Bodyweight Deadlift Alternatives

I’ve met a lot of guys over the last few years who’ve been banged up from lifting weights and wanted to try switching over to calisthenics-based resistance training. Though these folks recognize the benefits of bodyweight training (improved joint health, increased mobility, greater proprioception, etc.), putting down the weights for good often comes with some hesitation.

One of the most common concerns I’ve heard about dropping the iron in favor of bodyweight training is that there’s no way to replicate the classic deadlift. Push-ups can replace the bench press, squats can be done on one leg to add resistance and pull-ups are better than any pulling movement you can do with a weight anyway. But that deadlift is a bit of a doozy.

Though the specificity principle still applies, you can in fact work your posterior chain and strengthen all the same muscles as the deadlift without any external weights.

Back Bridges
Anyone who’s got a solid back bridge can probably deadlift a respectable weight without too much trouble, though you’re unlikely to see too many guys who are even capable of getting into a full back bridge if all they’ve been doing is lifting for years. The bridge will challenge your flexibility as it simultaneously strengthens your hamstrings, glutes, lower-back, upper-back and shoulders.

Click the link for more info on back bridges.

One-Legged Bodyweight Deadlifts
While many weightlifters dismiss this exercise as being too easy, the one-legged bodyweight deadlift is a fantastic way to build strength in your hamstrings, glutes and lower back. If done slowly and with strict attention to detail, performing a dozen or two one-legged bodyweight deadlifts can be a serious challenge even for someone who’s used to moving some heavy metal. They’re also an excellent balance and stability challenge.

Click the link for more info on one legged bodyweight deadlifts.

Pistol Squats
That’s right, the pistol squat is such a well rounded exercise, it can fill in for both squats AND deadlifts. The pistol also requires considerable core strength (that means lower back too, not just abs!) in addition to strong glutes and hamstrings. Of course the pistol is a big time quad exercise as well – you get a lot of “bang” for your buck with pistols!

Click the link for more info on pistol squats.

Levers
There are many ways to perform lever holds and they all require a strong back, powerful core and total body control. The elbow lever is typically the easiest for beginners to start with, though the more advanced back lever is especially demanding on the posterior chain. Try pulling into a back lever from the bottom up and tell me it doesn’t feel as hard as deadlifting a bar with twice your bodyweight.

Click the link for more info on back levers.

Alternatives Rock
While exercises like pistol squats and back levers require some strength to even begin training, newcomers can start practicing one legged deadlifts and back bridges early on in their training. As you get stronger, you can add assisted pistols and modified back levers into your routine, eventually working to the full versions.

Anyone who consistently trains these four exercises will no doubt build a powerful posterior chain that any weightlifter ought to respect. And if you really love deadlifts, there’s no reason you can’t use them in addition to these other moves; it doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario. Bodyweight training and weightlifting can happily coexist in the same program.

Watch the video below for more:


For more information, check out my book, Pushing The Limits! – Total Body Strength With No Equipment.

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  • http://www.khaledallen.com/ Khaled Allen

    I was just contemplating this issue…it still seems like you need multiple exercises to replace just the one deadlift, though since they aren’t stupidly heavy, you actually could do more of them without killing yourself.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robby-Taylor/44409147 Robby Taylor

    Nice article, Al. One thing I would like to note is that once back bridges become easy, they can be made substantially more difficult without extra weight by using only one arm and the opposite leg. this creates the type of cross body tension in the one arm push up, and when both sides are trained evenly, of course, will seriously intensify the strength benefits of the exercise and, as an aside, build a good amount of balance. being upside down, it is a rather disorienting balance at first.

    Besides that, I know you personally don’t use the glute ham raise, but it is one of the most demanding exercises for the posterior chain, thus I think it would at least be worth mentioning

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    You don’t necessarily need to do all four of these to replace deadlifts in your routine. I just like to give people options.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Hey Robby – Good call on the one arm/one leg back bridge. That is one of several bridge variations that I plan to address in my next book, which will include a large section on bridging.

    As for GHRs, I dislike like that exercise for a number of reasons. It was no accident that I left it off this list.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robby-Taylor/44409147 Robby Taylor

    Ah, I see. Can you go into detail on the GHR? Now you’ve got me concerned; I’ve been using it pretty regularly but if it’s inherently unsafe perhaps I shouldn’t. I don’t feel strong enough to go into a very deep range of motion, so the range I use is rather limited. Perhaps I have not progressed to the point where I notice the things you dislike about it.

    One other point I forgot to address is the possibility of adding weight to advanced calisthenics. Essentially, traditional weight lifting exercises are actually very basic calisthenic moves that are so easy that weight must be added for substantial resistance; the clearest example of this is the squat. However, adding the same amount of weight to a pistol squat is obviously going to be far more challenging. On the extreme end of this, there is the possibility of adding weight to levers. Imagine how difficult a front lever with “just” 20 pounds in ankle weights would be!

    Also, about your new book, will the physical book and eBook be released at the same time?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robby-Taylor/44409147 Robby Taylor

    I think one thing that people overlook is that because of the range of benefits of these exercises, some of them are legitimate as a form of mobility training/warm up. I use the twist holds and back and neck bridges found in Convict Conditioning 2 as my warm up and cool down every time I do a structured workout. Additionally, I will do a set of pistol squats and an L seat at work whenever I have time (usually 3~5 sets a shift). Sure, it’s not a structured workout, but I try to conserve my energy so that I can focus my structured workouts on more advanced upper body strength training like muscle ups, handstand push ups, and lever training. This approach allows me to do that while still getting all of the benefits of “The Trifecta” and pistol squats.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Hey Robby – The hamstrings cross over two joints: the hip and the knee. The hip being the stronger and more stable of the two joints, it’s generally the main driver in most human movement patterns that involve the hamstrings. In a GHR, the knee joint takes most of the load. Long story short, I think the GHR is an unnatural and awkward movement. It’s kinda like the bodyweight equivalent of loading up a ton of weight on a leg extension machine to try to work your quads when you really ought to just squat. It puts an unnecessary stress on the tendons and ligaments surrounding the knee and doesn’t work the muscle in a way that will have much functional carryover. This is why most people, as you noted, cannot even perform the move with a full ROM.

    As for my next book, it will likely be released in Ebook format first.

    Oh, and I did a blog post about weight vest training a while back: http://www.alkavadlo.com/2011/03/weight-vest-training/

  • http://www.facebook.com/anders.gezelius.5 Anders Gezelius

    Hey Al! I´m a fan from Sweden. You are brilliant. I`ve got Trapeziusmuscles that must come from deadlifting.
    Do these exercises really have some effect on the Trapeziusmuscle?
    Have a nice day!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Anders! You can certainly work your traps without deadlifts. The back lever mentioned above will do lots for your traps, plus you also work your traps with basics like pull-ups and dips.

  • Aj Oliva

    Al, great post. The bridge is definitely a fantastic deadlift alternative, and to be quite honest I think as far as sports performance, probably better than the deadlift. What is your opinion of neck bridges?

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, AJ! I think the next bridge is a great variation for anyone who wants to give their neck extra attention. I mention the neck bridge in this post on bridging: http://www.alkavadlo.com/2011/02/back-bridges/

  • patrick

    Hey! Al Will bodyweight training can increase muscle mass?
    I would like to have muscles like hannibal for king
    What do you think he really only do bodyweight training or whether he still has to do weight training?
    Of course, I like the bodyweight training this is just a doubt. :) )
    Hannibal for king muscle looks really a bit exaggerated

  • patrick

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wy7-SO7TsoE
    This is a video of Hannibal for king

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Hey Patrick – Hannibal says he doesn’t lift weights and I have no reason to doubt that. A body like his is definitely achievable with just bodyweight training if you have the right genetics.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robby-Taylor/44409147 Robby Taylor

    Patrick, of course you have to progress to the higher level exercises, but part of it is how you structure this progression. Your muscles don’t know the difference between lifting weights and moving your bodyweight; resistance is resistance. So a lot of the same principles apply. Keeping to exercises in the 6~12 rep range will help to increase muscle mass, with weights or bodyweight training. Once they get too easy, move on to something else.

    Another part of it is diet; you have to eat enough! Al has stated in the past that he does not count calories and try to eat a certain amount of protein a day etc; he simply listens to his body and strives to eat healthy when he’s hungry (I’m sure he’ll correct me if I’m mistaken but I’m pretty sure that’s his approach), and, from what I gather, that is a large part of why Al has not bulked up like Hannibal.

    Of course, as Al pointed out, genetics also plays a role in this. There are guys that can get huge with bodyweight pull ups and dips. No extra weight, nothing too advanced, they just have proper genetics and do lots of pull ups and dips.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=831043640 Jennifer Jackson Bloom

    Could you give more detail on how & why you feel the back bridge is challenging enough to be a partial replacement for a deadlift? Particularly if you already have sufficient shoulder flexibility, at that point it really feels more like a flexibility challenge for me than a strength challenge. I can hold a back bridge for a minute easy, but I haven’t challenged my deadlift in a few years.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    If you have the strength and mobility to hold a bridge for a minute, you can progress to one leg bridges, one arm bridges and/or one arm/one leg bridges. You can also try working toward a pistol squat or back lever if you need a new challenge. It sounds like you wanna lift some weight though. I think you should deadlift if you’ve got the urge. :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=831043640 Jennifer Jackson Bloom

    I think what I want is to improve my deadlift without having to be stuck in the gym deadlifting all that often. ;-)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robby-Taylor/44409147 Robby Taylor

    I second Al’s suggestion. Firstly, the one leg/one arm back bridge is a totally different animal than the normal bridge. However, it is still much easier than the back lever. Even though there may not be a direct correlation between your deadlift and back lever strength, both exercises do provide benefits and it can only help you. As for pistol squats, not only are they a great alternative to traditional squats (pistol squats can be easily weighted and require much less weight for an equivalent strength level in the working leg relative to a 2 leg squat), but they can literally be done anywhere with absolutely no equipment!

    Besides that, you can, of course, try one legged deadlifts with some dumbbells.

  • Aaqib Chowdhury

    Hey Al, Great post :)
    As you progress with bridges, and go on to the stage where you can do 10 reps of stand to stand bridges,it must be evident that you can deadlift a respectable amount of iron,right? Now, should’nt that be the ultimate deadlift alternative? What do you think?

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Aaqib! The challenge of the stand-to-stand bridge has more to do with mobility than strength, so strength-wise, I think the back lever would do more for your deadlift. Like I said in the article though, if you want to deadlift a lot of weight, the best way to achieve that is to practice deadlifting. If you simply want to be strong, however, these exercises will do the job as far as the posterior chain is concerned.

  • Gabe

    Glute-Ham-Raises(and progressions/regressions…especially the regressions), with knees on a thick pad and a partner holding your feet down. No partner? Wedge your feet under something that isnt gonna move when most your body weight is applied to it. Great stuff, Al!

  • Gabe

    Huh, just posted about the GHR. Well, it hurts my knees if the setup is ‘off’. Ive used a GHR bench pain free but the ‘ghetto’ benchless setup can be painful. Hmmm. What about hill sprints as a replacenemt?

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Hill sprints are a great exercise! We’ll have to agree to disagree about the GHR though.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Gabe! Though I’m personally not a fan of the GHR (my rationale is explained in one of the comments below).

  • Ron

    Hey Al. I love the site and really appreciate you sharing all that you know. I was attempting to incorporate back bridges into my work out but am a little unclear on how these are intended to be done. Is it more of a hold for time kind of thing or do in reps? If it is reps, do you go all the way back down to laying on the ground? If it can be either, why would you do one over the other?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robby-Taylor/44409147 Robby Taylor

    Ron, firstly, that’s awesome that you want to do back bridges. They are one of my favorite support exercises. Bridges can either be done held isometrically for time or done concentrically for reps. Al actually demonstrates the two variations in the video at 0:25. As for doing one over the other, personally I prefer to do it as a hold for time both before and after my main workout. I simply count 20 slow breaths, then do a neck bridge for the same time. But, it’s really up to personal preference and whether or not one would fit better with your routine. If you want to do it in a workout, you may want to combine the two; do reps with a strong hold at the top of every rep for 3 deep, controlled breaths.

  • Ron

    Thanks, Robby. I have watched the video at least twice and somehow completely missed Al doing those. I really like your idea of reps with a hold at the top. Definitely going to do those tonight. Thanks again.

  • Patrick

    Would Headstand Leg Raises work the posterior chain sufficiently hard? How would they compare to some of the other exercises on here? Thanks.

  • RobbyTaylor

    The headstand leg raise (aka press to headstand) isn’t a bad exercise, as long as your neck is comfortable in a headstand. But it is rather easy and I find its benefits to be rather limited. It does not compare with the press to handstand, which requires much more work from your entire back and arms {especially the straight arm variety). Coach Sommer from Gymnastic Bodies recommends practicing the press to handstand at a wall. Keep your arms straight, press the back of your shoulders into the wall (keep your head/neck off of the wall) and do the press this way. Placing your hands closer to the wall makes the press harder. Eventually, provided you have a solid freestanding handstand, you will be able to build up to a freestanding straight arm press to handstand, which is an absolutely fantastic exercise. As for the headstand press, honestly I would rather do back bridges, and I consider the back bridge more mobility training than strength training. For posterior strength training, you definitely want to hit the back lever. Both the supinated grip back lever and the straight arm pike press to handstand are excellent exercises and extremely beneficial toward training for the planche, if that is one of your goals.

    Of the exercises Al suggested in this article, the only one that I don’t intentionally do regularly is the single leg deadlift. But, incidentally, I actually perform this movement at work many times a day. I didn’t even know it was a viable exercise until I saw a post that Al did about it!

  • Tom B-D

    Al,
    It was great to meet you in TSP on Saturday–I’ve been enjoying the Rising the Bar book and the inspiration of working out with you. Thanks for the help with the back bridge and the “help” with the handstand! Keep it up, see ya next time!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Tom! It was great meeting you too! Glad you’re enjoying the book!

  • Aragus

    You should also try these. By the way have you ever attended Ido Portal workshops, man that guy helped me tremendously.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A2xRx7dGWaE

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y7ndeehIOhU

  • http://www.goldmedalbodies.com/ Andy Fossett

    If you’ve got the equipment to do them on, those look like a really solid glute exercise. I also like glute-ham raises.

    Ido is a master (and monster) of movement for sure.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Ido is the man! I’d love to train with him if I ever get the chance.