The deadlift works your arms, although you don’t need monster guns to pull heavy weights. When you are deadlifting your forearms are working hard and that tension translates to other “local” muscle groups as well. You can’t have a heavy bar hanging off your hands without some muscle activation in your arms. The biceps and triceps have to stabilize the elbow joint.
In the next few paragraphs I have outlined the basic effects of deadlifting on your upper arm muscles.
It may appear weird to some of you, but having fatigued triceps can affect your deadlift negatively.
When deadlifting you should always keep the bar as close to you as possible. This places the least amount of stress on the lower back while allowing you to exert the most amount of force and lift heavier weights. When the bar is too far away, you can’t deadlift as much weight because your levers are far from optimal. Thus, you must strive to keep the bar in contact with your body.
The main muscles that do that are the long head of the triceps and the latissimus dorsi. When your triceps are tired you can expect to lose some efficiency.
Another very important role of your triceps is keeping your elbows straight. When you deadlift with flexed elbows, you place the biceps at a compromised position. It is literally impossible to pull super heavy weights while having your arms in a curled position.
In addition, flexed biceps and the mixed grip have caused a lot of biceps tears during heavy deadlift attempts. That’s why some lifters actively flex their triceps before attempting a heavy rep. You can’t have bent arms when your triceps are fully flexed.
Similar approach does work, but it’s definitely not mandatory to use it. You can simply focus on keeping your arms straight. If you are afraid of biceps tears, use hook grip or straps. This will do a lot more to prevent possible tears. Usually, the bicep injury happens on the arm with the palm facing away from you when you use a mixed grip to deadlift.
The biceps are work as elbow stabilizers during the lift. Obviously, if you’re deadlifting with good form your numbers should not be limited by biceps strength. Nobody has a weak deadlift because his biceps are not big or exceptionally strong. I’ve seen plenty of people deadlift heavy weights with chicken arms, myself included.
However, you still don’t want to be deadlifting with tired biceps. In fact, it’s really bad strategy to do bicep work before deadlifts. That’s why I never do pull-ups or any other exercises that tire the elbows before deadlifts. You want your whole body in optimal shape before such big exercise. You can safe the pull-ups for later.
Does this mean that the deadlift will make my arms huge?
Not really. The fact that a muscle is involved in an exercise does not mean that hypertrophy will take place. The deadlift requires the use of your arms, but mostly in isometric fashion. If your goal is to have bigger arms, your time is better spent on heavy pull-ups, biceps curls, heavy dips, close grip bench presses and other movements which use the biceps and triceps as primary movers over a large range of motion.
Isometrics and exercises where the arms are simply stabilizers can be helpful, but they cannot beat dedicated movements. Finding a decent deadlifter with small arms is easy, but locating a decent bench presser or dipper with puny arms requires more extensive research. It’s like looking for a heavy squatter with underdeveloped hips and/or legs. At least one of the two will be big, depending on the squat style used by the individual.
Which style uses the arms more – conventional or sumo?
Technically the conventional style requires more triceps activation because your hips are further away from the bar, and it’s harder to keep the barbell in traction with your body. On the other hand, when you are performing the sumo deadlift your hips are closer to the bar, and it’s easier to keep the barbell really close. Anyway, this is of little importance since your arms are never the limiting factor when you deadlift with proper form, unless they are injured.
Unlike your arms, the forearm are heavily trained during deadlift sessions. You simply have to hold on the bar. Of course, the stress is reduced when you use straps, hook or mixed grip, but you still need to have decent grip strength to move heavy loads. The deadlift can develop a very strong grip, but you should know that strong grip does not always come with Popeye forearms.