When it comes to the deadlift, everybody’s got an opinion.
Many swear by the deadlift as the ultimate lift, and then they get injured and they don’t love it anymore.
Based on years of experience, it seems like the average gym goer gets injured during dealifting for two main reasons:
- An already pre-existing injury makes any sort of volume detrimental
- They pay no attention to technique and bar path.
In reality, it’s not the deadlift itself that causes havoc on your back. It’s doing too much of it with poor technique that causes the problems.
There is absolutely no debate that the deadlift in itself is a fantastic exercise for strengthening your posterior chain, growing some solid erector spinae muscles, hamstrings and head-turning glutes. The debate arises when the circumstances of the client do not allow them to perform them at volume due to the 2 points above.
Therefore, if you decide to use the deadlift, or any variation of it, for building some serious size you first and foremost need to know how to do it correctly. Then, you need to look at a few aspects that are often forgotten to prevent burnout and fatigue issues. In the first part of this article, we will cover some very important considerations.
Don’t Misuse The Deadlift
Below are four very important points you need to be aware of to maximize the gains from your deadlifts
The bar should never leave your thighs or shins. Superglue that goddamn bar to your thighs and scrape your shins until they bleed. You might want to wear some deadlift socks. The lift should be finished standing nice and tall squeezing your glutes as hard as you can. Your lats and abs should be on absolute fire, too. As you do this, try to keep your spine in a ‘neutral’ position and avoid hyperextension through your low back.
Note: for a stiff legged deadlift you may let the bar stray from your shins, but everything else holds true.
Training for muscle size is a completely different ball game from training for pure strength. There is obviously carryover between the two, but we also need to remember the three main mechanisms governing muscle growth: muscle damage, mechanical tension, and metabolic stress. Now that we know this – and we aren’t going to be competing in powerlifting anytime soon – we can employ numerous different variations of the deadlift to build muscle. Technique, maximal range of motion (ROM) and tension are all going to be key factors as you progress.
When we employ a hypertrophy oriented way of training, we need to remember that we are looking to develop growth in particular muscle groups. Utilising various exercise variations can help us with this. See the table below to choose what deadlift variation suits your goal the best
It’s not to say other muscle groups aren’t involved; they totally are, but these are the prime movers.
|Conventional Deficit Deadlift||Back & Glutes|
|Snatch-Grip Conventional Deadlift||Back|
|Sumo Deadlift||Glutes & Adductors|
|Sumo Deficit Deadlift||Glutes & Adductors|
|Romanian & Stiff-Legged Deadlift||Glutes & Hamstrings|
|Rack Pulls||Glutes & Low Back|
- Fatigue Management
Deadlifts are very taxing, and if you are a powerlifter you might be able to deadlift twice per week (or even more). Most trainees though, will suffice with one overloading deadlift session per week and, at times, potentially adding some Romanian Deadlifts or Partial Deadlifts with a low volume. If you are going very heavy, you might even look at deadlifting only once every fortnight.
Since deadlifts are so fatiguing, the total number of sets per week for bodybuilding purposes would normally be within the 5-10 range, with the repetitions ranging from 5-15. Any more than 15 and you tend to sacrifice technique and hence growth, while increasing your likelihood of injury. Any fewer than 5 and you are changing the specificity of what you are training towards due to lack of volume.
Another important factor to consider when including deadlifts in your training is how closely placed they are to your heavy squats and rows, as those exercises will have an impact on how the deadlifts will tax your body. In other words, do not deadlift after a heavy squat day. As a general rule of thumb, try having two to four days between the two sessions if possible. If not possible, be sure to scale back the intensity (weights, sets and reps) of your deadlifts with 30-40% off your planned intensity.
- Don’t Do Stupid Stuff
There’s a reason why we plan training and pay attention to reps, sets, overall volume and so on. A major mistake many fitness enthusiasts and lousy professionals make is simply not paying attention to this at all. They go to the gym, load up the bar and hope for the best.
One very easy and often effective way to avoid complications with this as far as your deadlift comes is to change your focus every 4-6 weeks of training. This goes for every other big compound movement as well. It boils down to creating a stimulus that will further your growth.
Anyhow, back to the topic of deadlifts. For the first four weeks, do Conventional or Sumo Deadlifts for sets ranging between 5-10 reps and go relatively heavy. The next four weeks, drop the weights and do Deficit Conventional or Sumo Deadlifts for sets of 15 repetitions. For the third four weeks don’t do any deadlifting and focus on your squats, or do some isolation work for your hamstrings such as hamstring curls, some very light Romanian Deadlifts and glute bridges.
Determining If The Deadlift Will Make You Grow
Let’s look at what determines if an exercise is a wise choice for muscle growth:
- It’s a big multi-joint compound movement that can be loaded heavy.
- It takes your muscles through a large range of motion (ROM), stretching the muscle.
- It can be done for large volumes of work.
That means when we select exercises for growing our muscles we want them to fall in line with all three of those points. Always think back to them when selecting your exercises for muscle growth.
Using the above information, we can therefore assess, in a bit more depth, whether the deadlift is a good leg builder or not. But first, we need to define what deadlift we’re talking about, because – as we mentioned above, there are many variations.
For the sake of this article, we’re going to be writing about conventional deadlifts, the ones most people think of when talking about deadlifts. Weight and feet on the ground, hands outside the feet.
Let’s assess whether the deadlift is a good option for developing big legs.
- Is it a big multi-joint compound movement? Yes, but…
Just take a look at how many muscles are involved with the deadlift: quads, hamstrings, glutes, abdominals, forearms, lats, rhomboids and traps amongst others. They pretty much hit the entire back and legs, with a particular emphasis on the low back and glutes.
So yes, the deadlift fits the bill of being a compound movement, and you can certainly lift a lot of weight when doing them. But, they don’t actually recruit a lot of hamstring or quad.
The other issue we come to here is that of interference. As so many muscle groups are involved with a deadlift it can have an effect on for other exercises. For example, a back squat also involves the glutes and low back to a large degree, which makes doing both on the same day or on consecutive days difficult, to say the least. Especially if you are trying to incorporate a lot of volume.
Does it take muscles through a large ROM?
Unsurprisingly no, the hamstrings and quads do not change much in length during a classic conventional deadlift. Therefore, they are taken through a limited ROM and we do not get a nice big stretch on these muscles, one of the most important factors for growth.
Can it be performed for large volumes of work?
Remember how the deadlift uses a lot of muscles, and how in particular the lower posterior chain takes a beating? Well because of this the deadlift is one of the most taxing exercises you can do.
Deadlifts are both physically and mentally draining, which makes training them with a lot of volume pretty much impossible. Even if you were to lighten the load, and do sets of 8 to 10 reps, the spinal erectors and glutes take a long time to recover, and the risk of injury increases substantially. Both of which means that doing high volume deadlift often is very tricky to do in practice.
Oh and don’t even think about doing touch and go deadlifts, make sure to pause every rep at the bottom. After all it’s called a DEADlift for a reason.
So…is the deadlift a good leg builder?
Well, we’ve painted a pretty bleak picture here, and in isolation you would say no, the deadlift is not a very good lift for building big legs. However, it could be part of a programme that could allow you to get thick thighs.
The way we see it you have a couple of options:
Option #1: If you want to do classic deadlifts and add mass to your legs you need to programme in sufficient leg volume. That means that the majority of your volume should come from additional compound movements such as squats, lunges, hack squats, leg presses and so on. We also recommend adding in a few isolation movements such as hamstring curls and leg extensions. This might look like:
Lower Body Workout A
- Deadlift 3×8
- Leg Press 3×8
- Walking Lunge 3×10
- Hamstring curl super-set Leg Extension 2×12
Lower Body Workout B
- Squat 3×8
- Good Morning 3×8
- Single Leg Press 3×10
- Hamstring curl super-set Leg Extension 2×12
Option #2: You drop the conventional deadlift and opt for a variety that allows you to perform more volume and targets the hamstrings more effectively and then use it alongside a quad dominant compound movement, such as Romanian deadlifts with leg press.
Deadlifts Make You Strong
Ideally we would like people use a classic deadlift as intended; for getting strong. Thus, when mass is the name of the game, we’d sub out this beast and drop in a better-suited alternative. Trust us, we’ve tried to do deadlifts within a hypertrophy block and always ended up pushing too hard, fatiguing heavily and thus cutting workout volume, which is a key driving force for muscle growth.
Deadlifts are a little wild, and require careful programming. Treat them like any other exercise – with great care and respect!
Deadlifting won’t make your legs grow?
Deadlifting can obviously make your legs grow! But if you keep going the way you are currently going, the likelihood of you sustaining an injury that’s actually avoidable when you apply the information presented in this article, is pretty high. Stop doing stupid stuff, plan your training and pay attention to what really matters for growth.
Steve Hall is an online coach and owner of Revive Stronger; an online company that informs and empowers lifters with diet and training advice based on the principles of nutrition and exercise science.
He has worked and achieved results with hundreds of online clients and is a competitive bodybuilder and powerlifter.
Kennet Waale is an educator, facilitator and coach for Movestrong Training Systems, and the co-founder of Thy Vertex; a multifaceted health facility in Brisbane, Australia.
He earned his Bachelor’s degree in human movement studies as an exercise scientist at ThRe University of Queensland. During his almost eight years of coaching, he has gone to work with athletes up to the Commonwealth and Olympic levels as well as ever day folks wanting to look better naked.