Squats and deadlifts are two strength lifts that are at the base of nearly every strength and power sport. Both lifts require high amounts of force production, movement skill, and neural output at near-maximal and maximal loads, making it challenging to determine which lift (squat or deadlift) should be performed first in the same workout.
Therefore, in this article we set out to help coaches and athletes determine whether the squat or deadlift is the main lift that should be prioritized within their training program based on various individual factors, and why.
Should You Squat or Deadlift First?
This is a challenging question to give a simple answer to, which is why we have prompted further questions one should ask themselves to determine the best answer for their individual situation at that specific time (training period/phase). You can use the below questions to help narrow down your focus and come to a conclusion that is based on your individual situation. Note, that the answer that you come to today may in fact be different than what you may do in future programs as they are all based on your specific training goals and weaknesses within a specific time frame.
Before we dive into the article, however, it is important to cover some research findings that can be used to help us make a better decision when determining how to increase squat and deadlift strength. In the section below, we will discuss a few research findings/concepts that will help shape our decision process when determining whether or not to squat or deadlift first.
Scientific Research Studies You Should Consider
Below are a few research studies that we need to discuss to set the foundation for our decision making in the proper exercise order for squat and deadlift development.
Neural Demands of Higher Frequency Heavy Training
Research has shown that the ability to lift maximal loading at higher levels is just as much neurological abilities as it is muscular. It is believed that as a lifter increases overall strength (excluding general training and beginner gains), their ability to lift heavier loads is from various factors: (1) increase muscle growth, (2) decreased neural inhibition, (3) decreased inhibition from the Golgi tendon organs, and (4) increase muscle activation.
If your goal is increased strength, whether it be from the deadlift or the squat, it is important to realize that the neurological component of lifting heavy must be trained, and often can be highly fatigued if trained maximally frequently (1). Training both the squat and the deadlift, in the same day (or even training them multiple days per week) may in fact be the reason you are limited in overall strength development (due to increase neural inhibition). Note, that deadlifts are often some of the most neurologically taxing movements, and are often trained less frequently at maximal loads than squats are more advanced levels
Higher Intensities Need Longer Rest Periods
It’s no secrete that to move higher intensities (heavy weights) one must rest more between sets, with research showing 2-4 minutes of rest between sets for maximal strength development (lifting higher intensities/percentage of max). That said, if your goal is to squat or deadlift heavy, for the sake of gaining strength, it is vital to get enough rest between work sets (2). If that is the case, it could be very time consuming to squat and deadlift heavy in the same day, suggesting it may be more beneficial to choose one lift to focus on strength work for, and another to focus on hypertrophy/muscle growth for.
Shorter Rest Periods for Muscle Growth
If your goal is overall muscle growth, then you may actually be able to get away with training both the deadlift and the squat, in both sessions, in which you could alternate which one you perform first on that day (based on the factors below). Research suggests that moderate to heavy weights (intensities) paired with shorter duration rest periods can increase acute hormonal output (serum testosterone and growth hormone), both eluding to the potential for increased muscle growth and signaling. This is important because if your goal is not necessarily maximal strength development (however some research has shown that some bodybuilders can sustain higher some bodybuilders amounts of volume at higher intensities with shorter rest periods), you may in fact be able to train both, in higher frequencies, regardless of exercise order (3).
What’s Your Training Goal?
When determining exercise order, it’s important to determine what the training goals are for the cycle and the individual training sessions. Below are three different goals one may have, in which we break down the recommended exercise order one would use.
If your goal is overall strength…
It would be safe to assume that you are squatting at least twice per week (one main strength day and one either hypertrophy or speed based), and deadlifting once per week for strength development (you may also be doing more deadlift variations for hypertrophy/accessory work as well). If this is the case, it’s suggested that you perform squat strength on a different day than deadlift strength work, as they both stress similar muscle groups and the central nervous system.
This doesn’t mean however, that you cannot still perform squats and deadlift on the same day, but rather you should prioritize the lift that is the main emphasis of that day. For example, on Monday you perform your main squat strength work for that week followed by some deadlifts that may be done in the accessory block (such as using Romanian deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, etc). Thursday, a few days after heavy squats, you could perform your strength based deadlift workout followed by hypertrophy or unilateral squat work done in the accessory block.
If your goal is squat strength…
If your goal is squat strength, it would make sense to prioritize your squats in training. Similar to building overall strength, you can still deadlift, however it’s is recommended to do so after main squat work and not before (like a few days before) hard squat sessions.
It’s important to note that most serious squat cycles do not highly emphasis training deadlifts for strength within the cycle as doing so can often limit the other. The compounding fatigue (physiological and neurological) from squatting and deadlifting for strength can be tricky if recovery is not prioritized.
If your goal is deadlift strength…
If your goal is deadlift strength, it would make sense to prioritize your deadlifts in training. Often, as a lifter develops, their frequency of deadlifting heavy may actually decrease, as they fatigue from doing them at higher intensifies increases as they start to have the capacity to pull heavier weights. In this case, lifters may actually deadlift less frequently and instead swap in deadlift variations, accessory work, and yes, more squats.
If you are performing deadlifts and squats on the same day, it’s recommended to perform you main deadlift strength work first, followed by squat accessory/hypertrophy work.
What’s Your Weakness?
Addressing your weaknesses first is often a good idea when determining whether or not to squat/deadlift first. Deadlifts are very taxing on the muscular and neuromuscular systems, therefore doing them both for higher intensities can be challenging (assuming you are training for strength). I recommend that you attack your weakest lift (or the lift that is the goal of that training day/block…see above) first and then do what you can for the second lift (with the knowledge that you will be fatigued and therefore should not try to push max loads).
What’s the Daily Volume and Intensity?
In general, exercise order should move from plyometric and speed based exercises to strength, and then to hypertrophy/muscle endurance. There are exceptions to this of course, such as post activation potentiation (PAP) training, however the above flow is generally accepted across most strength coaches and strength sciences.
Therefore, whatever lift is focused on strength and/or velocity (such as high intensities/loads OR velocity training) should be performed first.
If both lifts are done for strength, muscle hypertrophy, and/or muscle endurance goals, the order can depend on the goal or weakness.
Find a Compromise
At the end of the day, strength development comes down to consistency over time. The decision to squat first vs deadlift first is an important one, but proper programming, recovery, and progression over time is even more vital to overall strength and deadlift strength success.
When looking at your program, be sure to first determine what the goals are, and what is the largest priority. If squat and deadlift strength/development are key, then you need to be sure to structure your main squat and main deadlift days apart to limit neural fatigue when training these heavy lifts.
- Hales, M. (2010). Improving the Deadlift: Understanding Biomechanical Constraints and Physiological Adaptations to Resistance Exercise. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 32(4), 44-51. doi:10.1519/ssc.0b013e3181e5e300
- Willardson, J. M. (2006). A Brief Review: Factors Affecting the Length of the Rest Interval Between Resistance Exercise Sets. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 20(4), 978-984. doi:10.1519/00124278-200611000-00040
- Willardson, J. M., & Burkett, L. N. (2008). The Effect of Different Rest Intervals Between Sets on Volume Components and Strength Gains. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(1), 146-152. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e31815f912d