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Deadlift vs. Squat: Which Is Best for Size and Strength?

01dragonslayer

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The deadlift vs squat debate is a staple in the fitness fraternity.

Weightlifters often compare the two because they share many similarities: both are foundational in strength training, train a myriad of muscle groups, and help develop full-body strength.

But what are their differences?

What muscles does each train?

How do you perform them with proper form?

How do you include them in your program?

And which is better?

Get evidence-based answers to these questions and more in this expert guide to deadlifting vs. squatting.



Deadlift vs. Squat: Form Differences

The main distinction between deadlifting vs. squatting is the movement patterns involved.

The deadlift is a “hip hinge” movement, which means it involves maintaining a flat back while bending at the hips and pushing your butt backward to bring your chest toward the floor. Hip hinge movements primarily train the posterior chain (the muscles on the back of your body), especially the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.

Squats, on the other hand, involve “flexing” (bending) the hips and knees simultaneously to lower your body toward the floor and then “extending” (straightening) them to return to a standing position. Similarly to deadlifts, squats train the glutes to a high degree, though they train the quads significantly more.



How to Do the Deadlift

deadlift vs squat


  1. Position your feet so they’re a bit less than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed slightly out.
  2. Move a loaded barbell over your midfoot so it’s about an inch from your shins.
  3. Move down toward the bar by pushing your hips back and grip the bar just outside your shins.
  4. Take a deep breath of air into your belly, flatten your back by pushing your hips up slightly, and then drive your body upward and slightly back by pushing through your heels until you’re standing up straight.
  5. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position.

How to Do the Squat

deadlifting vs squatting


  1. Position a barbell in a squat rack at about the height of the top of your breastbone.
  2. Step under the bar, pinch your shoulder blades together, and rest the bar directly above the bony ridges on the bottom of your shoulder blades.
  3. Lift the bar out of the rack, take one or two steps backward, and place your feet flat on the floor a little wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outward.
  4. Keeping your back straight, sit down and push your knees out in the same direction as your toes.
  5. Stand up and return to the starting position.

Deadlift vs. Squat: Similarities

The deadlift and squat are compound exercises that target several of the same major muscle groups throughout your entire body. They also allow you to lift heavy weights safely and progress regularly, making them excellent exercises for building full-body muscle and strength.

Furthermore, these exercises enhance sports performance and build functional strength, which can make performing many day-to-day activities, such as picking objects off the floor and sitting and standing, easier.

Deadlift vs. Squat: Muscles Worked

Deadlift

The deadlift trains your entire posterior chain, including the lats, traps, spinal erectors, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. It also trains several other muscle groups across the rest of your body, like the quads, forearms, core, and shoulders.

That said, the deadlift doesn’t train these muscles equally. Instead, it’s best suited to building your spinal erectors, glutes, traps, hamstrings, core, and forearms and typically isn’t as effective for developing the other muscle groups listed above.

Squat

The back squat trains your entire lower body, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. It also heavily involves your lower back and abs and works your lats and traps to a lesser extent.



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Deadlift vs. Squat: Programming

Deadlifts and squats are demanding exercises that work many muscle groups throughout your body. Since they can feel more exhausting than other exercises, you must be measured with how you “program” (include) them in your routine.

That said, you don’t need to be as cautious as many think.

There’s a common misconception that squats and deadlifts cause severe central nervous system (CNS) fatigue. That is, many believe squatting and deadlifting are so tiring that they negatively affect how your spinal cord and brain “communicate” with your muscles and can leave you feeling frazzled.

However, studies show that weightlifting causes much less CNS fatigue than you might think, even during intense workouts.

For instance, in one study conducted by Northumbria University, weightlifters who did two grueling workouts that included 4 heavy sets of the squat, split squat, and push press experienced no CNS fatigue.

Another study conducted by Massey University found weightlifters who did 8 sets of 2 reps of deadlifts at 95% of one-rep max saw CNS output decline by just 5-to-10% after exercising.

Thus, research doesn’t support the narrative that deadlifting and squatting each week overwhelms the CNS.

A more pressing concern when programming the deadlift and squat is peripheral fatigue, which is the feeling of muscle weakness after a hard workout.

Deadlifts and squats train similar muscles, so training them soon after one another can hinder performance and recovery, and thus, muscle mass and strength gain over time.

As such, most people should separate their deadlifts and squats by 2-to-3 days. For example, you could deadlift on Monday and squat on Thursday. If your schedule doesn’t allow for this, aim for at least a day’s gap between deadlifting and squatting.

That’s not to say you can’t train squats and deadlifts in the same workout. However, given the above, there are only two scenarios in which this makes sense:

  1. During a powerlifting competition, you deadlift after squatting. Therefore, if you’re a powerlifter prepping for a “meet,” doing deadlifts after squats in training may help you gauge how much you can pull when you’re already fatigued from squatting.
  2. If you’re time-pressed and restricted to one workout weekly, doing squats and deadlifts in the same workout is a viable way to train. In this scenario, squat then deadlift, and don’t go overboard with volume and intensity: do 3 sets of 4-to-6 reps of each exercise, aim to end each set with 2-to-3 reps in the tank, and never train to failure.

Deadlift vs. Squat: Which Is Better?

Neither is better or worse than the other.

Both the deadlift and squat are fantastic exercises for gaining whole-body muscle and strength and enhancing athletic performance. The difference is the deadlift is better at training the back and glutes, whereas the squat is superior for training the quads.

Thus, rather than comparing deadlifting vs. squatting, it makes more sense to include both in your routine.

A good way to do this is to perform the deadlift at the beginning of a back or pull workout early in the week, then squat at the beginning of a leg or lower-body workout later in the week.

This is how I personally like to organize my training, and it’s similar to the method I advocate in my fitness books for men and women, Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger.

(And if you’d like even more specific advice about what exercises to include in your training program to reach your health and fitness goals, take the Legion Strength Training Quiz, and in less than a minute, you’ll know the perfect strength training program for you. Click here to check it out.)



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The Best Deadlift and Squat Variations

Deadlift Variations

Depending on your goals and fitness level, there are several deadlift variations that can help you build muscle and gain strength. The mains ones are:

  • Sumo Deadlift: The sumo deadlift is a useful deadlift variation for those looking to develop their legs since it emphasizes the quads slightly more than the conventional deadlift. Compared to the conventional deadlift, you also bend your knees less and stay more upright throughout the entire range of motion in the sumo deadlift, making it a good variation for those with issues with their lower back and knee joints.
  • Trap-Bar Deadlift: Trap-bar deadlifts train the quads more than conventional deadlifts, making them a viable option for people looking to develop their lower body. It also allows you to lift the weight faster, which is vital if you’re an athlete training to increase power.
  • Romanian Deadlift: The Romanian deadlift trains the posterior chain much like the conventional deadlift. However, because of the difference in form, it emphasizes your “hip extensors” (glutes and hamstrings) rather than your back and doesn’t train your quads much at all. Additionally, the Romanian deadlift is one of the least fatiguing deadlift variations, so you can do it more often without running yourself ragged.

Squat Variations

If you can’t or don’t like to back squat, several variations are similarly effective at helping you gain muscle and strength. Here are the best options:

  • Front Squat: The front squat trains the quads as effectively as the barbell back squat, even when you use up to 20% less weight. It also stresses your knees and lower back less, making it a good option for people who have knee joint or back issues.
  • Bulgarian Split Squat: Research shows that the Bulgarian split squat is a great exercise for your entire lower body. Because it trains one leg at a time, it’s also useful for finding and fixing muscle or strength imbalances and boosting athletic performance, which is why it’s a favorite among strength and conditioning coaches.
  • Step-up: The step-up trains your legs through the same range of motion as a deep squat, which is likely why studies show it’s an excellent exercise for your entire lower body. Moreover, it’s easy on your spine and doesn’t require you to lift heavy weights to get results, which means it’s kinder to your bones and joints than most leg exercises.

 
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