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6 Deadlift Alternatives for a Bad Back & Poor Mobility

Deadlifts are an excellent exercise that combines functionality and strength gains. However, they’re not suitable for everyone. 

Generally, there are three reasons why people don’t do deadlifts…

  1. They lack the required mobility
  2. They’re injured (or think they are)
  3. They just don’t like them – often are intimidated by the idea of heavy lifting

As a personal trainer and weightlifting coach, I appreciate deadlifts aren’t for everyone. There are exercises I use for people who can’t or don’t like to deadlift, or where deadlifts aren’t a suitable exercise for their goals. 

In this article, I’m going to show you these deadlift alternatives that will replicate most of the benefits without the risks. These exercises are both mechanically and technically suitable for most people.

Deadlift Technique Breakdown

We won’t go into nuance here (there are entire books written on deadlifting), but I’ll provide an overarching view of the deadlift technique.

In order to effectively replicate the deadlift, we have to understand two things about it – the movement mechanics and the desired outcome. If we can get our head around these elements, we can select exercises that train the same movements and achieve the same outcomes.

The deadlift can be broken down into two distinct movement phases…

  1. Leg Press
  2. Hip Hinge/Thrust

The desired outcomes are…

  • Improved general strength 
  • Stronger vertical pull
  • Better spinal health

When you watch the deadlift in slow motion, you’ll notice that the back stays strong and straight, with the legs providing the initial drive which allows the weight to lift off the floor. This is the leg press phase.

As the bar passes the knees, the hips push forward (the hip thrust phase). It engages the glutes, which helps to stabilize the lower back and core.

So to effectively replicate the deadlift, we have to look at exercises that will copy these movements without aggravating previous injuries or risking new ones.

Exercises that replicate the leg press element of the deadlift…

To replicate the first phase of the deadlift, the leg press, we have to look at exercises that drive the feet into the floor and create extension at the hip and knee. This is very different to leg extension alternatives, which focus on keeping the hip locked and only extending the knee.

The three I’ve selected are easy to do in the sense that they require minimal equipment…

1. Barbell Squats

The back squat is arguably the most functional and important leg exercise of them all. It’s also the perfect exercise for replicating the leg press element of the deadlift, because it copies the movement exactly, without requiring the lifter to hold the bar in front.

Squats provide the leg workout without loading the lower back in the same way as deadlifts. So they are often suitable for people who have trouble with the excessive spinal flexion and extension required through a full deadlift.

Equipment needed for barbell squats:

How to do a barbell squat:

  1. Place the bar across the upper back – not the neck
  2. Take a breath in and engage the core – this keeps the lower back safer
  3. Keeping the chest up throughout, push your hips back and bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor
  4. Drive feet into the floor and stand back to the start position
  5. Repeat as many times as required.

Barbell squat muscles worked:

  • All muscles of the legs
  • Core
  • Lower back

2. Rear foot elevated split squats

Just like the barbell back squat, the rear foot elevated split squats are an excellent choice for replicating the leg press element of the deadlift. That’s because it’s the same movement pattern. 

The single-leg element often makes it a safer exercise. 

This is because the overall loads are lighter and if you have a problem with one side in particular, you can manage it by reducing the load on that side. Finally, there are functional benefits to single leg work in the sense that it irons out any strength imbalances between limbs.

Equipment needed for rear foot elevated split squats:

How to do rear foot elevated split squats:

  1. Place the back foot on the bench behind you and hop your front foot ahead
  2. Hold the dumbbells at your sides and engage the core
  3. Keeping the chest up throughout, bend your back knee towards the floor and lower the front thigh until it reaches parallel to the floor
  4. Drive front foot into the floor and stand back to the start position
  5. Repeat as many times as required.

Rear foot elevated split squats muscles worked:

  • Quads and hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Core

3. Step ups

The step-up is a similar exercise to the rear foot elevated split squats in the sense that it is a unilateral exercise, forcing each leg to work on its own. It also (like the other two exercises in this section), involves hip extension and flexion. 

The single-leg element involves a lot of core work too.

This is slightly more challenging than the split squats because it includes a coordination element that you just don’t get with the others. This is because you’re constantly stepping up and down onto a high box. It has a long-range of motion, so is like an extended version of the leg press element of the deadlift.

Equipment needed for step ups:

How to do step ups:

  1. Place the front foot on the step 
  2. Hold the dumbbells at your sides and engage the core
  3. Step up onto the box by pushing up through the front foot – don’t cheat by using your bottom foot!
  4. When both feet are on the box, lower the back leg down slowly and under the control of the front leg
  5. Repeat as many times as required per leg

Step ups muscles worked:

  • Quads and hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Core

Exercises that replicate the hip hinge element of the deadlift…

The next phase of the movement is the hip hinge/thrust. This is the section of the deadlift where the hips are pushed forward by the lifter, which enables the barbell to complete the lift. 

The glutes are squeezed at the top of the deadlift, which stabilizes the lower back.

4. Hip Thrust/Hinge

The hip thrust is an underrated exercise. A lot of people dismiss it as something for the ‘booty brigade’, but it’s a legitimately good exercise that is both functional and effective. It doesn’t require much technique and there are a lot of performance improvement and injury reduction benefits.

It’s slightly more involved than others to set up, but once you have it’s a great glute exercise and mimics the final hip thrust of the deadlift perfectly. 

Equipment needed for hip thrusts:

How to do hip thrusts:

  1. With your back and shoulders on the bench and feet flat on the floor, place the barbell on your lap
  2. Drive the barbell up using your glutes until you’ve reached full hip extension.
  3. Pause at the top, then slowly lower your hips down.
  4. Repeat

Hip thrusts muscles worked:

  • Glutes
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves

5. Kettlebell Swings

The kettlebell swing is the ultimate hip hinge exercise, meaning it trains the final phase of the deadlift better than most. 

It’s also excellent for training the posterior chain, the muscles largely targeted by deadlifts. 

The fact that the kettlebell swing is so technically different from many other exercises means it’s a good idea to have a level of coaching ahead of you attempting it. Whilst it’s not a dangerous exercise as such, it’s one that has the potential to injure if done incorrectly. 

Equipment needed for kettlebell swings:

  • Kettlebell

How to do kettlebell swings:

  1. Hold the kettlebell with both hands in an overhand grip
  2. Keeping your back straight, tilt your hips back and drive them forward using your glutes – this puts momentum into the kettlebell
  3. At the top of the swing, squeeze your glutes together hard
  4. Keep your legs mostly straight throughout the whole exercise – the only joints to move a lot are the hip and shoulders
  5. Keeping your back and legs straight throughout, build momentum with each swing until you’re reaching chest height with the kettlebell
  6. Repeat as many times as required

Kettlebell swings muscles worked:

  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Lower back

Exercise if mobility is your biggest issue with the deadlift

A lot of people aren’t injured, they just lack the mobility to get in the right position to deadlift with good technique. 

If that’s the case, you can do a rack pull…

6. rack pull

A rack pull is effectively the same exercise as a deadlift. It’s just with a reduced range of movement making it ideal for people with poor flexibility in the hamstrings.

All of the same muscles are hit, the movement is the same and it acts as a good starting point for deadlifts. You can increase the range of movement gradually until you are performing full deadlifts.

Equipment needed for rack pulls:

How to do rack pulls:

  1. Hold the barbell with the grip of your choice
  2. Keeping your back straight and chest up, tilt your hips back and drive your feet into the floor
  3. Drive through the legs, straightening them as you go
  4. When the bar reaches mid thigh, bring the hips through
  5. At the top of the movement squeeze the glutes together
  6. Reverse the movement on the way down and repeat

Rack pulls muscles worked:

  • Lower back
  • Legs
  • Glutes
  • Erectors
  • Core

If you have a back injury…

I’m not going to play a physio on the internet, so this isn’t diagnostic advice – you should always seek a qualified opinion.

However, if you aren’t deadlifting because of a back injury, you could do a lot worse than look at the work of Dr. Stuart McGill, one of the world’s foremost experts on spinal mechanics. His work has allowed thousands of people worldwide to live a life free of back pain, often using very basic exercises you can do at home.

Here are his ‘big 3’ exercises that are often enough to cure most people’s problems, especially if they’re down to a weak core…

Why do people love deadlifts?

Deadlifts have a huge payoff in terms of general strength building – they’re most people’s biggest lift and it’s usually easy to make quick progress for beginners.

They don’t require a huge amount of technique or mobility in order to execute effectively. Certainly not compared to the Olympic lifts for example. They are a functional movement too so performing deadlifts has a genuine real-world payoff.

Do them safely and they improve leg, back, and core strength better than most exercises.

With so many benefits, it’s easy to understand why they’re so highly regarded by strength and conditioning coaches. 

These are the reasons why they are part of our popular 12-week beginner weight lifting routine.

However, deadlifts do come with an element of risk, as any heavy lifting does. Before you jump in, build core strength and technique, plus work on your mobility – it’ll make your deadlift safer and more effective. 

That being said, you don’t need to do deadlifts. As we’ve pointed out here, there are other ways you can replicate many of the benefits without having to perform them and risk aggravating an old injury. Worse still, doing them with poor technique can create new injuries, so weigh up the risk and reward first.

Deadlift Alternatives- the bottom line

Not deadlifting isn’t a bad thing and by following these deadlift alternatives you’ll enjoy most of the benefits of them, without any of the risks.

Although they are an excellent exercise, deadlifts have been awarded a reputation that probably outweighs their importance. Sure, they are a great exercise, but you can replicate the effects without missing out.

There’s no need to be a hero – if deadlifts aren’t serving a good purpose, don’t do them. 

If you struggle with the technique or are finding them painful, stop. 

Follow the exercises here instead. You can always work on your core strength and technique alongside the exercises, enabling you to deadlift safely in the future.

Another great way to develop your back muscles and core strength is pull ups. However, not everyone can do these or has access to a bar. Check out our pull up alternatives for safe ways anyone can get the benefits of pull ups at home.

by Steve Hoyles
Hi! My name is Steve Hoyles. I’m a personal trainer, gym owner and fitness copywriter. Since graduating with my Sports Science degree in 2004 I’ve worked in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people reach their health and fitness goals. My writing has been read by millions of people in over 200 countries.

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