I am a big fan of the deadlift exercise. It is one of the most effective compound movements that we have available for building muscle and strength. A compound exercise is one that involves as many muscle groups as possible in one movement. Whether you are a novice or an experienced lifter, you should include deadlifting in your health and fitness program.
However, there are situations in which you cannot or should not perform deadlifts. I will discuss these in today's article and go over some deadlift alternatives that you can do instead. Nothing really replaces a deadlift but some other exercises and a bit of creativity and extra work will lead to similar results.
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What Is the Deadlift Exercise?
Next to squats, overhead presses, pullups and bench presses, deadlifts are one of the most effective compound exercises. They are the secret sauce to improving athletic performance. When deadlifting, you train the whole posterior chain, including all lower back and upper back muscle groups like the trapezius, deltoids, spinal erectors, shoulder blades, lats, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.
In my article The Secret To Athletic Performance: A Strong Posterior Chain, I go through how to perform a correct conventional deadlift with good form. Deadlifts also serve as an excellent measure for general strength levels and progress. There are calculators that use empirical data to assess your strength level for deadlifts, categorized into experience level, age and gender. I recommend monitoring your progress and regularly checking your improvements with data sets like these.
Why Are Deadlifts So Effective and So Important?
Deadlifting is so effective because the movement pattern involves so many different muscle groups. As you will see later, you can achieve similar results by using different exercises, but that just means more work and more time investment. Depending on the program, you can use deadlifts to increase strength, build muscle mass (hypertrophy), explosiveness, power, or even endurance.
That is also why deadlifts are used for so many different purposes. It is of course a classic in powerlifting and olympic lifting. It's also regularly used in CrossFit as a foundational strength exercise. It even plays an essential role in bodybuilding. At a minimum, regular deadlifting (done with good form) will improve your posture.
So, really, there is no 1:1 replacement for a deadlift. If possible, deadlift! Only if you can't due to one of the reasons I am going to discuss next, should you find one of the alternatives that I will also describe later in this article.
When You Should Not Deadlift
There are some (very few) situations when you cannot or should not deadlift.
One is obviously if you don't have access to the necessary equipment like a barbell and plates. Or your gym does not allow deadlifts for whatever questionable reasons. In that case, change the gym.
The second and most important reason is if you have pain, an injury, or some sort of discomfort in your body. Definitely take at least a break from deadlifting if you feel back pain, lumbar stenosis, herniated discs, and any other sort of back problems. Consult with a doctor in that case. Really, it is not worth getting a serious injury that takes you off training for an extended period or even forever.
Remember: Our health is our most important asset. And most of it is in our control. So be careful.
Finally, if you are a novice and just starting out, you should do deadlifts. But really, start very, very carefully and make sure you get the form absolutely right. Having the right form before using heavy weights will reduce your risk of injury. Get some coaching if possible or required.
6 Best Deadlift Alternatives That Work
There are deadlift alternatives and deadlift variations. Variations are basically adapted versions of regular deadlifts like sumo deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts (RDL), or trap bar deadlifts. I will cover those and their benefits in another article. Here I cover the six best exercises that represent alternatives to the classic barbell deadlift — for some we work with bodyweight only, some others require more equipment. None replaces a deadlift exactly, but by combining them and following an appropriate range of sets and repetitions, you can achieve similar results.
1. Kettlebell Swings
A great alternative to the traditional deadlift (and a great compound exercise in general) are kettlebell swings. Swings specifically improve core strength, power, stability and balance. They are also a very convenient tool, which you can use to train at home (they do not need a lot of space).
I describe all the details of the kettlebell swing in my article 5 Kettlebell Exercises to Progress Your Balance, Strength, and Cardio. So, here is just a brief recap.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Grab the handle of the kettlebell, and start to swing the kettlebell back between your legs. When you reach the end of your motion, squeeze your glutes and hamstrings as hard as you can, sending the kettlebell back through your legs and up with an explosive hip thrust. The kettlebell will swing up and then back down between your legs where you’ll start the move again.
2. Farmer's Walk (or Farmer Carry)
The farmer's walk, also called the farmer carry, is an often underestimated exercise. But it's a tough one and very applicable to everyday life. Think carrying home shopping bags.
It is super simple to do: Grab dumbbells, kettlebells, or any other heavy objects in both hands. Then walk. For about 30 to 60 seconds or 50 to 100 meters. Repeat this several times. Farmer's walk specifically works your core, upper body, shoulders, and especially your grip strength. It puts less strain on your lower back than a deadlift.
3. Glute-Ham Raise
The glute-ham raise (GHR) trains most of the posterior chain if you leverage the full range of motion. It does specifically focus on your glutes and hamstrings. You can do it just using your own bodyweight, or you can add weights by holding plates or dumbbells in your hands.
4. Barbell Good Mornings
Good mornings are very easy to do and mainly train your lower and, to some degree, your upper back. They can be performed with weight (a barbell for example) or without by just leveraging your bodyweight. The latter option is advisable if you feel pain, or are suffering or recovering from an injury.
The starting position involves standing up right with your feet shoulder-width apart. You either hold a barbell behind your neck or you place your hands on your head. Then push your hips back and bend forward with your upper body. Do not round your back. Stand back up and repeat.
5. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
The standard Romanian deadlift (RDL) starts with the weight in the standing position whereas the conventional deadlift starts with the weight resting on the ground. The single-leg Romanian deadlift option is actually a quite different exercise where you do the same but standing on one leg using the other for balance. For this exercise, you use a lot less weight so it is a lot more gentle on your body and probably the best alternative if you are injured.
You start this exercise in a standing position with a weight (e.g. dumbbell) in one hand. You then bend slowly down, trying to bring both hands down close to the floor. At the same time your leg that's opposite to the side where you carry the weight extends to the back. Next, you stand back up slowly again and close your legs. Repeat. This exercise can also be done without weights. If you keep your legs straight it can serve as a (dynamic) stretching exercise.
6. Hip Thrust
The hip thrust also addresses the posterior chain, albeit it, mainly emphasizing your glutes. Almost like an isolation exercise. Everyone who has done a heavy hip thrust with a weight like a barbell can confirm the intense soreness that comes in the following days. You can also do them with a band or just bodyweight only. Regardless make sure you leverage the full range of motion especially at the top.
To execute a hip thrust, place your shoulders on a bench. Feet are flat on the floor and knees bent. Then thrust your hips up towards the ceiling. Rest for two seconds, then lower them down.
If You Really Can’t Deadlift, Do These Instead
Did I mention I like barbell deadlifts? It's one of my top go-to exercises in my 4 Legs of Fitness model.
They target all the muscles in your back (your posterior chain), and depending on the program, they are the best exercise to increase strength, muscle mass, power, or endurance. And they just make me feel good. If ever possible, do them.
If not, in this article I went through the six most effective alternative exercises for conventional deadlifts: kettlebell swings, farmer's walk, glute-ham raise, good mornings, single-leg Romanian deadlifts and hip thrusts. A combination of them and a good program will help you achieve very similar if not the same results.
Speaking of good programs:
Deadlifts and a purposeful combination of other compound and isolation exercises relative to your goals are the foundation of fitness programs that deliver results.
If you want to increase your deadlift, grab a copy of my free training program tool so you can monitor your training progress more effectively.