The primordial act of picking up heavy things.
The primordial act of lowering one’s body closer to the Earth, and then pushing away.
Apparently squats are king. Or is it deadlifts? Honestly, who knows. Maybe we can decide which deserves the title after we take a closer look at the details of each lift.
Let’s see why both of these exercises are considered so valuable.
In both the squat and the deadlift, the body’s ankles, knees, and hips are used to move a heavy load. This broad involvement of the body’s joints allows for many muscles to be used simultaneously. When using heavy weight with the help of a sturdy barbell and weight plates, these lifts result in massive gains for strength and muscle growth. No one has gotten strong, powerful, muscular legs by doing leg curls. They either squat, deadlift, or do both.
I dare someone to say that this lifter’s legs are small.
In the act of the ankles, knees, and hips being moved simultaneously, the squat and deadlift both train leg drive. The concentric portion of both lifts involve extension in all three of the joints. Extension (namely, hip extension) is what propels a runner forward. When you strengthen a person’s ability to extend the hips, you give him/her more power in his/her stride.
Both lifts are very challenging for the core, too. Whether you are squatting or deadlifting, all of the core muscles are heavily engaged to maintain a stiff and straight spine, to prevent injury. This makes for a healthy and powerful core in the long run.
Now, let’s take a look at the deadlift.
First of all, the deadlift engages almost every muscle in your body. It requires an enormous amount of effort to perform this lift. It literally challenges your body from head to toe. Stronger legs, stronger core, stronger shoulders, stronger grip. Thank you, deadlift!
Second, it involves a huge range-of-motion for the hips. The glutes are the hip-extending muscles, and the deadlift surely makes good use of the glutes. By training hip extension and the glutes, you are training the primary movers in leg drive. This means faster sprints, taller jumps, and stronger tackles.
Third, the deadlift is typically focused on concentric contraction. One uses a lot of energy to lift the barbell up, and either drops it or controls it somewhat on the way down. Typically, this means the lift doesn’t wear down the muscles as much. It does, however, drain the central nervous system, the organ system responsible for controlling your movement and strength. Because there is no “stretch reflex” that would come from first lowering the weight and then bouncing back it back up off the floor, the deadlift requires more exertion and power. The lift is from a dead-stop – no momentum used what-so-ever.
By performing deadlifts, you are telling your CNS to push even harder, allowing your body to produce more power. So, in this sense, this lift is great for strength and power, but not for muscle-building. People can potentially use the deadlift for building muscle IF they decide to involve the eccentric portion of the lift – that is, use their strength to slowly lower the weight as opposed to dropping it.
On to the squat.
First, it involves a huge range-of-motion in the hips, knees, and ankles. Not only is extension in each joint trained, but adduction and external rotation in the hips. That means every muscle from the waist down to the feet are challenged extensively. While it does involve the core, the squat places emphasis on the legs and all of its muscles. For powerful, tree-trunk legs, don’t forget to squat! (or your gallon of milk per day, for that matter!)
With a large range-of-motion performed in the hips AND knees AND ankles, not only are you training hip extension, you are also training knee extension, as well as ankle extension (properly known as planterflexion). The quads are more involved in the squat. This provides an even greater increase leg drive than training hip extension and the glutes, alone.
Second, the squat involves heavy emphasis on eccentric contraction. That is, lowering the weight in a controlled manner by contracting your muscles. This breaks down the muscle more than the concentric contraction does, resulting in hypertrophy and muscle growth. If you squat, there’s no need to worry about chicken legs!
Third, anecdotally, the squat is less “draining”, because it involves the “stretch reflex” Basically, you lower the weight first (eccentrically), then, without pausing, you push the weight back up (concentrically) into a standing position. The lowering of the weight almost allows you to bounce back up, or use a little momentum, like stretching a rubber band then releasing it. This takes a little. Had the lift started with you already in the bottom-position, with the concentric contraction first, there would be no rubber-band-like snap in your muscles to drive you back up with the weight. Thus, squatting is less exhausting to your CNS, which allows you to squat more frequently in the week. This means even bigger leg muscles.
Now, after looking at the benefits of both exercises, which one is king? Really, it depends on the individual lifter’s needs. If an average Joe looking to get stronger and bigger in the smallest amount of time possible, the deadlift might be better for him, as it literally uses every muscle in the body. If an athlete has impressive strength and size in the upper body, but is lacking quite a bit in the lower body, squats might be a better choice as they involve the legs more than anything.
Then, there’s also the issue of anthropometry. This deals with a person’s physical measurements and length, in terms of limbs, upper body, lower body, and total height. One person’s proportions may be better suited for a squat, and another person’s may be more natural for a deadlift.
Fortunately, there are variations of both exercises that allow someone to find a lift that’s geared towards their needs and physical proportions. For example, there’s a sumo deadlift, which requires greater hip adduction. There’s even the snatch-grip deadlift, which involves more range-of-motion in the knees and ankles, resembling a squat-deadlift hybrid! Maybe you can just go with the snatch-grip deadlift and call it a day!
Honestly, just asses your situation, and see if you can involve both the squat and the deadlift, if not their variations, in your lifting routine. Both give you amazing benefits and results that aren’t worth giving up.