Lower body training can be confusing for beginners. What are the best exercises? Is there a difference between the squat and deadlift? Should you perform these exercises with barbells or dumbbells? If you’re stuck pondering these questions, then you don’t wanna miss this article. Because today, I’ll be explaining the similarities and differences between the dumbbell squat vs deadlift.
The dumbbell squat and dumbbell deadlift differ in form, mechanics, and weight position. Combined, these factors emphasize the different muscles in the legs and posterior chain. The dumbbell squat emphasizes the quadriceps, whilst the dumbbell deadlift emphasizes the hamstrings and posterior chain.
The debate about squats vs deadlifts is one I went through a newbie. In the end, I decided to completely omit deadlifts from my program (what a mistake that was!).
But that was 10 years ago, and through research and experience, I’ve developed a good understanding of both exercises.
And that’s what I will be sharing with you today!
Let’s jump right in.
- Analysis Of The Barbell Squat Vs Deadlift.
- Analysis Of The Dumbbell Squat Vs Deadlift.
- Differences Between The Dumbbell Squat Vs Deadlift.
- Muscles Worked In The Dumbbell Squat Vs Deadlift
- Dumbbell Squat Vs Deadlift Form.
- How To Perform The Dumbbell Squat.
- How To Perform The Dumbbell Deadlift.
- Dumbbell Squat Vs Deadlift: Which One Is Better?
- Weight Standards Between The Dumbbell Squat Vs Deadlift.
- Is The Dumbbell Deadlift Effective?
- Is The Dumbbell Squat Effective?
Analysis Of The Barbell Squat Vs Deadlift.
First, I’ll take you through an analysis of the barbell squat vs deadlift.
Since the squat and deadlift are most commonly (and most effectively) performed using the barbell, it makes sense to understand the differences here before delving into the differences between the dumbbell squat vs deadlift.
After all, barbell squats are similar to dumbbell squats. And likewise, barbell deadlifts are similar to dumbbell deadlifts.
Differences Between The Barbell Squat Vs Deadlift.
The barbell squat and deadlift are both considered to be THE best exercises for developing lower body strength and hypertrophy (muscle-building).
Furthermore, both exercises are also great for fat-burning, toning, and general fitness.
Finally, both exercises will work all the muscles in your lower body.
So what are the differences between the squat and deadlift?
|Barbell Squat Difference||Barbell Deadlift Difference|
|Emphasis is on lower-body pushing.||Emphasis is on lower-body pulling.|
|Quad-dominant (quads & glutes are primary drivers).||Hip-dominant (hamstrings & glutes are primary drivers)|
|Hips move deeper and lower.||The hips sit higher.|
|Shoulders more upright.||Shoulders lean more forward.|
|The bar starts in the air.||Bar starts on the floor.|
|Bar is lifted through the air.||The bar is lifted between the ground and the air.|
As a result of these biomechanics differences, the individual lower-body muscles are worked to different degrees between the squat vs deadlift (see next).
Muscles Worked In The Barbell Squat Vs Deadlift.
The squat and deadlift are both big compound lower body exercises.
They primarily engage the lower body muscles, and use the back and abdominal muscles to stabilize the movement.
Here are the main muscles worked in the barbell squat and deadlift:
- Quadriceps perform knee extension. This straightens your legs during the upward phase.
- Hamstrings perform knee flexion. This stabilises the legs during the downward phase.
- Gluteus maximus performs hip extension. This brings your hips forwards during the upward phase.
- Calves stabilise knee movement. They keep your feet planted firmly onto the ground.
- Back muscles stabilise lower body movement. Required to keep a straight lower, mid, and upper back.
- Forearm muscles stabilise the bar. Required to hold the barbell in position.
As you can see, both exercises engage a similar array of muscles.
But due to the biomechanics of the bottom phase, the muscles are activated to different degrees between the squat vs deadlift.
The squat emphasizes the quads (especially in squat variations like the front-bar squat and goblet squat).
And this makes the squat a quad-dominant exercise (quads and glutes are the primary movers whilst the hamstrings, calves, and posterior chain serve to stabilize).
In contrast, the deadlift emphasizes the hamstrings and posterior chain (glutes, spinor erectors, and back).
And this makes the deadlift a hip-dominant exercise (hamstrings, glutes, and posterior chain are the primary movers whilst the quads and calves serve to stabilize).
Therefore, your training goal (which muscles you want to train more) will influence your choice between squats vs deadlifts. But ideally, you should do both.
Barbell Squat Vs Deadlift Form.
Now you understand the biomechanics similarities and differences between the squat vs deadlift.
Let’s dive deeper into the differences between the squat vs deadlift form:
|Barbell Squat Form||Barbell Deadlift Form|
|The bar rests on the upper back/shoulders.||Bar hangs from the arms.|
|Weight is centered along the torso vertical plane.||Mass is off-center.|
|The bar is pushed upwards from the knees.||Bar is pulled upwards with the legs and arms.|
|Back is more perpendicular to the ground.||The back is more parallel to the ground.|
The main difference between squat and deadlift form resides in the bottom position and the way you lift the weight.
The focus of the squat is to lower the weight to the floor and then drive upwards from the knees.
In comparison, the focus of the deadlift is to lift the weight from the floor by driving upwards from the hips.
As a result, your back is often more vertical during the squat and more horizontal during the deadlift. And this is responsible for the differences in muscle activation (described above).
How To Perform The Barbell Squat.
Here’s how to perform the perfect high-bar squat:
- Approach a racked and loaded barbell with a just-wider than shoulder-width stance (barbell should be at chin-level).
- Put your head underneath the barbell, rest the bar on the small of your upper back, and hold the bar with an overhand grip (hands should be inline with your feet). This will brace the bar in position.
- Un-rack the barbell by pushing the body upwards with your legs to lift the barbell, and then slowly take a couple steps backwards.
- Lower the bar by bending your knees and moving your hips backwards.
- Stop when your hips reach knee-level and the upper thighs are parallel to the ground.
- Drive upwards at the knees.
- Stick your butt out and make sure you don’t round your back throughout the motion.
- Repeat for repetitions.
Congratulations, you’ve performed a high-bar squat!
Other squat variations such as the low-bar squat and front-bar squat will hold the bar in different positions.
And this further shifts emphasis between the quads, glutes, and hamstrings.
Yet other squat variations such as the split-squat emphasizes a single leg.
And this is great for increasing difficulty when you have limited weight (such as in a dumbbell squat).
How To Perform The Barbell Deadlift.
Here’s how to perform the perfect deadlift:
- Load a barbell on the ground.
- Approach the barbell with a shoulder-width stance.
- Place your feet underneath the bar (the bar should sit above your shoe laces).
- Bend down to grab the bar with both hands using an overhand, underhand, or mixed grip.
- Stick your butt out and brace the core to prevent your back from rounding (you should also feel tension in your hamstrings).
- Lift barbell off the ground by pulling the bar and driving from the hips and legs.
- Push out your chest and hips at the top position (aka a “proud chest”). You should feel contraction in the hamstrings and glutes.
- Lower bar back onto the ground whilst keeping your back straight.
- Repeat for repetitions.
Congratulations, you’ve performed the deadlift!
Deadlift variations such as the sumo deadlift will have your feet further apart.
This decreases hip extension and shifts more emphasis from the back muscles to your legs.
Other deadlift variations like the Romanian deadlift, stiff-legged deadlift, and good morning maintain a straight leg.
This shifts emphasis to the hamstrings or lower back (depending on the exercise).
Find out the best squat variations for beginners in my other article!
Barbell Squat Vs Deadlift: Which One Is Better?
Now you may be asking if squats or deadlifts are better?
Neither squats nor deadlifts are better than the other. Both exercises will develop lower body strength and hypertrophy when performed with heavy loads. Squats are ideal for emphasizing the quadriceps, whilst deadlifts are great for emphasizing the hamstrings and lower back.
Here are the shared benefits of the squat and deadlift:
- Bilateral movements are functional. Bilateral movements require both sides of your body to work in a coordinated manner, unlike unilateral movements. Additionally, bilateral movements are replicated in everyday activities such as lifting and moving objects.
- Great for lower body strength development. Both exercises can be loaded with heavy poundages to develop maximum power and strength.
- Induces lower body hypertrophy. Both exercises engage all muscles in the lower body and when performed with weights which challenge you for 6-12 reps, are great for leg size development.
- Ideal for cardio and HIIT. Both exercises engage lots of muscles in one movement, and this makes them great for cardio and HIIT when performed with high reps and moderate weights.
Here are the unique benefits of the squat vs deadlift:
- Squats are a knee extension movement. These are generally more fatiguing since your body moves through a greater range of movement. Squats are great if you want to develop the quads and overall leg musculature.
- Deadlifts are a hip extension movement. These are generally less fatiguing since your body moves through a smaller range of movement. Deadlifts are great for the hamstrings, overall leg, and back development (although leg development is slightly less compared to squatting).
These unique differences have been shown in a 2021 study that compared muscle activation in the squat vs deadlift.
Weight Standards Between The Squat Vs Deadlift.
Most people who are serious about reaching a training goal- whether it be muscle size, strength, or general fitness- will incorporate both squatting and deadlifting into their training program.
This way, you gain the maximum benefits on your lower body by performing both exercises.
So should your squat or deadlift be higher?
The average beginner is able to deadlift more than they can squat. A male can deadlift 16-31% more than they can squat. In contrast, a female can deadlift 20-35% more than they can squat. The exact difference between squat and deadlift strength will depend on body weight.
Here is the squat vs deadlift weight standards for males and females:
|Male Body Weight||Barbell Squat Weight||Barbell Deadlift Weight||% Difference|
|Female Body Weight||Barbell Squat Weight||Barbell Deadlift Weight||% Difference|
The reason why most people are able to squat more than they can deadlift is due to the biomechanics differences explained previously.
Since the deadlift utilizes more muscles and goes through a lower range of motion, it allows you to shift more weight!
Find out how many leg days you should do each week in my other article!
Analysis Of The Dumbbell Squat Vs Deadlift.
Now that you understand the similarities and differences between the barbell squat vs deadlift, I will do the same analysis for the dumbbell squat vs deadlift.
Differences Between The Dumbbell Squat Vs Deadlift.
I’ve already established the effectiveness of the barbell squat and deadlift for lower body training.
But many beginners wonder if you can also do squats and deadlifts with dumbbells.
Squats and deadlifts can both be performed with dumbbells. The movement pattern is similar to performing squats and deadlifts with a barbell. However, less weight can be lifted with dumbbells and it is also generally harder to perform both movements when using dumbbells.
Here are the main differences between the dumbbell squat and dumbbell deadlift:
|Dumbbell Squat Difference||Dumbbell Deadlift Difference|
|The dumbbell is pushed away from the floor.||The dumbbell is pulled off the floor.|
|Quad-dominant (quads & glutes are primary drivers).||Hip-dominant (hamstrings & glutes are primary drivers)|
|Hips go deep and low.||Hips sit higher.|
|The torso is more vertical and upright.||Torso is more horizontal and bowed forward|
|Dumbbells start in the air.||The dumbbells start on the floor.|
|The dumbbells are lifted through the air.||Dumbbells are lifted off the ground and through the air.|
As you can see, the differences between the dumbbell squat vs deadlift are similar to the differences between the barbell squat vs deadlift!
Muscles Worked In The Dumbbell Squat Vs Deadlift
Just like the barbell squat and deadlift, dumbbell squats and deadlifts also activate similar muscles.
However, the dumbbell squat and deadlift require more stabilizer activity from the upper body, compared to the barbell squat and deadlift.
This prevents the dumbbells from flailing about as you go through the motion.
Here are the muscles worked in the dumbbell squat and deadlift:
- Quadriceps- primary driver.
- Hamstrings- primary driver.
- Calves- primary driver.
- Gluteus maximus- primary driver.
- Deltoids- stability.
- Trapezius- stability.
- Forearms- stability.
- Biceps and triceps- stability.
So what’s the difference between the dumbbell squat vs deadlift?
Same as the differences between the barbell squat ad deadlift!
The dumbbell squat is more quad-dominant, particularly if you do shoulder squats or goblet squats.
In contrast, the dumbbell deadlift is more hip-dominant.
Therefore the question is which muscles do you want to emphasize more?
This is something you need to consider when choosing between dumbbell squats vs deadlifts.
Go to my other article to find out how much you should be dumbbell squatting!
Dumbbell Squat Vs Deadlift Form.
Squatting and deadlifting with dumbbells both require you to hold the dumbbells by your side as you go through the range of motion.
As a result, the deltoids are recruited heavily to stabilize the dumbbells.
But there are slight differences between dumbbell squat vs deadlift form:
|Dumbbell Squat Form||Dumbbell Deadlift Form|
|Dumbbells move through the center of the torso vertical plane.||The dumbbells move off-center to the torso vertical plane.|
|The dumbbell is pushed upwards with the knees.||Dumbbell is pulled upwards with the legs and arms.|
|The back is more perpendicular to the ground.||The back is more parallel to the ground.|
Again, the differences aren’t too dissimilar to the differences between the barbell squat vs deadlift.
The main difference here is with the angle of the torso and how the dumbbell moves through the bottom position.
During the dumbbell squat, the torso is more vertical and the dumbbell moves more or less straight upwards, along the torso’s vertical plane.
In comparison, during the dumbbell deadlift, the torso is bowed forwards and the dumbbell has an off-center path of motion.
The dumbbell deadlift also involves an extra pulling action at the top of the movement to push your chest and hips outwards. This is how you engage maximal back muscle contraction.
As a result of these form differences, the dumbbell squat and deadlift activate different muscles to different degrees!
How To Perform The Dumbbell Squat.
Here’s how to perform the perfect dumbbell squat:
- Stand with a narrow stance and hold the dumbbells on either side of your legs.
- Slowly bend your knees and drop your hips backwards to lower the dumbbells.
- Stop when the upper thighs are parallel to the ground.
- Drive upwards at the knees.
- Maintain a straight back throughout the motion (the back should not go below 45° relative to the hips).
- Repeat for repetitions.
And that’s the dumbbell squat!
Variations of the dumbbell squat, like the goblet and shoulder squat, place the dumbbells directly above the thighs, and this forces you to keep a vertical back.
As a result, these squat variations will further emphasize quadriceps activation.
Another dumbbell squat variation is the Bulgarian split-squat.
This is unilateral exercise is performed with one leg and will make the dumbbell squat even more challenging.
Check out my other article for the best dumbbell exercises for skinny guys!
How To Perform The Dumbbell Deadlift.
Here’s how to perform the perfect dumbbell deadlift:
- Place the dumbbells on the floor (parallel to each other) and step in between them with a narrow stance.
- Bend at the knees and bow forward to grip each dumbbell.
- Pull the dumbbells off the floor by extending your knees and thrusting the hips forwards.
- When the torso is vertical, push out your chest and hips (aka a proud chest).
- Hold this position for a second and lower the dumbbells back onto the floor by bending the knees and bringing your hips backwards.
- Repeat for repetitions.
The dumbbell deadlift can also be performed with the dumbbells held in front of you rather than to the side.
Holding the dumbbells in front allows you to take a wider stance, and this may be more comfortable if you have wide hips.
But there isn’t much difference in muscle activation between these dumbbell deadlift variations.
So find a method which you find the most comfortable!
Dumbbell Squat Vs Deadlift: Which One Is Better?
The dumbbell squat and deadlift are both great lower body exercises if you do not have access to a barbell.
But this (again) leads to the question- are dumbbell squats or deadlifts better?
Neither dumbbell squats nor dumbbell deadlifts are better than the other. They are both excellent ways for beginners to build lower body strength and muscle size. Dumbbell squats will emphasize the quadriceps, whilst dumbbell deadlifts will emphasize the hamstrings and back.
Does this sound familiar to the comparison between the barbell squat vs deadlift?
That’s because it is.
Squatting and deadlifting with dumbbells isn’t all too different than performing these exercises with barbells (so look back on the earlier section to save me from repeating myself!)
It should be noted, however, that this 2015 study suggests that beginners may find the dumbbell squat easier to perform since you do not need to land the dumbbells onto the floor (which requires coordination).
Another 2015 study also found that squatting and deadlifting both resulted in similar performance gains in sprinting, jumping, and agility.
So as a beginner, it may be better to master the dumbbell squat before the deadlift.
But in the long-term, both are great exercises and you should include both in your program!
Learn how to get ripped with just dumbbells in my other article!
Weight Standards Between The Dumbbell Squat Vs Deadlift.
The next question- should your dumbbell squat and deadlift be the same?
The average beginner does not have the same dumbbell squat and deadlift. Males and females should be able to dumbbell deadlift more than they can squat. However, females with heavier body weight can often dumbbell squat more than they can deadlift.
Here is the dumbbell squat vs deadlift weight standards for males and females:
|Male Body Weight||Dumbbell Squat Weight||Dumbbell Deadlift Weight||% Difference|
|Female Body Weight||Dumbbell Squat Weight||Dumbbell Deadlift Weight||% Difference|
It’s interesting to see that heavier females tend to be able to dumbbell squat more than they can deadlift.
This may be due to the fact that heavier women often have wider hips.
As a result, the dumbbell deadlift is more difficult for them, since the further away the dumbbells are from the body, the harder it is to stabilize the dumbbells.
Is The Dumbbell Deadlift Effective?
Generally speaking, the deadlift is most effective when performed with a barbell, since more weight can be loaded to challenge the large muscles in the lower body.
But not everyone has access to a barbell.
In fact, most people only have access to dumbbells.
So are deadlifts with dumbbells effective?
In general, performing deadlifts with dumbbells is effective for beginners. The deadlift is an effective lower body exercise. However, it does not take long to outgrow the limited weights offered by dumbbells. At this point, it is recommended to transition to barbell deadlifts.
For a casual lifter, dumbbell deadlifts are great to improve general fitness. Indeed, dumbbells are cheaper and safer than barbells. They will also engage the stabilizer muscles much more effectively than barbells.
But to gain maximum muscle strength and mass, serious lifters are recommended to deadlift 6-12 reps per set, using a weight that challenges you for those reps.
Most dumbbells simply don’t offer big enough poundages to fulfill these criteria.
The obvious solution of course would be to buy heavier dumbbells. And these are great if you want to work out at home without the space and money required to buy a barbell setup.
There are also methods you could apply to make your dumbbell deadlifts more challenging (like slowing down the tempo and increasing reps).
Just be aware that barbells are always better than dumbbells for the deadlift.
Check out my other article for 9 of the heaviest adjustable dumbbells you can get!
Is The Dumbbell Squat Effective?
Just like the deadlift, the squat is most effective when done with barbells.
But again, not everyone has access to a barbell.
So are squats with dumbbells effective?
In general, doing squats with dumbbells is effective for beginners and intermediates. Dumbbell squats will allow moderate levels of strength and size development. However, barbells are the better option for maximum strength and size since they offer heavier weight loads to challenge the lower body.
Again, dumbbells can be a great way for beginners to develop a strong foundation and make some size gains in the process.
Dumbbells will also provide a cheap and safe way to do weighted squats at home.
But if you are serious about making big gains, then barbells are the better option for squatting, since they offer much heavier poundages.
That being said, there are many ways to make dumbbell squats harder (and provide greater training results).
First, you can decrease lifting tempo and increase reps (as mentioned above).
There are also dumbbell squat variations which are more challenging for specific regions of the leg.
For example, the front squat, shoulder squat, and goblet squat are all great for loading the quadriceps.
Furthermore, you can also do weighted pistol squats, Bulgarian split squats, and single-legged box squats to make your dumbbell squats even more challenging.
Find out what weight dumbbells you should buy in my other article!
I’ve explained the similarities and differences between the squat and deadlift. I’ve also compared the dumbbell squat vs deadlift.
The squat and deadlift may look very similar to the untrained eye, and in many ways they are.
Both are excellent lower body exercises that work all the leg muscles in a single motion.
But the slight differences in the form will emphasize different regions of the leg. The squat emphasizes the quadriceps whilst the deadlift emphasizes the hamstrings and posterior chain.
These differences apply to both barbells AND dumbbells.
Therefore it’s a good idea to include both squats AND deadlifts in your training program.
Do you prefer the squat or the deadlift?
Let me know in the comments below!
Thanks for reading guys!
(Biochemistry BSc, Biomedical Sciences MSc, Ex-Skinny Guy)