Deadlifts vs. Squats: What’s Better For Mass?

Deadlifts & Squats have a mythical status. Many muscle scholars attribute magical properties to both movements. According to the rumors, squats and deads build muscle thickness and size that the “curl and bench bros” can only dream of.

Occasionally, there are furious discussions between the fans of each movement. Which one is better for mass – deadlifts or squats? Well, let’s look at data.

The Deadlift Does Not Require Big Legs

The deadlift is not a squat, even though it may look like one to the untrained eye. A properly performed deadlift starts with the hips in a high position. As a result, the range of motion (ROM) is much shorter than that of a deep squat.


The primary movers during the deadlift are the posterior chain muscles (hamstring, glutes, back). Besides the start, the quads don’t help much. On the other hand, the classic barbell squat hits the quadriceps intensely over a larger ROM.

The reduced ROM makes the deadlift an inferior leg builder compared to the squat. If you go to a deadlift only competition, you will see that most competitors don’t have big quads. That’s because deadlifts, for the most part, neither build nor require huge quadriceps. On the other hand, you will rarely see a strong squatter with small legs.

Yet it would be silly to think that your legs will remain weak if you only deadlift. The movement hits the legs, especially if you do the sumo version which calls for a serious leg drive.

Another factor that makes the deadlift an inferior leg builder is its effect on the CNS and the body. Due to the lack of a stretch reflex at the bottom, the deadlift requires an exceptional effort and drains the central nervous system. That’s why frequent heavy deadlifting is close to impossible. Conversely, the squat is less stressful and allows multiple sessions during the week. This is why most popular training routines are built around the squat, not the deadlift.

A Big Squat Equals a Decent Deadlift

but

A Big Deadlift Does Not Equal a Decent Squat

The squat teaches you how to maintain a proper back position under a heavy load and strengthens the hips and the legs over a range of motion that the deadlift does not work (parallel and below).

Of course, the squat does not train your grip as much as the deadlift, but forearm and finger strength could be developed through upper body exercises anyway. Consequently, many good squatters deadlift decent numbers without even training the lift specifically.

Back in the day, the popular strength coach Bill Starr wrote an article explaining how to build a strong deadlift without even doing the exercise. He used movements like the squat, the good morning and the power clean to develop deadlift strength without subjecting the CNS to the horrors of frequent deadlifting.

The Deadlift Builds Thick And Massive Backs

The squat requires a very strong back, but the deadlift calls for a stronger one. A dedicated deadlifter will have а thick back no matter what.

During deadlifts, all back muscles have to work extremely hard. The spinal erectors maintain a proper spinal position whereas the upper back supports the shoulder girdle. The lats also get plenty of work since they’re preventing the bar from moving back and forth. As a result, you get a complete back workout. A back built on a diet of deadlifts may not be the most aesthetic and the widest, but it will have fullness that will otherwise require a horde of back exercises to achieve. The squat can’t offer that, although your spinal erectors will get super thick from squatting.

So, which one is the better mass builder?

All factors considered, the squat takes the prize. However, it really depends on what build you are going for. If you want to have big legs, you can’t get them without a squatting motion of some kind. On the other hand, the deadlift builds the so-called “bad motherfucker physique” by producing an unrivaled back thickness.

2 comments

  1. Dominick

    Since I train at home without a squat rack, building leg strength was a challenge for me. At first, I did front squats with dumbbells, but the weight I could use was limited, so it didn’t build as much size compared to my back, which grew rapidly as my deadlift numbers increased.

    I tried Jefferson squats, but it puts a lot of asymetrical strain, which became an issue when I got past 350 for reps. I also tried barbell hack squats, which can easily become some very ugly good morning, and puts tremendous stress on the knees when you start repping 365 and above.

    Thus far, the best lift for building my lower body turned out to be the snatch-grip deadlift. I am 6’1″ tall with a long torso and average arms, so even the conventional deadlift added some size to my legs. However, as soon as I started to snatch-grip pull, I noticed that my glutes and legs got noticeably bigger. My snatch-grip deadlift is now at 475 lbs and I love this lift, which I usually do on Saturday (I do conventional Deadlift on Wednesday). As it involves somewhat less weight, the snatch-grip deadlift is less stressful for my back and much less recovery expensive (this is me! n = 1).

    It is also possible that some lifters don’t build much leg from deadlifting simply because they are always going heavy for very low reps. I consistently deadlift around 70% of my max for 5 x 5, both for snatch-grip and conventional; either this or 80% for triples. When I notice the reps are getting faster, that’s when I know I am ready to do a taper and test for a new max. (If my reps are getting slower, I need a break!)

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