How to Help Your Squat Catch Up With Your Deadlift

The squat has several mechanical advantages over the deadlift, so why can't your squat catch up with your deadlift? It comes down to one key difference.
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squat catch up with your deadlift

Before we get into this post on helping your squat catch up to your deadlift, I want to let you know about our giant How to Squat guide. It covers everything you need to know about every aspect of the squat – from biomechanics to correcting weaknesses to technique. Click here to open it in a new tab so you can check it out after you’ve finished reading this article. 

At first glance (if you know what to look for), it’s odd that most people deadlift more than they squat.  People take for granted that your deadlift will naturally be stronger than your squat because, well, most people deadlift more than they squat.

When you stop and think about it, though, that doesn’t make a ton of sense.

Your first reaction to that statement may be, “Of course it makes sense!  Since the squat contains greater maximum knee and hip flexion angles (which generally makes a lift harder) and you simply have to move the bar farther (which generally makes a lift harder), of course the squat is going to be harder than the deadlift!”

However, there’s more to it than that.

You may assume that squats are inherently harder than deadlifts. That's not the whole story. Click To Tweet

Remember, you don’t miss a lift because you were too weak through the entire range of motion.  You miss a lift because you were too weak through your very weakest part of the lift.

The sticking point in the squat occurs a bit above parallel.  Most importantly, that means it occurs when the shoulders are above where they’d be at the starting point in the deadlift for almost everyone.

At face value, that means that if you can deadlift a weight, you should be able to squat it if you just consider the knee and hip extension torque required to lift a given load.  Even if you had really weak quads and kicked your hips back coming out of the hole so that your shins were roughly vertical (as they’d be when deadlifting), all that would do is put you in a similar position as the one you deadlift from, so, from that position, if you can pull the weight, that means you can produce enough hip extension torque to squat the weight as well.  You may assume that a difference in stance width between your squat and deadlift would affect this, but keep in mind that the differences between the two deadlift styles, and between different stance widths in the squat (there was a statistically significant difference in muscle activation for only the gluteus maximus, but the magnitude of that difference was pretty tiny.  The reason you’d expect the differences to be pretty small is explained here) are pretty small.

Another benefit you have with squats is that you don’t have a bar in front of your shins (as you do with the deadlift) to constrain forward knee travel.  If you have a weaker back, you can stay more upright, and when you hit the sticking point, you can drive your hips back under the bar (which reduces hip extension torque, which is still high through the sticking point, and shift more of the load back to the quads, which aren’t being taxed to nearly the same degree once you reach that point in the lift). You can then break through and finish the lift.

Regardless of the position you’re strongest in, as long as you can get the bar back to the same height as your shoulders start in the deadlift (and almost everyone can), you should be able to put yourself in a position that’s at least as strong as the position you deadlift from, or stronger than the position you deadlift from.

Furthermore, when you reach the sticking point in the squat, the bar is already moving!  You already have some degree of momentum built up, whereas you’re starting your deadlift from a dead stop without the benefit of momentum or much of a stretch reflex.  That gives the squat one more advantage over the deadlift, in terms of how much weight you should be able to lift.

Finally, the last advantage of the squat is that once you break through the sticking point, the lift is essentially done.  Unless you lose your balance, you’re going to finish the lift.  With the deadlift, on the other hand, the sticking point, on average occurs just below knee height, though there is a lot of variability (this point doesn’t really apply to people who can finish any lift they can break off the floor, but it does apply to anyone who misses a deadlift at any point after the bar leaves the ground). So, with the squat, not only are you already past the starting height of the deadlift before you reach your sticking point, but once you break through the sticking point of the squat, the lift is basically finished, whereas most lifters will still miss their deadlifts after the bar leaves the ground.

Squats have several distinct mechanical advantages over deadlifts. Click To Tweet

All of that taken together – the weakest point of the squat occurring when your shoulders are already above their position at the start of the deadlift, the increased freedom for forward knee travel, already having momentum built up at the same position where you’d be starting a deadlift from a dead stop, and the fact that you’re almost guaranteed to finish a squat once you break through the sticking point, whereas there is still a strong likelihood of missing a heavy deadlift – would make you assume that the squat was an inherently easier lift.  Discounting two very fundamental differences, it is:

Bracing and thoracic erector strength.

Bracing

I’ll readily admit that I don’t have any science to directly back this up, but:

1) I’m not even sure how you’d study this in the specific context of comparing the squat and deadlift.  You could compare the activation of different muscles at different points in the movement, but I’m really not sure how you could objectively assign “better” and “worse.”  You could compare how activation patterns differed between more experience and less experienced lifters, but there would still be a ton of uncontrolled variables.

2) If this isn’t true, it would go against all of the fundamentals we know about motor learning.

Humans pick stuff up off the ground and lift or carry relatively heavy loads in their hands or in front of their bodies for their entire lives.  Before you ever touched a barbell, you’d performed thousands of movements that were very similar to a deadlift and that required similar core bracing patterns.  This practice started in childhood, when it’s easier to learn and master new motor patterns.

On the other hand, though you’ve been squatting from the time you were a baby, you probably never squatted down to full depth with a heavy load across your shoulders and stood back up with it until you started strength training.  The differences between an unweighted squat and a weighted squat are huge when it comes to torso bracing demands.  You didn’t start learning that bracing pattern until you actually started squatting.

If you can think back to your first time trying to squat and deadlift, there was probably a pretty stark difference in terms of how comfortable each of them felt.

Most new lifters learn how to deadlift somewhat proficiently pretty quickly.  Sure, they may need a cue or two to keep from rounding their spine, but generally they learn the deadlift pretty quickly.  I’d contend that’s the reason why most lifters, especially new lifters, find that the deadlift taxes their recovery more than the squat does; they’re already fairly decent at deadlifting, but horrible at squatting, so they’re training the deadlift at a higher percentage of their actual muscular capacity, whereas they’re simply unable to tax their muscles and nervous system to the same degree with the squat because they’re so inefficient at using that motor pattern.

The squat is often another beast entirely.  Many brand new lifters can squat relatively well without load, but when you put a bar on their back, things go downhill quickly.  A good coach can get their squat to look pretty decent within a session or two, but it’s still a markedly more awkward movement for quite some time.  I also think it’s telling that the tool most commonly used to teach a new lifter how to squat – the goblet squat – loads the movement in front of the body.  Many new lifters who can’t even squat well without weight can perform a pretty good looking goblet squat right away, even with loads light enough that you can’t chalk the difference up to a major shift in the center of gravity.  When you put some sort of load in front of their body, they naturally brace their core effectively, which allows them to squat pretty well.

Most deadlift more than they squat because the bracing pattern comes more naturally. Click To Tweet

I don’t think most people ever fully overcome this motor deficit.  I think most people, even with years of practice, still naturally brace better for the deadlift than the squat, unless they happened to start squatting at a young age.

However, over time, the gap between the squat and deadlift that most people have narrows considerably.

Looking at data from people who are very good at both lifts (competitors in the 2015 IPF raw world championships), a 10% gap between the squat and deadlift seems to be pretty typical, with about 2/3 of lifters squatting between 80-100% of their max deadlift.

How much IPF competitors squat relative to their deadlift

Weight class (kg) 1 standard deviation below Mean 1 standard deviation above
59 82% 90% 98%
66 81% 88% 96%
74 78% 86% 95%
83 81% 86% 90%
93 80% 88% 97%
105 84% 92% 100%
120 91% 98% 105%
SHW 89% 104% 119%

Two things worth pointing out:

  1. 120 kg lifters and SHWs, on average, squat about the same amount as they DL, if not a bit more.  This could be because their thicker torsos allow them to brace for squats more effectively, or it could be that having a gut negatively impacts their DL starting position (especially for conventional deadlifters).  It’s probably a combination of the two factors.
  2. These are lifters competing without knee wraps.  With wraps, “average” would probably be closer to a 1:1 squat:deadlift ratio.
Over time, the gap between squat and deadlift most people have narrows considerably. Click To Tweet

Obviously a blanket figure like “your squat should be 90% of your deadlift.  Full stop,” would be too simplistic since it doesn’t take into account differences in technique or body proportions (like crazy long arms).  However, among world-class lifters, the variability is pretty small.  Of course, because qualifying for worlds requires putting together a solid 3-lift total, IPF Worlds naturally selects for people who are good at all three lifts instead of specializing in one, but I still think the data is useful, since a wide variety of body types were represented at worlds.  For example, Krzysztof Wierzbicki, who’s built damn near perfectly for the deadlift (with a world record to show for it) still only had a 19% difference between his squat and deadlift, and Brett Gibbs, who has the prototypical squatter’s build, is still sitting right on the group average with a 10% spread.

What to do about it:

A) Planks and side planks before you squat or deadlift

I’m shamelessly stealing this from Dean Somerset.

The basic idea behind doing planks before you squat or pull is pretty simple.  The range of motion your joints can go through and the amount of force your muscles are “allowed” to produce through a given range of motion are largely determined by your nervous system.  When your nervous system feels that you’re safe to go through a particular range of motion and produce force through that range of motion, it will let you do so. If not, it’ll try to keep your muscles from extending any further, preventing you from going through a range of motion you can’t adequately control.  If those muscles are forced to extend farther than the nervous system wants them to, they still won’t contract with nearly as much force as they otherwise could, as a protective mechanism.

When one joint won’t move like it should, that limitation is compensated for by movement in another joint that shouldn’t necessarily be moving, or by force produced by muscles crossing another joint that shouldn’t need to be contributing in that manner.

In the case of the squat, that could mean lumbar flexion to compensate for limited hip flexion, and the spinal erectors then needing to actively re-extend the spine instead of simply contracting isometrically to just keep the spine extended while letting the hip extensors do all the heavy lifting.

Doing planks and side planks before you squat or deadlift will get your core muscles firing like they should, which tells your nervous system that it’s safe to let your prime movers contract harder, and to let your hips go through a longer range of motion.

When I first heard about this idea, it sounded gimmicky, but I eventually gave it a shot one day when my hips were feeling particularly janky, and it worked wonders.  It’s not quite a magic bullet, but it makes a noticeable difference for probably 2/3 of the people who try it.

If you want to read about this concept in more depth, I’d highly recommend this article.

B) Bracing effectively

Effective bracing is a head-to-toe endeavor.  Bracing the torso may be the most important piece of the puzzle, but there’s more to it than that.

Starting from the floor, the first thing you should do is establish three points of ground contact:  your heel planted on the floor, and your big toe and pinky toe actively pressed into the floor.  This helps keep the weight distributed over the middle of your foot. It also gives you a dynamic base; you’ll be aware of shifts in pressure, which will help you make sure the weight doesn’t start drifting too far forward or back on your foot.  I picked this up from Dr. Quinn Henoch.

Next, your hips.  There are a few different cues that people use to cue tension in the hips.  “Knees out” is probably still the most common cue, and it gets the job done for most people.  “Screw your feet into the floor” (once your feet are planted, apply a force like you’re trying to point your toes toward opposite walls, and point your heels toward each other) tends to work well for people who squat with a narrower stance.  “Spread the floor” is the cue I use for myself, and it tends to be more effective for people who squat with a wider stance.  Imagine an earthquake opened up a crack in the earth between your feet, and you’re actively trying to rip the crust of the world apart.

Next, your abdomen.  Bracing your abdomen starts with a deep, diaphragmatic breath (into your stomach, not your chest.  If your shoulders raise when you take your breath, you’re doing it wrong).  The old advice used to be to inflate your stomach and actively push your chest up.  The cue that’s more en vogue these days is to try to inflate your entire torso while keeping your spine extended, but your ribs down (to avoid thoracic hyperextension). Dr. Henoch and Chad Wesley Smith say “360 degree expansion,” pressing out into your belt in the front, but also around your side, and trying to feel the breath in your lower back as well.  Chris Duffin talks about inflating your obliques, which accomplishes a similar purpose: not just pressing your stomach out in the front as if you’re pretending you’re pregnant.  Not to equivocate too much, but I think your best bet is to give both a try.  Chad and Chris have really benefitted from keeping a lower rib position, making sure to not hyperextend the thoracic spine, and aiming for circumferential expansion.  A lot of great Russian powerlifters and most weightlifters are much more extended when they squat.  Give both a shot and see what feels the most stable for you.

C) Breathing paused squats

This is a pet exercise of mine.  Here’s a video I made explaining how they work and how to use them:

Bullet points:

  1. The two primary components of torso stiffness are intraabdominal pressure and the contraction of your core muscles to stabilize your spine.
  2. When you exhale, intraabdominal pressure decreases, so the muscles that actively stabilize your spine have to work harder to pick up the slack.
  3. By actively breathing into this position, you naturally learn how to use your breath more effectively to aid in torso rigidity.  To make this effective, you need to focus on inhaling and exhaling fully, instead of taking short, choppy breaths.  This is a way to fast-track the motor learning necessary to brace your core effectively for squats, and to help them feel much more natural.
  4. You can do breathing paused squats as a warm up before your heavy sets, as an accessory lift after your heavy work, or both.
  5. Be conservative with loading.  They tend to be the most effective with lighter weights that you can get 10-20 full, deep breaths under.  This also mitigates injury risk.  Exhaling under a high percentage of your max isn’t a great idea.  Start with 2-3 singles with ~30% of your max, and don’t add weight until you’re very confident and comfortable with a load.  Adding time instead of weight is also entirely acceptable.  When I do these, I generally use 50-65% of my max for single reps with 10-20 breaths at the bottom, or I’ll just put 135 on the bar and sit down there for a few minutes.

This is probably the core exercise with the highest degree of specificity for powerlifting.  It may seem out of left field at first, but I’ve seen it work wonders for plenty of people who were already strong, but were still bad squatters.  Breathing paused squats aid torso rigidity and confidence in the squat better than any other movement I’ve come across.

Thoracic Erector Strength

The other major difference is the role of your thoracic extensors.

The more inclined your torso is, the higher the demands on your spinal erectors.  In other words, it’s much harder to keep your spine extended at the bottom of a squat or at the start of a deadlift than it is to keep your spine extended at lockout.

With the deadlift, if your thoracic spinal erectors aren’t quite strong enough to keep your spine extended at the start of the lift, that’s not a huge issue.  They just have to be strong enough to re-extend your thoracic spine at the top of the deadlift.

Since the spinal extension demands are higher at the bottom of the lift than at the top of the lift, you can deadlift weights with which you can’t keep your spine fully extended through the whole lift.  The demands exceed your thoracic extensors’ strength when the bar breaks the floor, but as you extend your hips, spinal extension demands decrease, so you can re-extend your thoracic spine and lock out the lift.

However, you can’t get away with that strategy when you’re squatting.  Generally, as soon as your back starts flexing when you’re squatting, you’re dead in the water.  Some people can get away with a little bit of flexion (which still probably isn’t a good idea for long-term spinal health, but they can at least finish the lift), but not nearly the same degree of thoracic flexion often seen in the deadlift.

In other words, let’s say your thoracic erectors can produce 100 units of thoracic extension torque.  If it takes 100 units of thoracic extension torque to keep your spine extended at the start of a 250kg deadlift, and 70 units of thoracic extension torque to re-extend your spine at the top, then you’ll be able to deadlift 250kg easily, and barely be able to keep your thoracic spine extended through the whole lift.  If it takes 130 units of thoracic extension torque to keep your spine extended at the start of a 300kg deadlift, and 100 units of thoracic extension torque to re-extend your spine at the top, then your thoracic spine will flex as the bar comes off the floor, but you should be able to barely re-extend your spine at the top of the lift and lock it out (disregarding fatigue for a moment – just making this illustration as easy as possible).

However, if your back angle is similar when you’re squatting, then 250kg would also be the heaviest load with which you’d be able to maintain spinal extension when squatting, so 250kg would probably be your max squat.  You wouldn’t be able to squat 300kg, even if you could produce enough knee and hip extension torque to do so, because you can’t get away with hardly any thoracic flexion when squatting heavy.

As discussed in a previous article, thoracic flexion can decrease hip extension demands slightly as well, and it’s generally your hip extensors that are too weak to finish the lift when you miss a squat.

So, if you have a weakness in either your thoracic spinal erectors or your hip extensors, thoracic flexion in the deadlift can cover for that deficit, meaning you’ll deadlift more than you squat.

If your thoracic erectors are weak, the best movement to remedy that issue is the front squat.  If your hip extensors are limiting you, then good mornings, RDLs, hip thrusts, and banded kneeling squats are all good options to fix that weakness.

So, just to recap:

  1. At first glance, you may assume that squats are inherently harder than deadlifts, because most people tend to deadlift more than they squat, and squats have a longer range of motion than deadlifts do.
  2. However, when you actually break down the movements, squats have several distinct mechanical advantages:
    1. The weakest point of the squat occurs when your shoulders are already above their position at the start of the deadlift.
    2. There is increased freedom for forward knee travel in the squat.
    3. You already have momentum built up at the same position where you’d be starting a deadlift from a dead stop.
    4. You’re almost guaranteed to finish a squat once you break through the sticking point, whereas there is still a strong likelihood of missing a heavy deadlift after the sticking point. This would make you assume that the squat was an inherently easier lift.
  3. One key reason most people deadlift more than they squat is that the bracing pattern for deadlifts comes more naturally to most people. The bracing pattern for deadlifts is already pretty well ingrained before you even pick up a barbell, whereas you don’t start learning the bracing pattern for squatting heavy loads until you actually start strength training.
  4. The other primary factor that allows you to deadlift more than you squat is that the deadlift is more tolerant of thoracic flexion than the squat is.
  5. While many beginner or intermediate lifters have a big gap between their squat and deadlift, lifters at the elite level typically only have a ~10% gap across the lighter weight classes, and lifters in the heavier weight classes squat and deadlift about the same amount, on average.
  6. Activating your core musculature with planks and side planks before you squat, bracing effectively from head to toe, and doing core training with a high degree of specificity (breathing paused squats are my go-to, but front squats and loaded carries are also great options) for the squat can help you build the torso rigidity necessary for squatting heavy loads, and help you build confidence with the movement pattern. Strengthening your quads certainly doesn’t hurt either.
  7. Though your squat will likely never catch up with your deadlift entirely (but it could!), by strengthening your core, working on bracing patterns, and strengthening your thoracic spinal erectors, you can work to close that gap so you can squat and deadlift similar numbers.

Squatting and deadlifting similar weights shouldn’t be the exception.  There’s no reason that it can’t be the norm if you know how to train the squat.  Even if you’re built really well for the deadlift, a gap larger than 20% probably means you need to put some serious work in on your squat, and that your squat has plenty of room to improve.

Want more squat content? Check out How to Squat: The Definitive Guide, a giant, free guide to everything you could ever want to know about the squat. 


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