The Deadlift vs. the Squat: Common Misconceptions
by David "Boh" Bohmiller for CriticalBench.com
Nelson Castellano - Photographed by SAS Digital Memories 2008
When we think about the lower body and "the king of all exercises", what comes to mind for most people is the squat or a variation of it. However, when we take a look at the pros and cons and the results gained from specific lower body movements, a better "go-to" exercise may in-fact be the deadlift.
Let's take a closer look:
The squat, whether front-loaded, back-loaded, or with the smith machine is going to incorporate hip extension created by the glutes and the hamstrings, knee extension created by the quadriceps, and some plantarflexion created by the gastrocnemius and the soleus.
Now, whether you are a powerlifter, an athlete of some sort, are returning from a knee injury, or are a senior trying to prevent falls and osteoporosis, some form of the squat may be an important component of your training regimine.
Squats, when performed correctly, will help to stabilize the three major joints of the lower body and can also assist in improving the mobility and function around the hip joint.
If you can squat with good form and without pain, it will be instrumental in bringing you closer to achieving your fitness, sport, and life goals. However, in my decade of experience in working with clients and athletes, I have come to realize that the squat is not for everyone.
Whether it is because of injury, a lack of necessary mobility, or an inability to perform with correct technique, forcing, or attempting to force an individual to squat can be just like driving your car full-steam ahead into a brick wall. There's just no point.
What I have found to be successful in body transformation, maximal strength enhancement, sport performance, and in minimizing the impact of lower back pain is a focus on correct implementation of the deadlift.
Photographed by SAS Digital Memories 2008
The biggest difference between the squat and the deadlift, where the squat is more of a "sit-down, stand-up" motion, the deadlift is a bit closer to the vision of "leaning over to touch your toes and then standing all the way up". That may be the simplest definition, not to say that either are simple exercises.
If we take again, a closer look, with the deadlift, we have taken almost the entire knee bend out of the movement. This means that with less knee extension during the upward phase, there will be less quadriceps recruitment. This can be a key element for those that find discomfort from too much squatting and for those who are too immobile to perform the squat with the necessary range of motion to achieve the desired results.
If the focus is not on the quadriceps, where has it gone? Consider the deadlift almost exclusively a posterior chain exercise. We are thinking about the back of the body here. Everything from the calves, hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae, trapezius, and deltoids are active. If I could perform only one exercise for the rest of my life, this might be it!
Here's how this carries over into sport performance and life function. The Big 4 sports in the United States all involve running or some sort of forward propulsion (skating). What we need for all of these is the ability to extend through the hip. Increasing the maximal strength of this movement as in the deadlift has a correlation to one's ability to produce force with that same movement.
This doesn't mean that you are going to carry your 1RM weight onto the football field and deadlift during plays. It means that the work you put in to your training is going to enable you to recruit or use your hip extensors more effectively at game speed.
The glutes and hamstrings are larger muscles than the quadriceps are, right? Would you rather rely on your quadriceps to carry you or the larger, stronger muscles of the posterior chain? We would obviously love to use all three major muscle groups, but this should help pinpoint where the majority of your focus should be.
When we think about body transformation, we think about the total recruitment of muscle. An exercise like the deadlift allows us to activate muscles throughout the entire body in very little time. That activation allows us to put on more lean muscle which will increase your metabolism and create the "looking in the mirror changes" that many of us are looking for.
As far as lower back pain is concerned, the deadlift and its variations, when performed with correct form place the lifter in an adequate position to recruit stabilizers and movers of the lower back with greater intensity than would say, a lower back extension.
That load and the calculated range of motion create a safe environment for the lower back and for the lifter. Whenever we use the deadlift in this fashion, the emphasis must be on proper technique with correct progression. There is no point in using a great exercise if the lifter doesn't have the foundation to support it.
Take a look at your current program design and if you need to, seek out the help of a professional for a refresher on your technique. Without fully understanding the difference between these two important exercises and the results that they will yield, you may be cheating yourself out of your best body yet!
About the Author:
David "Boh" Bohmiller holds a Bachelor's degree in Physical Education-Exercise Science from Bridgewater State College and is NSCA-CSCS certified. He is the owner of "My Personal Trainer School" headquartered near Boston, MA. Boh spends his days writing, performing health seminars, Personal & Group Training, consulting with athletic teams, and mentoring those new to the fitness profession. To find out more about how Boh may be able to help you, visit him at "My Personal Trainer School" or if you are interested in Personal Training in the Boston area, schedule your FREE consultation.