Ever felt limited or restricted when doing a deadlift…? Like your lower back hurts, or you are just unable to do it correctly without injuring yourself? Well maybe then you should look to other alternatives.
Deadlifts are renowned for being the king of strength exercises. Now this is great if performed correctly, but in truth, many people just don’t have the right mechanics, muscle mobility and strength.
The full body compound explosive nature of a deadlift movement makes it increasingly popular in the gym world. When we think of a deadlift we think of the many muscles working in conjunction, that being the legs, hips, core, lower back, upper back, lats and arms.
However, not everyone is able to enjoy the benefits of a full motion conventional deadlift due to the following reasons…
Lack of hip mobility –
This results in the inability to maintain a flat back at the bottom position of a deadlift.
Weak glutes, hamstrings and upper back –
Weak glutes and upper back tend to be the key reason for not being able to lockout the deadlift. Your glutes are prohibiting you from performing the lockout and your upper back is letting you down by not being able to drive that last bit of the hold at the top. This means that you are not completing the rep to the full potential resulting in poor posture in the finishing stages of the movement. This can really lead to you injuring your lower back.
Lastly, if you are struggling to get the full range of movement of the deadlift, that being, bringing the bar to touch the floor at each rep, this is probably because you have poor leg and lower back strength and mobility.
Now, injuries play a major role in not being able to do a conventional deadlift. Due to the full body nature of the exercise, one needs every muscle working at 100%. Shoulder or pec injury tears, strains or tightness will result in not being able to retract the shoulders which then leads to rounded posture, poor form and likelihood of just picking the bar up solely with the lower back causing great strain. Other injuries to the knees and lower back will also put too much strain to perform effectively and are just not worth the risk.
So, having fully understood the great benefits of the deadlift to overall growth and strength, we know that we simply can’t eliminate it from our workout completely. Furthermore, we must look at the 5 best alternatives and aim to implement these as efficiently as we can. The beauty of this is that you will find at least one of these 5 to be for you, based on your specific limitation.
Here are the 5 best alternatives to the deadlift:
When it comes to performing a conventional deadlift, it is often your weak hamstrings which let you down in the lift off. Often your glutes and hamstrings are just unable to fire creating that inability to power up. Romanian deadlifts are a ‘must’ in order to strengthen your hamstrings and are often ignored. Unlike a normal deadlift, a Romanian Deadlift focuses on a shorter range of movement and on the eccentric phases (downwards phase), rather than the explosive power coming up. The focus is primarily on stretching and strengthening the hamstrings at a slow controlled movement going down. The shortened movement also helps with practising to lockout at the top through the upper back.
How to Perform:
Start by holding the bar or dumbbells in an overhand grip and upright position. Then slowly lower the weight down just below your knees whilst hinging at the hips and keeping your back flat or straight. At this point you should feel the stretch on the hamstrings. Then lift or drive the weight back up to the starting standing position by pushing your hips forward.
Important teaching points
Keep your posture as flat as possible going down without rounding your shoulders. Don’t round your upper back!!! This is key to the hamstrings isolating and stretching without the lower back taking strain. This essentially means you shouldn’t actually be able to bring the weight much lowing than your knees before your posture goes and the exercise becomes ineffectual.
Make sure your knees aren’t buckling in or going forward too far. If this is happening, it means you aren’t pushing your hips far back enough. Your knees should simply stay in the same position without coming forward.
Benefits of Romanian Deadlifts
Builds strong hamstrings and posterior chain of your body (hamstrings, glutes, lower back).
Strong hamstrings result in better everyday movement patterns, walking running, jumping.
Assist in improving other key exercises like squats, lunges and leg press to create overall leg growth.
If hamstrings aren’t your focus and you’re looking to replicate or improve on the upper half of the deadlift movement then rack pulls are your best bet!
Rack Pulls essentially focus on the hip hinging part of the deadlift and allow those with limited range of movement to focus on their hip drive power. This is great for overall strength and power. This movement also allows you to really lift some serious weight in a more safely way. Using straps will help you lift as heavy as you can more safely. This is very common.
How to Perform Rack Pulls
Set up the bar on a rack level to your knees or even lower if possible. Stand with your legs close to the bar and push your hips back so that your back is flat. Then grip the bar at shoulder-width distance and thrust your hips forwards whilst lifting the bar up. At this point you should be in a standing position with the weight in the air. Hold for a second or two at the top and then bring the bar back down to the starting position on the rack.
So we have talked about hamstring focused Romanian Deadlifts, the power and lower back focused hip-hinging Rack Pulls, now it is time to talk about the number one glute building exercise in the game… the Hip Thrust.
What is a Hip Thrust?
A Hip Thrust is a glute exercise aimed at improving strength, speed and power by teaching optimal hip extension.
Why perform the Hip Thrust?
Improves functional and athletic movements –
The glutes are the biggest muscles in the body and are vital in bodily alignment and balance. In basic terms, strong glutes will ensure better everyday movement patterns like walking, jogging. The glutes function to extend the hip or pull the leg behind the body, which is why performing the Hip Thrust is a must.
Improves shape and size of the glutes –
Beside the functionality, it is also aimed at improving size and shape to the glutes, giving you that peach-like rounded bum perfect for your new GymShark leggings. This is why it is so popular for the female gym-goers whom simply can’t get enough of this exercise.
Assists in improving your deadlift –
So, adding to strength, functionality and aesthetics, is also its ability to assist in improving the deadlift move so that eventually you will use this alternative in conjunction with the deadlift rather than as an alternative or replacement. The explosive hip extension is vital in the deadlift movement and can often result in an improved deadlift weight.
This brings me onto how to perform a Hip Thrust.
How to Perform Hip Thrusts
Set up the barbell parallel to the bench. Position yourself on the floor, with your shoulders and shoulder blades against the bench and the barbell on your hips. Put your elbows on the bench and your hands on the bar to steady it. Make sure there is a pad over the bar to protect your hips. It is very important that your body is aligned with your feet positioned at hip-width and just in front of knees. Your spine should be neutral when sinking your hips down to the floor and driving back up. Make sure you squeeze your glutes to lift your hips (and the barbell). Come down smoothly, with your core still braced. At the squeeze your hips should be at full extension and glutes feeling nice and tense.
Glute Cable Pull Throughs
The Glute Pull Through is a great exercise to work on strengthening and activating the glutes whilst focusing on hip drive. It is not only safe on the spine (unlike a deadlift), but also isolates the glutes nicely. The benefits of this exercise includes improving hip power, movement and strength as well as getting firmer and rounder looking glutes. Once got the hang of this exercise one can go back to a deadlift and will certainly see vast improvements to the movement.
How to Perform Cable Pull Throughs
Stand in front of a low pulley with a rope or handle attached to the bottom. Face away from the machine, straddling the cable, with your feet set wide apart. Begin the movement by reaching through your legs as far as possible, bending at the hips. Keep your knees slightly bent. Keeping your arms straight, extend through the hip to stand straight up. Avoid pulling upward through the shoulders; all of the motion should originate through the hips.
Glute Ham Raise
The glute ham raise is an effective posterior chain exercise to develop strength, hypertrophy, and muscular endurance in the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. Unlike the deadlift, it is a more controlled isolated movement.
How to perform the Glute Ham Raise
Start by placing your feet against the footplate in between the rollers as you lie face down on the Glute Ham Raise Machine. Make sure your knees are just behind the pad. Start from the bottom of the movement keeping your back arched as you begin by flexing your knees. Drive your toes into the foot plate as you do so. Keep your upper body straight, and continue until your body is upright. Return to the starting position, keeping your downwards movement under control.
Benefits of the Glute Ham Raise
Builds isolated strength and muscle to the hamstrings and glutes.
Great for athletic power and strength for sprinting, jumping.
Strengthens the posterior chain on the body to aid and improve the squat and deadlift.
Whilst there is no doubt the deadlift is a fantastic full body exercise for strength, working multiple muscle groups, the average gym-goer is likely to have technique meaning that they in fact are more likely to injure their backs or knees. That is why I have illustrated to you the 5 best alternatives to the deadlift which are much easier and safer to execute without running the risk of injury.
I’d like to think that once programmed these 5 exercises into your training routine you will make greater improvements into eventually feeling confident and stronger in working on your deadlift to see amazing results.