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Deadlifts on Back Day?

Reading Time: 14 minutes

Introduction

We’re at an interesting point in the bodybuilding and powerlifting communities. There seems to be a good bit of arguing going around as to whether or not the deadlift is a back exercise. I think just about everyone knows that deadlifts are great for the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back, but then we have some very split camps as we move to the upper back – namely, the lats and traps.

Why is this the case? First of all, research on the deadlift is actually seriously lacking, especially when compared to the other power lifts: the bench press and the squat. The little research we do have on the deadlift has really only assessed biomechanics and muscle activation in the lower body and spine. With this in mind, it’s actually kind of hard to argue that the deadlift is a good upper back exercise from an evidence-based standpoint; we have very little evidence with which to do so. However, we still have a large portion of anecdotal knowledge and people claiming that the deadlift is the “king” of back exercises.

With these issues in mind, let’s take a stroll down investigation avenue and see if we can uncover some clues about how the deadlift might affect upper back muscle growth.

How Does Research Predict Hypertrophy?

First, we need to delve into how researchers attempt to predict hypertrophy. Now, obviously an 8-24 week training program followed by ultrasound measurements of muscle thickness or CSA (cross-sectional area) would be a gold standard, but those projects take a long time and run into a lot of speed bumps. It’s much easier for scientists to analyze acute measurements and then predict long term gains from their findings. The three main things we often look at are:

1. Protein Synthesis. Protein synthesis is probably the most common marker researchers attempt to use to predict muscle mass gains. We often hear things like, “this, that, and the other increases protein synthesis, which is great for gains!” It’s true that we need protein synthesis to build muscle mass (3), however, simply measuring protein synthesis alone is a poor predictor for long term gains (6,10,19). First, we need to ensure we’re measuring muscle protein synthesis, and not just general protein synthesis. Second, we often times forget that protein breakdown must also be included in this equation. The relationship between protein synthesis and protein breakdown determines our overall protein balance, which is a stronger predictor of gains than just protein synthesis (3,27).

This concept is especially important when we consider the fact that resistance training (without post-workout nutrition) can actually induce an overall negative protein balance (22) due to an increase in both protein synthesis and protein breakdown. If we were to just look at protein synthesis following training, this wouldn’t give us a great idea of long-term gains since we’re not also assessing protein breakdown. This also underscores the importance of nutrition but that’s outside the scope of this piece.

Anyways, that was a bit of a ramble, but it’s worth noting that we don’t have any investigations measuring protein synthesis or overall balance following a deadlift workout. And even then, that wouldn’t necessarily tell us if the lats and traps are going to benefit from this protein balance. We need to delve further.

2. Muscle Activation. This is another very common refrain in the fitness field; “this exercise activates your quads – it’s a great exercise for quad growth.” This section is likely much more applicable to overall growth than just assessing protein synthesis. Muscle activation can tell us what muscles are active in a given exercise, simple right? Now, this is important because it lets us know what muscles are experiencing mechanical tension in the exercise, which is the strongest stimulus for growth (28). More activation = more tension which should result in more growth.

We see the importance of this idea in a great study from Wakahara et al. (2012). These researchers first measured muscle activation in a given triceps exercise. After this, they had the subjects perform that exercise 3x/week for 12 weeks and then measured changes in muscle cross-sectional area following the 12-weeks. They found that the region of the triceps that was most active in the exercise grew the most throughout the 12-weeks (29). Not only is this an example of muscle activation being important for growth, but it also lends support to the idea of regional hypertrophy, in that muscles don’t always grow in a uniform way (2). This is why multiple exercises are often necessary to fully develop a given muscle group (12), but that’s outside the scope of this piece.

Now, activation isn’t always the king of predicting growth. A great example of this is the fact that the calves are actually pretty active during the squat (26) and deadlift (7). Unfortunately for many gym bros, however, this doesn’t seem to result in a ton of growth, but it might offer a little benefit (23). I’ve even torn my calf while deadlifting, but that’s beside the point.

So, what gives?

3. Joint Mechanics. The last thing we can look at to predict potential gains from an exercise is the joint moment in a given exercise or range of motion. We cover this much more in-depth in our Physics of Bodybuilding article (here), but we’ll cover it quickly here as well.

As we lift, weights exert force on us; this force is the combination of the mass of the weight and its acceleration due to gravity. Now, imagine a biceps curl (the image) in which we’re curling a 10kg dumbbell with our forearm parallel to the floor. The dumbbell exerts 98 N of force and is also 32cm away from our elbow. The 32cm represents the moment arm between the weight and the joint – so, we multiply the force exerted by the weight by the moment arm to find the external moment, i.e. 31.36 Nm in this case. This represents the external moment of the exercise, and it also represents the minimum amount of force a joint would have to produce to lift the weight. This force is largely dependent on the force that the prime mover muscle can produce.

We can use these measurements to predict what exercises might be more effective for certain muscle groups. The greater the external moment for the given joint/muscle group, the more force the muscle will have to produce in order to perform the movement. How do we increase muscle force? We recruit more muscle fibers! Now, we’re back to the muscle activation portion of this long-winded discussion. We see evidence of this occurring when comparing front squats and back squats. A front squat will exert a greater external moment at the knee joint, and as a consequence, requires less weight to achieve a high level of muscle activation compared to the back squat (15).

Okay, with our background information well-covered, let’s get into the nitty-gritty of the deadlift.

Deadlift Muscle Activation

We’ve covered how muscle activation can be important for gains, so what kind of activation do we see in the deadlift? Obviously, the hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors all show massive amounts of activation, especially in heavier deadlifts (4,5,7,9,24). This is to be expected; everyone knows that the deadlift is great for these muscle groups. Do we have any info on upper back activation?

We have one study that shows that the lats achieved 70% of their maximal activation using an isokinetic device to perform a deadlift (20). We have another study that found that the traps were one of the most active muscle groups during 1RM deadlifts at both the beginning and the end of the pull (7). Lastly, we have a well-done Master’s thesis finding high levels of both lat and trap activation in deadlifts – especially at 80% of 1RM compared to 60% (4). And, that’s pretty much it.

When it comes to muscle activation, we don’t have a ton of concrete evidence to back up any claims that the deadlift can be a good upper back exercise. With that terrible disappointment, let’s forge on.

Deadlift Moment Arms

When it comes to the mechanics of deadlifting, we again have a decent number of studies that assess joint moments throughout the deadlift. However, these studies only examine moments at the ankle, knee, hip, and intervertebral (spine) joints (11,17). This makes things difficult as we don’t have much data to begin with, but we also have to deal with the fact that there’s a ton of variability in individual deadlift mechanics due to segment lengths and leverages (8,21).

The few studies we do have show that the largest external moment during the deadlift is at the hip joint (11,16,17). This is a no-brainer; the deadlift is a hip hinge movement and we know it’s great for developing the muscles around the hips. The deadlift also exerts a sort of “negative” moment arm at the knee joint (11) – we still see high levels of quad activation in the beginning of a deadlift (7), but that’s likely due to the quads having to overcome the contraction of the hamstrings, rather than the weight itself. This type of analysis allows us to see that the deadlift is a great hip exercise, but not a great knee/quad exercise (5). That’s a discussion for another time.

So, the moment we’ve all been waiting for. Sorry. We have literally zero studies examining the internal or external moment arms at the shoulder, lat, or trap during the deadlift. Zip. Nada. Again, the people claiming deadlifts to be a great back exercise are taking another fat L.

With this glaring of a gap in the research, can we make any hypotheses for further studies?

Hypothesis

Here’s a few things future research needs to look at:

Muscle activation of the traps and lats in the deadlift compared to traditional back exercises, like barbell rows and pull-ups. We do have a few studies showing high levels of lat and trap activation in the deadlift, but we only have these figures in isolation and never see a comparison with other exercises. I’d also love to see rear delt activation on deadlifts as I have strained my rear delts multiple times while deadlifting.

Now, we also have to consider the fact that the activation of the lats and traps in the deadlift would be mostly isometric, i.e. the muscles are producing force but are not changing length much (they’ll certainly lengthen as they fatigue). A muscle can produce a relatively large amount of force isometrically as it has plenty of time to create actin-myosin cross-bridges (13). Since a muscle experiences mechanical tension by producing force (28), we can still assume that the traps and lats experience a decent tension stimulus during the deadlift.

Many people also like to think that isometrics aren’t great for growth. That’s really not the case in the real world. Yes, we see research evidence leaning towards eccentric contractions being the best stimulus for growth, but the studies that determine this use greater weights during eccentric-only training to account for the strength difference between eccentric and concentric contractions – check our Eccentrics and Muscle Growth article (here) for more info on that. Since the weight never changes during real world lifting, there’s not a massive benefit to eccentric contractions like everyone thinks (13).

With that being said, we have several studies showing that growth can still happen from isometric training (1,13,14,18,25,30). Isometric contractions that undergo a high time under tension might even be more beneficial as this constant tension will lead to quicker metabolite accumulation which can both increase muscle activation and act as a growth signal on its own (25,28). Since a set of say, 6 deadlifts, could easily induce 20-30 seconds of time under tension on the traps and lats, this could definitely represent a large growth stimulus for these muscle groups.

Following muscle activation, we need to look at joint moments. As you can see in the figures, there is an external moment at the shoulder joint for about the first half of a deadlift. The bottom half of the deadlift is likely the most effective portion for lat development, because as the bar passes the knee, this external moment disappears as the hips get closer to the bar – i.e. the bar is directly under your shoulder and requires less lat activation to maintain shoulder position.

The traps, on the other hand, probably have a pretty constant moment arm throughout the exercise since this is dependent on your hand placement on the bar. However, the external moment would change since the angle of tension would change throughout the movement – i.e. the weight is mostly trying to protract your shoulder blades during the first half of the movement whereas it’s trying to depress your shoulder blades at the top. Research hasn’t uncovered a great way to measure trap moments as the traps are involved in so many different shoulder/scapular movements that it’s difficult to isolate a single action. I think the moment arm would be something like the horizontal distance from the medial border of the scapula to the hand placement on the bar, but we need to see confirmation of this in future studies.

With this biomechanical analysis in mind, we can make a few hypotheses about the deadlift:

  • It’s probably a better trap exercise than a lat exercise due to the constant external moment on the traps.
  • Performing movements that emphasize the bottom half of the exercise, like stiff leg deadlifts, might be better for the lats as it would increase the time under tension in these muscles.
  • Widening your grip and performing snatch grip deadlifts is probably a great way to train the traps as this will increase the moment arm for the traps. It could also increase the adduction moment for the lats, but we’d need some intense 3-D analysis to confirm that idea.

Conclusion

Overall, I think we can hypothesize that the deadlift can be a solid back exercise. I don’t think it’s the end-all, be-all, per say, but it’s still a solid addition to a back training program. The deadlift is probably a better trap exercise than lat exercise, however, you can use variations to influence this relationship to a small degree.

I think many people simply over-react to the statement that the deadlift is the “king” of back exercises. Yes, from our analysis, it’s going to help develop virtually every muscle in your back. However, no training program should only have one exercise for a given set of muscle groups. The deadlift can be a solid addition to a training program, but you’ll still want to perform additional movements to target the lats more and to challenge the upper back muscles through different ranges of motion. You certainly don’t have to deadlift to build a big back, but we do think it would help.

So, can you do deadlifts on back day? Of course! Can you do them on leg day? Of course! Wherever you choose to place deadlifts in your training plan is entirely reliant on your goals. If you’re a powerlifter or strongman, you might want to keep deadlifts with your lower body training or even have a day each week that focuses primarily on deadlifting. However, as a bodybuilder, adding deadlifts to your back day makes solid sense. This can reduce the amount of highly fatiguing exercises that you have to do on leg day and it can also act as an additional day to develop your hamstrings when you do them on back day. For bodybuilders, I’d recommend things like rack pulls, block pulls, RDLs, or even stiff leg deadlifts depending on your goals. This can help you get the most out of each movement by either overloading the weight (rack/block pulls), increasing time under tension (RDLs), or increasing the range of motion (stiff legs). As long as an exercise fits your goal for a given workout, you can absolutely add in it.

Lastly, if anyone is wondering why we’ve spent so much time uncovering these gaps in the science, it’s because we do plan to investigate these ideas further in our laboratory. Keep your eyes peeled over the next year or two as we’re planning to start taking a closer look at the deadlift as a potential back exercise. Hopefully this article is completely obsolete after the next two years, we’ll have all of the answers we’ll need!

References

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