The Differences Between the Squat and Deadlift

squat vs deadlift workout

Comparing Muscle Recruitment and Exercise Benefits

The deadlift and the squat are two foundational strength exercises that should be incorporated into the majority of training programs.

The reason for this is simply due to the substantial impact that both exercises have on the body. Not only do both build full-body strength they can significantly impact hypertrophy and athletic performance.

While regularly performing both will certainly improve strength and performance, it is important to recognize a number of differences that exist between both exercises.

This article will review the squat and deadlift, the differences in muscle activation between the two and highlight a number of specific benefits associated with each exercise.

The Squat

This section will detail the muscles which are primarily worked in a back squat. Be aware that squatting variations will work specific muscles to a greater or lesser degree.

The squatting movement pattern involves simultaneous flexion of the hips, knees, and ankles in order to drop the hips back and down towards the floor all while the trunk is held in an upright position.

The squat movement pattern is commonly seen in sport which makes the squat (and squatting variations) fundamental for all athletes.

There are three common squat variations – the back squat, front squat and overhead squat – all of which have their individual uses and benefits.

squat

Muscles Worked in the Squat

Be aware that while the muscles listed below are predominantly lower extremity muscles, the squat should be considered a full-body exercise.

Quadriceps

A much greater demand is placed on the quads during a squat than in a deadlift. During the squat, the quads are highly activated due to the high degree of flexion that occurs at the knees.

The front squat is an excellent squatting variation that targets the quads to an even greater extent (1).

Glutes

Meanwhile, the glutes are responsible for hip extension and play a pivotal role in the squat. They also work to enhance full-body stability, specifically at the deepest point of the squat.

To maximize the engagement of the glutes, use a low bar back squat (2).

Hamstrings

The hamstrings play a secondary role in the squat as they contract to improve stability and assist during the eccentric (lowering) phase of the squat.

They also work to maintain hip and knee joint stability as you power up and out of the squat.

Back Muscles

The spinal erectors, lats, traps, and rhomboids all play a role in keeping the trunk upright during the squat. They combine to keep the spine neutrally aligned and stable thus reducing injury risk.

Calves

The calves contract in order to keep the feet pinned to the floor, facilitate stability and assist in the drive phase. Improving calf strength will allow for greater plantarflexion and can lead to a more efficient squat (3).

squat

Squatting Benefits

The following list of squatting benefits should by no means be considered comprehensive as there are a vast number of benefits associated with the squat.

1) Increased Leg Strength

Probably the most evident benefit associated with squatting is an improvement in leg muscle strength – specifically the quads and glutes.

The squat recruits a vast number of lower extremity muscles and motor units which is what makes it such an effective leg strength developer.

2) Total Strength & Muscle Hypertrophy

The squat and deadlift are the two free-weight exercises where the greatest amount of load can be lifted. This makes both exercises key for improving full-body strength and size.

It would be very difficult to replicate the demands of the squat and deadlift through other exercises and therefore, athletes should be regularly performing both. 

3) Sport-Specific Exercise

The squat and it’s variations have close links with a range of sports. Powerlifters are required to back squat and weightlifters must be capable of performing the front and overhead squat to allow them to clean and snatch efficiently.

Most athletes can benefit from utilizing all three squat variations as a combination of all three will comprehensively develop strength, movement, endurance, power, and fitness.

deadlift

The Deadlift

In the same way with the squat, the deadlift has a number of variations that will work muscles in a slightly different fashion. This section is based on the conventional deadlift.

While the movement patterns aren’t entirely dissimilar between the deadlift and squat, the most evident difference is the smaller degree of flexion that occurs at the knee joint.

Because the legs are straighter in the deadlift, the hips start a lot higher. Consequently, the trunk of the body set in a more horizontal position and a greater emphasis is placed on hip flexion and extension.

Three common deadlift variations that can be used to develop posterior chain strength are the conventional, sumo and trap bar deadlift.

Muscles Worked

As will become apparent, the deadlift works a number of the same muscles as the squat however, this is to a greater or lesser degree.

The mechanics and action of the deadlift place the greatest amount of stress on posterior chain muscles which are the muscles that are found to the rear of the body.

Hamstrings

The hamstrings are more heavily targeted in the deadlift than in the squat. This is due to the reduced amount of knee flexion and consequent emphasis on hip extension.

The hamstrings also work to stabilize the knee joint during the deadlift, as it does in the squat.

Glutes

The glutes are also responsible for driving hip extension at the top end of the deadlift. Lifters who have weak or inactive glutes may find that stress is placed on the lower back rather than the glutes.

Quadriceps

While the degree of knee flexion is reduced, the knees must still extend as the bar is lifted. The quads assist in the pull and work to enhance the stability of the movement.

Both the sumo deadlift targets the quadriceps to a greater extent (4).

Back Muscles

As seen in the squat, a multitude of back muscles must contract in order to stabilize the spine and prevent spinal flexion, therefore, lowering the risk of sustaining a spinal injury.

Failure to properly engage these muscles can lead to excessive spinal flexion and can lead to herniating a disc.

Calves

The calves will also contract during the deadlift to assist in power generation and will help to facilitate efficient knee and hip extension.

In addition, the contraction of the calves will keep the body grounded and stable throughout the movement.

deadlift

Deadlift Benefits

Regularly performing the deadlift can have an incredible impact on your overall strength, power, and fitness. This section will highlight four primary benefits associated with the deadlift.

1) Posterior Chain Development

As posterior chain muscles are simply all the muscles that can be found to the rear of the body. These muscles are responsible for generating the power required for athletic and powerful movements.

Incorporating the deadlift into your train will develop the posterior chain, increase strength capacity, enhance muscle size and improve athletic performance.

2) More Athletic Hamstrings, Glutes & Back

The hamstrings, glutes, and back are the posterior chain muscles that are most influential in athletic movements and performance.

By improving the strength and function of these muscles you may see an improvement in a number of actions such as running, jumping, and sprinting.

3) Full-Body Strength and Hypertrophy Gains

As reflected on, the deadlift brings about a range of physiological and neurological adaptations including an increase in muscle strength and size, however, this is not simply restricted to the posterior chain.

The deadlift should really be considered a full-body exercise as it highly activates a range of muscles throughout the body which can lead to an increase in full-body strength and size.

4) Injury Prevention

A combination of all of the above benefits leads to a reduction in injury risk. Generally, improving the strength and function of a muscle will reduce the risk of sustaining a soft tissue injury.

It is imperative that the deadlift is executed with proper technique however as poor technique can substantially increase the risk of injury (specifically to the spine).

Programming Considerations

The number of sets and reps that you should perform per exercise entirely depend on the component of fitness that you wish to develop as well as your level of competency.

Both the squat and deadlift are programmed similarly, therefore, it is recommended to use the following set, reps, and weight guide in your training.

Beginners:
– 2-4 sets x 8-12 reps
– Light to moderate loads
– Focus on technique overweight

Muscular Strength:
– 4-8 sets x 1-3 reps
– Heavy loads (> 80% of 1 Rep Max)

Muscular Hypertrophy
– 4-8 sets x 6-12 reps
– Moderate loads (60-80% of 1RM)

Muscular Endurance
– 2-4 sets x 12-20 reps
– Light to moderate loads (< 60% of 1RM)

Final Word

It would be inappropriate to rate one exercise as more beneficial than the other as both have their unique uses, benefits, and characteristics.

It is clear that both the squat and deadlift should be considered compulsory for the athlete as both exercises have a significant impact both have on strength, function, and performance.

References:

1 – Yavuz, Hasan Ulas; Erdağ, Deniz; Amca, Arif Mithat; Aritan, Serdar (2015). “Kinematic and EMG activities during front and back squat variations in maximum loads”. Journal of Sports Sciences. 33 (10): 1058–1066. doi:10.1080/02640414.2014.984240. ISSN 1466-447X. PMID 25630691.

2 -Glassbrook, Daniel J.; Helms, Eric R.; Brown, Scott R.; Storey, Adam G. (2017-09). “A Review of the Biomechanical Differences Between the High-Bar and Low-Bar Back-Squat”. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 31 (9): 2618–2634. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000002007. ISSN 1533-4287. PMID 28570490.

3 – Kim, Si-Hyun; Kwon, Oh-Yun; Park, Kyue-Nam; Jeon, In-Cheol; Weon, Jong-Hyuck (April 7, 2015). “Lower Extremity Strength and the Range of Motion in Relation to Squat Depth”. Journal of Human Kinetics. 45: 59–69. doi:10.1515/hukin-2015-0007. ISSN 1640-5544. PMC 4415844. PMID 25964810.

4 – Escamilla, Rafael F.; Francisco, Anthony C.; Kayes, Andrew V.; Speer, Kevin P.; Moorman, Claude T. (2002-04). “An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts”. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 34 (4): 682–688. doi:10.1097/00005768-200204000-00019. ISSN 0195-9131. PMID 11932579.

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Jacob Ladon
Jacob Ladon is a staff writer and former amateur bodybuilder. He has been passionate about bodybuilding since he was 15 years old and discovered the joys of training in the gym. He reports and comments on all bodybuilding related matters.