“Welcome to the gym equivalent of Godzilla vs. King Kong,” says Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., MH fitness director. “The reality is, both of these movements sit atop of the exercise food chain as moves that challenge multiple large lower body muscle groups and let us move major weight.”
You won’t always have time for both in your workout, though. The decision of which to prioritise depends on your body type and your goals. You might also find that you’re better at one or the other, so you’ll naturally gravitate toward your strengths.
Here’s why both exercises deserve a slot in your weekly routine—and when you should start to emphasise one over the other.
How Squats and Deadlifts Are Similar
One thing is for sure: both the squat and deadlift are going to significantly improve your strength. With both exercises, “as long as you’re pushing yourself, you’re using nearly every muscle in your body,” Samuel says.
They also heavily load your spine, which can improve your bone density. But, that also means they’re heavily fatiguing on the central nervous system—meaning you’ll need to plan adequate rest time in between training sets.
How Squats and Deadlifts Are Different
The main difference between the squat and deadlift are the main movers of each lift (a.k.a. the muscle group that drives a majority of the exercise). This will depend on what variation of each exercise is being done, though—a sumo squat is going to utilise a few different muscles than a conventional stance, for example. For the sake of this discussion, let’s focus on the most prevalent variations of each movement: the conventional barbell deadlift and barbell back squat.
The barbell deadlift is a hip-dominant movement. The glutes and hamstrings are the main drivers in pushing to extend the hips. Your big back muscles (lats, rhomboids, and traps) also play a significant role, as you stabilise the spine through the movement.
The barbell back squat is a knee-dominant movement. Your quads, hip adductors, and glutes work together to extend the knees and the hips at the same time. Like the deadlift, your back muscles attribute to the movement as well—your low back extensors shorten at your extend through the hips, and your mid-back muscles work to stabilise the load.
Squats vs. Deadlift: Which Lift to Pick
“In the long term, for strength and physique balance, you’ll want to master and dominate both of these moves,” Samuel says. “But how you prioritise them in your program will change based on your goals and other factors.”
Who Should Prioritise Deadlifts?
If your goal is glute, hamstring, and back gains, the deadlift should take the top spot. Yes, the squat utilises these muscle groups too, but the deadlift places more of an emphasis through the posterior chain than the squat does.
If your goal is to improve athleticism, the deadlift strengthens muscles that work in the hip extension mechanics that power movements like running and jumping.
The deadlift also generally has more carryover into “real-life” movements, too. Think about how often you bend over to pick up something heavy off the ground, like your groceries. The deadlift trains us for more day-to-day actions you wouldn’t typically think of as exertions of strength.
Who Should Prioritise Back Squats?
This article originally appeared on Mens Health U.S