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Why Bodybuilders Should Do Squats and Deadlifts

October 8, 2019

squats and deadlifts

If you are or aspire to be a bodybuilder, your ultimate goal is to build defined muscle mass.

This means shaping the muscle, which requires using techniques that are opposite of training for strength. In fact, strength gains are an afterthought.

But does this mean that bodybuilders shouldn’t focus on exercises like heavy squats and deadlifts? Are squats and deads just for powerlifters?

In this post, I’m going to give you…

  • Reasons why you should do heavy squats and deadlifts
  • Why not doing squats and deads can limit your muscle gains
  • How to incorporate these exercises into your bodybuilding workout routine
  • 3 bodybuilding workouts you can use that include squats and deadlifts

Why You Should Do Squats and Deadlifts

Squats and deadlifts are the core exercises to build the foundation of muscle mass. They are responsible for building that dense muscle that is later chiseled with other exercises and techniques.

Squats and deadlifts also put a primary focus on building your lower body. As you know, building big muscular legs is one of the greatest challenges of being a bodybuilder. But don’t worry; if you do heavy squats and deads, you’re covered.

Most professional bodybuilders, specifically Mr. Olympia competitors, will tell you that they started out powerlifting. And that’s how they were able to gain so muscle mass.

Bodybuilders that Started Out Powerlifting

8-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Colemen always trained heavy with superior intensity. He also did heavy squats and deadlifts.

And he attributes his ability to build extreme mass from powerlifting. Here’s an early video of Ronnie Coleman’s first powerlifting competition:

Jonnie Jackson has been noted as the strongest bodybuilder, pound-for-pound. This is duly noted in David Robson’s article Bobybuilding.com, An Interview With The World’s Strongest Bodybuilder, Johnnie O. Jackson.

In fact, he spent much of his bodybuilding career powerlifting, and never shied away from heavy squats and deadlifts. Clearly Jonnie was still able to maintain an Olympia-worthy physique, even when powerlifting.

Franco Columbu, a training partner and close friend to Arnold Schwarzenegger, competed in the World’s Strongest Man.

Prior to getting into bodybuilding, Franco pursued Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting, per Roger Lockridge’s article on Barbend.com, Franco Columbu, Bodybuilding and Strength Legend, Passes Away At 78.

Not Doing Squats and Deadlifts Limits Your Gains

Can you build muscle without doing squats and deadlifts? Sure, you can. But neglecting these powerful exercises may indeed limit how much dense muscle mass you gain.

Let’s take a deeper look into how doing squats and deadlifts can help you become a better bodybuilder…

How Squats Build More Muscle Mass

Squats have been crowned the king of exercises by both bodybuilders and powerlifters. And I’m going to share the validated reasons why.

Here are 8 ways that doing squats pack on more muscle mass, not just in your legs, but your entire body:

1. Squats build up your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves.

2. They strengthen your core.

3. Build muscle all over your body

4. Ups your metabolism to burn more fat

5. Increase hormone release

6. Help your balance

7. Improves physical performance

8. Makes your back stronger

Benefits of Heavy Squats and The Other Effects They Have, from Dark Iron Fitness, Dec 6, 2017

How Deadlifts Pack on Mass for Bodybuilding

If squats are the king of mass building exercises, deadlifts are second to that. It’s also a full-body exercise working multiple larger muscles that are responsible for mass gains.

Clay Hyght from T-Nation makes some great points about deadlifts…

Have you ever seen anyone who can deadlift some serious weight that didn’t have a thick back? I didn’t think so.

But you will see guys all day long who can do pulldowns or cable rows with the entire weight stack yet don’t have a back that could win the novice division of a local bodybuilding contest.

12 Truths About Bodybuilding Training, T NATION, Clay Hyght, DC, Aug, 7, 2007

How to Use Squats and Deadlifts for Bodybuilding

deadlifts low reps

We’ve talked about why you should do squats and deadlifts, and you may be thinking that you have to switch to powerlifting workouts.

That’s not the case at all. Rather, I’m going to show you how you can incorporate squats and deadlifts into your bodybuilding routines. In fact, the concepts you’ll about to learn will help you with all of your workouts.

Here’s what you’ll do…

  • Go heavy in the beginning with ONE heavy lift (squats OR deadlifts)
  • Incorporate other exercises
  • Do more reps for your remaining exercises
  • Use techniques to increase intensity towards the end of your workouts

Go Heavy at the Beginning of Your Workouts

You want to put the most amount of energy you have into your heaviest exercises. Why? Because these exercises are going to pack on more muscle, as we’ve learned.

For example, on your leg day, you will do squats first.
*You can do a few sets of leg extensions or ride the recumbent bike for a few minutes to warm-up if you feel you need them.

I also suggest that you pick one; either squats or deadlifts. So on your leg day, start with squats then move into the next tip below. And you can start with deadlifts on back day, or a second leg day that week.
*I’m going to give you some workouts at the end of this post!

Incorporate Other Exercises

After doing that one heavy compound exercises (squats or deads), it’s time to move on to other exercises that target specific muscles.

Remember, squats and deadlifts will build (and help you continue building) your foundation of muscle mass. But that’s not enough to build a bodybuilder physique.

You now need to do muscle-specific exercises. Here are some examples:

For back…

  • Barbell rows
  • Dumbbell rows
  • Lat pulldowns
  • Seated rows

For legs…

  • Leg extensions
  • Leg curls
  • Leg press
  • Hack squats
  • Stiff-leg deadlifts

Do More Reps (and Sets)

In addition to incorporating bodybuilding exercises after your heavy lift, it’s time to up the reps.

Naturally, you’ll be doing low to moderate reps for squats and deadlifts. After that, you’ll want to increase the reps for your muscle-specific exercises to follow.

Here’s a solid bodybuilding method to use…

  • Exercise 1 (heavy): 3-6 reps
  • Exercise 2: 8-10 reps
  • Exercise 3: 10-12 reps
  • Exercise 4: 12-15 reps

This will help you cover all the basis for building and shaping your muscles like a bodybuilder. You’ll get the heavy, low reps for building that thick, dense mass.

And then you’ll get the size and shape by pumping more blood into your muscles using higher reps. You can read more about the benefits of using different rep ranges in my post: Best Rep Range for Building Muscle Size

Increase Intensity

To take your bodybuilding gains to the next level, you have to find ways to increase the intensity of your workouts.

The reason for this is you want to exhaust the muscle; you have to tear it down so that it can rebuild, bigger.

Two common techniques are drop sets and supersets. But there’s one technique that I’ve found that dominates them all for increasing workout intensity: rest-pause sets.

Rest-pause sets are where you perform a set, rest 7-10 seconds, then do another set with the same weight. Yes, it’s as brutal as it sounds! And it’s the perfect way to end your workout.

You can read more about rest-pause sets and other weight training techniques in my article: 7 Weight Training Techniques to Increase Intensity.

Bodybuilding Workouts with Squats and Deadlifts

Squat Day

Now it’s time for the ‘good stuff.’ I’m going to give you 3 different workouts that you can start using for pack on some serious muscle mass.

The cool thing is you’re naturally going to get stronger as well!

Workout 1: Leg Day with Squats

This is a leg workout that has you starting with squats. From there, you’re going to do more leg exercises that target your quads and hamstrings directly. Get ready for a lower-body pump!

ExerciseSets x Reps
Squats5 x 10, 8, 6, 5, 3
Leg Curls4 x 10
Leg Press5 x 12
Leg Extensions5 x 15
Seated Calve Raises6 x 15

Workout 2: Leg Day with Deadlifts

This is an awesome leg workout that involves starting with deadlifts (there are no squats in this workout). It’s going to focus more on your hamstrings, making it a perfect second-leg workout for that week.

You may already know that I’m a huge believer in having 2 legs days. I encourage you to read my post: Training Legs Twice a Week.

ExerciseSets x Reps
Deadlifts5 x 3
Close-Stance Leg Press4 x 12
Lying Leg Curls4 x 12
One-Leg Leg Extensions4 x 12
Standing Calve Raises5 x 15

Workout 3: Back Day with Deadlifts

Though deadlifts are considered a lower body exercise, it’s also extremely beneficial to building a thick back (remember we talked about this earlier!).

So this is an awesome back workout with deadlifts.

ExerciseSets x Reps
Deadlifts5 x 3
Barbell Rows4 x 6-8
Dumbbell Rows4 x 8-10
Lat Pulldowns4 x 12

Are You Squatting and Deadlifting?

I ‘strongly’ (yes, the pun was intended!) encourage you to start doing squats and deadlifts in your bodybuilding routine, if you’re not already. You will be amazed at how much new muscle you’ll pack on.

If you started out powerlifting but have transitioned to bodybuilding, leaving squats and deadlifts behind, you should consider adding them back into your workouts.

Also, you don’t have to squat and deadlift every week. You may feel that doing them every other week is enough to maintain or even build muscle mass. You have to experiment and do what works best for you, considering your goals.

I hope you enjoyed this article, and really hope that it helps you.

Please feel free to share this!

**If you’re ready to start an intense 12-week program, check out my premium programs below:

Hardcore Muscle Building Program
Lean Muscle Building Program

Train with Passion,


About the author

Jason Stallworth

Hi, I'm Jason Stallworth and I created The Muscle Program in 2010 for the purpose of helping you build muscle. I know first-hand how weight training and being in the gym has shaped my life in more way than one. And here is where I share that experience with you so that you can continue pushing yourself and becoming the best version of yourself each day!