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Squat vs. Deadlift | What are the Main Differences?

squat vs deadlift

Squats and deadlifts are staples in strength-building. These exercises are favored because they engage numerous major muscle groups and have the potential to enhance power in a unique way.  They are fundamental movements that excel at building comprehensive full-body strength. Moreover, these exercises greatly benefit sports performance and contribute to quality muscle development.

Rather than asking which one is better, consider which exercise aligns with your current goals. Tailor your choice to your specific objectives. In the following sections, we'll delve into the distinctions between squats and deadlifts, explore which is more effective for strength and mass, and provide insights on programming each lift.

Deadlift vs. Squat: Muscles Worked

Both the squat and deadlift are compound exercises that engage various muscle groups, primarily in the legs, hips, and back. However, they each have their distinct focus.

The squat works the quadriceps, adductors, glutes, and lower back. These muscles are responsible for the essential actions of knee and hip extension during the squat. Additionally, there's some activation in the calf muscles due to the ankle extension part of the movement.

On the other hand, the deadlift predominantly features a hip hinge movement, which places greater emphasis on the posterior chain compared to the squat. The primary muscles targeted in the deadlift are the glutes and lower back. However, this exercise also engages secondary muscle groups, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors, trapezius, and forearm flexors, which contribute to grip strength.

While both the squat and deadlift serve the purpose of building strength and working multiple muscle groups, they do so through distinct biomechanical approaches, offering a variety of benefits to your overall strength training regimen.

Here are some other muscle comparisons between certain exercises and deadlifts that we’ve looked at:

How to do a Deadlift

Deadlifts are one of the primary lifting exercises that provide the most upside and strength benefits. The exercise targets your entire body and is a functional movement that helps with everyday activities like leaning over to pick something up. Here’s how to do a deadlift: 

  1. Start by standing behind the barbell with your feet shoulder-width apart, positioning them close to the bar.
  2. Maintain an upright chest and shift your weight slightly back into your hips while keeping your back straight. Bend forward at the hips and grip the barbell. You can choose between a mixed grip (one palm facing up and the other facing down) or an overhand grip (both hands facing down).
  3. As you grip the bar, press your feet flat into the floor and push your hips backward.
  4. With a focus on maintaining a flat back, drive your hips forward to stand up. Fully extend your legs, roll your shoulders back, and almost lock your knees, holding the bar with straight arms at a position slightly lower than hip height.
  5. To return to the starting position, keep your back straight, push your hips back, bend your knees, and squat down until the bar is back on the floor.
  6. Allow the bar to settle back onto the floor, and re-engage your lats. Then, repeat the movement.

Following these steps will help you perform a deadlift with proper form and reduce the risk of injury while building strength effectively. You can also considerwearing a lifting belt orknee sleeves for your deadlift to help boost joint and core stability.

To get a better connection with the floor, some powerlifters willdeadlift barefoot. This just goes to show the number of opportunities there are to enhance your deadlift performance. 

How to do a Squat

The squat is a fundamental movement pattern that targets the lower body and core muscles. To execute a proper squat:

  1. Position yourself at the center of the bar with your feet shoulder-width apart. Ensure your core is braced, and place your hands on the bar just outside of your shoulders.
  2. Be mindful of your shoulder position—avoid letting them rise toward your ears. Instead, engage your trapezius muscles to create a stable shelf for the bar on your upper back.
  3. Stand up completely to unrack the bar and allow it to settle. Take two or three steps back, maintain your foot placement, and double-check that your core remains braced.
  4. As you begin to descend into the squat, focus on pushing your knees outward, preventing them from collapsing inward. Keep your torso relatively upright, ensuring the bar follows a vertical path over the middle of your feet.
  5. Once you reach the desired depth, typically breaking parallel with your thighs, envision your feet driving into the ground to propel you back to a standing position.
  6. Throughout the squat, maintain your core brace for stability, and then repeat the movement.

The Main Differences

Now that we’ve taken a look at how to do the deadlift and squat, it’s time to dive into the main differences. The three biggest differences are in the hip hinge vs. squat movement, muscle dominance, and barbell placement. 

  • Hip Hinge vs. Squat: The biggest difference lies in the movement pattern. Deadlifting is characterized by a hip hinge, where you maintain a braced core and a neutral spine. You lift the bar from the ground to a standing position by extending your hips while keeping the bar path over your midfoot. In contrast, squatting involves bending your knees, which causes the bar to descend as your body does. The bar's path remains over your midfoot throughout the squat.
  • Hip-Dominant vs. Knee-Dominant: Deadlifting is primarily hip-dominant, meaning it places a significant emphasis on engaging and strengthening the hip muscles, including the glutes and hamstrings. Squatting, on the other hand, is knee-dominant, focusing more on the quadriceps and the muscles around the knee joint.
  • Bar Placement: The deadlift is abarbell back exercise so you’ll hold the bar in your hands, which are positioned in an overhand or mixed grip. In contrast, during a squat, you use your hands to secure the barbell to a "shelf" on your body. For high-bar squats, this shelf is typically on your upper back, while for low-bar squats, it rests on your rear deltoids.

Strength & Performance

In the realm of strength training, the ideal squat naturally puts a significant load on your quads. This is due to the force required to stand up after going deep into the squat. On the flip side, the deadlift's motion predominantly engages the glutes and hamstrings. This is because of the specific way you need to lift the bar up to a standing position.

Both of these exercises are compound movements that work various muscles in your lower body, so there's some overlap. Squats do contribute to strengthening your glutes and hamstrings, and deadlifts also engage your squads to an extent. But, if you're looking to prioritize which exercise to do so that you can maximize strength, they’re close to the same. The only difference is that squats and deadlifts strengthen different muscle groups. 

If your aim is to build stronger legs, squats should be your primary choice. For those striving for a more robust back, deadlifts should be the focus. And, for those eyeing enhanced glutes, start with squats and follow up with deadlifts, in that sequence.

Read More: Straps for Deadlifting

Muscle Mass Growth

When it comes to building muscle mass, you’ll want to concentrate on the areas of your body where you want to see the most growth. Your choice of exercise frequency for compound movements like the squat and deadlift should match your target areas for muscle development.

If your goal is to build a robust back, dedicating more training sessions to deadlifts can be highly effective. Deadlifts place a lot of emphasis on the muscles in your back, making them a prime choice for back thickness.

On the other hand, if you're looking to add size to your legs, prioritizing squats in your routine is the way to go. Squats engage the muscles in your legs, making them the go-to exercise for developing larger leg muscles.

Both the squat and deadlift work similar muscle groups to some extent, but the key is to align your training with your specific mass-building objectives. By tailoring your workout strategy to your goals, you can optimize your muscle-building efforts and achieve the desired results more effectively.

Power & Explosiveness

There's a notable contrast between back squats and deadlifts when it comes to the forces they exert on the body's joints and the muscles they primarily engage.

In back squats, the knee joint bears more force, placing a greater emphasis on the quadriceps. This exercise primarily targets and strengthens the quadriceps.

On the other hand, deadlifts place more force on the hip joint, focusing on the engagement and development of the glutes and hamstrings. Therefore, deadlifts primarily work and strengthen these muscle groups.

While both back squats and deadlifts are excellent compound exercises, they have distinct effects on the body. Back squats put more emphasis on the knee joint and the quadriceps, while deadlifts center around the hip joint and primarily target the glutes and hamstrings. 

How to Program Each Type of Lift

When it comes to planning your squat and deadlift workouts effectively, it's crucial to consider your fitness goals and how your body reacts to these exercises. Understanding which movement tends to be more fatiguing for you can help you make better exercise choices and structure your training days accordingly.

A valuable indicator for gauging overall fatigue with squats and deadlifts is to consider your leverage. Factors such as the length of your femur and torso, as well as the depth of your hip capsules, can significantly impact how fatiguing these exercises are for you. For instance, taller individuals might find squatting particularly demanding due to their increased range of motion, while deadlifting might feel somewhat less taxing, especially if they have long arms.

Additionally, your individual muscular strengths and weaknesses can influence your overall fatigue levels. As a general rule, individuals who are more dominant in either their anterior or posterior muscles may find one movement more exhausting than the other. For instance, if you possess strong glutes and hamstrings but weaker or less developed quads, squatting might feel more challenging, especially when lifting at higher intensities.


The squat and deadlift are excellent for building strength and giving you a nicemuscle pump. Choose based on your goals: for stronger, thicker legs, go for squats, and for a bigger back, opt for deadlifts. 

However, you don’t need to choose one exercise over the other. While they may engage different muscle groups, they complement each other well and help your entire body develop at a natural rate. Program both exercises into your workout splits and you’ll see the results soon.


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