I was once sitting in a restaurant and overheard a group of young guys talking about working out and deadlift. One of them said ‘I trained back and I started with some deadlifts’.
Do you know how hard it was for me to hold back on blurring out that deadlifts are probably better in his legs routine.
It’s understandable why the majority of ‘gym goers’ take on the deadlift as a back exercise.
Which will make more sense as you dive into the main part of this article.
Having said that, in this article, I cover whether you should include deadlifts in a leg day or back day.
I broke down the muscles that are worked during the deadlift and why so many people swear by it as a back builder.
I then highlight the ‘better’ alternative to the deadlift on a back day, later going over a step-by-step ‘How to’ guide on performing it. Towards the end of the article, I answer some very important frequently asked questions, then finalize by throwing in a take-home message.
Muscle Groups in the Deadlift: Leg or Back?
Before we dive into whether you should do the deadlift on back or leg day, we need to break down the major muscles (1) involved in the movement.
- Quadricep Muscles
- Gluteus Maximus
- Spine Erectors
- Latissimus Dorsi
- Posterior Deltoid
The calf muscles are located in the lower leg. The individual muscles include a group of 3 muscles. The main movements of the calves involve pressing the balls of the feet down (plantar-flexion) or pressing the heel down (dorsiflexion).
The quadriceps is a group of 4 muscles that are located at the front of the upper leg. In fact, these muscles are responsible for straightening the lower leg (knee extension). A unique function of one of these muscles called the rectus femoris is that it also aids in moving the upper leg forwards (hip flexion).
We will find 3 muscles making up the hamstring found at the back of the leg. This muscle group produces a bending movement at the lower leg (knee flexion), helps twist the thigh outwards (rotation) and pulls the upper leg backwards (hip extension).
You might know this muscle better as the butt. This muscle’s location is at the back of the leg and is the main driver of straightening at the hips (hip extension).
The spine erectors are in the back, and help draw the trunk into an upright position.
The thick mass at the middle of the upper back is the trapezius. Moreover, two of the main movements that you might see in the deadlift is pinning the shoulder blades back and up.
Take a look at the other side of the back and you will find the lats. In fact, these wing shaped muscles are activated via man movements.
We’re interested in the small pullback of the upper arm (vertical extension) that takes place during the deadlift. Furthermore, this movement may tap into the lower portion of the lats to some extent.
Posterior deltoid means the rear side of the shoulders. While pinning the upper arms back, this small part of the shoulder may also be activated.
Why Lifters Do Deadlifts on Back Day?
If we break down the movements of the deadlift, we start with 3 extensions of the lower body.
This includes plantar-flexion while pressing off the ground, followed by knee and extension to form a ‘straight leg’ position. When performed correctly, this kinetic chain of movements can effectively target the right muscles. Moreover, these include the calves, quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes for gym gains (1).
During the 4th and 5th part of lift, we can see more lower back extension and scapula retraction. Furthermore, these movements help to get into an upright position, with the shoulder blades and arms pinned back. In fact, these series of movements target the back extensors and the middle portion of the upper back known as the trapezius (1). Not to mention hitting other areas of the back and shoulders (1).
In fact, this portion of the lift is why the deadlifts are promoted as a back exercise. However, I believe that there are much more effective exercises to target these movements and muscle groups, like block or rack pulls.
These exercises eliminate most of the leg movements that are seen in the deadlift. Moreover, the variations shift the attention and energy to specific ranges and movements that target the back muscles.
Should You Deadlift On Leg or Back Day?
In 2022, Harmon et al.(2) compared the force production of isometric mid-thigh based pulls to the isometric deadlift using straight and hex lifting bars.
Indeed, the mid-thigh pull produced greater forces. For this reason, a lifter may be able to lift heavier weights or produce more training volume with the mid-thigh pulls. Overall, it provides more stimulus to back specific movements and muscles neutralizing most of the lower body activity.
The deadlift can certainly help build the back by default, from the additional weekly stimulus. However, I never recommend slotting it in the back or pull day.
Frequently Asked Questions
There are a variety of back exercises, the exercises that hit the back movements of the deadlift the most are the rack pull or block pull.
Depending on your training split, deadlifts would mainly target your back muscles. If you choose to do a Romanian deadlift heavy session, then it would target your legs.
Without a doubt, the deadlift hits the major muscle groups of the back, but should it be considered as a back exercise? Probably not, as most of the focus should be on the lower body.
In fact, there are better alternatives like the rack pull, that take most of the lower body activity out of the equation, allowing you to focus more effort on the back movements. As a result, this exercise may provide better strength and muscle gains.
- Diamant, Wiktor., Geisler, S., Havers, T., et al. ‘Comparison of EMG Activity between Single-Leg Deadlift and Conventional Bilateral Deadlift in Trained Amateur Athletes-An Empirical Analysis’ International journal of exercise science. 2021; 14(1):187
- Harmon, R.A., Malayszek, D.D., Costa, P.B., et al. ‘Performance Between Isometric Mid-Thigh Pulls and the Deadlift With Different Bars’ California State University Fullerton Conference. 2015
- ScottHermanFitness (2014). ‘How To: Rack Pull- Increase your Deadlift Max & Explosive power’ Available at: https://youtu.be/P-Ir835AWhQ (Accessed: 6/12/2022)
More About Deadlift: