Squats Vs. Deadlifts - Here’s When to Choose Which

squat vs deadlift and when to choose which
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Squats and deadlifts are similar in that they both work your lower body and can be intensified with weights.  But some key differences set them apart.

Standard deadlifts start in a squatted position (although some guides will tell you to start standing up right), then you rise up to standing while lifting a barbell or free weights to your side. From there you lower back to the starting position. 

Squats start upright, lower to where you would start a deadlift, and then rise back up.  And with squats you normally hold the weights in front of you, in parallel with your chest, or level with your head.  The start and end positions aren’t the only difference when comparing the two exercises.

With squats and deadlifts you can hold free weights from start to finish, but if you’re watching competitive powerlifters in action, you’ll see they tend to drop and release the weights once lifted.  This is not the proper way to do a deadlift, so while you may be “dropping weight” as a health and fitness goal, leave “dropping the weights” to the pro athletes!  

Pro-tip: One important thing to note is that in both the squat and deadlift movements, you want to keep your back flat and lift with your legs.

One of the biggest differences between squats and deadlifts is that deadlifts engage your hamstrings much more than a squat.  The standard squat uses your quads and glutes, with hamstrings being a secondary muscle group worked. 

Deadlifts engage your hamstrings due to the biomechanical changes that occur when you pick the weight up from the ground.  This increases the angle of the hip hinge as your torso leans forward, which in turn engages the hamstrings more than a standard squat.  

Fun fact: Both standard squats and deadlifts primarily work 6 muscle groups.















If you want to learn more about the muscles squats work, click here.

Both are great exercises to work your glutes, tone your core, and are great if you’re training for sports that require a foundation of lower body strength.  They can be mixed and matched for alternating days, or for sets in your workout.  But if you have to decide between the two, look at what your goals are.  This makes the choice between them easy.

When to choose deadlifts over squats

The standard deadlift works your hamstrings and your upper body more than the squat does (especially your back and your forearms) and also targets the muscles in and around your hips more than the squat. (source).  You can also work your back muscles more easily because of the form when doing deadlift vs. a squat.

This comes from the way you bend over at your hips to grab the weight and then engage all of those muscles at the same time as you stand up straight to lift the weight from the floor.

Because of this bending over though, bad form can quickly lead to a bad back, so if you’re new to doing deadlifts, make sure to have a trainer or professional watch you as you begin your journey. 

The deadlift will be your exercise of choice to prepare for certain everyday activities like for those times you pack a box full of hardcover books only to realize how heavy it is. Or for those other times when you want to move the heavy oak dresser to the other side of the room with the plush carpet.

Deadlifts also come in handy when you need to lug an overpacked suitcase up 3 flights of stairs because the elevator isn’t working, or when you need to snatch your little kid off the floor because they don’t want to leave Disneyland.

When to choose squats over deadlifts

The traditional back squat will work many of the same muscles as the deadlift but will target the quadriceps more than the deadlift (source). It’s also preferable if you have any injury nagging at your back as it doesn’t make you bend at the hips like the deadlift.

There are also numerous types of squats ranging from plié squats to pistol or curtsy squats to add variety to your workout and slightly change the impact on your muscles and joints.  And there are assisted squat machines like The DB Method machine designed to target your glutes.  

To stay ready for the trials and tribulations of daily life, choose the squat over the deadlift.  Squats will come in handy when you need to get that thing on the shelf that is a bit too high to reach on your tippy toes. And choose squats over deadlifts if you are training for obstacle races or you run track as a sport.

More mundane activities like sprinting up the stairs when you hear your furry friend getting into trouble thanks to squats. And squats tend to be a better beginners move because you don’t need to add extra weights.  

At the end of the day, asking whether the squat or the deadlift is better is like asking which shoe is better, the left or the right. Sure, you could get by with just one, but you’d always be off balance.

Try to include both squats and deadlifts for a complete workout routine. For variety, you can use all sorts of variations on the exercises, but just be sure not to only choose variations that are too similar, such as only doing sumo squats and sumo deadlifts. 

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