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September 28, 2022
MJ vs. Lebron. Gretzky vs. Lemieux. Brady vs. Manning...It's hard to choose between two significant entities. Comparing the squat and deadlift is no different. Everyone has their opinion, but you can't go wrong either way.
The squat and deadlift are both foundational movements in strength training. The back squat uses nearly the entire muscular system while developing the lower body like no other exercise. On the other hand, the deadlift is arguably the most "functional" exercise we can do in the gym. A day doesn't go by when we don't have to pick something heavy off the ground.
One thing they have in common? They are tough. Really tough.
Squat and deadlift workouts often require more effort and produce more fatigue than typical "pump" workouts. Plus, there is a more significant learning curve to nail proper technique. Don't let this discourage you. Embrace the challenge, and recognize you are benefiting from taking squat and deadlift training seriously.
In this article, we will discuss:
For similarities, the deadlift and squat are main compound exercises excellent for developing lower body strength and power. Both are performed during powerlifting competitions and are great for testing maximal strength. You would be hard-pressed to find any advanced lifter that doesn't include one, if not both, squats and deadlifts in their program.
Although they are both lower body exercises, they have many differences. The most pronounced difference is the deadlift is hip dominant, while the squat is knee dominant. We will get into this in more detail below, but the deadlift requires a hip hinge and hip extension, making it a posterior chain exercise targeting the back, glutes, and hamstrings. On the other hand, the squat is a deep knee bend emphasizing knee extension and flexion, making it primarily a quad exercise.
Another difference is where the lift starts. The deadlift begins on the floor, from a dead stop, hence the name deadlift. The squat, on the other hand, begins from the standing position.
The unique aspect of the deadlift is that it begins with the concentric phase. The movement involves the extension of the hip and knee until the body is upright.
As mentioned, the deadlift is a hip hinge. Due to the movement pattern, the deadlift is rougher on the back, specifically the lower back, than the squat. Research shows that the more forward tilt the torso has, the more significant load on the spine. Therefore, maintaining a more upright torso can reduce the spinal burden1.
Of course, the stress on the lower back is more pronounced if you don't use the proper technique. However, even with flawless form, the deadlift can be a problem if you are susceptible to back issues. One thing that can help is an exercise belt. A belt is not an excuse to use bad form, but it will help you create more intra-abdominal pressure, creating a more stable core.
The squat begins with the lifter standing upright with the knees and hips fully extended. The lifter starts the movement with the lowering phase as the hips, knees, and ankles flex. Once reaching parallel (or lower), the lifter reverses direction and stands back up to the starting position.
During the lift, the quads, hips, and hamstrings engage to move the body through the range of motion. The demands on the upper body are isometric, as the abdominals and back stabilize the trunk.
A high degree of ankle mobility is needed when squatting as the ankle contributes significant support and balance. Poor ankle mobility can lead to technique breakdown and injury. If your ankles aren't providing you with proper support, we suggest including ankle mobility exercises in your routine.
It is common to hear people say not to squat because it is terrible for your knees. Well, those people are mostly wrong. The squat is not a recipe for ending up in a wheelchair. But, if you have knee issues or squat with poor form, you can experience knee pain from squatting. If you have knee pain, a pair of knee sleeves can help.
Although not a cure, many people find wearing knee sleeves (check out the differences between knee wraps vs. knee sleeves here) while squatting can alleviate some knee pain. It most likely has to do with keeping your knees warm between sets.
When talking about muscle groups worked, the quadriceps are the primary muscle involved in the squat exercise, but the glutes and adductors play a synergistic role. If you want to build major muscle mass in your quads, nothing compares to heavy deep squat resistance exercises.
The hamstrings are active as well, but only moderately. The calves, abdominals, and back are needed to assist in stabilization. To summarize, while it will work your entire lower body and leg muscles, squats are an amazing quad exercise.
The deadlift will target your glute muscles, adductors, hamstrings, and back. Due to the movement patterns, the quads are involved but to a lesser extent. Similarly to the squat, the calves and abdominals assist in stabilization. Both are great for gaining lower body strength and while they're activated differently, the same muscles in the legs are worked.
A 2020 study comparing the deadlift and squat found that both exercises significantly increase gains in maximal strength and power of the lower body. The deadlift and the squat are staple powerlifting movements, so it makes sense that both exercises are excellent at strength development. However, both activities improved jump performance, too, meaning you may also see gains when performing your plyometric exercises as well2.
In addition to performance, the deadlift and squat can also be excellent muscle-building exercises. To build the quads, focus on squats. If you're looking for a great hamstring exercise or want to grow your glutes and back, concentrate on deadlifts.
As both moves work the entire body, you're guaranteed to build muscle and achieve muscular hypertrophy using these two exercises, as long as you continue progressive overloading. But proper form is crucial for best results and to minimize your injury risk during your workout routine. Here are step-by-step directions for each move, along with mistakes to avoid.
First up: Squats. Here's how to correctly perform this powerhouse move using the barbell. We've also included a breakdown of common mistakes, so you can avoid making them and get the most out of this exercise.
A knee cave is one of the most common issues people have while squatting. This is when the knees move toward each other during the upward motion of the squat. Over time, this could potentially lead to knee pain or even a knee injury. That is bad news for your leg workout. There are two things you can do to address this issue.
One, change your foot width. If the starting foot position is too wide, the body will compensate by bringing your knees in. Try getting your stance with your feet shoulder width.
Two, drive the knees out. A common coaching cue to help improve knee tracking is simply focusing on driving the knees out during the lift. Sometimes just being mindful of knee position helps take care of the problem. During the squat, if you look down, you should see your big toes. This indicates your knees are in the correct position.
The number one rule for squatting is to hit proper depth. One of the main reasons people don't see the results they want from squatting is not going low enough. Using a full range of motion puts the muscles under extended tension and activates more muscle fibers.
Failing to hit depth can be caused by lifting too heavy, poor mobility (we highly recommend testing your mobility to see where you stand), or not knowing any better. Check your ego at the door and only put weight on the bar you can handle.
How a lift feels is not always how it looks, so it's a good idea to record yourself. You might think you are hitting depth, but in reality, you are not.
To check for depth, record your squat from the side view. However, the squat will look a little different from the back and front, so record from there occasionally as well.
Unlike most lifting exercises, the type of shoes we wear when squatting is essential. Ideally, we want something with a hard flat surface. Converse Chuck Taylors or most Vans fit the bill. Another option is to use an Olympic weightlifting shoe designed explicitly for squatting.
These have an elevated heel, which can help you maintain an upright posture while squatting at or below parallel. And ladies, you're in luck. For more shoe suggestions, check out our article on best weightlifting shoes for women.
Most importantly, we want to avoid squatting in running shoes at all costs. The soft sole in most running shoes is like squatting on a pillow. Running shoes are great for running but not for squatting.
There are several deadlift variations, but we are going to focus on two distinct ways to deadlift: the conventional deadlift and the sumo deadlift. We are going to break down each for you below.
The biggest mistake anyone can make deadlifting is allowing the back to round. Multiple factors can cause this, but a lack of tension on the bar is common. Trust us, you don't want to have to fix lower back pain from deadlifting because you were rounding your back.
Before lifting the weight off the ground, it’s important to create tension on the bar. Some coaches like to call this “taking the slack” out. Once in the starting position, pull the bar up only enough to apply upward pressure but not enough to lift the weight off the ground.
This is maybe 5-10% of the force necessary to lift the weight. What this does is help get your muscles activated and ready before needing to lift the weight. This prevents your hips from shooting up early and causing the back to round.
It is essential to get your hips in the correct starting position. If you begin with your hips too high, it puts extra pressure on the lower back and restricts the amount of weight you can lift. On the flip side, if your hips are too low, it causes you to squat the weight up, neglecting the hamstrings, which is not what we want.
Since the squat is a more natural movement, most people find it easier to learn than the deadlift. You can also practice the squat movement pattern right at home with your body weight. Performing practice squats and perfecting the bodyweight squat is an excellent way to improve barbell squats.
You'll also still get a great workout in as bodyweight leg exercises are awesome! On the other hand, you need equipment to practice deadlifts, limiting how much extra work you can do.
Most people can deadlift more than they can squat. In fact, in our experience, it's common to only squat about 90% of your deadlift. However, due to unique leverages, most heavyweight powerlifters (265lbs+) can squat more than they deadlift.
The squat and deadlift are great as it, but sometimes it's nice to have options. Fortunately, you have plenty of options when building strength in the lower body. Here are some great deadlift and squat variations to try.
If you are not comfortable using a barbell, you can still take advantage of the movement by doing a goblet squat variation. Instead of placing a barbell on your back, you hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of you.
For an advanced variation, try a front squat. This variation is simply a squat with the barbell placed across the front of your shoulders. The muscles worked with front squats vs back squats is a bit different. Front squats shift more focus onto the quadriceps and require more upper back and core strength.
The Romanian deadlift is a deadlift variation that places more emphasis on the hamstrings than a traditional deadlift. The RDL is one of the best hamstring exercises you can perform and is easy to learn.
The traditional barbell deadlift can be challenging to master when first starting. A great alternative is a trap bar deadlift. The movement pattern is nearly the same, but the handles are at your sides, allowing you to get in a better starting position.
The trap bar deadlift is also a deadlift/squat hybrid because of the loading distribution. So, this exercise can be a variation of squats or deadlifts.
Need is a strong word. Outside of powerlifters who compete in the squat and deadlift, no one needs to do either exercise. However, as we have discussed, both the squat and deadlift have a lot of advantages.
If you are interested in getting as big and powerful as possible, while increasing your leg strength, it makes sense to squat and deadlift. You could even include them in the same workout.
What happens if you only do squats or only do deadlifts? As long as you have a well-balanced program, you can fill in the gaps with other exercises.
If you don't want to squat, you can train your quads with the leg press, split squats, and leg extensions. Similarly, if you don't want to deadlift, you can work your posterior chain with back extensions, hip thrusts, and leg curls.
When programming squats and deadlifts, you have the option to train them together or separately. Since they are both predominantly lower-body exercises, combining them on leg day makes sense, especially since the muscle activation requires different primary muscles.
However, that makes for a brutal training session. To avoid this issue, some people decide to split them up. Since the deadlift is a posterior chain movement, another option is to place deadlifts in your back workout. Either way works. It just comes down to what you prefer. If you decide to perform them on the same day, do squats first.
Get the most out of these canonical powerlifting exercises by following these programming tips.
The ultimate question is, which exercise is better? We really hate to be anticlimactic, but it's impossible to answer that question. It is an apple vs. orange comparison with these two compound exercises. A better question is which exercise will help you reach your goals? The best way to determine this is to use the FITT principle when creating your workout program, so you design it specifically with your goals in mind.
Squats will be better if you want to build an impressive set of wheels. However, if you want to develop functional strength and be able to lift small cars, the deadlift is what you want to do. Both exercises are equally practical if your goal is to look better or become a better athlete and improve sports performance.
Additionally, keep your limitations in mind. If you have a bad back or bad knees, that may restrict what you can do. The last thing you want to do is get hurt in the weight room.
At the end of the day, if you spend the time learning the proper techniques, you can't go wrong with either exercise.
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