Deadlifts Vs. Squats: What’s Better For Mass? Which of the two provides the most growth?

Deadlifts and squats have mythical status. They are considered the best mass builders in the whole world and many believe that one will ‘grow like a weed‘ when those two are introduced to a training program. There are many rumors suggesting that squats and deadlifts build muscle thickness and size that the ‘curl and bench bros‘ just can’t get from machines and isolation.

deadlifting-impress-the-girls

Occasionally, there will also be a furious battle between the fans of each movement. Which one is better for mass – deadlifts or squats?

Deadlifts Don’t Build Big Legs


The deadlift is not a squat, even though it may look so to the untrained eye. A properly performed deadlift starts with the hips in a higher position and the range of motion is much shorter than a squat. The primary mover is the posterior chain {hamstring and glutes} and besides the initial part of the deadlift the quads don’t help much. On the other hand the squat offers larger range of motion and depending on the version you choose it the focus can be shifted towards the quadriceps a.k.a. front leg.

This makes the deadlift an inferior leg builder compared to the squat. If you go to a deadlift only meet and observe some the physiques of the competitors, you will see that most of them don’t have big legs. That’s because deadlifts, for the most part, do not build big legs. The exercise, however, will provide strong hips, thick spinal erectors and back muscles.

On the contrary, you will rarely see a strong squatter with small legs. A proof of that are Olympic weightlifters. All of them have well developed legs. Most weightlifters only do squats and don’t rely much on deadlifts other than to test their strength.

Of course, it would be silly to think that your legs will remain weak if you only deadlift. They won’t, especially if you do the sumo version which requires 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 negative portion and the absence of stretch reflex the deadlift requires exceptional effort and ‘wrecks’ the body. That’s why frequent heavy deadlifting is not recommended. The squat is less stressful and allows for more sessions during the week. This is why most of the popular training routines are built around the squat and not the deadlift.

Wenhua Cui from China @ deeps squats

Wenhua Cui from China  #deeps squats

A Big Squat Equals A Decent Deadlift

but

A Big Deadlift Does Not Equal A Decent Squat.

People who are strong enough to move big numbers in the squat will have decent deadlifts without even training the lift. That’s because the squat strengthens the hips, the legs and the back by the use of a heavy barbell over a larger range of motion. This strength carries over to the deadlift fairly well.

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.

Unfortunately, a strong deadlift does not equal a good squat. The deadlift is a hip dominant exercise with short range of motion. As we’ve already said it does not build the required leg strength to squat big weights.

On paper you can deadlift 500 lbs without being able to squat 315 with good form. Having a 500 lbs squat, however, could equal a 500 lbs + deadlift, depending on how gifted you are in the first place.

Another factor that also influence the development of similar scenario is body type. A good deadlifter benefits from heaving long arms. Long arms often come with long legs and a lanky build which means that a naturally gifted deadlifter may have a naturally inferior structure for squats. This makes transferring deadlift strength to squat strength even harder.

The same can be said about the naturally born squatters. Most of them are barely taller than a car and have short femurs. That usually comes with short arms as well which makes deadlifting harder. In that case, a 500 lbs squat could only equal 450 lbs deadlift which is actually still decent.

Note: Back in the day the popular strength coach Bill Starr wrote an article on how to build a strong deadlift without ever doing the exercise. He used movements such as the squat, good morning and power clean to develop deadlift strength without subjecting your CNS to the horrors of deadlifting frequently. You can read more on this topic here.

Related article: Does Olympic Weightlifting Really Build Muscle?

The Deadlift Builds Thick And Massive Backs. The Squat Doesn’t.

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While there is no doubt that squatting heavy weights requires a strong back and especially spinal erectors, the deadlift will build the area just as well. A dedicated deadlifter will have thick back – no matter what. During the deadlift all back muscles have to work hard in order to stabilize the weight.

The spinal erectors need to maintain proper position to protect the spinal column while the upper back and traps also have to remain really strong and support the shoulder area, especially during the lockout. 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 build on a diet of deadlifts may not be the most aesthetic and widest, but there is no doubt that it will have a fullness that will otherwise require a variety of different back exercise to achieve. The squat can’t offer that, although your spinal erectors will get super thick from squatting.

So, which on is the best mass builder?

All things considered the squat will take the prize. However, it really depends on what build your 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 mother fucker physique‘ – thick back and traps in a combination with strong hips and average legs. If you want to do only one of the two and your goal is to acquire a more aesthetic physique, the deadlift will shine.

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