Especially when choosing strength training exercises, an often imperative question is the “back squat vs deadlift” conundrum.
When developing a strength and conditioning program for any group of athletes, coaches must consider a variety of factors including: sport demands, athlete needs, frequency and duration of sessions, access to equipment, dynamic correspondence of exercise, and safety, Generally speaking, exercise selection should involve movements that provide the best transfer to on-field performance.
Determining which exercises in the weight room transfer to improved athletic ability is a major area of research in the field of sports science, and the back squat vs deadlift debate can play a pivotal role in determining the entire scope of a training program.
The debate over which exercise builds the body optimally for athletes is seemingly endless, and when comparing the back squat vs deadlift there hardly is a winner or loser!
Back Squat vs Deadlift – How to Use These Exercises in Your Workout Routine
Even though both of these exercises are know for their benefits in improving lower body strength and power, there has always been a debate over which is the best exercise for your body overall.
The ongoing back squat vs deadlift should not distract you from the fact the when used in correlation these two exercises are the back bone of any program of strength training! If we are thinking too much about the back squat vs deadlift, we cannot forget about how useful they are when used together!
As a general rule, both squats and deadlifts should not be used interchangeably, as they are different regardless of their many similarities. For an athlete, understanding the conceptual differences is as important as understanding their unique benefits.
If you want to put both of these exercises into the same program, I would always advise that you perform deadlifts first. Now, this is actually contrary to the popular belief on the subject.
Many people feel that squats should be performed first so that your body will be more fresh, and your central nervous system more adept at performing the tougher movement first.
Deadlifts Before Back Squats on Training Day
I see this differently, for two reasons. The first reason I deadlift before back squats in my training program, is that deadlifts are a better primer for the movement pattern of the squat, making your back squats more natural to perform.
The second reason is that I enjoy doing the tougher exercise second! To me, this results in better conditioning for games, as I become mentally used to having to work harder; deeper into the workout.
Similar to being ready to play the 4th quarter of my basketball games! This is a pseudo-benefit as it is not necessarily proven by science.
To me, it is an effective strategy!
Deadlifts vs Squats – Unique Benefits of Each
To dig a little bit deeper into this battle of back squat vs deadlift when preparing a program of strength training, lets take a brief look at the various benefits of both the exercises.
Benefits of Back Squats
More Quadriceps & Glute Activation
Back squats work more effectively on the quadriceps muscles and glutes, when compared with the deadlift. Back squats are essentially a leg dominant movement, although almost every muscle in your body is worked in some way.
Increased Testosterone Production
Back squats release testosterone in the body in massive amounts, and even a simple squat workout can have massive effects on this hormone. Testosterone is essential for building muscle mass, and performing back squats will easily raise your testosterone levels for the rest of the day.
The Most Functional Exercise
The back squat is considered to be one of the best functional exercises that will help your body in performing real life activities, efficiently. When you start performing squats, your body builds muscles and helps them promote mobility and balance.
Squats have an incredible carry over to daily tasks, making it useful for more than just building muscle.
Back squats are an excellent multi-purpose leg exercise that works not only for strengthening your legs, but also tones and tightens your abs and back. Squats helps in building muscles which further regulates glucose levels, lipid metabolism, and insulin sensitivity in your body; thus protecting you against diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and obesity.
Squats have always been touted to be phenomenal in increasing the leg strength, but they also work excellently on your core, stabilizer muscles, and your muscle-mind connection.
Prevent Lower Body Injuries
Most athletic injuries are caused because of a lack of stabilization in your muscles, ligaments, and connective tissues. Suats strengthens all these areas by improving your flexibility and balance, thus reducing the chances of injury.
Negatives of the Back Squat
Often I am asked why I don’t value the back squat as a necessary movement as much as other people, and especially for those who compete in athletic competitions (play sports).
I would be lying if I said that I didn’t back squat myself, but there are very few athletes who I have trained with who I felt it was necessary for.
Moreover, the majority of my experiences with back squat programming has been for “because I want to see if I can do it” reasons, and not necessarily for any distinguishable benefits. Of course if you are training for size solely the back squat does have some pretty legitimate benefits, I just fail to see necessity of it for athletes competing in sports.
Reason 1: Most People Can’t Back Squat with Good Form
If you are anything over 6′ tall the back squat becomes much more difficult to perform, and the amount of people who are over 6′ feet tall increases drastically in the world of sports when compared with the general population. Before the summer going in to my Sophomore year in college I had never even done a back squat, and thus started my first attempt at it at a lofty 95lbs.
The reason for this being that I had already built some considerable athleticism without ever needing to think about it. After my first few sessions back squatting it became quickly apparent that to go up any further in weight I was going to need to perfect my form as much as possible.
Which I actually attempted to do. From then until now I have spent literal hours sitting in the “3rd World Squat” position, ingraining a natural squatting motion, and a movement pattern that I can rely on regardless the amount of weight used or reps performed.
As stated in my eBook, “this stretch was aptly named due to the ability of individuals from “third-world” countries to execute perfect squat form without any necessary training; it is a natural position to them.
For individuals from countries where technology levels are low and chairs are far less abundant, sitting in perfect squat form becomes a way of life.
“You are what you repeatedly do.”
These people have ingrained this positioning by utilizing it as a way to sit, so that they avoid sitting on the ground, yet still manage to remain comfortable.”
If you haven’t worked on your form to the point that it is a motion you can perform “cold” or without a warm-up, you probably are not ready to put any weight on the bar.
Although I would not necessarily recommend this option often, a smith machine can actually help an untrained athlete learn a squatting motion. If you were to use this strategy, squat with very low weight, and a narrow stance.
Along with this, a major problem of the back squat is that it is possible to attempt (with large amounts of weight), even if your form is horrendous.
As I stated before, “A back squat is easy enough to do, even if you are doing it incredibly incorrectly. This can lead to injuries incredibly easily, since it is easy enough to do with improper form.” If your form is not something that a majority of people would consider excellent, you are better off not doing it at all.
Reason 2: Even with Proper Form, Back Squats Are Tough on Your Back. Front Squats Are Not.
An injured athlete doesn’t do you any good in competition.
An athlete that cannot squat 225 lbs is still far more useful than the athlete who stressed their back to exhaustion and has to sit out. Within the first 1 second of thinking about a back squat you can see where the problem lies, you are literally loading your lumbar and spine with weight.
Of course for a lot of people this is not a problem.
Especially if you do not play a contact sport, or a sport with violent turning and change of direction motions, you might not see the disadvantage of this for a longer period of time.
However, if you do play a sport where these characteristics are involved, it is absolutely unintelligent to risk wearing out the muscles which protect your spine, as well as your spine itself.
It just does not make sense. As shown in my eBook, “A study conducted in 2009 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning assed the forces produced through the movement, as well as the energy absorbed in the knee, during both the front and back squat.
The results of these tests determined the actual effectiveness of each exercise for these variables, along with the safety risks to keep in mind. The tests results concluded that:
- The front squat produced a greater amount of quadriceps and lower back force
- The back squat absorbed more compressive force, as well as overall stress
- The back squat forced higher levels of knee extensor movements
- Front squatting less weight can result in the same amount muscle activation as back squatting more weight.”
When there is such a better option right in front of you, it is hard to make a cause for why it should not be used almost 100% of the time.
Reason 3: Single Leg Movements Are More Important for Everything in Athletics
This passage from my eBook sums this reason up pretty well, and I don’t think it needs much more explanation,
“One of the primary examples of the direct benefit of the Bulgarian split squat was a study conducted in 2005 and produced in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. The study used untrained individuals to determine whether the free weight bilateral (two-footed) squat would perform better than the barbell unilateral (1-footed) squat.
For the unilateral squat, the group used the barbell Bulgarian split squat. Utilizing the same rep scheme and intensity for both groups, the study determined that over the course of 8 weeks, the individuals who performed the Bulgarian split squat both improved more, and outperformed, the bilateral group in terms of unilateral vertical jump power output and jump height.”
If there was one athletic movement where you would assume that the back squat was clearly the best way to train it you probably would guess it would be the vertical jump, right? They basically look like the same motion; however, the correlation just is not as great as you would expect.
Along with this, a bilateral-stable movement does not do very good for improving starting and stopping speed, as well as any change of direction. The back squat is ineffective for training many sport-specific movements.
Reason 4: The Goblet Squat is All You Need, With Nearly No Risk for Injury
As stated in my eBook,
“The goblet squat is not something most athletes will encounter in a regular gym, since it does not come with gaudy numbers or “PR’s.”
It does, however, significantly work your core muscles, as well as flexibility and leg development.
The one lacking area of this exercise is the overall amount of force you can produce, yet the flexibility that you will gain in your lower back and legs more than make up for this. By front-loading a manageable dumbbell in both hands, your body will naturally sink well in between your knees, providing a strong stretch of the groin, hip flexors, and hamstrings.”
When you combine the ability of the goblet squat to perfect the movement patterns of your lower body, with the power and strength gains that single leg movements and front squats provide, it is easily apparent that there is no need for risking injury with the back squat.
Even those with limited flexibility can increase their overall movement ability by practicing goblet squats, instantly making them a better athlete.
Benefits of Deadlifts
Deadlifts are the Best Full-Body Exercise
The deadlift is overall the more complete full body exercise. Although the back squat works nearly every muscle in your body too, the deadlift puts additional strain on your arms and grip strength since you need to grasp the bar to perform the exercise.
More Hamstring & Posterior Chain
The deadlift targets your hamstrings and lower back more than the back squat, working the posterior chain muscles which are generally more dormant in your body than the back squat. When determining the proper program of strength training, the posterior chain is most likely a weak-link you will want to build.
Easy to Learn
The deadlift is easier to train than the squat, and is an even more functional movement for daily life. Picking objects off of the ground is probably the most basic human function, and one which we have actually regressed at over time.
The deadlift can be learned by almost any one, and has exceptional carry over to real life!
Easier for 1-3 Rep Max Efforts
Deadlifts are much more suitable to low repetitions and heavy weights, as your form is less likely to break down on a single rep. Back squats can be dangerous to attack without advanced levels of training, and can be a difficult form of strength training.
Benefits of Both Back Squats and Deadlifts
Both exercises are incredible at boosting testosterone, growth hormone levels, cardiovascular function, and overall strength in the human body. Truthfully, it is unwise to train one and not the other, especially when producing a program of strength training.
One of the limiting factors for the back squat, however, is the needed to work on form an excessive amount. This is an advantage for the deadlift in the back squat vs deadlift debate!
Form with the deadlift is imperative as well, but it is hardly as difficult to learn as the back squat.
Alternatives to the Back Squat and Deadlift
There are many variations to the back squat and deadlift, which can make these movements easier to learn for you!
The goblet squat is the first squat which you should learn when strength training, it is the precursor for all others.
Learning this technique will help teach you how to maintain a proper spine position while squatting, and how to properly push from the lowest point of your squat. Even after years of training and working on my squat position, I still use goblet squats as a large part of my workouts.
Snatch Grip Deadlift:
The snatch grip deadlift can be considered as an advanced variation to the conventional deadlift, but I do not see it this way normally.
The snatch grip deadlift will have you deadlifting from a “disadvantaged” position, forcing you to sit lower and drive with your legs more. I prefer to teach people this movement first, as it will make conventional deadlifting substantially easier!
The Leg Press
Okay, just so you all know, I pretty much hate the leg press. Normally, people use it incredibly wrong. People generally use it so poorly that you would forget the fact that there are some half-way decent benefits to be derived from it.
Although the leg press is unfunctional in almost all ways, it can be useful and beneficial to add to a solid program of back squatting and deadlifting!
The Leg Press Can Help Add Muscle Mass
If your major exercising goal is to add mass to your legs, then leg press is one of the best leg exercises that focuses solely on major leg muscles. Since this exercise is performed on a machine and you don’t need to focus on your stabilizing muscles while performing, you are able to add more repetitions without needing to worry about form.
Note, I did not say you can add unlimited amounts of weight! If you are going to use the leg press, you will still use a wide range of motion, and you will use it for high repetitions.
DO NOT try to leg press 1,000 pounds, you don’t need to and will hurt yourself!
Good for Injury Recovery
The leg press does not put any direct pressure on your body outside of your legs. If you are loading this machine with enormous amounts of weights, you will absolutely suffer from spinal and back compression.
However, such as when I was recovering from shoulder and hand injuries in the past; the leg press was suitable for me since I did not need to use my upper body.
Pre-Exhaust Your Muscles
The leg press can be used as effective direct muscle strengthening in combination with functional exercises. The leg press can be effective used after your back squats or deadlifts, but it also can be used as a “pre-exhaust” to further work your leg muscles in a unique way. Pre-exhausting your muscles can provide for a way to break through plateaus, helping you build more strength overall!
The Best Workout Programs for Deadlifts & Back Squats
Whether you want to try deadliftting, back squats, or both, you still need a proper workout program. For most people, conventional workout programs are going to work very well. You can do nearly any set and rep scheme with these exercises and you will be successful!
However, if you want to try a more challenging workout, check out these options!
20 Rep Squats:
The 20 rep squat program is probably the most difficult back squat program in the world, so try it at your own risk level! To perform this, simply take a weight you can do 10-12 clean reps, and take it for 20 reps! You will accomplish this by keeping the bar loaded on to your shoulders, and taking as many breaths as needed in between the final repetitions.
This is a monstrous workout for your aerobic and anaerobic lung capacity, as well as provoking a huge testosterone and growth hormone release.
If you can handle the stress of this workout, I highly recommend it!
Check out this example of me performing 20 rep squats with 155 pounds:
EMOM (Every Minute on the Minute) Deadlifts
There are tons of simple deadlift programs which can work extremely well to build a base when strength training, but at this point I generally try to find more challenging programs.
I am a huge fan of Every Minute on the Minute training, where you would perform a certain amount of deadlifts and then 1 other exercise at the beginning of each minute, resting only until the next.
For this, you certainly want to work sub-maximally so that your form stays consistent.
If you are very advanced, barbell complexes are probably the ultimate conditioning tool that we have in this world. This should not be in a program of strength training for beginners.
There is no need to worry about whether you should choose the back squat vs deadlift if you are using the both in the same exercise!
Although in this video I do not use the back squat (I use the front squat), even just a simple complex of 5 deadlifts, 5 hang cleans, and 5 front squats can provoke a huge hormonal response, while taxing your entire body incredibly. Check out my barbell-deadlift complex option:
You could also try something such as 6 reps of:
- Bent Over Row
- Hang Clean
- Front Squat
- Push Press
- Back Squat
This would be an amazing barbell complex, and one which would build your body incredibly. This is probably too difficult in a strength training for beginners program; but would be awesome for an advanced trainee!
Additional Reading: How to Increase Your Vertical Jump
How to Improve Deadlift & Squat Form
Building mobility for both movements is essential, there is no doubt about it. The “3rd World Squat” or “Infant Squat” is the absolute best stretch you can do to build lower body mobility!
Regardless of whether you are thinking of building mobility for the back squat vs deadlift, the movement pattern is relatively the same!
Check out this “dynamic” option for the 3rd World Squat stretch:
After you have advanced through this movement, the overhead squat is the next mobility cue which you should work on.
You do not need to work on this with weight or even with a barbell, a broomstick is just as effective. The key is not to do this as a weighted movement (although that would be incredible if you could perform that movement), but to focus on gaining the mobility and body control!
Check out this mobility drill:
Concluding Thoughts – Back Squats vs Deadlifts
The difference between the back squat vs deadlift is certainly a factor when deciding on your training program, but there is no reason to keep them completely separate!
Free weights are always superior to machine exercises, so either the back squat or the deadlift is still your best option for building a base of strength training for beginners! Finding a way to implement both of these movements in to your program at the same time is ultimately your key to building an athletic and functional body!
Remember, the variations of both the back squat and the conventional deadlift are highly effective at helping you learn the more difficult movements, and you will have greater results from training the variations first!
Once you have mastered the movements, don’t be afraid to tackle some of the difficult programs!
The back squat vs deadlift debate really doesn’t need to be a debate, since these exercises can be used in correlation for a perfect program of strength training!