It’s leg day and you’re ready to unleash your power and do that killer workout that’ll build your lower body. Among all the lower-body giants, there are two exercises that stand out: the mighty squats and the brutal deadlifts.
You know that both of these exercises are going to work those muscles like a muscle-building machine, get your heart pumping, and give you that burn; but in the battle of squats vs. deadlifts, who’s going to be the winner?
Truth is, it’s not even a battle in the first place. It’s not about picking sides; it’s about understanding how these two exercises are different from each other so that you can work out efficiently and get the body that you want.
In this article, we’re getting into the nitty-gritty details of squats vs. deadlifts. We’ll tell you how to do them correctly, what muscles they work, and what different variations of squats and deadlifts there are. So, fasten your weightlifting belt and get ready to become a pro!
Squats vs. Deadlifts: Which Is Better?
Before we get all technical and bore you with the details, let’s make one thing clear: There is no battle between the squat and the deadlift. They are not enemies; if anything, they’re buddies who do different things for us.
A squat is a great lower-body exercise. It gives you that sculpted look you were trying to achieve. A quick detour: If you’re looking for exercises to build your butt, read the following articles:
- Best Exercises to Build a Heart-Shaped Butt
- Best Exercises to Turn Your Square Butt into a Round Behind
Back to the subject: If you’re looking for impressive quads and a drop-dead gorgeous ass, go for squats. Plus, if you’re a beginner who’s just stepping into the world of weightlifting, squats are a better and more beginner-friendly choice for you.
Deadlifts are a different story. They train your posterior chain muscles like no other exercise, but they’re mostly viewed as a manifestation of strength among fitness pros. While you can do deadlifts for 3 sets of 10 reps, which will be very beneficial, most athletes use deadlifts as a way to measure their 1RM (or 1-rep max). It means that they pick really heavy weights they can lift for only 1 rep, showing them how strong they are.
The whole point is that it doesn’t have to be one or the other. These exercises are different and shouldn’t really be measured on the same scale.
The ABCs of Squats and Deadlifts
If you lift that confrontational look off these two amazing exercises, you’ll realize that squats and deadlifts are like peanut butter and jelly—they make each other better. Let’s take a closer look at each of them to understand their differences.
Squats: Leg Day Essentials
The squat, king of exercises, the OG of leg day. What makes squats so lauded among the weightlifting community? Squats are a compound exercise, meaning that they hit several muscle groups in your body. Plus, if you do squats regularly, you’ll have a stronger body to assist you in your daily activities, especially when you’re older.
Muscles Worked in a Squat
So we said that squats hit several muscles in our body. What muscles are we referring to? The primary muscles that a squat targets are the quadriceps femoris (the big muscles in the front side of your thighs), hamstrings (the muscles on the back of your thighs), and gluteal muscles (your buttocks).
These are the primary targets of a squat, but there’s more. Squats also target the calf muscles, hip flexors, adductors, and the core to some extent. The hip flexors are five muscles that help with hip flexion or bringing your foot up towards your torso. These muscles are the psoas major, iliacus, pectineus, rectus femoris (one of the four parts of the quadriceps), and sartorius muscles. In case you found the names of these muscles hard (we all do), take a look at this photo:
The adductor muscles are responsible for hip adduction, that is bringing your foot towards your body in a lateral direction. The adductors are also composed of a group of muscles with complicated names. You don’t have to summarize these names, but if you’re interested, here they are: adductor brevis, adductor longus, adductor magnus, gracilis, and pectineus (it has been among the hip flexors too; this is a muscle that apparently belongs to both groups). Here’s a photo so that you can locate them on the body:
Deadlifts: The Full-Body Power Move
Let’s talk deadlifts. Deadlifts, too, are compound exercises. They are the favorites of those who want to get superhero strong. Let’s see how they work our muscles.
Muscles Worked in a Deadlift
Remember those muscles worked in a squat? They’re all called to action when you do a deadlift too. That’s the nature of compound exercises. What makes them different when trying to look at squats vs. deadlifts in terms of muscle activation is the focus of each of these exercises.
A squat mostly works your leg muscles. A deadlift, on the other hand, is a pulling exercise that works your posterior chain muscles. So, while your quads and core get in on the action in a deadlift, it’s primarily the glutes, hamstrings, lower back, latissimus dorsi, and the trapezius that help you do the lifting. Take a look at the image below if you don’t know where any of these muscles are located:
Style Points: Different Types of Squats and Deadlifts
Instead of deciding between a squat vs. deadlift, we should learn about the details of these two exercises. The thing is that there is not one definitive way to do a squat or a deadlift. These exercises have different variations. Squats, for example, offer a wide variety of different variations. We have dumbbell squat, hack squat, goblet squat, sumo squat, sissy squat (not so funny unlike its name), box squat, low-bar squat, and you guessed it, high-bar squat. The list goes on.
The same goes for deadlifts. There are conventional deadlifts, rack pulls, Romanian deadlifts, stiff-leg deadlifts, single-leg deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, etc. Just do a quick search and you’ll see a plethora of variations aimed at people with different fitness levels.
Talking about each and every one of these variations, however, isn’t going to wrap up the debate around squats and deadlifts; neither is it going to help you understand which is better for you. So, for the sake of the article’s objective, we are going to choose two variations of squats and deadlifts that can be compared with each other: deadlift bar vs. squat bar and sumo squat vs. sumo deadlift.
Deadlift Bar vs. Squat Bar
Learning how to handle a bar and load or unload it can be challenging at first. Still, the traditional forms of squats and deadlifts are performed with a barbell, and for good reason—it maximizes your performance.
During a squat, a barbell can become your best friend. That’s firstly because you put it on your shoulders, so you won’t have to deal with the common grip failure. Second, since you don’t have to carry it with your hands, you can load it as much as your legs can take. Therefore, you’re directly putting your lower-body strength to the test.
As for the deadlift, since you have to hold the barbell with your hands, you might face grip failure. A good way to solve this problem is to use weightlifting straps or hooks to help you with your grip. But there’s an upside to this: Having a strong grip is an important factor in weightlifting. You don’t want it to be the thing that stops you from using your whole potential. As you fiddle around with the barbell, your grip starts to get stronger like the rest of your body.
Another benefit of using a barbell for deadlifts is that you can load it with heavy weights. This might not be possible when you’re using dumbbells. It can quite be harder to pick up heavy dumbbells since the weight is not distributed like on a bar. Plus, not everyone has access to lots of dumbbells with different weights.
Now, let’s see how each of these exercises are performed:
- Put a barbell on the ground and load it with your desired weight.
- Stand close to the bar. Your shoelaces should be placed under the bar.
- Open your legs shoulder-width.
- Grab the bar with an overhand grip. Your arms should be placed outside your legs.
- Keep your back straight and bend your knees. Don’t go down too much. This isn’t a squat and your thighs shouldn’t be parallel to the ground.
- Lift the weight by pushing your legs into the ground. Go up until your body is in a straight line.
- Come back down while doing the same movement in reverse.
- Put a barbell on a squat rack. The height of the bar should be about the level of your shoulder so that you can unrack it easily.
- Load the bar with weight. Don’t forget to lock it with a collar.
- Place your shoulders under the bar and unrack it by lifting your heels off the ground and holding the bar in place with your hands.
- Take a step back and open your legs to the width of your shoulders. Your toes should slightly point outwards.
- Brace your core and bend your knees while keeping your back straight. As you go down, your knees should point outwards instead of approaching each other.
- Go down until your thighs are parallel to the ground or below parallel.
- Push back up to your primary position.
Having hip pain during squats? Read Why Do My Hips Hurt During Squats?
Sumo Squat vs. Sumo Deadlift
The sumo squat and sumo deadlift are like little brothers to the conventional squat and deadlift. They’re basically the same movement but with wider leg positioning.
A sumo squat hits pretty much the same muscles as a traditional squat does, but it has more focus on the inner thighs (remember the adductor muscles?), glutes, and hamstrings. Plus, it involves more hip hinge, which means, of course, more glute activation. It can also be a bit challenging for those who don’t have a flexible body because you need a certain level of flexibility to complete the range of motion with your legs wide apart.
The same thing applies to the sumo deadlift. It requires that you place your legs wide apart. It emphasizes the upper back, quads, glutes, and adductors. Some call a sumo deadlift cheating, but let’s not look at it this way. The truth is that the sumo deadlift involves more leg drive, which can mean lifting heavier for some. But the wide leg positioning also means that you have to bend more, which means more range of motion; so that’s twice the effort.
- Load the barbell and unrack it.
- Put your legs wider than your shoulders with your toes pointing outwards in a 45 degree.
- Send your hips back and go down while slightly leaning forward.
- Go down as much as you can, ideally below parallel.
- Come back up.
- Load the barbell just as you would in a traditional deadlift.
- As you place your feet under the bar, take a wide stance and point your knees outwards (45 degrees).
- Grab the bar with your hands inside your legs.
- Keep a straight back and push the floor with your legs, raising the bar.
- Come back down.
The bottom line is that you don’t necessarily have to choose between squats and deadlifts. You can pick one based on your fitness level and expectations. You can also choose both: By doing squats and deadlifts, you can ensure you’re bringing your A-game in your lower-body strength and muscle growth. Just know that both of these exercises are compound movements that require a lot of energy. So, it’s better not to do them on the same day, especially if you’re a beginner.
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