you have just upped the ante, so to speak.
How Sore is Too Sore After Deadlifts?
Remember that soreness or discomfort is a subjective experience. What is a slight discomfort to some is unbearable agony to others (you know people like this!) Pain in your lower back after deadlifts, unlike general soreness, is always an indication that something is wrong. The problem may come from bad technique; or over-aggressive loading or volume. Sometimes when a trainee experiences consistent lower back (or other) soreness after deadlifting they can have a hard time recognizing when appropriate soreness has crossed over into pain.
If you are having consistent discomfort from deadlifting but are unsure if it’s inappropriate you may want to monitor it with a simple numbered pain scale. If the numbers are slowly going down then your soreness is following the pattern of DOMS. But this will only work if your training is progressed moderately, consistently, and regularly.
One key principle to keep in mind, as stated above, is that DOMS tends to be self-limiting. It should subside unless you make big changes, suddenly, in your training. Remember, when you first start doing deadlifts it is a big change! Consistent soreness is not a good environment in which to strength train and not just because of the inability to recover and train again in a timely and consistent manner. Consistent soreness can also mask real problems!
If you are experiencing a lot of lower back soreness from your deadlifts but you are uncertain whether it may be inappropriate or even “too sore,” well, the very fact that you are worried is usually a signal to be careful. DOMS tends to come on heaviest on the third day after training but may come as early as the next day. After this, it subsides, predictably. DOMS that gets better and then gets worse again is probably not DOMS.
See also: Can You Get a Hernia From Deadlifts?