We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
If muscle-building is your intention, these two are basic. However, they are also basic to just maintaining physical sturdiness and functionality. Yes, at heavy they are difficult and unpleasant. It's not for fun, really.
I only do one set of 6 of each weekly. Or weakly. Not body-building, but it is body-maintenance. I do increase the weights periodically so I am not going backwards. I find the barbell squats more challenging, and appreciate having a spotter behind me when I approach my limit. With deads, of course, you can just drop the bar if you have to. I love the sound of dropped barbells in the morning.
That, and I don't fully understand the 'easier on the back' reasoning. You're worried about putting too much strain on your back so you do an exercise that doesn't make it as strong as it could be? Doesn't that make it more likely to be injured? Done correctly the conventional deadlift is as safe as any exercise you would do in the gym.
As with most things in life, there are trade-offs. With athletics, an injury may mean having to stop the program for a lengthy or indefinite period, resulting in a reduction in fitness. Exercise is essential for health—as you have properly stressed—but exercise should be tailored to the condition and attributes of the person. Situations with a high risk of injury can be counterproductive.
The problem with heavy weight exercise is... well heavy weights. Many people think; gee! I just pressed, squatted, whatever X pounds I wonder if I can do X+20? Or similarly they think: Gee! Look how big my bicep, thigh, whatever has gotten I wonder if I can make it even larger???
If you are trying out for the Olympics, or to look like Igor or want to be a lineman in the NFL maybe you are on the right track. But if your purpose in starting an exercise program was to improve strength, health and flexibility you are on the wrong track. You want to find a couple of daily routines that build and maintain strength and flexibility and stick with them. Alternate between the two routines every other day. Find a weight (or an exercise that doesn't use weight) that you can do 10 times for three sets. Settle in on these routines with minor adjustments and you are on your way to a lifetime of strength and flexibility.
However, if you succumb to that temptation to see how much you can press, squat, list, whatever the best you can hope for is minor injuries and looking like Igor. More likely occasional major injuries. You absolutely do not want to "push" yourself. Sorry the gym rats are giving you bad advice. They will learn something in time that you can only learn that way. They haven't learned it yet and that is why they think you should be trying to outdo Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Believe it or not, JustYou, there is a whole spectrum of strength training programs between your do-the-minimum approach and a Schwarzenegger-style program. Who exactly is telling you to try and outdo him? Your minimalist program is certainly better than sitting on the couch, but always remember these three words, which can apply to more than just your exercise routine: "Easy doesn't work."
I am shocked to hear that there are different opinions on this!
But seriously simply because you can find someone who agrees with you doesn't make it the correct choice.
Have you ever known someone who worked all their lives in a physical job where they pretty much did the same thing everyday? Typically they have muscle and bone conditions that cause them pain and disability everyday of their lives. This is what the "prescription" you suggest promises you.
If your goal is exercise for health and the ability to easily perform everyday physical activity, you don't need the muscle tearing, tendon snapping maximum weight exercise. Most exercise follows the 80/20 rule. That is you get 80% of the benefit from 20% of the effort. Coincidently you get 80% of the injuries from trying to attain that additional 20% benefit. Why? If a reasonable and attainable level of exercise gives you the strength and stamina you need everyday why try for "superman" with the risk of injury?
Who exactly is recommending or even suggesting this "muscle tearing, tendon snapping maximum weight exercise" you keep talking about?
Dr. Sullivan explains in great detail why the barbell prescription works, why it is safe, and why it is effective. If you have a specific argument with his reasoning, let's hear it. So far you're just presenting straw man arguments.
'Scuse me as I beat this dead horse just a bit more.
Unless you are doing really stupid stuff in the gym, you are much more likely to get hurt outside of it rather than while working out. And getting strong in the gym will make you less likely to get hurt during other activities. The big compound movements (squats, deadlifts, bench press, overhead press, plus a few ancillary exercises like chinups/pullups) with barbells are the safest, most efficient, and most effective way to build that strength.