Are Deadlifts for Back Day or Leg Day?

Strength Training 6 min Read

Written by

Keith Hansen

I’ve heard this topic come up a lot over the years, and I’ve most recently seen it on Instagram.

One of the great debates for strength training is, “Are deadlifts a back exercise or a leg exercise?”.

The answer is that deadlifts are a leg exercise, and specifically a glute/ham-focused exercise. But not in the traditional sense.

We don’t deadlift to make muscles big. Instead, we use other lifts to make muscles big and use the deadlift to tie them all together to develop strength.

Let’s get into the specifics.

What Makes Muscles Grow?

The primary driver for hypertrophy (muscle growth) is eccentric (lowering the weight) contractions. Eccentric motion is when your muscles increase in length against resistance. For example, in a bicep curl, the eccentric movement is when you lower the weight back to the ground. You can remember eccentric by equating it to the “easy” part of a lift.

The other half of a lift is concentric (lifting the weight) contractions. Concentric motion is when your muscles shorten in length against resistance. Concentric contractions fine-tune the nervous system to make a muscle fire more effectively. In the bicep curl example, the concentric portion is when you bring the weight up to your shoulders against gravity. It is easy to remember which part of a lift is the concentric portion when you have to concentrate the hardest to do it.

There is a third type of contraction called isometric. Isometric contraction means the muscle is neither lengthening nor shortening. An exercise example of this would be doing a wall sit, a plank, or a dumbbell curl and holding it halfway up for time.

Isometric contractions do not lead to significant muscle growth, but they can increase strength at that joint angle by improving your nervous system.

What is Sarcoplasmic & Myofibrillar Muscle Hypertrophy?

What Makes Muscles Strong?

The two most essential components of our ability to generate force are:

– how much muscle do you have?
– how well does your nervous system recruit that muscle?

How much muscle you have is heavily influenced by eccentric contractions and the hypertrophy they stimulate.

How well your nervous system recruits that muscle is primarily a result of your concentric contractions and their effects on your body’s wiring.

This combo is why most strength training programs include heavy weights & low reps to improve your nervous system and lower weight with moderate to high reps to increase muscle mass by allowing for a lot of eccentric action.

We need both components for true strength. Combining these elements ensures your muscles grow optimally.

The deadlift is very good at improving your nervous system’s ability to recruit muscle through heavy weights and low reps, but the deadlift oftentimes lacks sufficient hypertrophy stimulus.

Why You Shouldn’t Consider Deadlifts a Back Exercise

When you do a great deadlift, your back begins in a neutral position and stays neutral throughout the entire lift.

Sound familiar?

When you do an excellent deadlift, your back stays isometrically contracted. Your back muscles will get stronger in a neutral position, but they won’t grow much. Your low back suffers from this.

The deadlift shouldn’t be your weapon of choice if you’re after a big back, thick lats, and massive traps. It’s excellent for improving your back’s ability to hold a neutral position and increasing hip strength, and this is critical for lifting any load. But deadlifts will not build a big back on their own.

To build a thick, broad back, you will need upper body pulling exercises. Exercises that you can focus on both concentric and eccentric contractions for the lats, traps, and other back muscles.

6 Best Horizontal Pulling Exercises to Build Back/Lats

Then Which Day is Deadlift Day?

Deadlifts should be done on deadlift day. AKA lower body pulling day.

Do deadlifts to improve your body’s ability to lift heavy weights. Add posterior chain work that hits the glutes and hams after your deadlifts to stimulate maximal hypertrophy in those muscles.

Your glutes and hamstrings are the muscles that do the heavy lifting in deadlifts. If you are interested in growing those muscles by using deadlifts you need to ensure you can both lift and lower the weight with control. Emphasizing the eccentric portion of the lift (remember, the “easy” part) will ensure you get maximal muscle growth.

If you are feeling deadlifts primarily in your low back, your technique may need to be looked at. Read The Serious Guide On How To Conventional Deadlift for technique tips, and take some videos of yourself to compare body positioning. Be sure to master the hip hinge/Romanian deadlift pattern. You will also find it incredibly helpful to raise the starting point of the deadlift by using blocks when learning to master the conventional deadlift.

Do rows, pull-downs, and farmer’s walks to stimulate hypertrophy in the upper/mid-back. This will make your back bigger and transfer over to your deadlift.

6 Exercises That Will Increase Your Conventional Deadlift Max

If you need more glute/hamstring growth you can check our article 6 Best Hip Dominant Exercises to Build Glutes/Hamstrings to see our favorites.

Get Started with the Deadlift

Read The Serious Guide to the Conventional Deadlift to familiarize yourself with the king of strength exercises.

Then get started with a deadlift program. Below is our free beginner program that will instill great deadlift mechanics.

Keith Hansen

Keith was an All-State wrestler in high school and in 2007 hung up his singlet to attend Florida State University to pursue a B.S. in business management. He wasn't sure what industry he wanted to be involved in at the time, but soon realized after graduating in 2011 that fitness was the ever-constant activity in his life. Keith began studying to become a personal trainer and in 2013 earned the National Strength and Conditioning Association's Personal Trainer certification. After a short stint as a big box gym trainer he realized he wanted to bring something different to Tallahassee. Keith competes in Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifting, and Crossfit.