When it comes to leg day there are 2 main compound lifts that people like to include into their exercise program, squats and deadlifts. As for most exercises, it is beneficial to know what muscles they target and why you are performing the move. The action your body produces during the exercise will define the prime muscle movers. Knowing this information about a squat and a deadlift will help to give purpose to the exercise, develop an understanding for which part of your program to include them in and how to modify them to suit your goals.
Deadlifts and squats are both compound exercises. This means they use multiple joints and therefore big muscle groups to move the body in their respected action. In a previous KineticsCorrect blog we talked about programming and the pros to including a squat, hinge, push and pull exercise into your workout. Whilst the piece of equipment will be dependent on the goal of the program, 2 of the movement components will be achieved by including these squat and deadlift patterns into your next workout.
When looking at the lowering phase of the squat, the main movement component is hip and knee flexion. On the lowering (eccentric) phase of a squat, muscles control movement in a lengthening fashion. The glutes control hip flexion, the quadriceps control knee flexion and the calves control ankle dorsiflexion. In terms of greatest muscular work performed during a squat, it’s a quad dominant exercise. Yes the glutes do work during a large portion of the squat movement, however due to biomechanical changes, as we near the top of the movement and stand tall, we’re not really asking the gluteus maximus to do much in terms of hip extension. Squats are valuable for glute development, but if that is your main goal then other movements such as the barbell hip thrust can be a valuable addition to your training program.
Like most exercises, the stance can slightly modify the assisting muscles. Sumo squats can recruit more activation of the adductors (inside thighs) and lifting the heels increases the forward translation of the knees resulting in greater challenge for the quadriceps. Changing the position of the bar from a back to a front squat will promote an upright position, again increasing the use of the quadriceps. While placing the bar lower or higher in the back will have an effect on trunk inclination and therefore degrees of hip and knee flexion.
A deadlift on the other hand asks for a greater range from the hips and a lesser range from the knees than the conventional squat. Gluteus maximus and hamstrings are the prime movers involved in extending the hip, the quadriceps drive knee extension (straight) and our trunk musculature co-contract to create intrabdominal pressure and stiffness allowing for a stability and power transference from the lower limbs and hips to the bar. Much like the squat, if the stance is changed for the deadlift, it can slightly modify the recruited muscles. A sumo deadlift will again ask the adductors to assist the move and also reduce the lifting height.
Changing the equipment used for the exercises will change the movement pattern and purpose behind it. Dumbbells and kettlebells are a great way to learn the basics of the main lifts. The size and shape of the kettlebell allows the weight to be kept closer to the centre of the body, increasing the overall stability. If the level of depth and strength needed to perform the exercise with a barbell has not been established, these alternatives in a program will assist.