The conventional Deadlift is a fantastic full-body exercise. And had you asked me a few years ago whether everyone should do them, I would have answered "absolutely."
But my thoughts have changed.
I've come to realize that not many people know how to deadlift a straight bar off the floor properly. And even fewer can maintain good form when the weights get heavy.
Trainees not competing in powerlifting or Olympic lifting often experience better, injury-free strength gains in the long run by using more suitable deadlift variations.
That's a big reason why few strength coaches in pro sports prescribe heavy conventional Deadlifts for their players. The risk-to-benefit ratio with an athlete making several million dollars per year is simply too high.
Check out these five Deadlift alternatives that are more appropriate for non-strength athletes.
1. Trap Bar Deadlift
The Trap Bar Deadlift places less stress on the low back and requires less mobility to set up in the starting position than the conventional Deadlift, especially when done with high handles.
Yes, you can move more weight than with the conventional Deadlift. Some people get too hung up on viewing the powerlifting-style as the only real way to deadlift, and label the Trap Bar Deadlift as a "Half-Squat with a bar in your hands," basically dismissing its benefits altogether.
Rather than thinking in such extremes, I'd rather consider Trap Bar Deadlifts an excellent option for building tremendous full-body strength over an adequate range of motion in a safe manner.
Recommended rep range: 1-5. Advanced lifters who know how to stay tight even when fatigued can go higher.
2. Sumo Deadlift off Blocks/Pins
The sumo stance, in which you position your feet wider and hold your hands between your legs, stresses the quads and adductors to a higher degree than the conventional stance. Moreover, Sumo Pulls are a little easier on your low back.
Pulling from an elevated surface—either off blocks, plates or pins in a power rack—shortens the range of motion, which further decreases low-back stress.
I prefer pulling from anywhere between mid-shin and below the kneecap. Going above the knee cuts the range of motion and allows a trainee to overload the movement too much for my liking, essentially turning it into an ego lift.
Recommended rep range: 1-5 reps for most gym-goers; advanced trainees can bump up the reps a bit.
3. Romanian Deadlift
Whereas the two previous Deadlift variations were all about moving big weight for lower reps to build maximal strength, the correct execution of Romanian Deadlifts requires you to feel the intended muscles doing work, not merely moving as much weight as possible through space.
Focus on a good hamstring stretch at the bottom and squeeze your glutes hard at the top.
Loading the bar with hundreds of pounds but not feeling anything in the hamstrings on your way down, or in the glutes as you extend your hips to finish each rep, serves little purpose.
When an athlete tells me he or she can't feel his or her hamstrings on Romanian Deadlifts, they're convinced that adding more weight to the bar will fix the issue.
Nope. Definitely not.
You should experience a nice hamstring stretch holding an empty bar or even a dowel in your hands. After regressing an athlete down to either of those while greasing their hip hinge pattern and teaching them how to feel the right muscles do the work, we let them load the bar with light weights.
Now they've got that important mind-muscle connection turned on, which helps them reap the benefits of the movement instead of mindlessly going through the motions.
Recommended rep range: 5-12.
4. Single-Leg RDL
Switching from two legs to one increases stability requirements to a degree many athletes aren't accustomed to, so start with light resistance. A dowel or a pair of 20-pound dumbbells may be all that you can handle at first without falling over.
When you're no longer limited by a lack of balance, overload this movement like any other strength exercise without allowing movement quality to suffer.
Again, you should achieve a notable hamstring stretch on the eccentric on each rep and finish the movement with the glutes. Strive to hold your hips level during each rep.
Recommended rep range: 5-8.
5. Landmine Deadlift
Deadlifts and high reps is a combination that rarely works.
Few athletes can maintain the necessary core stability and spinal alignment required for injury-free deadlifting once muscular fatigue kicks in.
The Landmine Deadlift is an exception. Very similar to the Kettlebell Deadlift, which I'd rank as one of the best movements for grooving proper hip hinge form in beginners, the load is placed between your feet.
The advantage of the Landmine Deadlift is that you can progressively work your way up to decent weight over time. The Kettlebell Deadlift is hardly useful for that since you'll be limited to 36 kilograms (about 80 pounds) of resistance from here to eternity simply because you won't find a bigger kettlebell at most gyms.
In addition to deadlifting for higher reps, the Landmine Deadlift can also be used with athletes experiencing back pain for a safer way to load the hips and posterior chain bilaterally.
Taller athletes may have trouble getting into position when performing the Landmine Deadlift from the floor. If that's you, place a plate under the weights to elevate the starting position slightly.
Recommended rep range: 5-10+. Hit this exercise for sets of 12 to 20 reps and I guarantee your entire posterior chain will be burning.
Contrary to what you may have heard, heavy conventional Deadlifts aren't always the best choice for athletes, and certainly not suitable for everyone.
Replace them with any or all of the above Deadlift variations to build full-body strength and size while avoiding back injury.