Designing your workout routine can, at times, be as challenging as the workouts themselves. This becomes especially true if you want to tackle multiple fitness goals at once or enjoy performing high-intensity compound exercises like the deadlift.
The deadlift is a phenomenal leg exercise — it challenges your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back all at once. It’s also a reliable back-builder in its own right, stressing your traps, rhomboids, and lats. Therein lies the rub: do you deadlift on leg day or on back day?
There’s a case to be made for — and against — each option. Where and when you pull can make all the difference in the world when it comes to gaining strength or building muscle, so you’ll definitely want to get this one right. Here’s how to decide when to do the deadlift and what you can expect as a result:
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Why It Matters
Deadlift on leg day, deadlift on back day, deadlift on deadlift day…what does it matter? If the deadlift works your legs and your back, can’t you just do it whenever it is most convenient for you? In a vacuum, sure. However, things aren’t that simple if you’re concerned with getting the most value out of your workout routine. The deadlift is a highly rewarding exercise, yes — but that also means it is highly demanding.
Deadlifts allow you to work with very heavy weights. They also work nearly every muscle in your body on some level. As you get stronger and develop into your gym career, these factors become more influential in your training.
Haphazardly “throwing in” some deadlifts during one of your leg or back workouts might torch your lower back and prevent you from stabilizing yourself on subsequent exercises, burn your grip out, or tire you out too much to focus on the rest of your session.
Sumo vs. Conventional?
Where and when you deadlift has a ripple effect on the rest of your weekly training; this idea also applies to what style of deadlift you prefer to do, albeit to a less-severe degree. Whether you deadlift with a wide, toes-out sumo stance or a close conventional stance is a personal preference, but your choice may impact when and how you program your pulls.
The two movements are more similar than they are different, but the sumo deadlift generally entails more quad stimulation, less low back stress, and a shorter range of motion.
On the other hand, conventional deadlifts tax your lower back a bit more, aren’t as tough on your legs, and have a longer range of motion. Keeping the unique facets of each lift in mind as you program your pulls can make the difference between an okay deadlift workout and a great one.
If You Don’t Have a “Leg (or Back) Day”
This puzzle becomes a whole lot easier to solve if you don’t follow a body part split-style workout regime. Splits involve dividing your major muscle groups across the various days you hit the gym each week. Hence, a leg-focused (or back-focused) workout; the two prime candidates for the deadlift.
If you don’t organize your exercise routine in this manner, that’s perfectly okay. Full-body training works well and, in such cases, you can place the deadlift basically anywhere. Also, if you follow a pre-written workout template, it probably does guesswork for you — don’t change what’s already on paper.
Is the deadlift good for your legs? Duh. Can you do your deadlifts during a leg workout? Absolutely. Deadlifting on leg day — in addition to the other hard-and-heavy compound movements you’d typically include — is as much of a test of strength as it is willpower. However, the juice is worth the squeeze.
More Movement Synergy
Synergy between exercises is one of the most underrated aspects of a good workout. When the lifts you perform “feed” into each other over the course of a session, everything feels like it just clicks.
Deadlifting during a leg workout can kickstart that sensation. After all, think about your leg day staples: Romanian deadlifts, hip thrusts, good mornings, or low-bar back squats all closely resemble (and work many of the same muscles as) a standard deadlift. The mental effort you apply to having pristine deadlift technique should cascade nicely into the lifts you perform afterward.
Might Save Time
Squats and deadlifts are among the most “economical” exercises out there — they work a lot of muscle at once and, for the most part, are easy to set up and perform in just about any gym.
This makes it easy to get a productive workout in if you’re strapped for time and if you’re willing to hit both movements back-to-back. Squatting will thrash your quads, glutes, and core. Follow your squats up with a few sets of heavy pulls for your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back, and you’ve adequately trained your entire lower body with just two lifts.
Remember, though, that a good workout consists of more than just the big barbell movements. You need to eat your proverbial veggies and incorporate smart accessory lifts as well. But in a pinch, a minimalist approach to leg day can start and end with the squat and deadlift.
Before you jumpstart your next lower-body workout with heavy deadlifts, know that there are several drawbacks to deadlift on leg day — or, at least, factors that merit your consideration.
First, squatting and deadlifting both take a ton of energy. If you work with heavy weights, they can also consume a good deal of your time. Lastly, deadlifts ask a lot of your lower back and core; fatiguing those muscles may impact your performance on other exercises, depending on when you perform your pulls.
Your best bet may be to incorporate an “easier” variation of the standard deadlift if you want to pull on leg day. Stiff-legged deadlifts, deficit speed deadlifts, or snatch-grip deadlifts could all work well.
You could make a solid argument that the deadlift is, fundamentally, a back exercise. As such, it belongs on back day. Plenty of people start off their back workouts with heavy pulls and are stronger for it. Here’s why.
Warms Up Your Back
A set of deadlifts will get just about every muscle in your back ready and raring. Your traps work overtime to stabilize your shoulder girdle; the same goes for your lats as you set up and brace. Your rhomboids and middle traps have to contract to help you stand upright at the top of each rep.
You can even prep your forearms and grip for other back exercises with deadlifts, particularly if you opt for a snatch or thumbless grip. Whether you deadlift heavy or light to kick off your back day, every other movement you perform afterward should feel more natural and intuitive.
You Can Deadlift Heavier (Sometimes)
If you place your pulls on leg day, you often have to make concessions elsewhere during your workout. Kick off your session with heavy deadlifts and you may not have the energy to squat heavy afterward (the same holds true if you squat first).
Deadlifts simply command so much of your attention and energy that you often can’t go 100 percent on other movements. This is less of an issue on back day, especially if you work with a lot of machine- or cable-based exercises, since those types of equipment don’t require as much stability or mental energy.
Deadlifting on back day exposes you to many of the same issues you’d face if you pulled on leg day. Namely, compromising your stability and grip ahead of movements that require you to be fresh and focused.
If you enjoy doing barbell or dumbbell rows during your back workouts, you may find yourself particularly hindered if you kick off your back workouts with deadlifts; the same goes for your grip. You can, however, mitigate a tired grip by using straps during deadlifts to “save” your hands.
All of this information may have you scratching your head. Ultimately, what matters most is knowing how and when to program your deadlifts. If you want to deadlift during your leg workouts (after all, the deadlift does build your legs), see if you fall into any of the following categories:
If You’re a Beginner
Beginners can do a lot with a little. Many starter gym routines only require you to hit the weights three times a week, leaving you little wiggle room about when to do deadlifts. As a beginner, deadlifting on leg day is perfectly fine.
You aren’t (yet) working with heavy enough weights that would warrant any interference with your technique. Also, as a beginner, you can expect to improve your strength, gain muscle, and develop more muscular endurance in your lower body, all from a couple of good sets of deadlifts.
If You Pull Sumo
If you prefer to do the sumo deadlift instead of pulling conventional, you may have good cause to deadlift during your leg workouts. Sumo deadlifts are harder on your quads than their conventional counterparts; (1) they could (partially) be considered a quad exercise.
Doing sumo pulls alongside your other quad movements is great for hypertrophy. Moreover, you don’t want to crush your quads with sumo deadlifts on a given day and then have to train legs the day or two after.
If You Do Free-Weight Rows
Your back exercises of choice may influence when you perform your deadlifts. If you’re partial to the barbell or dumbbell row — two fantastic back exercises that require a strong lumbar spine — you may want to deadlift on leg day.
The last thing you want to do is start a back workout with heavy pulls and perform barbell rows immediately after. You’ll likely find that fatigue in your posterior chain heavily limits your performance in the rows, which dampens your gains.
If You Have a Weak Grip
A good back workout requires strong hands (unless you rely on straps, which may not be the best decision). If you have a weak grip, it may be wiser to do deadlifts on leg day, as most leg movements don’t really require fresh hands to perform optimally.
There’s certainly a case to be made for deadlift on back day, but you’ll have to be careful about it. The deadlift works your back from top to bottom, so in some cases, it may be a wise choice. Here are some situations in which it may behoove you to deadlift during your back workouts.
If You Don’t Do Heavy Deadlifts
You don’t necessarily have to aspire to a 500-pound pull to make gains with the deadlift. It’s a fantastic movement for stimulating lots of muscle, developing sound movement patterns, and improving your posture. You don’t need to lift particularly heavy to accomplish those things, either.
If you prefer to keep your intensity to a more moderate level, there’s no harm in deadlifting during your back workouts. You’ll get a solid stimulus in, and doing so will also warm up your back for subsequent exercises.
If You’re Working on Technique
The best time to adjust your technique is at the start of a workout when your mind and body are fresh. In a fatigued state, your muscles may lack the strength to hold a certain position against resistance, or your central nervous system might be sapped of energy and limit your ability to produce force.
So, if you’re trying to make some changes to your deadlift technique, you might find success by moving your pulls to back day instead. Adjusting your form tends to limit the amount of load you can use, which means your back exercises won’t suffer as a result. You’ll also be primed and focused if you pull at the start of the session.
Before you can start fretting over where and when to do your deadlifts, you need to know how to properly perform the exercise in the first place. The deadlift has a lot to offer whether you do it on leg or back day, but only if your technique is locked in.
Deadlift Video Guide
For a brief refresher course on all things deadlift, tune into BarBend’s official video guide:
If you prefer to follow written instructions or want brush up on the steps that go into a good deadlift, keep reading. This guide will teach you how to perform the conventional-stance deadlift.
Step 1 — Address the Bar
Start by walking up to a loaded barbell. Place your feet close to it; leave about half an inch of space between the bar itself and your shins. Your feet should be about hip-width apart, and your toes should point mostly forward.
Step 2 — Set and Tighten
Hinge at the hips by pushing your butt backward and tipping over. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings and glutes as you reach down to grab the bar. Use a narrow grip; place your hands just outside your shins.
To find your ideal start position, check the following boxes: Your lower back should be flat and tight, your shoulders should be directly atop the bar (if looking from the side), your core should be braced, and your shins should be mostly vertical.
Coach’s Tip: In the starting position of the deadlift, you should evenly distribute your body weight across your feet. Don’t rock back on your heels or flutter up onto your toes.
Step 3 — Push and Stand
Initiate the deadlift pushing downward into the floor with your legs. The bar should rise vertically in gentle contact with your shins. As the barbell passes your knees, aggressively thrust your hips forward and squeeze your glutes to bring yourself up to a standing position.
Coach’s Tip: The angle of your torso should not change until the bar passes your knees. If you begin the deadlift and your hips shoot upward, you’re not using your legs.
Step 4 — Release the Bar
The standard deadlift has no eccentric phase, meaning you needn’t lower it slowly back to the ground once you’ve stood up. The movement is complete when you’re standing fully erect with a tight grip on the bar, shoulders hanging down, and hips fully extended.
Break at the hips and allow the barbell to fall freely back to the floor. Don’t let go of it, though — keep a loose grip on the shaft the entire time.
Coach’s Tip: You may want to avoid dropping the bar depending on your gym’s policies or if you don’t have access to bumper plates.
Pull It Together
Make no mistake: Doing the deadlift properly is more important than which day of the week you decide to do your pulls. However, if you’re on the grind for gains, there’s no harm in wanting to get the most value out of your choices in the weight room.
The deadlift can be surprisingly difficult to program. No other free-weight movement commands as much authority or demands as much energy. How and when you pull will have ripple effects that impact your entire training week. Whether you deadlift on leg or back day will ultimately come down to personal preference, your specific goals, and, probably, some trial and error.
Escamilla, R. F., Francisco, A. C., Kayes, A. V., Speer, K. P., & Moorman, C. T., 3rd (2002). An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 34(4), 682–688.
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