Ah, the old question, “squats and deadlifts, which should I do first?”
This is a fantastic question because it allows us to set programming parameters for ourselves as lifters, and then we can use those parameters to dictate future exercise selection. That sounds technical, so what does that mean? Basically, as we establish a better means for selecting exercises, then we can program more strategically for ourselves in the future.
So, while deciding whether to squat or deadlift first seems like a simple question, the way we arrive at our answer is incredibly useful and important. In this article, we’re going to discuss three methods for deciding whether you should squat or deadlift first when they’re programmed on the same day.
These methods can then applied for other exercise selection questions you might have in the future. For the visual learners, check out Coach Jake’s video on this topic below.
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Should I Squat Or Deadlift First?
If you’re squatting and deadlifting on the same day, the traditional rationale usually says “squat first always”. Why is that though? There is certainly a time and place where this rationale is sound and makes sense, but are we selling ourselves short by not exploring the question more?
This question is rooted in context and we need to consider our individual goals to make the best selection possible. The methods below for deciding which exercise should come first will flow from a topical to a more in-depth approach.
1. Decide Based On Your Acute Training Goals
The easiest way to decide whether you should squat or deadlift first is to consider your acute training goals for the day. This would mean factoring in the volume and intensity for each exercise, then creating thought flow patterns based on what your daily goal is.
Let’s say you have the following programmed and your goal is pushing your deadlift’s numbers higher:
- A1. Squat 3 x 6 @ 1-2 RIR
- B1. Deadlift 3 x 4 @ 0-1 RIR
In this case, the deadlift should probably come first, as it’s heavier and will be more demanding and the acute goal for the day is focusing heavily on deadlift progress. Oftentimes, when one movement is programmed heavier than the other, then that movement should generally come first as it will be more demanding and it will require greater focus.
It wouldn’t make a lot of sense heading into our heavier deadlift sets being slightly fatigued from squats, especially when our goal for the day is deadlift-centric.
Method 1 Takeaway: The easiest way to decide whether you should perform your squats or deadlifts first on the same day is to look at your acute training goals. Generally, when a movement is programmed with higher intensities, then that exercise should come first so it can receive our full attention.
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2. Decide Based On the Specificity of Your Sport
If you’re a powerlifter or you want to eventually compete, then you’re more than likely always going to opt for squats first, then deadlifts. This is due to the specificity of powerlifting.
In competition, squats always come before deadlifts, so it’s a good idea to acclimate to this exercise flow purely for sport benefit. Lifters in the powerlifting realm will benefit from understanding what it’s like to squat first, then heading into deadlifts not being completely fresh.
So, whether you’re performing just squats and deadlifts on the same day or an SBD (squat, bench press, deadlift) day, squats will likely always come first for the powerlifters. Now, there might be times when you want to program deadlifts first over squats, but these scenarios will be highly individual and likely not the norm.
Method 2 Takeaway: If you’re a powerlifter or want to eventually compete, then programming squats first can be a good idea for acclimating to the specific demands powerlifting competition will place on the body.
3. Decide Based On Individual Preferences
The final way to decide whether you should squat or deadlift first on the same day is the most nuanced. This method entails selecting the first exercise by deciding what’s difficult for you based on anthropometrics, preferences, and strengths/weaknesses. In order to fully benefit from this method, you need to have adequate training experience and knowledge of your strengths and limitations. If you’re newer to training, then stick with method one!
Basically, we all have our preferred barbell lifts, and we all have exercises that require much more of our attention than others. Let’s say the back squat is your favorite exercise and performing them is automatic for you. However, you struggle with the deadlift and it requires a lot more focus to execute great reps, no matter the intensity.
For this scenario, it would be worth considering doing deadlifts first ? despite what training intensity and volume are programmed?? because they require much more focus and energy compared to your seamless and automatic squats. By understanding your personal strengths and limitations, you can then select an exercise flow that works best for your individual needs.
As a personal example, squats are an exercise that require my full attention no matter the intensity programmed and my deadlift is much easier to work through at most intensities. This is based on how I’m built, my confidence in each exercise, and my personal preferences.
In practice, I need to be fully vested into my training day to feel confident in my squats and to really hone in on executing great form. For this scenario using methodology three, I put my squats first because they’re the most physically and mentally draining of the two exercises. I don’t want to be fatigued heading into an exercise that I know requires my full attention.
Method 3 Takeaway: Base your exercise selection on your preferences and the performance trends that you’ve acknowledged over your training career. If you know you struggle with one exercise over the other, then it might be worth placing the tougher movement first so it can receive your full attention.
Are Squat Or Deadlifts More Fatiguing?
Since we know you’re likely wondering, we wanted to quickly go over which exercise is more fatiguing. It’s common for lifters to anecdotally say that deadlifts are more fatiguing on the CNS, however, the scientific literature isn’t in complete agreement with this sentiment.
A study published in 2019 compared the deadlift and squat in reference to their impact on the nervous system (1). Authors had participants perform 8 sets of heavy doubles with 95% of a lifter 1-rep max for each exercise, then tracked multiple metrics including maximum voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) force of the quadriceps, central fatigue (voluntary activation [VA] and surface electromyography), and peripheral (electrically evoked control stimulus) fatigue. These recordings were taken before and 5/30 minutes after exercise.
The authors found no clear evidence that either exercise was more fatiguing than the other when training volume was equated for. This is interesting food for thought because when training volume is equal, it appears that neither exercise is more fatiguing than the other, and that brings us to our three methods above.
By contextualizing what we’re doing for the day and how each exercise impacts us personally, we can then make educated choices for programming. At Pheasyque Lab, we think that oftentimes lifters will say deadlifts are more fatiguing because they’re performed less frequently, usually loaded heavier than squats, and may require more mental energy per session.
For these reasons and looking at the bigger picture, it makes sense why some lifters swear that deadlifts are more fatiguing. However, when volume is equal, it has been suggested that both movements are relatively similar with their impacts on the central and peripheral nervous systems.
Whether you like to program squats and deadlifts on the same day or you have to condense your training one week due to an external factor, considering this question can be useful for both your gains and programming strategies.
What’s important is that you’re able to create a consistent means of selecting exercises based on parameters that make sense for you as a lifter.
1.Barnes, M., Miller, A., Reeve, D., & Stewart, R. (2019). Acute Neuromuscular and Endocrine Responses to Two Different Compound Exercises.?Journal Of Strength And Conditioning Research,?33(9), 2381-2387.