The deadlift is a staple in weightlifting. Its history is rumored to have started in the Roman Empire days when soldiers hurt themselves while clearing dead bodies from the battlefield. In order to stop hurting themselves, they learned proper lifting techniques to clear their bodies. Thus, the deadlift was born.
Of course, that’s just hearsay.
More recent history points to ‘The Father of the Deadlift’ Hermann Goerner who rose to fame performing deadlifts among other feats of strength in a circus from 1910 – 1930.
The deadlift movement is done by hinging your hips backward and lowering down to pick up a weighted barbell. Your back is flat throughout the lift. It has many benefits for strengthening your lower back, hamstrings, glutes, and core.
Deadlifts are one of the best exercises for your hip extensors, which are made up of your glutes and hamstrings. Performing deadlifts can help reduce lower back pain, improve bone mineral density, boost metabolism, improve jump performance, and strengthen your core.
Even with all of these benefits, there are some cons to deadlifting. The deadlift is an exercise often done incorrectly. When your form isn’t correct, it is easy to injure yourself when you deadlift. It’s important to remember to use a weight that allows you to perform the movements with perfect form.
Another con of deadlifting is there is no eccentric control. The eccentric part of a lift is when you are lowering the weight. Because of the high weight of a deadlift and the position of your body, it is impossible to have control during the eccentric part of the lift. This lessens the muscle benefits of the lift and puts you at risk of getting hurt.
It is easy to overload the bar when you deadlift. Your body can lift heavy weight in the deadlift position, so people tend to add a lot of weight. Overloading the bar can lead to sacrificing your form, which will almost always lead to injury.
As a Certified Personal Trainer, I am aware this exercise does have some risks due to improper form. I have made a list of deadlift alternatives that provide many of the same benefits as deadlifts without as much risk. Correct form with these lifts is important, but their lower weights pose less of a risk for severe injury.
Check out the list of deadlift alternative exercises for your next home gym session. Just a heads up: some of the exercises require some specialized equipment.
Lying Hamstring Curl With Bands
Barbell Hip Thrust
Single-leg Romanian Deadlift
Trap Bar Deadlift
Bulgarian Split Squat
The glute bridge is a great deadlift alternative. This simple exercise can be done with or without equipment. They increase core stability and fight tightness and back pain. A glute bridge activates your glutes, and hamstrings, and targets the transversus abdominis – the deepest layer of your abdominal muscles.
Lie on your back and keep your knees shoulder-width apart. Your knees should be bent and your feet should be flat on the ground, with your heels 6-8 inches from your glutes. Point your toes straight forward and lie your arms flat on the ground beside you.
Slowly raise your hips and engage your glutes while simultaneously squeezing your abs. Do not over-extend your back. Elevate your hips until your torso makes a straight line from your knee to your shoulder.
Slowly lower your hips to the ground in a controlled motion. Maintain the tension in your abs and glutes to get the most out of your glute bridge. If this exercise is too easy for you, add some weight by placing a dumbbell on your hips and holding it with your hands.
Lying Hamstring Curl With Bands
One of the benefits of doing deadlift exercises is to increase hamstring strength. Hamstring strength is essential for sports that require explosive starting and stopping, directional changes, jumping, and sprinting.
Lying hamstring curls are a great exercise to increase hamstring strength safely. You will need a resistance band with an ankle strap and somewhere to anchor the band. An exercise mat will make this exercise more comfortable.
Attach the ankle straps to the band and anchor the band. Attach the ankle straps to your ankles and lie on your stomach on the floor or exercise mat. With 3 to 4 feet of space between you and the door, begin by bending both legs towards your buttocks.
Keep your butt down and your back flat as you repeat this movement. Make sure you engage your hamstrings while pulling on the resistance bands.
Barbell Hip Thrust
Like the glute bridge, the barbell hip thrust is an alternative to a deadlift. It is great for glute activation and targets your gluteus maximus and gluteus medius muscles. It is a great lower-body exercise that strengthens your quadriceps, muscles throughout the hip, and butt.
To do a barbell hip thrust, load a barbell with the desired weight. Start with a low weight and master the form before loading up the bar. Roll the barbell over to a nearby lifting bench. Put your legs under the barbell and rest your shoulders on the bench so that you are sitting under the barbell.
Raise your hips until they make contact with the barbell. Use your muscles to thrust the weighted barbell until your torso is straight. Let the barbell down in a slow, controlled motion to starting position. Continue in this fashion until desired reps are done.
I highly recommend a barbell pad to add some cushion where the bar sits on your hips, especially when you start to add some serious weight to this exercise.
Single-leg Romanian Deadlift
Because the single-leg Romanian deadlift (RDL) uses a similar motion as a regular deadlift, it activates many of the same muscles. It increases glute and hamstring health by strengthening them. It also improves hip joint function and reinforces proper hamstring engagement.
This single-leg version of an RDL helps with stabilization. Improving stability and strength is for rehabilitation, injury prevention, and sports performance. Opposed to the regular deadlift, the single-leg Romanian deadlift focuses on the activation of the glutes and hamstrings without as much inclusion of the quads.
All you need to do a single-leg Romanian deadlift is a dumbbell. Use whatever size of dumbbell works best for you and your strength, remembering to start low and master the form before using heavier weights.
With the dumbbell in one hand, begin to hinge at the waist and lower the dumbbell towards the floor with a straight arm. Lift the leg on the same side the dumbbell is on until it is flat with your back.
Activate your abs to maintain a posture with your hips pointing forward and a stronghold. After reaching a flat position, return to the start position by standing up and repeating until all sets and reps are finished.
The first couple of times you do this exercise, the hand that’s not holding the weight can be used for stability by lightly holding on to a rack or the wall. Once you master the movement, try not to use any balance assistance to further engage your stabilizing muscles.
Back hyperextension focuses on the lower back alternative to a deadlift. This exercise is essential for people who deal with lower back pain. It stretches the back while strengthening it, preventing further injuries.
There are variations to back hyperextension. They can be on a hyperextension bench, a flat bench, or on the floor. I want everyone to be able to do this exercise, so I am going to focus on the back hyperextension that can be done on the floor in your home gym without needing any specialized equipment.
Lie flat on your stomach with your arms flat on your sides. Contract your lower back muscles while lifting your torso into the air. Hold the extended position for 3 seconds before returning to the prone position. Repeat this motion until desired sets and reps are finished. Before starting this exercise, you should properly warm up your muscles to avoid injury.
Trap Bar Deadlift
Trap bar deadlifts use a specialized bar, called a trap bar, to increase lower body strength. The trap bar deadlift is often used as a stepping stone to a traditional barbell deadlift because the more natural position the trap bar provides helps prevent injury.
Because it has many of the same movements as a barbell deadlift, the trap bar deadlift has the same benefits as a barbell deadlift. It increases lower body strength, strengthens the core, activates hamstrings, and prevents lower back injuries.
To do a trap bar deadlift, load the trap bar with the intended weight. Step into the bar with a hip-width stance and your toes pointed forward. Align your feet with the handles of the trap bar. Hinge at the waist and grab the trap bar. Grip the bar, squeeze your shoulder blades back and down, and take a deep breath.
Push straight downward with your legs and stand up, pushing through the floor. Stand up slowly and fully, then pause. After assuming this position, slowly return to your starting position and repeat.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is a powerhouse exercise to develop lower-body strength in your quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and abs. Bulgarian split squats increase muscle mass and strength and are great for improving athletic performance.
Bulgarian split squats are great for rehabilitation and injury prevention because of their stabilizing qualities. Increased ankle strength and stabilization will prevent many injuries from ankle rolls and scuffs.
You will need a knee-level bench or step to do a Bulgarian split squat. Start by standing about 2 feet in front of the bench. Lift one of your legs behind you and place it on the bench, with the top of your foot facedown on the bench.
Engage your core and roll your shoulders back. Lean slightly forward at the waist and lower down on your leg on the ground by bending your knee. If your knee goes over your toes, scoot a little farther away from the bench.
Once you have the correct space between you and the bench, continue by pushing through your that is on the ground until you have returned to the top position. Repeat this up-and-down motion until desired sets and reps are done.
Kettlebell swings are a great exercise that targets a wide range of muscle groups and burns a lot of calories in a short period. This full-body exercise is simple and has less risk of injury than a barbell deadlift.
Although it is a simple movement, it takes some concentration and practice to master the form. It is best to think about a kettlebell swing as a pulling movement.
Stand with your legs just wider than your shoulders. Grip the kettlebell with long, loose arms and squeezed shoulder blades, and an engaged core. With soft knees, shift your body weight to your heels and lower your butt back and down behind you.
Drive through your heels and explode through your hips to send the weight upward from your quads. You want the kettlebell to reach chest height with extended arms. As the kettlebell begins to descend, let the weight pull itself down as you prepare for your next rep.
Hinge at your hips and allow the weight to ride back between your legs. Once the weight of the kettlebell begins to transition from a backward motion to a forward, drive through your heels and hips and repeat.
The pistol squat is a great exercise but it is tricky. It is not for beginners who need to warm up to a deadlift, but rather for seasoned athletes who can no longer do a barbell deadlift due to injuries.
The pistol squat demands single-leg strength, control, and mobility. Once you learn how to do this exercise correctly, it will be a powerful tool in your workout routine.
Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart. Point your toes forward and stand with your chest tall. Extend your right leg forward, straight out several inches off of the floor. Flex your foot and point your toes up.
Extend both of your arms in front of you at shoulder level. Brace your core and look forward. Congratulations, you have completed the starting position! From the starting position, bend your left knee and send your hips down and back. Slowly lower yourself down to the ground.
When your glutes are hovering a few inches off of the ground, pause your movement. Keep your right leg and arms extended and your right leg lifted off the ground as you are paused. After a short pause at the bottom, push through your left foot to slowly return to the starting position by standing up.
Once you have returned to your starting position, repeat until desired reps are done. Switch legs and repeat.
I know my chiropractor will be happy to hear I’m taking a break from deadlifts for a while. Not saying I’ll never do them again, but when I really load up the bar any imperfection in my form leads to some sort of issue that bugs me for a couple of weeks. And yes, I’m fully aware my advanced age may play a part in these little injuries!
Whether you are tired of the traditional deadlift as an exercise or looking for a more diverse workout routine, these alternatives should help you achieve the gains you are seeking while keeping you off the injury list!