Back squats and deadlifts have been considered the king of all exercises in recent times by many strength and conditioning specialists and weightlifting enthusiasts around the world.
These two exercises are typically prescribed to enhance performance in sports, or to rehabilitate from injuries due to the claimed full-body recruitment needed to perform them.
Unfortunately, there are many variables that are not considered when barbell back squatting or performing barbell deadlifts, which could lead to complications worse than the traditional knee and back pain one may experience through pattern overload, despite the focus on good form.
Many conditioning specialists claim that “proper” back squat form and deadlift form need to be adhered to in order to mitigate the injuries associated with these two compound movements. They also claim that injuries that occur while performing the back squat or deadlift are only a result of poor form.
However, at Functional Patterns, we find that “good” or “proper” form will not fix an exercise that is faulty to begin with. No matter how precisely one may execute these movements, a poor exercise will create more compensatory patterns than whatever benefits back squat or deadlift specialists might promote.
So if there are so many inherent dangers to the barbell back squat and barbell deadlift, why are they considered to be the king of all exercises by so many professionals? What negative externalities are associated with these movements that most don’t acknowledge? And are there alternatives to deadlifts and back squats that respect how humans evolved so that they may enhance human function rather than degrade it?
In this article, we will look to guide our readers through the main points of contention we have with these two lifts, which will hopefully shed more light onto what makes an exercise more functional rather than dysfunctional.
Images by Sven Mieke (top) / Ardit Mbrati (bottom)
Barbell Back Squat - The King of Spinal Compression
The barbell back squat is a highly regarded movement that many young and eager individuals are recommended to partake in by fitness influencers. Some of these influencers claim that the most fundamental movement that a human can do is a full range deep squat.
Image by edwindoms610
Their reason for this squat-first approach is that humans in third-world countries have been observed eating, resting, and defecating in a deep squat position, and they hope that by improving the deep squat, this should improve their overall health and longevity.
However, we at Functional Patterns use a first-principles approach instead, and we always relate to how humans evolved in nature at the earliest time in our ancestors' history supported by anthropological evidence.
Image from Huffpost
This first-principles approach allows us to observe that early humans survived in nature not because they could squat, but because they could stand, walk, run, and throw (FP First Four). This allowed early humans to flee from predators and granted them the ability to hunt down prey to survive.
By emphasizing a squat-first approach to training, a myriad of issues are associated through this exercise that may cause further dysfunction in the body.
Let’s begin with one of the worst things about barbell back squats.
Image by Anete Lusina
First, the barbell back squat requires individuals to place a heavy bar on the base of the neck. This placement causes compressive forces on the spinal vertebrae from the thoracic to the lumbar spine (Hartmann, et al., 2016).
As you descend into the bottom of a deep squat, the lumbar spine goes through a spinal flexion as the pelvis tucks under. Along with the spinal compression from the placement of the loaded bar on the base of the neck, this can create quite a dangerous phase for most individuals, regardless of the technique being used (Bengtsson, et al., 2023).
Also, most humans are asymmetrical from birth and while performing a bilateral exercise such as a barbell squat, one leg will be exerting more force than the other causing a rotation of the body to one side (Sato & Heise, 2012).
Now imagine all those forces of compression being applied to the spine as it goes through flexion and rotation in the deepest range of motion of a barbell back squat. This will cause the lumbopelvic hip complex to become compressed, hypermobile, and twisted to the spiral pattern that you are born with.
While many complain of low back pain, hip pain, and knee pain, there have also been complaints of the sounds of joint clicking and popping in their knees while descending into the bottom of the squat (Song, et al., 2018).
By always practicing a bilateral squat movement, those asymmetrical patterns will be reinforced, causing the body to become even more asymmetrical due to the SAID (specific adaptations to imposed demands) principle.
Since early humans evolved to stand, walk, run, and throw, our bodies have specifically adapted to rotate in one direction or another.
Typically, most individuals are right or left limb dominant when they throw, write, kick, etc. and since this asymmetry is present, as we descend into the bottom of a back squat, we will be reinforcing this spiral pattern.
FP Founder and CEO Naudi Aguilar with the RG Bell
This is not to say that we don’t recommend bilateral squats at all. We just advise that one should be prioritizing unilateral movements that incorporate rotation to become more symmetrical so that the bilateral squats don’t become problematic for the body.
Exercise demonstration by John Nielson
The muscles of the human body as we see them today were developed through the function of the FP First Four; standing, walking, running, and throwing.
These have been developed over hundreds of thousands of years, and if we do not train in a way that respects the FP First Four, our bodies will progressively become more dysfunctional and injured over time.
Can we say the same about the deadlift as well?
Barbell Deadlifts - Building Fake Strength
Barbell deadlifts are no different than barbell back squats. They seem to be one of the most popular methods of gauging overall strength in the fitness industry by almost all exercise specialists. Many also seem to think that if one gets injured during a deadlift, then the form must have been incorrect; the person attempting the lift must not have been lifting with “proper” form.
Let us break down why at Functional Patterns, we don’t think that “proper” form will save you from a traditional barbell deadlift.
The intention of the barbell deadlift is to pick something heavy up off of the ground and place it back down. This seems like a good intention and merits appropriate consideration. However, we would like to ask the question; when do you ever see an object in nature in the shape of a barbell? The most similar object may be a tree branch, but they don’t tend to weigh very much and they also don’t rest 9” from the ground like a barbell loaded with bumper plates found in a traditional gym.
The deadlift also creates movement in the sagittal plane (forwards and backwards) with very little to zero frontal plane (sideways) or transverse plane (rotation) motion.
So do deadlifts actually translate well to picking something heavy off of the ground? We don’t think so.
The leverage one can create with the bar is completely different from the leverage of picking up a large rock, an animal you just hunted, or a large adversary you are wrestling.
Exercise Demonstration by Keri Campbell
Normally, objects that need to be picked up are farther away from your center of mass than the bar of a deadlift. Because the bar is so close to you, there is no horizontal force being applied to get your center of mass close and underneath the barbell. Your glutes and most of your posterior chain remain dormant as you lift the barbell up to the top position, which may lead to a dangerous amount of shearing force on the lumbar spine.
So why doesn’t the lifter just maintain a neutral lumbar spine while deadlifting?
This is a common cue that is directly told to participants, but this study found that even when cued to maintain a neutral spine, the lumbar spine flexion kept occurring during the lifting exercises (Howe & Lehman, 2021).
Lifting awkward, heavy objects requires shoulder flexion, while the barbell deadlift is absent of this important function. Because the shoulders and arms are not being used to lift the barbell upwards, the already dormant posterior chain cannot keep the lumbar spine from shearing forwards at the top of the lift.
So if spinal flexion and shoulder flexion must happen when lifting heavy objects off the ground, doesn’t this make the deadlift a dangerous exercise to do, regardless of how “proper” the form is?
The Age of Lifting - Prioritizing Rotation
We believe that if you want to get good at lifting objects off the ground, you should practice lifting real life objects such as large rocks or heavy slam balls, another human being in wrestling, or non-barbell shaped objects in nature like tree logs or heavy branches.
Exercise demonstration by David Filonzi
This will teach your body how to create the right leverages with both your lower and upper body in order to lift an object to carry or throw through space. You will quickly find that the weight does not need to be that heavy in order to feel all the muscles of your body working together.
Also, humans prioritize rotation in their movements. You will find that by lifting real life objects in nature, rotation is accompanied with that motion.
As you can see in the image above, lifting a human being in wrestling requires the athlete to throw their opponent above and over their center of mass, therefore using the glutes in a functional manner. Throwing the other athlete up and over also requires a rotational force, creating more engagement of your anterior and posterior oblique slings which are absent in a traditional barbell deadlift or back squat.
The SAID principle is also applicable to the deadlift as it did with the back squat. By pracitcing lifting motions through the deadlift, your body will learning how to lift awkward objects the same way you lift a barbell, dysfunctions and all. As well, this will be
Exercise demonstration by Pablo Martin
To practice lifting and squat motions in a more regressed manner, the Functional Patterns RG Bar is a simple and suitable tool to mimic the correct leverages of heavy lifting without sacrificing the joints of your spine.
In the image above, Pablo is demonstrating the same mechanics of lifting and squatting a heavy object through the use of the FP RG Bar. This teaches the posterior and anterior chains of the body to work together in lifting and rotating an object through space while also going through a squat position without causing spinal compression.
To learn more about what the RG Bar is capable of, please click here.
Humans prioritize rotation to enable them to move through space. They also prioritize rotation to move other objects through space as well.
According to the SAID principle, the body will adapt to whatever stimulus it trains. Therefore, if one is practicing the squat or deadlift, the body will adapt to those motions and will deviate from the fundamental ways of moving we evolved through nature; the FP First Four.
Even with the utmost intention of doing these movements with “proper” form, this will commonly lead to an unstable lumbopelvic hip complex and an atrophied thoracolumbar fascia around the spine.
The back squat and deadlift simply do not account for enough variables to consider for all of the movements that our bodies have evolved through since our ancestors started standing on two feet.
Therefore, when practicing lifting motions as alternatives to deadlifts and squats, we need to incorporate the fundamental concepts of the FP FIrst Four in order to keep our bodies sustainably strong, healthy, and pain-free.
- Bengtsson, V., Berglund, L., Öhberg, F., & Aasa, U. (2023). Thoracolumbar and Lumbopelvic Spinal Alignment During the Barbell Back Squat: A Comparison Between Men and Women. International journal of sports physical therapy, 18(4), 820–830. https://doi.org/10.26603/001c.83942
- Hartmann H, Wirth K, Mickel C, Keiner M, Sander A, Yaghobi D. Stress for Vertebral Bodies and Intervertebral Discs with Respect to Squatting Depth. Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology. 2016; 1(2):254-268. https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk1020254
- Howe, L. & Lehman, G. (2021). Getting out of neutral: the risks and rewards of lumbar spine flexion during lifting exercises. Strength and Conditioning.
- Sato, K. & Heise, G. (2012). Influence of Weight Distribution Asymmetry on the Biomechanics of a Barbell Back Squat. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 26. 342-9. 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318220e0a3.
- Song, S. J., Park, C. H., Liang, H., & Kim, S. J. (2018). Noise around the Knee. Clinics in orthopedic surgery, 10(1), 1–8. https://doi.org/10.4055/cios.2018.10.1.1