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A strong lower body is essential to performing well in a variety of physical activities. Without hamstring, glute and quad strength, jumping, running, cycling and a host of other activities become much more difficult. Squats and dead lifts are two exercises designed to strengthen the lower body, giving you more power and endurance in the hamstrings and glutes. Depending on your ultimate fitness goals, you may need to choose one exercise over the other.
Hamstrings and Glutes
The hamstrings are the long muscle strips on the back sides of your upper legs, stretching from the bend in your knees up to your gluteal muscles that form your backside. Both muscle groups work in conjunction, and when you work one, you often work the other. Hamstrings are critical muscles that help you push off for running or jumping, whereas the gluteal muscles are essential to keeping you moving. The hamstrings need power, and the glutes need endurance.
The dead lift works numerous muscle groups throughout the body, from the calves up to the trapezius. These include the hamstrings, glutes, quads, deltoids, lats, and your core muscles. The angle of the standard dead lift utilizes the quads to a great extent, because the motion requires you to lean forward during the first phase of the exercise. The transition between the first and second phase targets the gluteal muscles and the lower back and works in the hamstrings as a secondary muscle group. The second phase of the exercise works the lats, the traps and the deltoids, while the glutes and the hamstrings provide stabilizing support.
Standard squats are essentially a push-off exercise that builds strength and endurance in your lower body. Squats target the calves, the hamstrings, the quads, the glutes and the lower back. That's it. Compared to standard dead lifts, squats concentrate a lot more of the stress from the weight directly on the hamstrings, the glutes and the quads. By isolating these three muscle groups, you can develop lower-body power quickly, especially if you use a progressive set system such as pyramids. Squats also combine your own body weight with the free weight you load onto the bar for increased effectiveness.
Although squats are more effective for building the hamstrings and glutes than dead lifts, there are a couple of dead lift variations that do work both muscle groups more than the standard form. Stiff leg dead lifts require you to bend forward much more than standard dead lifts, and this form places considerably more stress on your hamstrings during the first phase of the lift. The stretched initial position also isometrically works the glutes before you begin a repetition. Sumo dead lifts also work the hamstrings more effectively. Think of a sumo dead lift as a combination of a standard dead lift and a squat. The sumo lift requires you to bend your knees like you would at the beginning of a squat, but instead of the bar resting across your shoulders, it's on the floor in front of you. Once you begin lifting the bar, you thrust yourself into a standing position using your hamstrings and glutes. Once upright, hold the motion for a second, then lower the bar back to the floor.