Bodyweight Alternatives for the Deadlift
When you’re getting into bodyweight training, one of the things you’ll discover is that there is a bodyweight version of most of the core exercises performed with weights at the gym.
- Instead of bench presses, try pushups.
- Instead of seated military presses, try handstand pushups.
- Instead of weighted squats, try pistol squats.
One of the most effective weighted exercises is difficult to replicate with just bodyweight–the deadlift. But there are alternatives.
In this post, I’ll explain why the deadlift is such an awesome exercise, and cover some of the bodyweight exercises you can perform in its place.
Deadlifts and the Posterior Chain
Deadlifts are one of the best weighted exercises for the posterior chain, which refers to the muscles surrounding the spine, the glutes and the hamstrings. This group of muscles is extremely important:
They contribute to jumping, pushing, pulling running and even something as simple as sitting down and standing up. It’s literally the prime mover of forward propulsion. 1
The deadlift is one of the most respected weighted exercises. It encourages good posture by requiring a straight back, works more muscles than any other compound exercise and improves your grip. Bodybuilding.com calls it out deliberately–the deadlift is key if you’re trying to increase size and muscle mass. 2
As a bodyweight fitness enthusiast, I am more interested in strength and power than I am in size and muscle mass.
Other benefits of deadlifts can be achieved in other ways. So if you’re not specifically trying to get bigger, you might be a candidate to substitute something else for the deadlift.
But be prepared to be challenged.
Deadlifts Make You a Man….But You Can Be Strong Enough Without Them.
You’ll hear all kinds of hyperbole around deadlifts. Deadlifts make you a man. Deadlifts are what puts hair on your chest. Deadlifts are what makes you smart, fertile and handsome. OK, that last one might not be hyperbole… 🙂
But the fact is, unless your objective is specifically to increase muscle size, you’ll be OK. You may not be able to say you have the “optimally developed posterior chain” — whatever that is — but in my view, you can still be strong enough.
Al Kavadlo suggests there are 4 bodyweight exercises you can do to replace the deadlift: 3
- Pistol squat: This works your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.
- Back bridge: This works the entire posterior chain.
- Single leg deadlift: This requires stability, strength, and control.
- Back lever: This is one of the most challenging movements for your posterior chain.
To this list I’ll also add the hyperextension.
I consider the pistol squat part of my beginner routine–it’s one of the quintessential accomplishments that marks your graduation from “beginner” status. The others aren’t exercises I’m doing regularly, but I want to work up to them at some point–the back lever looks particularly challenging and fun.
Deadlifts are sometimes cited as the “King of the mass-builders.”4 I’m not here to build unnecessary mass–are you?
Bring Me the Deadlift Alternatives
Though I wrote about the Pistol Squat before, I am still not quite there. I’m still performing Shrimp Squats and assisted Pistols to build my strength and progress towards the pistol. I have actually pulled off 2 (count them, two!) pistol squats by using a barbell as a counterweight. But I will not give up until I get there! Here’s Al showing us how:
One of the reasons to argue that pistols may be even better than back squats is that pistols are done without overloading the spine. Here’s a little from the minimalist fitness site Kinobody:5
When you squat with weights, this big heavy bar has to be placed on the upper back. Placing this heavy weight on the upper back vertically loads the spine with significant force. This in turn compresses the vertebrae, the discs in the spine, which can cause problems ranging from lumbago and muscle strains to sciatica and bulging or fully herniated discs…..[B]eing able to do a bodyweight pistol requires the same strength as back squatting your body-weight. Plus whatever weight you can hold while performing a pistol is added to your back squat total. Therefore his bodyweight (200 lbs) + 100 lbs left leg + 100 lbs right leg = 400 lbs squat.
It’s clear, especially if you choose to add weights to your pistols, this provides a good bit of the strength and power training that weighted back squats provide.
The back bridge is an exercise I haven’t spent much time on. I recognize that it can work the posterior chain and help with flexibility and strength, but as a relative beginner I think this is one I can postpone.
There are challenging varieties and simpler ones; the beginner can start by leaving feet on the ground and simply lifting the torso with the arms, keeping the body straight. More challenging varieties involve complete 180 degree arch and demands more physical coordination and development than I have at this time!
At this point, I am aware of back bridges, but I’m going to leave those to Al for now!
The hip thrust is a variation of the back bridge where you support your shoulders on an object like a weight bench.
The exercise itself involves pushing your core upwards just like in a bridge, so it’s another way to work the core.
Single Leg Deadlift
The single leg deadlift–especially unweighted–is more appropriate for a beginner. It works the hamstrings, the glutes and the lower back.
By appropriate I mean less physically demanding, but not easy. It takes balance and offers you the opportunity to work on your form. Just watch the exercise: you’re lifting the torso using your hamstrings and glutes.
If you include running in your routine — endurance, HIIT or both — this exercise builds the hips and helps with injury-prevention.6
This is still an aspirational exercise for me.
The back lever is performed by holding the body parallel to the ground by the arms, while facing down. It requires a lot more upper body, back and core strength than I have at this point.
It’s an exercise that can take several months to be able to perform.
Noting the muscles that this exercise stresses, is it any surprise this can help build strength in some of the same areas the weighted deadlift does?
What about kettlebell swings or dumbbell deadlifts?
There are alternatives that you can perform using small, easily transported weights such as adjustable dumbbells or kettlebells. For those who are primarily bodyweight lifters, but who augment their routine with this type of equipment, I’ll talk about those options here.
The Kettlebell Swing
The kettlebell is an iron ball with a handle, and the exercise in question involves swinging it up in front of the face, and then down between the legs, and repeating the motion. To control a heavy weight on that trajectory requires balance and strength along the posterior chain.
Some people consider kettlebell swings to be a good alternative to the deadlift. Some consider it to be a poor substitute. For some insight from one of the cornerstone sites of strength trainers, let’s consult T Nation: 4
After performing heavy swings for a solid month, I no longer see any need to perform dynamic effort deadlifts. The heavy swing is a superior movement in my opinion.
First, you get more hip range of motion. Second, the double overhand grip provides a great challenge to the grip. And third, there’s a greater acceleration phase with the swing as it’s really a ballistic movement; by law the dynamic deadlift must decelerate to come to a halt.
When considering this topic, many fitness advisors describe the benefits and drawbacks of deadlifts in exchange for a single exercise. Looking up at Al Kavadlo’s list, you may see where I’m going — by incorporating a couple of different movements into your routine, and as long as you aren’t an offensive lineman who needs to create extreme power with the legs, it is my view that you can achieve a healthy body with exercises that make up for the deadlift.
The dumbbell deadlift is performed similarly to a traditional barbell deadlift, except with dumbbells. This means typically you’re not lifting as much weight, and the forces on the body are different than when you’re balancing a bar across your body.
As implied above, the question isn’t whether they’re “as good as” barbell deadlifts, but really it’s whether they–in combination with other exercises–can make you fit. Being fit is your goal; being a massive physical specimen probably isn’t, or you wouldn’t be thinking of bodyweight in the first place.
One way to add some challenge here is to attack them progressively like calisthenics: do a one-legged dumbbell deadlift!
Here’s Scott Herman demonstrating:
Consider these if you are not quite confident in the bodyweight deadlift alternatives.
There are a great many benefits to doing deadlifts, and no doubt if you’re a bodybuilder or trying to increase your size, they are a must-do.
But you’re not here to look like Arnold.
You’re trying to build functional strength, stay healthy and have fun. By adding the right deadlift alternatives to your exercise routine, you’ll be just fine.
Image Source: All Free Downloads
1 Strengthening the Posterior Chain – BoxLife.com
2 Deadlifts: The King of Mass-Builders? – Bodybuilding.com
3 4 Bodyweight Deadlift Alternatives – BreakingMuscle.com
4 Deadlifts: The King of the Mass Builders? – Bodybuilding.com
6 Monday Minute: Single Leg Dead Lift – Competitor.com