Squats and Deadlifts are Not the “King of Exercise” for a Lot of People.

May 9, 2012

I want to explain my stance on limiting the use of squats and deadlifts. I don’t believe they are terrible exercises. I think they have a place in the routines for some people, depending upon their goals. Do I believe that either of these should be labeled the “king of exercise” that so many people claim them to be? Not by a mile.

[Here’s a fit couple walking down the beach. Both of them could probably add quite a bit of mass to their legs with a routine based around squats…but should they?]

Squats: The Best Exercise to Add Mass to Your Lower Body

Want to add a lot of mass to your legs, hips, and butt? Squats are the answer. Want to increase the weight on the scale? Squats will do that too. No doubt about it…squats will definitely add a lot of muscle to your body quickly. Although they do work a lot of muscle groups in the body besides legs, the majority of muscle added will be to the lower body. For someone who wants to add a bit of size to their legs, it is a great exercise choice.

The Lower Body Has a Large Potential for Muscle Gains

People who question my recommendation for limiting the use of squats, typically say something along these lines…”adding muscle is tough and takes hard work, people don’t need to be worried that they will add too much muscle on accident”. The problem is that the lower body does tend to grow at a faster rate than the upper body. Women in particular have this problem.

[Once your lower body has as much muscle as you would like, I recommend either backing off on squats or dropping them completely from your routine.]

If Your Legs Are Bigger Than You Would Like?

If you want to lose muscle mass in your legs, then avoid all direct leg resistance training. For some reason, this is a controversial recommendation…but it makes perfect sense to me. Avoid all direct leg resistance training until your legs are as slim as you would like. At that point, reintroduce a limited amount of direct leg resistance training…but make sure that your legs don’t increase in girth again. Here’s my full-blown post on losing muscle on purpose.

If You Want to Tone the Lower Body Without Adding Size?

A few options:

  • Perform cardio in an intense manner and see if that gets the job done.
  • Train legs short of failure 1-2 times per week.
  • Train legs once every other week (if you gain size easily in the lower body).

Deadlifts: A Better Option for Density, Less Potential for Mass

I fall under the category of gaining muscle too quickly in my thighs, hips and butt. Intense cardio keeps my quads and hamstrings toned, but doesn’t hit the lower back as much as I would like. A great exercise to work the lower back and glutes, are partial deadlifts in a power rack. I simply do these once every other week, for 5 sets of 3-5 reps (well short of failure).

[I used to do deadlifts from the floor every other week, but found that it added size to my quads. Shortening the range of motion to the upper 1/2 or upper 2/3 of the lift works my back and glutes without hitting the quads as hard.]

A Good Exercise That Targets the Glutes

As far as firming up and shaping the lower body, I believe that intense enough cardio will get the job done for a lot of people. For those who want to add in a bit more glute work, kettlebell or dumbbell swings are a great option. Roman demonstrates the proper variation of this exercise to target the glutes.

[Just like partial deadlifts…this still hits the legs to a certain extent, so cut back the frequency if it adds more size to your lower body than you would like.]

“Real Men Squat”, “Squat or GO Home”, & Other Nonsense

I haven’t squatted in years, but I never thought squatting was particularly hard or taxing. I got up to 405 pounds for 5 sets of 6 reps…and it was somewhat tough…but not crazy intense or anything. Sure there are guys who squat over 600 pounds for reps, but it is all relative. There are some in fitness who act like squatting is such an accomplishment. It really isn’t that big of a deal. Heck…I used to run hills in Junior High with my track team, and that was much more intense than my old squat workouts.

A Lot of People Will Want to Limit These Lifts

I don’t like wearing pleated pants or relaxed fit jeans…so these lifts aren’t congruent with my goals. I also found that too much leg mass made me feel sluggish. If you are a man or woman who wants large legs, then that is cool…I’m not trying to push my goals on anyone. One of my good online pals, Elliott Hulse, has legs the size of tree trunks…but it works for him. He is a competitive lifter and would have big legs even without lifting. He is just playing on his strengths, which completely makes sense.

Note: There are some men and women who can squat or deadlift on a regular basis without adding too much mass to their lower bodies. If you have those same genetics, then you can get away with doing those lifts on a regular basis. If you don’t have those genetics then avoid those lifts…or at least use them less frequently. Makes sense, right?

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Personal Record Fitness December 28, 2012 at 1:11 am

Big legs are part of genetics. If you have the genetics to have larger legs than an upper body, your upper body will hardly grow unless your legs do. And vise versa. It`s simple Biology. And you do not have to train for size. Strength and Conditioning are also an option with these moves. They are the kings because you use these moves in real life. (sitting and picking things up)

bridgit January 1, 2013 at 11:43 am

my friend tried to kill herself last week cause of the damage she has done to her body with wheights , she has lost more wheight now looks aneroxic and has loose flesh and skin she is very down, she said she did over work her body and especially her lower bdy with too many squats and lunges and then leg press , using heavy wheights on four days in a trott not to mention the upper body workout also, for two years, if anyone can help or give advice if she can gain back some muscle and hopefully get rid of the loose flesh and skin without overdoing it , please advise, if you could get back to me rusty would greatly appreciate it thank you !!!

Helen January 3, 2013 at 3:35 am

I am trying to get my thighs and calves to grow, I hate having legs like chopsticks. The above article is usefull to me because I know now to hammer my legs with squats so that they will grow. Many thanks!

Mark Propes January 3, 2013 at 4:35 am

Rusty is correct. People have opinions that are different and they may or may not change by listening to other ideas that are not mainstream. He was very clear in the article to tailor squats to your desired goal. Just listen to another viewpoint and do not be so obstinate when it comes to learning. That is how we all progress as humans. Remember the earth was once thought of as being flat until proved differently.

Affection for Fitness January 3, 2013 at 7:45 am

Hi! I am a woman with very well developed muscles in my legs who does no lower body weightlifting at all. I stopped several years ago because it was incredibly hard on my knees. Instead, I do a variety of other types of exercises, including yoga balancing poses, to keep my leg muscles very strong and backside firm but my knee joints safe. Actually, the yoga balancing poses have gently rehabbed much of the knee problems that the weightlifting caused. My knees feel better than they did 10 years ago! So I completely agree with this post. People with knee problems should be receptive to other less joint-stressful routes to well-developed leg muscles.

🙂 Marion

Katherine January 4, 2013 at 8:32 am

I don’t understand all these people who are pretending that no woman puts on lower body muscle. When I was speedskating, I lifted heavy, and my thigh muscles got so huge I couldn’t cross my legs. Even now, 20 years after stopping, brisk walking with some hills is enough to keep my legs firm.

Ksh January 6, 2013 at 1:03 am

Pavel addresses this point in Beyond Bodybuilding, and says that pistols, deadlifts, dead squats and kettlebell hack squats etc do not add much mass to your lower body while getting it stronger.

bridgit January 11, 2013 at 10:19 am

why are the recent comments gone is it because they are true squats and lunges lifting heavy is bad for you it destroyes your body when you stop ….. loose skin and flab………………and its very true ….. so wemon keep away from wheights always..

bridgit January 11, 2013 at 10:21 am

sorry i appolagise the commonts are there ……….

Lee January 16, 2013 at 6:49 am

Squats and deadlifts are not the king of exercises for a lot of people – this much is true. Why? Simply, there are safer and more efficient ways to target the legs and lower body, such as unilateral training.

Respected strength and conditioning coach Michael Boyle writes about this, explaining how single limb training is a more effective – and anatomically correct – way to train. In a world where few trainees squat properly, Boyle proposes that conventional double leg movements are flawed and that single leg exercises provide a more functional way to exercise while enjoying higher levels of safety.

Boyle argues: “If what we were doing worked so well, why do we have so many tears and bad backs? I truly believe that single leg training is the best way to prevent knee injuries and the best way to train around a back problem.”

However, just like many of your readers (and coach Boyle), I feel some type of leg training is far too important to simply ignore. Because of this, I don’t plan on parting with my split squats any time soon!

Thank you for your article.

Steph January 19, 2013 at 7:13 pm

I tend to carry more muscle in my shoulders and arms. If I overdo it on the upper body stuff I look hulking…

Steph January 19, 2013 at 7:14 pm

I wish my lower body got bigger the easiest! Who doesn’t want a big butt!?

saudi kid January 29, 2013 at 3:13 pm

I kicked out all lower body exersices . (My leg still mascular though)
it is just not natural to work your lower body.
I will never forget that day. After finishing tough lower body workout my mother asked me to go with her to the shopping mall . I couldn’t walk normally. Even drunk person will walk better than me. At that time I realized the mistake I was doing. Natural life activities don’t require great legs strength. Its all about cardiovascular and upper body strength.
Have you lift heavy things to your home using your legs before?

The best idea is to use your lower body for cardio only. I usually do HIT session with jump rope
Sorry my English is crape.
Thank you rusty moore for these great articles
I will recommend your blog to people I know here in Saudi Arabia.
Good luck

Eric February 1, 2013 at 3:17 pm

Hi Rusty,

Great article. Real eye-opener. I’ve been working my legs at every opportunity in an effort to get lean. I’m about 165lbs and between 5″10/5″11. My immediate goal is to reach 158lbs. Can I use bodyweight squats and/or lunges as a warm up exercise without making them bigger?



Fred Bowman February 4, 2013 at 12:08 am

I agree that there is in fact a group of people who views squats and deadlifts as a major achievement. For me, I just do it when necessary and stop when I have accomplished what I aim for, like a certain amount of mass on my thighs and calves. Both squatting and dead lifting cannot be done as a daily exercise regime but only as a toning or mass/muscle building programme.

Roberto February 16, 2013 at 12:52 pm

Great post! Realy helpfull

Alyssa February 17, 2013 at 10:35 am

lifting at a calorie deficit will NOT mke muscles larger and or bulky, especially for women!! We have way too much estrogen to get bulky…the misinfromation here is incredible to me. Do your reaearch people….i have gotten increcibly lean by lifting HEAVY and keeping calorie deficit, anybody can.

Alex February 17, 2013 at 11:29 am

Hi Rusty, I was just wondering if bodyweight squads and lunges (no weights) also make women gain excessive muscle mass in the legs? I am a runner and to these about 4 times per week in addition to running/elliptical and can’t help noticing that I have bigger legs than about 3-4years ago. This was before beginning to run, I just used to to do some cycling about 2-3 times a week and a LOT of brisk walking, everyday, my legs were literally like sticks. So would bodyweight squats have added this much muscle and should I just cut them out altogther now? (As I run longer distances any extra muscle weight is really not gonig to help me). Thanks!

wyzz March 7, 2013 at 2:42 pm

I cannot stop laughing at the nonsense in this blog. to the author of this blog, come at me bro @ forum.bodybuilding.com.

only people with no lifting experience will buy into what you said– a shit load of bro science

Sheldon March 13, 2013 at 1:44 pm

Great article, I couldn’t agree more about not overdoing it with squats and leg lifts.

Sally April 27, 2013 at 10:23 pm

This article makes sense. Really, a lot of it seems like common sense. The author talks about how squats and dead lifts are good for some and not for others. Obviously, everyone is different. However, the author also takes a swipe at people who are into squatting by saying it is not a big deal. So the negative reviews are not surprising.

FitAndFab June 25, 2013 at 6:51 pm

Hi Rusty,

Great info you are sharing. I agree that cardo is good to build lower body muscle without the bulk. I’m a big fan of jump rope for an overall workout. I do like to incorporate squats too but I do limit it as I’m not looking to beef up my legs, just tone them nicely. Thanks for the info.


Caffeine Fitness July 13, 2013 at 5:42 am

Great post Rusty!

People need to realise that no exercise is a must-do no matter what others say.

Attaining a base level of strength is a sensible initial route to take, but once there you need to re-assess your goals and how your body looks with this new strength.

Sean August 19, 2013 at 5:24 pm

Although opinions vary, two things: 1. Women’s lower extremities do “bulk” and actually grow faster than men’s (this isn’t bunk science this truth. Women, for those who are unaware, bare children. If they don’t, they are still built (as a whole) to do so. Women outlifted the men in high school aalllllll the time.) 2. I’m not sure if the lower body literally grows faster or if that’s the affect it gives because more muscle (half your body including the largest, gluteus max…your ass) is growing at once.

Ryan August 20, 2013 at 3:24 pm

While reading this I became almost offended. This whole article and most comments below just sound like pages and pages of excuses for denying your body of two GREAT excercises. Nearly every serious professional powerlifter, athlete, bodybuilder, ect… ect… uses these two excercises because they reap so many benefits from doing them CORRECTLY. Why publicly bash an excercise that has been proven to be more effective then most in order to make yourself feel more comfortable with your lack of it? Call me what you want. First article I’ve read on this site, feeling the need to go no further. Going back to where the professional give you real advice.

Cate September 9, 2013 at 3:59 pm

Great article! Finally the truth not just the usual garbage about lift heavy and you won’t bulk. Most women who have been exercising consistently for a while will find that squats (even yoga routines heavy in long held squat poses) will build leg bulk in a way they don’t like. The longer you have been exercising the quicker the muscle will build due to muscle memory. Even aerobics due to the squat and lunge based nature of the moves will do this in some women. I avoid aerobics, squats, and any lower body work apart from ballet and yoga stretches ( not holds) and my legs look much better than when I was going to the gym. Also most women should avoid the static cycle machines and stairmasters etc.

Ian Kelley November 15, 2013 at 3:53 pm

I am pretty sure that you are talking about squats and deadlifts using significant load since you claim to have done 405 lb. squats that were “no big deal” and I think this post like a lot of your other ones i have read are missing a couple of important considerations.
1. Eating more or less is the primary cause of reduction in body mass. If you don’t want to “bulk up” you need to eat less and healthier not lift lighter weights or do only cardio
2. HIIT training such as Crossfit or a good Fitness Bootcamp which includes bodyweight or light load squats and 1 leg deadlifts is far more effective for everything than steady state “cardio” which is what I take away as your meaning in the post.

The squat and deadlift are very important functional exercises that everyone should be doing (no load required) because we all need these exercises for the rest of our life. If you have ever sat on a toilet or picked your purse off the ground you are squatting and deadlifting. You should at least learn how to do it properly without surrendering your lumbar curve on deadlifts and with full ROM and hip extension on the squats. Just sayin…..

Cat September 2, 2014 at 3:03 pm

As a young woman with PCOS, my testosterone levels are slightly elevated. Ever time I increased the weight on my squats, my thighs increased in girth. I can’t fit into any of the pants I wore just a year ago! My quads are definitely larger and my thighs are just to big for my taste; I’m comfortable at a size 4-6. This article makes total sense. I’m really glad I stumbled upon this. Thanks Rusty!

Lindsey King September 11, 2014 at 9:13 pm

I think it’s so funny that all of these guys that don’t agree with this article are getting so hurt and crying about it. All he is saying is that squats aren’t for everyone and I think that this article is really more for women. I’m a female that almost competed in figure, and for me I do know that if I’m not doing the bodybuilder diet and cardio every single day, I WILL bulk up if I’m doing any squats or lower body excersises with added weight. I just don’t understand why everyone is bashing this guy so much, guys aren’t pussys if they don’t feel like squatting and some women WILL bulk if they lift heavy lower body! It’s just a fact!!

Chris November 5, 2014 at 6:34 am

Why is every body getting all fired up on people telling their different Experiences in training ? I am 54 yrs old and started lifting when I was 13. Met allot of the top notch bodybuilders of my time including Arnold, the Menters, Boyer Coe, Casey viator, etc. I like them, have done some really impressive squatting and dead lifting in my life. Rusty is 6”3 doing a rock bottom squat of 405. Hell most people don’t go rock bottom .Now at that height that is impressive. . I trained for years doing these lifts heavy and hard with extreme prejudice of adding more and more weight under good form. Guess what, I have had bilateral total knee replacements now in my 50’s. Now if you think that squatting and dead lifting is so great for everyone have your orthopaedic surgeon’s phone number on speed dial because when you get older you will have problems. Just like the above mentioned body builders, Arnold has had knee surgeries, both the mentzers died in their 50’s a week apart. All the author is trying to relay is that for a lean and toned look with density, you don’t need to over do these lifts, and there comes a point of diminishing returns. Not everyone wants to be a muscle head like us. How much this article could of helped me years ago, because knee replacement therapy will make your squatting and dead lifting look like child’s play. But just like me we all know everything when we are younger and we must learn this crap on our own. Keep an open mind people, not to long ago they said smoking is not bad for you

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