The squat and the deadlift emphatically reign as two of the most key exercises in the world of resistance training.
Both share their ancient origins with the beginnings of strength training and have survived the test of time; having rose to popularity in gyms, training plans, and through competitive strength sports like powerlifting and strongman.
It can be easily discerned that the squat and the deadlift are elemental in the conversation of strength.
They each have a firm base as a fundamental compound exercise that involves large muscle groups and require plenty of stabiliser muscles. They each go through functional movement ranges that everyone is likely to use in daily life, which in part explains their primacy as some of the first, and most significant strength exercises.
This article will pit the two staple exercises head-to-head, breaking down why you might select one over the other, offering a range of options to someone who can’t decide which exercise is king.
In this article we shall cover the following areas:
- Exercise selection
- Muscular development
- Sports specific performance
- Squat and deadlift for the ordinary worker
One question the reader must ask themselves is why they want to perform the squat or the deadlift. Exercise selection is this process of picking exercises for a specific reason –
- because it enhances your performance in sport
- because it works a particular muscle group you wish to grow
- because it provides functional strength to your life
- because it ranks highly as an exercise in your split or exercise routine
- or simply because you enjoy the exercise, and/or wish to be strong at performing it
For the athlete
It can be helpful to know which exercise can best be used supplementarily to enhance your performance in your sport of choice.
For the worker: If you live a sedimentary lifestyle, you might wish to learn how each of these exercises can improve your core, posture, spinal health, posterior chain – or help you get stronger at basic movements to prevent injury in your day to day.
It is often the case that a reintegration of exercise can help hasten recovery from an injury. The squat and deadlift both offer the chance to help you recover from certain injuries at an expediated rate. Effective rehabilitation can help you become stronger than you were, and less prone to injury.
For low testosterone
Compound exercises like the squat and deadlift that incorporate multiple joints and large muscle groups are credible exercises to increase the synthesis of vital endogenous hormones like testosterone. This can be beneficial whether you are low in testosterone or not, as increased testosterone production is associated with a multitude of health benefits.
For the bodybuilder
Each of these exercises have an extensive history of being used for the purpose of hypertrophy. They each are rated highly for muscle development. Going forward in this article we will cover which muscles the squat and the deadlift target.
One of the reasons why a debate is drawn between these two exercises is because they are considered to provide the most bang for your buck in terms of development of the lower body musculature. The squat and the deadlift have been thoroughly studied to generate similarly potent stimuli for the development of muscular strength. 
So, what are the muscular differences?
In the squat the primary muscles loaded and activated are the quadriceps and the glutes.
Accessories such as the gastrocnemius, the soleus, the adductors, the trapezius, the hamstrings, the rhomboids, the abdominals, and the obliques work synergistically to stabilise the body while performing the squat.
Now, let’s look at the deadlift.
In the deadlift the primary muscles loaded and activated are the glutes and the hamstrings.
Accessories such as the gastrocnemius, the soleus, the abdominals, the obliques, the erectors, the quadriceps, the trapezius, the rhomboids, and the latissimus dorsi, act as stabiliser muscles while the body performs the deadlift.
We can see that one of the main differences is whether the emphasis is on the quadriceps or the hamstring. For the most part though, many of the synergistic muscles worked are the same.
The deadlift is categorised broadly as a pulling exercise while the squat is categorised broadly as a pushing exercise.
More specifically these two exercises cover some of the seven foundational movement patterns. The deadlift covers the hip hinge movement while the squat itself as a free-weight movement is one of the foundational movement patterns.  In this context the squat is often cited as a movement that is primal, and critical to both higher performance and injury prevention. 
A 2021 cross-sectional study on joint kinetics compared similarities and differences between the back-squat and deadlift. It used 28 test subjects, both male and female, and analysed their biomechanics in three dimensions.
An analysis on hip-joint range of movement found that the two exercises (barbell deadlift and barbell back-squat) shared similar movement patterns. 
This analysis, and several other studies that the researchers cite, examine how the magnitude at which external resistance and barbell placement affects the joints comparatively between exercises, which was one of the main differences between the deadlift and the squat.
Heavy loaded back-squats were found to be associated with high levels of patellofemoral joint stress for individuals already experiencing bouts of knee pain. However, overall, it found that back-squats with knee flexion angles would bias and load the overall knee joint musculature and result in knee extensor strength adaptions.
In the deadlift they found greater hip extensor net joint moments, hip positive joint work, and ankle net joint moments. In the back-squat, the study favoured the back squat’s knee extensor net joint moments and positive joint work.  
The importance of these biomechanical phrases, and the results of these tests can be best understood when we think about applying these exercises to enhance a person’s performance in sport.
In addition, the large-scale popularity and success of these two exercises can also be attributed to the massive strength and conditioning benefits they supply to an athlete of a wide range of disciplines.
A recent 2020 study suggests that training regimens that use either the deadlift or squat to target the lower body both elicit similar developments of lower body power. 
However, as Choe’s 2021 study points out the deadlift has a greater rate of force development, while the squat is linked with a greater ground reaction force.
Both of these are essential to the modern-day athlete and are a facet of strength in sport, and to an athletic individual.
Athletic events that involve the kinetic change, use ground reaction force to efficiently transfer kinetically energy along that chain in the body.
The rate of force development is a measure how fast an athlete can generate explosive strength. You can refer to our article on Strength Training vs Hypertrophy, where this is explained in greater detail under explosive strength training.
Sports Specific Performance
Practical application of the loaded back squat in sport can be backed by research that supports the use of the squat to develop improvements in jumping ability, leg and hip extensor strength, and pendulum sprint performance.
There was however no linear sprint performance improvement.  Randomised controlled trials also found that resistance training that includes the squat can improve muscular power and motor skill performance, as well as performance in sports. 
When it came to the deadlift, one study implied that at least ten weeks of barbell deadlift training can result in enhanced explosive strength characteristics for the knee extensor and flexor muscle groups.
The same study came to the finding that simple deadlift training programs could create adaptations that improve ability to perform vertical jumps. It also implied a general enhancement of physical performance abilities all-round. 
Another study outlining physiological benefits of the squat indicates that the deadlift creates a physiological response that results in hypertrophy of the hip, thigh and calve musculature.
This is important in a sport context as the increased effective mass and functional hypertrophy can be advantageous to contact sports such as rugby. 
It appears that regardless; both are considered by conditioning specialists as universally top prescribed exercises for sports training, rehabilitation, and rehabilitation. Strength coaches compare the squat and deadlift to be characteristically similar, despite the very different biomechanics. 
The squat and the deadlift are major components of strength sports. They appear in strongman, CrossFit, and powerlifting, respectfully.
They are most central to powerlifting where the squat and deadlift take up two of three events. In this event, powerlifters are given three attempts at each lift: squat, flat bench press, deadlift.
Under the scrutiny of judges, the competing athletes are to complete their heaviest lift before each are added together to sum a total score.
The increasing popularity of strength sports, specifically with powerlifting has lent itself to becoming a new and thriving aspect of lifestyle fitness.
Whether people are competing professionally, on an amateur level or what to push the limits of strength, it appears that people weigh these lifts with a certain degree of status and power.
Powerlifting routines see lifters training around 3 to 5 times in a week focusing primarily on the big three moves. In terms of repetitions and sets, most lifts are completed for 5x5, though it is likely periodised with maximal strength training and deload training.
This means a powerlifter might isolate a period of training where they lower repetitions and increase the load and intensity for a higher percentage of their 1RM.
In terms of a deload, the heavy-loading of these three lifts can take a toll, and so regular deloads are used to allow the body a cyclical period of lighter-lifting to afford the nervous system to recover.
Deloads are also usefully to allow breathing space and a new perception after a plateau, or long disciplined routine that might lead to mental burn-out.
Squat and Deadlift to the ordinary worker
Strength training with these exercises can induce a mechanical load that stimulates an increase in muscle mass and enhanced osteoblast activity.
The average worker, with or without a sedimentary lifestyle that doesn’t necessarily work out, can benefit a lot from an increase in muscle and bone strength.
Osteosarcopenia can start at around the age of 30, with an average person losing around 0.23kg of muscle mass per year.
Simple strength training can help avert the risk of osteosarcopenia, osteoporosis, arthritis – while enabling them with strength that can aid them with simple tasks in the workplace where physical injury might be present.
Studies have shown that simple strength training programmes can lead to improved muscle strength and lean body mass that contributes to ducking health risks like bone fractures and skeletal deterioration. 
Studies that evaluate these changes and determinants of health risk prevention use the deadlift and squat as a strong indicator of lower body strength – and in extension, lower body wellness.
Height, weight, BMI, lean body mass, and muscle circumference are all considered when weighing up the value of a person’s 1RM on a strength-training exercise like the deadlift or squat.
For the upper body, these studies tend to use the bench press as an indicator of upper body strength.
Considered conventional strength training exercises, other studies have pitted multiple-joint resistance band training against the squat and the deadlift. However, in terms of muscular activation levels deadlift variations and the conventional squat were rated superior to alternative options. 
Squat and deadlift for rehabilitation
Clinical research is finding that developing hip strength can be particularly important to those rehabilitating from injury with low back pain and lower extremity pathology.
The gluteus maximus, targeted by both squat and deadlift accounts for 16% of the cross-sectional area of the hip muscles, and so is the largest muscle of the hip. It also accounts for 60% of the cross-sectional area of the hip abductor muscle.
This muscle is significant in allowing the hip to extend and rotate. Gluteal and hip weakness/pathology has been linked with pain, dysfunction, and can indicate a propensity to accrue lower extremity joint stress.
Therapeutic and low-level exercise can be helpful in allowing a person to recover by using clinician or physio-prescribed to regain strength. Pointedly, clinicians marked in their research that higher EMG activity resulted in higher strength gains.
Their research reviewed low level exercises, moderate and high exercises which procured different degrees of muscle activation.
The squat and the deadlift both registered as high level muscle activation exercises, achieving 41-60% depending on the variation of squat or deadlift. 
However, research does uncover that proper implementation of a post-injury program requires a proper assessment of the person requiring rehabilitation.
This would also veer depending on sport and might require an additional re-assessment period during the recovery development depending on the severity of the injury. 
To sum up both exercises in a recovery setting might be useful for rehabilitation. However, they are likely to be performed with careful consideration, and high-load lifting is unlikely to be prescribed by a physical therapist.
A period of rehabilitative training might observe progression through low, moderate and high muscle activation exercises, using less taxing, unloaded variations with less injury-risk. Instability training may be recommended to maintain high muscle activation and coordination of a movement. 
The squat and the deadlift as resistance exercise bring about a significant acute hormonal response.
They promote anabolic hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone. Factors that weigh in include the volume of the exercise, an intensity of moderate to high, short rest intervals, as well as stressing large muscle groups like those of the legs - with a large cross-sectional area of muscular tissue. 
Research casts additional thought on the importance of nutrition, overtraining, detraining and sleep patterns.
Further research showed that six sets of barbell squats were an effective stimulus for endocrine responses. 
The deadlift was also apart of a study that evaluated how testosterone increased post training relative to various exercises.
Testosterone was seen to significantly increase. Commentary agreed that an intensity of around 75% of a 1RM is required to be a sufficient stimulus to generate a change in hormonal profile. 
Hypertrophy squat and deadlift
The squat and the deadlift are considered fundamental exercises to lower body hypertrophy.
In trials that have studied activation levels of the gluteus maximus, the squat and deadlift register high, along with hip thrusts and lunges, though the top-rated exercise for gluteus maximus activation was the step-up. 
On side of the coin, with the hamstrings, the stiff-leg deadlift provides a superior stimulus to the biceps femoris and semimembranosus muscles when compared to other exercises.
However, Nordic hamstring declines and prone leg curls provided more stimulus to the semitendinosus. 
It appears for the best hypertrophic response in the greater number of muscles of the lower body, a combination of exercises is required. Including perhaps some of the exercises specified above such as the prone leg curl or step-up.
The squat versus the deadlift is a nearly balanced argument, with exercise enthusiasts almost completely split down the middle.
It appears that both are the cream of the crop in a hypertrophic context and a strength context. It would also seem that a greater exercise selection than just these two exercises would be beneficial in the long run.
The two main staples; the squat, and the deadlift are fundamental lifts that everyone can benefit from, and whether you choose one or both, you will not be let down.
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