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Squats vs. Deadlifts by Trainer Jenny B


Possibly the greatest perpetual fitness battle is that of the Squat versus the Deadlift. It’s unlikely that I’ll declare a winner, but hopefully this will bring some clarity to common questions, including why I make you do one or both of these exercises in almost every workout.

First, both the squat and the deadlift are functional exercises. A functional exercise replicates a movement that you do in daily life. For example, when you get in and out of a chair, that’s a squat. When you pick something up off of the floor, like a basket of laundry, that’s a deadlift. Performing these movements as intentional exercise will help to keep these daily life activities accessible and safe, especially if that thing you’re picking up from the floor is a squirming toddler.


A squat is a functional exercise involving moving your hips toward the floor, while keeping your chest upright. A squat can be done with or without resistance. A deadlift is a hip hinge movement, in which the hips press back while lifting a weighted object off of the floor. The weight begins and ends on the floor, so there is no momentum in the lift. Dead weight is lifted off the floor to the hips and then lowered back down.

A squat is a knee dominant exercise, emphasizing knee flexion (bending) and extension (straightening), which makes it a quad (front of the thigh) focused exercise. A deadlift is hip dominant, focusing on hip flexion (hinging) and hip extension, which works the posterior chain (back side of the body) more than a squat.

A squat is primarily considered a leg exercise, although core stability and strength are required. A deadlift is a posterior exercise that emphasizes many muscle groups including legs, glutes and back, which can make deadlifts higher intensity than squats.

A squat starts from standing upright. Squat movement is up - down - up. The mechanics of a squat are hips down, chest up and knees over second toe (more or less) creating a less than 90 degree angle of ankle flexion. A deadlift starts from the floor. Deadlift movement is down - up - down. The mechanics are hips back, back flat and knees stacked over the ankles, creating (approximately) a 90 degree angle at the ankle.

Improper form in a squat can lead to knee injuries. Improper form in a deadlift can lead to lower back injuries.


There are several variations of squats and deadlifts, and each position will have a slightly different muscular focus. While there is definitely some overlap in the muscles worked in both of these exercises, because of the movement pattern, the primary and secondary muscles at work differ. Primary muscles are the target muscles of an exercise, the main muscles that control the movement. Secondary muscles are the helpers, the muscles that assist the primary movers in getting the job done. These can vary slightly depending on the technique and variation of the exercise, but for the most part are as follows:

Primary muscles worked in the squat are quads (front of the thigh), adductors (inner thigh), glutes and hamstrings (back of the thigh). Lower back, abdominals and calf muscles are secondary in the squat.

Primary muscles worked in the deadlift are the glutes and lower back. Deadlifts have more helper muscles than the squat including quads, hamstrings, adductors, trapezius (upper back) and forearm flexors (from gripping the weight).


Here’s a step-by-step, but if you’re new to these movements, please work with a trainer to ensure proper form and determine the most appropriate variation and level of resistance.

Squats (Goblet Variation)

  1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, and hold a weight at your chest.

  2. Keep your elbows in and back straight, as you bend your knees and lower your hips down.

  3. Continue lowering into your squat to reach a depth appropriate for your knee, hip and ankle mobility.

  4. Press both feet into the floor and rise back up, straightening your knees and hips completely.

Deadlifts (Conventional Variation)

  1. Stand with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes under the barbell (or with a kettlebell between your feet).

  2. Bend your knees and press your hips back. Keep your spine neutral and shoulders down as you grab the weight.

  3. Press through your heels and rise up, keeping the bar (or kettlebell) close to your body. Contract your glutes at the top.

  4. Hinge from the hip and bend your knees to lower the weight back to the floor. Keep your chest up, shoulders back, core engaged and back flat throughout the entire movement.


Stability Ball Squats

This variation is great for beginners, or anyone with hip, knee or back sensitivities.


TRX squats are also great for beginners, as the straps help with balance and stability. For people of all fitness levels, the TRX squat is a great warm-up before doing a weighted squat. It also allows for greater knee flexion without compromising spinal position and balance.

Split Squats (Lunges)

Lunges work just about every major muscle group in the lower body. They also help to improve balance and core strength.


Straight Leg Deadlift (Romanian)

Romanian Deadlifts would be a great alternative for someone who has limited knee flexion. This position also shifts the muscular focus a bit more to the hamstrings, strengthening on the way up and stretching on the way down.

Sumo (Wide Stance)

This wide stance variation can be done with the knees straight or bent, and increases the use of the adductor muscles (inner thighs).

Single Leg

Think Warrior III, yogis. Not only is this variation quite the balance challenge, but also killer core work and great for strengthening the much neglected ankles and lower leg.


Like everything in fitness (and life), it’s all about intention and situation. Before you jump into any fitness routine, always start with clearly defining your goals. Go back to these often, and re-evaluate as your body and mindset change - and both will change if you’re consistent. In general, if you're looking to strengthen your legs, start with squats. If you want to build glutes and back muscles, deadlifts are a great option. If you’re injury free, and intend to enhance overall strength and fitness, you should do both. If you have injuries or any conditions in the hips, knees or back then work with a trainer to determine the best movement pattern to help you reach your goals.

As mentioned above, squat exercises are more prone to knee injuries. Mostly, this is due to improper form. However, if you’re rehabbing a knee injury, you might be better served by working on deadlifts until you regain your strength and range of motion in knee flexion and extension. Back injuries are often associated with deadlifts. Again, this is commonly due to improper form or lifting too heavy. Before reaching for the barbell, make sure you have a non-weighted hip hinge perfected.

Core strength and stability are essential for proper squat and deadlift form, so when I sneak Pilates into your workout (guys), this is why. Maintaining a consistent, well-balanced workout routine is the key to maximizing your lifting goals. Strengthening smaller support muscles will not only help you progress your lifts and build the primary muscles, but also help to keep you injury free.

With the multitude of squat and deadlift variations, there’s a method and modification appropriate for most bodies. Along with practice and complimentary exercise modalities like yoga and pilates, squats and deadlifts are both excellent exercises to build strength, increase muscle mass and improve functional mobility. I guess in the battle of Squats vs Deadlifts, everyone’s a winner.

1 Comment

Joyce Finch
Joyce Finch
Mar 06, 2023

Thanks Jenny. This was so informative! The benefit of squats seem to get more attention than dead lifts, so I really appreciate you explaining the difference.

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