Why would you choose a conventional deadlift over a back squat? There’s no denying that both can help build immense muscle and strength in the lower body. But gym-goers frequently want to know which is more beneficial. It’s common to want to know which one is best overall, but there isn’t a clear winner in a head-to-head battle between the deadlift and squat. Both exercises are worth learning and performing in your workouts. Instead, you should ask, “Which one should I be performing for my specific goals”?
This guide will teach you how to choose the best exercise for your goals. We will cover the basics alongside some subtle nuances you may not have thought of yet. Whether you’re brand new to the gym or a seasoned veteran, this article breaks down the benefits and muscles used for each exercise while teaching you how to make the best decision for what you want to achieve in the gym. Buckle up; this one will be a wild ride filled with many twists and turns and some detours you may not be expecting.
Deadlift vs. Squats: What’s the Difference?
Before going too deep into subtle nuances, I find defining the basics of what we’re discussing helpful. Today, that’s the conventional deadlift and the barbell back squat. In many ways, these exercises are a lot alike. In other ways, they’re quite different. I guess you could say they’re cousins of one another. They’re family.
So, before we continue, let’s understand this: one is not better than the other. They’re different exercises and are both very useful for building muscle and strength.
The deadlift is traditionally classified as a hinge-based movement pattern. This means the exercise focuses mainly on the hips flexing and extending as you pick the bar up and set it back down. The knees are still involved in the exercise, but it isn’t as much of an emphasis. This distinction will be important to remember when we get to the section discussing the effective uses of this exercise and its many variations.
Hinge-based movements are, as you would imagine, also more hip-dominant than knee-dominant — meaning the muscles around the hips get worked more than those around the knee. We’ll cover this in more depth later on.
Alongside the hips flexing and extending, the deadlift also involves your arms gripping the bar and picking it up each repetition. This now means your back gets involved — something the deadlift has over the squat in terms of the number of muscles being worked with each repetition.
How to Perform the Deadlift
You’ll start with a loaded barbell on the floor out in front of you. I recommend using a weight that is appropriate for your strength and current skill level. If you’re brand new to this exercise, I recommend starting as lightly as possible. This ensures the weight doesn’t become a limiting factor as you learn the proper technique.
- As you step up to the bar, set your feet roughly hip-width apart and step under the barbell with your shins 1-2 inches from the bar.
- As you drive your hips back behind you, reach your hands down to grip the barbell just outside of your legs. Your hands will be positioned right around shoulder-width.
- Engage your core and slightly retract (pinch) your shoulder blades together. Your back should maintain a relatively neutral position throughout the lift. Your shoulders should be directly over or slightly in front of the bar, and your eyes can focus on a point slightly ahead of you on the floor.
- Take a deep breath and brace your core, ensuring your body is tense and ready for the lift.
- Drive your feet into the ground, extending your hips and knees to lift the bar off the floor. The bar should travel close to your body, and your hips and knees should extend at the same rate.
- At the top of the lift, your hips should be fully extended. Ensure that you’re standing tall without leaning back excessively.
- Reverse the motion by pushing your hips back and bending your knees, lowering the bar to the floor in a controlled manner. The bar should remain close to your body throughout the descent. That’s one repetition.
The squat is traditionally classified as a squat-based movement pattern. This means the exercise focuses on the hips and the knees flexing and extending as you squat the bar down and back up. So, we’re adding more involvement from the knees with squats, meaning that the exercise will emphasize the muscles surrounding the knees more than a deadlift.
Unlike the deadlift, the squat doesn’t involve the arms actively within the movement (other than holding onto the barbell while it is on your back). This means the back doesn’t get worked like it does with the deadlift. This is another difference that will play into how you use the exercise in your workouts. More on this later.
How to Perform the Squat
You’ll start with a barbell position in front of you on the squat rack. Ensure the barbell is set low enough to where you can get under the barbell and press it up without running into the j-hooks (the hooks the barbell rests on when it’s in the rack). I recommend using a weight that is appropriate for your strength and current skill level. Just like the deadlift, if you’re brand new to this exercise, I recommend starting as lightly as possible. This ensures the weight doesn’t become a limiting factor as you learn the proper technique.
- Stand facing the bar with your feet shoulder-width apart while reaching forward and grip the bar with both hands around shoulder-width apart. Your palms should be facing forward.
- Dip under the bar and position it on your upper back. Keep your chest up and your back relatively straight.
- Stand up to lift the bar off the rack, straightening your legs while keeping your chest up, and then take one or two steps back to clear the rack, setting your feet shoulder-width apart with toes slightly turned out.
- Initiate the squat by pushing your hips back and bending your knees. Lower your body towards the ground.
- Lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the ground, or go deeper if your mobility allows. Make sure your knees are aligned with your toes.
- To start your way back to the starting position, think about continuously pushing your feet into the ground as you stand up. That’s one repetition.
The Main Differences Between the Squat and Deadlift
Each exercise demands the use of muscles that surround both the hip and the knee. As covered previously:
- The deadlift is more hip-dominant, meaning the muscles around the hips get worked more than those around the knee.
- The squat is more knee-dominant, meaning the muscles around the knees get more involved than they do in the deadlift.
Each exercise requires you to grip the bar with your hands, but:
- The deadlift involves your arms gripping the bar and picking it up each repetition. This means your arms are more directly involved with each rep, helping recruit muscles across your torso — most notably the muscles in your back.
- The squat involves your arms only to keep the barbell positioned safely on your back. This means your arms are not directly involved with each rep.
Each exercise has a different starting and ending position:
- The deadlift involves you picking up the barbell from the floor to a standing position and returning the barbell to the floor. That’s one repetition.
- The squat has you load the barbell on top of your back, sit down into a squat position — until your legs are near or below parallel — and then stand back up. That’s one repetition.
Muscle Groups Targeted by Deadlifts and Squats
The deadlift and squat have a lot of overlap in terms of the muscles they challenge. This is why it’s next to impossible to definitively say that one is better than another, especially if your goal is building muscle and strength in the lower body. Because, well, it depends. Again, it goes back to your specific goal with the exercise.
When building muscle and strength, looking through the lens of what muscles are being emphasized (or biased) more in the lift is helpful. An easy way to examine this is to think about what joints are being most challenged throughout the range of motion as you perform the exercise.
With all this in mind, let’s take a closer look at which major muscle groups are targeted when performing the deadlift and squat.
The glutes are made up of a trio of muscles — the glute minimus, glute medius, and glute max (the one that gives our glutes the bulk of their shape). The main function we’re focused on in the squat and deadlift is hip extension — which is the primary job of the glute max. When we’re at the bottom position of both exercises, the glute max primarily drives the hips forward as we stand up. (1)
The quadriceps — commonly referred to as the quads — play an important role in flexing and stabilizing the hips while also playing a prominent role in extending the knees. (2) During the squat and deadlift, our rectus femoris — a quad muscle that also crosses the hip — helps us flex our hip and get into the bottom position. As we drive through the floor and stand up with the barbell, all of the quad muscles are at work to help us extend our knees.
The hamstrings attach to the back of your pelvis and run posteriorly down the leg. This powerful group of muscles plays a prominent role in hip extension. These muscles help the glutes extend the glutes as you stand up from the bottom position of the deadlift. (1))(3) They tend to play a smaller, more supportive role in the squat due to the addition of more knee flexion during this movement pattern.
The adductors — the group of muscles on the inner part of your thigh — help stabilize and maintain the balance of your pelvis while also collaborating with your hamstrings and glutes to extend the hip. The most prominent part of this muscle to aid in this collaboration is the adductor magnus. It’s the largest of the adductor muscles and is commonly grouped as another hamstring muscle because of its proximity to the hamstrings and its important role in hip extension. (4) If you’re sore after squats in what feels like your hamstrings, it’s usually the adductor magnus.
The calf muscle’s primary role is plantarflexing the foot and ankle (think pointing the toes down). It also assists in knee flexion and is essential for helping stabilize the knee and ankle. It’s not a primary muscle being used during the deadlift or squat, but it certainly plays a crucial role. (5)(6)
More commonly referred to as the traps, this muscle is very large, spanning the better part of your upper and mid-back. This muscle plays a vital role in stabilizing the scapula (your shoulder blades) as it is the main muscle producing tension in the upper back while holding the weight of the barbell in your hands. Each of the three divisions of the traps is hard at work during the deadlift to help maintain tension and stability in the back. (7)
Most commonly referred to as the lats, this muscle is known for its primary role of moving the arm toward and around the back of our body. When deadlifting, a lot of tension is placed across the back to help hold onto the loads as you move through the exercise. It’s the role of the lats to help keep your arms close to your sides. Unlike other exercises that target the lats, the deadlift places high amounts of tension through isometric contraction — when the muscle is contracting without any noticeable change in length. (8)
The core helps stabilize the spine and pelvis on both sides of the body during loaded movements, such as the squat and deadlift.
Also known as the spinal erectors, these back muscles are responsible for controlling the axial skeleton — which includes things like the skull, vertebral column, and ribs — and have a primary function of flexion/extension, side bending, and spinal rotation. The lower back is critical for stabilizing the pelvis and spine during movements such as the deadlift. (9)
Arms and Shoulders
Gripping and hanging onto the bar during the deadlift is often overlooked when discussing muscles and joints being challenged. The arms and shoulders are heavily involved during the deadlift — especially the forearms. Less known, the biceps and triceps actually attach to the shoulder blades, helping stabilize the upper arm across the elbow and shoulder joint throughout the lift. (10)(11)
Also, when we’re holding onto significant loads, a lot of challenge is placed on the shoulder joint. Muscles of the shoulder — such as the deltoids — help us maintain stability around the shoulder’s ball-and-socket joint. (12)
How to Use Deadlifts and Squats in Your Workouts
As we discussed in the above sections, the deadlift and squat have a lot of overlap in terms of the muscles that are being worked. This is why it’s next to impossible to definitively say that one is better than another and always goes back to the goal you have with either exercise.
When writing these two exercises into our workout routine, it’s most helpful to look through the lens of what muscles are being emphasized (or biased) more in the lift. Again, an easy way to examine this is to think about what joints are being most challenged throughout the range of motion as you perform the exercise.
Before we go any further into this section, I want to make one thing clear: there are no “perfect answers” when discussing this topic. The world of program design can get complicated pretty fast, especially as you add in goals outside of building muscle or strength. Past training history, including injuries — past or present — also plays a role in these decisions. This is not a time to sit atop your high horse. Be open-minded and do your best to approach things as simple as you can for as long as you can. At the end of the day, do what’s best for you or your clients.
I really like taking a joint-centric approach when thinking about these topics. It’s worked well for me throughout my personal training career. So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at how I recommend using these two exercises in a workout program.
How to Use Deadlifts in Your Workouts
For most people, the deadlift is the more hip-dominant exercise between the two, meaning the muscles around the hips get worked more than those around the knee. So, when your goal is to work more of the muscles surrounding the hip — such as the glutes, hamstrings, and adductors — I typically will choose a deadlift or one of its variations most appropriate for the individual and their goals.
An important thing to note when comparing the deadlift and the squat is the amount of quadriceps involved throughout the movement — dictated by the amount the knee flexes while you’re performing it. The amount of quadriceps involved often determines where and when I choose to use either exercise. If you want more hip and less knee, choose the deadlift.
One factor that cannot be ignored is the amount of involvement the muscles of the back have during the deadlift. Although your back muscles aren’t contributing to moving the load throughout the movement (it’s your legs moving things through space), they undoubtedly receive a stimulus (stress).
I’m sure you’ve noticed the soreness you’ve had in your back muscles after a deadlift workout. It’s not usually a factor I would allow to detour you from using the exercise, but it’s a component that you should keep in mind when deciding where to place the deadlift in your training throughout the week.
Lastly, the deadlift is a concentric-biased exercise. This means that most of the time spent working during the exercise is spent in the concentric phase of the lift — the part of the lift when you’re standing up from the bottom starting position. For some, this could play a role when choosing between the squat and deadlift. It’s clear in the research that eccentric exercise causes more muscle damage and subsequent muscle soreness when compared to concentric exercise. (13) Now, it’s important to note that overall muscle damage can be impacted by your overall history with training — the volume, frequency, and intensity you’ve been exposed to previously.
How to Use Squats in Your Workouts
The squat is an exercise that carries more knee dominance than the deadlift. This means that the exercise will emphasize the muscles surrounding the knees — most notably the quadriceps — due to the extra range of motion the knee travels through during the squat when compared to the deadlift.
Unlike the deadlift, the squat doesn’t involve the arms actively within the movement (other than holding onto the barbell while it is on your back). This means the back doesn’t get worked as it does with the deadlift. This is another difference that will play into how you use the exercise in your workouts.
So, when your goal is to work more of the muscles surrounding the knee — such as the quadriceps — I typically choose a squat or one of its most appropriate variations for the individual and their goals.
I said it for the deadlift, so I will say it here: an important thing to note when comparing the deadlift and the squat is the amount of quadriceps involved throughout the movement — dictated by the amount the knee flexes while you’re performing it. The amount of quadriceps involved often determines where and when I choose to use either exercise. If you want more knee involvement, choose the squat.
The squat doesn’t involve the arms actively within the movement (other than holding onto the barbell while it is on your back). This means the back doesn’t get worked as it does with the deadlift. This is sometimes reason enough to choose a squat over a deadlift — especially if you do not want to add any more training volume to the back muscles.
The squat is more of a full range of motion exercise with an eccentric bias. Unlike the deadlift — where most of the work is done in the concentric portion of the lift — the squat demands a lot of work from the eccentric and concentric phases of the lift. It’s biased toward the eccentric due to the fact the as you get deeper into the eccentric phase, the exercise gets increasingly more difficult. This is why you see folks do not get very deep in their squats, because, well, it’s hard.
As mentioned previously, research has shown that eccentric exercise causes more muscle damage and subsequent muscle soreness when compared to concentric exercise. (13) This is something you need to factor in when programming this for yourself or clients. If you’re brand new to this exercise, start with lighter weights and fewer sets. You’ll be sore, trust me. But with time, the soreness caused by this exercise will lessen.
The Wrap-Up — Take a Deep Breath, It’s Over
There’s a lot covered in this article. If you’ve skipped to this section without reading it, I’d encourage you actually to read it. You may learn something valuable that could help you better perform and program the deadlift and squat. As I said in the opening paragraph, there isn’t a clear winner in a head-to-head battle between these two relatives (they’re cousins if you missed that part). Both exercises are worth learning and performing in your workouts. Your goals matter when choosing between one or the other or both. At the end of the day, train hard and have fun.
If you have any questions about what was discussed in this article, please email me at email@example.com — I’d love to help. I’m also open to feedback on something that was confusing or not made entirely clear.
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