Continued – Squats and Deadlifts are Similar but Different

May 16, 2012

By Coach Kaehler

Squats and deadlifts are common lifting techniques used to help improve rowing strength and power.   While they look similar in appearance, recent research has shown that back squats and the dead lift recruit muscles around the hips, knees and trunk in different ways.   The squat tends to be a synergistic or simultaneous movement of the hips, knees and trunk, whereas the deadlift is a sequential or segmented movement.   Using all three of these lifts may be a more inclusive way to develop complete rowing power; however certain physical conditions may exclude use of one or all of these techniques.

The back squat is a commonly used strength training technique to help improve rowing power and it helps develop strength in the glutes, quads and hamstrings and to a lesser extent in the low back and abdominal muscles.   A back squat is done by placing the bar behind the neck at the C7 vertebral level securing the bar with the hands.   The weight is lowered to the desired depth (hole) and returned to the starting position.  Hip and knee angles change equally, both working at similar rates, throughout the entire upward movement of the squat, with little change in trunk angle (body) during the entire lift.

The squat is an excellent simultaneous exercise and it develops quad, glute and hamstring strength with little strain placed on the low back.   This technique is used by athletes returning from, or those with previous back conditions because of the reduced force placed on the low back, it does however it does tend to have increased knee joint pressure because of the vertical trunk position.  Using a more vertical trunk position does make it more difficult to get the thighs below 90 degrees (parallel to the floor) without significant knee pressure.

There are two basic strategies for deadlifts (lifting weight off the ground), the leg-lift method and the back-lift method.  The leg-lift deadlift is done in a synergistic way where by the hips and knees are used together through the entire lift, like in the back squat.  This technique requires greater knee flexion (bend) which allows the lifter to keep the trunk in a relatively straight (vertical) position when performing the lift.  This technique does place more stress on the knees however there is a reduction in the force placed through the low back.   The back-lift is method is broken up into three segments based on dominant joint action; knee extension, hip extension, and knee/hip extension.   The first part of the lift is done by driving the hips upward  without any trunk movement and is done by extending the knees, then the hips begin to extend which forces the trunk to come upright, and then both the hips and knees come together to complete the movement which is  an upright standing position.   This technique places greater force on the low back and less strain on the knees.   When doing a deadlift with heavier loads (<80% 1RM) the back method appears to be the most commonly used technique.   Both methods are used to lift weight off the floor and each distributes forces to the low back and knees in different proportions.

Squats and deadlifts are excellent strength training techniques and they can help improve your rowing strength and power.   Deciding which areas of the body you want to strengthen will help you choose the best lift technique.   If you want to strengthen the quads, glutes and hamstrings but want to place minimal stress on the low back then use the leg- lift deadlift and the back squat.  For those who want to improve the strength of the low back while still working the quads, glutes and hamstrings then the back-lift deadlift is a good choice.   If you have a pre-existing low back or knee dysfunction choosing the appropriate lift will help you reduce the risk of re-injuring that area.  Make sure to consult with a medical professional if you are strength training especially if you have a current or pre-existing musculoskeletal injury, and ensure you are using the proper lifting technique by receiving instruction from a professional lifting coach.

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