Squats vs. Deadlifts – Which is Best?
Whatever you are training for, squats and deadlifts can help you reach your goal faster. These potent exercises can build muscle size and strength, burn fat, and improve your fitness. Almost everyone who lifts weights should do squats and deadlifts; they’re THAT beneficial.
Squats and deadlifts have some striking similarities, and that means they are somewhat interchangeable. However, they’re also different enough that most exercisers would benefit from doing both of them. You can squat and deadlift in the same workout or do them on separate days; both options can work.
Squats vs. Deadlifts
But what if you had to choose just one of these excellent exercises? Which lift wins in the battle of squat vs. deadlift?
The answer is – it depends!
Sorry to be so non-committal, but the best exercise for you depends on your goals, the equipment you have available, your training experience, and a host of other factors. It’s up to you to determine whether deadlifts or squats are better for you.
In this article, we’re going to compare and contrast these two important exercises so you can decide (for you) which one is best.
You don’t have to pick just squats or deadlifts for your workouts, but you may find that one is better for you than the other, and that’s the one you should put more energy into.
Squats and deadlifts are compound exercises, which means they use several joints and multiple muscles at the same time. In fact, squats AND deadlifts work many upper and lower body muscles. With over 600 muscles in the human body, it’s impossible to list all the movers and shakers that are involved in squats and deadlifts. However, we CAN list the main muscles…
- Quadriceps – the muscles on the front of your thighs responsible for knee extension.
- Hamstrings – located on the back of your thighs and responsible for hip extension and knee flexion.
- Gluteus maximus – the muscles on the back of your hips, responsible for hip extension.
- Adductors – located on the inside of your thighs and responsible for drawing your thighs into the midline of your body.
- Abductors – the muscles on the outside of the hips and thighs responsible for lifting your leg out and away from the midline of your body.
- Erector spinae – the muscles of the lower back that support your lumbar spine
- Core – your midsection muscles that create intra-abdominal pressure and support your spine.
Deadlifts involve many of the same muscles as squats, with the main overlaps being:
- Gluteus maximus
- Erector spinae
Additionally, deadlifts involve:
- Latissimus dorsi – the large wing-like muscles on the side of the upper back responsible for shoulder extension.
- Middle trapezius and rhomboids – located across and between the shoulder blades and responsible for pulling your shoulders back and together.
- Upper traps – the muscles of the upper back that elevate your shoulder girdle.
- Forearm flexors – the muscles of the lower arm that are responsible for your grip.
In terms of muscle recruitment, the main difference between squats and deadlifts is that squats are more knee/quadriceps dominant, while deadlifts are more hip/glute/hamstring dominant. Also, deadlifts involve more upper body muscles than squats.
How to Squat and Deadlift
To get the most from squats and deadlifts, you need to perform them properly. Proper form will allow you to lift more weight and do more reps while keeping your risk of injury to a minimum. Follow these step-by-step instructions to get the most from your chosen exercise:
- Rest and hold a barbell on the fleshy part of your upper back. Do NOT rest the bar on your neck.
- Position your feet so that they are about shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly outward.
- Brace your abs, lift your chest, and look straight ahead.
- Push your hips back, bend your knees, and squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor. Push your knees out as you descend to fully activate your glutes.
- Do not round your lower back. Descend deeper if your knee health and mobility allow.
- Stand back up and repeat.
- Place your barbell on the floor. It should be mid-shin height or about nine inches above the floor.
- Stand with your feet about hip-width apart, toes under the bar.
- Bend down and grab the bar with an overhand or mixed shoulder-width grip. Straighten your arms.
- Lift your chest, drop your hips, and arch your lower back. Brace your core. Your hips should be lower than your shoulders, but not as low as for squats.
- Drive your feet into the floor and stand up. Do not round your lower back, allow your hips to rise faster than your shoulders, or bend your arms.
- Stand up straight but do not lean back.
- Lower the weight back to the floor, let the weight settle, reset your core, and repeat.
Best for Building Mass, Strength, Power
Both squats and deadlifts can be used to develop muscle mass, strength, and power. It all depends on how you program and perform these exercises.
To build strength, you need to train with heavy weights and low reps. To increase muscle mass, you must lift moderate weights for medium reps. Power is best developed by lifting explosively. The accepted rep ranges and weights for these goals are:
- Strength – 1-5 reps @ 85%+ of your one-repetition maximum (1RM)
- Power – 1-5 reps with a heavyweight lifted at maximum speed
- Muscle size – 6-12 reps @ 67-85% of your 1-RM
- Endurance – 13-20 reps @ 50-67% of your 1RM
That said, if you want to increase mostly leg strength, size, or power, then squats are probably your best choice. In contrast, if you want to build a bigger, stronger, more powerful back and don’t mind working your quads a little less, deadlifts may be more useful.
If you’ve got questions about squats and deadlifts, we’ve got answers! Check out these FAQs for even more information about these classic barbell exercises.
Which Is Safer – Squats or Deadlifts?
Deadlifts are POTENTIALLY safer than squats. When you do squats, if you cannot complete a rep, there is a very real risk of getting “stapled” under the bar. That’s why powerlifters train in power racks. Squatting without a power rack can be very dangerous, especially if you train on your own, train to failure, or use very heavyweights.
In contrast, if you are unable to lock out a heavy deadlift, all you need to do is put the bar back down on the floor. You won’t get pinned under a heavyweight and will live to fight another day.
Heavy squats ARE safe, providing you do them in a power rack, but this is not always practical. Because of this, if you are worried about keeping your risk of accident to a minimum, deadlifts are probably your best choice.
Which Are Easier On Your Knees?
Both squats and deadlifts put a lot of weight through your knees. However, the knee joint range of movement is much more significant for squats than it is for deadlifts. If you want a more knee-friendly workout, deadlifts are the way to go.
That said, you can always squat less deeply if full squats cause knee pain. While very deep (ass to grass) squats make for an impressive photo or meme, squatting to parallel or even slightly above can still be very beneficial and is much more knee-friendly.
Does Squatting Help Your Deadlift?
There is a lot of overlap between squats and deadlifts, and that means both of these exercises can improve your performance of the other.
Squats work your quads, and it’s your quads that help you break the bar away from the floor during deadlifts. Conversely, you need strong glutes, hamstrings, and lower back to squat well, and these are the muscles that deadlifts emphasize.
You should find that squats boost your deadlift performance, and deadlifts boost your squats. That’s another reason for doing both these exercises!
How Do You Work Squats And Deadlifts Into a Training Routine?
There are two options here: squat one day and deadlift later in the week, or squat and deadlift in the same workout. Both of these options can work.
Doing squats and deadlifts on different days, such as Monday and Thursday, means you can put lots of energy into each lift, and you’ll be well-rested for both workouts. You’ll be able to do more sets of each exercise, and potentially lift heavier weights too.
Squatting and deadlifting on the same day means that one exercise will provide a warm-up for the next. It also mirrors the demands of powerlifting competitions, where squats and deadlifts are done on the same day. Finally, squatting and deadlifting in the same session means you’ll have seven days to recover before your next workout.
On the downside, this option means your workout will be very tiring, and you may not be able to lift as much weight or do as many reps/sets of your second exercise.
If you DO squat and deadlift in the same workout, you should:
- Squat first and deadlift second
- Reduce the weight for deadlifts
- Do fewer sets of squats
That way, you’ll be able to enjoy the benefits of both these exercises.
Should I Wear a Weightlifting Belt For Squats And Deadlifts?
You can, but you don’t have to! Wearing a weightlifting belt helps increase intra-abdominal pressure by giving your abs something to press against. This reduces the stress on your back by providing additional support. You may find that you can lift more weight or do more reps when you wear a weightlifting belt.
But, to get the most from a belt, you need to learn how to use it properly…
- Cinch the belt around your waist. It should be tight.
- Brace your abs like you are expecting a punch to the stomach.
- Inhale and press your abs and waist out into the belt. Your entire midsection to feel stable and strong.
- Do your rep.
- Exhale, reset your core, and repeat.
You can’t just put on a belt and expect it to support your back passively. Instead, you need to work with it to get the best effect. You still need to avoid rounding your back as doing so, even if you are wearing a belt, could result in serious injury.
Does It Matter What Shoes I Wear For Squats And Deadlifts?
If you are lifting light weights for high reps, your footwear probably doesn’t matter all that much, and you can safely work out wearing regular sneakers. But, if you are lifting heavier weights, your footwear becomes more important.
For squats, the last thing you want is a shoe that compresses under load, like a running shoe. This would make you unstable, and that’s the last thing you need when you’ve got a heavy barbell on your back. If you are serious about squats, a pair of solid-soled shoes are your best choice. A raised heel can also be advantageous as that may help you squat deeper.
In contrast, you need a flat shoe for deadlifts, so you are closer to the ground and more stable. Again, squishy running shoes are not a good idea. A shoe with raised heels will push you forward onto your toes, which could affect your balance, so shoes with a zero drop are best.
A lot of successful lifters do deadlifts in bare feet or just their socks. But, if your gym doesn’t allow this, minimalist athletic shoes are an equally good option.
In the battle of the big lifts, there is no real winner between squats and deadlifts. Both have advantages and benefits, as well as a few drawbacks. The reality is that the best exercise for you depends on your needs, wants, and abilities.
Squats are better for lower body muscle building, but you’ll need a squat rack to do them safely, and they can be hard on your knees.
Deadlifts are potentially safer because you can just drop the bar if you cannot complete your rep. However, they’re more of a back builder than a leg exercise. However, they tend to be more knee-friendly.
If you are unable to choose between these two exercises, it’s a safe bet that you should be doing both of them. After all, they are both extremely useful exercises. So, if you don’t have to choose between them, doing squats AND deadlifts may be the best way to reach your training goals.