Deadlift vs Squat – Comparing Strength and Muscles Worked

The squat and deadlift by far are two of the most influential movements (not just an exercise) for the human body, regardless of sport. Over thousands of years, humans have been foraging, squatting, hunting, deadlifting, and… surviving. Our ancestors didn’t have to think about how many sets of squats or deadlifts to do in a workout because their lives were THE WORKOUT. Both movements are critical to optimal human development and athletic performance, and this I cannot state enough.

Before we dive into this highly controversial subject, I want to first discuss the purpose of this article. While some of you may disagree with my conclusions as to which movement is move critical to your goals, at no point am I suggesting that an athlete should only do one of these movements. Rather, I am simply pointing out the specific exercise that should be emphasized to a slightly higher degree based upon sport and/or needs of an athlete.

In this article I set out to provide a sense of clarity for powerlifters, Olympic weightlifters, strongman competitors, and fitness/sports athletes in regards to which movement will best aid in their performance and long-term progression within their sport. I urge you to comment below with your thoughts, concerns, and feedback on such a pressing and compelling discussion.

The Squat

The King of All Exercises (or maybe not). The squat is one of the most fundamental movement patterns, exercises, and competitive lifts for all humans and athletes of all sports. The performance enhancing effects of the squat (strength, joint mechanics and loading, mobility, application to human movement, etc) are undeniable. For the sake of this article, I will use the term squat as more of a movement pattern rather than a specific style of squatting.

J2FIT Weightlifting athlete Sabrina Cohen setting up for some routine back squats at the end of an Olympic weightlifting session. Photo by The Barbell CEO.

Therefore, when referring to squats, please insert your style of squatting based on your sport (low bar squat, high bar squat, front squat, kettlebell squat, bodyweight squat, and other bilateral (not unilateral squatting movements) squat variations.

Below are some of our top articles on all types of squats. Feel free to read the articles to elevate your squat game!

The Deadlift

The deadlift. THE DEADLIFT. If you have made it this far into your training career without deadlifting, well, I am baffled. The act of deadlifting (not just limited to the deadlift exercise) can come in various shapes, sizes, ranges of motion, and demands. For the sake of this article, I will include nearly every type of movement under the deadlift movement umbrella (conventional, sumo, snatch grip, clean grip, trap bar deadlift, axle, rack pull, and yes, even snatch and clean pulls).

@Juliusmaximus24 sumo deadlifting for maximal strength and diversity in one’s fitness. Photo by Martin Romero.

To strength, power, fitness athletes (as well as everyday individuals), the act of deadlifting can be as simple as picking a non-moving object with zero inertia up from a low point, say the floor, and using concentric strength to move it upwards. This foundational movement pattern is not only the basis for powerlifting, strongman, Olympic weightlifting, and other sports, but it’s 100% primal in nature (just like the squat).

Below are some of our top articles on all types of deadlifts. Feel free to them to get your deadlift educational fix!

Which Movement is Best for You?

Below are the main strength, power, and fitness realms often discussed here on BarBend. For each, I will go through the role each movement (squat and deadlift) holds within training and competition, and what specific movement is best for each athlete based on their individual needs and sport.

Olympic Weightlifters

In my opinion, the squat (high bar) reigns supreme in Olympic weightlifting, and is often the best indicator of snatch and clean and jerk abilities when assessing overall progress and strength performance. While deadlifting strength (often expressed in the form of clean and snatch pulls) is a factor, many lifters are often not limited by their pulling abilities, as their heaviest cleans are often 60-80% of the best deadlift (clean pull).

A post shared by Mike Dewar (@mikejdewar) on

With that said, some lifters may lack sufficient pulling strength at specific phases of the pull due to poor positional strength, technical mastery, and/or force production, in which case pulling could be emphasized to a greater degree.

Squatting is not only fundamental to Olympic weightlifters, but it is at core of every movement in competitive weightlifting and nearly every component of the snatch and clean and jerk. Squat strength and integrity can translate over to the first pull in the clean, the catch in the snatch, standing up heavy cleans, and vertically driving heavy jerks overhead.

For those reasons, I find the squatting movement to be King for Olympic weightlifters.

Powerlifters

The squat and deadlift are both components of a powerlifters competitive total , therefore each is equally vital to performance. With that said, many athletes can emphasize squatting movements and variations slightly more frequently within training programs (only exception is is a lifter has a higher squat than their deadlift), primarily due to the overloading neurological stress that heavy deadlifts can have relative to a lifter’s squat.

When advancing in one’s training, the deadlift may not be programmed as often as squatting movements and derivatives simply because the amount of loading and time needed to recover from heavy deadlifts (relative to a lifter’s squat strength) is far greater of a stressor on the body systems than heavy squats. Nonetheless, for powerlifters, emphasis should be placed on someone’s biggest weakness, which for many beginner and intermediate lifters is their squat strength. The silver lining of this is that I often find when one increases their squat strength, their deadlift strength also increases to some degree, especially if they have been training light to moderate deadlifts concurrently for speed and technique.

Strongman/Strongwomen

Similar to powerlifters, the demands of both heavy squats and deadlifts on an athlete’s body is high depending on one’s abilities and individual strengths. In strongman competitions and training, pulling strength is often seen slightly more, with athletes performing stone lifts, heavy atlas/farmers carries, truck pulls, tire deadlifts, log bar work, and more.

Me taking 605lbs for a stroll before hitting a 670 yolk walk PR . Photo by Martin Romero.

Squats play a role in universal development as strongmen and strongwoman must develop the ability to withstand heavy loads on their backs to be able to perform yolk carries and squatting movements. Increasing one’s ability to squat and deadlift, specifically by increasing muscle hypertrophy and correcting movement and loading asymmetries can maximize performance and enhance injury resilience. I personally see the application of the deadlift movement slightly more specific to strongman training than the squat, however both movements are vital for optimal performance and health.

Competitive Fitness Sports and General Health

For general health and fitness, both squats and deadlifts should be emphasized on a regular and ongoing basis to ensure proper joint function, integration of movement, muscular development, hormonal adaptations, and neurological and motor mechanical enhancements.

A post shared by Ashlee Shedd (@ashlee_shedd) on

By performing such movements, athletes and non-athletes alike can increase muscle mass, strength capacities, and movement integrity that can then be transfers to everyday lift, various sporting movements (sprinting, jumping, tackling), and the other power and strength sports on this lift.

Final Words

While I am an Olympic weightlifting coach and athlete, I have had some experience training and/or recreationally competing in powerlifting, strongman, and fitness competitions. By no means are my opinions set in stone, but rather based on my own experiences as an athlete, coach, and student of human movement and sport physiology. I urge you to leave your feedback in the comments below, as I really would like to hear from athletes across all strength, power, and fitness domains to hear what you all have to say 🙂

Featured Image: Mike Dewar

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