Should you include deadlifts on your back or leg day?
What day should you do deadlifts for best results?
This blog post will provide all the necessary information to clear any doubts & guide you toward making an instructed decision for your upcoming workout.
Understanding Deadlifts: Is It a Back or Leg Exercise?
Deadlift is a leg/hip dominant exercise that targets muscles such as the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves. However, it is NOT ONLY a leg exercise; it is a multi-joint, full-body exercise that builds a strong back too!
While your back plays a crucial role in the deadlift, it doesn’t create the movement. Instead, it serves to limit it and protect your spine/back from rounding or extending (stiffening the core).
To perform the deadlift safely, efficiently, and correctly, the muscles surrounding the spine (known as spinal stabilizers), the upper and lower back, must actively engage during the exercise.
This is one of the reasons why deadlifting can often result in heavier weights than other back or leg exercises. Multiple large muscle groups work together (glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, spinal erectors, lats, traps, and core) to move a heavy weight from the floor to a standing position.
Therefore, to answer the original question, deadlifts can be included in both leg and back workouts as they work both the back and legs!
Deadlifts as Part of Your Back Workout
Incorporating deadlifts into your back workout routine can be an excellent addition if you want a wider and thicker V-shaped back.
It’s essential to highlight that as deadlifts are leg-dominant exercises, they should NOT replace traditional back exercises but should complement them!
“I always include half-rep deadlifts in my back routine, and I usually do them after one type of row and before another type of row or back exercise because I don’t think of them as a lower-back exercise.”As the famous bodybuilder, Art Atwood said.
Here are a few deadlifting tips that can maximize your back gains:
1) When setting up for a deadlift, it’s crucial to keep the bar close to your body and pull your shoulders (shoulder blades) back and down. This setup engages the big back muscle (Latissimus Dorsi), resulting in greater activation during the lift.
PRO TIP: If you’re having trouble activating your back muscles during deadlifts, try using a resistance band tied to the bar with the resistance applied from the front, attempting to pull the bar away from you. You aim to keep the bar close to your body throughout the lift. This technique can help you better activate your lats leading to better results.
2) The rhomboids and traps are key muscles in setting your shoulders into the correct position and keeping them stable during the deadlift exercise. By locking in this position, you can avoid rounding the shoulders but fully activate the upper back muscles.
This technique ensures proper form and efficient, targeted muscle engagement for a more effective back workout.
3) Complete each rep and set with a controlled movement and slow tempo to feel the muscles firing: 3 seconds up, 1-second hold, and 3 seconds down.
4) Choose an appropriate weight that allows you to maintain a stiff back and avoid rounding. Rounding can result in less ‘back work’ and increases the risk of injury. Therefore, selecting a weight that allows you to complete the exercise with the proper form is crucial for the best result and to prevent injuries.
5) Incorporating deadlifts at the end of a back workout can benefit muscle growth and strength development. I only recommend this for advanced athletes! This is because previous exercises will have already fatigued the targeted muscles. Also, due to fatigue, those back muscles will be burning.
6) If you are a beginner, complete it with lighter weights, focusing on form!
By incorporating these techniques into your deadlift setup, you can ensure that your back muscles work efficiently, leading to more significant gains in back strength and size.
When Is It NOT Okay to Feel It on Your Back?
There is a difference between working the back and hurting the back!
Suppose you experience a severe lower back ache or muscle soreness after performing deadlifts, and you don’t feel like your legs have been working hard. In that case, it’s a sign that you are not using your legs efficiently during the exercise. Instead, you’re relying too much on your back muscles, which can lead to discomfort and pain.
To perform deadlifts correctly, you need to engage your hips, which are the primary drivers of the movement. When executed perfectly, your legs should be tired and work hard, not your back, during the exercise.
Reasons for back pain after deadlifts:
- Your shoulders are too far over the bar, which puts excessive stress on the lower back (weight on the front of the feet)
- Your hips are too high or shoot up while lifting (rounding the back). Weak glutes/hips can increase the risk of rounding too.
- Overextended back (too much arch/anterior pelvic tilt)
- Incorrect starting position, form, and technique
- Imbalances and mobility (movement) restrictions
Deadlift on Back Day – Sample Workout
|1st Week||2nd Week||3rd Week||4th Week|
|BB Clean||5 sets x 8 reps, rest 120 sec.||5 sets x 6 reps, rest 90 sec.||4-6 sets x 4 reps, rest 3 mins.||4-6 sets x 4-5 reps, rest 3-5 mins.|
|Bent Over Row||2-3 x12, rest 30-60 sec.||2-3 x10, rest 30-60 sec.||3 x10, rest 60 sec.||3 x6-8 reps, rest 90 sec.|
|Cable Face Pull||2-3 x20, rest 30 sec.||2-3 x15, rest 30 sec.||2-3 x15, rest 30 sec.||2-3 x15, rest 30 sec.|
|Bicep Curls||2-3 x15, rest 30 sec.||2-3 x12, rest 30 sec.||2-3 x10, rest 30 sec.||3-4 x8-10, rest 30 sec.|
|Lat Pulldown||2-3 x15, rest 30 sec.||2-3 x12, rest 30 sec.||2-3 x10, rest 30 sec.||3-4 x8-10, rest 30 sec.|
|Deadlift/ Trap bar deadlift||2-3 x 12, rest 30-60 sec. (Light weight, focus on form & activation).||2-3 x10, rest 30-60 sec. (increase weight gradually, maintain technique).||3 x10, rest 60-90 sec.||3 x6-8, rest 90 sec.|
Deadlifts as Part of Your Leg Workout
As mentioned above, while deadlifting, you primarily move about the hips (primary movers are the hip and knee extensors), making it a leg-dominant exercise that strengthens the back.
Now, no matter your starting position, you MUST LIMIT spinal movement!
To perform a proper deadlift, imagine kicking the ground away from you, similar to how you would commit a leg press exercise. Also, imagine thrusting the hips forward like you do while kettlebell swinging or Glute thrusting, activating the glutes, and peaking power output.
By focusing on using your legs and hips to move the weight, you’ll get a leg-dominant workout that will help you build strong, toned legs.
FURTHER READING: Should You Squat & Deadlift On The Same Day (Same Workout)?
Deadlift on Leg Day – Sample Workout
|1st Week||2nd Week||3rd Week||4th Week|
|KB Swings||1-2 x15-20, rest 60 sec.||2-3 x15-20, rest 60 sec.||3 x20, rest 30 sec.||3 x20, rest 30 sec.|
|Sumo/ Conventional Deadlift||2-3 x12, rest 30-60 sec. (Light weight, focus on form & activation)||2-3 x10, rest 30-60 sec. (increase weight gradually, maintain technique)||3 x10, rest 60-90 sec.||3 x6-8, rest 90 sec.|
|Single-leg Squat/ Single-leg Sit Down & Get Up||2-3 x10, rest 30 sec.||2-3 x10, rest 30 sec.||2-3 x12, rest 30 sec.||2-3 x15, rest 30 sec.|
|Leg Extension + Hamstring Curl||2-3 x15, rest 30 sec.||2-3 x15, rest 30 sec.||3 x12, rest 30 sec.||3-4 x10, rest 30 sec.|
|Dumbbell Lunges||2-3 x20, rest 30-60 sec.||2-3 x20, rest 30 sec.||3 x16, rest 30 sec.||3-4 x15, rest 30 sec.|
|Abductions||2-3 x12, rest 30-60 sec.||2-3 x10, rest 30-60 sec.||3 x10, rest 60 sec.||3 x6-8, rest 90 sec.|
The Best Deadlift Variation for Back and Leg Workout
Understanding which muscles are worked the most during various deadlift variations is crucial when selecting which exercises to include in your training regimen.
From a Sports Biomechanics perspective, deadlifts are primarily considered hip and knee extension exercises.
However, this field examines human movement, considering factors such as the equipment and its length, the weight used, and the angles of the torso, knees, and hips.
Factors such as an individual’s posture and anatomy can also impact which muscle groups are activated, even on the same exercise. They usually measure muscle activation (which muscle works dominantly) during different deadlift variations using electromyography (EMG)
The explanation of bodybuilding is more straightforward.
Deadlifts are often considered a compound exercise that works multiple muscle groups simultaneously, making them suitable for a back, post-chain, leg, or full-body workout.
Studies have been conducted to examine the muscle activation associated with different deadlift variations. Still, they can be challenging for those without an anatomical background.
Proved by various research, this is what muscles the most popular deadlift variations work dominantly:
This deadlift is often thought to be more back dominant. You start with your hips (angle) around 45 degrees and the weight in front of your body.
This requires strong lower back muscles, such as the erector spinae, to stabilize your spine and maintain proper form. The pulling motion involves the back muscles, including the lats, rhomboids, and traps, while the legs and hips also play a role.
However, the mechanics of the movement tend to emphasize the back muscles (erector spinae) dominantly while also activating the Gluteus to a great extent. This variation makes an excellent choice for both back and leg workouts.
Trap Bar Deadlift
It’s a deadlift variation that increases activation of the front thigh muscles, specifically the Rectus femoris. This is because the weight is positioned closer to your center of gravity, making it a slightly easier variation to execute.
Despite this difference, the overall position and muscle activation are similar to the conventional deadlift, which can be suitable for both leg and back workouts.
It’s worth noting that this exercise is popular among athletes for its ability to enhance athletic performance.
Due to its high torso angle, wide stance with the grips inside of the stance, and low hip position, this deadlift variation tends to place greater emphasis on the legs. As a result, it is often more suitable for leg workouts.
It’s important to note that the deadlift variations I mention in this section DO WORK OTHER MUSCLE GROUPS. However, these muscles tend to activate to a greater extent during each respective variation.
Other studies and PDF files you can download if you would like to dig deeper into the study of sports biomechanics:
- (1) Hales, M., & Johnson, B. (2014). The effects of variation of the deadlift exercise on trunk and leg muscle activations. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(10), 2929-2937.
- (2) Cholewa, J. M., Wyszczelska-Rokiel, M., Glowacki, R., Jakubowski, H., Matthews, T., Wood, R., & Paolone, V. (2019). The effects of deadlift variations on muscle activation of the lumbar and thoracic erector spinae. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 33(5), 1140-1148.
- (3) Escamilla, R. F., Francisco, A. C., Fleisig, G. S., Barrentine, S. W., Welch, C. M., Kayes, A. V., & Andrews, J. R. (2000). A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 32(7), 1265-1275.
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