Does the Deadlift Build Muscle?

Exercise enthusiasts may pose the question, “does the deadlift build muscle?” The short answer is yes, and to a noteworthy degree. The deadlift, properly executed, offers a full body workout that is not duplicated by other movements. Muscle fiber recruitment is staggeringly high in this basic lift, as a variety of muscle groups are engaged in the fundamental task of lifting an inert bar off of the ground.  From a biomechanical standpoint, this makes the movement complex, increasing the difficulty of the lift and making the necessity for proper technique especially important. To further understand how the movement builds muscle, consider some facts related to the deadlift.

Augmented Hormone Production

Movements that involve larger muscle groups at high weight and maximal intensity facilitate the secretion of hormones, most notably, testosterone. Increases in testosterone increase neurological efficiency and functionality, thereby increasing muscle size and strength.[1]

Increased Muscle Fiber Recruitment

As a basic, heavy movement, the deadlift requires greater force production from a larger number of muscle groups than most other exercises. As force is created, muscles recruit additional motor units to meet the challenge of extra weight.

Primary Muscles Exerted

  • Back Extensors – The upward and downward portions of the deadlift employ the back extensors. As the bar is lifted from the ground to the knee, the back extensors contract concentrically. The lowering movement (knee to ground) causes the extensors to extend eccentrically.  Studies have conclusively demonstrated that the deadlift engages the extensor muscles to a greater degree than similar exercises intended to work the same muscles.[2]
  • Abdominal and Trunk Stabilizers – Since the deadlift is a free-weight exercise with some imbalance, a number of stabilizer muscles are used to steady the weight. Since the body is in a prone position and must counteract the imbalance, considerable effort must be given to controlling the bar during the motion.[3]


The deadlift, while tremendously efficacious, can be extremely dangerous with improper form. Great care should be given to spinal posture, foot placement, chest position, and bar path and proximity to the body.

  • Spinal Posture – Flexed trunk muscles galvanize the back to lift the weight. Excessive leaning can place significant strain on the lower back, increasing the potentiality for injury. The torso should not parallel the ground, but should be angled upward to diminish strain on the lower back. The torso’s posture should be inflexible and taut to support the vertebrae.
  • Foot Placement – The feet should be slightly wider than shoulder width apart, and pointed slightly outward. This will allow the knees to bend and lengthen throughout the movement without excessive strain.
  • Chest Position – The chest should be pushed out, thus allowing the back to remain in a straightened position.
  • Bar Path and Proximity to the Body – As the bar is lifted, keeping the bar in close proximity to the body allows the torso to remain taut without rounding the lower back.

[1] Hales. Improving the Deadlift: Understanding Biomechanical Constraints and Physiological Adaptations to Resistance Exercise.

[2] Nuzzo; McCaulley; Cormie; Cavill; McBride. Trunk Muscle Activity During Stability Ball And Free Weight Exercises.

[3] Hamlyn; Behm; Young. Trunk Muscle Activation During Dynamic Weight-Training Exercises and Isometric Instability Activities

Originally posted 2014-01-06 17:19:14.


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