In the epic deadlift vs. squat debate, the battle is not even close. The squat is by far the better exercise. This comes though almost entirely from a simple argument, yet one that I can mostly assume you have never considered.
The squat works better because, done right, it achieves a perfect balance between the anterior and posterior muscles. Some would argue this means the squat is a jack-of-all-trades exercise that focuses on nothing and thus feels too general. This conclusion is misleading and harmful. Our muscles and joints evolved to work as a unit and anything that deviates from this for heavy lifting is dangerous.
You need to choose a position that involves no extremes for any exercise. This means a medium grip or stance, a horizontal movement for all upper body choices, and a lower body selection that equally uses all of the muscles. You should feel as if no single muscle or joint takes over. This is a profound idea that completely changes the way you will think about picking the right exercises.
When you purely or even mostly rotate at a joint instead of moving in a straight line, as occurs through balanced multi-joint movements, you have an exercise that has isolation properties. Think of using a leg extension machine (isolation) versus a squat (compound), or a triceps extension (isolation) versus a bench press (compound).
Isolation exercises have these bad qualities:
- They feel harmful to the joints. The rotation allows shearing forces to rip apart the joints, especially with heavy loads. Single joint movement exists for repositioning only. Think writing with your hands or grabbing a light object from up high. You could never do these actions with heavy weights.
- They allow less tension for muscle growth. The muscles stretch and shorten too much which allows less sites for contraction. This also places more force into the joints instead of the actual movement. Try this example. Extend your elbow and relax your arm at your side. Flex your arm as tightly as possible. If honest with yourself, you will notice stress in your elbow. This stress occurs at the endpoints of isolation exercises.
- They ignore synergy that occurs when parts work together. When you pull back your shoulder, your elbow bends. When crossing your arm over your chest, the elbow extends. This effect allows the body to work even better as a unit than predicted by looking at just each part.
- Involve less muscle and risk imbalance.
- Fail to use muscles uniformly, which simplifies form and protects the joints.
The deadlift overemphasizes the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back muscles. The hinge at the hip creates too far a distance from the resistance for these body parts. This allows too much range of motion and rotation at the hip joint, placing shearing forces upon the lower back and hip and reducing tension due to more time spent away from the optimal medium length. It also prevents much involvement of the quads and calves due to poor range of motion and moment arms for knee extension and plantarflexion.
The deadlift works the upper body well and includes the entire back, but a row hits the same muscles yet also trains the elbow flexors and core more intensely. These pulls therefore are more complete than a dead-lift, with the squat addressing the lower body more completely as well.
I assume most viewers use the barbell deadlift. The trap bar replacement can remedy this situation somewhat. It still may cause too much hip extension versus a squat, but helps reverse the disadvantages. You have to be very diligent about good form though.
With a low-bar position in the squat, all the muscles and joints get addressed in a balanced way. This has great benefits.
- Stimulates growth in all the muscles without stressing the joints.
- Creating higher tensions versus working each muscle through too great a range of motion.
- Locks in and protects the knee due to tension from both the front and back created by the quads and hamstrings.
- Emphasizes compression over shear compared with the deadlift. Our bodies adapted for compression when handling heavy weights.
- It is the most efficient option.
The squat does have an awkward bar placement. While squatting is a natural activity, placing a barbell upon your back never will feel great. Good form can teach you to offset this drawback.
A front squat is a horrible squat. It overemphasizes the anterior. Ever hear the advice that when you squat, your knees should not surpass your toes? This is sensible advice. When the toes go over the knees too drastically, incredible shearing forces come about and rip the knee apart. The front squat purposely places this force on the knees to emphasize the quads and thus contains the same flaws as a deadlift.
Deadlift vs. Squat Resolved
The deadlift is far better than most exercises out there, but still has flaws. You take too great a risk when you lift heavy from an unbalanced position. The squat on the other hand allows high tensions in all the working muscles safely.
Some will say do both. They are wrong. The only viable choices are a squat and possibly a deadlift if used with a trap bar instead.
In the deadlift vs. squat debate, the squat wins.