Deadlift vs. Squat: Which Exercise Is Better for You?

Dr. James - Orthopaedic Surgeon in Singapore

Medically reviewed by Dr. James Tan

In the world of weightlifting, there are two exercises that play a key part in everyone’s regular routine: deadlifts and squats. They are both compound movements that offer serious health benefits and increase your overall strength. While doing both exercises regularly can be beneficial, that’s not always realistic. So, when it comes to deadlift vs squat, which one is the better exercise? 

For a complete look at both of these workout moves and some helpful hints on how to get started with weight training, let’s hear from the experts on the best workout routine. 

Here is your complete guide to squats and deadlifts, along with tips on how to get started with the best workout routine for you. 

What Is a Deadlift?

A deadlift is a strengthening exercise that helps to build muscle. To do a barbell deadlift, you bend down to lift a barbell from the ground and then come back into a standing position. As you push your body into a standing position, you’re engaging different muscle groups including the following:

  • Erector spinae (the back muscles supporting your spine and giving you good posture)
  • Glutes (the buttock muscles)
  • Hamstrings (the muscles on the back of your thighs)
  • Quadriceps (the front thigh muscles)
  • Trapezius (the upper back)
  • Rhomboids (the area between your shoulder blades)
  • Forearms
  • The grip muscles of your hand

How To Deadlift Correctly?

Proper form on a dead lift is everything. It is essential to your safety and the overall effectiveness of the workout. So, before you get started, let’s look at what you need to know about how to do a deadlift correctly. 

Here’s how to get started:

Step 1: Get Your Barbell Setup 

  • Set the barbell down on the floor in front of you.
  • Make sure the barbell is over the middle of your feet, with your shins almost (but not quite) touching it.
  • Check that the barbell is loaded with weights that are right for your strength level. If you’re new to weightlifting, start with an empty bar to get a sense of the movement then move up to the smallest weight. You can increase it gradually to decide on the right one. 

Step 2: Get Into Starting Position

  • Stand with your feet apart (about the distance of your shoulders).
  • Point your toes slightly outward. You want to make sure that your knees stay in line with your feet during the lift.
  • Bend forward with your hips and then knees as you gradually lower your body down. Be sure that you’re holding your spine neutral and have a straight back as you lean over. Also, check that your chest is forward and your shoulders are pulled back (in a sort of puffed chest position).

Step 3: Grab the Barbell

  • Bend down and grab the barbell with both hands. Get started with an overhand grip (meaning that you’ve got your palms facing your body).
  • Put your hands just outside of your knees and make sure that your arms are completely vertical with the ground.

Step 4: Align Your Back and Brace Your Core

  • Before lifting, engage your core muscles by taking a deep breath and then tightening your ab muscles as if you’re getting ready to be punched in the stomach.
  • Keep your back straight and your head in a neutral position as you look forward.

Step 5: Lift

  • Push with your heels as you drive your hips forward to stand up. The barbell should be very close to your body but not quite touch it. This is important so keep in mind that your goal is to have the barbell just a finger’s width away from your body as you lift (note that the exact distance isn’t important so much as just keep it as close as you can with the goal of grazing it just in front of your body).
  • Straighten your knees and hips at the same time until you are standing up straight, with your shoulders pulled back and chest forward.

Step 6: Lower the Barbell

  • Hinge at the hips, pushing them back and bend your knees to lower the barbell back down to the ground.
  • With a neutral spine, lower the barbell exactly as you brought it up (slowly and close to your body. 
  • Set the barbell down gently on the floor with control.

Key Tips for Safe Deadlift Form

To safely lift weight and learn how to do a deadlift, keep in mind these crucial tips as practice the movement: 

  • Keep your back straight, never rounded
  • Keep chest up
  • Engage your core muscles (image bracing for an impact right to the gut to help you pinpoint the right feeling)
  • Keep the barbell close to your body  
  • Bring your hips and shoulders up together at the same time

Also, don’t forget to warm up before working out to prevent muscle cramps or other sports injuries. If you experience pain from doing sports,

Common Mistakes to Avoid When Lifting

Learning from your mistakes can be dangerous when you start to lift weights. Rather than learning as you go, it’s best to study up on the technique and then get started. 

To prevent injury, let’s look at some of the most common lifting mistakes then trainers see when people are getting started. 

  • Rounding your back: Never round your back during a lift, as it’s the quickest path to back injuries.
  • Jerking the barbell: Lift the barbell smoothly and don’t use momentum to jerk it off the ground.
  • Hyperextending at the top: Avoid leaning back too much at the top of the lift.
  • Lifting with your back: All of the power should come from your hips and legs, not your lower back.
  • Go gradually: Practise proper form with light weights before gradually increasing the load. 

How to Decide How Much to Deadlift?

Deciding how much to deadlift depends on a few factors, including your fitness level, experience, and training goals. Generally speaking, you will want to start with an empty bar and then work your way up. As soon as it feels difficult, stop there. Get comfortable with a difficult lift without pushing to your max. 

Once you’re confident in your form, you can increase by a couple of kilos each session but keep your goals in mind as you choose weights. If you are looking to build endurance and tone your muscles, keep the weights on the lighter side so that you can increase your reps. If your goal is to build power, you can opt for a heavier weight that you might only be able to do three or four reps with. 

What Are the Benefits of Deadlifts?

Lifting a barbell has a wide range of full-body benefits. Here is a look at some of the key results that you can expect: 

  • Full-body Strength: One of the biggest benefits of deadlifts is that they build several major muscle groups at the same time while boosting your all-around functional strength and power.
  • Increased Grip Strength: Regular deadlift training helps improve your grip strength, which is helpful for daily life and sports alike.
  • Improved Posture: By targeting your core muscles and the muscles that support your back, deadlifts help to give you better posture while reducing your risk of back pain.

What Are the Risks of Deadlifts?

There is always a risk to lifting weights, especially when you are first getting started. As one of the most complicated exercises in terms of technique, bad form in deadlifting can lead to serious injuries. Fortunately, understanding the potential risks and taking safety precautions will help you build muscle safely and effectively. 

Here is a guide to the most common deadlift injuries: 

  • Lower Back Injuries: The biggest deadlift risk is lower back injuries. Improper form, especially rounding your back or lifting with the wrong muscles, puts excessive stress on your spine and can cause strains, sprains, or even herniated discs. That’s why it is essential to maintain a neutral spine throughout the lift, engage your core muscles and keep your back straight to distribute the load evenly and protect the lumbar region.
  • Muscle Strains: Deadlifts work a few different muscle groups, which makes it a great (and efficient!) full-body exercise. While you can work a lot of muscles in one movement, you can also deal with serious strain. Muscle strains, especially in your hamstrings, quadriceps, and glutes are common but you can prevent it by progressing in weight slowly and focusing on keeping good form.
  • Grip and Forearm Injuries: Because deadlifts require a strong grip, the muscles and tendons in your forearms are put under serious stress. Regular sessions can cause grip fatigue, forearm tendonitis, or even tears.  Using a mixed grip (one hand with the palm up and the other with the palm down) and doing grip-strengthening exercises will reduce the risk not just of forearm but also wrist injuries.
  • Cardiovascular Strain: Any intense exercise can cause a temporary increase in blood pressure. While this can be healthy, it can also be dangerous for someone with a pre-existing cardiovascular condition. 

What Is a Squat?

Along with deadlifts and bench presses, squats are one of the three powerlifting moves. They are a staple of any good strength training and work out a range of muscles groups, including the following: 

  • Quadriceps (the front muscle of your thigh)
  • Hamstrings (the back muscle of your thigh)
  • Gluteus Maximus (also known as your glutes, the largest muscle in the buttocks)
  • Adductors (the muscles of your inner thighs)
  • Calves (the back of your lower leg)
  • Erector Spinae (the muscles that run alongside your spine)

 How Do You Do a Squat Correctly?

Learning how to squat is essential to safely and effectively working out. Here is your step-by-step guide to getting started:

Step 1: Get in Position

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart 
  • Point your toes slightly outward 
  • Keep your chest up and your shoulders back
  • Engage your core 

Step 2: Start the Squat

  • Bend your hips and knees at the same time, like you’re about to sit in a chair 
  • Shift your weight onto your heels while maintaining your balance 

Step 3: Lower Your Body and Hold

  • Lower your body until your thighs are parallel (or lower if you can)
  • Keep your chest up and your back straight 
  • Make sure that your knees are in line with your toes 
  • Watch that your knees don’t collapse inward

Step 4: Coming Back Up

  • Push into your heels and engage your glutes and thighs to stand back up
  • Keep your chest facing forward and your back neutral spine

Once you’re back up, repeat. As you go, be sure to Inhale while you’re lowering your body and exhale as you’re pushing back up to a standing position.

How to Prevent Injury Doing Squats

Staying safe and injury free is as simple as following a few basic rules. Here’s what to keep in mind before you start doing squats:

  • Foot placement: Make sure that your feet are shoulder-width apart or a bit wider with your toes slightly outward.
  • Engage your core: Tighten your core muscles during the squat.
  • Proper descent: Lower your body by bending at the hips and knees at the same exact time.
  • Knee tracking: Always pay attention to see that your knees are in line with your toes the entire time
  • Distance: Squat to a comfortable depth. It’s good to push yourself but not to the point that you feel you could collapse. 
  • Back position: Keep a neutral spine, with rounding or arching.
  • Weight distribution: Keep your weight on your heels and not your toes.
  • Controlled rise: Push through your heels and engage your glutes and thighs as you stand back up.
  • Progress Gradually: Start with bodyweight squats, then add weight only once you are confident with your form.

What Are the Benefits of Squats?

These powerful exercise moves are a great addition to your routine. Here are some of the benefits that they provide:

  • Leg strength: Squats are second to none in their ability to tone your lower body.
  • Core strength: You activate your core to maintain balance and stability, which helps you build muscle. 
  • Functional strength: Squats are similar to the movements of daily life, like bending and lifting, which makes them a practical way to build those key muscles.
  • Bone Density: Weight-bearing workouts boost bone growth and help prevent the bone density loss that naturally comes with age. 

Deadlift vs. Squat: Which Is Better?

While both the deadlift and squat offer a wide range of benefits, they do have some key differences that set them apart. Let’s take a look at what exactly makes one workout better than another. 

  • Muscle groups targeted: Deadlifts target your backside muscles, including your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. Meanwhile, squats focus on your front muscles like your quadriceps, hip flexors, and core.
  • Load distribution: Squats allow for more even distribution of load across the body due to the barbell resting on the shoulders. In contrast, deadlifts require a strong grip and place more emphasis on the upper body.
  • Functional strength: Squats closely mimic everyday activities like bending and lifting, which offer a more practical benefit that you’ll see outside of workouts.
  • Injury risk: While both moves have some risk of injury, a deadlift is a bit riskier for your lower back. 

Are Squats or Deadlifts Better If I Have Knee Pain?

If you have knee pain or arthritis, both squats and deadlifts need to be approached with caution. Before getting started on either, it’s essential to talk to a healthcare professional to get approval and in-person advice. 

In a case where your knee pain is mild enough to get approval from your doctor, you can proceed to either squats or deadlifts. It is worth noting, however, that squats place more pressure on your knees. This can help you build the muscles surrounding the joint if your doctor feels that would be helpful. 

If you simply want to take the pressure off your knees, a deadlift is a good option as this places more pressure on your hips than your knees. If you are looking for a workout that can benefit your overall knee health, you can consider running.

If you are suffering from knee pain, look for Dr. James at Ray of Health for knee pain treatment today.

Are Squats or Deadlifts Better If I Have Back Pain?

If you have back pain, it’s crucial to consult with your doctor before getting started with either of these exercises. Back pain can have a range of underlying causes so it’s important to have a customised approach that is recommended by a professional based on your specific health profile. 

In general, deadlifts are more demanding on your lower back than squats. Deadlifts require lifting weight from the ground to a standing position, which requires major engagement from your lower back muscles. If you have back pain, deadlifts can aggravate the issue. Since squats are more focused on your knees, they can be a good alternative if you’re dealing with pain. 

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Whether you’re doing deadlifts or squats, a weightlifting belt is recommended. It stabilises and supports the lower back and core as it increases intra-abdominal pressure and stabilises the spine.

Getting Started with Powerlifting

When it comes to powerlifting movements, both the deadlift and squat are winners in their own right. Choosing between them depends on your unique fitness goals, preferences, and health profile. For a boost to your full-body strength, deadlifts are incredible. Meanwhile, squats will build impressive leg strength and functional power.

To get started with an effective strength training plan, ultimately it’s all about mixing it up. Lifting heavy weights and building up your endurance are both great for your health, and you’ll see incredible results from doing either squats or deadlifts. In the end, the most important thing is to listen to your body and take it slow. 

If you have any questions about making your fitness plan, talk to a doctor. We’re here to help you achieve all your fitness goals and be at your very best. Ray of Health has orthopaedic doctors specialising in ACL tear treatment and also PRP injections.

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Dr. James - Orthopaedic Surgeon in Singapore

About the Author

Dr James Tan is a highly skilled orthopaedic surgeon who has more than 10 years of experience in sports surgery and exercise medicine. He is a member of the elite Asian Shoulder and Elbow Group and a founding member of the Singapore Shoulder and Elbow Surgery Society.

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