Anyone that has ever trained their lower body knows that deadlifts and squats are the best exercises for building strength and gaining leg muscle. It’s impossible to think of a leg workout that doesn’t include either, both, or some variation of either. Yet a separation exists, the deadlift is a pull exercise that requires you to hinge at your hips and primarily targets your hamstrings, glutes, calves, lower back and upper back. Whereas the squat begins with a bend in your knees while it also strengthens your glutes, hamstrings and calves, it stresses your quadriceps.
Both mirror every day movements so they are equally functional.
So which is better for building leg muscle and strength? The deadlift or the squat?
Well, now that depends on your goal. Personally, I favor the deadlift as it’s more of a core and low back strengthening movement. That might have something to do with my height, however. I’m 6’6 and a deadlift is more natural for me. Height and limb length is certainly a factor in determining what’s “better”
For Beginners: The squat is the better, and safer, exercise. There is nothing inherently wrong with the deadlift, every exercise is safe and every exercise can potentially lead to injury. It’s just very easy to perform a deadlift incorrectly and round your lower back causing injury. Most beginners aren’t strong enough to load the squat bar up heavy thus they reduce their injury risk.
Injury status: If you have knee pain you’re likely to avoid squats and if you have low back pain you’re going to avoid deadlifts. Both exercises can be modified, however.
Variations matter: Both the deadlift and the squat can be modified per injury status or adjusted for new variety. Kettlebell swings and deadlifts as well as dumbbell “suitcase” deadlifts are great deadlifting alternatives as are barbell front squats, bodyweight squats or squats with a weight vest.
Improving Strength: Would you believe it’s a tie? Both the squat and deadlift resulted in the same strength and power increase yet the squat worked knee extension more and the deadlift worked hip extension more.(1)
Gaining Muscle Mass: This is also relative as both movements allow you to use a heavy load and work a large area of muscle. I tend to lean more toward squats as a great overall mass building as structural balance is critical for proper physique development and since the deadlift doesn’t work the quads as much as the squat works the hamstrings, I’d favor a squat but again, the answer is to perform both in a proper program.
For Hormone Health: In a 2019 study, both the deadlift and squats resulted in equal hormonal response yet the squat lead to more central nervous system fatigue. You’ll need to recover more from a squat. (2)
Ultimately if you want the strongest lower body possible with impressive legs then perform both movements within your training week.
About The Author
Jimmy Philip, MS,CSCS, is a lifter, runner, writer, reader and small business owner of The Physique Formula all natural supplement company.