Isaac Robertson
Published by Isaac Robertson
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: April 14, 2021

Clients often ask me what’s the best exercise for adding muscle mass, body weight, and losing fat. My answer: the king of all lifts — the deadlift. It activates all muscle groups in the posterior chain.

But.

Not everyone can do deadlifts. Maybe you have a limited range of motion, back pain, no equipment, or you just want a change.

I’ve helped thousands of clients get the body they want with a deadlift alternative. Today, I’m giving you my top 4 deadlift alternatives to try for yourself.

1. Romanian Deadlift

Guy doing Romanian Deadlift

If you want to focus on glutes and low-back, the Romanian Deadlift (RDL) might be your #1 choice.

The deadlift starting position is taught as “push off the floor” to extend from knees first.

But, in Romanian deadlift, there isn’t as much knee extension, and it’s taught as a “pull from the hips.”

It’s easier to control your depth than with a traditional deadlift.

It’s also easier to create tension through your legs and upper back because the body is already preloaded with the weights it's about to lift.

How To Do It

How to do the romanian deadlift
  1. Start with the bar down on the ground
  2. Step to the bar with your feet shoulder-width apart
  3. Use the overhand grip to grab the bar
  4. Bend down and pick up the bar
  5. Put it in a deadlift position to get up to the top position which will be your start
  6. Bend at the hip so the barbell comes below the kneecap
  7. By bending the hips backward, you’ll fully stretch the hamstrings
  8. Once the hamstrings are fully stretched pull up the barbell by pushing the hips forward in the top position
  9. Keep your chest up and lower back straight to keep the spine flat

Pro Tip: To get the maximum hamstrings stretch, pinch your shoulders back as you lower the bar.

The recommended number of sets:

  • For strength - 3-6 reps
  • For hypertrophy - 8-15 reps

Check out the video to see the RDL in action. Or, if you aren’t into traditional RDL, you can also do the single-leg RDL. (1)

youtube

2. Farmer Carry

A person doing farmer carry

A huge part of the deadlift is — the grip. Farmer carry is one of the best exercises for targeting the grip.

What I’ve found often happens with my clients is that their legs and back have enough strength to deadlift, but they fail before locking out because the bar slips from their hands.

Farmer carry is a great exercise to improve this issue.

When doing the farmer carry, you have to hold on to the dumbbells for an extended period of time.

This works the smaller muscles in your hands and the forearms which are directly responsible for gripping strength.

How To Do It

  1. Step between 2 pairs of dumbbells
  2. Squat down
  3. Pick up the dumbbells with a tight grip
  4. Deadlift them by pushing through the heels and keeping the back straight and chest up
  5. Once you’re in the top position, hold them tightly and start walking

Pro tip: Judge the length of space you walk by doing laps. Count the laps each time so that you set a record.

Each lap you do, try to break your record. In this way, you’ll test your grip, upper back, leg strength, and mental toughness.

Check out the video for more farmer carry tips.

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3. Barbell Hip Thrust

Barbell hip thrust training

According to the Strength and Conditioning Journal, hip thrusts can help you maximize gluteal muscle activation — have a bigger butt — and lower the chances of hamstring injuries (2).

Usually, the hardest part of the deadlift is at the bottom of the lift, while the hardest part of the hip thrust is the top of the lift. 

They also differ in body parts that are activated. The deadlift works the upper and lower-back extensors, while the Hip Thrust works the glutes and hamstrings without much lower back involvement.

What equipment do you need for barbell deadlifts? You’ll need a:

  • Sturdy bench
  • Barbell

How To Do It

  1. Get into the start position — horizontal to the bench
  2. Pick up the bar and put it on your lap so the weight is resting across your hips
  3. Slide down, so the upper body part is resting on the bench
  4. Hold on to the barbell, and have your legs at a 90-degree bend, feet flat on the ground
  5. Drop the hips toward the ground without touching it
  6. Push through the heels and squeeze the glutes while pushing the barbell up
  7. When you reach the top, pause and restart

Pro Tip: Don’t start with too much weight if you’re a hip thrust beginner. Instead, increase the weight as you do the sets.

Do 3 sets of about 10 reps.

You want to know more about hip thrust exercises? Check out this barbell hip thrust video.

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4. Kettlebell Swing

A group doing Kettlebell Swing

Similarly to the traditional deadlift, the kettlebell swings also utilize a hip hinge movement, and it gives the quads and glutes a workout.

Kettlebell exercise and a pull-through could be the perfect option for you if you struggle with handling the RDL’s heavy load of rack pulls.

How To Do It

  1. Start in a deadlift position with one kettlebell between the ankles
  2. Pick it up by squeezing the armpits together
  3. Lift the kettlebell off the ground above the knee height
  4. Start with a small momentum to get the movement going
  5. Push the hips back
  6. Move the kettlebell forward using the power of the glutes and core

Pro Tip: To do the kettlebell exercise correctly, keep the back straight, core tight, and a slight bend in the knees.

To minimize downtime and make the movement more explosive, make the kettlebell move fast in both directions.

Do sets of 10-20 reps to enhance posterior chain endurance.

Check out the video for more kettlebell exercises.

youtube

FAQs

Can You Build a Good Back Without Deadlifts?

Yes, you can.

Some exercises you can do are:

  • Barbell/dumbbell rows
  • Cable pull
  • Split squat
  • Reverse fly machine
  • Glute ham raise

Can I Skip Deadlifts?

Before you completely give up deadlifts, consider a trap bar deadlift. It’s one of the safest deadlift alternatives, as there is less risk to the lumbar spine because the pulls are done on a trap bar to allow for a more upright torso.

“No single exercise, including the deadlift, is mandatory for any particular lifter (competitive strength athletes being an exception).”- Charles Stanley, Coach and a holder of three World Championship titles in raw powerlifting.

Feel the Burn With Deadlift Alternatives

Whether a back injury is preventing you from having a full range of motion, or you're just looking to spice things up, any of these deadlift alternatives will be a great choice and can even help you improve your range of motion movement.

Now that you have tons of information, which deadlift alternative is your pick?

Let us know in the comments below, or feel free to contact us. Any member of our highly skilled team can help you with any questions you have.


References:

  1. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Fulltext/2017/02000/Implementing_Landmine_Single_Leg_Romanian_Deadlift.10.aspx
  2. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/fulltext/2011/10000/barbell_hip_thrust.7.aspx

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