Squat vs Deadlift: 6 Major Differences Explained

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
August 3, 2022

Among the multitude of resistance exercises available in today’s fitness literature, few are as widely regarded and effective as the squat and the deadlift; two exercises considered to be a hallmark of any decent bodybuilding or strength-developing training routine.

However, due to the fact that both are considered to be lower body exercises of significant intensity, some confusion is found when attempting to differentiate between the two exercises.

For the most part, the main differences between the squat and the deadlift are in terms of muscle group activation and exercise mechanics, wherein the deadlift activates more of the back muscle groups while the squat activates the leg muscle groups to a greater extent - all of which are a consequence of their particular form and mechanics.

What is the Squat?

The squat is a closed kinetic chain compound resistance exercise of the free weight variety, usually performed for the purposes of inducing significant skeletal muscle developments in the various muscle structures of the lower body.

barbell full squat

Apart from its technical definition, the squat is considered to be one of the best possible exercises for developing an exerciser’s quadriceps, glutes and hamstring muscle groups - making it a staple of many modern weightlifting routines wherein it may act as the main source of lower body training stimulus.

What is the Deadlift?

The deadlift is also a closed kinetic chain compound resistance exercise that makes use of free weight equipment, though it is instead performed in order to initiate highly intense muscle group recruitment throughout the entire body - with the posterior chain muscle groups receiving the largest share of this stimulus.

barbell deadlift movement

The deadlift is considered to be one of the most intense exercises due to its usage of practically every single muscle group to a certain extent, with its presence in a training routine often being for the purposes of building significant strength and muscular hypertrophy in many parts of the body simultaneously.

Are the Squat and Deadlift Interchangeable?

For the most part - no, the squat and the deadlift are not interchangeable exercises.

This is primarily due to the fact that they activate different muscle groups and in differing capacities, making either exercise an inappropriate choice if substituting with the other.

While it is true that both the squat and the deadlift primarily target the lower body and its succeeding muscle groups, the manner and intensity through which this is achieved is distinct between both exercises - as the fact that the stabilizer muscle groups and core muscle group activation is distinct between both exercises as well.

Can the Squat and Deadlift be Performed in the Same Workout?

Though the squat and the deadlift are similar in terms of muscle group utilization, they can in fact be performed within the same workout so long as the exerciser programs and regulates their performance of both exercises so as to avoid injury and overtraining from excessive volume.

Doing so is somewhat more complex than it sounds as performing both the squat and the deadlift on the same day requires several factors to be factored into the programming of the workout session - but it is nonetheless possible and the performance of one such exercise will not preclude the performance of the other.

Do the Squat and Deadlift Progress the Same?

Yes, both the squat and the deadlift progress in much the same manner until the exerciser reaches an advanced level of training expertise; wherein they will then require more effective and complex forms of training programming in order to achieve more consistent developments.

For the most part, the squat and the deadlift make use of progressive overload programming in the majority of training routines in order to retain a constant state of progress in the exerciser’s muscle mass and strength output, with both allowing for greater strength development increments in the same manner.

The sole difference between the two exercises in this particular aspect is in the frequency that one may deadlift at a high intensity, as doing so will doubtless induce fatigue and overtraining - equating to the deadlift usually being performed less frequently, but nonetheless presenting the same progressions as the squat.

Main Characteristic Differences Between the Squat and the Deadlift

In order to best understand the different characteristics of the squat and the deadlift, one must approach the question by examining all factors relating to their nature as resistance exercises.

With such characteristics as what muscle groups are worked by each exercise, the total perceived intensity of said exercises and even the manner in which these exercises are programmed being distinct between the two - being able to differentiate such matters is of vital importance to their inclusion in a workout routine.

1. Muscle Group Activation Set

The largest and most frequently cited difference between the squat and the deadlift is the fact that the deadlift recruits muscle groups along the entirety of the exerciser’s back throughout each repetition; with muscle groups like the rhomboids, posterior deltoids, latissimus dorsi and erector spinae all being utilized in a dynamic fashion by the deadlift.

barbell deadlift muscles

This obviously is not the case with the conventional squat, save for the erector spinae muscle group which is used in an isometric fashion so as to keep the spinal column in a stable and secure position throughout the movement.

As such, while the deadlift may be considered both a back and a leg focused exercise, the squat is solely considered to be a leg exercise - and thereby is usually only performed on workout days where the leg muscles are meant to be trained.

One may even go so far as to consider the deadlift a “posterior exercise” wherein it trains most of the skeletal muscles along the back of the human body (though the quadriceps are also activated), while the squat exercise is strictly only a leg focused movement on its own.

This, of course, is all alongside the fact that the primary muscle groups responsible for most of the force in both movements are nonetheless the same - that of the leg muscle groups, equating to the two exercises stimulating in the same manner, in the same areas.

2. Intensity of Exercise

Another major difference between the squat and the deadlift is the intensity of the exercises, with a larger number of muscle groups being activated and a greater level of muscular contraction resulting in an equally greater amount of energy being expended with each repetition.

This equates to the deadlift being somewhat more intense than the squat due to the fact that it trains more muscle groups in total, as well as the fact that it is capable of contracting some of said muscle groups to a greater extent than the squat.

Another major factor beneath this distinction between the two exercises is non-skeletal muscle fatigue on the body, with such bodily systems like the central nervous system and cardiovascular system both being taxed to a far more intense level by the deadlift than simply by the squat.

As such, even when taking muscular fatigue out of the equation, it is indeed the deadlift that is more taxing and thus the more intense exercise, calling for greater energy expenditure and post-workout recovery time.

3. Extent of Muscle Group Activation

Just as we have already established the difference in which particular muscle groups are activated in comparison to the other exercise, so too must we examine the extent to which these aforementioned muscle groups are recruited during either compound movement.

The majority of fitness and physiology related medical literature points to both the squat and the deadlift having their own strong points when concerning skeletal muscle fiber recruitment, with the squat surpassing the deadlift in terms of quadriceps femoris activation potential while it otherwise loses out in terms of posterior chain activation to a certain extent.

high bar squat

Surprisingly, both exercises show similar levels of activation intensity when speaking of the core stabilizer muscle groups and hip flexor muscles, making the primary difference in muscular activation potential about the major mover muscles instead.

4. Functionality of Exercise

Though both exercises are considered to be perfectly functional and effective exercises in their own right, in comparison to the functional strength and real-world application of the squat and the deadlift - it is the deadlift that is seen to apply to a greater number of bodily functions than the squat.

This is due to the body-wide movement pattern involved in the deadlift, of which has significant carry-over to many sports and movements used during daily tasks. In comparison, the squat primarily increases lower body strength and stability alone - a highly useful benefit that nonetheless is not as functional as the full-body effects of the deadlift.

5. Risk of Injury

When performed with the correct form and an appropriate amount of weight in accordance with the exerciser’s own training experience, both the squat and the deadlift are considered to be rather safe exercises that are suitable for the majority of healthy individuals.

However, the risk of injury between the two (especially when proper form begins to break down) is not quite the same, with the deadlift presenting significantly higher risk of certain types of injuries due to its wider muscle group activation set, range of motion and exercise intensity.

Performing the deadlift incorrectly or in excess of what is necessary to achieve proper training stimulus can generally result in injuries such as lower back strain, spinal column damage, knee and hip damage or strains and sprains in the posterior chain muscle groups.

This risk is significantly higher in the deadlift due to its more complex form and the fact that it is capable of prematurely exhausting certain muscle groups vital to proper core and spine stability before the set is complete.

In comparison, the risk of injury to the squat is somewhat lower, as the exercise places the exerciser’s hips and back in a more advantageous position in the event that the stabilizer muscle groups are prematurely fatigued or minor errors in form are made by the exerciser.

Nevertheless, whether one is performing the squat or the deadlift - the usage of correct form and preparatory work such as a mobility routine and a warm-up routine are of vital importance and must be adhered to regardless of training experience or exercise intensity.

6. Total Loading, Repetition Schemes and Programming

The manner in which the exerciser programs the squat and the deadlift, the repetition scheme involved in said programming as well as the total weight loaded onto the barbells during each repetition will differ widely between the two.

Deadlifts are generally programmed with a higher amount of weight and lower volume of repetitions per set due to its higher risk of injury and more taxing nature on the various systems of the body - a distinction in comparison to the squat, of which will usually utilize a medium amount of volume and weight.

Even in general programming, the deadlift is left to be performed with less frequency and greater stretches of time between workout sessions involving said deadlift than the squat and its variations, of which may even be performed on an every alternating day basis in certain situations.

In Summary

To conclude this article, one can surmise that the squat is a more accessible and lower risk exercise that nonetheless is not entirely comparable to the otherwise wider-reaching and more intense deadlift exercise due to the differences in their characteristics - with any decent training routine involving both in order to achieve the exerciser’s training goals.

As such, one exercise cannot be considered “greater” than the other in any major respect, with only minute differences allowing for any sort of comparison to be made at all.

References

1. Robbins, David CSCS, NASM-CPT, "A Comparison Of Muscular Activation During The Back Squat And Deadlift to the Countermovement Jump" (2011). SHU Theses and Dissertations. 1. http://digitalcommons.sacredheart.edu/masterstheses/1

2. Nigro F, Bartolomei S. A Comparison Between the Squat and the Deadlift for Lower Body Strength and Power Training. J Hum Kinet. 2020 Jul 21;73:145-152. doi: 10.2478/hukin-2019-0139. PMID: 32774546; PMCID: PMC7386153.

3. Schellenberg F, Taylor WR, Lorenzetti S. Towards evidence based strength training: a comparison of muscle forces during deadlifts, good mornings and split squats. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 2017 Jul 17;9:13. doi: 10.1186/s13102-017-0077-x. PMID: 28725437; PMCID: PMC5513080.

4. Belcher DJ, Sousa CA, Carzoli JP, Johnson TK, Helms ER, Visavadiya NP, Zoeller RF, Whitehurst M, Zourdos MC. Time course of recovery is similar for the back squat, bench press, and deadlift in well-trained males. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2019 Oct;44(10):1033-1042. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2019-0004. Epub 2019 Feb 19. PMID: 30779596.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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