The deadlift is such a winner when it comes to fulfilling the requirements of a compound exercise, that it might feel difficult to replace in your routine, especially if you’ve reaped the benefits of the exercise. But with back and hamstring injuries common, and with learning a deadlift technique being a long term process, it is important to keep some backup exercises in the locker. This is especially important if you are unable to perform the deadlift, but want to train the same muscles that the move targets.
The deadlift has some variations when it comes to grip and stance, but this group of exercises is independent of the keep-your-back-straight-and-lift-the-bar-off-the-floor options. Instead, most of these exercises will use different equipment and technique. If you are used to performing the deadlift, but are not able to do them for some reason now, then feel free to group some exercises together to increase the levels of intensity.
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Hip thrusts with barbell: Beginners can start off with doing the glute bridge without any weights, before graduating on to the hip thrust with a barbell placed across the front of the hips and your back on the floor. With your knees bent, drive up using your heels and hamstrings, with your hands used as support to hold the bar in place. Add weights as you get stronger at it. Once you advance with this, you can start supporting the upper back on a bench or a box instead of the floor. This exercise will burn your glutes and hamstrings without replicating the load of a deadlift on your lower back.
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Farmers walk: The farmers walk is surely one of the most overlooked exercises which works your forearms, upper back, core, and strengthens your grip [without any load on your lower back]. Given that the exercises only entails picking up weights, straightening out your back and walking tall with them for 30-45 seconds, more people should be doing it. Especially those who are unable to do any form of the deadlift.
Popular fitness podcast The Mind Pump discusses the benefits of the farmers walk in one of their episodes. “It increases muscle tension and is great for reinforcing posture. It is important for the joints to have to move while the whole body is engaged and tense. It is also very easy to load weights and increase volume in this exercise.” They also add how the farmers' walk “turns your central nervous system on.”
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Hamstring curls and Pendlay or barbell rows: One of the combinations you can do to mimic the effect of a deadlift is to perform hamstring curls as a superset. You can do this by using a band while lying down, or on a curl machine, and follow it up with Pendlay rows or barbell rows. Pendlay rows are slightly different from a conventional barbell row because even though the positioning is different, the execution is not.
To perform the Pendlay rows, you will need to place the barbell back on the floor, before pulling it up towards the lower chest. A barbell row consists of back to back reps with an easier hip hinge than the Pendlay row. The video above explains the exercise very well. Performing it along with hamstring curls will fire up the back and the posterior chain, and the bonus is that the superset works wonders even as a warm-up routine before deadlifts.
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Bulgarian split squats: Back to the basics again with the Bulgarian split squats working on the anterior chain, meaning the quads, adductors and front hip stabilisers. Since you are forced to squat, with one leg elevated with the support of a bench behind you, also makes it a good isolation exercise. It’s a simple, but brilliant, move that will balance out all the posterior chain work on pull-day or on legs day. Add dumbbells in both hands as you progress.
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Single-leg Romanian deadlift: This is an exercise that I have extensively used to fix my lower back issues. The single-leg Romanian deadlift boosts balance, strength, and control over the posterior chain without needing to load your back. It also gives the body a very clear sign of strength imbalances on either side of the body—which is usually the case. The exercise also allows you to keep your knees unlocked and soft, has an easy hinge angle on the waist, and needs you to engage your core to perform. All in all, one of the best deadlift alternatives.
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