Not sure which lower-body move to choose? Here, experts break down the benefits of deadlifts vs. squats.
When you want to strengthen your lower-body muscles, you’ve probably got questions about whether the squat or deadlift is best. Without a doubt, both compound exercises can effectively and efficiently work your leg muscles. However, the squat and deadlift target your lower body muscles to a different degree, and therefore which one you use should depend on your specific health and fitness goals.
Ahead, certified strength and conditioning specialists explain the differences between the deadlift and the squat, as well as share how the benefits of deadlifts vs. squats stack up.
What Are Deadlifts?
The deadlift is a movement that involves using your posterior chain to efficiently and safely lift something off the ground to thigh height. Executed by hinging your hips back behind you, the deadlift is a compound exercise that taps into multiple muscle joints and muscle groups at the same time, says Seamus Sullivan, C.S.C.S., an online performance and nutrition coach.
Typically, people think of the deadlift as an exercise done with a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells. But you’re actually utilizing the deadlift movement pattern anytime you lift anything off the ground, he says. For instance, when you haul an Amazon delivery off your stoop? That’s a deadlift. When you hoist your tot into your arms? Also a deadlift. When you pick up the pen you dropped from the floor — also a deadlift!
Benefits of Deadlifts
Need a reason to add deadlifts into the mix? Here are six of the major benefits of deadlifts.
Deadlifts are full-body exercises.
Deadlifts truly work every muscle in your entire body, including your hamstrings, glutes, calves, lats, traps, core, and more, notes Sullivan. Strengthening these muscles can improve your running speed and explosivity, as well as protect the delicate knee, ankle, and hip joints, he says.
“Deadlifts also improve your grip strength,” he adds. FYI, grip strength supports your ability to do a variety of other exercises such as the pull-up, chest-to-bar, bar muscle-up, Romanian deadlift, farmer’s carry, and more.
Deadlifts teach you how to brace your midline.
A key step in executing a deadlift safely and properly is engaging all the muscles in your midline. Engaging these muscles protects your spine, and this activation is responsible for keeping your back flat from the start to the end of each and every rep, explains Sullivan. Failure to brace your midline ahead of pulling pounds from the floor puts your back in a suboptimal position.
But midline activation isn’t just important during the deadlift, says Sullivan. “Knowing how to brace your core translates to real life,” he says. Having this skill can help prevent or reduce the risk of lower back pain and injuries. (Interestingly, low back pain is actually the leading cause of missed work days.)
Deadlifts can support your body composition and weight goals.
Weight loss isn’t (and shouldn’t be!) the goal of everyone doing deadlifts. However, those who do want to lose weight will be pleased to learn deadlifts can support those goals alongside diet and lifestyle factors.
Remember that long list of muscles used during the deadlift? All that muscle fiber involvement is beneficial for anyone with goals focused on weight and or body composition (the ratio of muscle to fat). “Because so many muscle fibers are being activated, there is a high metabolic cost associated with deadlifts,” explains Jake Harcoff, C.S.C.S., C.I.S.S.N., head coach and owner of AIM Athletic. (Metabolic cost, FYI, is another way of saying energy expenditure or calorie burn.) So long-term, the increased calorie burn associated with the added muscle mass of doing deadlifts can lead to lost weight, he says.
Deadlifts are good for your bones.
Resistance exercises such as the deadlift strengthen more than just your muscles; they strengthen your bones too, according to Sullivan. Indeed, weight-bearing exercises increase the bone density of people ages 60 to 67, even those who already have osteoporosis, according to a study published in 2014 in the Journal of Family & Community Medicine. Even if you’re far from retirement age, you can benefit from the bone-strengthening benefits of deadlifts. Over time, resistance training can preserve bone loss and even increase bone mineral density as you age, notes the Endocrinology and Metabolism journal.
Deadlifts are a functional movement.
Quick refresher: Functional exercises are movement patterns that mimic things that you do in everyday life. By practicing the deadlift at the gym, you teach your body how to properly and safely execute a hip hinge outside of the gym, explains Sullivan. The result? You’re less likely to injure yourself during day-to-day activities (such as bending over to pick up your grocery bags).
What Are Squats?
Simply put, the squat is a movement pattern that involves sitting your butt back — typically, sitting your bum back toward a chair, toilet, or the grass below, explains Harcoff. Another compound movement, the squat works nearly every single muscle in your body.
There are a wide variety of squatsto add to your workout routine, including front back squat, goblet squat, front squat, single-leg squat, and box squat to name just a few. The type of squat you do will depend on the specific benefits you’re trying to reap, as well as what equipment you have handy. Squats can be done unweighted, as well as with barbells, kettlebells, dumbbells, and more.
Benefits of Squats
The squat (and its many variations) offer a wide number of benefits. Here, read more about five of them.
Squats improve full-body strength.
“The squat is a great exercise for developing muscle mass and strength,” says Sullivan. Specifically, the squat helps develop mass and strength in your glutes, quads, hamstrings, calves, core, hip flexors, and lats. If the squat variation you’re using also calls involves holding an implement, such as the goblet squat or dumbbell front rack squat, the exercise also incorporates your upper body.
Squats can boost your metabolism.
Muscle is a more metabolically active tissue compared to fat, says Sullivan. That means as you build muscle mass through movements such as squats, you will accumulate more metabolically active tissue. What does that mean exactly? You’ll burn more calories throughout the day, he explains. As a result, doing squats and other strength training exercises can help you achieve weight loss goals if you have them, he says.
Squats are good for your bones.
Remember how you just learned that resistance training can effectively strengthen your bones? Well, squats also qualify as a resistance exercise and therefore offer the same bone health benefits. This is very important because when people get older, they are at an increased risk for bone breaks. “Things such as hip breaks can be very detrimental to one’s quality of life as they age,” notes Sullivan. Translation: A few squats now might help prevent bone breaks in the future.
Squats help reduce the risk of injury.
“The squat pattern is a big foundational movement seen in life,” says Sullivan. “Whether you’re sitting at your desk or in the driver seat in your car, you’re sitting all day.” Hell, anytime you go number two, you’re sitting. By implementing the squat movement pattern into your fitness plan, you reduce your risk of injury when you do the movement during your daily life, he says.
Squats prepare you for more complex exercises.
Squats are a great exercise on their own. But they’re also a step-stool for other kinds of exercises in the gym, according to Harcoff. “Once you master the squat, you can branch out to more complex exercises that utilize the squat pattern,” he says. For instance: the squat clean, squat snatch, overhead squat, and thruster.
How to Choose Between Deadlifts vs. Squats
“Both the squat and the deadlift — and their variations—have a place in a fitness routine,” according to Sullivan. However, which of the two you choose to prioritize will vary based on your specific fitness goals. Ahead are some guidelines that will help you choose between deadlifts vs. squats.
If you only have dumbbells: Squats
The equipment you have on hand will likely play a role in the exercise you do. While both squats and deadlifts can be done with barbells, kettlebells, or dumbbells, it’s typically easier to squat with a dumbbell than deadlift with it. Why? Because the handle of the dumbbell is lower to the ground than the handle of a kettlebell or the bar of a barbell with weight plates on it. As such, people have to tap into a greater range of motion.
If you want to build a strong posterior chain: Deadlifts
To be very clear: Both the deadlift and the squat are full-body exercises. However, the deadlift primarily works the muscles at the back of the body (the posterior chain), while the squat primarily works the muscles along the front side of the body (the anterior chain), according to Sullivan. So, if your main focus is on improving overall hamstring, glute, or calf strength, prioritize the deadlifts.
Having symmetry between the posterior and anterior chain is important. So, be sure to work each side of the body to a similar capacity.
If you have knee pain: Squats
“Pain science is a very complicated science,” says Sullivan. Each and every person will require a different set of rehab exercises based on the quality, location, and intensity of their pain, he says. As such, if you’re experiencing knee pain, work with a physiotherapist before trying to address the pain on your own with strength training, he suggests.
That said, “in general, the squat is the better option for supporting those with knee pain,” says Sullivan. That’s because the squat works the quad to a greater degree, which is the muscle group that helps support the joint.
If you want to prevent lower back pain: Deadlift
“If you already have back pain, the deadlift can be either helpful or detrimental depending on the cause and type,” says Sullivan. However, done with proper technique and an appropriate amount of weight, the deadlift is more likely to reduce the risk of lower back pain, he says. That’s because the movement requires you to brace your core, which helps strengthen all those microscopic muscles around your spine.
Keep in mind: Proper progressions are key. Start with bodyweight fingertip touches to the floor (or hold a weight plate, if that’s too low) before progressing to weighted implements such as the barbell, suggests Sullivan.
So, Which Is Better – Deadlifts vs. Squats?
All in all, both the deadlift and squat get gold medals for the ability to strengthen your muscles, support bone density, protect your lower-body joints, increase your metabolism, and keep you safe in day-to-day life. As such, the most well-rounded fitness plan would incorporate both squat variations and deadlift variations. Regardless of which you choose on any given day, so long as you have no pre-existing conditions and are using proper form, you can trust that you’re doing your body a solid.