5 Deadlift Alternatives: Best Effective Substitutes For Back Pain In 2024

Strength training always comes to the rescue when the goal is to reduce body fat, increase lean muscle mass, and burn calories efficiently. Strength training is also known as resistance training and encompasses the performance of physical exercises that are designed to improve strength and endurance. It is often associated with lifting weights, and it can incorporate various training methods such as calisthenics, isometrics, and plyometrics. While it can be very effective, it’s not always a fast solution because it requires a combination of a healthy diet and proper exercise planning. These can give an addition of high-quality fat burners to get the body to a leaner and stronger state.

Barbell deadlift is one of the most important strength training exercises. It is noted as one of three lifts performed in the sport of powerlifting along with squats and the bench press. The deadlift has been considered ideal for knee rehabilitation exercises, improving vertical jump performance, and increasing the rate of muscle production. Studies[1] have shown the use of the deadlift for a variety of fitness and performance goals both among athletes and the general population.

Despite the deadlift’s wide acceptance for building strength and body conditioning, it still doesn’t work for everyone, and this is why there are effective alternatives that can be offered with the same related benefits for the same muscles. These alternatives allow the deadlift pattern to be incorporated into a fitness program tailored toward your needs and goals.

In this article, we will be discussing why deadlifts are an important exercise for building strength and what effective deadlift alternatives you can utilize to get similar benefits. 

Deadlift Alternative For Back

Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian split squat, otherwise referred to as the rear-foot elevated split squat, is a variant of the single-leg squat. It is a unilateral lower-body strength exercise that strengthens the muscles of the legs, including the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. Just like the deadlift, it delivers big benefits to the core and lower body. Studies[2] have specifically proven the Bulgarian split squat is a better exercise of choice when your goal is to focus on hip extensors while minimizing the knee joint demands. You also have the choice of making it either quad-dominant or glute-dominant based on your foot placement during the performance of the exercise.

Deadlift variations can be added for the benefits of resistance by using a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, or resistance band. You can also switch it up by pairing single-leg Romanian deadlifts with the Bulgarian split squats to bring about a Bulgarian Romanian deadlift. This acts as a superset because it combines the exercises, thereby attacking different muscle groups quickly. This makes the exercise more intense and effective!

Bulgarian Split Squat
Bulgarian Split Squat Guide. Photo: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

How to do:

  1. Standing with the backs of your legs against a weight bench.
  2. Take two steps forward and place one of your feet on the bench behind you. Adjust your body until you feel comfortable and balanced.
  3. While engaging your core, roll your shoulders back and lean slightly forward at the waist while bending the knee of your front leg until that thigh is parallel with the ground.
  4. Push up through the foot to return to standing.

Tips: 

  • Keep your front knee aligned with your ankle and avoid letting it extend past your toes to prevent knee strain.
  • Brace your core muscles throughout the exercise to stabilize your body and maintain balance.
  • Use a bench or platform to elevate your rear foot, ensuring stability and allowing for a deeper range of motion.

Optimal Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8-12 reps

Barbell Hip Thrusts

If you are looking to seriously build lower body strength, then barbell hip thrusts are a welcome alternative to deadlifts. This is a popular exercise that targets the muscles of the hamstrings and glutes and has significant improvements in sprinting[3] activities. Like the deadlift, barbell hip thrusts are powerful by strength training more muscles in less time. 

While this movement recruits the muscles together, it mostly targets your glutes. Having strong glutes is important for taking the stress off the spine and contributing to a pain-free lower back as the cooperative movement of the spine, hips, and legs helps in providing good control and support while preventing injuries to the lower back.

Barbell Hip Thrusts
Barbell Hip Thrusts Guide. Photo: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

How to do:

  1. Sit on the ground with a supporting bench behind you, a padded barbell resting on your hips, and your knees bent with your feet flat on the ground.
  2. Lean back, so your shoulders are on the bench, and drive your hips up by lifting the bar.
  3. At the top, your knees should be bent at 90 degrees, so your thighs form a straight line with your upper body.
  4. Pause at the top, squeeze your glutes, and then lower your hips slowly back down.

Tips: 

  • Place the barbell across your hips, ensuring it’s stable and comfortable. Use a pad or towel for added cushioning.
  • Keep your spine straight throughout the movement, avoiding arching or rounding your back. Engage your core for stability.
  • Thrust your hips upward until they are in line with your knees, squeezing your glutes at the top of the movement for maximum contraction.

Optimal Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 10-12 reps

Kettlebell Swings

Kettlebell Swings
Kettlebell Swings Guide. Photo: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

Kettlebell swings are a fundamental ballistic exercise. The preeminent two-handed kettlebell swing is a quick full-body strength training exercise that also has a combined effect on cardiovascular fitness. It mirrors the work of the deadlift by working the muscles along the back of the body (called the posterior chain). The kettlebell treats the entire body as a single unit, engaging multiple muscle groups and giving you a complete workout.

How to do:

  1. Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart while holding a kettlebell with both hands.
  2. Your palms should be facing toward you, and your arms will hang straight down in front of your torso.
  3. Keeping your back straight, engage the core while you inhale, push your hips back, and bend slightly at the knees to bring the kettlebell between your legs.
  4. Exhale, contract your glutes and push your hips forward while you swing the kettlebell up until it is at your chest.
  5. Bring the kettlebell back down between your legs to return to the original position before repeating the swing. 

Tips: 

  • Initiate the swing by hinging at the hips, not squatting. Focus on driving your hips forward explosively to propel the kettlebell upward.
  • Keep your core tight throughout the movement to stabilize your spine and protect your lower back. Imagine bracing as if you were about to be punched in the stomach.
  • Let the kettlebell swing naturally between your legs without actively lifting it with your arms. Your arms act as a guide, not the primary movers.

Optimal Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 12-15 reps

Back Extensions

Back extension exercises, also known as hyperextensions, focus on strengthening the lower back muscles while also working on the muscles of the glutes and hamstrings. It may also relieve pain in the lower back! 

Back extensions can be done with a back extension machine or even on the floor, and variations can be made with weights to add more resistance. Back extensions are similar to deadlifts in that they both work similar muscles, and this exercise should be done slowly and under control, as rapid movements can lead to injury. 

Back Extensions
Back Extensions Guide. Photo: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

How to do:

  1. Lie face down on a back extension bench with your hips at the edge.
  2. Cross your arms over your chest or behind your head.
  3. Engage your lower back muscles to lift your upper body.
  4. Lift until your body forms a straight line, then lower down.

Tips: 

  • Keep your spine neutral and engage your core muscles throughout the movement to protect your lower back.
  • Lower your torso slowly to the starting position, avoiding any sudden movements or jerking motions.
  • Squeeze your lower back muscles at the top of the movement to maximize muscle activation and engagement.

Optimal Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 10-15 reps

Good Mornings

Work the back, abdominals (abs), and glutes while primarily targeting the hamstrings and strengthening your lower back muscles and core. Barbells are ideal for creating resistance in this exercise. Just like deadlifts, good mornings target the posterior chain of the body and involve the primary movement of hinging the hips.

deadlift alternative
Good Mornings Guide. Photo: Aliaksandr Makatserchyk

How to do:

  1. Begin in a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart and your barbell resting against the back of your neck and across your shoulders.
  2. Hinge forward from your hips while keeping your back straight with a slight bend in your knees.
  3. Focus on pushing your glutes back while keeping your weight in your heels and not your toes.
  4. Come down as far as is comfortable before returning to the upright position.

Tips: 

  • Keep your back flat throughout the movement to avoid strain or injury.
  • Initiate the movement by pushing your hips back, keeping a slight bend in your knees.
  • Brace your core muscles to stabilize your spine and protect your lower back during the exercise.

Optimal Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 10-12 reps

What Is A Deadlift? 

deadlift alternative
The traditional deadlift is one of the top three prescribed to develop total body strength. Photo: Drazen Zigic/Freepik

The traditional deadlift, the king of lifts, is one of the top three prescribed to develop total body strength. It is an all-encompassing compound movement that targets a series of major muscle groups, including the back, gluteals (glutes), hamstrings, and quadriceps (quads). It also improves strength, power, and lean muscle mass while increasing your heart rate. 

Because this exercise activates the largest muscles of the lower body in movement, it increases their functional strength which assists with everyday activities like lifting objects off the floor. Its myriad of benefits also includes but is not limited to, activation of hip extensors, reduction of lower back pain, improvement of bone mineral density, activation of the core, and boosting of the metabolism.

To perform a conventional deadlift, assume a starting position by standing behind the barbell with your feet hip-width apart, and knees slightly bent. With your core engaged, hinge at your hips as you push your glutes back and pick up the barbell. Keep your core engaged as you drive your feet through the floor and extend at your hips as you come to a standing position. The bar should almost touch the shins as it comes up and rests on top of your thighs. Slowly lower the bar to the floor with a reverse motion to complete your first repetition (rep). 

Who Should Use An Alternative To Deadlift?

Although deadlifts are safe for most people, not everyone can handle the exercise. This may result from physical limiting factors, such as hip width and spinal thickness, that may not allow the individual to get into the proper deadlift position. Other reasons include injury, back pain, or even lack of experience. These groups may find it better to stick to alternative deadlifts, even if it is just temporary.

Luckily, there are ways to effectively replicate the deadlift! Whatever alternative you choose, it should include the two distinct movement phases of the deadlift – the leg press, and hip hinge/thrust – as well as the desired outcomes of improved strength, stronger vertical pull, and better spinal health. Any exercise that can give you these without aggravating your injuries or increasing the risk of new ones is perfectly suited as an alternative.

Final Thoughts

Deadlifts and their alternatives are strength training exercises that have massive benefits for muscle building and fitness goals. To maximize your desired results, deadlifts and their alternatives are key exercises to include throughout your training.

Suppose the goal is to get stronger, leaner, and healthier. In that case, this is an appropriate stride to enhance the quality of life and improve your ability to carry out activities of daily living. To ensure that you are doing all that you can progress, try the following: 

  • Add supersets to your workout
  • Minimize rest time between sets of exercises
  • Prioritize strength training over cardiovascular (cardio)
  • Eat more protein
  • Stay consistent with your workouts
  • Honor your rest days

Always remember to take proper care by utilizing good form, starting each movement conscious of your control and support, and carrying it out appropriately!

Resources

  1. Luke Del Vecchio (2018). The health and performance benefits of the squat, deadlift, and bench press. [online] ResearchGate. Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/328123773_The_health_and_performance_benefits_of_the_squat_deadlift_and_bench_press.
  2. Mackey, E.R. and Riemann, B.L. (2021). Biomechanical Differences Between the Bulgarian Split-Squat and Back Squat. International journal of exercise science, [online] 14(1), pp.533–543. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8136570.
  3. Neto (2019). Barbell Hip Thrust, Muscular Activation and Performance: A Systematic Review. Journal of sports science & medicine, [online] 18(2). Available at: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31191088/.