Squat and Deadlift for Mass Question Answered

I get a lot of insightful questions every week and I do my best to get them answered. Sometimes, while writing out an answer I realize that many more people could benefit from the information. Therefore, today I’m sharing one answer to a recent question I received.

Chad, I want to say thanks for all you do. Because of you I lift fast, use full body workouts, incorporate single leg exercises, use high volume body weight exercises. At 31 I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in my life! I’m 6’2″ and since Thanksgiving of last year have gone from 220lbs to 199. I was also able to keep my combined chest/shoulder measurement at 55″ while dropping my waist from 36 to 32 inches! I owe it all to Huge in a Hurry and your articles.

On to my question – sort of a “hypertrophy debate.” I’ve always thought that the squat and deadlift were the king of the mass builders – if that’s what you’re going for. However, lately I’ve read that the front squat may offer more in the way of muscular development…and the same for the stiff-legged deadlift. Can you weigh in on this for me? -Joseph C.

CW: Thanks for the kind words, Joseph. Yes, the squat and deadlift are two of the best mass builders you’ll find because they primarily target the largest muscles in the body. Now, the terms “squat” and “deadlift” have different definitions in different populations. For some, that literally translates to mean the barbell back squat and deadlift from the floor.

For other coaches like me, when we say to focus on the squat and deadlift for mass what we really mean are squat and deadlift variations. For example, the front squat and partial deadlift (pin pull) will add just as much muscle as the barbell back squat and full deadlift.

So the question is: which variation best suits your body type?

Most people can’t perform a barbell back squat correctly. It’s actually one of the most difficult lifts to get right, even though it’s considered a basic strength exercise that everyone should start with. The problem with the barbell back squat is that it requires high levels of mobility in the ankle, hips, adductors, hamstrings, T-spine, and shoulders. Plus, you need to have plenty of stability strength in your core or else you’ll lean excessively forward “in the hole.” If you pass all those requirements, the back squat is a good exercise.

The sequence of pics below shows the ideal form for the barbell back squat. If you can drop your hips below your knees with your heels down and your torso at 60-70 degrees, go for it.

But for most people there are better options, especially if you’re tall or have long legs.

The front squat has gained a lot of popularity over the years because the biomechanics are easier to get right. Since the load is in front of you, you can sit back easier without losing your balance. Second, you don’t need as much dorsiflexion in your ankle joints to do the front squat with perfect form. A lack of dorsiflexion (the ability to pull your foot toward your shin) is common in most people.

In terms of overall muscle activation, the front and back squat work many of the same muscle groups. People with a history of knee problems typically fare better with the front squat, as mentioned in this study a few years ago (Gullet et al J Strength Cond Res 2009).

The front squat has its shortcomings though, mainly with the Olympic style grip. It requires a lot of wrist extension mobility to maintain the wrist and upper arm position shown in the picture below.

The good news is that there are many ways around this limitation. You could cross your arms and rest the barbell across the deltoids. The key with this variation is to keep your elbows pulled as high as possible throughout the movement. Your upper arms should never drop below parallel. But this version can be a little scary for those who lift heavier loads.

The best option for a lot of people is the version with two kettlebells. It doesn’t put excess strain on the wrists – precisely the reason I use it with the fighters I train – and you can push your hips back and maintain a relatively upright torso better than the arms-crossed version with a barbell.

Now for the deadlift.

If you can maintain lordosis (an inward curvature of the low back) from the starting position with the barbell resting on the floor with 45-pound plates, the regular deadlift is an excellent exercise. If that’s a problem, the solution is as simple as pulling the barbell from a higher position such as just below the knees. Partial deadlift variations are outstanding for building mass because you can use more load while keeping your form in check since the range of motion is shorter.

I don’t recommend a stiff-leg deadlift in its truest sense with the knee joints being completely locked throughout the movement. There’s no significant advantage to doing it that way and you can get just as much muscle growth and development by allowing your knees to slightly flex as your torso shifts forward.

I always incorporate single-leg versions of the deadlift and squat into my programs since they effectively overload the targeted muscle groups while minimizing compressive forces through the spine. Don’t underestimate the drain that huge compressive forces can put on your recovery. This is why you can perform single leg versions more often than its double-leg counterpart. Training more frequently is essential for fast hypertrophy.

Double-leg strength exercises have their place, though.

The barbell squat and full deadlift overload many of the same muscle groups, but as a gross generalization most people think the squat is better for emphasizing quadriceps development and the deadlift is better for the hamstrings. That’s only true if you think of each exercise with the standard form. For example, if you use a snatch grip and have the mobility to drop your hips low, the deadlift can be an excellent quadriceps builder.

Regardless of the deadlift variation you use, I always recommend an unmixed grip with both palms facing down because it helps keep the wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints in balance and it minimizes the chance of a biceps tear.

The squat and deadlift are indeed two of the best strength exercise for quickly adding mass to your largest muscle groups. One isn’t necessarily better than the other, it just depends on which version you feel most comfortable with when using heavy loads. In either case I recommend doing them barefoot or while wearing Vibram shoes.

If I had to pick two I’d recommend the double kettlebell front squat (aka, goblet squat) and a partial deadlift with the pins set just below the knees. It’s tough to go wrong with those two, and they complement each other perfectly.

Stay Focused,
CW

31 thoughts on “Squat and Deadlift for Mass Question Answered

  1. I don’t have the wrist mobility to support the barbell in the clean position, so I just wrist straps and loop them over which feels fine. I like the idea of the kettlebell loaded front squats, however, the kbs in my gym only go up to 60 and that isnt nearly enough load. I suppose I could throw on my weighted vest and maybe my 70lb chains on my shoulders. What do you think?

    CW: Both modifications you mentioned work great – the wrist strap exercise and a weighted vest.

  2. Awesome article! Never really thought about double kettlebell front squat (aka, goblet squat) and partial deadlift is a good idea too. Thanks!

  3. Excellent article, Chad. I actually have been in need of this information, as I may well not be able to touch the bar for about a year and will have to make do with dumbbells, a bench and my own bodyweight.

    Do you have any substitutions for the kettlebell front squat? I’m thinking of doing pistols and split squat variations, but my grip strength may be a limiting factor.

    Also, I’m thinking of using the dumbbell RDL in place of deadlifts. I’d like to hear your opinions on it. Thanks!

    CW: Your grip shouldn’t be a limiting factor with the double KB front squat. In fact, you don’t even need to close your grip when doing that exercise. Just keep your elbows pulled tight to your sides with your abs tight. For RDL, dumbbells work just as well.

  4. Hey Chad,
    Where would overhead squats fit in? Or are they more for mobility & assessments?

    CW: Yes, as a mass builder, the squat and deadlift variations I mentioned are better. You can’t go wrong with the overhead squat as an assessment, though.

  5. What do you recommend for weekly programming of each lift for optimum size and strength? Currently I do squats and deadlifts on monday (with bench press in between) and heavier squats on friday. Also if I only had time to include one single leg lift into my routine, what would you recommend? Weighted pistol squats?

    CW: Add weight whenever possible. Or if it’s a day when the load feels especially heavy, don’t increase the weight but try to get an extra rep. For legs, I like the bulgarian split squat.

  6. Chad, why are partial squats dangerous (as far as I know because the quadriceps femoris pulls tibia forward and hamstrings cannot pull with the same force backwards) but partial deadlifts are not?

    CW: It has to do with the position of the knee joint. With the RDL, the knee joint is minimally flexed unlike a partial squat when it’s at 90 degrees. That 90 degree position can lead to problems.

  7. I have been doing a lot of snatches and cleans (full cleans) lately with heavier weight (2-6 RM). What are your thoughts on oly lifts? I feel like I have had less back pain performing these lifts than I do when performing heavy back squats and DLs. Any thoughts?

    CW: I love O-lifts. Great for power development. I don’t use full versions of them, though. I only do the power versions of the snatch and clean.

  8. Chad,
    What are your thoughts on Zercher Squats as a PRIMARY squat movement?
    I often train in a place without a Squat Rack and have wondered about just focusing on Zerchers?

    CW: Zercher squat is great. Use it.

  9. If you’ve got a figure athlete or just client without any athletic aspirations who can do, say, split-stance squatting or partial deads, but has limitations with the full range-of-motion bilateral versions, how do you decide whether to correct the limitation or program around it? Thanks, Chad — really, really got a lot from this post.

    CW: Excellent question! A few things to consider. Does the limitation in question set the client up for injury in their sport? If yes, you must correct it. Is the client getting the development they need without the full ROM bilateral version? If they are getting the development, you don’t need to correct it.

  10. Chad, just want to make sure, Trap Bar a good alternative?

    CW: Yes, although many experts I trust don’t like it as well as the regular deadlift because you can lean too far back with the trap bar.

  11. Hey Chad,

    wonderful topic!!! I feel myself growing and becoming stronger only due to those two excercises!!!
    The question I have is: on the WikiHow pic (the top one) the guy has his legs not parallel, just as a “frog squat” is done. Is that not so important to hold the knees right above the heels?

    CW: Use any foot position that feels most comfortable. That pic was more about his torso position relative to how low his hips are.

  12. hi chad, very good article.
    for the stiff-legged deadlift with knees slightly flexed, can we consider it as a very good hamstring exercise, or it’s more low back and glutes exercise than hamstring? and if it’s not, what the best version or compound hamstring exercise that work the hamstring in the first place?
    thanks.

    CW: Yes, the stiff-dead is a hamstrings exercise, too.

  13. Great article as always. Acording to your experience; is it true that squats and deadlifts can help at building arm mass, even if they dont work those muscles directly, but they do produce a big general anabolic response?

    CW: Good question. I think it certainly helps, but there are many big deadlifters with unimpressive arm development. But these two lifts boost full body strength and that’s key for being stronger in your upper body lifts – that’s essential for getting bigger.

  14. Excellent post here Chad! I definitely prefer the front squat over the back squat. Definitely think rack pulls are good. What’s your thoughts on trap bar? I like those as well.

    Also, thought your live spill was great today. My training has been shifting that way over the past year or so… rings/bodyweight for upper body and squats and deadlifts for lower body, of course with added single leg variations. Looking forward to the program you mentioned and hope there it will be on clickbank or have an affiliate program.

    Keep up the great work!

    CW: Thanks Brandon. As mentioned, I like the trap bar but many experts don’t. The problem is that you can lose your balance at the top. With a regular bar you can push your hips into the bar at lockout thus making the lift more stable at the top. With the trap bar you can’t and this can be troublesome for some people.

  15. Hi Chad, As always thank you for your excellent posts. I had a question on the double kettlebell front squat (aka, goblet squat). As mentioned previously, the gym typically does not have heavy kettlebells. How would using dumbbells effect the functionality of this exercise?

    Thanks
    Jason

    CW: Dumbbells will work. They’re not as easy to hold, but you can make it work. Keep the elbows tight to your sides.

  16. Chad.
    I have a question regarding the Deadlift (including variants) and its use in your Huge in a Hurry and Body of F.I.R.E. programs, both of which are fantastic.
    I used to work out in a gym and therefore had access to all the equipment i required. However, i now have to work out at home and with the use of my home *equipment i am able to do all the exercises (the article listing alternatives to the cable exercises, helped a great deal), except the Deadlift.
    When i used a barbell a would Deadlift 150kg for 4 reps, however there is simply no way i can replicate that kind of load using my home *equipment. The best way of doing the Deadlift is to link a 48kg & 40kg kettlebell via some rope and lift that on the Deadlift, but that combined load (88kg) is far less that what i could actually do (with a barbell). Do you have any suggestions for what exercise i could do instead of the Snatch Grip Deadlift (for example)? Is a single-leg Deadlift the only viable solution?

    *pull-up bar, bench, dumbbells (2.5kg – 21kg), kettlebells (16kg – 48kg).

    CW: The solution is simple: do a single-leg deadlift while holding weight instead of a regular deadlift. Many coaches would argue that it’s a superior exercise, so don’t worry that it’s less effective.

  17. Hey Chad,

    Great article and great work with huge in hurry, I have adopted so much of your training philosophy with great results.

    How many times per week can you do a heavy lower body exercise like a squat or deadlift without impairing recovery too much?

    Is 2-3 times per week an acceptable frequency for someone with intermediate level strength. I know you have mentioned that high frequency and high intensity don’t mix so I do make sure to vary the load on these.

    The rest of my workouts are entirely structured around bodyweight gymnastic progressions with added resistance in some cases (pullups, handstand pushups, strap pushups, tuck rows, dips, etc).

    Thanks and keep writing the great articles,

    -Chris

    CW: No more than twice each week (Monday/Thursday) for a heavy squat or deadlift.

  18. Chad, which problems related to the knee joint can be made if we do partial squats?

    CW: The 90 degree knee joint position is one of the most unstable positions. That’s why ortho docs test your knee health/integrity at that angle. And that’s why many coaches don’t advise that you reverse the movement from that joint position.

  19. Hello
    This is kind of off the topic, but.. Could you recommend a book or documentary that would explain why we are able to lift 50 pounds one week, a week after that 55 and a 1 year after that 300 pounds? Why do we get stronger? what really happens in our body?why do we adapt? The basics about ATP is maybe even understandable (I guess..anyway it’s not enough), it would be awesome to understand the real science behind strenght, why it improves and why things feel lighter over time.
    I hope you get the picture I’m trying to make,with my english abilities, here without sounding like a total idiot.
    Thanks a TRILLION,
    Blink

    CW: You get stronger through two primary mechanisms. First, the neural connections between your brain and the trained muscles increase. Second, you increase the diameter of the targeted muscle fibers so they can develop more force. For technical references, Supertraining by Siff is one of the best. Also check out The Science and Practice of Strength Training by Zatsiorsky.

  20. Hey Chad, fantastic article! While doing a 3 day program mon wed fri, is doing rack pulls on wed after goblet squats mon too close together? I would perform Bulgarians on fri. And Would these be superior options during a fat loss phase than say front squats and high pulls?
    Thanks

    CW: Doing rack pulls 48 hours after goblet squats is fine.

  21. Thanks for the great info Chad. Your ability to explain and make the complex understandable and simple is truely awesome. It is also a sign of true intelligence.
    I purchased huge in hurry in 2009 and got in my best shape every during 2009-2010. Sadly I got side tracked by some programs from Tnation by other trainers with WAYYY to many bells and whistles. My overall conditioning and strength dropped even though I was spending more overall time in the gym. To sum things up a simple switch back to your methods two months ago have put me back on the fast track to progress. Best wishes Sir!!!

    CW: Thanks!

  22. hey chad, my first time commenting, I’ve been keeping my questions.
    -I’m eating mostly lowcarb paleo and I’m gaining strength and some muscle, but you wrote that you need also carbs to build, so, what’s the ideal?
    -My gym doesn’t allowed me to do full deadlifts (so for legs is only back squats, since I do singles and front squats hurt a lot in the deltoits), power cleans, or anything that hits the floor and in addition to that, they don’t have a pull up bar. Therefore, for pulling I just can do rack pulls, shrugs and rows + bodyweight pull ups at home. Am I missing any pulling or leg muscle? What would be a solution?

    CW: If you’re gaining strength and muscle, don’t change a thing. Yes, your pulling requirements are covered.

  23. Excellent article and good questions. I myself have actually four questions. Chad, if you found the time to reply to even one, I’d be very grateful. Thank you, and God bless!

    1) You mentioned zercher squats are a good exercise, and I agree. But recently one of Poliquin’s students told me they put the lumbar spine at risk. What’s your opinon on this?

    2) Do you think full-range front squats at high frequency are enough for the VMOs?

    3) Do front and zercher squats trigger the same level of total body strength development as the back squat, or does the atg back squat remain king in this regard?

    4) Do the hamstrings have to be trained through both the hip and the knee joints, say deadlifts/good mornings and leg curls?

    Thanks again,
    Ted

    CW: 1) As long as you can maintain lordosis, you’re good to go. 2) Yes. 3) The front and back squat are very similar, as research has shown. The Zercher is better for core strength. 4) No leg curls on a machine. Stick to deads, squats, and GHR.

  24. Hi Chad
    I have completed Get Strong twice now and found it to be excellent. Just to keep my interest up I have started a 5×5 program but based upon your ideas (push, pull, and squat or deadlift each workout). I have been alternating between two workouts and train 3 times a week. e.g I have been doing Monday squats, Wednesday deadlift, Friday squats in the first week. Then in the second week i have been doing Monday deadlift, Wednesday squats and Friday deadlifts. My question is, am I doing too much lower body work in each week. My primary goal is to increase strength for MMA training.
    Thanks for any advice.

    CW: It’s not too much lower body work if your body is recovering from the workouts. The key is continuous performance. As long as it continues to go up, your program is working.

  25. Hi Chad,

    I have pain in my left knee after doing one-legged squats (had knee surgery years ago). Is there a one-leg alternative I can perform?

    CW: When knee pain is present, I recommend the step down from a 6-8″ box. Perform 3×12 for each leg. I’ll post a video soon.

  26. Chad,
    I’m a big fan of HIAH. I’ve been following the programs in it as well as tweaking some things here and there (such as adding PLP) and have made a lot of progress.

    If I were to add the partial deadlifts from the pins to one of the programs, would it count as a “pull” or a “squat/deadlift variation”? It seems as though it would be more of a “pull” exercise since the range of motion from the deadlift is shortened. I’m excited to try them, I’m just hoping you can tell me how to add them into the programs.

    Keep up the good work!

    CW: Good question because it’s sort of both. But generally speaking it’s best to categorize it as a lower body lift (squat/deadlift category). The upper back can take a lot of work and still recover.

  27. Hi,
    I have one qustion to you and I hope you can answer me 🙂

    My question is simple, you say that snatch grip deadlift can stimulate quads… so I was wondering if I could use the snatch grip deadlift as the only exercise for the lower body during some months. Could it be possible ? I suppose that snatch grip deadlift keeps stimulating the hamstrings and the glutes.

    Thanks for any advice!

    CW: Yes, if you’re going to choose one lower body exercise, the snatch grip dead would be an ideal choice.

  28. When doing a barbell back squat, is it normal ur left back shoulder is sore while in the gym and bit later on during the day?

    CW: Strengthen your left external rotators and stretch your shoulders/lats.

  29. Chad, do you coach the kettlebell front squat as a knee or as a hip dominant movement?
    Thank you!

    Ted

    CW: I focus on recruiting the hips maximally when squatting.

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