Are Deadlifts a Back Exercise? (13 Benefits and Variations)

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Are Deadlifts a Back Exercise

Are deadlifts a back exercise?

Yes, they can be used for training the muscles in your back.

They are one of the most popular strength training exercises within the bodybuilding and powerlifting communities.

While they work your entire body, many people do them mainly on their back days due to their ability to target muscles like the spinal erectors, traps, and latissimus dorsi.

In this article, we’ll explore why deadlifts are considered a back exercise and how you can use them for overall health and fitness benefits.

I’ll also discuss thirteen of the best benefits as well as several deadlift variations that can help you target specific muscle groups.

What Are Deadlifts?

Deadlifts are a resistance training exercise that involves lifting a free-weight barbell off the ground from a stationary, bent-over position.

Because it is one of the most fundamental movements in strength training, it is an excellent way to build muscular strength and increase overall fitness.

With proper form, deadlifts can be a safe and effective workout for anyone looking to improve their overall strength and athleticism.

To ensure your safety while performing this exercise, always use good technique, and start with a weight that you can handle.

If you’re new to deadlifting or lifting in general, it’s best to get instruction from a certified trainer or coach.

Do They Work Your Back or Legs?

Deadlifts engage many different muscle groups including the legs, glutes, delts, back, and core.

They are complex and have the ability to incorporate multiple muscle groups at once.

This makes them an effective addition to any back or leg workout routine.

You could even have a dedicated deadlift day if you’re short on time.

13 Best Benefits of Deadlifting

1. Improved Full Body Strength

Full body strength is important because it helps us perform movements with ease and efficiency.

It also helps us protect our bodies from injury by providing support for movement patterns that require multiple muscles working together, like barbell squats or bench press.

Additionally, having strong muscles in all areas of the body can help reduce fatigue and soreness after physical activity.

2. Promotes Grip Strength

Increasing your grip strength can help you perform everyday tasks with ease, like carrying groceries or carrying luggage.

It can also be beneficial for athletes in sports such as rock climbing, football, and judo.

Grip strength helps athletes maintain a better hold on their opponents and objects, allowing them to better perform during the competition.

It is also important for those who lift weights since having a stronger grip allows them to control their movements, sparking more muscle growth.

3. Hormone Secretion

When performing compound movements, the body is subject to intense stress which stimulates the release of hormones like testosterone and growth hormone.

These two hormones are essential for building muscle mass and strength, increasing bone density, burning fat, and improving cardiovascular function.

Additionally, these hormones help:

  • Promote healthy skin and hair follicles
  • Regulate cholesterol levels and glucose metabolism
  • Improve cognitive performance
  • Strengthen the immune system and reduce stress levels

4. Bigger Back Muscles

Doing deadlifts on back day is excellent for building bigger back muscles.

This is because they require your body to recruit a larger amount of muscle fibers compared to other exercises.

They not only strengthen your lower body but also places more of the load on the upper back, making it ideal for adding size and strength to this region.

Building a bigger back isn’t just about having a big and strong upper body.

It’s important for posture, stability, and even spinal health.

Strengthening this muscle group will help keep you upright, which helps reduce any pain or discomfort you may be experiencing in this area.

5. Bigger Leg Muscles

Deadlifts work all the major muscle groups in the lower body, such as the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves.

They also involve stabilizers and other small muscles that often get overlooked.

Building bigger legs is important for many different reasons.

For starters, they improve balance and stability, allowing you to move with more confidence.

In addition, having strong leg muscles can help reduce chronic pain in the back or knee areas caused by weakness.

6. Stronger Core

Physically, having a strong core will give you greater balance and stability when performing movements such as running or jumping.

Mentally, it can help with concentration, focus, and clarity of thought in everyday life, as well as help reduce stress levels.

It also aids with digestion and breathing, which is beneficial for relaxation.

7. Improved Posture

Good posture is important for a number of reasons, such as reducing pain and promoting proper alignment of the spine.

Deadlifts help to correct misalignments that can cause backache, neck pain, and even headaches.

Properly performed deadlifts also increase flexibility in the lower back muscles, which can help improve balance and coordination.

Furthermore, practicing good posture helps reduce stress on your joints, reduces fatigue, and allows you to move more efficiently.

8. Muscle Activation in the Entire Posterior Chain

The posterior chain consists of the glutes, hamstrings, calves, and erector spinae muscles, to name a few.

These all work together to perform powerful movements such as deadlifts.

During a deadlift, these muscles work in concert to generate force and support your spine while you lift the weight from the floor.

Each of these muscles needs to be activated and firing correctly to safely perform the exercise.

9. Enhanced Calorie Burn

Deadlifts not only help build lean muscle but also help with burning calories due to the explosive nature of the lift.

Your body is forced to work at a higher intensity level which increases energy expenditure and causes you to burn more calories than other back exercises.

The lean muscle mass you build will also require more energy to maintain than fat does, which boosts your resting metabolic rate.

Additionally, studies have shown that weightlifting can also help improve insulin sensitivity.

Helping to regulate blood sugar levels, and increasing metabolic efficiency.

10. May Help With Injury Recovery

By deadlifting, and focusing more on form than weight, you can slowly but surely build up your muscular strength.

Additionally, this increases blood circulation which brings vital nutrients to the injured area aiding in the healing process.

Lastly, during light deadlifts endorphins are released which helps to reduce stress levels.

This is crucial as excess stress can prevent the body from adequately healing itself.

11. Stronger Hips

Stronger hips can help decrease the risk of hip fractures or labral tears.

Having strong hips is also key to overall strength, stability, and proper mobility.

12. Requires Minimal Equipment

All you need is dumbbells or a barbell with weights (or just a bar on its own) and you’re ready to go.

13. Improved Vertical Jump

Deadlifts strengthen the quadriceps and hamstrings, two muscle groups that are essential for explosive jumping power.

This exercise also helps to build the power of hip and knee extension, which are key to achieving a higher vertical.

Additionally, deadlifts help with lower body stability, which is important for maintaining balance and form during the jump.

Top 3 Deadlift Variations

1. Conventional Deadlift

Conventional is the most common deadlift variation for targeting the posterior chain.

Specifically the low to mid back and hamstrings.

To do it:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. The bar should be hovering over the middle of your feet.
  3. Breathe in to brace your core.
  4. Grasp the bar with a mixed or overhand grip shoulder width apart.
  5. Lower your hips while simultaneously retracting your shoulder blades to pull the bar up.
  6. Once your legs and back are locked hold for a second before lowering the weight back to the floor.
  7. Repeat for 3-5 sets of 2-6 reps.

Modification

If you want to put even more emphasis on your back rather than your legs try setting the safety rails in a power rack or smith machine to knee height.

Then, set the bar on the rails and perform the deadlift from this reduced range of motion.

These are called rack pulls.

When To Use the Conventional Deadlift

The conventional deadlift is a great exercise to incorporate on upper-body pull days.

However, your legs will also benefit if you decide to add it in on hamstring-focused leg day.

2. Sumo Deadlift

Sumo deadlift requires the most knee and shoulder extension.

In turn, placing emphasis on certain muscle groups like the quads, hips, and traps compared to conventional.

Here’s how it’s done:

  1. Stand in front of the bar with your feet pointed outwards at 45 degrees and about 2-2.5x the width of your shoulders.
  2. Grab the bar with a mixed or overhand grip and take a deep breath in to tighten your abdominals.
  3. Lower your butt toward the floor to open up your hips and allow your knees to flair outwards.
  4. Brace your back, and drive your legs up and back until you reach lockout.
  5. Return to the starting position and repeat for 3-5 sets of 2-6 reps.

Modification

Lay out bumper plates flat on their side, then set the bar loaded with weights on top.

This will slightly decrease the range of motion, allowing you to overload your muscles with slightly heavier weights.

These are called block pulls.

When To Use the Sumo Deadlift

Sumo is often considered a lower-body exercise.

However, it can be used as either a back or leg exercise.

For example, if you’re doing a quad-focused workout it will help.

On the other hand, it is also beneficial for upper-back-focused workouts.

3. Stiff Leg Deadlift

Stiff leg deadlifts, or the Romanian deadlift, require the most amount of hip hinge.

This is the go-to variation for building massive hamstrings during leg workouts.

To start:

  1. Stand in front of the bar so that it’s in line with the center of your feet.
  2. Your feet should also be roughly hip-width apart.
  3. Grab the bar with an overhand grip shoulder width apart.
  4. Lift the bar off the floor with your legs straight and shoulder blades retracted.
  5. Stop once you’re standing straight upward with the bar in your hands.
  6. From here, bend forward while keeping your legs straight to move the bar back toward the floor.
  7. Stop once you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, and don’t worry about touching the bar to the floor.
  8. Reverse backup by moving your hips forward.
  9. Repeat the motion for 2-3 sets of 6-12 reps.
  10. Be sure to maintain a neutral spine through the entire deadlift motion.

Modification

If using a barbell feels awkward you can replace it with dumbbells.

This way there’s less restriction and also allows you to do one leg at a time to minimize muscular imbalances.

When To Use the Stiff Leg Deadlift

Most training programs place stiff leg deadlifts in the same workout session as other leg exercises.

This will prevent any hamstring neglect that might otherwise limit you from building well-rounded legs.

Who Should Do Deadlifts?

Deadlifts are among the best “bang-for-your-buck” full-body movement that provides results in less time than other exercises.

In general, individuals should focus on mastering technique over adding more weight before progressing to heavier lifts.

As long as an individual has mastered the basics of deadlifting (including proper form and breath control), almost anyone can safely benefit from them.

Deadlifts are particularly beneficial for athletes due to the vast number of muscle groups working simultaneously.

This extension through the entire musculoskeletal system helps athletes develop power and explosiveness.

Which is needed for improving performance in various sports activities such as football or track.

For example, sprinters could increase their speed by targeting the gluteus maximus during deadlifts.

Ultimately making them stronger and faster when pushing off from starting blocks during races.

Who Should Avoid Deadlifts?

Those with existing injuries or conditions which affect the lower back, neck, or knees should consult with their physician prior to attempting deadlifts.

They place a significant load on your spine and if done incorrectly, there is a greater risk of injury due to muscle imbalance or overuse.

It’s also advisable for pregnant women to seek medical counsel before they perform deadlifts as it can be too strenuous on expecting bodies.

However, it is often considered safe during pregnancy.

Finally, not everyone will benefit from deadlifting in their training routine.

So it isn’t necessary for everyone to perform them at all times.

If you don’t feel comfortable doing deadlifts there are alternatives that involve less strain on the spine.

For instance, other leg exercises you could do are the barbell squat, leg press, leg extension, or hamstring curls.

If you’re strengthening your core, give isometric contractions like planks a try.

Chest-supported dumbbell rows are also great if you’re looking to work your latissimus dorsi while mitigating lower back pain.

Sample Deadlift Workout

This is a sample deadlift session that’s designed to be implemented on an upper-focused day.

The percentages listed for the sets are based on your one rep max.

  1. Conventional Deadlift
    • Warmups: Bar Weight x 10, 35% x 5, 55% x 4, 65% x 3, 70-75% x 1-2
    • 3 Working Sets: 80% x 4
  2. Pull-Ups: 4 x 4-8
  3. Rear Delt Dumbbell Flies: 3 x 10-15
  4. Hammer Curls: 2 x 15-20

Deadlift Exercise FAQs

Are Deadlifts a Leg or Back Workout?

Deadlifts are a full-body exercise, engaging both the leg and back muscles.

The primary focus is on the posterior chain, which includes the glutes, hamstrings, lats, and traps.

However, performing a proper deadlift requires the activation of all lower body and core muscles.

Are Deadlifts a Good Exercise for Back?

Yes, deadlifts are a great exercise for strengthening the back.

They are an effective way to target multiple muscles in the back while also engaging the core and gluteal muscles.

Plus, they can help improve posture, build muscle, and even increase flexibility.

Final Thoughts for Deadlifts on Back Day

Deadlifts are an incredibly effective and versatile exercise that can benefit your back, legs, core, arms, and overall physique.

Not only do they help to build strength in the lower body muscles but also improve posture and increase stability throughout the whole torso region.

With proper execution of deadlift variations like conventional or sumo deadlift you can spark serious muscle activation while avoiding injury risk.

Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced lifter, incorporating some type of deadlifting into your back training program will bring great results!

Sources:

https://hashimashi.com/deadlift-muscles-worked/

https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness/deadlift-benefits

https://powerliftingtechnique.com/do-deadlifts-help-vertical-jump/

https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/understanding-and-improving-core-strength-2018090414662

https://rehabthings.com/blogs/news/the-importance-of-knee-extension

Eric De Cremer
Eric De Cremer

Eric is an ISSA Certified Personal Trainer and competitively trained powerlifter. Feel free to contact him anytime at edecremer@wildnswole.com!