If you’re someone who hits the weights five times a week, chances are you’ve done a deadlift in one form or another.

They’re one of the best exercises for strengthening the lower back and hamstrings, but because of the muscles it targets, there’s a lot of confusion around the movement.

If you ask a bodybuilder, they’ll probably hit deadlifts on a back day, whereas if you ask a powerlifter, they’ll hit deadlifts on leg day.

A deadlift may be pretty simple to perform, but it’s definitely not an isolation movement. It activates your entire body in some capacity, but two areas are activated most: your back and legs.

Because of this, there’s a lot of confusion over where to place the deadlift in your training program. Do you deadlift on leg days, or do you deadlift on back days?

So, we’re giving you everything you need to know about deadlifts and how you can best work them into your training program.

Benefits Of Deadlifting

If you’re ready to push your strength, muscle, and athleticism to new levels, you’ll want to ensure your program includes the king of all exercises: the deadlift.

It’s a compound full-body movement that targets muscles in your entire body—from your traps and lats to your hamstring and glutes. They’re known to have full-body benefits essential for developing total-body strength and power, hip function, core strength, and spinal stabilization.

And because deadlifts recruit and activate several muscle groups, joints, and stabilizers throughout the movement, they also increase energy expenditure more than most other movements.

When performed with impeccable form, adding the deadlift into your training program can add a ton of health and performance benefits, including:

  • Greater strength
  • Full-body muscle activation
  • Stronger legs and back
  • Increase calorie and fat burn
  • Trigger release of anabolic hormones
  • Improve core strength
  • Better athleticism
  • Improve poster
  • Strengthen grip
  • Reduce the risk of back injury

With a long list of benefits, why wouldn’t you want to deadlift?

Deadlift Muscles Explained: Legs Vs Back

Because the deadlift engages muscles in both the back and legs, there’s a lot of confusion over which workout it fits into. Generally speaking, deadlifts are a leg exercise.

They involve the extension of the hips and the knees, which subsequently recruits and activates the quads, hamstrings, and glutes.

Back muscles like the lats and spinal erectors are also heavily active during a deadlift, so it technically could be performed on either a back day or a leg day.

To decide where the deadlift fits best, you first need to understand how the body moves and what muscles are targeted during a deadlift. The following joint actions happen when deadlifting:

  • Knee extension (knees straighten)
  • Hip extension (thrusting or pushing the hips forward from a hinged position)
  • Shoulder extension

Because knee and hip extension are the main actions of a deadlift, they make it primarily a lower body exercise, but let’s look at what muscles are recruited during a deadlift.

  1. Quadriceps
  2. Hamstrings
  3. Glutes
  4. Spinal erectors
  5. Latissimus dorsi
  6. Trapezius

Should You Deadlift On Back Or Leg Day?

Depending on whom you talk to, you’ll get different answers about whether you should deadlift on back or leg day.

Because the legs are the primary muscles engaged during a deadlift, many people choose to do them on leg day.

But if you’re doing deals alongside squats, hamstring curls, and other leg exercises, here are a couple of things to think about:

  1. Consider your timing. If you’re doing heavy squats, leave deadlifts to the end of your workout. Squats are also an excellent warmup for deadlifting.
  2. What’s your goal? If you want to increase your deadlift PR, doing them on a leg day might be challenging to get the energy needed to max out your weight.

On the other hand, as you extend your knees and pull the barbell higher, your back takes over. Your back and hips work together to get the hinge motion and strong lockout, and your upper back engages to pull the bar into full extension.

Although the back muscle may not be the prime movers during a deadlift, you can’t argue that they play a significant role.

Because the deadlift engages the lower back, lats, and traps, it’s why many lifters choose to make it part of their back day. And because upper body workouts aren’t taxing on the lower body, you can pull more weight if performed on a back day.

Ultimately, when you deadlift depends on your goals and training regimen. If your goal is to build muscle and strength or get into powerlifting, you might choose to deadlift on both back and leg days, choosing high reps and low weight on a leg day and low reps with high weight on a back day.

If your goal is to get shredded, performing deadlifts on a leg day may be better as an accessory move.

Regardless of your goal, heavy deadlifts are a great exercise to work into your routine to enhance core strength and build strength and power in the posterior chain muscles.

But how do you increase your deadlift? Here are 12 tips to improve your deadlift and work progressive overload:

  1. Center the barbell and ensure the barbell goes through the center of the foot on setup
  2. Strengthen your grip for a stronger deadlift
  3. Pin the bar to your legs throughout the entire movement (you may even get some shin scrapes)
  4. Deadlift in soft-soled trainers or barefoot and get low before you pull
  5. Nail your deadlift setup position
  6. Dead stop each rep and reset
  7. Heavier isn’t always better, but lifts over 70% of your 1RM will still increase strength
  8. Film yourself for a better lift
  9. Make sure you’re breathing correctly by focusing on big, deep breaths and exhaling the rib cage to expand the diaphragm
  10. Fix the caving knees by applying pressure to the outside of the floor
  11. Finish your deadlift strong and avoid hyperextending
  12. Control the weight as you lower it, don’t drop your deadlift (you’re reducing time under tension and increasing the risk of injury if you do)

Final Thoughts

Whether you’re looking for better back strength or stronger legs, deadlifts are some of the best exercises you can do for full-body strength. And because there are several variations, they cater to all fitness levels and physical statures.

Next time you plan your training program, consider tossing a few variations of the deadlift in and watch your strength develop fast.