4 Exercises Better Than the Deadlift
Think traditional barbell deadlifts are tops for adding strength and muscle? Here are four variations that can make big improvements to your physique and help you pack on pounds
By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
If you’ve been around the gym long enough you’re bound to agree that the deadlift is arguably one of the toughest — and best — full-body exercises you can perform. Perhaps the proof is seen less in how many different muscle groups it works and more in how few people actually train with it from one week to the next. Let’s be honest, it’s brutal and more rare than it should be.
But can you improve on something that’s already near perfect? If you’re either a faithful deadliftee or someone who’s tried it only a few times, you might be pleased to know that there are some variations of the conventional deadlift — each with its own benefits that in some cases make them better than the original — that can fit nicely into anybody’s routine.
We’ve assembled four exercises that are variations of the basic deadlift that all have the essential elements of the dead but with striking differences. Because the deadlift is a full-body move, being as much of a press as it is a pull, you can insert these variations into a mixed routine that hits different bodyparts on the same day.
1. One-Arm Dumbbell Deadlift
The obvious place to start when talking about great alternatives to the barbell deadlift is with dumbbells, or more precisely, just one. But before you allow your eyes to drift to No. 2 on the list, we strongly encourage you to keep reading. In fact, picture a strongman competition and the farmer’s walk.
Someone probably named Magnus stands inside two torpedoes with handles. He squats down, keeping his feet flat, abs in, back flat and belt strapped tight. He stands up with both and proceeds to walk up and back along the course. Well, just imagine that same scene but with Magnus needing to pick up only one from the floor. The same form is necessary as the two-handed version, but imagine the stress and strain on the opposite side of the body along with the working side as they both work to lift the weight. Welcome to the one-arm dumbbell deadlift.
The single-arm deadlift has its advantages, because with few exceptions, you can produce more force on each side of the body than you can produce when using both sides together. Not only that, but the resting side of the body receives nervous stimulation as increased blood flow heads to the opposite side. And while the next point isn’t sexy, the single-arm deadlift will stress the core musculature beyond belief, making you stronger for the conventional deadlift, not to mention all other exercises in your weekly routine.
Be sure to give yourself ample rest between each side, taking 2–3 minutes between sets. Lastly, from one workout to the next, begin with the opposite side than you began with in the previous workout.
START: Stand with your feet spaced about shoulder-width apart. Place a dumbbell on the floor outside one foot. Squat down to grasp the dumbbell with a neutral grip, keeping your back flat, chest up and eyes focused on the floor a few feet in front of you.
EXECUTION: Take a deep breath as you begin powerfully pressing through the floor with your legs, extending at the knees and hips and pulling the dumbbell up until you’re in a standing position. A slight lean away from the dumbbell side at the top is natural and recommended. Reverse the motion along the same path, allowing the dumbbell to settle on the floor before starting the next rep.