Deadlifts versus Squats: Which is better for muscle growth?

Deadlifts versus Squats

A question that gets asked too often in fitness circles is “If you could only perform one exercise: squats or deadlifts, which would you do?”.

The question is usually asked for one of three reasons:

  1. Pure curiosity and a desire to rank exercises from best to worst
  2. To decide which exercise to prioritise
  3. To decide which exercise that they can get away with dropping!

If you’re wondering this because you are curious about which exercise is best, then sadly there isn’t really an answer to that.

Both exercises are fantastic with numerous benefits, and while deadlifts may suit your specific needs better, squats may suit your friend’s.

There isn’t really a “best” exercise anyway, there’s way too many variables to assign one.

Squats are better for glute development, but deadlifts are better for strengthening the erector spinae, how do you compare that?

If you are trying to decide which exercise you should be prioritising then this is avenue has more promise, there are certain situations where prioritising deadlifts over squats would be a good idea, and vice versa.

If you are trying to find out which exercise is better so that you can drop the other then you really are out of luck.

Squats and deadlifts are BOTH very important, but are also very different exercises to each other.

Whilst squats work the quadriceps and glutes, with some hamstring activation too, deadlifts concentrate on the hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi and lots more muscles. Both exercises should be in any program.

In this article we are going to take a look at how to perform both exercises, what the positives and negatives of each exercise is and then compare the two.

The Deadlift

The deadlift is one of the most important exercises you will ever learn, not only does it burn lots of calories and strengthen multiple muscles, it also teaches you how to lift heavy objects in a safe manner.

If you’re at work and need to pick up a heavy box, you will be able to deadlift it up and protect your back.

To perform the exercise grab a barbell and place a pair of plates on it. Then stand up to the bar so that it is directly over your feet. Your toes should be slightly pointed out and your feet should be slightly closer than shoulder width apart.

Grab the bar with both hands just outside your knees and then pull your shoulders back and push your chest out.

Take a deep breath and then pull the bar upwards whilst driving your hips forward until they are touching the bar. Pause at the top and then push your hips back whilst maintaining a flat back until the bar touches the floor again. That will be one rep.

The main benefits of the deadlift are that there are more muscles worked here than in any other exercise.

This means that there is a greater hormonal response, meaning that testosterone and growth hormone will be maximally released. This means that muscle protein synthesis (MPS) will be increased leading to bigger and stronger muscles.

The downsides of the deadlift is that it is a highly technical exercise that requires a very heavy weight to challenge you. It also takes up a lot of space, and requires a lot of time and effort to set up.

The Squat

There are hundreds of varieties of squats out there, which is one of the reasons that they are so effective.

Full on barbell squats, barbell front squats, hack squats, goblet squats, jump squats, bodyweight squats, sumo squats, all with many variations. We’ll look at the barbell squat here, as it is the most effective and (other than the bodyweight squat) the most common.

In a squat rack walk under the bar and place it on your upper back (trapezius muscle), then place your hands on the bar just outside your shoulders and really squeeze it. Unrack the bar and walk backwards so that you have enough space to squat. Push your chest out and make sure your feet are further than shoulder width apart.

Squat down to at least parallel (lower if you can manage it) and pause momentarily at the bottom, make sure that your heels are pushing into the ground. Then drive back upwards until you are back at your starting position. Make sure that you avoid locking your legs at the top as this can cause joint issues.

The main benefits of a barbell squat are the strength and hypertrophy gains that can come from it, whereas deadlifts are only really suited to low-rep strength training sets, squats are much more versatile and can therefore be more effective at producing hypertrophy in the quads and glutes.

Another benefit is that squats are a lot easier to perform correctly – though they can still be challenging.

The downside to the squat is that there are much less real-world applications for squatting compared to deadlifting. How often do you really squat with a heavy weight in life? Another downside is that squatting can be slightly more dangerous.

If you fail a deadlift then most likely the bar hasn’t even left the floor! But failing a squat can leave you with a very heavy bar pinning you to the floor! If you want to squat heavy you’ll need a partner standing by.

Which is better for muscle growth?

If you are looking for bigger legs then squats are better, but if you are looking for all-round strength then the answer is deadlifts.

If we’re talking hypertrophy alone, then squats would be more effective as you can train them for hypertrophy, something that you can’t really do for deadlifts.

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