Iron game enthusiasts refer to the squat as the “king of lifts.” Yes, the squat is a great lift, but the deadlift runs a close second in terms of its bang for your buck.
The deadlift works the same muscles as the squat, although the range of motion for the quads is smaller in the deadlift. However, because you hold the bar in the deadlift, you are working more on the upper-body muscles, especially the traps and the muscles that provide a strong grip. Yes, upper-back strength is needed to squat, but supplementary structural balance lifts are often needed because the squat by itself may not develop these muscles adequately. But before continuing this comparison of the two lifts, let’s look at two individuals whose names are associated with these lifts: Paul Anderson for the squat and Bob Peoples for the deadlift.
Anderson was born in 1932 in Toccoa, GA. At age 20, Anderson squatted 660 pounds (at the time, the world record was 629.50 pounds). During an exhibition in July 1953, he squatted 762.50 pounds—in bare feet! In 1954 he could squat 820 and perform quarter squats with 1,800 pounds. After the 1956 Olympics, in which he won gold in the super-heavy division, Anderson turned professional. His 36-inch thighs enabled him to hit a massive deep-knee bend with 1,200 pounds, done without the supportive gear used by today’s lifters.
Now, consider that what Anderson was to the squat, Bob Peoples was to the deadlift. Born in northern Tennessee on Aug. 21, 1910, Peoples was always strong. He grew up on a farm, and because he didn’t have access to conventional weight training equipment, he made his own—such as a set of 50-gallon barrels that he filled with rocks and joined with a pipe. He would shoulder this awkward apparatus, using as much as 500 pounds, and then walk with it. He also used this device for deadlifts, standing on platforms of various heights so that he could perform partial movements—a power rack without the rack.
When he was 25, Peoples could deadlift 500 pounds. In 1940, he hit 600 pounds, and in 1946 he lifted a world record of 725.5 pounds at 178 pounds bodyweight. On Oct. 4, 1947, Peoples attempted 700 pounds, trying to become the first person to do so. He lifted it, but the official weight was 699. On March 5, 1949, Peoples got another chance, and he did 725.50 pounds at 178 body weight at a competition in Johnson City, TN. This deadlift record stood for more than two decades. As for other lifts, Peoples could squat 530, alternating standing press with 110-pound dumbbells for 10 reps, and clean 290 pounds.
As there are countless articles about the value of the squat, let me discuss how the deadlift stacks up against it.
First, there is the matter of convenience. Because you can back squat more weight than you can lift from the ground to overhead, you need to have a power rack or a pair of squat racks to perform the lift with enough weight to become significantly stronger. And although weightlifters use bumper plates and will simply dump a squat onto the platform, this technique will probably not fly in most commercial gyms. Further, with the deadlift it’s also relatively easy to perform eccentric contractions, because when you finish the last repetition of a set you can simply lower the bar slowly—a practice that is not a good idea to do in the squat without competent spotters.
Second, there is the matter of skill. The deadlift is much easier to master technique-wise, one reason being that it’s a more natural movement to bend over and pick up an object than to squat down and lift it. Also, with the squat, anyone who is relatively tall or who has tight calves often has trouble breaking parallel in the lift—and if you’re not going past parallel, you’re not getting much out of the exercise.
Third, the deadlift is extremely versatile; it has many variations that change its emphasis. A trap bar or hex bar enables greater emphasis on the quadriceps. And snatch-grip deadlifts or deadlifting while standing on a low platform—a group of exercises I categorize as long-range deadlifts— increase the involvement of the hamstrings and the VMO (the common name for the vastus medialis oblique, a quadriceps muscle). You can also perform the deadlift with a wider stance (i.e., sumo style) to provide greater work for the thigh adductors. For a great “core” workout, try a one-arm deadlift, placing the bar at your side. Fourth, it’s much easier to perform higher reps in the deadlift (Peoples, by the way, once did 20 reps with 500 pounds!), and it’s also easier to go all out in the deadlift compared with the squat due to safety considerations.
Finally, the deadlift is a more honest lift in the sense that all the assistive gear that helps you squat more does little to help the lift—and the use of gear is one reason that world records in the squat occur more steadily than world records in the deadlift. Further, it’s often difficult to determine who the strongest powerlifters are because of the differences in judging criteria among the numerous powerlifting federations.
The takeaway point here is that the primary advantage of the back squat over the deadlift is that it works the VMO better than the deadlift. However, the deadlift is a valuable exercise that can help an individual enjoy significant gains in overall strength and muscle size.