What are the safest deadlift alternative exercises for a bad back?
Whether you already have a back injury or are prone to back pain, you can still train the relevant deadlift muscle groups.
It is no secret that traditional deadlifts are one of the best strength and muscle building exercises you can do.
In addition to working your entire posterior chain, which is the collective term for your lower back, hamstrings, and glutes, they also work your upper back, shoulders, quads, and even your forearms and biceps.
Regular deadlifts are a full-body exercise that is very hard to beat.
However, as good as deadlifts are, they are not always practical or possible. Some gyms don’t have good Olympic bars or bumper plates, which are a must for comfortable deadlifts. Other gyms have banned deadlifts entirely, deeming them to be a dangerous exercise.
Some lifters prefer not to do deadlifts, often because of a pre-existing injury or fear of back injury.
Does this mean you won’t be able to target the same muscle groups if you can’t or won’t deadlift?
The answer is no.
Here are 15 deadlift alternative exercises that work the same muscles as conventional deadlifts.
5 Bodyweight Exercises
Bodyweight deadlift alternatives are ideal for exercisers who prefer to work out at home. They require little or no equipment and are usually much easier on your joints than heavy resistance training exercises.
1. Hip Thrusts
This bodyweight deadlift alternative is excellent for sculpting a toned butt. It’s easy on your lower back, and you don’t need any exercise equipment to do it.
- Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet flat.
- Drive your feet into the floor and push your hips up until they form a straight line with your knees and shoulders.
- Lower your butt back down to the floor and repeat.
2. Prisoner Good Mornings
Good mornings are a traditional alternative to barbell deadlifts. In the gym, they usually performed with a barbell. However, they can be just as effective using nothing more than your body weight for resistance.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Bend your knees slightly for balance.
- Place your hands on the back of your head. Push your elbows back and open your chest.
- From this position, push your hips backward (aka hip-hinge) and then drive your hips forward.
- Do not round your lower back.
- Stand back up, take a breath, and repeat.
3. Single-leg Romanian Deadlifts
This single-leg exercise will develop your balance as well as strengthening your posterior chain. Best of all, you don’t need any exercise equipment to do it.
- Stand with your feet together and your arms by your sides.
- Shift your weight over onto one leg.
- Lean forward and, without bending your knees, reach down and touch the floor with your fingertips.
- Extend your non-weight bearing leg out behind you for balance.
- Stand back up and repeat.
- Do the same number of reps on each leg.
- Do this exercise next to a wall for balance if necessary.
4. Supine Back Extensions
This bodyweight deadlift alternative provides your lower back and butt with a safe, effective workout you can do at home. All you need is a mat.
- Lie on your front. Clasp your hands loosely behind your lower back.
- With your feet on the floor, lift your head, shoulders, and chest a few inches off the ground.
- Lie back down and repeat.
- Make this exercise a little harder by placing your hands on your temples.
5. Kneeling Romanian Deadlifts
Some people think that bodyweight exercises are too easy for building muscle mass. Not true! This challenging exercise will provide your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back with a very effective workout – even if you are no longer a beginner.
- Kneel on the floor, so your legs are bent to 90 degrees, and your feet are on the floor. Clasp your hands behind your lower back.
- Push your hips backward and then drive your hips forward.
- Lower your upper body down toward the floor, using your posterior chain to stop you from falling forward.
- Return to your starting position and repeat.
- Place your feet against a wall or railing if you are unable to maintain your balance.
5 Conventional Deadlift Alternatives
There is more than one way to do deadlifts. Conventional deadlifts are the most common version of this excellent exercise, but that doesn’t mean you have to do it exclusively. Here are five barbell deadlift alternatives that use the same muscle groups but in a different, equally challenging way.
1. Kettlebell Swings
Kettlebell swings don’t look a lot like deadlifts but, in actuality, work precisely the same muscles. This fast-paced exercise is not just for building strength and muscle, it’s an excellent fat burner too.
- Stand with your kettlebell in your hands, and your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees slightly.
- Push your hips back and lower the weight between your knees. Drive your hips forward and, without bending your arms, swing the kettlebell up until your arms are roughly parallel to the floor.
- Swing the weight back down and repeat.
- No kettlebell? You can also do this exercise with a dumbbell.
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2. Trap Bar Deadlifts
A trap bar is a unique tool that you will find in most gyms, especially powerlifting or CrossFit gyms. It’s hexagonal, and you stand inside it, so the weight is in line with your center of gravity.
Aligning a loaded barbell with your center of gravity takes a lot of stress off your lower back.
Trap bar deadlifts work the same muscles as regular deadlifts, but with a much lower risk of a back injury.
- Stand inside the trap bar.
- Bend your knees, squat down, and grab the handles.
- Straighten your arms, lift your chest, and brace your abs.
- Your lower back should be slightly arched and never rounded.
- Drive your feet into the floor and, without bending your arms or rounding your lower back, stand up straight.
- Lower the weight carefully back to the floor and repeat.
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3. Barbell Romanian Deadlifts
This conventional deadlift alternative is a powerful posterior chain exercise.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Hold a barbell with an overhand grip. Bend your knees slightly and then keep them rigid for the duration of your set.
- Push your butt back and hinge forward from your hips. Lean over and lower the barbell down the front of your legs. Do not round your back. Go down as far as your flexibility allows.
- Drive your hips forward, stand up, and repeat.
- You can also use dumbbells for this exercise.
4. Rack Pulls
The range of motion is the main difference between conventional deadlifts and rack pulls. Where deadlifts start with the bar resting on the floor, rack or block pulls begin with the bar at about knee-height.
This higher starting position takes a lot of stress off your lower back.
- Place your barbell in a power rack set to about knee-height. Stand next to the bar so that it’s touching your legs. Bend your knees, lean forward, and grip the bar with an overhand or mixed grip. Your feet should be between shoulder and hip-width apart.
- Without rounding your lower back, use your glutes, hamstrings, and back muscles to stand up.
- Lower the bar back down to the rack and repeat.
5. Sumo Deadlifts
Sumo deadlifts are a lot like conventional deadlifts, but you set up with a much wider stance. This wide stance allows you to keep a more upright torso and also takes stress off your lower back.
Sumo deadlifts tend to involve more abductor muscle activation, too – they are the muscles on the outside of your hips.
- Stand with your toes under your barbell, feet roughly 1 ½ shoulder widths apart.
- Bend down and grab the bar with an overhand or mixed shoulder-width grip.
- Drop your hips, lift your chest, brace your abs, and straighten your arms.
- Drive your feet into the floor and, without bending your arms or rounding your lower back, stand upright. Do not lean backward.
- Push your hips back, bend your knees, and lower the weight back down to the floor.
- Reset your starting position and repeat.
5 Machine Alternatives to Deadlifts
Freeweight and bodyweight exercises are popular with the functional fitness crowd, but that doesn’t mean you need to stop using machines in your muscle mass workouts.
Here are five weight machines that work the same muscles as barbell deadlifts:
1. Concept 2 Rowing Machine
While the Concept 2 rower is a cardio exercise, it’s still an excellent deadlift alternative machine.
It uses the same muscles but, because you can row for much longer, it provides your heart and lungs with an effective workout.
- Sit on the rowing machine and place your feet in the footrests. Tighten the straps, so your feet are secure in place.
- Reach forward and grab the handle with an overhand grip. Bend your knees, straighten your arms, and sit up straight. This position is known as the ‘catch’ and is your starting position.
- Extend your legs and, as the handle passes over your knees, pull with your arms. Bring the handle into your abdomen.
- Next, straighten your arms and then bend your legs so that you slide forward again.
- Continue for the prescribed duration.
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2. 45-degree Back Extension Machine
This exercise provides your posterior chain with a workout that is every bit as effective as deadlifts. However, with less weight to lift, it’s much easier on your lower back.
- Adjust the pad so that the top edge is level with your hips. Climb onto the machine and place your feet on the footplates. Bend your knees slightly.
- Lean forward from your waist and lower your upper body down toward the floor. Go as far as your flexibility allows and do not round your lower back.
- Lift yourself back up, so your shoulders, hips, and feet form a straight line.
3. Cable pull-throughs
This exercise is a lot like Romanian deadlifts and kettlebell swings but, instead of using free weights, you are going to use a cable machine. Cable pull-throughs are a beneficial posterior chain exercise that emphasizes your glutes.
- Attach a D-shaped handle to a low cable machine. Stand astride the cable with the pulley behind you. Hold the handle in both hands in front of your hips. Take 2-3 steps forward to tension the cable.
- With your knees slightly bent but rigid, push your hips back and lean forward. Let the D-handle move back between your legs.
- Drive your hips forward and stand up.
4. Leg Presses
Leg presses might seem like a better squat alternative. Still, they work many of the same muscles used in both squats and deadlifts.
However, the back support means there is very little strain on your lumbar spine.
- Sit on your leg press machine and place your feet on the footplate, so they are roughly hip to shoulder-width apart.
- With your feet flat, extend your legs and push the weight up.
- Next, bend your legs and lower the weight back down.
- Don’t bend your knees so far that your lower back becomes rounded. That’s an excellent way to get injured.
- Please note that leg machines often differ from gym to gym.
- Follow the manufacturer’s instructions so that you always use your chosen leg press machine safely and adequately.
5. Smith Machine Deadlifts
Of all the deadlift alternative machines, this is arguably the one that comes the closest to conventional deadlifts. It works the same muscle, and even uses the same movement pattern and technique. The only difference is that the bar only moves up and down as its metal rods guide the movement.
- Lower the bar down to the lowest setting on the Smith machine. Stand in front of the bar with your feet about hip-width apart, with the bar almost touching your legs.
- Reach down and hold the bar with an overhand or mixed shoulder-width grip. Straighten your arms, lift your chest, drop your hips, and slightly arch your lower back.
- Drive your feet into the floor and, without rounding your lower back or bending your arms, stand upright.
- Lower the weight back down and repeat.
Deadlift Alternatives – Final Thoughts
While deadlifts are a fantastic exercise, they are not the only way to build strength and muscle size in your posterior chain. In some cases, they may be either impractical or unsuitable.
They can even be dangerous for some people.
The good news is that there are lots of different ways you can work the same muscles. Being unable or unwilling to deadlift does not have to hold you back.
Use any of these deadlift alternatives for building muscle, getting stronger, burning fat, or getting fit.
Each one is every bit as useful as “real” deadlifts when conventional deadlifts are not an option.
Many times I tweaked my back during the deadlift so you don’t have to. On my fitness journey, I have learned great tips that have helped me keep going, and keep deadlifting at the age of 63.
Preventing back injury on a conventional deadlift is all about perfecting your deadlift form and technique.
The next step is to understand the most important tips on how to deadlift without hurting your back:
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