Last updated on November 5th, 2022 at 03:23 pm
Today, I’d like to discuss what you should do if you don’t feel deadlifts in your hamstrings.
Or your glutes for that matter.
Firstly, I’m pleased you’ve found your way here because it tells me that you understand the deadlift exercise better than most.
The deadlift is without doubt a lower-body exercise, and not a back exercise as some people will have you believe.
Yes, you will certainly work the back muscles hard due to the weight on the bar, but the main aim of the deadlift is to work the posterior chain, and develop the hamstrings and glutes.
So, without further ado, let’s find out why you’re not feeling the exercise in your hams or glutes.
Why You Don’t Feel Deadlifts in Your Hamstrings
The main reason you don’t feel deadlifts in your hamstrings is because your lower back is doing all the work. It’s important to maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement. You also need to load at the hamstrings, engage the posterior chain, and hinge at the hips.
A Common Deadlifting Complaint
One of the most common complaints I hear about the deadlift is that you can’t feel your hamstrings at the time.
Try as you might, irrespective of deadlift variation, you just can’t feel your hams working during the movement.
However, I’ve seen the very same people say that a few hours later, or even the following day, their hamstrings and glutes are as sore as hell.
This in itself proves that both the hams and glutes were activated during the deadlift, and therefore they have done a great deal of the work.
Look, our bodies are all different, and we typically feel exercises working in different ways.
I know just as many people who say they feel their shoulders more when they bench, and yet they have a fantastically developed set of pecs.
From a personal perspective, whenever I squat I tend to feel my quads straight away, but then the following day I can really feel my hamstrings and glutes.
It’s just weird.
Nevertheless, if you are feeling the hams and glutes following a deadlift workout, then you’ve definitely hit the right muscles.
Basically, there’s not always a need for a muscle to feel “stressed” during an exercise for you not to receive the training benefit from it later.
The 4 Basic Principles for Performing a Perfect Deadlift
Many of us approach the deadlift simply as a way to stack a barbell with as much weight as possible and then lift the bar off the floor.
There’s not much thought that goes into it, and we’ll generally view other exercises as a better way to work the hamstrings and glutes.
However, the deadlift is one of the best exercises to fully develop both the hams and glutes, but only when performed correctly.
Whenever you perform a deadlift you must focus on 4 basic principles:
- Maintain a neutral spine.
- Load at the hamstrings.
- Engage the posterior chain.
- Hinge at the hips.
This is something that you already know, but do you focus on each one of these with every single rep.
This is generally why I like to “reset” myself before every rep of the deadlift.
The biggest problem with deadlifting is that the lumbar spine becomes rounded.
Without maintaining a neutral spine you’re basically making your back do all the work.
And this is why so many people label the deadlift as “dangerous” because they’re loading their spine with a vast amount of weight.
I like to use the mind-muscle connection prior to actually lifting the weight.
So, initially I’ll make sure I have a good stretch in my hamstrings as I bend down to lift the bar.
I do this by almost performing a hands-free Romanian deadlift as I address the bar.
Then I’ll contract the muscles of the posterior chain as I place my hands on the bar. This simply reminds me that I’m going to use these muscles to get that weight off the floor.
Plus, we all know how important hip-hinging is when it comes to performing the deadlift.
I really try to focus on pushing my hips and butt back as I lower myself.
Try Activating The Hamstrings First
A great method to ensure you feel your hamstrings during deadlifts is to activate them first.
This works in much the same way as pre-exhausting a muscle, but there’s no need to go overboard with reps and sets here.
This is also a great way to work on the mind-muscle connection again before you deadlift.
My suggestion would be a maximum of two sets, with no more than 5 or 6 slow reps.
You can perform some machine leg curls, glute-ham raises, Swiss ball leg curls, or reverse hyperextensions.
Then again, if you’re feeling brave, and your hamstrings are strong enough, there’s always the Nordic hamstring curl.
Here’s BJ Gaddour to walk you through reverse hypers.
And here’s Bret Contreras explaining how to do Nordic hamstring curls without a partner.
Once you’ve activated the hamstrings, move straight over to the bar, and focus on the “4 basic deadlifting principles”.
I also suggest that you reset yourself after every rep.
Work On the Romanian Deadlift
If you don’t feel your hamstrings during or after the deadlift, then you’re definitely allowing your back to do most of the work.
The best approach here is literally learn the movement all over again by focusing on Romanian deadlifts.
I’ll provide a simple explanation here, but in the “You May Need to do More Work on Your Hamstrings” section below you’ll find a fantastic video that will walk you through not only the Romanian deadlift, but pretty much everything I’ve discussed in this article.
I’d suggest starting with an empty bar and gradually adding weight.
Grab a barbell and then slide the bar down your legs while really focusing on the hip hinge and your hamstrings.
Go down as low as you can until you feel that you’ve reached your full hamstring flexibility.
You’ll know when you’ve hit this point, as your lower back will start to round.
DO NOT allow this to happen.
It really doesn’t matter how far you can lower the barbell during the Romanian deadlift, you just have to ensure that your back doesn’t round.
If you can only get to just above your knees before you begin to lose that neutral spine position, then so be it.
Many of us believe that the perfect end position for the Romanian deadlift is mid-shin, and therefore we’ll “force” the movement until we get there.
However, this simply defeats the object of the exercise, and you’ve strayed into the realms of bad form.
Your ultimate focus here is to feel that stretch in your hamstrings and glutes, thus really working the muscles.
Use your hamstrings to get the bar back up, not your arms or your back.
You’ll want to snap your hips on the way up and push your hips slightly forward, while really squeezing the glutes.
Whatever you do, don’t lean back at the top of the movement.
By leaning back you are forcing the pelvis into posterior tilt, but you want to reach full anterior pelvic tilt with the deadlift.
Basically, posterior tilt will see your lower back round, whereas anterior tilt will maintain an arch in the lumbar spine.
Check out this video for the difference between posterior pelvic tilt and anterior pelvic tilt.
Transitioning to The Traditional Deadlift
Once you’ve used the Romanian deadlift to really get the mind-muscle connection working, it’s time to move onto the traditional deadlift.
In order to focus on the hamstrings, as I’ve mentioned I like to lower myself to the bar with a hands-free Romanian deadlift.
This way I’m ensuring that my back remains neutral, I’ve loaded the hamstrings, I’ve activated the posterior chain, and I’m hinging properly at the hips.
If you feel the back round at the bottom of the movement, or as soon as you pull on the bar, this is generally a sign of tight hamstrings or weak hamstrings.
This is definitely something that I know a lot about.
So, a lot of my training over the last few years has been aimed at strengthening these areas.
Anyway, you need to perform the deadlift in exactly the same manner as you practiced the Romanian deadlift.
You may need to reduce the weight, and this may even involve having to place the bar on aerobic steps, depending on how much weight you use.
Basically, if you’re using anything less than 20kg or 45lbs plates on the bar, then use aerobic steps to balance the barbell on.
You May Need to do More Work on Your Hamstrings
If you find that your back is rounding before you’ve even performed a single rep, then I’d suggest you stop doing the conventional deadlift until you’ve worked on your hamstrings.
My recommendation would be to go back to the Romanian deadlift, while working at perfecting the movement as you add more weight to the bar.
Furthermore, make sure you perform static stretches at the end of your deadlift workout, as this can help to loosen the hamstrings.
However, even while stretching the hamstrings you should still avoid rounding the back and concentrate on all the principles you’ve learned here.
Here’s Alan Thrall with possibly the best deadlifting video you’ll ever watch.
Alan guides you through the Romanian deadlift and literally everything I’ve discussed here today
Alan also subscribes to learning the Romanian deadlift first and really working on activating and strengthening the hams and glutes.
So, there you have it – this is what you should be doing if you don’t feel deadlifts in your hamstrings.
Obviously, if you feel your hams and glutes later on, or the following day, then they are being activated.
But, you may still need to perfect your technique.
However, if you don’t feel any glute or ham activation at all, this is a tell-tale sign that your back is doing all of the work.
This needs to stop immediately.
Learn to hone your Romanian deadlift skills first and it won’t be long before you’re performing bigger and better traditional deadlifts than before.
The deadlift happens to be one of ONLY three exercises that Chris Wilson has included in his Anabolic Aftergrowth program.
Chris, Head Coach at Critical Bench, claims that by using only 3 exercises over 60 days you could add up to 14lbs in lean muscle to your frame.
Check out my Anabolic Aftergrowth Review to discover more.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.