A conventional deadlift will provide a moderate workout for your quads but it targets the glutes, hamstrings, and back muscles far more than the quadriceps. Other deadlift variations are far more effective at working the quads. The trap bar deadlift and sumo deadlift are more quad-dominant than the conventional deadlift or the Romanian deadlift. However, the barbell hack squat is one of the best deadlift variations for building muscle in the quads. It is performed very similarly to the traditional deadlift, except the barbell will be behind your legs instead of in front when you lift the weight from the ground.
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Are Deadlifts Quad Dominant?
When conventional deadlifts are performed with proper form, they are not a quad-dominant exercise. Instead, the glutes, lower back, hamstrings, and hip flexors are the primary muscles worked during deadlifts. So, the standard deadlift movement pattern won’t work your quads as efficiently as other exercises.
- The quadriceps are not a primary muscle worked during conventional deadlifts.
- Your glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors, and erector spinae (lower back muscles) are the primary muscles targeted by conventional deadlifts.
- The quads are a secondary muscle during deadlifts, in addition to the core and traps.
- To target your quads with deadlifts, perform different deadlift variations.
Deadlifts are an excellent compound exercise that works your core muscles and even your trapezius muscles as secondary muscles. Like the quads, these secondary muscles perform some work during deadlifts but there are exercises that engage these muscles more fully. You can, however, perform different deadlift variations designed for quad muscle growth
Which Deadlift Variation Works the Quads Most? Graded and Ranked
There are several ways to turn deadlift training into a more quad-dominant exercise. There are several different types of deadlifts with different benefits. Which one should you be prioritizing if you want to build your quads? Let’s take a closer look:
Poor Choice: Conventional Deadlift
As we’ve discussed, the conventional deadlift is one of the least efficient deadlift variations for building your quads. How do we know this? Let’s look at the science. This study showed that deadlifts require more work from hip flexors and far less knee flexion than squats. This is essential to keep in mind since knee flexion is controlled in large part by your quads. Since conventional deadlifts don’t encourage knee flexion, they won’t build substantial muscle mass in your quads.
- Conventional deadlifts require relatively small amounts of knee flexion (bending and straightening).
- The quadriceps are responsible for knee flexion, so exercises with less knee flexion are less beneficial for your quads.
- Use conventional deadlifts to primarily build muscle in the glutes, hamstrings, and other muscles of your posterior chain.
Because your legs are only slightly bent when you use proper conventional deadlift form, much of the flexion in the movement comes at the hips. This means your glutes, hip flexors, hamstrings, and lower back fire to do the work of deadlifting. This is still a great exercise, just not an ideal choice for quad muscle growth.
Quad Activation Grade: C
Good Compromise: Sumo Deadlift
The wider stance of the sumo deadlift makes it a much better choice for building your quads than conventional deadlifts. By using the sumo stance, your back is kept in an upright position. This means you have to bend and straighten your knees to perform the range of motion required for sumo deadlifts. This increase in knee flexion instantly makes sumo deadlifts a better choice for getting a quad workout.
- Sumo deadlifts require more knee flexion than conventional deadlifts, so they provide more of a workout for your quads.
- Reduced hip flexion means sumo deadlifts place less emphasis on the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.
- Sumo deadlifts are a good middle ground that provides some of the benefits of the conventional deadlift with an increased focus on the quads.
Another advantage of sumo deadlifts is that they put less strain on the lower back than conventional deadlifts. This is great if you are recovering from a back injury but still want to do deadlifts. However, you’ll get fewer benefits for your hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors compared to conventional deadlifts.
Quad Activation Grade: B-
Squat Replacement: Trap Bar Deadlift
Trap bar deadlifts are a great exercise for building your quads. In fact, trap bar deadlifts can be used to replace squats in some cases. This is because the trap bar deadlift places the weight in line with your body on either side, instead of in front or behind. This causes your body to follow a movement pattern similar to the barbell back squat when performing a trap bar deadlift. Since back squats are a great quad exercise, trap bar deadlifts are too.
- The trap bar deadlift puts the weight on either side of your body, which causes trap bar deadlifts to function similarly to squats.
- Since squats are more quad-dominant than conventional deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts also work the quads more effectively.
- Trap bar deadlifts provide an excellent quad workout with less shear stress on the knee than back squats.
Trap bar deadlifts encourage you to sink down into a sitting position with a deeper knee bend when compared to conventional deadlifts. This means your quads have to work harder to straighten your legs. So, while trap bar deadlifts may look similar to conventional deadlifts, they’re actually much better for building your quads.
Quad Activation Grade: B+
Worst Choice: Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift or “stiff-leg deadlift” is the worst deadlift variation for building stronger quads. By minimizing knee flexion as much as possible, Romanian deadlifts focus on the hamstrings and the hip flexors. You will get very little quad work from a set of Romanian deadlifts.
- Romanian deadlifts (also known as RDLs or stiff leg deadlifts) are very poor for working the quads.
- Because your knees bend very little during this exercise, your quads will not be meaningfully engaged.
- Romanian deadlifts are a great exercise for building stronger hamstrings.
The Romanian deadlift is an excellent tool for building stronger hamstrings, so it’s still an important exercise. It’s essential to build all your lower body muscles equally. So, it’s a great idea to include the stiff leg deadlift as a hamstring isolation exercise, to balance out the workload you put on your quads.
Quad Activation Grade: D
Clear Winner: Barbell Hack Squat
This exercise is called the hack “squat,” not the hack “deadlift,” so why is it on this list? The answer is that the barbell hack squat has a lot more in common with the deadlift than the squat. Just take a look at this video on proper hack squat form. You’ll see that the hack squat looks a lot like the conventional deadlift, except that the barbell is positioned behind your legs instead of in front.
- Barbell hack squats are performed similarly to the conventional deadlift, except the lifter stands in front of the bar instead of behind the bar.
- Lifting a weight from the ground behind your body puts intense focus on the quadriceps muscles.
- This scientific study listed the hack squat as the second-best quad workout, just behind the front squat.
- Read more on why we chose the hack squat as the ultimate quad workout, and why we think barbell hack squats are better than front squats.
The hack squat is an incredible quad exercise. By putting the working load behind your body and requiring deep knee flexion, you will target your quads with this lift. In fact, when we compared the barbell hack squat vs. the back squat, all the evidence points to the fact that the hack squat is the superior quad exercise. If you want your deadlifts to start working your quads, start doing barbell hack squats today.
Quad Activation Grade: A+
Are Deadlifts a Good Quad Workout?
Deadlifts can be a great quad workout or an absolutely terrible choice for quad development. Here’s how to choose the best deadlift for building quads:
- Conventional deadlifts focus on the glutes, hamstrings, lower back, and hip flexors more than quads.
- Quads are used as a secondary muscle during conventional deadlifts.
- Sumo deadlifts provide more quad activation than conventional deadlifts, but still provide some of the benefits for your hamstrings and glutes.
- Trap bar deadlifts work the quads similarly to back squats.
- Romanian deadlifts provide almost no work for the quads.
- Barbell hack squats provide an incredible quad workout and are easy to learn if you are familiar with conventional deadlifts.
Each of the common deadlift variations has positives and negatives. Conventional deadlifts and Romanian deadlifts won’t develop your quads much, but will do an incredible job at building other essential muscles, Sumo deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts, and barbell hack squats are the best way to build quadriceps muscle with a deadlift movement.