In the fitness world, there is an occasional “chicken and egg” argument over whether the deadlift or the squat is the more foundational movement. Generally the squat is given precedence, with the rational being the deadlift is moving an external load, while the squat is moving your own bodyweight.
This sounds coherent, but it’s not as simple as that.
The deadlift the most fundamental of human movements, more so than even the squat. It is the more fundamental because it plainly comes FIRST on the continuum of motor development. The deadlift, which is, in fact, the ability to “bend the hips” for which technical term is hip extension, it precedes the “squat” pattern, which is hip and knee bend together.
A deadlift is taking the body from a “bent” position to a standing position. The gravity of this, no pun intended, cannot be overstated. The ability to stand upright under your own power, that is a critical milestone in physical development for humans.
And it comes before squatting.
Motor Development 101
To interact and navigate your environment, you must be able to MOVE. Humans are incredibly versatile at moving and possess a range of movement skills that other animals do not. To be a healthy and well functioning human, you must be able to move well.
As such, there is a developmental continuum of motor coordination, that starts the instant you are born. It begins with your vision and hearing, and the muscles that hold up the head. This is why a baby turning its head is a big deal. What is happening is the the cervical and spinal muscles are developing.
Your ability to move follows a continuum-grasping objects, holding up your head, turning your head, bearing weight on your arms, extending your spine, rolling from your back to your stomach, bearing weight on the legs, and so on and forth.
Now, I’m not going to go through the entire motor coordination continuum piece by piece, as the critical point to understand is that your body develops in stages. The adage of “you cannot run until you can walk, you cannot walk until you can crawl” is is true.
Relative to the deadlift, there is a critical milestone that occurs, and it is why I believe the deadlift is the “foundation” lift,
Before you can crawl, walk, or squat, you must be able to STAND.
-Coaches that do not have children, or have never been around babies, this is why they make the assumption the squat comes first. It DOESN’T. For those of you have that kids, you know that a baby being able to support weight on its legs in a standing position came BEFORE it was was ever running around and squatting, or even crawling.
If you watch babies at this stage of development, you’ll see that they don’t immediately squat to stand up. They need help. It’s not as if you go from crawling and then one day they pop a squat and walk upright.
What they do is pull themselves up, and the parents help them often, and they do a “hip bend” to get themselves to a standing position.
Babies will start crawling and standing at the same time. Why is this? The patterns overlap. Standing requires immense coordination and alignment of the skeleton against gravity.
Crawling requires locomotion of all four limbs, it strengthens the core muscles immensely, and it gets the hip flexors working the can pull the legs forward. It also reinforces the spinal alignment.
(Unfortunately, the vast majority of adults lose the ability to crawl. This is not good, as it indicates that you no longer have the musculoskeletal “suppleness” for athletic movement, and your body is likely excessively stiff. But crawling is another subject for another time).
If you combine crawling with standing, they eventually start to try walking.
If you watch a baby learning to walk, they also do not take normal steps either. Those inner thigh muscles and core are not yet built. They take pitter patter steps, with their feet splayed out, and they lose their balance a lot.
It’s only when they are able to stand up easily after a lot of hip bending and dragging themselves up, that do they begin to squat readily.
Therein lies the major difference:
The deadlift is the ability to stand up AGAINST gravity.
The squat is the ability to descend TOWARDS gravity.
Being able standup straights happens before you can squat back down again. So do I rest my case that the deadlift is fundamental.