Deadlift: Muscles Worked – External Oblique - Upright Health

Deadlift: Muscles Worked – External Oblique

What are the key muscles of the deadlift? Part 2: The External Oblique 

Welcome to the "Deadlift: Muscles Worked" series! Maybe you've just started lifting weights. Maybe you're a trainer who wants to learn the nitty gritty about this exercise. Whatever the case, welcome!

In this article, we're going to focus on the "external oblique".

The abdominal external oblique (divided into an upper and lower portion) is a key muscle worked in the deadlift. In this article, we're going to explain:

  1. How each part of the external oblique muscle works in the deadlift
  2. How you might get injured if your external oblique muscle doesn’t work in the deadlift
  3. How to cue your external oblique muscle to work in the deadlift

The classic deadlift muscles...

When talking about the deadlift, many people focus on the hamstrings. Or the spinal erectors. These muscles definitely work in the deadlift. But in this series... we're going to look at the key muscles of the deadlift, that are key to staying injury-free.


What makes these muscles... the key muscles?


These are the muscles that have huge roles AND often get away with not working as needed. In fact, we've found that improving the function of these muscles... is often (though not always) all it takes to resolve our clients' chronic injuries. That's why we're so big on these muscles!


The bottom line?


To deadlift injury-free, you must know how to spot problems and SOLVE them. And to do that, you must know what the key muscles are in the deadlift (AND what they're supposed to do).

How does each part of the external oblique muscle work in the deadlift?

Let's begin by establishing what's going on at your spine in a deadlift.

At the start of a deadlift, gravity is attempting to round your spine (pulling it into cat pose).

To resist said rounding, your back muscles must squeeze… to produce forces to arch your spine (pulling it into cow pose).
cat cow pose rounding vs arching

Rounding vs. Arching

The kicker?

The forces you are producing to arch your spine... are also attempting to snap your spine in half.

erector spinae line of pull deadlift hyperextension

How?

By yanking your rib cage BACKWARDS... over the bottom half of your spine.

This is called "posterior rib cage tilt".
neutral rib cage vs rib flare

Neutral Rib Cage Tilt vs. Posterior Rib Cage Tilt

This is where your upper external obliques come in to save you.

Your upper external obliques produce "anterior rib cage tilt"... to counteract your back muscles' "posterior rib cage tilt".
neutral rib cage tilt vs posterior rib cage tilt

Neutral Rib Cage Tilt vs. Posterior Rib Cage Tilt

How do they do this?

Your upper external obliques attach on the FRONT of your rib cage... and travel downwards towards the MIDLINE of your belly.

upper abdominal external oblique fibers

Upper external oblique fibers outlined in black

So...

Your upper external obliques are able to pull the FRONT of your rib cage... towards the MIDLINE of your belly.

upper external oblique line of pull rib depression

This produces "anterior rib cage tilt" forces...

Which neutralize "posterior rib cage tilt" forces...

Which allows your back muscles to straighten your spine... without snapping it in half.

So...

Your upper external obliques work in the deadlift to stabilize your spine.

What about your lower external obliques? How do they work in the deadlift?

To answer this...

Let's examine what's going on as you're standing up.

deadlift above the knees lockout

Towards the finish of a deadlift, the forces that arch your spine are, again... attempting to snap your spine in half.

How?

By tipping your pelvis FORWARD... under the top of your spine.

This is called "anterior pelvic tilt".
anterior pelvic tilt

Neutral Pelvic Tilt vs. Anterior Pelvic Tilt

This is where your lower external obliques come in to save you.

Your lower external obliques produce "posterior pelvic tilt"... to counteract your back muscles' "anterior pelvic tilt".
neutral pelvic tilt anterior pelvic tilt

Neutral Pelvic Tilt vs. Anterior Pelvic Tilt

How do they do this?

Your lower external obliques attach on the FRONT of your pelvis... and travel upwards towards the BOTTOM of your rib cage.

lower abdominal external oblique fibers

Lower external oblique fibers outlined in black

So...

Your lower external obliques are able to pull the FRONT of your pelvis... towards the BOTTOM of your rib cage.

external oblique line of pull posterior pelvic tilt

This produces "posterior pelvic tilt" forces...

Which neutralize "anterior pelvic tilt" forces…

Which allows your back muscles to straighten your spine... without snapping it in half.

So...

Your lower external obliques work in the deadlift to stabilize your spine.

How might you get injured if your external oblique muscles don't work in your deadlift?

To answer this...

Let's review how each part of your abdominal external oblique muscle works in the deadlift.

Your upper external obliques produce anterior rib cage tilt... to neutralize posterior rib cage tilt.

Your lower external obliques produce posterior pelvic tilt... to neutralize anterior pelvic tilt.

anterior tilt vs posterior tilt

Anterior tilt = "spills forward". Posterior tilt = "spills backwards".

What happens when posterior rib cage tilt and anterior pelvic tilt are not controlled for during deadlifting?

One or more of your spinal segments become the hinge point(s)… over which your back muscles attempt to snap your spine in half.

One or more of your spinal segments become said hinge point(s)... whether this is visible to you or not.

neutral spine vs hyperextension rib flare anterior pelvic tilt

How?

By pulling your rib cage BACKWARDS over the spinal vertebra directly below it.

neutral spine vs rib flare

Or by pulling your pelvis FORWARDS under the spinal vertebra directly above it.

neutral spine vs anterior pelvic tilt

This puts said spinal segment(s) under a much higher amount of stress than all the others.

And if this becomes a habit?

Then every time you use your spine (i.e. every moment you are alive)… you're placing a disproportionate amount of stress on said spinal segment(s).

rib flare vs neutral spine deadlift proper form

Improper vs. Proper

anterior pelvic tilt vs neutral spine deadlift proper form

Improper vs. Proper

The SYMPTOMS of said habitual spine abuse… are common enough to have been given names.

Thoracolumbar junction syndrome… lumbosacral pain… rib flare… anterior pelvic tilt… the list goes on.

The kicker?

They all amount to “back pain”.

back pain

The bottom line?

Don't get stuck on the medical diagnoses.

Know that to deadlift injury-free:

You need to be able to use your spine in a manner that evenly distributes stress along its segments. And that begins with controlling your rib cage tilt and your pelvic tilt.

rib flare anterior pelvic tilt vs neutral spine

Finally...

Why are the external obliques so crucial for spine health in the deadlift? Why can't the external obliques go on vacation and let other muscles take over for them forever?

Here's why:

The external obliques are one of the most effective muscles for producing the anterior rib cage tilt and posterior pelvic tilt forces... needed to balance your spinal stress distribution.

abdominal muscles external oblique internal oblique rectus abdominis transverse abdominis

You have other muscles that can and do assist in said functions of your external obliques. But none of them are as large, as powerful, or as specifically positioned on your body as your external obliques are... to do what your external obliques do.

So by neglecting your external obliques, you'd not only be limiting how much you can lift. You'd also incur a muscle overuse injury much sooner by relying on a less effective muscle to take over any of your external obliques' functions.

The bottom line?

Ensuring your abdominal external obliques are working properly is essential for effective, injury-free deadlifting.

Improper vs. Proper Form

How do you cue your abdominal external oblique muscles to work in the deadlift?

There are three major steps:

  1. Step 1: Learn to feel your upper external obliques working in isolation.
  2. Step 2: Learn to feel your lower external obliques working in isolation.
  3. Step 3: Learn to feel your entire external obliques working in the deadlift.

Step 1:

Practice “90/90 Breathing”. Follow the instructions in the video. As well as the ones below.

Be sure to exhale fully. Exhale until your body shakes from not being used to exhaling so fully. It is difficult to know your true limits are if you are not used to pushing them.

So exhale fully. Until your body shakes. That is your true full exhale.

When you get to your true end range exhale, your ribs will depress. And you will feel muscles on your outer bottom rib cage tighten.

upper abdominal external oblique line of pull

That's the feeling of your upper external obliques working.

Practice engaging your upper external obliques until it becomes second nature to be able to.

You don’t have to get the shakes every single time. But you must be able to feel where your upper external obliques are. And call on them to work… on command.

Step 2:

Practice “Leg Lowering”. Follow the instructions in the video. As well as the ones below.

Brace your lower abs. As if you were preparing to take a punch to the gut. Rest a heavy weight (like a kettlebell) below your belly button, if need be.

When you have braced your lower abs intensely enough, you will feel muscles there tightening -- maybe even cramping, if you’ve never performed this. That's the feeling of your lower external obliques working.

lower abdominal external oblique line of pull

Practice engaging your lower external obliques until it becomes second nature to be able to.

You don’t have to white knuckle your lower abs every single time. But you must be able to feel where your lower external obliques are. And call on them to work… on command.

What if following the directions for either “90/90 Breathing” or “Leg Lowering” was difficult for you?

Make them part of your daily routine.

Set aside time in the morning to practice them. Integrate them into your strength training warm-ups. Do whatever you need to do to master these basic human movements.

"Basic" does NOT mean easy.

Just as learning a new language requires constant exposure, so does learning an unfamiliar way to move and feel your body.

Step 3:

Cue your external obliques to work in the deadlift.

Perform your usual deadlift setup. And pay extra attention to your external obliques' attachment points on your rib cage and pelvis.

external oblique rib pelvis attachment points

Remember:

Your upper external obliques attach on your outer rib cage (around your nipple line).

And your lower external obliques attach on the front half of your pelvis (all the way down to your groin).

So to engage both portions of your external obliques, cue yourself to squeeze your outer rib cage and front pelvis towards each other.

abdominal external oblique upper lower fibers line of pull

Notice how doing so helps any tension in your back feel spread out. As if your spine is prevented from being pinched off in any one segment.

Maintain this squeeze as you deadlift.

Practice sensing and engaging your external obliques during your warm-up sets.

Practice sensing and engaging your external obliques during your work sets.

Practice sensing and engaging your external obliques whenever you'd like, until being able to feel your external obliques work in the deadlift becomes second nature to you.

At that point, you can rest assured that you have mastered this essential component of injury-free deadlifting.

vincent with back pain from the deadlift

Keep getting injured during the deadlift? 

Tired of injuries derailing your training?

Our program teaches you fundamental principles and key drills for injury-free deadlifting. 

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About the Author

Vincent's first passion is powerlifting. Over the years, his desire to master his body and mind have led him into deep explorations in stretching, mobility, and mindfulness.