7 Joint-Friendly Alternatives to the Deadlift

Do you experience pain and/or discomfort when performing conventional deadlifts? These 7 alternatives and modifications may be exactly what you need!

First of all, kudos go out to you.

Why?

Because you clicked on this link. That shows that you’re not looking to send your frustrating deadlift to the crypt in favor of some other exercise that may not deliver nearly as many benefits.

And you realize that a modified version of a lift is still better than not doing the lift at all. Plus, you’re looking to service your joints at the same time.

As a guy with a laundry list of old injuries and pesky chronic pains from my past athletic career and lifting traumas, I respect that, and I feel your pain. You’ve taken the best course of action possible.

Here are deadlift ideas to minimize the stress.

1. Use a Trap Bar – Duh!

Simply put, a trap bar deadlift is a saving grace for people who struggle with finding the right back position due to mobility restrictions. Moreover, if you’re a lifter who has unfavourable leverages and anthropometry, then is almost always spells bad news when you try to fold yourself into position with a straight bar blocking your shins.

The trap bar is a superior alternative in these cases. Let’s run down the benefits together:

  • The bar uses neutral grip handles, which means you don’t have to mix it up when it gets heavy.
  • The handles are higher, making for easier access.
  • The trap bar doesn’t block the shins, allowing the knee to travel further forward to start. That means more quads to help out.
  • On a similar note, the deeper knee flexion means a deeper hip position. That encourages a taller spine and less stress forces on the low back.

With all of that going for it to make it different, you’d be a fool not to start using it.

2. Raise Your Pulling Surface

Most deadlift injuries that I’ve seen come from a combination of a poor setup, and an ugly first 6-12 inches of the pull. It makes sense, since the hips are in the most flexed position before the bar comes up off the ground.

Related: Deadlifts Hurt Your Back? Here Are 4 Pain Free Alternatives

With that said, no one made the rule that you must pull from the floor, unless you’re a competitive powerlifter, which you aren’t. There’s absolutely no shame in setting the barbell up on a slight elevation in order to still receive all the benefits of deadlifting while doing so safely, to protect your back and respect your mobility.

You can do this by using step platforms, plates, thick mats, or anything that gets the job done.

3. Go Medium Sumo

If your gym doesn’t have a trap bar, or if you’re a sucker for barbells, then using a squat stance to deadlift will probably feel really good compared to your conventional stance. I’m not the biggest fan of going full sumo with deadlifts, especially if you’re not trying to compete and minimize pulling space.

Going medium sumo (see video) finds the happy medium and allows you to sit the hips down slightly lower and utilize more of your quads and inner thighs to help protect the back. On top of this, it’s a move that will be more in harmony with most people’s hip anatomy, based on the placement of the sockets.

4. Kill the Eccentric

We all know there are plenty of benefits to being able to lower weight slowly. With that said, there are still choice times when lowering the weight slowly isn’t the smart way to go. In the case of heavy deadlifts and an injury history, there’s a definite argument that can be made for training with less emphasis on the eccentric.

As far as this lift goes, many people already use an eccentric-free method and think there’s nothing wrong with that. Regardless, lowering the weight to the floor with speed but still in control can allow a lifter to focus on the technique of the actual pulling phase without overtaxing his body on the lowering phase.

5. Start from the Top Down

Especially in the case of RDL’s, it’s important to respect what muscle group has control of the pelvis before starting a repetition. Many lifters think they aren’t flexible enough to achieve full range of motion when deadlifting.

If you reach down to touch your toes with almost straight legs, chances are your back will round, at least a little.  If you do the same thing with a 50 pound dumbbell or a 45 pound plate in your hands, you’ll get much further before that happens. The reason why is because the added weight brings your hamstrings into a loaded stretch.

This allows you to get down further without rounding, since the hamstrings are giving up some control of the pelvis, allowing the low back to maintain its integrity and neutral position. If all of that sounds like Chinese, then check out this video for a better explanation and visual cues.

Long story short, the trick is to start the lift from the top down. Set the bar in the rack at lockout level, and pick it up from there, take a small step back, and perform your set starting with the first eccentric. You’ll notice a difference.

6. Belt Up

Listen – you gotta do what you gotta do. I’d love to sound like the next strength training purist who believes that you’re not lifting if you’re not lifting completely raw. At one point I even believed that training with sleeves, wraps, or a belt points to weaknesses that you’re not addressing, and instead finding a crutch for.

Discogenic back issues that started to manifest themselves around 2013 changed my tune quickly.

Related: Tweaked Your Back? 7 Ways You Can Still Train

If your goal is really to continue training a movement that involves picking up hundreds of pounds, you can continue to lift raw and narrowly escape injury with each rep you perform to completion. I’ll just let you know that these kinds of back problems usually have very little to do with using poor form when they rear their ugly head.

It would be wise to lengthen your lifting life span when you’re pulling 400 by belting up to do it. I personally try to stay raw until I get to the 3’s, and then add the simple starter belt I bought for that minor added support. It makes a huge difference and has been a game changer for any back issues I’ve had pertinent to the deadlift pattern.

7. Kill the Mixed Grip

We’ve spent enough time talking about mods that will help save lower backs and knees, but we didn’t forget to bring up the elbow and shoulder joints. In both of these cases using a mixed grip when pulling can be a silent killer to structural balance throughout the body, starting with the two joints mentioned here.

Think about it. You’re lifting hundreds of pounds with one arm internally rotated and one externally rotated. This can lead to problems if you’re doing every set using the same mix, starting from your warm up.

To be clear, the mixed grip doesn’t have to be ditched altogether, though you’d still be fine without it. It can act to improve grip strength for heavy pulls – and that’s exactly the place they should be used when you’re lifting raw. Focus on sets of 3 or fewer reps with the mixed grip, and focus on using a double overhand grip besides that.

Summary

There are more methods I didn’t even touch on here: Paused reps, isometrics, examining your training shoes, and the list goes on and on.

But 7 key points are more than enough for one article, and I’m confident that applying even half of these nuggets of wisdom to your programming will make a world of difference to the health of your back, knee, hip and shoulder joints, if you’ve never applied any of these before.

You’ll know where to find me to say your thanks.