Deadlift vs. Squat Muscles

Welcome to the epic showdown of the top lower-body exercises in the weight room: deadlift vs. squat. Although both are functional exercises that work almost the entirety of your lower body, and both appear in powerlifting competitions, there are some notable differences.

Deadlifts are a great functional exercise. (Image: Pekic/E+/GettyImages)

Deadlift vs. Squat

At first glance, the deadlift and squat have more similarities than differences. Although they're both powerlifting exercises, you don't have to be a competitive powerlifter to enjoy the benefits of these compound exercises that work almost all the muscles of your lower body at once.

Both are usually performed with barbells, although you can do them with dumbbells or even kettlebells with appropriate modifications. And both of these exercises mimic functional real-world movement patterns, although this is where differences begin to creep in.

The squat mimics a motion that most people perform every day, any time you reach down to pick up something heavy or lower your own weight to sit down in a chair. The deadlift tends to emphasize the hip hinge, a very functional movement pattern that the American Council on Exercise points out many people do not perform regularly because of the sedentary habits of modern-day society — but they should.

ACE also explains another major difference in the deadlift vs. squat comparison: where the weight sits during the exercise. During back squats — which is what most people mean when they refer to "squats" — the barbell sits high on the back of your shoulders. (You can also do a variation called front squats, holding the barbell across the front of your shoulders.)

During a deadlift, however, the barbell rests on the ground instead of on your body. So although both exercises require a lot of core stability to perform properly, the squat ultimately puts a lot more stress on your body than the deadlift.

How to Do a Deadlift

Thanks to its emphasis on the hip hinge, relatively low stress on your body (because the weight rests on the floor instead of on your back) and its emphasis on the hamstrings-glutes-spinal extensors/posterior chain that tends to go underdeveloped in today's sedentary society, the deadlift is a fantastic exercise for developing whole-body strength and core involvement.

To do it properly:

  1. Fix the weight plates on your barbell and situate it on the floor — if you have sufficient flexibility to reach it — or on an elevated platform to allow a reduced range of motion, if necessary.
  2. Step right up to the bar, shins almost against it, feet planted firmly hip-width apart. Keep your spine straight, chest up and shoulders back and down.
  3. Hinge down from the hips, softening your knees and bending them as your hips sink low enough to let you grasp the bar in an alternating or "over-under" grip, hands shoulder-width apart and one palm facing forward while the other faces back.
  4. Check your core posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
  5. Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you push your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you, and lift the bar. Take a cue from American Council on Exercise trainers, and imagine pushing your hips forward as you pull your knees back.
  6. Finish the motion by lifting your chest and engaging your lats to stabilize the bar in front of your hips.
  7. Return the bar by reversing the motion, pushing your weight back into your hips and softening your knees, letting the bar travel a controlled path back down to the floor along your body.

You'll find many variations of this exercise. One of the most common is the stiff-legged deadlift which, despite its name, still allows a slight bend in your knees; it also has you shift your hips farther back, emphasizing involvement of the gluteus maximus and hamstrings.

You can also do a stiff-legged deadlift while standing on just one leg; let the other leg extend behind you as a counterbalance. Challenge your core even more by doing this exercise with a dumbbell instead of a barbell, holding the dumbbell on the same side as the leg you're lifting.

Deadlifts: Primary Movers

So which muscles do what during a deadlift? The primary motion of hip extension — bringing your hips forward and straightening them — is performed by your gluteus maximus (the big, readily visible muscle in your buttocks) and the adductor magnus, a muscle on the inside of your thigh that also helps with hip extension.

But there's more at work during a deadlift than just your hips. Your quadriceps (the big muscle in the front of your thigh) act to straighten your knee, while the soleus (the smaller of your two primary calf muscles) helps bring your lower leg back upright, and the gastrocnemius (the bigger of those two calf muscles) stabilizes your leg at the knee.

Your hamstrings also function both as stabilizers and synergists, or secondary movers, with the greatest involvement coming if you do the stiff-legged variation of the deadlift. In fact, according to a small study of EMG activity in 18 young-adult females, published in a March 2018 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, the stiff-legged deadlift recruits significantly more muscle activity in the hamstrings than a squat does.

Here's one more note about your hamstrings and deadlifts: In a small, independent test sponsored by the American Council on Exercise, researchers from the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse, department of exercise and sport science recruited 16 volunteers for EMG testing of hamstrings activity during a series of hamstrings exercises. Because of the anatomy of the hamstrings, researchers were only able to evaluate the activity of two of the three muscles in this group.

Of the exercises evaluated, the single-arm, single-leg Romanian deadlift — essentially, a variation of the stiff-legged deadlift done on one leg, with a dumbbell in one arm — was the only exercise that produced levels of hamstring activity that were comparable to the leg curl machine, the hamstrings isolation exerciser that researchers used as a benchmark. In other words, hamstrings exercises don't get much better than this.

Deadlifts: Core Stability

Last but never least, your back and core muscles must powerfully engage to stabilize your torso and your shoulders throughout a deadlift. As ExRx.net notes in a very helpful kinesiology analysis, the erector spinae (the large, finger-like muscles that run up and down along your spine) stabilize your body, while your rectus abdominis (or "six-pack muscle") and obliques (the large muscles that wrap around the sides of your abdomen) help counter the pull of the erector spinae.

Meanwhile, your shoulder girdle is stabilized by the trapezius, rhomboids and levator scapulae, while your latissimus dorsi (the large, powerful pulling muscle in your back) helps keep the bar close to your body.

How to Do a Squat

Now it's time for a look at proper form for squats, followed by an analysis of the muscle activity during squats. The same muscles are at work during squats as during deadlifts, but because the motions and the loads involved are slightly different, those muscles have slightly different jobs to perform.

To do a barbell squat, you'll need a squat rack with racking pins set to just below shoulder level, with the spotting bars — if available — set to just below the bar's level at the endpoint of your motion.

  1. Duck under the bar and position yourself so that it rests high on the back of your upper shoulders. Put a roll of padding around the bar to help ease shoulder discomfort if you wish. Make sure the bar rests of the meaty party of your shoulders, not on your neck, and grasp it on either side for stability.
  2. Stand up beneath the bar to take its weight on your legs. Step back into the squat rack/squat cage so that the bar will clear the racking pins, and set your feet shoulder-width apart. Adjust your position, if necessary, so that you're stable and balanced.
  3. Bend your knees as you move your hips back and down, as if you were sitting in a chair placed behind you. Keep your chest "up and open" and your back straight (don't let your lower back hyperextend), and don't let your knees buckle inward. Instead, make sure your knees point the same direction as your toes and stop when your hips break the plane of your knees.
  4. Press through your feet to reverse the motion and stand up, completing the repetition.

As with the deadlift, you'll encounter many variations on squats — usually changes in foot position or weight position. As noted in a helpful analysis from ExRx.net, front squats (holding the barbell across the front of your shoulders) emphasize quadriceps involvement, while deeper squats emphasize glute involvement.

Tip

Not sure of your technique? Practice with no weight first, and then do the exercise with a barbell but no added weight plates, to develop confidence. If necessary, have a trainer confirm your technique before you add weight. The same principle applies to learning proper deadlift technique.

Squats: The Muscles at Work

As mentioned, the same muscle groups work during a squat as a deadlift — but they have a slightly different job. As ExRx.net notes in an analysis of the squat movement, the quadriceps are the primary movers for this exercise. They're assisted by your gluteus maximus, adductor magnus and your soleus, all of which perform similar functions as in a deadlift: The former two straighten your legs at the hip, while the soleus helps bring your lower leg back to the upright position.

Finally, your hamstrings and gastrocnemius also work as dynamic stabilizers. As noted in the aforementioned study from the March 2018 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, EMG testing revealed that stiff-legged deadlifts recruit more hamstring activity than squats. However, they found no significant difference between levels of glute activity in squats and stiff-legged deadlifts, and in both exercises, your glutes do significantly more work than your hamstrings.

Last once again, but still never least, your erector spinae, rectus abdominis and obliques all work to stabilize your core throughout the squat, although because the weight rests on your shoulders instead of the floor, your spine is subjected to a much higher load. And due to the different position of the barbell, your latissimus dorsi isn't required to hold the bar close to your body as in the deadlift.

Why Include Other Exercises?

When done correctly, squats and deadlifts are both fantastic exercises for your core and lower body. However, that doesn't mean they're the only exercises you should be doing in the weight room. In its physical activity guidelines for Americans, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services points out that to develop and maintain a healthy body, you should strength-train all your major muscle groups at least twice a week.

That means that in addition to squats and deadlifts for your lower body, you should also add in exercises like bench presses or push-ups for your chest; lat pulldowns or pull-ups for your back; and shoulder presses, biceps curls and rear deltoid flies or wide rows for your arms and shoulders.

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