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Deadlift vs Squat: Which is best?

It's the clash of the compound exercises. A battle between the booty-shaping squat and the back-building deadlift. Maybe you squeeze both of these exercises into your routine or perhaps you're a firm fan of just one. But, which one is the real winner? We caught up with personal trainer and Grenade® ambassador Adam Parr to find out the benefits of both squats and deadlifts and which one packs the most punch.

"Which is the superior lift: the squat or the deadlift? I discuss the pros and cons of these two popular exercises so you can decide which is best for you.

Pros of the deadlift

  • The prime mover for the deadlift are the spinal erectors (lower back) but the benefit of the deadlift is that it works so many other muscles too , including the forearms, traps, lats, hamstrings, quads, calves, glutes and core, so you get huge bang for your buck
  • There is a huge "carry over" from getting strong at the deadlift, meaning if you increase your strength on your deadlift, many other exercises will improve too
  • As so many muscles are involved in the lift, it’s an excellent choice for anyone looking to drop body-fat as it's extremely metabolically challenging, especially when you progress in weight with the lift
  • Progressing your deadlift and getting strong in your posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes & lower back) has a huge carry over into speed, making deadlifts an excellent choice for athletes too

Pros of the squat

  • Squats are a large compound exercise, primary focusing on your quads, but there are huge inputs from your glutes, lower back, mid-back, hamstrings and calves to stabilisation during the lift
  • There are variations to the exercise to tweak the muscle focus e.g. front squats and high bar squats will focus more on your quads (due to more knee flexion) and then the low bar squat or box squat will be more hip dominant and target the glutes more
  • As you progress and build strength with the squat, you recruit a large number of motor units during the lift, placing a large amount of stress on the lower body and therefore causing a lot of potential growth

Both squats & deadlifts have two similar benefits...

  1. There is a huge demand from the core to stabilise during the lifts. A training program built around compounds lifting challenging the core is far superior to lying on the matt doing hundreds of crunches
  2. Secondly, both compound lifts can spike growth hormone and testosterone production acutely, as well as firing up the central nervous system, making them an excellent exercise selection to start your workout

Are there any cons?

A deadlift executed correctly can be the best exercise in the gym to strengthen your back but, done incorrectly, it can be the worst. More often than not, you see ego-driven lifts resulting in sub-optimal form - increasing the risk of injury. More people injure their lower back deadlifting than any other exercise.

You can watch a toddler at 12 months old fall into the perfect squat position without even realising it, but then as the years go by and we spend the majority of our lives sat behind desks, that ability diminishes. Many people simply do have the mobility to squat correctly. Tight calves and hip flexors make squatting correctly extremely difficult for a large majority of the population.

How can I improve both lifts?

The real secret is breathing.

It's very common to see gym-goers wear a lifting belt to support their core during both lifts. Although these may psychologically improve performance through the power of placebo, there is a better solution.

Take the squat for example: if you're lifting 5 or less reps (strength-focused), taking a deep breath in and holding it just before you descend and then bracing as well, will increase the intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) in your core providing you with far more strength and stability during the lift.

The decision: which really is best?

First of all, just to be clear, both are fantastic exercises, but you don't have to squat to have a good pair of legs and you don't have to deadlift to have a great back - this is a myth.

To say one is better than another will depend largely on what your goal is, e.g. if your goal is to have impressive quads, a front squat would a better choice than a deadlift.

Also, it can depend a lot on your parents and what genetics they passed down to you. Some people are bio-mechanically blessed and naturally fall into a beautiful squat, therefore making a squat a great exercise for them. Other people may have long arms and a strong lower back so excel with the deadlift instead.

So, which will you be smashing out in the gym tonight? If you'd like more workout tips and advice from Adam, head over to his Instagram or drop him an email: adam@ajperformance.co.uk

You can also visit our blog for more workout and fitness tips.

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