Deadlift vs. Squat: Muscles Worked, Benefits, and Strength Ratio

Key Points:

  • Deadlifts and squats both work your hip extensors (=your glutes), but differ in that squats work your quadriceps more than deadlifts do, and deadlifts work your back more than squats do.
  • The average squat to deadlift ratio is 1:1.23 in men, and 1:1.25 in women.
  • Squats are well-researched and proven to improve jumping and sprinting, and it is likely that deadlifts provide similar benefits.

***

The squat and the deadlift are two of the most popular strength training exercises in the world. Based on millions of workouts in our workout tracker StrengthLog, they are the second and third most trained exercises, surpassed only by the bench press.

While squats and deadlifts work much of the same muscles and have similar movement patterns, there are still some key differences. In this post, I’ll delve into these differences regarding:

Let’s begin by looking at what muscles they primarily work.

Deadlifts vs Squats: Muscles Worked

There are many similarities between the squat and deadlift. Both are compound exercises that work a lot of muscle mass, primarily in your legs, hips, and back. Therefore, there is considerable overlap in terms of muscle activation in the deadlift and squat, but there are also some differences.

Let’s look at the muscles worked in each exercise.

Muscles Worked in the Squat

Muscles worked in the squat
Major muscles worked in the squat.

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

The primary muscles worked in the squat are the quads, adductors, glutes, and lower back. These are your main knee and hip extensors, which are the joint actions most taxed in the squat. To a lesser degree, your calves are worked in the ankle extension that takes place.

How much do these muscles grow from squat training? A study from 2019 gives us some insight.1 In this study, participants trained deep squats twice a week for ten weeks, doing three sets of eight reps per workout and adding weight whenever they completed all reps. They used MRI to measure muscle volume in the hamstrings, quads, glutes, and adductors before and after the training period.

Results?

Squats were great for the quads, glutes, and adductors. For the hamstrings; not so much.

Muscles worked in the squat

(If you’re surprised that the hamstrings didn’t grow from squats, you might want to read my article Do Squats Work Your Hamstrings?)

While they didn’t measure growth in the erector spinae in this particular study, these muscles show high muscle activity in the squat and are responsible for keeping your spine extended throughout the exercise.2 3

Muscles Worked in the Deadlift

Deadlift muscles worked
Major muscles worked in the deadlift.

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

The deadlift is more of a hip hinge, and thus works your posterior chain more than the squat. The primary muscles worked are the glutes and lower back, but secondarily, many more are worked: quads, hamstrings, adductors, trapezius, and your forearm flexors (meaning: your grip).

As far as I know, there are no studies looking at muscle growth from deadlifts exclusively. Instead, we are deferred to measurements of muscle activity using EMG, and biomechanical reasoning.

Typically, EMG studies show high muscle activation in the lower back and glutes. It is very reasonable that these muscles have to do the brunt of the work, considering their long moment arm: the hip and lower back are far away from the bar. The knee joint, on the other hand, is right above the bar, thus limiting how much work the quadriceps can contribute.

Consequently, the quadriceps does not show very high muscle activation in the conventional deadlift. In the sumo deadlift, however, quad muscle activity is increased at the “cost” of lower back muscle activation.4 5 6

Conventional vs sumo deadlift technique
The starting position of the conventional deadlift (left) and sumo deadlift (right).

An American study tested hamstrings muscle activity in 34 collegiate athletes at their 6RM (about 85% of 1RM) in six different exercises, including stiff-legged deadlifts. Hamstrings activity was found to be high in that exercise, but not as high as in pure hamstrings exercises like Nordic hamstrings or leg curls.7 And keep in mind that the stiff-legged deadlift probably has higher hamstrings activation than the conventional deadlift since no knee extension takes place.

Hamstring muscle activity in squats and deadlifts

Muscles Worked: Conclusion

  • Squats primarily work your quads, glutes, and adductors hard. They also work your lower back very well, but not as hard as the deadlift does.
  • Deadlifts primarily work your glutes and lower back, but your entire back is involved to some degree. They typically work your legs less than squats, because of the shorter range of motion and moment arm.
  • In summary, squats are great for training your legs and deadlifts are great for training your back.

That was muscles worked. Let’s move on to typical strength levels and ratios between these two exercises.

Deadlift vs. Squat: Strength Ratio

Most people can lift heavier weight in the deadlift than in the squat. But how big a weight difference are we talking about?

Based on millions of lifts from over 200.000 users of StrengthLog, this is what we can say about average squat-to-deadlift strength ratios:

  • For men, the median 1RM is 130 kg in the squat and 160 kg in the deadlift.
    • Squat:deadlift ratio = 1:1.23
  • For women, the median 1RM is 80 kg in the squat and 100 kg in the deadlift.
    • Squat:deadlift ratio = 1:1.25

This means that the median 1RM in the deadlift is ~24% higher than in the squat.

Squat vs deadlift strength ratio in men and women

The ratio shrinks somewhat when we move up in strength levels and look at the 90th percentile (i.e. those stronger than 90% of all users).

  • For men, the 90th percentile 1RM is 185 kg in the squat and 220 kg in the deadlift.
    • Squat:deadlift ratio = 1:1.19
  • For women, the 90th percentile 1RM is 120 kg in the squat and 140 kg in the deadlift.
    • Squat:deadlift ratio = 1:1.16

Note that this doesn’t necessarily say anything about how much you should squat in relation to your deadlift, or vice versa. It simply states what the average strength level is in the two lifts and the ratio between them.

On a related note, you might want to check out our article on carryover between the squat and deadlift.

Deadlifts vs. Squats for Sprints and Vertical Jumps

Squats and deadlifts are frequently used in the world of strength and conditioning for sports, to make athletes run faster, jump higher, and increase overall strength.

For this purpose, the classic back squat is undoubtedly the most popular of the two, and it is also the one that has garnered the most attention in research and sports science.

While this is by no means a complete run-down of all the studies, Here are some examples of studies showing the efficacy of squats for improving sprinting and jumping performance.

  • Deep squat or deep front squat training twice per week for ten weeks improved vertical jump height by 7–8%.8
  • Squat training twice per week for eight weeks improved vertical jump and sprint speed in young soccer players.9
  • A meta-analysis of 15 studies and 510 participants saw a very large, significant correlation between increases in back squat strength and sprint performance (r=0.77).10
Correlation between squat and sprint performance
Improve your relative squat 1RM and you are likely to improve your 10 m sprint time. The plot shows the results from a cohort study in soccer players, where the researchers saw a strong correlation between changes in relative squat 1RM and 5-, 10- and 20 m sprint times.11

There’s no doubt that squats can be a valuable tool to increase not only your leg strength, but also your vertical jump height and sprint performance.

But what about the deadlift?

One study had fifty-four untrained participants assigned to either a non-training control group or a deadlift group which trained twice per week for ten weeks. After the ten weeks of training, the deadlift group had improved their rate of torque development in their knee extensors by 19–49% (depending on the angle tested) and their vertical jump by 7.4%. The control group did not improve in any outcome measure.12

Another study had highly trained rugby players train either stiff-legged deadlifts or Nordic hamstrings curls, twice per week for five weeks. They saw a solid 5% improvement in vertical jump height in the stiff-legged deadlift group, but only a 1% increase in the Nordic hamstrings curl group.13

Read more: Stiff-Legged Deadlifts vs Nordic Curl for Hamstring Growth?

A third, recent study provides us with a comparison in which twenty-five resistance-trained men trained either squats or deadlifts three times per week for six weeks. Vertical jump power (which can pretty much be translated to jump height in this case) increased by 2.7% in the squat group and 1.9% in the deadlift group (not a statistically significant difference).14

What about deadlift training for sprinting?

I am only aware of one study investigating if deadlifts improve sprint performance: a small pilot study with a limited amount of participants per group.15 For six weeks, eight participants were assigned to squat training and six participants were assigned to deadlift training. They carried out the training three times per week, and tested vertical jumping, broad jumping, and sprinting. The squat group didn’t see any significant improvement in either vertical jumping or sprinting, but improved their broad jump by 5 cm (2.1%). The deadlift group didn’t see any significant improvement in sprinting either, but improved their broad jump by 13 cm (5%) and their vertical jump by 1 cm (1.4%).

Given that sprint performance is highly dependent on lower body strength, the amount of force you can transfer into the ground, and the similarities and correlation between deadlifts and squats, I’d say that it seems likely that deadlifts can also increase sprint performance but I would love to see more research.

Which is Better: Deadlifts or Squats?

Well, obviously that depends on your goals and your individual circumstances. It is also obvious that this doesn’t have to be a binary choice for most people: you are perfectly able to train both squats and deadlifts.

However, for the sake of discussion, and also because there might be circumstances where you might have to choose one over the other (because of limited time or volume tolerance, for instance), let’s quickly weigh them against each other.

The squat is a proven, great exercise for quad and glute muscle development. It is also evidently effective for improving jumping and sprinting.

The deadlift on the other hand is only a slightly less popular exercise, but far less researched than the squat. Therefore, we lack (as far as I know) the same kind of investigations into how effective the deadlift is to develop certain muscles, as well as improve athletic skills such as jumping and sprinting.

The deadlift generally works your back muscles more than the squat does, and also works your glutes to a high extent. It does not, however, work your quadriceps muscles very well, at least not in comparison to the squat. Therefore, a combination of these two exercises will lead to very well-rounded training of your leg, hip, and back muscles.

Deadlift vs squat muscles worked
The combined worked muscles from the squat and the deadlift, as per StrengthLog’s definitions.

If you want to build whole-body strength with an emphasis on your legs, then the squat (and squat variations) is the better choice. If you want to build whole-body strength with an emphasis on your hip and back, then the deadlift (and its variations) might be the best exercise.

Frequently Asked Questions on Deadlifts vs. Squats

Let’s close up shop with some frequently asked questions.

Are Deadlifts Easier Than Squats?

Based on user data from StrengthLog, people can generally lift 24% more weight in the deadlift compared to the squat. This is of course an average number, and even though most people find the deadlift easier than the squat, it varies between individuals depending on body structure, strengths and weaknesses, and prior training.

There is also the technical aspect. Most people find the squat to be more technically challenging, often because of restrictions in mobility, coordination, or both. The loaded squat also doesn’t really resemble any type of movement we usually do in our everyday life. The deadlift, on the other hand, has lower demands on mobility, and the technique of picking up something from the ground resembles something we do every day.

Can Deadlifts Replace Squats?

In terms of leg muscle growth: no. Squats work your quadriceps far more than deadlifts do. Because leg strength is important in many sports, this might have implications for whether or not deadlifts are suited to replace squats in a general training program for athletes.

The squat should primarily be seen as a leg and hip exercise, whereas the deadlift is primarily a hip and back exercise. Therefore, they cannot directly replace each other.

Which Builds More Muscle: Squats or Deadlifts?

Squats primarily build muscle in your quads, glutes, adductors, and lower back. Deadlifts primarily build muscle in your back (upper and lower) and glutes, and secondarily in your adductors, quads, and hamstrings. Therefore, both squats and deadlifts build a lot of muscle, but in different places.

Can You Squat and Deadlift in the Same Workout?

Yes, you can. Powerlifters compete in the squat, bench press, and deadlift in the same competition, and therefore often practice two or even all three of the lifts in the same workout. However, since the squat and the deadlift overlap in terms of which muscles they work, the performance of the second exercise is often impaired.

Should You Do Deadlifts or Squats First?

If you squat and deadlift in the same workout, it is generally advisable to do squats before deadlifts. Most people find that doing deadlifts first impair their subsequent squatting more than leading with squats does. Besides, if you’re a powerlifter, it doesn’t hurt to train as you compete every once in a while and do your deadlifts after you’ve squatted.

How to Get Stronger in the Squat and Deadlift?

By hard, smart, and consistent training.

Unsure of how to structure your training? We’ve got plenty of premium training programs for the deadlift, squat, and powerlifting in general. You can read about some of them on our page with training programs, but you will find them all (and many more) in the premium program library in our app StrengthLog.

StrengthLog is a free workout tracker and workout log, but you will need a premium subscription to access our premium training programs.

Download StrengthLog for free and check it out yourself with the links below:

Want to try out premium for 30 days? Check out our free trial.

Thanks for reading, buddy.

More reading:

References

  1. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2019 Sep;119(9):1933-1942. Effects of squat training with different depths on lower limb muscle volumes.
  2. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Jan;25(1):149-54. An Electromyographical Comparison of Trunk Muscle Activity During Isometric Trunk and Dynamic Strengthening Exercises.
  3. J Strength Cond Res. 2007 Nov;21(4):1108-12. Trunk muscle activation during dynamic weight-training exercises and isometric instability activities.
  4. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2000 Jul;32(7):1265-75. A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts.
  5. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 Apr;34(4):682-8. An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts.
  6. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2002 Apr;34(4):682-8. An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts.
  7. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2009 Mar;4(1):84-96. Hamstring activation during lower body resistance training exercises.
  8. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Dec;26(12):3243-61. Influence of squatting depth on jumping performance.
  9. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Nov;23(8):2241-9. Effects of a back squat training program on leg power, jump, and sprint performances in junior soccer players.
  10. Sports Med. 2014 Dec;44(12):1693-702. doi: 10.1007/s40279-014-0227-1. Increases in lower-body strength transfer positively to sprint performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis.
  11. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jun;30(6):1534-9. Effects of Strength Training on Squat and Sprint Performance in Soccer Players.
  12. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Jan;29(1):1-10. Barbell deadlift training increases the rate of torque development and vertical jump performance in novices.
  13. Muscular adaptations to training programs using the Nordic hamstring exercise or the stiff-leg deadlift in rugby players. Sport Sci Health (2021).
  14. J Hum Kinet. 2020 Jul; 73: 145–152. A Comparison Between the Squat and the Deadlift for Lower Body Strength and Power Training.
  15. Journal of Trainology 6(1):13-17. Effects of 6-week squat, deadlift, or hip thrust training program on speed, power, agility, and strength in experienced lifters: A pilot study.
Photo of author

Daniel Richter

Daniel has a decade of experience in powerlifting, is a certified personal trainer, and has a Master of Science degree in engineering. Besides competing in powerlifting himself, he coaches both beginners and lifters at the international level. Daniel lives in Lund, Sweden with his wife and three kids. On StrengthLog, Daniel geeks out about all things related to his lifelong passion of muscle and strength.