Squats vs. Deadlifts – Introduction
Squats vs. deadlifts – which is better for you and why?
To the uninitiated, squats and deadlifts can look very similar.
After all, they are both compound exercises; they both involve bending your knees and can be used to build muscle and strength.
Contrary to how they appear to the untrained eye, squats and deadlifts are very different, which is why both of them deserve a place in your workouts.
For a start, squats are typically performed with a shoulder-width stance, while deadlifts utilize a hip-width stance.
This article will take a look at the differences between squats and deadlifts so you can choose the best exercise for you.
Many people think that the deadlift is a squat with the weight in your hands, which isn’t the case.
Instead, the deadlift is a hip dominant exercise, which means your posterior chain does most of the work.
That’s the muscle groups that make up the back of your body, including your glutes, hamstrings, and erector spinae.
While your knees and quads are involved in deadlifts, the range at motion at the knee joint is quite small.
Instead, most of the movement comes from a hip hinge.
Some people try to squat the weight up during deadlifts, but this is not proper form.
While such a movement would increase quadriceps activation, you won’t be able to lift as much weight as you would if you deadlifted correctly.
If you want to target your quads, there are better exercises than trying to do deadlifts with a squat leg action.
Deadlifts also involve a lot of upper body activation.
Your latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, posterior deltoids, biceps, and forearms all work alongside your lower body during deadlifts, making deadlifts a full-body exercise – or very close to it.
Where deadlifts are a hip-dominant exercise, squats are much more knee dominant.
The movement patterns are quite different, and that results in different muscles being emphasized.
Because squats are a knee-dominant exercise, they involve more quadriceps recruitment than deadlifts.
They still involve the posterior chain, but less so than the deadlift.
You can decrease posterior chain activation further and force your quads to do more work by keeping your upper body more upright or trying one of the squat variations, such as front squats and goblet squats.
Because of the increased ranges of motion at the knee joint, squats are a little more likely to cause knee pain than deadlifts.
It’s clear then that deadlifts and squats are not the same things, and actually emphasize different muscle groups, although there are some overlaps.
Because of this, both deadlifts and squats should be part of most people’s workouts.
How should you program these great exercises?
That’s coming up next!
Programming squats and deadlifts
There are a couple of different ways to program squats and deadlifts.
One way is to do them on separate days, for example:
Monday – Squats
Thursday – Deadlifts
This provides plenty of time for your muscles and your nervous system to recover, so you should be able to work both exercises with plenty of weight and volume.
Alternatively, you can train squats and deadlifts in the same session.
This will be a tough workout, but it’s certainly a viable option, and one favored by one-time world squat and deadlift record holder Andy Bolton.
Bolton’s preferred method was to squat first and then deadlift afterward.
Because that’s the order squats and deadlifts are performed in powerlifting competitions.
As well as being more powerlifting specific, this method means you’ve got a whole week’s rest before you squat and deadlift again.
That should be more than enough rest to allow you to add weight from one workout to the next.
Of course, training squats followed by deadlifts, or even deadlifts followed by squats, means you’ll be more tired for the second exercise than the first.
To accommodate this, most lifters will do fewer sets of their second big lift.
Should you squat or deadlift first?
You’ll need to try both to see which method works best for you.
Choose the option that has the smallest impact on your performance.
Or, if you can’t really tell the difference, alternative from one week to the next.
When it may be necessary to just squat or deadlift
Most exercisers should do squats and deadlifts.
These exercises complement one another, and doing both of them allows you to work both the front and the back of your legs equally.
That said, there are times when it may be necessary to choose squats over deadlifts, or vice versa.
You may want to do squats rather than deadlifts if you:
- want to emphasize your quadriceps over your posterior chain
- have a lower back injury and leaning forward makes it more painful
- have elbow or hand problems that are made worse by gripping heavy weights
- want to work your lower body without too much upper body involvement
- have a biceps injury
Deadlifts may be the better choice if:
- Squats cause knee pain
- or you want to deemphasize your quads and focus more on your glutes and hamstrings, or if you
- want to train your upper body and lower body at the same time, or
- don’t have a squat rack but still want to lift heavy weights, or
- have painful shoulders and can’t rack the bar properly on your back
What about trap bar deadlifts?
Despite holding the weight in your hands like conventional deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts work your quads as squats do.
They involve a larger range of motion at your knee than your hips, and, contrary to their name, are more of a squat than a deadlift.
For this reason, a lot of trainers call them squat lifts or dead squats.
Whatever you call them, this exercise is an excellent alternative to both squats and deadlifts, and a lot of exercisers like it because they’re very lower back-friendly.
The weight stays over your base of support, your feet, which means you aren’t pulled forward as you are during conventional deadlifts.
This allows you to keep your torso much more upright, reducing lower back stress.
However, this upright position also means that there is less posterior chain involvement in this exercise.
Squats vs. deadlifts – is one really better than the other?
There are arguments for both of these exercises to be pronounced the best.
You don’t even need spotters or a squat cage; if you can’t complete a rep, you can just drop the bar.
They also teach you how to lift heavy objects off the floor safely by using your legs and back together.
As well as being useful for developing whole-body strength, deadlifts are also a good postural exercise, working the muscles between your shoulder blades.
In contrast, squats are more than just an exercise; they are a fundamental movement pattern that most people do several times a day.
If you lose your ability to squat, you also lose your ability to get in and out of a chair, walk up flights of stairs, and do many of the other movements of daily living.
So, it’s not really a question of which exercise is best.
It’s more a matter of choosing which one is best for you.
But, if you HAD to choose one over the other, and it’s a difficult choice to make, squats are probably the most useful of the two exercises.
Because squats may emphasize the quadriceps, but they also involve a decent amount of posterior chain activation.
As such, they are a reasonably well-balanced exercise.
In contrast, deadlifts are very much a posterior chain exercise that involves a small amount of quadriceps recruitment, so it’s a bit more unbalanced than the squat.
Of course, this is just an opinion – and you are free to make up your own mind!
Gear for more effective squat and deadlift workouts
Get more from your workouts, whether you squat, deadlift, or both, with these recommended items of training gear.
If you are serious about deadlifting, you’ll need a good floor to lift from.
Also, you’ll want to make sure it’s protected if you inadvertently drop your bar.
Use these floor tiles to create the perfect heavy-duty workout area.
- Heavy duty mats with high contents of EPDM resists UV/ozone; perfect...
- Thick floor mats can be used as protector mats to protect subsurface...
- Made domestically from 100% tire crumb, this recycled mat is as...
No space for a full-blown lifting platform?
Use some deadlift wedges to protect your floor instead.
Small and light, they are ideal for home lifters.
- Superior solution to the Deadlift Jack. Here's why 1000's of happy gym...
- Works where a Deadlift Jacks fail - Deficit Deadlifts, Block...
- Perfect width keeps the Dead Wedge directly under just a single...
If you want to do squats, but don’t have space for a power rack, squat stands are the next best thing.
This model also has adjustable J-hooks so you can use them for rack pulls and setting up for Romanian deadlifts.
- This exercise is fun! This rugged dumbbell rack is best for your home...
- The dumbbell rack is adjustable in height and fits almost all body...
- Combined with the barbell, you can complete the barbell training or...
Loading a barbell for deadlifts is not always easy, especially if you are working out alone.
Use a deadlift jack to make it easier, so you can save your energy for your workout.
- ANTI-CORROSION STAINLESS STEEL: Made of heavy gauge steel material,...
- UHMW PADDED GRIP: The contact plate is UHMW padded which helps protect...
- EASY LIFT STEP DESIGN: Designed for leverage utilization, the barbell...
Add an extra dimension to squats and deadlifts by using bands as well as weights.
This increases the tension at the top of your rep, strengthening your lockout and adding some variety to your workouts.
Top powerlifters and bodybuilders use resistance bands to make their workouts even more effective.
Squats vs Deadlifts – Final Thoughts
Squats and deadlifts are two of the best exercises you can do – not just according to us but according to the Journal of Strength and the Association of Strength and Conditioning Research too.
They are all-but unbeatable for building muscle strength and size.
Whatever your training goal is, these two exercises will help you get there faster.
Ideally, most exercisers should do deadlifts and squats, as they are such complementary lifts.
But, in some cases, one may be more useful than the other.
That doesn’t mean one is better; it’s just that they are different enough that, sometimes, one may be more suitable for your needs and goals.
But, if you don’t have (or want) to choose between squats vs. deadlifts, just do both and enjoy all the benefits they have to offer!
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