Few exercises demonstrate brute strength better than the deadlift. The deadlift earned its title as the king of all lifts due to its potential for moving incredibly heavy weights and capacity to challenge your entire body.
However, this deceptively simple-looking exercise is a cause of frustration and discomfort for many lifters. Without precise technique, deadlifts can cause back pain or injuries. Luckily, there are plenty of alternatives that offer many of the same benefits of the deadlift while being more protective of your spine. Here is our list of the 7 best deadlift alternatives and why you should consider incorporating them into your program.
Table of Contents
- 1 The 7 Best Deadlift Alternatives
- 1.1 1. Elevated Deadlifts aka Rack Pulls (Less Range of Motion)
- 1.2 2. Trap Bar Deadlifts (Protect Shoulder Joint and Low Back)
- 1.3 3. Romanian Deadlifts (Emphasize Glutes and Hamstrings)
- 1.4 4. Cable Pull-Throughs (Beginner-Friendly Hip Hinge Variation)
- 1.5 5. Single-Leg Dumbbell Deadlifts (Rectify Muscle Imbalances)
- 1.6 6. Pause Deadlifts (Emphasize Quads and Overcome Plateaus)
- 1.7 7. Pendlay Rows (Back Builder, Superset with Leg Exercise)
- 1.8 Reasons to Choose a Deadlift Alternative
- 2 Muscles Worked by Deadlifts
- 3 FAQs
- 4 Other Alternative Exercises
- 4.1 The 8 Best Decline Bench Press Alternatives
- 4.2 The 9 Best Lunge Alternatives
- 4.3 The 10 Best Pallof Press Alternatives
- 4.4 The 8 Best Tricep Dip Alternatives
- 4.5 The 9 Best Seated Cable Row Alternatives (2023)
- 4.6 The 10 Best Plank Alternatives
- 4.7 The 10 Best Leg Extension Alternatives
- 4.8 The 8 Best Ab Rollout Alternatives
- 4.9 The 9 Best T-Bar Row Alternatives
- 4.10 The 9 Best Barbell Row Alternatives
- 4.11 The 10 Best Bench Press Alternatives
- 4.12 The 10 Best Box Jump Alternatives
- 4.13 The 10 Best Hack Squat Alternatives
- 4.14 The 10 Best Bulgarian Split Squat Alternatives
- 4.15 The 8 Best Incline Bench Press Alternative
The 7 Best Deadlift Alternatives
- Elevated Deadlifts aka Rack Pulls
- Trap Bar Deadlifts
- Romanian Deadlifts
- Cable Pull-Throughs
- Single-Leg Dumbbell Deadlifts
- Pause Deadlifts
- Pendlay Rows
1. Elevated Deadlifts aka Rack Pulls (Less Range of Motion)
When to Perform Elevated Deadlifts
Elevated deadlifts are an alternative to conventional deadlifts that use a shortened range of motion. In an elevated deadlift, the barbell rests on blocks or safety bars, usually around knee height. This variation allows you to isolate the top of the lift, which targets your hips, glutes, spinal erectors and traps to a greater degree.
Elevated deadlifts, or rack pulls, are a great alternative for beginners and experienced lifters alike. The shortened range of motion is preferable if you find you are rounding your back in a conventional deadlift due to poor back or hamstring mobility. Rack pulls usually allow you to lift heavier weights than conventional deadlifts, so they are also useful for breaking through deadlift strength plateaus.
How to Perform Elevated Deadlifts
- Place your barbell on safety pins or blocks so that it is around knee height.
- Stand right behind the barbell and grip it with a pronated grip and with your hands just outside your quads.
- Hinge forward slightly and maintain a slight bend in your knees. Keep your chin tucked and gaze forward.
- Brace your abdominals, squeeze your shoulder blades together, and pull them down. Grip the barbell firmly to remove any slack in your arms.
- Squeeze your glutes to drag the barbell up and along your thighs. Maintain contact with the barbell throughout the lift.
- When your knees and hips reach full extension, slowly reverse the movement by pushing your hips down and returning the barbell to its pins or blocks.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps and sets.
For a visual guide to doing elevated deadlifts with proper form, check out this video from Andy Vincent.
Tips for Elevated Deadlifts
Elevated deadlifts are great for lifting seriously heavy weights. Maintain a neutral spine and select an appropriate amount of weight to keep from straining your back. Given the reduced range of motion, some lifters forget to control the eccentric (lowering) phase of the lift and simply drop the barbell once they lock it out. Always lower the barbell slowly onto its pins or blocks to get the most out of this exercise and avoid any accidents in the gym.
2. Trap Bar Deadlifts (Protect Shoulder Joint and Low Back)
When to Perform Trap Bar Deadlifts
Trap bar deadlifts are an alternative to conventional deadlifts that puts less stress on the lower back and anterior deltoid. They involve using a hexagonal bar and grabbing handles placed by your sides to deadlift the weight. This variation requires less mobility as you don’t have to reach as far down as you would to pull a standard barbell from the floor. Trap bar deadlifts use a neutral grip which places less strain on the shoulder joint. Compared with conventional deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts are easier on the lower back because the weight is loaded centrally to your body rather than in front of you.
How to Perform Trap Bar Deadlifts
- Load your trap bar with bumper plates on either side to ensure the handles are high enough to reach without leaning too far forward.
- Stand inside the hexagon of the trap bar between the handles with your feet roughly between hip and shoulder-width apart.
- Bend your knees to grip the handles on either side of you. Your palms should face your body to maintain a neutral wrist position. Keep your hands in line with your legs so they are not too far forward or back on the handles.
- Engage your lats and pull your shoulders back to take slack out of the arms.
- Lower your hips and keep your gaze out and slightly in front of you.
- Drive through your legs with power to lift the entire body as one unit until you come to a standing position.
- Keeping the torso steady and braced, reverse the movement to lower the back to the ground.
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
For a visual aid, check out this video from Rogue Fitness demonstrating the correct form for a trap bar deadlift.
Tips for Trap Bar Deadlifts
If you are new to trap bar deadlifts, practice them with a lighter weight first. Trap bars distribute the weight differently from a conventional barbell, and some lifters experience challenges balancing them while deadlifting. Ensure you maintain an upright and neutral spine throughout the exercise and resist the temptation to lean back as you lock out at the top of the lift.
3. Romanian Deadlifts (Emphasize Glutes and Hamstrings)
When to Perform Romanian Deadlifts
Romanian deadlifts are a deadlift variation that uses less knee flexion and places greater emphasis on the posterior chain. Romanian deadlifts start from standing, eliminating the initial ‘push’ off the floor in a conventional deadlift. Instead, Romanian deadlifts are done with stiff legs and a micro-bend in the knee. The movement is initiated by pushing your hips back until you feel a stretch in your glutes and hamstrings. Romanian deadlifts have the barbell hovering off the ground in between reps, creating significant metabolic stress and time under tension for your posterior chain muscles.
How to Perform Romanian Deadlifts
- Set up a barbell in a power rack to eliminate the need to pull it off the ground. Ensure the pins of the rack are high enough so that you only need a slight bend in your knees to reach the bar.
- Grip the bar with an overhand grip with your hands just outside your outer thighs.
- Brace your core and retract your shoulders. Lift the barbell out of the pins by extending your knees, but don’t lock them out.
- Take a few steps back, maintaining a soft bend in the knees. Place your feet hip-width distance.
- Hinge at the waist and push your hips back so that the barbell travels down across your thighs.
- Stop when the barbell is just below your knees or when you feel a stretch in the hamstrings.
- Pause. Squeeze your glutes and drive into your heels to stand back up. Be careful to stand tall without hyperextending the knees or arching your lower back.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps and sets.
Check out this video from Scott Herman Fitness for a visual guide to performing the Romanian deadlift.
Tips for Romanian Deadlifts
Keep your shoulders pulled back to ensure the barbell maintains contact with the front of your body throughout the exercise. Allowing the bar to move forward can lead to rounding your spine, causing discomfort or back injury. To initiate the concentric (lifting) phase of the exercise, squeeze your glutes to stand up straight.
4. Cable Pull-Throughs (Beginner-Friendly Hip Hinge Variation)
When to Perform Cable Pull-Throughs
Cable pull-throughs are great at engaging the muscles in your posterior chain similar to a deadlift. Pull-throughs on the cable machine are less intimidating for some beginners than lifting a barbell from the floor and require less hip and hamstring mobility. In a cable pull-through, you are challenging your hip hinge by pulling the weight from behind you. This movement places less stress on the lower back than pulling a barbell up the front of your body.
How to Perform Cable Pull-Throughs
- Attach a rope handle to a cable machine’s lowest pulley lever.
- Face away from the cable machine and reach through your legs to grab the rope with both hands.
- Step forward from the cable tower and plant your feet just outside hip-width distance.
- Micro-bend your knees and hinge forward until you feel a stretch in your glutes and hamstrings.
- From your hip-hinge starting position, squeeze the glutes to stand up straight so the rope handle travels between your legs.
- Reverse the movement by hinging at the waist and pushing your hips back.
- Repeat for the desired number of sets and reps.
For a visual aid, here’s a useful video from Chris and Eric Martinez.
Tips for Cable Pull-Throughs
Lifters unaccustomed to the cable pull-through may at first struggle to balance with the weight pulling them from behind. This is usually rectified by evenly distributing your weight across your forefoot rather than digging into your heels.
5. Single-Leg Dumbbell Deadlifts (Rectify Muscle Imbalances)
When to Perform Single-Leg Dumbbell Deadlifts
If you struggle with stabilizing your glutes and core during conventional deadlifts, single-leg dumbbell deadlifts make a great alternative. This deadlift variation won’t allow you to lift as much weight, but by balancing on one leg, you can equalize the strength of your legs and improve your abdominal and glute strength. Performed to near-failure, single-leg deadlifts help you add mass to your glutes and posterior chain, which will improve your strength for compound lifts like the deadlift.
How to Perform Single-Leg Dumbbell Deadlifts
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and grip a dumbbell in each hand.
- Shift your weight into your weaker leg by tilting forward and allowing your stronger leg to lift off the ground behind you.
- Keep a small bend in both knees and keep both hips facing straight forward rather than allowing the hip of your non-working leg to splay out.
- Keep a straight back as you tilt forward. Stop when your torso is parallel to the ground, and the dumbbells hang around knee height.
- Brace your abdominals and push through your standing foot to lift back up.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps and then swap legs.
For a visual aid, here’s a useful video demonstrating the single-leg dumbbell deadlift.
Tips for Single-Leg Dumbbell Deadlifts
If you are struggling to balance on one foot, find a point in front of you to focus your gaze on. This helps your vestibular system maintain balance. To get the best possible stimulus for your glutes and hamstrings and maximize your range of motion, fully extend your hip at the top of the rep.
6. Pause Deadlifts (Emphasize Quads and Overcome Plateaus)
When to Perform Pause Deadlifts
Pause deadlifts are great for targeting the same muscle groups and producing similar results as the conventional deadlift with lighter weights. Pause deadlifts follow the same movement pattern but include a pause of 1-2 seconds about midway through the rep. Adding a pause increases the metabolic stress on the muscles due to extended time under tension. It also emphasizes the quads to a greater degree than conventional deadlifts. Pause deadlifts are more technically demanding than standard deadlifts, so they are best used as an accessory lift to address sticking points and break through deadlift strength plateaus.
How to Perform Pause Deadlifts
- Load your standard barbell with an appropriate amount of weight.
- Stand with your toes peeking out from under the bar with a stance about hip-width apart or slightly wider.
- Bend your knees so that you can reach the barbell without rounding your back. Some lifters like to use a mixed grip; however, the traditional deadlift usually uses a pronated (overhand) grip. Your hands should be just wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Brace your core and pull your shoulders down and back. Pull the bar into your body so there is no slack in your arms.
- Without breaking tension in the arms or the back, drive through your feet and begin to stand up.
- Pause when the barbell is halfway between your knees and the floor. Actively brace your core and keep your shoulders retracted during the isometric hold.
- After 1-2 seconds, drive through your feet and complete the lift.
- Push your hips back and bend your knees to lower the weight back to the ground.
- Allow the bar to come to a dead stop. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
Check out this useful video from Strength Culture for a helpful overview of how to do the pause deadlift correctly and avoid common form mistakes.
Tips for Pause Deadlifts
Without meticulous attention to technique, pause deadlifts can quickly become a sluggish version of a traditional deadlift. Ensure you are consistent with the location at which you pause for each rep. The pause should be distinct from the lifting portion of the movement. After you pause for 1-2 seconds, pull the bar explosively the rest of the way up.
7. Pendlay Rows (Back Builder, Superset with Leg Exercise)
When to Perform Pendlay Rows
Pendlay rows are a great alternative to deadlifts thanks to their impressive ability to improve strength and size in your back, lats, and core. Pendlay rows use the legs to stabilize and anchor the exercise, but don’t recruit your lower body muscles as much as a deadlift. If you substitute Pendlay rows for deadlifts, superset them with a leg-focussed exercise, such as lunges or hamstring curls.
How to Perform Pendlay Rows
- Stand with your loaded barbell in front of you on the floor. Your feet should be about hip-width and placed directly under the bar.
- Micro-bend your knees and hinge at the waist, pushing your hips back so that your back is flat and parallel to the floor.
- Reach down to hold the barbell with an overhand grip. Your hands should be just wider than shoulder width.
- Engage your core. Brace your back and shoulders to take excess slack out of the bar. Keep your shoulders pulled back throughout.
- Pull the barbell towards your torso with explosive force. Hinge at the elbows and drive them behind you as you lift the bar to your chest.
- Keeping the core activated and the back braced, release the barbell to the ground.
- Reset and repeat for each repetition.
Here is a useful video from Scott Herman Fitness showing some tips for the correct form for a Pendlay row and how to avoid some common mistakes.
Tips for Pendlay Rows
Pendlay rows prompt lifters to generate explosive power, so avoid using momentum to ‘bounce’ the bar off the ground between reps. Ensure the bar comes to a complete stop after each rep. Maintain a micro-bend in your knees and keep a neutral spine throughout the exercise.
Reasons to Choose a Deadlift Alternative
Deadlifts are a highly effective exercise that works your entire body and are often the exercise that allows you to lift your heaviest weights. That said, there are many reasons you might want an alternative exercise to the deadlift. For instance, you may be managing an injury that is aggravated by deadlifts, or you have a biomechanical limitation that prevents proper deadlift form.
Even if you enjoy conventional deadlifts, there are many benefits to adding extra variety to your training program. If you want to isolate a particular muscle group, some exercise alternatives will do so more effectively without taxing your entire body and nervous system like the conventional deadlift. Varying your exercise selection also keeps your training program more enjoyable and forces you to adapt by challenging your body in new ways.
Muscles Worked by Deadlifts
Deadlifts are a compound exercise that engages several muscle groups throughout your entire body with particular emphasis on the legs, glutes and back.
- Primary muscles used: Quadriceps, Erector Spinae, Trapezius, Glutes.
- Secondary muscles used: Rhomboids, Latissimus Dorsi (Lats), Hamstrings, Abductors, Adductors, Forearm Flexors, Abdominals, Calves
Why do deadlifts cause lower back pain?
Conventional deadlifts look easier than they are. For a simple-looking exercise, there are many technical factors to keep in mind. You need to maintain a neutral spine, engage several muscle groups in your body, and ensure your knees and hips are extending in unison. Poor technique in any of these areas can lead to back pain and injury. Furthermore, deadlifts require a decent amount of hamstring and spinal mobility and good grip strength.
How can I improve my form in deadlifts?
Once you have identified your weaknesses concerning the deadlift, you can incorporate accessory exercises to address them. If your grip strength is holding you back, practice dead hanging from a pull-up bar. If you are not accustomed to hip-hinge exercises, try safer alternatives like the cable pull-through. If your back strength is limiting your ability to deadlift, try strengthening exercises like Pendlay rows to build a stronger posterior chain.
Other Alternative Exercises
If you enjoyed this post, check out our other roundups of the best alternatives for other exercises.