A question I get asked regularly is, ‘what exercise is better, squats or deadlifts?’. Without any context that’s like asking whether swimming or running is better for your fitness. Both have their benefits but you pick the one to best suit your goals. Both the squat and deadlift are physically exhausting for the lower limbs and muscles around the spine so you don’t want to do either of them while fatigued. It is difficult to fit both into an intense training programme simultaneously so what follows is some information on both exercises to aid you in the decision on which to include.
Firstly, because of the number of muscles recruited in each lift, it is fair to say that they are two of the best measures of raw strength. Both the squat and deadlift are two of the three lifts performed in powerlifting competitions (along with the bench press). They are known as ‘compound exercises’ which means that they are working more than once muscle group at a time, as opposed to ‘an isolation exercise’ which, as the name suggests, just isolates one part of the body.

The squat and the deadlift both intensely work the lower body. Although they follow the same movement pattern, the key differences between the two are that the squat puts the load on the top of the back above the centre of mass of the body and the deadlift puts the load in front of the hips below the centre of mass of the body. Both exercises work the muscles of the thigh but due to the deadlift requiring an exaggerated hip bend, it makes this exercise one of the best glute and hamstring developers.

Arnold Schwarzenegger himself was very adept at both exercises, posting massive numbers in competition and even just training in the gym. Arnold himself favoured the squat as one of the best quadriceps exercises as immense strain is put on them as you lower the bar eccentrically until you get your thighs to at least parallel with the floor. There will also be some glute and hamstring activation here but not as much as in the deadlift.

As far as calf development is concerned, the calves will not be challenged if you perform a deadlift correctly. This is because the weight and force is primarily directed through your heels. During a squat, however, the weight is spread more evenly across the foot which will involve the calves. You will know if you have tried to squat with tight calves or if you have short calf muscles, that it is almost impossible to squat without lifting your heels as the calves flex. (HINT: to overcome this try putting a plate or block under your heels when squatting).

What about core activation? The core is activated more during these exercises than most other ‘abs’ exercises. This is due to the muscles of the abdomen and spinal muscles engaging to stabilise the torso. Both exercises cause this effect but the deadlift more so due to the angle of the torso being more horizontal at the beginning of the lift. This is one of the reasons that the deadlift was Arnold’s favourite lower back exercises.
Finally, we can examine how these exercises affect the upper body. The deadlift has the squat beat here because you have to grip the bar with both hands and engage the majority of the upper body muscles to maintain torso and core stability. To be honest, there aren’t really any muscles that escape the deadlift, other than the chest and triceps, although if you go really heavy and keep perfect form, there won’t be an area of you that isn’t creaking.

In summary, if you want to really spend some time working on those breadstick legs and want to specifically target the thighs, by all means get squatting. If you’re running a bit low on time and you want an exercise that is going to get the whole body working, with the main focus on the lower back, glutes and hamstrings, then the deadlift is the one for you. Make sure you get a spotter and that you have learned the correct techniques before lifting anything heavy!
Happy lifting!

Post By Lloyd Morgan MSc