The lion is the king of the jungle, the great white shark is the king of the ocean and Budweiser is the king of beer – but who is king of the gym? Both called kings by their respective kingdoms are deadlifts and squats. Both sides have different arguments on why their exercise is the best, and most of these arguments make some pretty valid points. But, if we compare these two epic exercises apples to apples, which one comes out on top?
We’re going to take a look at the deadlift and squat under a few different lenses: muscle activation, risk of injury, accessibility and variation. Let’s dive on into this heated matchup.
Muscle activation is important when considering exercises because it determines how effective the exercise is. Say you’re comparing exercises like running and lunges – they arguably work the same muscles, but there is exponentially more muscle activation in lunges because you are going through that muscles full range of motion, not to mention the added resistance that can be added to lunges to recruit the muscles even more.
Squats have an insane amount of muscle activation – they recruit your quadriceps, your hamstrings, your calves, your core, your glutes, your lower back and your upper back, not to mention all of the tiny stabilizer muscles in your body. Of course squats have varying levels of activation depending on squat depth, but an ATG (ass to grass) squat is going to fire off all of the synapses in those muscles and spark some serious gains in size and strength in your glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps.
Deadlifts definitely give squats a run for their money in this category, by recruiting hamstrings, quadriceps, low back, upper back, forearms, calves and core to complete the movement. Deadlifts are a more low-back-and-hamstring-centric movement, while the brunt of squats is placed on the quadriceps; and, though these exercises recruit many of the same muscles, they do it in a different way. The deadlift is a “lift this thing up” movement and squats are a “sit down and come back up movement”, which require stabilizers to be recruited for different purposes.
Although the squat has a longer range of motion, the deadlift enables the lifter to put on more weight, which becomes a battle of time-under-tension: more time with squat and more tension with deadlift. These different training methodologies can serve different purposes for different goals, and can also be crossed over to the other, i.e. squats for high weight/low reps and deadlifts for low weight/high reps.
Risk of Injury
The most important factor in any exercise is safety. If an exercise isn’t safe, you really shouldn’t be doing it. Luckily, fitness enthusiasts are able to get in the gym and perform squats and deadlifts day after day because the injury rate is pretty low. Now, we’re going to discuss the risk of injuries under the assumption that the exercise being performed correctly and with good form. Any exercise performed with bad form can lead to injury, and these two are no exceptions. With good form, squats and deadlifts both have one main point of stress.
When performing squats, the entire movement is based around your knee joints. This can be tough on your knees over time; plus, the cartilage and connective tissues in your knees break down naturally as you age. As long as you have knee mobility and no pain in your range of motion, squats should be just fine.
However, failed reps on squats can be scary, especially if you’re not using a spotter or a squat rack. A failed squat rep has a lot of potential for injury outside of squat racks and spotters because you’re under the weight. With no outside support and hundreds of pounds on your back, your only option is to let the bar roll back and off of you, which can be loud and destructive.
While the squat is centered around the knee, deadlifts are more focused on the lower back. If you have a bad back, you shouldn’t be performing squats or deadlifts. Deadlift with good form isn’t degenerative, due to the nature of the exercise. As humans, we become accustomed to bending down and picking stuff up, it’s a very natural movement, whereas putting a weight on your back and sitting down, then standing back up in rapid succession isn’t so natural. Failing on deadlift is also much safer than failing on squat – you simply drop the bar or lower it if you can.
There are some great exercises that never make the top five lists because they’re either performed on very niche machines or not everyone can perform them, i.e. it’s highly unlikely 1-handed pullups are going to make it into a top five list of best exercises because it takes a long time to work up to a 1-handed pullup.
The deadlift is easy, find a barbell, load it up with plates and start pulling. If your gym has no barbells (switch gyms after your membership runs out), you can still use the smith machine. However, with the squat, it’s a different story. With the squat, you need a squat rack. You can’t fail safely without a squat rack, and safety is the most important thing in weightlifting.
Also, you need a rack tall enough to get under the bar. If you have to clean and press the bar over your head and let it fall on your back to do squats, you need to switch gyms or get some new equipment if you’re working out at home. Because not only is that a recipe for disaster, you’re hurting your workouts because you’ll undoubtedly be able to squat more than you’ll be able to clean and press.
Also, since safety is a main concern, working around injury is a big factor. If you have bad knees, you want to stay away from squats, but the deadlift will be just fine since there isn’t nearly as much knee bend throughout the exercise, especially if you go sumo-style. This leads us to our next category, variation.
Being able to do an exercise in a few different ways is important because not only does it keep your workouts fresh and fun, it hits your muscles in different ways. Having different variations of an exercise can also help you perform the exercise with limited equipment.
Squats are probably the most versatile exercise out there. You can do bodyweight squats, one-legged bodyweight squats, split squats, dumbbell squats, overhead squats, front squats and the good old standard back squat. All of these variations hit the quads and hamstrings differently. Front squats are probably the most common weighted variation, as the front squat is an important part of several Olympic style lifts. Bodyweight squats are great for those just starting out, or those whose knees can’t support extra weight.
Deadlifts are also versatile, but not as much as with the squat. The main variation you’ll see on deadlift is the trap bar deadlift, performed with the hexagonal bar that was made to target the trapezius muscle, but it’s used more commonly for deadlift than shrugs nowadays. The trap bar deadlift takes some stress of the back and engages the quadriceps more.
Another popular variation of the deadlift is the suitcase deadlift, or dumbbell deadlift. This can be great for those who are uncomfortable with the movement and still getting their form down; or, perhaps for beginner lifters who aren’t quite ready for the barbell.
Deadlifts vs Squats: Crowning The King
Before we crown the king, I want to make it clear that these are both fantastic exercises, and there is no reason that if you’re physically able, you shouldn’t be including both in your weightlifting regimen. If you pick one over the other and completely wipe the latter out of your regimen, you’ll be missing out. And now, your king…*sound angelic trumpets*… the deadlift.
The deadlift has more muscle activation, is more accessible due to the minimal equipment and predisposition to being performable by people with knee issues and is a safer exercise than the barbell back squat in terms of joint degradation and failed rep recovery. Deadlifts will put some serious muscle on your body (hamstrings, lower back, upper back, forearms, core) and increase the strength of all of your other lifts. All of these elements combined are what make the deadlift the king of the gym. So pay your respects, load up that bar, and pull out those royalty reps.