I can’t even think straight!!! There’s just too many choices to make! Should I jump under the squat rack and do a couple of sets of that or should I set up the bar on the ground and do deadlifts? What’s even the difference?!
If you’ve asked yourself this before then you’re not alone. There’s so much controversy around which exercise is more effective. Tonnes of people consider the squat to be the “be all and end all” of weightlifting exercises while others swear by the deadlift. A lot of these preferences come down to what it is you’re trying to get out of your workout. There are definite differences to the two exercises, but I think they both have their place in your workouts. Rather than taking sides, I’ll attempt to highlight some of the benefits of each. But before I do that, if you’re one of those people who barely trains legs at all, and doesn’t know why you ever should, check out Why You Should Train Legs…
First of all, let’s get something straight- it’s so narrow-minded the way people try and judge the impact of compound exercises only against individual muscles! I can’t even count how many times I’ve heard people say “Deadlift is a pulling exercise so it doesn’t do anything for your chest or thighs” or “Squat is a pushing exercise so it barely does anything for your hamstrings or glutes”. This is just rubbish! One of the reasons I really like compound exercises is because they’re just that- COMPOUND exercises. That means they work multiple muscles at the same time. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, if done right, the squat and deadlift work practically every muscle in your body at varying degrees. Obviously they emphasise different areas though, so let’s discuss the two in a little more detail.
The squat aka ‘The King’ is one of the most fundamental movement patterns, incorporating the largest muscles in the body including the quads, hams, glutes and core. To perform a proper back squat, you position yourself under the bar with the bar resting on your shoulders and your upper back, and then bend down and stand back up.
This movement is very fundamental for everyday living. We sit down and stand up multiple times each day, and this is a natural way to do it. When you grab the bar, you tighten your upper back to provide a more stable surface for the bar to rest on. This naturally works the upper back as well.
Huge Muscle Incorporation
When you actually descend into the squat, you bend at the knee, and use the thighs, glutes, hamstrings and core to control your descent and ascent. This movement works a whole array of muscles. Firstly, your core is going to be working like crazy to keep your body upright and stop you from falling flat on the ground under the weight. Second, the leg muscles, particularly the thighs and glutes, are going to be working like crazy to stabilise your body so you can descend and then ascend smoothly. Because of the position of the bar, on top of your shoulders, it’s natural for your thighs to bear a little more of the weight than your glutes and hamstrings.
The squat is amazing for training the quads, glutes and hamstrings to work as one to move your body through space. The particular movement of squatting down and standing back up, when done explosively, also trains all the muscles necessary to jumping vertically. Volleyball players, in particular, use squats in almost every single workout to give them the power to leap vertically in the air to spike the ball over the net. Basketball players use squats to help them propel vertically to grab rebounds and to do standing vertical dunks.
Stability and Strength
For the sedentary male, squats are really good for keeping your body balanced and strong. The constant sitting down and poor posture weakens a lot of the small inner muscles in the legs and core. Squatting, especially heavy squatting, forces your body to learn to stabilise the weight on your shoulders and so it trains all the little muscles in your core, arms and legs while also training the big muscles such as the glutes and thighs.
If you aren’t doing squats as part of your current workouts, definitely consider trying to fit it in somewhere. It can be as simple as adding a couple of sets of squats to your full body workout or setting aside an entire workout to pump out a good 3-5 sets. Trust me, it’s worth the effort for the incredible gains that you get. If you can’t do squats though, because of knee problems or other limitations, then the next exercise may be even better for you. Let’s take a look at the deadlift.
The Deadlift is also one of the most fundamental patterns, as it nothing more or less than bending down and lifting something up off the ground- this might be lifting up the couch to find the remote or bending down to pick up one of the kids. Similar to the squat, the deadlift incorporates the glutes, hamstrings, thighs and hips, as well as your core and upper back.
The Deadlift begins with the bar resting on the ground. You stand behind the bar with feet spread about shoulder-length apart. Then you bend down and pick up the bar with your hands outstretched. This movement is very similar to the squat (descending and ascending in one place) but because of the positioning of the weight, there is a focus on slightly different muscle groups. In the Deadlift, there is more of a ‘pull’ in the movement. You lock out your arms, tighten your upper and lower back and then ‘pull’ the weight off the ground with your back, glutes and hamstrings.
In this exercise as well, your core is going to be working like crazy to stop your body from snapping in half. Your glutes and hamstrings are going to be working overtime to stabilise your body as you pull the weight off the ground. Your upper back and biceps are also going to be working super hard to stay in a contracted to position to help you to ‘pull’ the weight up off the ground. Because of the positioning of the weight in this exercise, on the ground, you’re likely to be incorporating more of the back, glutes and hamstrings, and a little less of the thighs and chest.
The deadlift also incorporates muscles that aren’t worked as effectively as in the squat- the hips. The hips are powerful muscles that we use to help us stand up straight and are important muscles in any forward-thrusting movement such as vertical jumping, running, and yes, even sex. Most athletes also use deadlifts in their training to build powerful lower back muscles for stability, and also to balance out the strength of their thighs. The deadlift also works the hamstrings to a greater degree than the squat, and the hamstrings are responsible for a lot of one leg explosive movements such as high jump, long jump, sprinting and one leg jumping.
Deadlifts Fix Tight Hips
For the sedentary male, deadlifts are essential to rectifying one of the biggest problems of sitting down all day- tight hips. We sit down all day at work on the computer, we sit down when we come home and watch TV, and then we sit down again when we go to sleep again, more or less! All this sitting puts our bodies in a constant position of being hunched over, and although this somewhat engages the core muscles, it makes the front of the neck, the upper chest and the hips really tight and immobile. Deadlifts help to loosen the hips and strengthen the opposing muscles- the glutes and hamstrings. This build strength and stability in your whole body and will pack muscle onto your legs, back and arms.
Even by themselves, squats and deadlifts are really effective workouts. There’s so much controversy around which is more effective, but there are benefits of each. Squats are great if your trying to train for two leg jumping exercises, or situations where you need to be able to move powerfully straight up off the ground. Deadlifts are great if your training one leg exercises. They’re also indispensible for rectifying the tight hips that are so prevalent in today’s society. Even you haven’t done so already, make a plan to include these incredible exercises into your workouts.