When determining if squats and deadlifts are enough for training legs, it’s important to understand what specific goal you are trying to achieve.
If you’re training for powerlifting or strength-based sports, squats and deadlifts are enough to strengthen your legs. If you’re training for bodybuilding, general aesthetics, sports that require explosive lower body strength, or you have muscle imbalances, you’ll need to also do some isolation and/or unilateral work.
As someone who periodically only does squats or deadlifts for legs when I want to prioritize other types of training, I’ve come up with 9 tips that will help you make progress in the gym even if you only focus on these two movements.
In this article, I’ll also discuss the pros and cons of only doing squats and deadlifts for legs and who should and should not do just these two movements. By the end, you’ll be able to determine if these two exercises are enough to help you reach your goals.
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Squatting and Deadlifting for Legs: Pros and Cons
Before we discuss when it is and isn’t appropriate to only do squats and deadlifts for legs, let’s review the benefits and drawbacks of doing so.
1. Squats and Deadlifts Are Compound Movements
Squats and deadlifts are compound movements, which means they train multiple muscle groups at the same time. This allows you to lift more weight and burn more calories.
Compound movements also have a lot of carryover to everyday activities such as picking up heavy objects or getting out of a chair.
2. Squats and Deadlifts Have Numerous Variations
Both of these movements have a large number of variations that allow you to target more or less of a certain muscle group. For example, you can target more of your hamstrings by doing a Romanian deadlift or work more of your quads by doing a heels-elevated goblet squat.
As well, doing different variations will help keep training interesting so it can break up the monotony of only using two exercises for your lower body.
3. Training Only Squats and Deadlifts Will Keep Your Workouts Shorter
If you have a limited amount of time to spend in the gym, training just squats and deadlifts will give you more bang for your buck.
Because they’re compound exercises, you don’t need to do a ton of sets and reps for them to be effective.
4. Training Squats and Deadlifts Can Be Used For Both Strength & Hypertrophy
Just because squats and deadlifts are two of the three main powerlifting movements doesn’t mean that only powerlifters should do them.
Anyone who wants to get stronger or build muscle mass can train squats and deadlifts using different set and rep ranges.
For example, if your goal is to build muscle, you can do four sets of squats for 8-10 reps. If getting stronger is your priority, you can do four sets of 3-5 reps.
To determine which rep ranges are best for you to train in, check out our guides How Many Reps for Powerlifting? (Definitive Guide) and Do Powerlifters Train High Reps? (Yes, Here’s Why)
5. Training Only Squats and Deadlifts Is Powerlifting-Specific
Squats and deadlifts are two of the three main lifts tested in powerlifting meets. Anyone who intends to compete in powerlifting should prioritize these two movements for the lower body and follow a program that can help you peak in time for your meet.
6. Training Only Squats and Deadlifts Leaves More Flexibility For Other Workouts
If you like to run, do GPP workouts, hike, cycle, take group fitness classes, or participate in other sports, training only squats and deadlifts will allow you to pursue your other interests without having a negative impact on your recovery.
Wondering what types of cardio are best for powerlifters? Check out 10 Best Cardio For Powerlifters (Science-Backed).
1. It Can Get Repetitive
Training just squats and deadlifts may be too repetitive or boring for some athletes.
While it’s necessary to prioritize those two movements if you’re preparing for a powerlifting competition, recreational lifters or powerlifters who aren’t in competition season may want to find other ways to train the legs.
2. It May Result In Strength or Physique Plateaus
Variations of the squat and deadlift and accessory movements are often necessary to help you work on common sticking points, such as locking out your squat or getting the bar past your knees in the deadlift.
By only training squats and deadlifts, you may be missing out on strengthening other muscle groups that can help you overcome these weaknesses.
3. It May Result In Muscular Imbalances
Because these two movements are bilateral movements, meaning you work both legs at the same time, your dominant side can overcompensate for the weaknesses in your other side.
If you never do unilateral work to help make your two sides even, those imbalances will continue to worsen over time.
4. You May Have To Increase Your Training Frequency
If you’re only training squats and deadlifts for your legs and only doing each movement once a week, you may find it difficult to continue making progress.
Beginners have the ability to see more rapid gains in strength and muscle size with less frequent training. But as you become more experienced and your body adapts to the training stimulus, you may need to train more often if you want to keep getting stronger or continue building muscle mass.
5. It May Not Be The Best For Rehabbing An Injury
Because squats and deadlifts work multiple muscle groups at the same time, you may not be able to do them if you’re working through an injury. This is especially true if the injury is in your lower back, quads, hamstrings, glutes, or other core/lower body muscle.
When you’re rehabbing an injury, you may need to do more isolation exercises that allow you to train the surrounding muscle groups without putting stress on the injured muscle.
Enhance your training knowledge with our in-depth look at squats vs deadlifts, including tips on how to perform each exercise safely and effectively.
Squatting and Deadlifting for Legs Only: Who Should Do It?
Just training squats and deadlifts for legs could be a good option for people in the following scenarios:
Someone New to Lifting
For someone new to lifting, practicing the technique and mechanics of squats and deadlifts could be a sufficient amount of mental and physical work.
It’s also more important for beginners to get into a routine and build a solid foundation before adding in a ton of accessory movements.
Someone Short on Time
If you have limited time, focusing on squats and deadlifts is a good strategy to work a large number of muscles and get more results in a shorter amount of time.
Doing three to four sets of squats or deadlifts may not take longer than a half-hour, depending on how long your warm-up takes and how long you rest in between sets. That half-hour is certainly better than skipping a workout entirely.
Related Article: Can You Workout Legs 2 Days In A Row? (Pros & Cons)
Someone Who Enjoys Those Movements
Squats and deadlifts are (usually) fun to do, but accessory work can feel like a chore. If you love squatting and deadlifting and don’t enjoy other movements, you may not need to incorporate other lower body exercises into your program.
As long as you are moving well, making progress, and not experiencing any pain, focusing solely on squats and deadlifts may provide all of the mental and physical stimulation you need to work out on a consistent basis.
Someone Not Interested in a Specific Aesthetic
If your primary goal is to develop lower body strength and you aren’t concerned with the look or shape of each of your lower body muscles, then training the squat and deadlift could be enough.
You will experience some hypertrophy with these two movements, especially if you train in the range of 8-12 reps. But if you’re happy with your current physique, it’s not necessary to add multiple isolation exercises into your routine.
Interested in transitioning from bodybuilding to powerlifting? Check out my 9 steps for how to switch from bodybuilding to powerlifting.
Squatting and Deadlifting for Legs Only: Who Should Not Do It?
Training just squats and deadlifts for legs may not be the best option for someone in the following scenarios:
An Athlete With Aesthetic Goals
Athletes with aesthetic goals such as bodybuilders can and do use compound lifts as part of their training programs. However, they further complement the movements with a lot of muscle isolation work to grow each specific muscle.
For these athletes, just squatting and deadlift would not be enough.
An Athlete With Dynamic Movement Requirements for Their Sport
Athletes in dynamic sports such as football, basketball, and hockey benefit hugely from strength training. However, they also need to incorporate dynamic movements in all directions, including agility movements such as plyometric jumps, speed ladder drills, and lateral lunges.
Therefore, just squatting and deadlifting is unlikely to be enough to challenge and develop their bodies for the requirements of their sport.
Someone Who Gets Bored Easily or Enjoys More Variety
If you start to dread your workouts, you may benefit from a wider range of exercises and different forms of strength training.
Sometimes a step away from squats and deadlifts is just what you need to find the motivation to train again.
Someone Who Has an Injury
In some instances, squats and deadlifts can be part of a carefully crafted rehabilitation strategy when you’re coming back from an injury. Other times, you may need to do more unilateral or isolation work to address weaknesses or muscle imbalances that have occurred from an injury.
A qualified sports doctor or physical therapist will be able to guide you as to which rehabilitation strategy is best.
8 Tips For If You Are Only Squatting and Deadlifting for Legs
If you’re a lifter who chooses to only do squats and deadlifts for your lower body, you’ll need to come up with a strategy to mitigate the consequences of not training other exercises.
Below are nine tips to follow to ensure you’re getting the most out of your training.
1. Train Different Stances and Variations of Each Lift
To prevent pain or injuries that may result from overuse, or if you need to break through a training plateau, aim to train different variations of the squat and deadlift.
For example, for squats, you can implement the following variations:
- Low or high bar squats (the opposite of which one you typically do)
- Front squats
- Overhead squats
- Safety bar squats
- Cambered bar squats
- Zercher squats
For deadlifts, you can try the following variations:
- Sumo, semi-sumo, or conventional deadlifts (the opposite of which one you typically do)
- Snatch grip deadlifts
- Romanian deadlifts
- Trap bar deadlifts
2. Add a Tempo
Another variable to consider is the tempo of a lift. Slowing down the eccentric portion (the lowering phase) of the lift increases time under tension. It can have positive training effects such as better control or technique with the barbell and improvement in strength from increased tension in the muscle fibers.
In a strength program, tempo lifts are typically written as four numbers such as 4010. For a tempo squat, this would mean you lower down for 4 seconds, don’t pause at the bottom, explode up as fast as you can, and don’t pause at the top before starting a new rep.
Because tempo lifts take longer to complete, they should be done for lower reps in the 3-6 range. I also recommend starting around 60-65% of your 1RM — you don’t need to lift a lot of weight for tempo lifts to be effective.
Training the concentric (ascending) phase of a lift is just as important as training the eccentric phase. One way to train the concentric portion of a squat is to do the Anderson squat, which I talk about in my article Anderson Squat: What Is It, How To Do It, Benefits, Drawbacks.
3. Add Pauses
Pauses can be added to the part of the lift where you typically get stuck or fail the lift.
For the squat, it’s most common to pause at the bottom, which can help you learn how to maintain tension and develop more power when you’re coming out of the hole.
For the deadlift, pausing about an inch off the floor for 2-3 seconds can reinforce proper technique and help teach you how to be more explosive when the bar feels the heaviest.
4. Try Isometrics
An isometric contraction is a static contraction where the muscle neither lengthens or shortens. It is considered a more challenging version of an exercise and can help to work specific parts of each lift, such as just past the halfway point of a squat or just below the knees in the deadlift.
Isometrics require you to squat or deadlift the bar up against safety pins in a squat rack and hold it there for several seconds. They’re beneficial because they encourage positional awareness at different phases of each lift, strengthen the muscles used in the squat and deadlift, and add variety to your training.
Check out the following articles to learn more about training isometric movements:
5. Use Accommodating Resistance
Accommodating resistance involves using additional equipment such as bands or chains to increase the load throughout the range of motion of the movement. This not only helps to improve strength but can also help you develop more power and explosiveness and break through your sticking points with each lift.
For example, when you do squats with chains, most of the weight from the chains is on the floor when you’re in the bottom position. As you stand back up, the chain’s weight gets reapplied to the bar. You then have to use more power to get past the halfway point and lockout the lift.
Furthermore, doing deadlifts with chains means you have to work harder to get the bar off the ground since the chains are just weighing the bar down.
If you don’t have chains, you can do banded deadlifts instead to help with your lockout since the band will add more resistance as you get closer to the top of the movement.
Find out more about why powerlifters train with chains in Training With Chains In Powerlifting: Should You Do It?.
6. Increase the Range of Motion
Increasing the range of motion of a lift, such as by doing deficit deadlifts, is a great way to improve your speed, improve your starting position, build muscle mass, and increase strength in your lower back, hips, and legs.
Whether you do these variations as accessories or you swap them out for your regular lifts for a training cycle, each of these benefits has a lot of carryover to the traditional squat and deadlift.
7. Decrease the Range of Motion
Decreasing the range of motion of a lift is also called performing a partial rep. Partial reps can help you overcome sticking points I’ve already mentioned, such as getting past parallel in the squat or getting the bar past your knees in the deadlift.
Another benefit of decreasing the range of motion is that you can overload the movement. This means that you can use more weight than you normally would, which allows your central nervous system to get used to the feeling of lifting a heavier weight. It can also make you more confident the next time you attempt a new 1 rep max.
Examples of squat and deadlift variations that train a partial range of motion include:
8. Train Split Stance and Single-Leg Versions of the Squat and Deadlift
Doing squat and deadlift variations in a split stance or single-leg stance allows you to train unilaterally, meaning you train one leg at a time. Most of us have one side that is more dominant than the other, and unilateral training helps strengthen the muscles in the weaker side because the stronger side can’t overcompensate.
Unilateral training also ensures that you’re developing a balanced physique on both sides of the body and helps prevent overuse injuries in your stronger side.
Other Squat & Deadlift Articles
- Can You Squat & Deadlift In The Same Workout?
- Should You Squat Or Deadlift More?
- Deadlift Day After Squats: Should You Do It?
- Can You Just Do Deadlifts For Back? Yes, But It’s Not Ideal
If you’re a powerlifter or gaining strength is your main priority, squats and deadlifts are enough to train your legs. But if you’re a bodybuilder, you’re rehabbing an injury, or you’re trying to address muscle imbalances between your right and left legs, you would benefit from adding other lower body exercises to your routine.
If you do only train squats and deadlifts, be sure to add variety by using different types of bars, adding pauses or tempos to your lifts, increasing or decreasing your range of motion, and training unilateral variations of each lift.
This will not only prevent you from becoming bored but will also help you further strengthen the muscles used in the squat and deadlift while overcoming weaknesses in different phases of your lifts such as your squat lockout or breaking the bar off the ground in the deadlift.
About The Author
Carli Dillen has been a Strength and Conditioning Coach since 2007 after earning her degree in Sport and Exercise Science and Human Physiology. She completed further post graduate studies in Movement Neuroscience in 2010 and opened her first gym in 2011. Her sporting achievements include winning 3 World Championship Gold medals in Taekwon-Do, as well as representing New Zealand at 4 IPF Powerlifting World Championships, winning a bronze medal in deadlift in 2017. You can connect with Carli on Instagram