Deadlift: Muscles Worked – Gluteus Maximus - Upright Health

Deadlift: Muscles Worked – Gluteus Maximus

What are the key muscles of the deadlift? Part 1: The Gluteus Maximus 

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 "gluteus maximus". 

The gluteus maximus (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 gluteus maximus muscle works in the deadlift
  2. How you might get injured if your gluteus maximus muscle doesn’t work in the deadlift
  3. How to cue your gluteus maximus 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 gluteus maximus muscle work in the deadlift?

Let’s begin by establishing what’s going on at your lower body in a deadlift.

At the start of a deadlift, the forces you are creating to push your feet into the floor… are also attempting to collapse your ankles inward.

Ankle collapse in the deadlift

Drive your feet into the floor. Feel the looming collapse of your ankles.

Collapsed ankles make for unstable footing… which interferes with how effectively you can push into the floor (not to mention unhappy feet).

collapsed vs neutral ankles

Collapsed Ankles vs. Neutral Ankles

To address this, you need both foot control. As well as hip control.

Why hip?

Because your ankle sits below your hip.

This means to prevent your ankle from collapsing inward, you must also control how much your hip collapses inward.

ankles affect hips

Ankles affect hips. And vice versa.

This hip movement… is called "hip internal rotation".

hip internal rotation

(Controlled) hip internal rotation

This is where your lower glutei maximi (plural) come in.

Your lower glutei maximi produce hip external rotation... to neutralize hip internal rotation.
hip rotation internal external

Hip External Rotation vs. Hip Internal Rotation

How do they do this?

Your lower glutei maximi attach on the BACKS of your thigh bones… and run diagonally towards the BACK of your pelvis.

lower gluteus maximus fibers deadlift muscles

Lower gluteus maximus fibers (outlined in black)

So...

Your lower glutei maximi are able to pull the BACKS of your thigh bones... towards the BACK of your pelvis.

lower gluteus maximus line of pull deadlift muscles

This produces hip external rotation forces...

Which neutralize hip internal rotation forces...

Which allows you to drive your feet into the floor, while maintaining the most effective ankle alignment for said task.

stable foot ankle deadlift

So...

Your lower gluteus maximus works in the deadlift to stabilize your lower body.

Now what about your upper glutei maximi? How do they work in the deadlift?

To answer this…

Let’s establish what else is going on at your lower body in a deadlift.

At the start of a deadlift, the forces you are directing into the floor… are also pushing your knees inward.

knee collapse deadlift

Why is this?

Because your knees already have an inward bow to them.

knee Q-angle normal knock-kneed bow-legged

So with your knees already naturally possessing an inward bow… when you direct forces through them into the ground, your knees will tend to bow in even further.

The extreme outcome of a knee bowing further and further in… is that knee snapping in half.

knee valgus

To address this, you need again hip control.

Why hip?

Because your hip controls how much your thigh (and thus knee) moves in towards your centerline.

This hip movement is called “horizontal hip adduction”.

horizontal hip adduction

(Controlled) horizontal hip adduction

This is where your upper glutei maximi come in.

Your upper glutei maximi produce horizontal hip ABduction... to neutralize horizontal hip ADduction.
horizontal hip abduction adduction

Horizontal Hip Abduction vs. Horizontal Hip Adduction

How do they do this?

Your upper glutei maximi attach on the SIDES of your thighs (via your IT band)… and run towards the BACK of your pelvis.

upper gluteus maximus fibers deadlift muscles

Upper gluteus maximus fibers (outlined in black)

So...

Your upper glutei maximi are able to pull the SIDES of your thighs... towards the BACK of your pelvis.

upper gluteus maximus line of pull

This produces horizontal hip abduction forces...

Which neutralize horizontal hip adduction forces...

Which allows you to drive your feet into the floor, while maintaining a stable knee alignment for said task.

stable knee deadlift

So...

Your upper gluteus maximus works in the deadlift to stabilize your lower body.

How might you get injured if your gluteus maximus muscles don't work in your deadlift?

To answer this question…

Let’s review how each part of your gluteus maximus muscle works in the deadlift.

Your lower glutei maximi produce hip external rotation… to neutralize hip internal rotation.
Your upper glutei maximi produce horizontal hip abduction… to neutralize horizontal hip adduction.
hip internal vs external rotation

External Rotation vs. Internal Rotation

horizontal hip abduction vs adduction

Abduction vs. Adduction

What happens when hip internal rotation and adduction are not controlled for during deadlifting?

Parts of your lower body jam into each other… whether you’re able to perceive it or not.

Parts of your lower body jam into each other… all from a lack of muscular control.

lower extremity collapse

The SYMPTOMS of said lack of muscular control… are common enough to have been given names.

Hip impingement... IT band syndrome... plantar fasciitis... and the list goes on. They all boil down to “lower body pain”.

The bottom line?

Don’t get stuck on the medical diagnoses.

Know that to deadlift injury-free:

You need to be able to control your muscles… to move your bones… in a manner that allows each part to move without jamming into adjacent structures.

mind muscle connection injury prevention

Control your muscles. Control your injuries.

Finally…

Why are the glutei maximi so crucial for lower body stability in the deadlift? Why can't the glutei maximi go on vacation and let other muscles take over for them forever?

Here's why:

The glutei maximi are one of the most effective muscles for producing the hip external rotation and abduction forces needed to stabilize your lower body.

posterior hip anatomy gluteus maximus deadlift muscles

You have other hip muscles that can and do assist in said functions of your glutei maximi. But none of them are as large, as powerful, or as specifically positioned on your body as your glutei maximi are... to permanently take over for your glutei maximi.

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

The bottom line?

Ensuring your glutei maximi are working properly is essential for effective, injury-free deadlifting.

How do you get your glutei maximi muscles to work in the deadlift?

There are three major steps:

  1. Learn to feel your lower gluteus maximus muscle working in isolation.
  2. Learn to feel your upper gluteus maximus muscle working in isolation.
  3. Learn to feel your entire gluteus maximus muscle working in the deadlift.

Step 1:

Practice the “Clamshell” to isolate your lower gluteus maximus. Follow the instructions in the video. As well as the ones below.

Focus on rotating at your hip (and NOT on lifting your thigh). Yes, your thigh will lift. But it should only happen as a BYPRODUCT of your intent to rotate at your hip.

Also, keep your foot planted on the wall. Allow your thigh to lift only as high as you can maintain your foot’s contact with the wall. Once you have reached the top of the movement (with your foot still planted on the wall), your foot and ankle should feel “aligned".

You must perform this exercise with the above intent. This is to train your brain to link your hip rotation and foot/ankle stability together.

If you are doing this correctly, then you will feel your inner/lower butt region gently squeezing. That’s your lower gluteus maximus working.

lower glutes fibers gluteus maximus deadlift muscles

At first, this area may be difficult to feel. Have patience.

Once you’re able to feel your lower gluteus maximus working, practicing engaging it until it becomes second nature to be able to do so. 

Step 2:

Practice the “Fire Hydrant” to isolate your upper gluteus maximus. Follow the instructions in the videos. As well as the ones below.

Lift your knee away from your centerline, while maintaining the same hip rotation you began with. So if you begin a rep with your knee pointed towards the wall, then keep it pointed there throughout the entire rep.

Fight the temptation to turn your knee upwards as you lift it. Giving in may make it easier to lift your leg (by allowing your hip flexors to take over for your upper glutes). But this defeats the purpose of the exercise.

So lift your knee away from your centerline, while fighting the temptation to turn it upwards as you do so.

You must perform this exercise with said intent. This is to train your brain to link your hip abduction and knee stability together.

If you are doing this correctly, then you will feel your outer/upper butt region gently squeezing. That’s your upper gluteus maximus working.

upper glutes gluteus maximus deadlift muscles

At first, this area may be difficult to feel. Have patience.

Once you’re able to feel your upper gluteus maximus working, practicing engaging it until it becomes second nature to be able to do so.

What if following the directions for either the “Clamshell” or “Fire Hydrant” 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 glutei maximi to work in the deadlift.

Perform your usual deadlift setup. And pay attention to your upper and lower glutei maximi’s locations on your body.

lower upper glutes gluteus maximus

Recall how in the “Clamshell” exercise... engaging your lower gluteus maximus helped your ankle find a stable alignment.

Recall how in the “Fire Hydrant” exercise... engaging your upper gluteus maximus moved your knee away from your centerline.

So in your deadlift setup:

Gently squeeze your lower glutei maximi to find your most stable ankle alignment.
Gently squeeze your upper glutei maximi to find your most stable knee alignment.

Then maintain said ankle and knee alignment through the rest of your deadlift.

stable foot ankle knee deadlift

Practice sensing your glutei maximi’s influence on your lower body stability during your warm-up sets.

Practice sensing your glutei maximi’s influence on your lower body stability during your work sets.

Practice sensing your glutei maximi’s influence on your lower body stability whenever you'd like, until doing so 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.