When I say deadlift, I’m specifically referring to the conventional deadlift, sumo deadlift, Romanian deadlift, and rack pulls. While there is such a thing as stiff-legged deadlifts, I don’t classify them in the same category since they do not require nearly as much weight, they can effectively be used to isolate the lower back, and they do not require the weight to be lifted from the floor (technically they’re not “deadlifts”).
I’ll admit that when I used to deadlift, it was one of my favorite lifts. I’ll also add that if you can deadlift, then you should consider incorporating it into your routine—it truly is a singular lift in the scope of potential benefits.
The problem is that not everyone can deadlift, so where does that leave us?
I often hear deadlift enthusiasts say things like, “you need to deadlift.” I’ll interject some reason here and say that no lift in particular is required in order to build a large and aesthetic physique; free-weights are tremendously flexible and the manner in which you manipulate their use is entirely up to you.
I know that there are many similar people out there, so I’ll relate exactly why it is that I do not deadlift, then I’ll discuss effective replacements for the deadlift.
Why I Do Not Deadlift
While deadlifting, I would inevitably feel some pain in my left rhomboid. After some time the pain became unbearable, then persistent. So, I stopped deadlifting until the injury healed.
By the time that I had healed I had also doubled-down on my desire to continue deadlifting, so I made sure to try a number of different set-ups and tweaks to my form, but all was for naught when the exact same pain resurfaced (even with lighter weights).
In the end, I tossed away the deadlift. My training routine was pretty basic, so you won’t be surprised to hear that the rate of my development suffered quite a bit.
I determined that I needed to find some alternatives that—when compounded—would amount to something like deadlifting. By pinpointing exactly what I hoped to get out of the deadlift, I was able to explore other lifts that could seamlessly be integrated into my legs and back routine.
If you currently do not deadlift for similar reasons, then I recommend trying out these four lifts, which I have relied upon in lieu of the deadlift.
1. Jefferson Squats
What you will be focusing on with this lift is mostly your glutes. In addition, you should be thinking about your hams, abductors, and adductors (you will hit your inner and outer quads regardless). This is an awkward lift to look at and perform, so if you are unfamiliar with it, then bear with me.
Straddle the bar with your feet in a “V” position (roughly 90 degrees) at about the second groove back. Make sure that one foot is pointed towards the plate while the other is oriented more obliquely. Take one step with each foot—not a giant step, more of a flopping step that places your feet just outside of your shoulders. You should be able to squat down over the bar, grab it with a reverse grip (check out Kai Greene’s form above) and then press upwards.
The keys: switch your hand and foot positioning form set-to-set, flex the glutes from the bottom to the top with an extra-hard squeeze at the top, don’t let your knees buckle inwards or shoot outwards, stay as upright as possible with chest poked out, try to hit parallel.
It will take some time to figure out this lift, but it’s well worth the effort.
2. Barbell Hack Squats
These are used for overall quad development and they work the traps as a bonus.
Keep your feet close together (just inside shoulder width) and hands just outside of your feet. The bar tends to drag against the back of your legs much like a bar might drag against your front during a deadlift. Give your quads an extra squeeze at the top.
The tricky part, in my opinion, is raising and lowering the bar without rounding your back. That will take some practice, but in time you will learn to shoot your hips out-and-in with the bending and straightening of your knees so that you can maintain the arch in your back.
You can see why these are sometimes referred to as “reverse deadlifts.” Use a few mirrors for a better understanding of how you may be endangering yourself during this lift and also to keep tabs on your form.
3. Stiff-Legged Deadlifts
These are often used for lower back, hams, and glutes, but we’re not going to worry about the hams or glutes in this case—think only of your lower back. Concentrate so that you feel the stretch in your hams, but use light enough weight so that you don’t need to recruit them or your glutes on the concentric. To some degree they are necessarily involved in the movement, but they can be effectively marginalized so that their involvement is negligible.
Use a mirror or your own awareness to confirm that you are not squeezing your hams or glutes on the concentric. Try to feel the contraction exclusively in your lower back; squeeze it during the positive portion of the lift and give an extra squeeze at the top instead of resting.
Take it slowly—you will see for yourself how precarious this lift is once you perform it for the first time. With a few mirrors and some muscle control, you can use this lift to isolate your lower back.
Maintain the arch in your back at all times. If you’re rounding your back, then you are probably lowering the bar too far or neglecting to shoot your butt back as you lower the weights. Let the stretch in your hams dictate how far you can actually lower the bar. Keep your legs as straight as possible.
I prefer to use dumbbells instead of a barbell. I like the way that they hang in my hands and don’t interfere with the motion. It’s up to you to decide which is most comfortable and produces the desired effect.
When manipulated to focus almost exclusively on the lower back, these tend to resemble two alternatives: hyperextensions and “good mornings.” Personally, I do not like the way that these alternatives feel when heavier weights are used; consequently I get a better contraction by manipulating SLDs in the manner I’ve described. If you feel otherwise, then try out these alternatives.
I recommend practicing at home in front of a mirror with your bodyweight in order to get a better sense for the type of contraction that you will be aiming for with SLDs. You should be able to feel an intense contraction in your lower back during the concentric (even with bodyweight if you’re taking your time and controlling the contraction). If your butt is squeezing, then don’t count the rep and renew your focus.
4. Bent Over Rows
These aren’t Yates rows or Pendlay rows. They’re not Yates rows because your back is basically parallel to the ground rather than at a 45-degree angle. They’re not Pendlay rows, since you should not be dropping the weights all the way to the ground. These are good ol’ fashioned bent over rows.
Use a wider, pronated grip for these (I place my pinkies at the second grooves). Get a full stretch on the negative, then bring the bar to the lower chest and upper abs.
Bent over rows work a good portion of your back including the teres, rhomboids, rear delts, traps and lats with more of an emphasis on the upper back than Yates rows.
Since you will be supporting the weight with your lower back and lowering the bar under control rather than dropping it as you might during Pendlay rows, these will actually work your lower back quite hard through isometric contraction.
These are a very important part of my lower back training; you may be surprised by the amount of strain that is placed on the erector spinae. Since I’m extra cautious when it comes to my lower back, I perform these on separate days than I perform my SLDs (rows are for back day; I do my SLDs on leg day as a hangover from when I used to incorporate glutes and hams).
Trapezius Bonus Lift:
Already perform conventional shrugs? Try incline dumbbell shrugs in addition.
Execution: after a full stretch, rather than “shoulders-to-ears,” bring your shoulder blades together while face-down on an incline bench (these may change the way that you think of middle back training).
Deadlifts may be optimal, but they’re not necessary. In bodybuilding it’s mass, symmetry, and aesthetics that are the goal. The means of achieving your goal are strictly up to you.
If you don’t deadlift, can’t deadlift, or won’t deadlift, then try these lifts instead—you may be surprised by the results.