Squats & Deadlifts: The Benefits of Functionality.
In the fitness world, two very common exercises are squats and deadlifts. These exercises are household names for athletes, competitive lifters, as well as everyday exercisers. They've been trained since the dawn of strength training and they continue to get exercisers results decades later. These movements have stood time, are well-validated, and both exercises have variations that can benefit any individual.
The most fundamental reason squats and deadlifts are so beneficial is due to the functional translation of these movements to daily tasks, or ADLs as we say (activities of daily living). Now, before we get into this, the term "functional" or terms "functional training" have become quite skewed over the years, somehow resulting in some ridiculously unorthodox types of exercises as well as types of training utilizing unstable surfaces that 99% of the population will never come close to actually applying in their daily lives. In opposition, I would place a very large bet that 99% of the population will sit down at some point. I'd place that same bet that the same population will have to pick something up off the floor. See where I'm going with this? Do not get me wrong, there is a time and a place for everything in training. Remember that. In any world, moving is better than not moving, but at some point we all need to graduate from that train of thought and begin utilizing what will be most beneficial to us, because at the end of the day, we are all limited on time and effort to exercise. That said, more people will routinely sit down and pick something up off the floor than they will have to swing a sledge hammer or do a 360 jump over another person. That, and the data in support of doing movements on unstable surfaces translating to better balance and stability upon returning to the normal surface is far from compelling. Bottom line, functional needs to be purposeful and its nearly impossible to find something more functional than the squat or deadlift.
The functional aspects of sitting and picking something up can benefit everyone in any population. The squat and the deadlift condition the body to do these safely, efficiently, and most importantly, repetitively. Regarding the squat, it's a funny comparison (and not an original of mine, but from many great coaches I've had the honor of learning from) but if you want to begin executing a textbook squat, think of how to sit on the toilet. You'll find there is some separation in the legs (for your sake and the sake of your bathroom) and you'll proceed to something referred to as lower extremity (lower body) triple flexion (bending of the ankles, knees, and hips). You'll proceed to control that triple flexion as you descend to the toilet seat. While doing this, your spine angle will slightly increase which allows your body to stay balanced across the feet, and once your work is done, you'll perform triple extension (the straightening of those three respective joints of the ankle, knee, and hip), thus exerting force by driving your feet through the floor, raising your body to the upright position. That simple example is squat 101, yet many lose these basic aspects when translating this movement to a squat while exercising. It is no different, we simply need to bridge the mental disconnect with coaching and conditioning. Squatting is as functional as it gets and it is something most of us already do, whether we realize it or not. The majority of us will perform this action throughout our lifespan, so we better be well-trained for it because later in life, these simple tasks do become more difficult.
The squat also possesses great functional benefits through the aspects of spine loading, which is the act of directly loading the spinal cord with external load (weight). The squat can typically be back loaded, in which the bar is sitting on one's back in a variant simply referred to a squat. It can also be front loaded in which the bar is loaded on the front side of one's body across the region of the shoulders, called a front squat. Finally, in lesser degree, the squat can also be spine loaded in an overhead position for a competitive weightlifting specific variation of the squat, referred to as an overhead squat. These are the three primary ways a squat can be loaded, all of which are shown below, and all of these variants have developmental progressions and regressions within them to allow for individualized application to various levels of exercisers.
Why is spine loading important? For starters, the spine is the center of the body's central nervous system (CNS) which handles the body's coordination as well as it's ability to handle stress. The better in control one's body moves and handles stress, the less likely injuries become. The aspect of loading a weight greatly enhances this because it adds need for the body to remain balanced and in control. There are numerous studies that show greater activation of the core muscles on spine loading movements when compared to direct core exercises (crunches, planks, etc.) because of this added stabilization need through loading of an external resistance. If one's balance shifts forward, the loaded weight will make that more sincere. Same goes for backward shifts as well as any favoring from one side or the other. This exposure combined with effective training strategies helps us implement corrections for balanced movements. This is a great way to develop body control and again, it translates to everyday movements we already do. Spine loaded lifts are also shown to have some of the highest correlations of exercise and improving bone mineral density which aids in preventing osteoporosis later in life. Having strong bones is something that many tend to overlook at younger ages, but the importance of this development later in life is extremely important. The data is quite scary when you view advanced age populations who have suffered a break in their hip, and their lifespan after that break. There is a dramatic shortening and this is not something you want to deal with in yourself or a loved one. Just like retirement investing, the earlier one can start training for strong bones, the better, and children are included in that statement. I'd vote beginning strength training as a child is ideal.
As for the functional aspect of the deadlift, we can all recall phrases from doctors saying "lift with your legs, not with your back" or something along those lines. When in truth, the back is 100% directly involved in the deadlift, the thought process of encouraging the legs (more specifically the hips) to lead the way is right on the money. The same triple flexion/extension of the squat is involved in the deadlift, just in a far lessor degree on the ankle and knee joints, and a much more dramatic influence of the hip joint sitting back (or hinging) resulting in a much larger increase in one's spine angle to once again, maintain balance across the feet. Without this hinge pattern, there is minimal elongation in the hamstrings, yielding the back to do much more work than it needs to, as seen in figures 1A vs 1B (without barbell) as well as figures 2A vs 2B (with barbell).
Figure 1A: Hamstrings Loaded Figure 1B: Hamstrings Not Loaded
Figure 2A: Hamstrings Loaded with Barbell Figure 2B: Hamstrings Not Loaded with Barbell
In other words, when hinged back, the hamstrings (upper leg muscles on the backside of the leg) stretch, creating distance between where the hips and feet are located (hips are then behind the feet from a side view). Because our bodies are connected, this results in our spine leaning downward, but because of that hip to foot distance, the hamstrings are absorbing the stress so the back does not have to. Without this stretching or loading of usable energy in the hamstrings, the back would have no choice but to receive that respective stress. This would also cause the shoulders to be well in front of the feet, thus shifting balance, leaving a decent chance of falling forward because our bodies are simply not designed to adequately support ourselves that way. Its simple physics, or biomechanics, as we call the application of physics to the human body. This motor process is typically a deadlift, or conventional deadlift to be specific, and is a safe way to pick up any load from the floor. Once again, the same tactics apply to the lift as they do lifting an object off the floor safely and efficiently, we simply need folks treating deadlifting while exercising and lifting an object in life with the same tactical approach.
Deadlifting as well as squatting teach us how to move cleanly for tasks that we will be consistently faced with our entire lives. The ability to train these patterns with external load (aka adding weight or resistance) allows us to progressively condition these movements to be even more developed for clean motor patterns under greater amounts of stress as well as to combat natural catabolism (tissue breakdown) in which our bodies undergo as we get older. Yes, our muscles and bones weaken with aging. Performing overloaded resistance training combats that potential breakdown because it gives the body not only incentive to maintain tissue, but to continue to create new tissue. Without new stress or new incentive to do that, the body simply will not. The body adapts, but it needs a reason to. We must be able to lift more weight over time to further benefits. The squat and the deadlift allow some of the greatest room for progressing into moving larger amounts of weight because of the very large muscle groups involved making these lifts of very high priority in a strength program. Lifting more weight over time matters and larger groups of muscles supporting larger bones in the body require greater amounts of weight to adapt when compared to smaller muscle groups and bones.
This brings us to our next point of why squats and deadlifts are so beneficial. The aspect of being able to overload muscles, bones, and connective tissues (joints, ligaments, tendons) together keeps us getting stronger down the road, allowing our bodies to work correctly, preventing injury. In training, we have something we refer to as "training economy" which is simply the bang for the buck of an exercise. Because the squat and the deadlift both involve all of the largest muscle groups in the body, the training economy for these two exercises is off the charts. In slightly different fashions, the squat and the deadlift involve the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, abdominals, and back muscles together, which involves the connective tissues and bones supporting these groups as well. These are the largest areas of the body, therefore the most crucial for us to strengthen, and if these major players are deconditioned, we are in trouble. Consequently, these are some of the areas that many people have issues with, especially throughout the aging process. Back issues, hip, knee, and ankle issues are all too common in untrained individuals, especially later in life. To a large extent, this is preventable through training these areas efficiently. The squat and the deadlift involve all of these areas boasting a massive training economy and are two of the best movements to do to strengthen these muscle groups. As stated before, they also work as patterns that we humans typically do, making the training a win/win.
Because of this massive economy, the squat and deadlift allow for the largest loads a human is capable of moving (weight amounts) and highest workloads because of the direct involvement of all of these major muscle groups systematically. Remember, there is a linear relationship to the amount of overloaded stress and potential for adaptation. The biggest muscle groups in the human anatomy are capable of the largest amounts of stress (requiring the greatest amounts of stress for adaptation) and the squat and deadlift allow the large areas to work together systematically which is how they are anatomically designed to operate. That is important because it allows all of these groups to work within their specific roles to help each other out, similar to teamwork, leaving a balanced effect on the muscles and supporting structures. Take this great training economy and apply it to the movements that effect all of us and we have the best, most efficient way of training movements we all need to be secure in doing through the squat and the deadlift. The squat and the deadlift trained well can give greater results than doing endless amounts of different exercises targeting small areas with less load and higher frequency. Less time invested + greater results. That is what many of us are looking for.
For the best strength results, learn to squat and deadlift well and continue to improve over time. Functional in their approach, the squat and deadlift are for everyone and benefit everyone. With special cases and exercisers with special conditions, there are variations of these lifts to accommodate as well: box squats, wall squats, and rack pulls are variations of these exercises, just to name a few. This functional translation combines with some of the largest work a human being is capable of performing, by directly targeting the areas needing it the most. This is just a small dose of why these movements are so beneficial for so many.
In summary squats and deadlifts offer benefits in:
-developing proper mechanics in functional movements that humans need for daily living
-spine loading benefits of CNS enhancement and bone density increases
-greater improvements in core strength and stability
-training economy that makes exercising more efficient for the time put in
-the greatest potential for continued progressive overload, giving the largest window for gains over time
-training that involves all of the major muscle groups in the body, allowing them to work together as they are designed to do versus doing a multitude of isolation exercises for specific muscles
-squats and deadlifts are challenging and will test your fortitude
-squatting and deadlifting massive weights is extremely fun, rewarding, and addicting
There are many other reasons to why these fundamental movements are beneficial, and all of these benefits start with you getting in the gym to take the first step. For interest in squatting and deadlifting, the team at Dedicated Strength is here to help. We will develop your form and program for you in a fashion that keeps you progressing over time, that works with your busy schedule. For setting up a free consultation, contact Joe at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will get you set up.
In Dedicated Strength,
Joe VanCleve, MS, CSCS, ACSM-CPT, USAW, USAPL
*Joe is a retired competitive bodybuilder and current competitive weightlifter. Joe will be lifting at the Arnold Sports Festival in 2019, alongside Dedicated Strength weightlifter, Sequoia Howell. Joe trains all types of clients of all different levels and Dedicated Strength's 2018 competitive record includes 3 Golds and 1 Silver medal performances in USA Powerlifting meets, as well as producing the female 81B group overall winner at the USA Weightlifting American Open Series 3, as well as 1 Silver and 3 Bronze medal performances in USA Weightlifting meets, with 3 national event qualifying athletes.