The Deadlift and Squat: the bread and butter of leg AND core strength

by Anna D

Most everyone has heard of these two exercises at one time or another, and most people have performed them. These are two of what are called the basic, or primal, movement patterns. They are inherent to the human body. Understanding these two basic, yet profound, movements will not only allow you to perform them with greater efficiency and safety but also allow you to receive the most benefits from the exercises in terms of both strength and calories burned.

Why are these exercises considered “primal” movement patterns? Well, they are actually instinctual. If you watch a child you will see that anytime they want to examine something on the floor they will drop into a perfect, full-depth squat. Watch a child pick up a small toy or something using just his or her hands and you will see a perfect deadlift. As we get older these movement patterns don’t disappear but our tight and/or weak muscles get in the way of performing them as well as we all did when we were young.

Let’s get back to the days when the bottom of a squat was a RESTING position!

Not only are these movements natural and healthy for restoring and maintaining our body’s normal functionality, but they are incredibly great leg and core exercises as well as calorie burners! I’m sure it’s obvious that they are leg exercises, but did you know they are two of the greatest core exercises also? Well, they definitely are. Lifting weights with these movements requires an amazing amount of stability from your core. It may not feel the same as doing a set of crunches, but the most notable role of the core is stabilizing the spine, and doing squats and deadlifts can push your core stability to the limit, all the while burning loads of calories since so many different muscle groups go into these exercises.

What’s the difference between a deadlift and a squat? At a glance you might think these two exercises are similar, but though they are both leg and core exercises, they are completely different in technique and as a result put more focus on different muscle groups.

Let’s take a look at the deadlift.

The deadlift is going to focus on the posterior (back) side of your legs. That means the hamstrings and glutes are going to be doing a large amount of the work. Now, that isn’t to say the quads aren’t working at all. They are and have to, but they aren’t going to be working like the hamstrings and glutes. The deadlift is also going to put more pressure on your back but in a good way 🙂 Your back doesn’t do any lifting. It just has to stay extra tight to avoid letting your torso round and slump over.

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When lifting you want to keep your weight towards your heels (this is common in many exercises as it relieves pressure on the knee), your feet pointed forward (unless a variation calls for otherwise), your shins almost vertical, and your eyes, not your head, gazing a distance forward; your head should stay in a neutral position relative to your spine. You should feel like you are reaching your hips back in an attempt to sit into a chair that is too far away. You will be a in a state of maximal hip flexion (folding at your waist) and less knee flexion (knees bending). On the way up you drive into your heels, squeezing your glutes, and driving your hips forward until you are in a completely upright position with your knees locked, shoulders back, and hips fully extended. Then, simply control the descent as you reverse what you did on the way up.

Now, let’s look at the squat.

The squat is going to focus on the anterior (front) side of your legs. Now, as previously stated, the glutes and hamstrings will still help a good amount, but as you certainly will feel after a set or two, your quads (thighs) are doing most of the work. The majority of squats will focus more equally on all core muscles since your torso is more upright.

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You want to prepare for the exercise with a good sense of balance having your weight slightly on your heels again, this time your feet will be turned SLIGHTLY outward, and your eyes will be forward. You are then going to lower your hips down to the ground while keeping your torso upright (“chest up”). During the squat your knees will come much further forward than in the deadlift and your shins should be nowhere near vertical. Here you will be in a state of maximal knee flexion (knees bending) and maximal hip flexion (bending at the waist). Your heels need to remain on the ground and your back must stay straight (natural spinal curve while standing) throughout the movement. Your hips should descend until they stop naturally (not from the pain of a stretch) below knee height. Maintaining your form you drive your way back up following the same path you descended with.

These exercises are fundamental to so many others, and are valuable and beneficial in and of themselves. Try to perform with better technique every opportunity you get! Even when getting out of a seat or picking up a pencil!

Now go and put your new knowledge into practice!

Thanks for reading!

Dylan Long

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