Can deadlifts replace the squat?
Lots of things can replace the squat for hypertrophy. Nothing can replace it for making you more awesome. Bottom line is that the deadlift cannot replace the squat in most training scenarios. This is due to the fact, that the squat is a quad dominant exercise while the deadlift gets most of its power from your back. This article will outline the goals for which the squat is helpful. You will learn about the reasons why you do not want to squat in more detail. In the end, you will be provided with a list of alternative exercises and tips whether they are a good idea or not. If you already decided on not doing the barbell back squat please skip to "Alternatives to the squat". If you are a beginner you will benefit from reading the entire article.
The question lacks context
If you read more of my blog you can skip this section. If you are here for the first time please take the time to let this part seep in. When the question "Can the deadlift replace the squat" is raised we are talking about the barbell back squat. This is usually the exercise which most people know who also know the deadlift. This is important to set out at the beginning, as there are many variations of the squat. Everything you do depends on the goals you set for yourself. The reason why many people are not happy with their lives is ...lack of clarity. The main reason for not getting results in the gym is ...lack of clarity. Questions like "Can the deadlift replace the squat" are a direct outcome of this. Once your goals are clear, the answer to this question is easy. To simplify things you can categorize fitness into these three goals sets. Decide which one you belong to.
If you belong to the group who want to look better the deadlift can replace the squat. In fact, you have a lot of options to put on muscle. You can modify your diet. You can modify the forms of squats and deadlifts you do. Hypertrophy is mainly about staying in the 8 - 12 repetition range per set and controlling your diet. If you leave out squats, you have to find a supplementary exercise for building your quads. This has aesthetic and health reasons. Apart from that, you will be fine to leave the barbell squat to the side.
If you are a strength athlete or martial artists it is unlikely that you will get around the barbell back squat. When it comes to performance you want the barbell back squat in your corner. It is one of the most effective and efficient exercises to make you stronger. Powerlifters will be directly tested. Weightlifters have good carryover from the back squat to the snatch and clean and jerk. Martial artists will benefit from the mental toughness heavy squats train. Track and field athletes can improve their vertical jump through more power. You get the picture. Serious athletes will get to know the barbell back squat at some point in their career.
If you are about health the barbell back squat and do not have to cross paths. In fact, if your coach is suggesting barbell work of any kind of you are not in good health makes me suspicious. In this bracket, kettlebell training can be a great alternative. Intermediate versions of yoga can also make you very strong. So have a look at what your goals are and whether you really need the barbell back squat to achieve them, if you are already considering to not do them. Why would you want to replace the squat with the deadlift If you are definitely decided to give the barbell back squat a pass, skip this section. If you are undecided, give it a proper read. The main reasons for not doing barbell back squats are
- Hurts back
- Safety considerations
If you are in good health and the barbell back squat hurts your back there can be several reasons for it. The main reasons are
- You are too weak to handle 20kg
- You squat with bad form
- You lack mobility
If you can not handle a barbell you have no business in barbell work. You need to develop the strength to implement the compound lifts into your exercises. You can do this via a proper bodyweight routine using air squats, planks and sit-ups. Keep it simple for half a year. Maybe add kettlebells if this gets boring. Then step back to the plate and own it.
If you are strong enough to handle the barbell and still have pain it probably is due to bad form. Reasons for pain can be
- The barbell has too much wiggle room
- The barbell is not centred on your back
- You do not brace properly before descending
- You round your back in the lower part of the back squat
If you have a lot of pain on your upper back paired with skin tear you have not enough control over the bar on your back. This is fixed by "bending the bar like a horseshoe" around your back. You achieve this by pulling your arms in and around while in parallel pushing against the barbell with your back. If you are a beginner do not worry too much about the low bar or high bar placement. Get the barbell where you feel strongest and get tight. The result is less pain. Another reason for the barbell squat too hurt is that the bar is not centred on your back. If the barbell is too far to the left or right it creates an imbalance. This leads to pain in the hips and the spine. To avoid this pick the same grip each time. Put your hands a thumb away from the knurling or at the outer rim. Whatever you do, make sure that your hands are placed symmetrically on the bar. Unless you are very flexible you will be centred on the bar after this setup. A little side note on squatting with a pad. I strongly advocate against it. Squatting pads are nasty because a lot of people use them. If that is not enough to put you off, they actually increase the risk of injury in two ways in my opinion. The pad will keep you from creating proper tension. This is needed for a proper barbell squat to train optimally. The second risk is of the bar sliding down your back. This can be due to malfunction of the pad or lack of control through you. An unexpected, uncontrolled deload of a heavy squat can have nasty results for your arms and shoulders. That is not worth the added comfort the pad provides.
Now we have dealt with upper pain during the squat and move on to lower pain in the abdomen. Not bracing correctly can lead to a hernia and discomfort in the lower belly. Bracing is about building tension through breathing. A lifting belt can also help. I have written articles on proper breathing technique during a squat. Chris Duffin and Chad Wesley Smith are also very good sources to go to. Rounding your back also relates to bad form. This can put extra tension on your lower spine. Some also call this "butt wink". Paused squats and front squats can take care of bad posture in the lowest part of the squat. This also can fix the lower back pain that results from that. Rounding your lower back can be due to not enough strength (use less weight), bad form (do pause squats, front squats for a fix) or lack of mobility in the hip (stretch).
Mobility issues can also lead to pain and no progress on the squat. You can have good form on most of the points and still lack the range of motion. In this case stretch and aim to improve your mobility. Exercises which can help here are
Mobility is important to get the most out of the squat. Still, you do not need to be able to do the splits to get the benefits of the squat.
Age can also be a limiting factor to the squat. Age usually brings a combination of lack of mobility and strength. I already addressed these points in mobility and bad form.
An injury is most relevant to athletes. Strength athletes and martial artists might sustain injuries during their sports activities. Shoulder injuries can lead to not be able to load the bar. Here the deadlift can replace the squat although there are better options.
Safety considerations are often concerns for beginners. The squat can be imitating as the weight can crush you. The deadlift is safer as the barbell only falls to the ground and not on you when you fail. Proper safety measures can remedy this. You should not swap the squat for the deadlift because you think it’s safer.
What you want to avoid with the squat
From the former section, you can learn that most reasons for avoiding the squat can be worked on. If you want to build solid strength or big muscles the squat is too good to give a pass. Once you are squatting keep these things in mind to avoid:
- No Full range of motion
- Rounding of the lower back
- Not doing paused squats
- A lot of people have horrendous squat patterns
- You need to earn the right to squat under load
To get the most out of your squat it helps to use a full range of motion. Especially beginners tend to focus too much on the weight that is on the bar. The weight on the bar is easy to measure. A full range of motion is not. For overall strength development and health, it is good advice to perform exercises correctly with less load. This is not only true for the squat, but for all workouts. A full range of motion means that you squat as deeply as you can with full control. The aim is to almost touch the ground with your ass in the deepest part of the squat. This is also known as an "ATG" or Ass to grass squat. If you can not squat this deep mechanically it is time for some mobility work. If you can not squat this deep because of load, it is time to squat with less weight.
Rounding the lower back can cause pain and occurs at the bottom of the squat. This phenomenon is also known as "butt wink". Once you squat with less load and developed a full range of motion the next thing is usually a rounded back. To fix this you can do two things. The first one is to activate your upper body better in the setup of the lift. Breathe and brace. Pull the barbell into your back. Press your back against the barbell. This makes it less likely for butt wink to occur. The other training technique is to do paused squats at the bottom of the lift. Take about 50% of your one repetition maximum. Squat as deep as you can. Stop about an inch before the lowest point. Stay in this position and count to seven. Repeat for a set of 5 for three sets once to twice a week. For the paused squat it is ideal to keep tension. When you sit down completely it is still better than not doing this exercise at all, but you do not get as much benefit.
Not doing paused squats leaves you with potential on the table. The scary part about squatting is failing and breaking down. Most squats fail shortly after the momentum change in the hole. The hole is the lowest part of the squat. Beginners avoid paused squats like the plague as they are hard to do. Do them. When you are finished with your main sets on the squat for leg day you will deload the barbell anyway. Use the opportunity to do paused squat variations at 50%, 60% and 70% of your one repetition maximum. Use 50% with 5 repetitions per set and a 7-second pause. 60%/3/5 & 70%/2/5. Doing paused squats makes you strong as hell. It also avoids lack of mobility at later stages of your development. A lot of people of horrendous squat patterns when they start. Find a personal trainer who helps you with the most important fixes. It is harder to fix these mistakes at a later stage. If all of the personal trainers in your local gym seem to be not that knowledgeable about barbell training, look for one of the strong guys and ask them. Explain why it is important to you to squat as good as them. Show respect for what they have achieved. Ask for feedback and listen. You might even earn a gym buddy this way. Last option is to go to the internet and look at coaching videos. Chad Wesley Smith, Chris Duffin and Mark Bell have good channels that coach the squat.
Alternatives to the squat
The deadlift is no replacement to develop your quads. If you opt out of the barbell back squat you need some alternatives exercises for the goals of muscle growth and performance enhancement. This is a list of options I gathered from the online discussions. You will find my personal feedback on each below.
- Leg press
- Front squats
- Broom squats
- Smith machine
- Snatch grip deadlift from a platform
- Trap bar deadlifts from a deficit
- Power clean and front squat
- Split squats
- Hack squats
- Goblet squats
- Pistol squat
- Hip belt squats
- Barbell hip thrust
- Weighted step ups
The leg press is one of the most popular alternatives for the barbell back squat to build the quads. It is reasonably safe and takes the pressure off your back. Especially athletes with shoulder injuries can still train their legs using the leg press. Most gyms do offer a machine like this, so you will be able to do it. A word of caution around the range of motion. It is very tempting to load the leg press as heavy as possible. Resist that temptation and apply the same thought process to the leg press as with paused barbell squats.
The front squat is often hailed as an alternative to the barbell back squat. There is also a valid case to be made that the front squat is a better alternative to the back squat for all athletes except powerlifters. Charles Poliquin makes a very compelling case for this. For beginners, I do not think it is a good option. The question "can the deadlift replace the squat" usually stems from fear of pain and injury from the back squat. The front squat is even more uncomfortable than the back squat. In addition, it also needs more mobility to be performed correctly. A front squat is mainly an option for serious athletes who are willing to tolerate pain for results. For beginners who are just starting this is not a feasible alternative.
Broom squats are a great tool to get beginners used to the barbell back squat. With a broomstick, you can start to learn the right movement patterns with low risk. Especially when you already feel like the barbell is very heavy on your back. Take care that you use a broomstick which is the same dimensions than a barbell in length and diameter. This ensures to get as close as possible to the real thing. You can also use a technique bar for this purpose if it is available.
The smith machine is also available in many gyms. This machine mimics the movements of the barbell back squat. The direction is straight up and down as it goes on rails. I am personally not a huge fan of the smith machine for the back squat. It is hard to get in and out. If you fail a rep there is no safety pin for most machines to stop your descent. If you feel like the smith machine gives you more security than a power rack, by all means, use it. I personally think the decision is between the leg press or the barbell back squat. I would avoid a hybrid like a smith machine.
Snatch grip deadlift from a platform is an option to train the quads if the deficit is pretty high. This is a good option for advanced athletes who can not use the barbell back squat. It is also a nice variation on trap bar deadlifts as it trains the grip more. For weightlifters, this variation is also closer to reality than a trap bar deadlift. For beginners, I would not recommend this variation. If you have immature movement patterns it does not help to put you on an elevated platform. The snatch grip is also more suitable to advanced strength levels than a narrower grip.
Trap bar deadlifts from a deficit are the beginner-friendly variation of the snatch grip deadlift from a platform. The frame of the trap bar adds stability. The movement patterns are easy to do for you. The elevation comes from a relatively secure position. If for whatever reason you do not like leg presses this is a good, safe option. The only drawback is that not all gyms provide the necessary equipment
The power clean and front squat has been suggested as an alternative to the barbell back squat. In my opinion, this is one of the most bizarre suggestions I have read. Someone who is able to execute this complex movement well will also gladly do a barbell back squat. A beginner who is scared of pain and injury should not be introduced to such a complex movement. Never mind under load. I also can not think of an injury that keeps you from doing a barbell back squat while still being able to power clean and front squat instead.
Split squats are great for training out imbalances in athletes on the barbell back squat. Again this is a more complex variation of the barbell back squat if done under load. Therefore it is a good alternative for advanced lifters to address minor weaknesses, imbalances or stimulate more hypertrophy. For beginners, it is a good alternative to progress towards a barbell. Someone who can execute a split squat well can usually also perform a back squat well. Then you can start to add load. To suggest that someone gets a barbell on his or her back to do split squats who already expressed discomfort when doing a normal squat is not a good idea.
Hack squats are more quad heavy than normal deadlifts. This makes them a better option as a supplement for the squat than the deadlift. Compared to a leg press or trap bar deadlifts it is an inferior for quad development. The limiting factor in a hack squat is not the quads, but your grip. This effect gets more pronounced compared to the deadlift. With the leg press, you remove this bottleneck fully. With the trap bar deadlift somewhat. As athletes with a shoulder or back injury should be put in as safe a position as possible it gets a lower priority. Hack squats can be great as accessory work to test yourself and make things more interesting when your training gets stale.
Goblet squats are one of the best options for women and light men who want to progress towards a barbell. I prefer to use kettlebells over dumbbells for this exercise. The goblet squat can be used to improve movement patterns while still giving you the feel of using resistance. The resistance can also be increased over time to keep things fun and see progress. For advanced lifters, it can be a great addition to work on mobility issues while giving the back a rest.
Pistol squats and its variations of progression are a good way to train balance. For advanced athletes, it is a great challenge and a cool feat to learn a pistol squat. For beginners, the process can be quite frustrating, especially if they are more into bodybuilding and power. If your main interest is health the pistol squat is a great goal to strive towards and forget about the barbell.
Hip belt squats are one of the best variations apart from the leg press to develop the quads. The load is placed on the hips instead of the back. The exercise can be heavily loaded. There is no risk of the weight crushing you. You do not need to be able to handle 20kg as lower increments are possible. I saw this variation first on Juggernaut Strength. There it was used to give weightlifters a break from high bar squatting while still addressing leg hypertrophy. A great tool which not many people use. To top everything up you save a lot of money for your home gym by buying a platform and a hip belt compared to a leg press machine.
Barbell hip thrusts are a great addition for advanced lifters who struggle with their lockout. It also promotes the development of the midsection. I prefer good mornings for this purpose and most professional powerlifters seem to be of the same mindset. For beginners who want to avoid pain and complexity while still building their legs, it is not an option. A heavy barbell hip thrust can be very painful and does very little for your legs.
Weighted step ups can be an alternative to the barbell back squat. If you want to train for hiking and climbing this might even be the better exercise for you. If you want to do weighted I think the combination of a bench and barbell is potentially lethal. For advanced athletes, I would prefer heavy lunges to address imbalances while avoiding to go on a wobbly bench. Falling down an elevated bench with 120kg on your back is not a good idea. For beginners, I would suggest the Stairmaster while getting as many chains around your neck as you can stomach. Does the same thing, you do not have to look at a barbell and it is safer.
If you think that the deadlift and the squat are relevant for your training it is very unlikely that you can swap the deadlift for the squat. If you want to avoid the pain and risk of the squat the leg press and hip belt squat are very good alternatives. The leg press would fit the needs of bodybuilders a little more. The hip belt squat is the alternative for powerlifters and weightlifters. Before you go into detailed questions like "Can the deadlift replace the squat" be more clear about what purpose your training has. The question "can the deadlift replace the squat for quad hypertrophy" is a lot easier to answer. For this, the answer is no.
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