Squats, Deadlifts and Lunges – Movement Patterns, Not Exercises.

Fitness & Training Tips
By Dan

About Dan

I’m one of our resident Exercise Physiologists, and also an accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach, Personal Trainer and Level 1 Weightlifting Instructor. Outside of the gym, I tend to go in search of good food and great coffee. And yes, Dan’s Shoulder Stretch is mine.

As always, I like to view things a little differently to others. And today is no different.

What I propose from the rather cryptic title of the article is this: don’t think about squats, deadlifts or lunges being exercises. Think of them as movement patterns that allow you to select exercises based off your ability to perform them. Let me further clarify…

The Squat

The basic squat is a knee-dominant pattern. It requires the aligned coordination of the ankles, knees and hips, together with a relatively upright spine to perform the movement. In optimal cases, the deep squat should act as a functional resting position (just watch babies and young children sit).

Now, my point is this. Mastery of this basic squat allows you to adapt the movement to suit your current needs. A bodyweight squat should differ very little from a barbell squat or squat component of the wallball. If it does, then we need to revisit and modify the squat pattern.  A good squat pattern will maximise efficiency and output in squat-based exercises, while eliminating any undue risk of injury.

The Deadlift

The deadlift, unlike the squat, is a hip-dominant, hip-hinge movement pattern. It is not knee dominant. In a technically perfect deadlift, the posterior chain muscles (hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae etc.) are loaded up in lieu of the anterior muscles (particularly quadriceps). The deadlift relies on a vertical tibia (shin) with more extensive movement at the hip joint.

The deadlift pattern is the most effective and efficient way for humans to reach objects on the floor (yes, you could squat, but it is neither as effective nor as efficient).

A perfect illustration of why a deadlift is not a squat. The tibia is near-vertical, the hips are much higher and the body is loaded primarily through the posterior chain in a deadlift.

A faulty deadlift movement pattern result in two things. One is for the knees to continue over the toes, lowering the hips and finishing in a squat pattern (inefficient and impractical at heavy loads). The second is for the back to round in order to reach a predetermined distance, comprimising back health and increasing the risk of injury. Either of these outcomes indicates that the deadlift pattern needs to be worked on before progressing to some of the exercises listed below.

A good deadlift pattern can be adapted to different exercises based on a hip-hinge, including barbell and kettlebell deadlifts, suitcase deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, kettlebell swings (and any variation of), good mornings and GHD variations.

The Lunge

Oft-forgotten when compared to the deadlift and squat. The lunge pattern is unique in that it represents a stable, strong movement pattern in an asymmetrical stance. That is, our lunge pattern will determine our ability to handle loads when our feet are not symmetrical.

A lunge represents the middle ground between the squat and the deadlift, and has much more application than you think. We walk, run, change direction and take the stairs with one foot leading, and often jump more effectively off one leg (no one has ever won longjump or highjump with a two foot takeoff!).

An effective lunge pattern requires the shoulder, hip and rear knee to be in total alignment, with the hips in a neutral position. Any deviation from this and the body must compromise both its stability and strength for range or comfort.

Good lunge. Shoulder, hip and knee are in alignment with the pelvis in neutral position.

Bad lunge. Pelvis is in anterior tilt, lower back in excessive lordosis and nothing in a straight line. Placing a load on this pattern will require the body to make plenty of compensations, increasing injury risk and minimising efficiency.

Good lunge patterns transfer into exercises like running, jumping, sprinting and changing direction (just about any team sport), as well as any lunge variation you care to name. You could even put a case forward to say that a good lunge pattern is essential for human locomotion!