Many refer to the deadlift as the most complex exercise with the steepest learning curve and in many ways it can be. When compared to the squat, you could argue that it is the less used movement pattern in daily life; sitting in a chair every time you are essentially squatting so that movement should be more innate, right?
As likely as it is that all of us are thinking about our postural alignment when going to the potty, there is more at play here…
Whichever one you do more often on a day to day may have some impact on which you are likely to catch on quicker to from a body awareness standpoint, but the squat is typically harder to master and here’s why:
A squat requires perfect timing of hip, knee, and ankle flexion in order to maintain ideal alignment. Essentially you have to break at the hips and knees at the same time (maybe knees slightly before), and at the same rate so that you don’t excessively lean forward.
Assuming we are talking about a barbell back squat (long heavy weight resting on the tops of your shoulder blades), a deadlift is actually more familiar to the body from a neuromuscular standpoint as you can actually see the weight.
Playing off of the above, it is easier to engage lats and core with any deadlift variation as you fight to keep the weight from pulling you forward.
At its root, a deadlift is a hinge movement, and a squat requires a slight element of a hinge so it can be confusing to what degree you need to lean forward. Simply put, a deadlift is pushing hips back, bending knees and picking up weight and putting it back down. A squat is this delicate balance of all of the above and there is constant tension since the weight never rests.
Okay so if a squat is harder to learn, what can you do to get better at it? Here are some ways to work towards improving your squat:
1. Dismiss the notion that lower automatically means better. Ass-to-grass is not the goal, the goal is to get stimulus from quads, glutes, and hamstrings to grow the muscle.
With that in mind, squatting to around a 90 degree joint angle is where there is peak intramuscular tension and going much lower than that will rely on a stretch reflex to bounce back up.
2. “Your squat stance and foot placement depends on your individual body structure.”
Sounds like it makes sense, everyone has different bodies so squat stance should take that into account.
To a degree this is true, but the squat biomechanics for Simone Biles and Shaquille O’Neal should look more or less the same. Feet parallel to each other (which is likely to feel pigeon-toed), feet hip to shoulder-width apart, and pausing no lower than thighs parallel to the floor.
3. Finding and accessing glutes and hamstrings is hugely important in a squat. But to get those muscles to fire in hip extension (on the way up), you have to effectively get into hip flexion (the bottom of the squat). Solution? Train hip flexion.
Simple exercises that get the quad and hip flexor to fire, either done before or paired with the squat, will allow you to sit into the squat with much more comfort and ease.
Understanding the difference between squat and deadlift can be confusing, and in a lot of ways they are very similar. Oftentimes, if you do one when you mean to do the other, you won’t be in a harmful position, you will just be doing a different exercise.
Simple reminder, in a squat your torso is more upright relative to the floor, and in a deadlift you are more bent over. Bam, just solved all of life's problems...I know it was eating away at you.