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The Barbell Deadlift: Back or Leg Exercise?

Updated: Jan 17, 2022

This is a pretty old debate that's been going on for a very, very long time now.

Whether the deadlift primarily works the muscles of the back or the muscles of the lower body is a highly controversial topic that'll have many strength coaches and trainees at each others' throats for.

In this post, we'll be giving you our opinion on the deadlift, and its primary muscle groups by looking into the biomechanics and muscle activation of the exercise.

We'll cover the muscle recruitment, reasoning behind putting it on leg day or back day, drawing a conclusion for the overall winner and helping you pick the best one for you.

Man preparing to deadlift and determine whether it is a leg or a back exercise


How to Do the Deadlift

The barbell conventional deadlift is a great exercise that builds strength and muscle mass all over the body, and is often regarded to be the single best indicator of human strength.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Start with the bar on the ground.

  2. Pull the bar close to your center of mass and have it touching your shins.

  3. Bend the knees slightly and hinge down towards the bar by pushing your hips backwards.

  4. Go down until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings and can't go further.

  5. Bend your knees to get the rest of the way down until you can grab onto the bar.

  6. Have your arms straight down, directly underneath your shoulders.

  7. Grip the barbell with a double overhand grip to start with.

  8. Keep a neutral spine throughout the range of motion.

  9. Brace your core by breathing in and holding your breath.

  10. Pull the bar up by driving your feet into the ground and hanging the bar off of your arms.

  11. Simultaneously push your hips forwards once the bar passes your knees as you continue to straighten your legs.

  12. Pause at the top in a standing position, holding the barbell.

  13. Lower the bar back down (guide it with your hands, but you don't have to control it).

Check out the video below by Rogue Fitness to see a demonstration of this exercise!

Muscle Activation in the Deadlift

As we mentioned earlier, the deadlift is almost a total-body exercise. Meaning, it works almost every muscle group in the body.

It works through following 3 joint movements:

  • Knee extension (straightening the knees)

  • Hip extension (pushing the hips forward)

  • Shoulder extension (bringing the arms back)

We'll start by giving showing you the primary muscles responsible for these joint actions, and then cover some other important muscles that are highly active during the barbell deadlift.

Knee Extension

This movement involves straightening the knees as you pull the bar up, and it's done by the quadriceps.

Really, the first portion of the deadlift is simply a standing leg press.

You're keeping your back neutral and carrying some load, but the movement starts with a leg press, which primarily works the quadriceps.

The quads do A LOT of work in the barbell deadlift, and do carry quite a bit of the load during the exercise.

Hip Extension

This joint action involves pushing your hips forwards or thrusting them, which is a function that's covered by the glutes, and also the hamstrings to a slightly lesser degree.

The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle group on our body, and is going to be the primary contributor to this hip extension.

The hamstrings will assist, but not carry nearly as much of the load as the glutes do.

Please note that the glutes are also going to be highly active during the initial 'leg pressing' portion of the deadlift alongside your quadriceps.

Shoulder Extension

This is a movement that involves moving the arms back from the front, and is primarily done by the latissimus dorsi (lats) and the rear or posterior delts (shoulders)

These muscles are crucial for not only stabilizing the bar and keeping it close to your body, but also bringing it in once you near the lockout portion of the exercise.

The teres major and minor are also going to be assisting in shoulder extension, and working pretty hard during the deadlift as well.

However of these three, the lats are going to be bearing the brunt of the load and doing the most work to extend at the shoulder.

Spinal Erectors

The spinal erectors are a group or muscles that run all throughout the spine and are responsible for keeping your back straight, whilst carrying the load on the barbell.

The spinal erectors go through the deadlift performing an isometric extension contraction, which means they do not actually change in length during the movement, but still do contract and work hard.

The help to maintain the posture of your spine and prevent it from rounding during the deadlift, which can be dangerous if you're not careful and allow it to happen under loads that you're not yet strong enough to handle.

It's normal to feel some lower back soreness and tightness the day after deadlifting as they are working extremely hard to hold the weight in place.

Traps and Upper Back

The muscles of the traps and the upper back are also heavily active during a barbell deadlift.

This is because the bar hands off your arms and pulls your shoulders downwards towards the ground.

In order for your shoulders not to get ripped apart by the heavy loading of the bar, your traps and upper back are working extremely hard to stabilize it and hold the bar in place.

Strong powerlifter using his legs and back to deadlift and lift a heavy bar

They help to stabilize your shoulders and also keep the spine a little more neutral and prevent it from rounding at the top of your spine.

All of the muscles that we have covered are the most active during the barbell deadlift and do carry the brunt of the load together.

There are some other muscles that are engaged such as the calves and abs, but they are not engaged as heavily as the primary muscles we've listed above.

Choosing to Deadlift on Leg Day

Before we begin, it's important to note that the deadlift can be placed effectively in a leg workout OR a back workout and good results can be seen.

It's clear from the list of muscles activated above that the deadlift works many muscles in the lower body, as well as many muscles in the back.

You can choose to put your deadlifts on leg day OR back day. It's completely up to you what you prefer to do.

However we will help you pick one if you're not sure and we'll also give you our opinion on the better choice below.

Choosing to deadlift leg day is a great option as the deadlift works the quads, hamstrings and glutes very heavily, whilst also engaging the calves and making sure they're not neglected as well.

You can build some great strength and muscle in these lower body muscle groups, all in one exercise.

Plus, it works the hamstrings to quite a large degree, which is something that the barbell front or back squat are unable to offer.

However with that being said, it's still not the better overall lower body exercise. The squat is still going to reign king.

Most leg days are going to also involve squats of some sort. And unless you're doing them on a machine, it's going to be pretty tough to recover from both heavy squatting and deadlifting in the same session.

Muscular man leaning on barbell resting during a set of squats to build strength and muscle in his legs

This means one of the two main exercises is going to have to be compromised a little and done at a slightly lower intensity, which means it may start to fall behind over time if you're not able to modify your program to fit it in.

But even if that is the case both exercises are great for causing strength and muscle gain, and are awesome choices to have in your lower body workout.

Choosing to Deadlift on Back Day

Some people may choose to deadlift on back day as it does stress the spinal erectors, lats, traps, upper back and many of the other muscles in that area to a high degree.

It also makes sense to put deadlifts on back day if you're running a Push, Pull, Legs program. Each workout of the week could have a focus on building up strength and technique on one of the three main powerlifting movements.

Bench press could be performed on 'push' day, deadlifts could be performed on 'pull' day, and squats could be performed on leg day.

If you're running something like this, then it makes sense for you to be putting deadlifts in your back workouts.

The deadlift is one of the few exercises that most people perform that's going to tax the spinal erectors heavily, aside from squats, barbell rows and maybe hyperextensions (although most people don't perform them).

And if you aren't either doing barbell rows or hyperextensions, or any other exercise that heavily engages the muscles of the spinal erectors, then it may be a smarter idea to put them on back day.

The deadlift is a great movement that's going to build large amounts of strength and muscle in the back, and can be effectively used to stimulate lots of growth in those areas, alongside other back and pulling movements.

So Which Is Better and How Do You Pick?

We've already made it clear that the deadlift can be an effective exercise at building strength and muscle, regardless of whether you choose to put it on leg day or back day.

However the overall best option is likely going to be putting deadlifts on leg day, as the majority of the primary joint functions are covered by the muscles of the lower body. The muscles of the back still work hard, but not as much as the lower body muscles.

That is just our opinion, and there's no scientific, guaranteed correct answer.

You could ask several personal trainers, coaches and experienced athletes, and you'd likely get several different answers.

Working the muscles of the back and legs together during a deadlift are inevitable, and it's up to you to make the decision as to which is better and what day you're going to choose to deadlift on.

To Pick the Best One For You:

Picking the right day to deadlift for you is simply a matter of your personal preference, exercise selection and experimentation.

The deadlift can either be a leg or a back exercise, and it's all up to you to decide when you want to train it.

If you prefer to deadlift on back day, then great. Do that.

If you'd rather do your heavy deadlifting on leg day, that is fine too.

However if you're not sure, then it's smart to take a look at your exercise selection in both leg day and back day routines and go from there.

For example, if you currently have no exercise that works the spinal erectors to a large degree on your back day workout such as barbell rows, Pendlay rows or hyperextensions, then it might be a smart choice to include deadlifts there so the erectors don't miss out.

Or if you've currently already got a lot of spinal erector work on your leg day such as squats, Romanian deadlifts and kettlebell swings, then you might also want to put deadlifts on back day to avoid overuse and potential injury.

If you've already included some spinal erector work through the use of exercises such as barbell rows on back day, an you don't have any heavy leg exercises such as heavy squatting or leg pressing, then it might make sense to put heavy deadlifts on leg day.

You definitely can modify your program to suit the choice that you want to make. You don't have to put something off just because of what you've been doing in the past.

It's nice to change things up every once in a while and find something else that works better for you, and brings about better gains.

And as always, if you're really stuck and can't make a decision, you can simply experiment with deadlifting on leg day and back day, and see which one works better for you.