The Squat vs. The Hip Hinge: Know The Difference

By Dr. John Rusin

squat vs hip hinge

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Struggling To Stay Healthy While Progressing Your Squats & Deadlifts?

The squat and the “deadlift” AKA hip hinge patterns are the cornerstone of foundational and fundamental lower body movement. They have the ability to develop resilient strength, enhance performance and help prevent chronic and traumatic injuries from occurring. As powerful as these two movements are, their effectiveness is dependent on the correct implementation of the ideal movement pattern variation for each lift, but also displaying  sound technique, execution and programming.

Both the squat and hinge present as extremely high ceilings in the achievement of multi-modalic goal sets, but they also happen to be two of the most challenging movement patterns to learn, maintain and master. Many find themselves struggling to progress these staple lifts and stay healthy simultaneously. The main reason why? Through the training and athletic development process the squat and hip hinge patterns have failed to be clearly differentiated from one another, and developed as two separate (yet similar) movement patterns.

Here’s why if you want to get the most out of your body while creating resiliency that will stave off injuries and extend physical longevity, people need to differentiate the squat from the hip hinge. Objectively and conceptually differentiating these two from one another will ingrain proper motor control and patterning that will start working for lifters and athletes, not against them.

Differentiating The Squat & The Hip Hinge Movement Patterns

Our bodies have been hardwired from birth to learn, master and habituate foundational movement patterns through a normal developmental sequence. During this sequence, movement patterns like the squat and hip hinge emerge and are quickly put to the test through real time function reacting to ones environment.

Over time, the squat and hinge become automatic representations of well-coordinated and biomechanically succinct movements and are usable actions in a myriad of positions and challenges in life. Well, what’s the problem then? If most everyone squatted and hinged proficiently at one point in time, why can the vast majority of people not maintain these motor abilities?

Our highly sedentary Westernized society negates the most primitive of movement patterns through piss poor postural pitfall positions placed on daily repeat. We detrain ourselves, and lose the ability to move authentically, the way humans were designed to function. And we wonder why the hip hinge aka the deadlift has earned its reputation as the most debilitating exercise in the gym, we’ve forgotten HOW to hip hinge. And in part, our inability to coordinate a hip dominant lower body movement pattern has also pigeon holed our ability to authentically squat as well.

A vast majority of people can conceptualize a squat pattern, of course not necessarily able to execute one, but mightily struggle to wrap their heads around what a hip hinge pattern may entail. This is to be expected, as we’ve detrained the function of the hip hinge pattern over the better part of the last half of the century. So what do most lifters revert to when force-feeding the deadlift and it’s many variations? A butchered hybrid between the squat and hinge that is quite literally the worst of both patterns synergized together.

Stop Squatting Your Deadlifts Vice Versa

Though there are hingy squats and squatting hinges, the two are not the same and have distinct characteristics that allow us to create umbrellas for each. Though the complexity of the biomechanics of the squat and hinge is nothing to devalue, the main differentiating factor is the joint, which plays a primary role in the execution of each pattern. An authentic squat pattern will incorporate greater emphasized movement placed on the knee joint, while the hip hinge pattern will be lead by articulations happening primarily at the hip, hence the naming of the pattern itself.

Simply put, we can generalize each pattern like this:

  • The Squat = Knee Dominant
  • The Hip Hinge = Hip Dominant

And while this joint dominancy is a simple way to differentiate the squat vs. the hip hinge pattern from one another, we do also need to have a greater appreciation for the Squat-Hinge Movement Spectrum which opens the door to individuality of the squat and hinge movement patterns, while also playing and programming specific needs on the lower body movement spectrum.

The Squat-Hinge Movement Spectrum

squat hinge movement spectrum

When it comes down to it, the biggest differentiating factor between the squat and hip hinge movement patterns is the amount of knee flexion (and extension) that occurs during terminal authentic range of motion of each of these patterns. You’ll note that the squat features the most knee bend on the left squat side of the spectrum, while the right presents with the least at the purest hip hinge side of the spectrum.

This key differentiation of knee angulation that creates the dominancy also biases certain prime moving muscles working during the hinge as opposed to the squat. During the squat patter, the quads, glutes and lower back are targeted the most, while the hinge has the hamstrings, glutes and lower back targeted most. The difference?  We trade activity at the quadriceps in the squat for more primary activity of the hamstrings for the hinge. Simple.

But looking more in depth at the type of movement mechanics from a neurological unlocking perspective, the squat and hinge again differentiate themselves with varying “unlocking” mechanisms and lines of force at the  hips, especially in the eccentric lowering phase. With pure squat patterns, hips are focused on lowering in a more vertical plane of motion, while hip hinges are focused on pushing back with a more horizontal force vector.

This executional key is of course dependent on biomechanics and joint angles, but also enhances the feel of a “natural” squat or hip hinge pattern that looks smooth and feels strong and sequenced. This also is a large determinant of the key muscles targeted reviewed above, as it’s all interlocked together.

Finally, and most importantly, we must look at the “ability to move weight” AKA where someone is the strongest on the squat-hinge spectrum. Denoted by example exercises classified on the bottom line of the spectrum, we’ll find the trap bar deadlift right in the middle where the peak of loading is the highest. Since this is an in-between movement, we have the ability to safely and effectively move maximal load from this intermediate position.

And as we move right and left on the spectrum, core exercises are determined by position, loading ability, dominancy, muscle targeting and general mechanics having the goblet squat at the far left, and good morning at the far right with intermediate steps between. Whoa, that was a lot, but good thing a picture says a thousand words, review it again above.

Re-Teaching The Squat and Hinge Patterns

While there are obviously movements happening at both the hips and knees in both the squat and hip hinge, the primary joint leading the movement itself is the discerning factor when grouping the patterns. But to what degree is something that takes coaching to fine tune these two patterns and differentiate them from one another.

A test that I often use with my athletes to spark that light bulb moment for those who have a nasty habit of squatting their hinges is the hinge back wall test. In just a few seconds with just the use of a wall, we can create the mental shift, which is the first step in building a proper hip hinge movement pattern from the ground up.

From there, we have sparked a neurological motor control change centrally that will create an opportunity to build up both the authentic squat and hip hinge patterns from the ground up… separately. Just remember, when you are fighting your own body during a movement, or the movement causes pain, identify the reason and revert back to building up your individualized foundational patterns.

Simple First, Spectrum Second For Squat-Hinge Success

Once the squat and the hinge patterns are reestablished in one’s movement system, the key is to continue to gain and maintain the purest forms of the squat and hinge patterns while also playing with variation on the spectrum to gain neurological and mechanical benefits from novelty of load and position.

From a hinge perspective, each training week should feature a deadlift variation (load moved concentrically first from a dead stop bottom position up), an RDL variation (too down approach leading with eccentric first) and a single leg or asymmetrical stance derivative to target natural asymmetries that happen regularly in the human body.

The squat is somewhat more simple, but can follow the same rules as the hinge for weekly distribution of exercise variation. Each week should feature a “free” squat, a box squat variation. If  you want to take this one step further, one of these squats (either the free or the box) can feature a heavier loading tool such as a barbell (if one has earned the right to use this tool by mastering the simpler tools first) and the opposite variation with a NON-bar option for loading such as a kettlebell, dumbbell, unconventional barbell landmine setup etc.

The more positions we can learn how to establish prime positions from, the stronger and more resilient we will build both the squat and hinge patterns. Keep this in mind with programming. Go simple first gaining an ability to squat and hinge, and from there get strong, challenge positions, and enjoy a lifetime of pain-free training and performance.

About The Author

Dr. John Rusin

Dr. John Rusin is a sports performance specialist and injury prevention expert that has coached some of the world’s most elite athletes including multiple Olympic gold medalists, NFL and MLB All-Star performers, and professionals from 11 different sports. He has also managed some of the most successful barbell sport athletes in the world including world record holding powerlifters, CrossFit Games athletes, and IFBB professional physique athletes.

His innovative pain-free performance programs have been successfully implemented by over 25,000 athletes worldwide including his best selling training system Functional Power Training, which has revolutionized the way coaches and athletes develop strength, muscle and performance pain-free. Dr. Rusin’s work has gained him the reputation as the go-to industry expert for rebuilding after pain, injuries or plateaus.

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  1. Steeve July 21, 2017 at 10:20 am - Reply

    Hi Dr.Russin,

    This article gave me some doubt about the trap bar deadlift which can be more or less a squat/hinge.

    Some trainers on T nation advice a squat stance to do this exercise, to focus on legs for example. I love to do it this way since one of my knee doesn’t support squat or leg press very well.
    Is there an excessive risk for lower back to adopt a squat stance to do the TBDL ?

    Best regards,

    • Angela McNelly June 4, 2019 at 12:01 pm - Reply

      Fantastic question! Following this. Hope he responds. I do TBDL as well.

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