Deadlift Alternatives: How to Target the Same Muscles

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
March 29, 2022

Otherwise known as the king of exercises, the deadlift is a compound exercise that activates practically every muscle group in the human body to a certain extent - making it among one of the most effective full body training movements available to us.

However, with this effectiveness and intensity comes a set of risks and drawbacks that make the deadlift difficult or dangerous to perform in certain situations, thereby requiring that an alternative exercise take its place instead.

While the deadlift itself is irreplaceable as one of the most effective body-wide compound exercises possible, certain variations of the deadlift or exercises that target the primary mover muscles involved in the deadlift can act as potential alternatives for whatever requirements the exerciser may need fulfilled.

Should the Deadlift be Alternated Out?

Though the deadlift most definitely has its place in a variety of different workout programs, substituting it may be a necessity in certain situations, such as its considerably large risk of inducing knee, lower back, neck, shoulder and foot injuries if performed in an improper or unsafe manner.

barbell deadlift movement

This injury risk is, of course, in combination with the considerable stress the deadlift places on the cardiovascular system, as well as the risk of developing abdominal hernias or similar conditions from improper breathing techniques during the exercise.

Other reasons an exerciser may seek to substitute out the deadlift with another exercise is if they find it far too intense for their liking or experience level, as the deadlift is considerably hard to master in terms of form and requires a high level of exertion due to its full body muscular activation pattern.

What Exercises Can Act as Deadlift Alternatives?

Generally, exercises that activate the same muscle groups in a similar level of intensity as the deadlift may function as alternatives to it - though the exerciser must keep in mind that not all exercises are created equal, and subsequent drawbacks are present in practically every exercise.

As such, it is important for the exerciser to choose an alternative whose drawbacks are not an obstacle to achieving their training goals or a risk factor in developing conditions and injuries related to their workout.

This can generally be done by the exerciser first assessing what particular motivations are behind their substitution of the deadlift exercise, be it due to an injury that is exacerbated by the mechanical pressure of the deadlift or an insufficient or incorrect form of training stimulus received from said deadlift.

By identifying what the exerciser needs of a potential alternative exercise, they may then select one that fulfills such needs while still possessing characteristics as close as possible to the deadlift so as to continue the particular training goals of their workout program.

How to Choose a Deadlift Alternative

The primary mover muscles involved in the deadlift are that of the erector spinae, quadriceps femoris, hip adductors, gluteus maximus and minora, as well as the various smaller muscles located in the hamstrings at the back of the upper leg.

barbell deadlift

Knowing this, the exerciser must seek out an alternative exercise that also uses the majority of these muscle groups as primary mover muscles - especially one that activates them in a similar pattern and intensity.

This is done so as to retain the same or a similar form of training stimulus to the deadlift, and is the primary reason why an alternative exercise is chosen as opposed to a set of isolation movements that recreate the deadlift’s muscle activation pattern instead.

How to Work a Deadlift Alternative into a Training Routine

When alternating out the deadlift in a training routine, some level of reprogramming is required, with the specifics of such programming depending on what sort of alternative and its subsequent characteristics have been chosen.

If choosing an alternative exercise that activates less muscle groups than the deadlift, or the same muscle groups but in a far lower level of intensity, the addition of extra exercises targeting said neglected muscle groups will help make up for the loss in training stimulus.

In the case of the opposite being true wherein the alternative exercise activates specific muscle groups in a more intense manner than the deadlift is capable of - subtraction of certain exercises that also target said muscle groups within the workout routine will help avoid injury or overtraining.

Smaller changes to the workout program may also be necessary depending on what sort of equipment and how much exertion the alternative exercise uses, with certain types of exercise machines requiring more energy than others, and exercises that fatigue the body prematurely requiring a subtraction in total workout repetition volume.

Romanian Deadlifts

A variation of the standard barbell deadlift characterized by an increased level of gluteal and hamstring muscle group activation due to the exerciser hinging at the hips and reducing any bend of the knees, the romanian deadlift makes a perfect alternative to the traditional deadlift for exercisers wishing to increase posterior chain activation throughout the exercise.

barbell romanian deadlift

This will often result in the exerciser being unable to utilize as much weight as they normally would with the same volume of deadlifts, reducing the risk of injury and allowing for the same level of training stimulus so long as the exerciser is flexible enough to perform the Romanian deadlift without danger.

However, in cases wherein the exerciser is substituting out the deadlift in order to avoid placing excess stress on the lower back and spinal column, or if they are not flexible enough to perform the Romanian deadlift in a safe manner, it is best for the exerciser to choose another alternative.

Sumo Deadlifts

As opposed to the traditional deadlift’s rather narrow stance and the exerciser’s hands being placed on the outside of their legs, the sumo deadlift reverses this and places the exerciser in a position wherein their legs are spread as wide as possible with their hands between their legs.

sumo deadlift

This can have several effects on the mechanics and training of the exercise, such as a significantly increased lower body muscle group activation and a reduction in lower back injury risk as the exerciser is forced into a more upright position, especially when first beginning a repetition of the exercise.

The particular stance of the sumo deadlift will also result in a significantly reduced range of motion, both increasing the maximum amount of weight the exerciser will be able to move and reducing the incidence of certain mechanical tension based injuries such as bicep tears or dislocated shoulders.

Specifically, the quadriceps femoris muscle group atop the front of the upper leg will be brought into the spotlight throughout the exercise, becoming the foremost primary mover muscle group during the majority of the repetition.

As such, exercisers wishing to move a larger amount of weight, or those wishing to significantly increase their leg muscle group activation may find that the sumo deadlift is superior to the traditional deadlift for their goals.

Barbell Hack Squats

A variety of the traditional barbell squat that has the exerciser place the barbell beneath them so as to significantly alter the mechanics of its form, the barbell hack squat is less often compared to a squat and more to a deadlift due to the form and muscle group activation involved.

barbell hack squat movement

This particular alternative to the deadlift largely differs with the exerciser pulling the barbell from behind their ankles, eliminating certain muscle groups from the primary or secondary mover muscle activation pattern, such as the rear deltoids and biceps brachii.

Substituting the traditional deadlift with the barbell hack squat is most suitable for exercisers with already existing lower spinal column injuries or athletes seeking superior lower body posterior chain activation with a reduction in upper body dynamic muscular contraction.

Good Mornings

A significantly less intense exercise than the deadlift alternative, the good morning is primarily performed by athletes and gym goers for the purposes of inducing muscular hypertrophy and strength conditioning in the lower back, hip adductors and hamstring muscle groups - all without the additional muscle group activation found in the deadlift.

barbell good morning

This is achieved by the exerciser placing a loaded barbell onto their trapezius shelf, spreading their feet approximately shoulder width apart and bracing their core so as to ready themselves for the repetition.

They will continue the exercise by hinging at the hips and bracing their upper back, causing them to lean forward in a slow and controlled manner, wherein they will reach the apex of the movement once their torso is at a parallel level to the floor, all prior to entering the concentric phase of the exercise and completing the repetition.

As such, the good morning exercise is considered a suitable alternative for individuals seeking a less intense exercise than the deadlift that nonetheless trains the majority of its primary mover muscle groups, or for higher level athletes seeking to improve their deadlift form by working on a particular lower back related form sticking point.

However, the good morning exercise should be entirely avoided by individuals with a history or those at risk of spinal column and hip injuries, especially those of lesser training experience without the bodily awareness and connective tissue conditioning to perform the exercise in a safe manner.

Pendlay Rows

A favorite among golden era bodybuilders, the pendlay row is a modification of the standard barbell row that positions the exerciser in such a way that the muscular activation of the back muscles is significantly intensified, surpassing even that of the deadlift and barbell row themselves.

pendlay row

This is achieved by the exerciser bringing their upper body nearly parallel to the floor, with their lower back becoming engaged in a far more significant capacity than it would be in the majority of row exercises, replicating the activation of the deadlift in angle and intensity.

The pendlay row is best used as an alternative to the deadlift for athletes wishing to remove the lower body from the equation while retaining the activation of the lower back and other muscles located in the back, such as the latissimus dorsi and rhomboid muscle groups.

However, for individuals that desire this level of back muscle training intensity but also wish to involve the lower body in some capacity, they may combine the pendlay row with another exercise that also includes the lower body, such as those previously mentioned in this article.

Closing Thoughts

Due to the massive amount of muscle groups recruited throughout the deadlift exercise, any number of alternative exercises may replicate it in intensity or muscle group activation pattern - but only a few are capable of taking its place in a training program.

As such, regardless of which possible alternative exercise has been chosen, it is of vital importance for the exerciser to ensure that they are performing the alternative movement in a safe and effective manner - either by consulting a coach or by learning the mechanics and form of the alternative exercise prior to performing it at a high intensity.

References

1. Nigro F, Bartolomei S. A Comparison Between the Squat and the Deadlift for Lower Body Strength and Power Training. J Hum Kinet. 2020 Jul 21;73:145-152. doi: 10.2478/hukin-2019-0139. PMID: 32774546; PMCID: PMC7386153.

2. Schellenberg F, Taylor WR, Lorenzetti S. Towards evidence based strength training: a comparison of muscle forces during deadlifts, good mornings and split squats. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 2017 Jul 17;9:13. doi: 10.1186/s13102-017-0077-x. PMID: 28725437; PMCID: PMC5513080.

3. Schellenberg, F., Lindorfer, J., List, R. et al. Kinetic and kinematic differences between deadlifts and good mornings. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil 5, 27 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1186/2052-1847-5-27

4. Camara, Kevin D.; Coburn, Jared W.; Dunnick, Dustin D.; Brown, Lee E.; Galpin, Andrew J.; Costa, Pablo B. An Examination of Muscle Activation and Power Characteristics While Performing the Deadlift Exercise With Straight and Hexagonal Barbells, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: May 2016 - Volume 30 - Issue 5 - p 1183-1188 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001352

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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