Both the barbell back squat and the conventional deadlift have often been given the title “king of exercises”.

Type that phrase in Google and you’ll find page after page of articles that give off the impression that you can’t possibly pack on considerable muscle mass and build a great physique without squatting and deadlifting…

…Is this true though?

In reality, while barbell back squats and conventional deadlifts are certainly great exercises:

a) This kind of dogmatic thinking on the subject has probably led to more injuries than one can count

and

b) They are certainly not indispensable

Next, I’m gonna tackle each point separately…

One-Size-Fits-All Or The Myth Of Procrustes

procrustes

In Greek mythology, Procrustes was a bandit who held a tavern. Whenever a traveller would come, Procrustes would put him into a bed: if the traveller was too short, the bandit would stretch him to fit the bed and if the the traveller was too tall, he would cut off his limbs.

The dogmatic idea that it’s mandatory for every single person regardless of individual anatomy to do barbell back squats and conventional deadlifts is definitely a modern Procrustean bed.

In reality, people are NOT the same.

For example, it’s a well known fact that great squatters generally have long torsos and short legs while great conventional deadlifters generally have a short torso and long arms.

And it is such anatomical differences that dictate whether a person is built to do barbell back squats and conventional deadlifts or whether he’s better off substituting them for their variations or for different exercises that will spare them from injury in the long run.

Simply put, if barbell back squats or conventional deadlifts cause you undue pain (and note, we’re talking about the bad kind of pain here)…

…DON’T DO THEM!

They might be great exercises – but not for you.

Which leads me to the next point…

Are Barbell Back Squats And Conventional Deadlifts Indispensable For Packing On Muscle?

deadlift

To answer this question we need to look at what causes hypertrophy.

And what better place to look than the expert on muscle hypertrophy, Brad J. Schoenfeld, who’s the author of the popular review paper, “The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training”.

What he tells us is that there are 3 primary factors that are responsible for initiating a hypertrophy response to resistance exercise.

And those are: mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress.

Mechanical tension is related to the exercise intensity (or the weight you use) and it’s produced both by force generation and by stretch.

What Schoenfeld says is that “mechanical overload increases muscle mass while unloading results in atrophy”.

Next, muscle damage refers to localized damage to muscle tissue caused by resistance training, which “is theorized to generate a hypertrophic response”.

And finally, metabolic stress refers to metabolite accumulation in the muscle caused by resistance training.

So, to get back to the question at hand, if an exercise causes a sufficient combination of these 3 factors, it will elicit a hypertrophic response.

Getting Practical

Alternative Route

If your individual anatomy is well suited for doing barbell back squats and conventional deadlifts, by all means do them. They’re great exercises and they’ll definitely help you grow.

However if you have a poor anatomical structure for these exercises which puts you in danger of future injuries, then do not hesitate to substitute them for healthier alternatives.

Great alternatives for the barbell back squat are the front squat, the leg press and unilateral exercises like Bulgarian split squats and the one-legged leg press.

As for substituting conventional deadlifts, you can try out sumo deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, stiff-legged deadlifts, rack pulls or one-armed dumbbell deadlifts.

In Conclusion:

It is critical to take into consideration individual anatomy and to stay away from dogmatic thinking, if you are to stay injury-free, pack on slabs of muscle and lift weights for a long time to come.

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