Deadlift vs Squat – Comparing Strength and Muscles Worked

The deadlift and squat are two of the most influential movements strength, power, and fitness athletes can do to develop total body strength, muscle hypertrophy, and sport-specific movement. We believe that both of these movements are equally vital to long-term performance, which is discussed in detail below.

In this deadlift vs squat exercise guide we will discuss:

  • Benefits of the Deadlift vs Squat
  • Muscles Worked by the Deadlift vs Squat
  • Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations for the Deadlift vs Squat
  • Deadlift vs Squat Variations and Alternatives
  • and more…
Deadlift vs Back squat Guide

The Squat

The squat is one of the two main (the other main movement is the deadlift) lower body movements performed by strength, power, and fitness athletes. The squat can be defined by a movement that entails an individual flexing the hips, knees, and ankles (dorsiflexion) together to sit into a low position with an upright torso. This movement is seen within strength, power, and competitive fitness sports through three main squatting exercises, (1) the back squat, (2) the front squat), and the (3) overhead squat. The main squat exercises can be manipulated to include a wide array of variations, alternatives, and special squat styles. Below is one of the most common and well-know squat versions within strength, power, and fitness sports – the back squat. Note, this video has the lifter performing a high bar back squat, which differs slightly from the low bar back squat alternative. You can read more about the distinct differences between the low bar vs high bar squat here.

Muscles Worked – Squat

The below muscle groups are primarily worked by the squat. It is important to note that squat variations may target slightly different muscle groups (or rather, place emphasis on other groups more than others). Additionally, the squat is a very physically demanding and taxing movement for all of the human body. While only 5 muscle groups are discussed below, the squat can be considerate a true total body movement.

Quadriceps

The squat has higher degrees of knee flexion than the deadlift, and therefore targets the quadriceps to a high degree (especially the high bar back squat, front squat, and overhead squat).

Gluteals

The glutes play an active role in hip extension of the squat as well as adding stability while in the deepest ranges of motion. It is important to note that during the low bar back squat specifically, the glutes are engaged slightly more due to the increase hip flexion of the movement.

Hamstrings

While the hamstrings are slightly less targeted than in the deadlift, they are still active during the squat to increase stability during the eccentric portion of the lift. In addition, they help to stabilize the knees and hips so that the lifter can forcefully extend the knees and hips without losing body positioning. It is important to note that during the low bar back squat specifically, the hamstrings are engaged slightly more due to the increase hip flexion of the movement.

Lower and Upper Back

The lower, middle, and upper back are responsible for setting a stable, neutral spine and resisting spinal flexion during most squatting movements.

Calves

Like the deadlift, the squat is supported by strong, stable calves which help to anchor the ankles and feet to the floor to increase stability up the lower body chain. Enhanced ankle and calf strength will allow a lifter to contract (plantarflexion) to produce a vertical force into the barbell during the concentric phases of the lift.

Benefits of the Squat

In a previous article we discuss 17 undeniable benefits of the squat, some of which are discussed below. The below benefits are generally applicable to all forms of squats.

Stronger Legs

The squat is one of the most influential exercises to build leg strength, muscle mass, and performance for strength, power, and fitness athletes. The squat allows us to utilize high amounts of muscle tissue, recruit high amounts of motor units, and mimic many of the exact movement patterns seen in powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, and fitness sports.

Total Body Strength and Muscle Mass

The squat (and deadlift) are two movements that allow a lifter to move large amounts of external load (relative to body mass), making them key movements for building overall body strength, developing muscle mass, and increasing neurological and hormonal outputs. Without these movements, many strength, power, and fitness athletes will lack sufficient physiological stress /stimulus as they progress throughout their training and lifting careers.

Direct Application to Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifting, and Fitness Sports

The back squat, front squat, and overhead squat (three of the most common variations) apply directly strength and power movements. Powerlifters should master the low bar back squat (as well as the other back and front squat variations) to enhance sport strength and performance. Olympic weightlifters must master the high bar back squat, front squat, and overhead squat to build total body strength and increase stability in the clean and snatch. Lastly, fitness athletes should learn and master the squat since many of the movements in competition are similar to powerlifting/weightlifting/ movements. At the end of the day, strength will allow an athlete to produce more force and have a better foundation for endurance, movement, power, fitness, and injury resilience.

Squat Variations

Below are three common squat variations seen in most strength, power, and fitness programs to develop better technique, strength, and deadlift performance.

Box Squat

The box squat is done by having a lifter squat to a set height so that they momentarily sit down on a box, bench, or other stable surface. The depth at which they sit and pause can vary based on goal and/or sticking points. By using a box you can help to increase posterior chain activation (hamstrings and glutes), address sticking points in the range of motion, and help lifters gain awareness and confidence squatting to full depth.

Pause Squat

The pause squat is done by having a lifter pause at a certain part of the squat, often pausing at the bottom/deepest position. In doing so, a lifter must learn to find balance, stability, and create maximal tension within the deepest ranges of motion to increase strength and stability, improve body position, and maximize squat performance. Lastly, pausing at the bottom of the squat minimizes a lifter’s ability to utilize a bounce, which can be used to develop greater concentric strength.

Tempo Squat

The tempo squat is done by having a lifter perform the concentric (lifting), and eccentric (lowering) phases of the squat on a controlled, tempo. This can be done to increase body awareness and control, enhance muscle activation, address technique issues, and build new muscle tissue (increased time under tension).

Squat Alternatives

Below are three squat alternatives coaches and athletes can use within strength, power, and fitness programs.

Trap Bar Deadlift

While the trap bar deadlift is technically a deadlift, the increased knee flexion in this movement does place high emphasis on quadriceps and gluteal development, making it a good option to address such issues. In addition, some lifters may not be able to squat (such as coming back from injury, etc) so the trap bar deadlift can be used, in addition to unilateral movements like lunges, step ups, etc; to build overall leg and back strength necessary for more advanced leg training.

Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian split squat is a unilateral leg exercise that mimics the squat closely which can be used to address imbalanced muscle development, movement pattern asymmetries, and/or to increase balance and stability of the hip and knee. This is often used as an accessor lift in most training programs for strength, power, and fitness athletes.

Goblet Squat

The goblet squat is a great exercise to develop squat mechanics, isolate the quadriceps, and use as a regression for lifters who may have limited mobility/body control for more advanced squatting movements (like back squats). By holding the load in front of the body, the lifter can use it to increase body balance and create spinal rigidity to resist collapsing forwards.

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

The Deadlift

The deadlift is the other main lower body movements used in strength, power, and fitness sports. The deadlift, while similar in joint actions to the squat, can be defined by a movement that entails an individual flexing the hips, knees, and ankles (dorsiflexion) together to sit into a low position with a a more horizontal torso than the squat; due to the larger emphasis on hip flexion with light to minimal knee flexion (as opposed to the squat, which has almost balanced hip to knee flexions). This movement is seen within, strength, power, and competitive fitness sports through three main squatting exercises, (1) the conventional deadlift, (2) the sumo squat), and the (3) trap bar deadlift. These main deadlift exercises can be manipulated to include a wide array of variations, alternatives, and special squat styles. Below is one of the most common and well-know deadlift versions within strength, power, and fitness sports – the conventional deadlift. You can read more about the differences between the sumo vs conventional/regular vs trap bar deadlifts here.

Muscles Worked – Deadlift

The below muscle groups are primarily worked by the deadlift. It is important to note that deadlift variations may target slightly different muscle groups (or rather, place emphasis on other groups more than others). Additionally, the deadlift is a very physically demanding and taxing movement for all of the human body. While only 5 muscle groups are discussed below, the deadlift can be considerate a true total body movement.

Hamstrings

The hamstrings are targets during the deadlift and are one of the primary muscle groups responsible for stabilizing the knees and extending the hips in the pull.

Gluteals

The glutes (glutes) are responsible for hip extension during the deadlift. Lifters who lack glute strength may often find they place excessive strain and stress upon the lower back during the deadlift and other hinging movements.

Quadriceps

While the knees are not as bent as in the squat, they are still bent enough where the quadriceps do support the movement and can offer some additional force output to assist in the pull. Movements like the trap bar deadlift and sumo deadlift will target the quadriceps to a slightly higher degree than the conventional/regular deadlift due to increase knee flexion in the setup.

Lower and Upper Back

The lower back (spinal erectors) and middle back are active during the deadlift and help to resist spinal flexion. In addition, the upper back and traps work to pull the chest upwards during the pull, all of which helps to maintain a rigid spine to increase back strength and protect against spinal injury (often due to lumbar flexion).

Calves

The calves add additional force output as the ankle plantarflexes into the floor. In doing so, the lifter will have a strong set up and will be able to maximize knee and hip extension to finish the lift successfully.

Benefits of the Deadlift

Below are four (4) primary benefits of the deadlift. Note, that the deadlift has immense benefits for all strength, power, fitness, and general athletes.

Posterior Chain Performance

The posterior chain is responsible for nearly all of the power output and force during strength, power, and fitness sports/moments. The hips, hamstrings, and back are all vital for running, sprinting, jumping, lifting, and most human locomotion. The deadlift can specifically strengthen and add quality muscle tissue to the largest muscle groups within the posterior chain; the back, hamstrings, and glutes.

Bigger, Stronger, More Athletic Hamstrings, Hips, and Back

For strength and power athletes (and fitness-goers alike) increased hamstring, glute, and back strength and size is key for overall performance in sports. In addition, increasing muscle mass and strength via the deadlift can boost lean muscle mass, improve hormonal output, and ultimately help you unlock serious strength and fitness to progress you throughout your training and fitness lifestyle.

Total Body Strength and Muscle Mass

All sports (powerlifting, weightlifting, strongman, CrossFit, and formal sports) require strength and muscle for force output, power application, and injury resilience. Movements like the deadlift, when done correctly, can help to develop neurological and physiological improvements in muscle tissue, motor unit recruitment, and body awareness specifically to movements found in most sports and/or human movement (running, jumping, rowing, etc).

Injury Prevention

The deadlift can be done to develop a stronger back, hips, and hamstrings, When done correctly, with strict technique and proper programming, the deadlift, like most other strength lifts (squats, presses rowing, etc) can develop better movement patterns and muscle mass that can increase injury resilience during training and sport. The stronger your back, hips, and body is, the more you should be able to withstand impact and other physical stressors of life.

Deadlift Variations

Below are three common deadlift variations seen in most strength, power, and fitness programs to develop better technique, strength, and deadlift performance.

Tempo Deadlift

The tempo deadlift is done by having a lifter perform the concentric (lifting), and eccentric (lowering) phases of the deadlift on a controlled, tempo. This can be done to increase time under tension (to build more muscle mass), solidify pulling technique, and increase a lifter’s body awareness throughout the pull.

Deficit Deadlift

The deficit deadlift is done by having a lifter stand upon a 1-4 inch (or more) block, plates, or risers to increase the range of motion of the deadlift. The deficit deadlift can be used to increase leg drive and strength off the floor, increase back strength, and enhance a lifter’s ability to “break” the barbell from the floor. This exercise is often programmed similarly to the regular deadlift (without a deficit), however is generally performed with 10-20% less loads at relative repetitions ranges.

Trap Bar Deadlift

The trap bar deadlift is a deadlift variation that is done using a hexagonal shaped bar (rather than a straight barbell). This deadlift variation allows for a more vertical back angle (via increase knee flexion) that helps to include the quadriceps in the lift. For some lifters with lower back concerns, the trap bar deadlift is a good option as it decreases the amount of shearing force placed upon the back. Lastly, it can be used to increase hip, quadriceps, and overall pulling strength due to a lifter being able to generally lift 10% or more than they could using a conventional deadlift.

Deadlift Alternatives

Below are three deadlift alternatives coaches and athletes can use within strength, power, and fitness programs.

Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift is a deadlift variation that can be trained to isolate the hamstrings, lower back, and glutes to a greater extend. In addition, it can be used as an accessory lift for most powerlifting and weightlifting programs. Lastly, this can help to isolate areas of concern that may otherwise go unaddressed (such as weak hamstrings or lower back strength).

Rack Pull

The rack pull is a deadlift variation that can be done from a power rack, blocks, or any other elevated piece of equipment. In the rack pull, the lifter pulls from a higher starting point, limiting the range of motion. In doing so, they can address sticking points in the pull, perfect technique at weak areas, and even overload the upper back, forearms, and glutes.

Farmer Walk (Heavy)

The farmers walk can be done with heavy kettlebells, dumbbells, or farmers walk handles. While this involves only one deadlift (as a lifter initially lifts the loads from the floor), it does increase back, trap, and grip strength similar to the deadlift. This can be used at times when the lower back, hamstrings, or quadriceps are sore and/or coaches are wanting to limit pulling from the floor.

Which Movement is Best for You (Deadlift vs Squat)?

Below are four (4) of the main strength, power, and fitness realms often discussed here on BarBend. For each, I will go through the role each movement (deadlift vs squat) 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 squat strength abilities when assessing overall progress and performance. While deadlifting strength (often expressed in the forms 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). With that said, some lifters may lack sufficient pulling strength at specific phases of the pull due to poor positional strength 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 Athletes

Similar to powerlifters, the demands of both heavy squats and deadlifts on an athlete’s body is highly dependent on one’s abilities and individual strengths. In powerlifting, pulling strength is often seen slightly more in competition, with athletes performing stone lifts, heavy atlas/farmers carries, truck pulls, tire deadlifts, and more. Squats also 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 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. Both movements should be prioritized in strongman training.

Competitive Fitness 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. 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 lifts and sporting movement.

Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations for Squats and Deadlift

Both squats and deadlifts are programmed very similar to one another for MOST lifters. The below sets, reps, and intensity (weight recommendations) can be used for most lifters. Note, that more advanced lifters and sports athletes may slightly modify these schemes to reflect individual needs, goals, or abilities.

Movement Integrity – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

The squat and the deadlift should be trained within these schemes to develop foundational movement integrity, technique, balance, strength, and body awareness prior to moving into more specialized training schemes (below).

  • 2-4 sets of 8-12 repetitions with moderate loads with controlled, strict technique, resting as needed between sets.

Strength – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

The below sets and rep schemes can be used to develop strength once a lifter has mastered the squat and deadlift; and has spend at least 8-12 weeks in a program geared for muscle hypertrophy (see below).

  • 4-8  sets of 1-3 repetitions with heavy loads (above 80% rep max).

Muscle Hypertrophy – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

The squat and the deadlift are two of the most potent mass building (muscle hypertrophy) movements across all strength, power, and fitness sports. The below sets and reps schemes can be used to increase muscle growth and foundational strength.

  • 4-8 of 6-12 repetitions with moderate loads (60-85%), resting 45-90 seconds between sets.

Muscle Endurance- Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations

The below sets and reps schemes can be used for both the squat and deadlift movements to increase lower body and back endurance/stamina.

  • 2-4 sets of 12-20 repetitions with light to moderate loads (less than 60%), keeping rest periods under 30-45 seconds.

Featured Image: Mike Dewar

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Mike holds a Master's in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor's in Exercise Science. Currently, Mike has been with BarBend since 2016, where he covers Olympic weightlifting, sports performance training, and functional fitness. He's a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) and is the Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at New York University, in which he works primarily with baseball, softball, track and field, cross country. Mike is also the Founder of J2FIT, a strength and conditioning brand in New York City that offers personal training, online programs for sports performance, and has an established USAW Olympic Weightlifting club.In his first two years writing with BarBend, Mike has published over 500+ articles related to strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, and fitness. Mike’s passion for fitness, strength training, and athletics was inspired by his athletic career in both football and baseball, in which he developed a deep respect for the barbell, speed training, and the acquisition on muscle.Mike has extensive education and real-world experience in the realms of strength development, advanced sports conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, and human movement. He has a deep passion for Olympic weightlifting as well as functional fitness, old-school bodybuilding, and strength sports.Outside of the gym, Mike is an avid outdoorsman and traveller, who takes annual hunting and fishing trips to Canada and other parts of the Midwest, and has made it a personal goal of his to travel to one new country, every year (he has made it to 10 in the past 3 years). Lastly, Mike runs Rugged Self, which is dedicated to enjoying the finer things in life; like a nice glass of whiskey (and a medium to full-bodied cigar) after a hard day of squatting with great conversations with his close friends and family.