Deadlift Vs. Squat: Choose The Better Option For Muscle & Strength

 Written by 

Mauro Castillo

 Last updated on 

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Squats and deadlifts are two of the most famous and effective exercises anybody can do. They have shown multiple benefits, like muscle growth, increased strength, and enhanced performance in sports athletes. 

But, which one is better for muscle and strength: squats vs. deadlifts? If I had to pick one, I’d choose squats as the better option. Although both movements have arguments to be the right pick, the squat has higher returns with minimal risks for injury.

deadlift vs squat comparative
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Ultimately, it all boils down to personal preference and fitness goals. Either way, here’s what you’ll learn throughout this article:

– Muscles worked on each movement

– Form differences

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– How to do them efficiently and effectively 

– The best way to add them to your training program 

Without further addition, let’s dive in!

Squats Vs. Deadlift: Muscles Worked

The squat and deadlift are two different exercises with distinct movement patterns which vary muscle recruitment. 

Both movements are fantastic for building functional strength (daily life strength) and keeping your entire body in shape. 

Let’s break down the muscles worked on each movement.

A woman doing squats near a rack
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Muscles Worked In The Squat

As a knee-dominant exercise, the squat works the following muscles:

Quads

The quadriceps are a 4-muscle group located in the front of the leg. These muscles are:

– Vastus medialis 

– Vastus lateralis 

– Vastus intermedius 

– Rectus femoris 

Together they are responsible for knee extension and flexing the hip (along the psoas). Because the squat has a knee-dominant movement pattern, it targets the quads more than the conventional deadlift.

Exercises like the deep squat (heels elevated, hips to ground) have a bigger range of motion which are a must to build quadriceps strength and muscle mass. As a general rule, most squat variations will target these muscles.

Glutes

The gluteal muscles are the primary hip extensors. They’re a three-muscle group formed by:

– Gluteus maximus 

– Gluteus minimus

– Gluteus medius 

Although the glutes assist mainly with hip extension, they also help abduct and externally rotate the leg. These muscles play a critical component in pelvis stabilization which is crucial for jumping, running, and walking.

Hamstrings

The hamstrings are a four-muscle group in charge of flexing your knee and aiding in hip extension along with the glutes. They are:

– Semitendinosus 

– Semimembranosus

– Biceps femoris (short head)

– Biceps femoris (long head) 

These muscles are a crucial element of your posterior chain. They are not trained as often as they should; however, squats are a terrific option for building strength in these leg muscles.  

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Spinal Erectors (lower back)

The erector spinae (spinal erectors) are long muscles located vertically on your back. Their main role is to extend and control the spine.

They’re also crucial for maintaining a neutral back when doing squats. One of the (many) reasons why people get back injuries could be related to having weak spinal erectors.

A man preparing to deadlift at the gym
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Muscles Worked In The Deadlift

Contrary to the squat (knee dominant), the deadlift is a hip-dominant exercise. This distinct movement pattern recruits some of the same muscles but also targets others with more emphasis. 

Glutes

The glutes are the primary muscle group in charge of extending the hips, which makes the deadlift one of the most effective exercises for building strength and glute mass.

Variations like the Romanian and sumo deadlift require more muscular contraction from the glute muscles, which makes them a primary target.

Hamstrings

The hamstrings are bi-articular muscles because they act on the knees (flexion) and the hips (extension). Both of these actions are characteristic of any deadlift.

However, variations like the Romanian or deficit deadlift can recruit more muscle fibers due to the larger range of motion.

Lats

Lats have a more significant role in the deadlift than the squat. They are essential for developing a proper form because they keep the bar close to your body (shoulder extension) during the whole range of motion.

The lats should be engaged from the starting position while also working as stabilizer muscles for the shoulders, spine, and thorax. 

Trapezius

The traps are another muscle group from the upper body that plays a vital role in keeping the spine neutral and a clean vertical path on the bar from the floor up to the standing position.

The snatch deadlifts are an excellent deadlift variation to bias the traps more. Although this is an advanced variation for experienced lifters, the wide grip puts the trapezius in a position for more muscle recruitment.

Spinal Erectors

The erector spinae is one of the main muscles on the posterior chain that benefit from the standard deadlift or any conventional style. 

Since the deadlift revolves around the hip joint, the spinal erectors receive a significant muscle activation ideal for keeping a healthy spine through the different ranges of motion.

A woman doing squats in an empty gym
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Squat vs. Deadlift: Form Differences & How To Do

The squat and deadlift are compound exercises with different forms and movement patterns. Both are ideal for developing body strength and can handle heavier weights. 

The squat movement pattern requires an upright torso and solid hip, knee, and ankle mobility to allow a safe and vertical descent.

The deadlift has a different pattern of movement. Its primary focus is the hip joint. Although it also requires mobility from the ankles and knees, the range of motion is less than the squat pattern. A neutral spine is imperative for keeping injury risk at bay.

Next, following this step-by-step guide, I’ll break down how to do both movements with the correct form.

How to Do the Squat

Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to perform a back squat variation:

  1. Set the bar on a squat rack.
  2. Make sure the hooks are shoulder height or slightly lower.
  3. Get under the bar from the center part and use your arms to hold it (the bar should rest over your traps).
  4. Stand up and take a few steps back to clear the hooks and set your stance width.
  5. Before going down, breathe into your belly and brace your core to stabilize your spine.
  6. Hinge your hips and bend your knees to descend until your hips are parallel to your knees (or lower, depending on your mobility). 
  7. Once at the bottom, drive the floor away with your feet to stand back up.

If you’re new to the exercise, I can suggest starting with these alternatives until you can master the movement pattern and progress to the back squat variation:

– Air Squat

– DB Goblet Squat

– DB Front Squat

– Back Squat to the Box

Build the weight progressively, and have fun!

A man preparing his barbell before deadlifting
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How to Do the Deadlift

Here’s how to perform a barbell deadlift:

  1. Grab an empty or loaded barbell. 
  2. Set your stance hip-width, and get the bar closer to your shins.
  3. Send your hips back while bending forward, and grip the bar with your arms slightly outside your thighs. 
  4. Stick your chest out hard, and keep a neutral spine and neck. 
  5. Push the floor away to stand up until you reach the lock-out position (hips and knees fully extended)
  6. Descend with control by bending simultaneously at your knees and hips
  7. Stop once the bar has returned to the floor, and repeat. 

The deadlift has a shorter range of motion compared to the squat. However, it’s a powerful movement to strengthen your posterior chain muscles and build full-body strength.

Before adding weight, make sure to master the technique. That will keep injury risk at a minimum and get you closer to your fitness goals.

Which is Better: Deadlifts or Squats?

Which is better: Deadlifts or Squats? That’s the million-dollar question. Both are great compound movements with multiple health and performance benefits. However, if I had to pick one, I’d say squats; here’s a quick breakdown of why. 

Squats require a greater range of motion from multiple joints, such as the ankle, knees, hips, and torso, which is why it’s hard to do an efficient squat without having the ability to move these joints freely. 

This also means that muscle recruitment is more extensive compared to the deadlift. During the squat exercises, not only the glutes and hamstrings are being targeted. But also, the quadriceps which are critical for building leg strength and assuring a better quality of life.

Squat strength is transferable for jumping, running, and maximal strength. Many people argue that you can lift more weight with deadlifts, which is true, but that doesn’t necessarily make it the better option.

Although the squat requires more joint mobility, the deadlift needs special attention to detail regarding proper technique. That makes it more prone to injury in untrained populations. 

In summary, it all boils down to personal preferences and your training goals. Both are compound movements with many health and performance benefits, but the squat has the slight advantage.

A powerlifter about to deadlift in a competition
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How To Add Squats And Deadlifts To Your Training Program

There’s no complete training program without squats and deadlifts included. They have much to offer regarding strength, muscle growth, weight loss, and performance. But how do you add them to your training? That depends on your goals. 

Powerlifting Training (Strength)

If your goal is to get better at powerlifting, squats, and deadlifts are non-negotiables. These two movements and the bench press are the hallmarks of a rounded powerlifting program. 

You should squat and deadlift around 2-3 times per week, with different intensities and volumes. For example:

– Day 1: 3-4 Sets, 5-8 reps @85-90% of your 1RM

– Day 2: 2-3 sets, 8-12 reps, 70-75% of your 1RM

– Day 3: 2-3 sets 4-6 reps, 60-70% of your 1RM (focusing on speed, moving the bar as fast and explosive as possible)

Try squatting and deadlifting on different days to keep your body fresh for the session. These movements can be taxing not only on your body but also on your central nervous system.

Although these numbers can (and should) change, use them to guide your training in the right direction. 

Hypertrophy Training (Muscle)

Hypertrophy means increasing the size of your muscle cells in an adaptive response to stress created by resistance training. In this case, squats and deadlifts. 

Both movements will help you gain strength and muscle mass in your lower body. Here’s an example of how to include them in your training.

– Day 1: 3-4 sets, 10-15 reps @70% of your 1RM

– Day 2: 2-3 sets, 6-8 reps @90% of your 1RM 

Contrary to powerlifting, when it comes to hypertrophy, you can push your muscles to the limit more often, and hitting sets with many reps can help you achieve the right stimulus. 

Therefore, I’d encourage you to add both movements in a single session and try different variations to target the muscles from multiple angles.

An athlete doing deadlifts at a competition
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FAQ

Which Is Better: Squats Or Deadlifts?

It depends on what you’re looking for. Squats are better for developing quad strength and mass. Deadlifts are the go-to for developing a strong posterior chain (glutes, low back, and hamstrings).

Is Deadlifting Harder Than Squatting?

For the majority of people, squatting is harder than deadlifting. That might be because squatting requires more knee and ankle mobility, which many individuals lack. Although deadlifts can be challenging, most people are quicker to master the movement compared to a full squat.

Is Squat Or Deadlift The King Of Exercises?

Both movements have the requirements to be the king of all exercises, since they work several grand muscles along with the multiple joints. But, if we had to pick one, itโ€™d be squats. The squats target posterior and anterior chain muscles while moving through a larger range of motion, which means more muscle recruitment.

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About

I've been in the world of CrossFit since 2016. Started as a client, later became a coach, and eventually bought an affiliate with two friends from January 2020 to January 2022. In 2018 I won 1st place at a local competition in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. After I sold my shares in January 2022 I moved then to another city to run as the general manager of another affiliate STI CrossFit.

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