Squats and Deadlifts are sometimes lumped together, but they emphasize different movement patterns, recruit different muscles and require different actions and body positioning. Athletes should be assessed to determine whether they are anatomically suited to perform each exercise.
Here are two simple screens to determine whether the Deadlift and Squat are appropriate exercises for your athletes.
Maybe you've heard the phrase "stability vs. mobility." Stability means core engagement. If your core is disengaged, your body automatically tries to protect itself by tightening up other regions. It's common for the hamstrings, hip flexors, external rotators and low back to tighten up when the core isn't engaged.
Have your athlete squat all the way to the floor, and observe when his/her lower back begins to tuck under (a.k.a., "butt wink"). This tests stability. If the tuck begins too early, the athlete's core may not be stable enough. Widen the squat stance, place weights under their feet (which creates artificial dorsiflexion for those with limited ankle mobility) and have them work on bracing the core. Have your athlete squat with a 10- to 25-pound plate placed in front. This automatically activates the core, allowing the Squat to go deeper.
Have the athlete assume a tabletop position with their hands slightly wider than shoulder-width, their knees directly under their hips and their feet in a comfortable squat position. Observe when their lower back begins to tuck under. This tests mobility.
If the butt wink begins before parallel, it could indicate a lack of mobility. Have the athlete try stretching and opening up the hips. And if the lower back tucks under early, this could be the athlete's natural anatomical depth. Some bodies are just not fit for squatting.
A simple screen to determine whether your athletes are prepared to deadlift is the toe touch. Have the athlete stand upright with his/her knees locked, then bend at the waist.
Before beginning a deadlifting program, athletes should be able to touch their toes. If they cannot, start by teaching them motor control with proper hinging, core strengthening and hamstring stretching. Use Deadlift variations such as the American or Sumo until the athlete can touch their toes. Once that goal is reached, they can begin the conventional Deadlift.
Visualizing the Difference
According to Easy Strength, by Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline, the squat pattern is a "deep movement of the knees and hips," whereas the Deadlift is a "deep hip movement with minimal knee bend." In layman's terms, Squats are quad-dominantand Deadlifts are glute-dominant. The main muscles engaged during a Squat are the quads and glutes. During the Deadlift, it's the glutes and hamstrings. The angle at the hip is different. The Squat pattern is more upright, and in the Deadlift, the torso is bent.
The next time you open a door, swing it open a few times. You'll understand why it's called a hinge.
Other Things to Consider
If an athlete feels pain during the Squat or Deadlift, either the exercise may not be right for their body, or they're not doing the lift properly. A lot of people improperly deadlift by squatting instead of hinging, or performing Good Morning Squats rather than traditional Squats. A Good Morning Squat is when the the hips rise faster than the knees and you end up doing a Good Morning exercise.
Also, during a Squat the knees should be closer to the toes, with the shins at a 30- to 45-degree angle. During the Deadlift, the shins should be closer to vertical. Athletes can learn to sit back into the Deadlift by pulling themselves into the bar. This puts more emphasis on the posterior chain, while teaching the proper engagement of the lats and lift through the glutes.
At Show Up Fitness in Santa Monica, most of our athletes perform both exercises. Day 1 is Squat-focused, and Day 2 is focused on hinging. There are a few exceptions. We train a lot of baseball players who lack sufficient shoulder mobility to get their hands on the bar during a Squat. With these guys, we choose the Front Squat or a safety Squat using wraps to protect their shoulders.
Basketball players with abnormally long torsos are at a disadvantage for conventional deadlifting. We have them widen their stances and do Sumo Deadlifts instead.
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