The squat and the deadlift are two of the most basic (yet complicated) lifts and movement patterns for the lower body. We use them in workouts at the gym all of the time, but often it can be confusing for clients to know when to perform each pattern and what the differences are in each individual pattern.
When to use pattern:
A squat is when you are lowering your body from a standing position to a squatting position and returning to a standing position. Read more about the squat.
A deadlift is when you are picking something up from the ground and lowering it back to the ground.
Lifting – if the weight (or any heavy object) is chest height or above, use the squat pattern. If the weight is below the waist, use the deadlift pattern.
Differences in the Body
Both the squat and the deadlift patterns are natural movement patterns that we use from birth. Watch a small child pick something up from the ground (deadlift) or raise and lower an object (squat); their movement pattern will most likely match up almost perfectly with the comparison chart above. These movement patterns were not created in a weightroom. Keeping the movement patterns as close to how the body originally developed them is the safest and best way to perform any exercise.
The deadlift pattern should be used to pick up heavy things off the ground rather than the squat pattern because it puts our low back in a safer position based on where the weight-load is coming from. When a proper hip hinge motion is executed in the deadlift pattern, the lumbar spine in the low back is locked in a more secure position. This combined with an engaged core, the shoulders being pulled back, and lats firing adequately results in one well protected spine.
Using the squat pattern when the weight-load is at approximately chest height or above puts the back in a safer position. In the squat, the hips remain more inline with the body rather than reaching/hinging back. With the weight-load higher, the deadlift pattern would actually put the low back more at risk if it were used.
That’s the quick and simple version of when, how, and why to perform a deadlift or a squat. Though this article breaks things down where it may seem pretty simple, both patterns are rarely executed perfectly (often times not well at all) by most individuals, so please be careful loading weight onto either pattern and consult with a certified trainer to perfect your form!