Trap Bar Deadlift vs Squats vs Leg Press – Best Exercise for Strength?

The trap bar deadlift, squat, and leg press: three movements that are arguably some of the most popular and effective movements for muscular growth, strength, and functional development. While some lifters may dismiss any one or more of these lifts, at first glance, my goal is to demonstrate the effectiveness of each movement for one or more attributes that strength, power, and fitness athletes rely upon for continued success.

The Movements

Below is a brief overview of each movement we will be comparing today.

The Trap Bar Deadlift / Squat

In a recent article I broke down the trap bar deadlift, the benefits, and proper execution of this massively effective muscle and strength builder.

The Leg Press

In an earlier article I compared the leg press vs. the Zercher squat in detail. Many lifters and coaches may turn their heads in disgust to machine based training, however the leg press can be a valuable asset to quad and hips hypertrophy and allow increased training volume for the lower body workout taking the neurological system via excessive spinal loading.

The Squat

If you are reading thus far, it is safe to assume you know the immense benefits and applications squatting has in nearly every athletic endeavor and sport. The squat is a powerful strength, hypertrophy, and movement patterning that should be mastered by nearly every athletes for optimal results.

Application to Sport

The squat, in my opinion, reigns supreme for it’s ability to translate into nearly any athletic endeavor. Whether it is leg and hip strength, power production capacities, jumping, and even direct application to weightlifting and fitness sports, the squat is extremely vital to every athlete.

The trap bar deadlift can also hold an important place in athletic development as a viable training alternative to barbell deadlifts when trying to minimize lumbar stress and/or increase hip strength more applicable to upright movements (jumping, running, etc).

[Here’s what you need to know about the deadlift vs Romanian deadlift debate!]

Lastly, the leg press has low direct movement application, however can be a good alternative hypertrophy exercise to increase leg mass and development when dealing with injury athletes or when trying to regulate neurological fatigue and spinal stress from intense, chronic training.

Strength Development

For maximal strength, the squat and trap bar deadlift are key.

Both of those movements are multi-joint total body lifts, and are even found the basis of the strength sport of powerlifting and strongman (deadlifting in general, not necessarily trap bar). While the leg press can be done for “strength” the risks of doing such a movement that locks a lifter into one way of moving can often lead to hip and knee issues if form and warning signs are neglected. This isn’t to say that the leg press can’t be done with heavy weight however, just that lifters need to understand the main reason we leg press is to increase muscle mass (hypertrophy) not to break records (unlike the squat and deadlift).

Muscular Hypertrophy

All three of the movements can do wonders for muscle hypertrophy of the legs, hips, back, and even upper body. The leg press can specifically be used to increase quad and hip hypertrophic when done at controlled intensities. Squats and the trap bar deadlift can be manipulated in a million ways, each of which increasing the overall hypertrophic effects.

Movement Quality

It is clear that both squatting and deadlifting are fundamental movement patterning for humans of all ages. The ability to flex the ankles, knees, hips, and maintain rigidity and strength in the spine is key for performance and injury prevention.

[Could the trap bar deadlift be better than the regular deadlift? Read this!]

The leg press, while can help support muscle growth, has it’s limitations if this is the primary method for having a lifter/client pattern knee and hip flexion. When done in addition to squat and deadlift training, the leg press can offer enhanced movement via increased leg strength (specifically quadricep strength) and teach lifters how to press and push through the entire foot and become more comfortable with knee flexion.

Special Considerations

It is important to note that there are always anomalies to every line of thought. With lifters and/or athletes who have joint or movement issues, it is first critical to address those movement mechanics, either from a corrective strategy or more advanced motor/neural re-patterning. Each of these movements can be done with varying loads, variations, and even depths to help in rehabilitation settings as well.

Final Word

While all three of the movements can produce benefits for many lifters, the squat, to me, is by far the most influential movement for the overall development of strength, muscular hypertrophy, injury prevention, movement, and sports specific skill. The ability to manipulate and use all three exercises within a sound training regimen will often help athletes maximize performance and diversify one’s fitness.

Featured Image: @thej2fit on Instagram

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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.