Topic of the Week 2 – Best Squat and Deadlift Combination

Last week I posted the first topic of the week…on types of squats. The comments were outstanding. Although I liked what everyone wrote, I especially liked Rob Panariello’s comments – the guy is extremely intelligent.

For this week’s topic, I’d like to discuss deadlifts. There are advantages and disadvantages to all types of deadlifts:

- Conventional deadlifts seem to maximize hamstring activity, but they impose a larger penalty on the low back.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-FLZfgsRebg

- Sumo deadlifts are easier on the low back, and may increase quad and even glute activation, but the can be problematic for some lifter’s hips.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QNPXmiWCBi0

- Trap bar deadlifts are most likely the safest*, as they allow the knees to move forward a bit more so the quads can take more of the load, but this means that posterior chain will receive less of the load (more on this later).

*If this variation allows individuals to go much heavier, then the loading on the spine could be the same or even higher than the conventional variation simply because more resistance is being employed, despite the fact that the horizontal distance from the spine to the bar’s COM is closer.

Types of Deadlifts

There are plenty of good deadlifts. You can toy around with:

stance width (conventional, medium sumo, wide sumo)

range of motion (rack pull, conventional, deficit)

grip (double overhand, mixed grip, clean grip, snatch grip)

center of gravity (conventional, hex, behind the back aka. hack lift)

types of implements (kettlebells, dumbbells, sandbags, barbells, cables, trap bars, bands/chains, etc.)

number of limbs (two legs, one leg, two hands, one hand “suitcase”)

hip action (straight leg, Romanian, Dimel, etc.)

If I Could Only Do One Exercise…

It’s easily arguable that the deadlift is the best exercise is existence. The same argument could be made of a squat. If I could only do one exercise for the rest of my life, I’d want to do a mixture between the squat and deadlift.

Enter the trap bar deadlift. Here are some screenshots of how people typically set up for trap bar deads:

Here’s what you’ll notice:

1. The knees are usually more forward

2. The hips are often slightly lower

Here’s the typically hip and knee position of a conventional deadlift:

In the case of the trap bar deadlift, the kinematics change and the knees and ankles tend to flex more and the center of mass shifts forward.

This makes it a combination of a squat and deadlift. If you ever read Brawn back in the day, you remember he was a huge proponent of this lift. Some have even called the exercise the “Trap Bar Squat Lift.”

What About the Straddle Lift?

I read about this exercise years ago and believe it’s one of the best exercises in existence. This exercise is not to be confused with the Jefferson lift, which many people also call the straddle lift. The straddle lift I’m talking about looks like this:

I wrote about this exercise in my glute eBook a couple years ago. It’s an amazing exercise. Here I am doing it with a loading pin I got from Ironmind around ten years ago. They make a 12″ and 15″ version. I’m also using a DD Handle and two pulling stands, but you can stand on anything that’s stable. I’ve come up with this analogy to describe the straddle lift:

The deadlift is to the trap bar deadlift as the sumo deadlift is to the straddle lift.

The hands go inside the thighs so the knees can travel forward more, but you can also stand on different box heights to vary the range of motion. In the picture above you can see I’m going pretty deep. This exercise is very safe on the low back, and is an excellent variation that I wish more people tried.

You can do something similar with a belt squat machine sold by Westside Barbell, Elitefts, or Sorinex, but in my experience the free weight version works better.

Though this variation is not very practical for athletes in large settings, it could be with some creativity.

Carryover?

Strangely, I’ve found that the trap bar deadlift and straddle lift do not carry over to my squat, front squat, conventional deadlift, or sumo deadlift much. I would think that they would since they’re such amazing lifts, but perhaps since they’re right smack in between squats and deads they aren’t specific enough to either one to transfer over much.

Finally, the Topic of the Week: What Type of Squat and Deadlift Combination is Best?

Last week we hashed out our thoughts on squat variations. Keep your same squat, and now pick a deadlift that you like that compliments the squat.

For example, the box squat and trap bar deadlift may be slightly redundant…as they’re at similar points on the quad/hip dominant spectrum.

Mike Boyle likes the rear foot elevated split squat (aka Bulgarian split squat) and the trap bar deadlift. I can very much appreciate this combination for its emphasis on safety.

I prefer the full squat and the conventional deadlift. For me and most of my clients, since I hammer the quads with full squats, I’m looking to my deadlift for balance. The conventional deadlift keeps more tension on the hamstrings, especially the way I (and my clients) tend to deadlift – with high hips.

I like to think of the hammies like a sling shot.

Right before initiating movement on the bar, I move the knees back and raise the hips to really tense the hammies, which considerably adds to the power of the pull.

I personally believe that this combination – the full squat and conventional deadlift, will lead to the maximum total power output potential of the glutes, quads, and hamstrings. The hammies are so darn important in sprinting, which is why I prefer the conventional deadlift over the trap bar deadlift.

Now it’s your turn. Which combination do you prefer?

31 thoughts on “Topic of the Week 2 – Best Squat and Deadlift Combination

  1. Eric Moss RKC

    This is going to sound very stereotypical of my “cult” but my choice would be a cross between a kettlebell snatch and a turkish getup. So many things get addressed simultaneously within those 2 things and luckily they can be combined into one movement (sorta).

    Reply
  2. Josh

    Front squat paired with snatch grip deads. The front squat hits the quads and anterior/lateral core more so than other squat variations in my opinion. It also places some stress on the muscles of the upper back. You cannot get away with poor form on a front squat; it’s a winner. To compliment it, the snatch grip dead is perfect. Lots of stress on the posterior chain; a pefect alternative for balancing out the FSQ and getting the most bang for your buck.

    Reply
  3. Jim Smith

    I prefer Overhead Squats & conventional deads. I am not a fan of the back squat, but I get some front squatting coming out of the bottom of the clean. Usually weekly ;-)

    Reply
  4. Steven Rice Fitness

    I’ll stick with my bias toward functional training- single leg, contralateral arm deads. A lot less load on the prime movers, but stabilizers, anti-rotation core muscles, and balance get hammered while you pick up something heavy.

    Reply
  5. Deep

    Excellent article Bret…
    I am not a big fan of the back squat, too many cases where lumbar spine gets fatigued much before the legs… usually go for a sandbag zercher full squat, very high rep bodyweight full squats, box squats, or unilateral leg movements like step-ups…
    In almost all cases I go for conventional deadlifts, sometimes sumo deadlifts… however before either of the movements I have clients perform high rep boxing bag lifts to prepare them…

    I can definitely see the value of a trap bar and I am going to get one soon as most people take some time to learn conventional deads..

    I completely agree that any type of full squats and conventional deads are best as a combination…

    Am a rookie in the field, would welcome suggestions from all you experienced colleagues :)

    Thanks,
    Deep

    Reply
  6. Steve Bergeron

    Couldn’t agree more about conventional deadlifts and full squats for strength and total power output for “most” people, myself included.

    I do like to rotate in other variations in my programming from time to time to get well rounded in other areas.

    There is nothing like loading up a trapbar to pull some significant numbers for reps. It’s good for confidence as well.

    Reply
  7. Danny McLarty

    Speaking for my own lifting sessions (as opposed to the great variation in my clients needs/abilities);

    If I had to pick two it would be the back squat and trap bar dl (slightly over sumo dls). I know this combo is on the quad dominant side of the continuum, but this doesn’t bother me because the rest of my program balances this out… since I also include RDLs, single leg swiss ball leg curls, G-HR, hip thrusts etc.

    Reply
  8. Aaron

    Bret,

    Excellent article! I’m a tall lanky dude, so the deadlift sometimes stresses my LS more than usual. However, I really like the trap bar deadlift because it not only gets the quads and glutes, but also gets a lot of trapezius work. My two fav’s right now are Trap bar deadlifts and front squats.

    Reply
  9. Marianne

    MMM – there are too many choices!? I’m tempted to answer instead, which anterior/posterior combo I prefer, but as you have “narrowed” it down… I reckon – Back squat (as it is more “open” at the chest and anterior delts – balancing all the KB front squats I do), plus conventional DL or KB Single-Leg DL, or… Clearly still having difficulty choosing!

    Still love the sumo though, and barbell front squat (clean grip though as it balances out all the closed grip I do) AAAHHH!

    Maybe I have OCD having to pair everything up for balance, even down to the grip LOL!!

    Great article – way to hammer home the importance of balance in a workout :D

    Cheers

    Reply
  10. Matias

    Way before Bret Contreras had a written for T-Nation, I remember seeing a video on youtube of some guys doing hip thrusts on what I now know to be The Scorcher. The setting looked like that picture. I remember going around countless gyms to see if they had this machine, and of course I never found any. The friggin’ Scorcher…hahahaha. The friggin’ hip thrust for that matter. We’ve come a long way. Can’t wait to see what the future holds.

    Reply
  11. Dave

    Front squats and conventional deads. Although I’m a huge proponent of single leg work aswell (big supporter of Boyles controversial Squat id dead speech)
    Although for newbies, I use KB deads as they safer for the same reasons you mentioned on the straddle lift. Newbies also use the goblet squat with a single bell before they get to go near a bar.

    Reply
  12. Dean Somerset

    Regardless of the activity, the set-up for the pelvis matters more than the actual act of movement. Say we’re performing a back squat, then the pelvis would have to have more of an anterior tilt than when performing the front squat, which would involve more of a posterior tilt. A sumo deadlift would allow for an easier anterior tilt than a conventional, which you did a fantasic job of pointing out the risk of lumbar flexion being higher.

    The combo I use with back injury clients looking to still squat is a dumbell loaded front squat combined with a modified sumo stance deadlift, and also a reduced range back extension with the knees flexed slightly to up-regulate the hamstrings. For athletes, the carry-over is similar, but the loads and positions can be increased. Just my two cents.

    Reply
  13. Sean

    I personally like conventional squat and rack deadlifting altenating them and then alternating in ”as well” with high rep trap bar squating every 10 -14 days or so ,depending on recovery. I feel like the high rep trap bar works the uppper body a good bit and is just a mental break from pounding out heavy deads and squat. I find the struggle is ”dread of heavy hard work” ,were as with a break between its not so bad. I didnt know how to do the rack deads until my dad showed me Brets Video on how to and then it clicked. I like them now were before I didnt really so much.

    Reply
  14. Moez

    Thanks for the article Bret! There are great info there and I am learning a lot from the comments.

    I like all Deadlift variations. It’s difficult to say which one is best. I would rather keep the client in mind and pick one of the many DL variations.

    Honestly, I live in a very remote place on the planet (Islamabad)and have difficulty getting my hands on the many tools you guys have access to but have made all of them myself to be able to train clients in a safer way.

    However, I would normally start them off with the TB DL, teach them Sumo, and then move on to conventional DL – I use Vince Anello’s style if the client has long arms ;) I keep heavy RDL for later stages since the lowering part of the lift can be quite taxing on the client.

    I am not sure I would do the Jefferson lift but I normally make everyone learn all the rest and do single leg and single arm variations as well.

    Reply
  15. Jesse

    Low Bar Full Squats and Conventional DLs all the way! I’ve always found that arm flexibility/ upper back stability was the limiting factor for almost everyone I’ve trained with in front squats, and that you just couldn’t load them heavy enough.

    For example, 4 girls I’ve taught to deadlift pulled 135 their first heavy day with good form (this was less than BW for all of them), whereas two of them could not even FS the bar. All of them could put the bar on their back and knock out some back squats though.

    Reply
  16. Elsbeth Vaino

    Good stuff as always. Just wondering though – why didn’t the Romanian Deadlift factor into your article?

    I like to use all sorts of variations, depending on the client, but I am enjoying the conventional deadlift these days and typically pair it with an RFE split squat. I also like front or goblet squats paired with single-leg Romanian deadlifts. I typically only see clients once or twice a week for an hour, so I have to be efficient with my program. Those combinations still get me a balance of squat/deadlift and bilateral/unilateral.

    Reply
    1. Bret Post author

      Great question Elsbeth!

      I love the RDL, and have some really good thoughts on the topic…might do some experimenting here at AUT with the idea to test muscle activation, before I write about it. However, I see the RDL as more of an assistance lift than a primary lift. Although it stretches the hamstring it’s still a partial range lift in comparison to full ROM’s, so it’s not as taxing (which could be a good thing or a not so good thing depending on the rest of the program). I feel this way about high box squats, half squats, barbell glute bridges, and rack pulls as well. Great for variation and good to throw in at times, but not necessarily a “staple.”

      Reply
  17. Ben Mays

    A massive light on moment for myself here in terms of the trap bar deadlift. I’ve been looking at this for a while expecially how when things get heavy most quad dominant lifters tend to sit further into the lift and “squat” the bar up. I’ve sort of treated this as a bit of a bad thing but actually looking at it maybe not such a bad thing, especially with guys where access is limited during the week.

    Reply
  18. Rob Panariello

    Some thoughts on this subject:

    1. Exercise Variation – If variation of exercise leads to enhanced adaptation to the athletes “skills” then should we limit the exercise performance to one specific type of deadlift? That said, I do believe that a “main” deadlift exercise should be performed and perhaps other “deadlift variations” be incorporated as “assistance or unloading” type exercises. In discussing the trapbar deadlift, my belief (and others beliefs as well) is that this exercise is very similar to the squat exercise. If the athlete is already performing the squat exercise during their training, are other variations of the deadlift (i.e. conventional, sumo, etc.) be more suited to incorporate in training vs. the trapbar deadlift. In other words should the athlete master more tasks (exercises) that are very different vs. master tasks that are very similar? If an athlete can master various different skills vs. various similar skills, wouldn’t you have an overall better athlete?

    2. The Bar at the Level of the Knee – During performance of the conventional deadlift it is often discuss that failure of the lift will occur during the conclusion of the lift, at “lock out” so to speak. However, the greatest moment arm (distance from the bar to the spine) occurs at the bar position at the knee (the bar position at “lockout” has a much smaller moment arm). The bar position at the knee requires significant “output” so to speak, to continue with the bar ascent to complete the lift. Does the athlete “drain the tank” at this bar position making the lockout difficult? Will specific training at this bar/knee position result in successful lifts (including the lockout)?

    3. Why don’t we train the low back? – Certainly loaded lumbar flexion will place stress upon the lumbar spine. The greater the loaded lumbar flexion the greater the stress. The erector spinae muscles work to resist lumbar flexion when the spine is loaded. The stronger these muscles are the more likely the athlete is able maintain an appropriate and safe posture during lumbar spine loaded exercise performance. Exercises such as RDL’s, hyper’s, etc… will certainly enhance the strength and stiffness of these muscles. Maybe our thought process shouldn’t be “I see the value in that exercise but I don’t utilize that exercise because it will hurt the athlete’s back” maybe our thought process should be “How do I prepare my athlete to safely perform those exercises of great value”.

    Being a physical therapist and athletic trainer I have the advantage (or sometimes the disadvantage) of treating patients who have sustained injuries. Right now I have 3 patients who have sustained low back injuries while weight training. I have a certified kettelbell instructor who injured his back performing kettlebell swings, a personal trainer client who injured her back performing kettlebell swings, and an individual who injured his back performing the trapbar deadlift. Any exercise can cause injury, but I would bet the ranch that the kettlebell and the trapbar deadlift will never come under such scrutiny as the conventional deadlift or especially the back squat exercise.

    Reply
  19. Rich

    I assume great technique is a given in this discussion? Most exercises are, in and of themselves, relatively benign. Bad technique can turn a great exercise into a nightmare.

    Somewhere along the line, the concept of technical failure, or just plain old good form throughout the set, has been forgotten with regards to deciding whether one squats(or doesn’t squat) or which deadlift variation they choose to use. If it looks great, what’s wrong with it?

    Rob makes a great point about using preceding cycles to prepare one’s body for the task which is about to come. Rather than dumping an exercise, how about fixing the weak link(s)? I think this, along with the athlete’s training age, what they’re being prepared for, and what other training needs to get done, determines what variations should or shouldn’t be used.

    Reply
  20. Myles Astor

    Bret:

    Why not do clean pulls instead of deadlifts? Doesn’t take much to teach and if we follow Verhoshansky, the velocity about the joint is closer to that of the actual event. Plus you get a bit more eccentric action, again mimicing more of what the hamstring has to encounter.

    I’d also like to throw in for consideration, despite Rob’s comments and my deep respect for his knowledge and experience, heavy KB swings to get the glutes, hams and posterior superficial back line working. Let’s face it: any exercise done improperly is dangerous (and most PT and strength coaches don’t know how to teach OLifts and KBs :( ). Done properly however, that’s another story. That is a great combo with squats and one can also add other techniques to add eccentric load to the backside using bands or throwing the KB back while the person is swinging.

    As Rob said, preparation is key and part of preparation is what Gray called functional movement. There are a host of other assessments out there that complement the FMS such as Anthony Carey’s MX IR/ER hip, looking at execution of back bends and how the pelvis/SI joint is lined up (or misaligned). Sooner or later, the athlete/client is going to have to address these issues and sooner is better than later :)

    Reply
  21. Mark

    I like Regular stance or narrow stance Barbell squat simply because for some reason my quads grow really fast on this movement. One thing Ive noted ”for myself” is my quads grow faster than my glutes do,which over time causes an imbalance and eventually could lead to an injury I think. So ,with that in mind I think Narrow ”shoulder width ” stance squat followed by GHR for a few sets and finshing with 45 degree hip raises or hip thrusts are the best corse for me. Depending on how my body acts (knees ,back ect) I would throw in some serious RDL , instead of doing squat and really try to build up my glutes. I think the one thing many people are missing out on ,including myself is ”flexability” .. I really was suprised to see a recent study of improved strength by 14% with passive stretching . I think to activate the primary muscles right, they must be flexable. Its hard to explain , but the main goal is to build up in one phase so I can move to the next phase . I dont mention full deadlifts but in the end ,if things went as planned that would be the ultimate goal,but not until I reach good fleability and strength in the glutes.

    Reply
  22. Rob Panariello

    Miles,

    Just so I’m clear re: my post, I am not against the use of kettlebells, or any exercise (bi-lateral or single leg) for that matter. There is no “safe” exercise as if one was to exist, adaptation for performance enhancement would probably not occur resulting in a waste of training time.

    My point is that anyone may be injured during the performance of any exercise so preparation vs. “dumping an exercise” is certainly a viable and safe option. As Rich points out the far majority of the exercises available for us to utilize are relatively benign. in my opinion, the instruction of proper exercise performance technique, appropriate exercise selection based on the athletes medical history, screening results, the athlete’s needs and goals, as well as appropriate programming (intensities and volumes) are some of the important criteria to ensure safe training. To label any exercise more dangerous than another due to the stresses applied to the body does not make sense to me as all exercises apply stress to the body. The body’s adaptation to these stresses is what results in enhanced performance.

    If an athlete is injured due to poor exercise technique instruction, an inappropriate application of an exercise, and/or inappropriate training programming, why is that the fault of the exercise? Why is the responsibility of the coach eliminated or ignored?

    I agree with Rich and am very appreciative of his comment “Somewhere along the line, the concept of technical failure, or just plain old good form throughout the set, has been forgotten…”

    Exercises such as the back squat, deadlift, olympic lifts, presses, etc… aren’t very romantic and require hard work, but they certainly are effective, so effective that they have withstood the test of time. Only time will tell if other methods of training will survive the same stringent test.

    Reply
  23. Clement

    I’m with Bret on this one: the shoulder-width stance full squat and conventional deadlifts are the way to go. This may be because I’m very much training to improve my athletic performance.

    Very often, the deadlift is used to improve jumping and running. The sumo stance wouldn’t be that which the athletes adopt when jumping or running. That’s why I seldom do sumo deadlifting, even though I can always pull heavier weights on it (I have long legs).

    Bret, what did you mean when you talked about sumo deadlifts being “problemmatic” to the hips?

    Reply
  24. Dave Sandel

    Well, well, well! I don’t ever make the top reads of the week, but I guess I’ll accept a totally random screenshot of me doing some trap bar deads! :-p

    Great post, Brett!

    Reply
  25. Pingback: Bret Contreras » Straight Bar Deadlift versus Hex Bar Deadlift

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