6 Alternatives to the Barbell Deadlift (That Might Just be Better)
28/07/2022 | Andrew Tracey
Andrew Tracey is a long time collaborator with Bulldog Gear. A coach, writer and current fitness editor of Men’s Health Magazine, he has been in and around the fitness industry for the past 17 years. Having enjoyed and endured a number of disciplines from endurance racing, to strongman, to Crossfit AT enjoys getting neck deep in the practice just as much as the theory.
"There is no reason to be alive if you can't deadlift!”
Proclaimed professional strongman Jón Páll Sigmarsson, as he pulled a world record breaking 523 kg from the ground.
Whilst it’s easy to chalk this one up to excited hubris in the heat of the moment, this really is how some people view the deadlift. With the exception of maybe the bench press, no other lift seems to have garnered such a hardcore, ride-or-die fanbase, and even then you can easily make the argument that bench press super-fans are at least half way joking or speaking ironically.
No, the deadlift truly stands alone as an almost mythical movement in the lifting zeitgeist.
If you’re serious about training, you must deadlift.
But the truth is, unless your sole aim is to get very, very good at barbell deadlifting, there’s no reason whatsoever to solely prioritise the barbell deadlift. In fact, for most people there are a litany of reasons to get your hinge fix elsewhere. From limb length to injury history; your individual requirements should dictate which deadlift variation(s) dominate your programming, not powerlifting themed peer pressure.
With that in mind, we’ve got 6 alternatives to the classic barbell deadlift for your consideration; some of which might even be better.
Hex Bar Deadlift
Specifically designed for the purpose of keeping weightlifters with lower back injuries pulling heavy from the floor, the design of a hex or ‘trap’ bar allows trainees to step inside of the centre of mass. When compared to a barbell deadlift, where your shins keep you positioned just behind the weight, this enables you to drop your hips lower and use an enormous amount of quad drive, heavily mitigating lower back involvement.
The neutral grip handles also allow for a much stronger grip on the bar, whilst being far more forgiving on your arms and shoulders.
Perfect for carries, jumps and most deadlift variations you can think of (including keeping those hips high and putting the emphasis back onto the glutes and hamstrings), ‘open’ varieties like the Bulldog Gear Open Hex Bar also allow you to lunge and carry, unencumbered by a rear bar section, whilst the built in deadlift jacks spare your lumbar further when loading and unloading the bar.
Essentially- copy and paste all of the benefits mentioned in the entry above and add a whopping increase in flexibility of range of motion.
With two weights that you’re able to manipulate freely through space, the dumbbell deadlift allows you to discover and capitalise on the most effective, pain-free range of motion for your own physiology; stand behind the resistance, in the centre of, or even lower the dumbbells down behind your body for an extreme quad bias (ala the hack squat), dumbbells may just be the most versatile and accessible entry on this list.
It’s not all sunshine and PB’s however. One of the biggest drawbacks of the dumbbell deadlift is the comparatively large ROM. Beginning from the floor, the handles of a set of dumbbells are going to result in a vastly lower pick-up than that of a barbell, this can be problematic for some trainees who struggle to create tension in (or even reach) this position. This can be quickly mitigated by lowering your bells onto low block or a bench, or by switching out your dumbbells for kettlebells and reaping all of the same benefits, with a slightly more forgiving pick-up height.
My love affair with the landmine is no secret. Although I don’t include an abundance of landmine movements in my own training, I think it’s an incredible tool for everyone from beginners, to those working around injuries and limitations right through to athletes looking to unlock the sport’s specific potential of the barbell.
Whenever I see a movement performed landmine style I can’t help thinking that maybe we’ve using the barbell wrong the whole time.
The landmine deadlift locks you into a pretty linear ROM, in the form of a lever, whilst also giving you enough freedom to find a comfortable position for your own anatomy.
Special two handed attachments are available (resembling hex bars, but attaching to a barbell to act as a lever); but a simple, unilateral deadlift brings with it it’s own benefits such as addressing left/right imbalances, building anti-rotational strength and allowing you to get some serious bang for your buck- with half the weight; great for those suffering from the aches and pains of continuous, systemic loading.
Gripping the thick, rolling end of a barbell can be difficult, especially for those of smaller stature or with relatively untrained grip strength- but that’s nothing a lifting strap won’t cure, right?
A true test of ‘functional’ strength with enormous carryover to everyday tasks. The inherent ‘unliftability’ of a sandbag stems from the fact that, despite the best technique and all of the lifting cues in the world, seldom are two reps ever the same.
The undulating, dynamic nature of the sand shifting inside of a loosely filled bag means each rep puts up a fight; whilst the rolling, impossible to grip, rock hard nature of a bag that’s packed to the brim presents it’s own set of difficulties.
As with the other entries on this list, the freedom to attack the lift from a multitude of angles is the true magic here. But, what’s unique to the sandbag (beyond the fact each set feels like you’re going head to had with a bag of angry alligators), is that once you get the bag in your lap, you’re able to manoeuvre it so close to your body that it becomes an incredibly tactile cue for creating a powerful, spine protecting braced position.
To reap the full benefits of the sandbag deadlift, don’t just hoist it from the floor sumo style for touch-and-go reps. No, take the time to lap the bag before standing it up.
What’s odd is, a lift that you’re conditioned to seeing performed by behemoth-like strongmen or ‘farm strong’ spit and sawdust athletes; is probably one of the most accessible, low skill, attainable ways to safely train nearly every muscle in your body.
Much like the landmine deadlift, a big enough tyre locks you into a lever-like range of motion, that guides you effortlessly in the right direction- so that you can put the real effort into pushing the floor away with all your might.
Pushing your body firmly against the tyre wall, keeping your arms straight against the rubber, dropping your chin down onto the top of the tyre- all of these things are, completely by accident, some of the best safety features you could hope to build into a piece fitness of fitness equipment.
If you’re going for a full tyre flip (which realistically resembles a clean, more than a deadlift; but what is a clean if not a deadlift that you perform so fast it unlocks a bonus, combo move), you eliminate the eccentric or lowering portion of the lift. Excellent for safely developing power and athletic prowess, but less than optimal for building size and strength*. Stop at the half way mark, before the ‘clean’, and simply lower back to the ground under control to build eccentric loading back in.
*exercise science aside, it’s pretty hard to imagine that you’ll reap zero strength or hypertrophy benefits from heavy tyre flips, it’s just less optimal.
Heavy Kettlebell Swing
Newton's second (and my personal favourite) law of motion is ‘F = ma’, or ‘force, equals mass, times acceleration’.
Cool. What does that mean for us tin slinging luddites? Well it means you can make something ‘heavier’ by lifting it faster.
Alright, admittedly it’s not quite that simple. And, in this context it’s an idea that’s definitely subject to the law of diminishing returns (or else boxers would have deltoids the size of the Death Star, and high jumpers would have legs with their own gravitational fields). But it is true to say that we can make muscle’s work significantly harder, by making them move faster.
This is where the kettlebell swing comes in.
The epitome of the hinge pattern- a kettlebell swing lights up your posterior chain faster than a Brit’s barbecue at the first sign of sunshine. You may not be able to swing anywhere near your deadlift PB, but what you can swing, you can swing hard and you can swing fast.
Heavy kettlebell swings utilise the same constellation of muscles as your garden variety deadlift, but allow you to do so at much lighter weight. That being said; the key here is to go heavy. It’s all too easy to get lackadaisical with a lighter weight kettlebell and quite literally just go through the motions, allowing the bell to do the lion’s share of the work.
Pick a kettlebell that forces you to accelerate hard off of the hips to get it up, and you’ll be rewarded with perky glutes, athletic hamstrings and the grip strength of a silverback gorilla.
People always cite ‘staying fit to play with my kids’, as a major motivation for training. But the truth is, you can do a lot to stay fit by playing with your kids. We’ve got 3 GPP workouts that will ensure that every day is sports day (for the whole family).
Unless your sole aim is to get very, very good at barbell deadlifting, there’s no reason whatsoever to solely prioritise the barbell deadlift. With that in mind, we’ve got 6 alternatives to the classic barbell deadlift for your consideration; some of which might even be better.