Deadlifts and squats are effective exercises for gaining lower body strength. Both moves strengthen the muscles of the legs and glutes, but they activate slightly different muscle groups.
This article breaks down each move, the muscles used, and when to do each.
The deadlift is a movement in which your hips hinge backward to lower down and pick up a weighted barbell or kettlebell from the floor. Your back is flat throughout the movement.
Some benefits of performing deadlifts include strengthening and gaining more definition in your upper and lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.
The squat is a movement in which you lower your thighs to the floor until they’re parallel while keeping your chest upright.
Benefits of squats include strengthening your glutes and quads.
Squats are also a functional exercise, meaning they use movements you may use in your daily life.
For example, you may do the squat motion when sitting down in a chair, picking up objects on low shelves, or leaning down to pick up a child. Regularly performing squats may make it easier to perform these types of tasks.
You can include both deadlifts and squats in the same workout, or you can perform them on alternating days.
Read on to learn more about these lower body exercises.
Whether squats or deadlifts are better depends on your workout goals.
For example, if you’re interested in building back and core strength in addition to working your leg and glute muscles, deadlifts are a strong option.
Squats, on the other hand, are beginner-friendly and effective for building strength in your legs and hips.
While deadlifts may target your glutes and hamstrings more deeply than a squat, they don’t target your quadriceps. If you’re looking to build strength in this part of your leg, squats may be a better option.
Which is better for people with knee pain?
If you have knee pain, squats may further irritate your knees. They can also increase your risk for knee pain.
With a deadlift, your knees should remain stable, so this move can be a safe option if you experience knee pain.
If you’re experiencing knee pain from squats, you may want to check your form and make sure you’re performing squats correctly.
Ensure you’re pushing your glutes back instead of down. Allow your knees to push out as you bend instead of pushing them in front of you. You can also loop a resistance band above your knees for resistance — often having something to push into reminds you to fire your glutes.
If deadlifts cause pain in your knees, you may need to stretch and foam roll your hamstrings and hip flexors, which may lessen pressure on your knees.
Which is better for people with lower back pain or injuries?
Deadlifts can help strengthen the muscles of your lower back. This may help with low back pain.
But if deadlifts cause any additional back pain, talk with a trainer about modifications, such as performing the sumo deadlift with a wider stance or doing deadlift rack pulls.
If you still feel pain when reducing the weight, removing the weight altogether, or performing a modified version of the deadlift, it’s probably best to avoid this exercise until you have more strength. Also avoid it if you have a recent back injury.
You can modify squats if you have back pain. Try performing a wider-legged squat or not squatting down as far.
Which is better for beginners?
Squats are arguably a more beginner-friendly exercise than deadlifts. Deadlifts require a specific technique that’s tougher to get down at first.
You can also modify squats for different fitness levels. If you’re a beginner, you can start by doing wall squats, or sliding down a wall, until you have the technique down.
Beginners can also practice squats with a chair by squatting down until seated and then using the chair to help stand back up.
This is an effective way to practice squats for people at risk for falls, such as older or pregnant people.
If you’re a beginner and interested in adding squats or deadlifts to your routine, consider working with a personal trainer first. They can help you learn proper technique and reduce your risk for injury.
A bodyweight squat requires no equipment. For more of a challenge, you can do a weighted squat using a rack and barbell, with or without weights. Or you can do squats with a dumbbell in each hand.
Here’s how to do a squat:
- Start with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes turned slightly out.
- Keeping your chest up and out, engage your abdominals and shift your weight back into your heels as you push your hips back.
- Lower yourself into a squat until your thighs are parallel or almost parallel to the floor. Your knees should remain aligned over your second toe.
- Keep your chest out and core tight as you push through your heels to stand back up to your starting position. Squeeze your glutes at the top.
- Perform 10–15 reps. Work up to 3 sets.
To do a deadlift, you’ll need a standard 45-pound barbell. For more weight, add 2.5–10 pounds to each side at a time.
The amount of weight to use depends on your fitness level. To avoid an injury, continue to add weight only after you’ve perfected the form.
Here’s how to do a deadlift:
- Stand behind the barbell with your feet shoulder-width apart. Your feet should be almost touching the bar.
- Keep your chest lifted and slightly sink back into your hips while keeping a straight back. Bend forward and grip the barbell. Keep one palm facing up and the other facing down, or both hands facing down in an overhand grip.
- As you’re gripping the bar, press your feet flat into the floor and sink your hips back.
- Keeping a flat back, push your hips forward into a standing position. Finish standing with your legs straight, shoulders back, and knees almost locked out, holding the bar with straight arms at slightly lower than hip height.
- Return to the starting position by keeping your back straight, pushing your hips back, bending your knees, and squatting down until the bar is on the floor.
- Repeat the exercise. Aim for 1–6 reps per set, depending on the amount of weight you’re lifting. Perform 3–5 sets.
Depending on your fitness level, there are endless ways to make squats and deadlifts easier or more challenging.
If you’re a beginner, you can start practicing deadlifts by using two dumbbells placed on the floor instead of lifting a barbell.
More advanced variations involve lifting additional weight or mixing it up by using a trap or hex barbell or a kettlebell.
If you’re a beginner, you can try doing squats with a chair behind you, sitting down on the chair at the bottom of the movement and then using the chair to push back up to a standing position.
Advanced squat options include performing squats with a weighted barbell on a rack or performing jump squats or split squats with or without weight.
Deadlifts and squats have similar movement patterns and use many of the same muscles. The gluteals and quadriceps are the primary movers of both exercises.
A recent study found similarities in activation of the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps during squats and deadlifts. The only differences noted were a greater activation of the glutes during deadlifts and more activation of the quadriceps during squats (
Another study also found similar improvements in lower body strength between the squat and deadlift. In addition, there were similar improvements in jump height performance (
So, while you’ll certainly get a great leg workout from both exercises, the answer to whether deadlifts can replace squats lies in what your goal might be.
If you want to improve strength in your quads, the squat is still a better choice. And if you want more gains for the back of your legs, the deadlift wins.
If your goal is simply to switch up your leg day with a new routine, either exercise is a good choice for building leg strength.
Deadlifts can certainly replace squats for a lower body exercise, and the two work similar muscles in the hips, legs, and trunk. But if your objective is more nuanced, you may want to stick to one or the other.
Squats and deadlifts are both effective lower body exercises.
They work slightly different muscle groups, so you can perform them in the same workout if you wish. You can also mix it up, doing squats one day and deadlifts another.
To avoid injury, make sure you’re doing each exercise with proper form. Ask a personal trainer to watch you do them to confirm you’re performing them correctly.