Deadlifts are without a doubt one of the best compound exercises for recruiting muscle and building strength. The trouble with this exercise though is that to perform it you need an Olympic barbell, something not many of us have lying about at home. But, this doesn’t mean you can’t still work the same muscles that this movement uses with some other home exercises, as our expert-approved list shows.
"One of the reasons many lifters either love or loathe the deadlift is because it is such a raw test of physical and mental strength,” says Steve Chambers, a certified personal trainer and gym manager at Ultimate Performance Manchester. “It primarily works your back and entire posterior chain — specifically your calves, hamstrings, glutes and erector spinae — which is what gives our bodies a strong foundation. It's also helps burn fat and raises your metabolism. This is because muscle is metabolically active tissue and the more muscle mass you have, the more energy you burn which, in time, torches fat” says Steve.
If you don’t have access to an Olympic bar, there are plenty of moves you can do using either a pair of dumbbells, two kettlebells, or even your bodyweight, that will target similar muscle groups to the deadlift. Here's Steve's top five.
1. Split squats
Split squats are one of those torturous exercises that are also (annoyingly) so, so good for you – but at least they’re not Bulgarian split squats. They can be performed either simply using your bodyweight, or you can add a pair of dumbbells for some added resistance.
- Stand in an open space with your feet shoulder-width apart
- Place your hands on your hips and tuck your elbows in if using bodyweight. If using
- dumbbells or kettlebells, allow them to hang by your sides with the palms facing inwards.
- Step one foot backwards with your heel raised and shoe laces pointing down towards the floor
- Drop your back knee down towards the floor and drive your front knee forwards, like a static lunge
- Pause at the bottom, keeping the upper body braced and tension in your legs, then push through the front leg to return to the start position.
Targets: Quadriceps, glutes, inner thighs, calves
2. Dumbbell Romanian deadlift
These are also often performed with an Olympic barbell, but by using a pair of dumbbells, or kettlebells, you can make sure there are no muscular imbalances.
- Hold either a pair of dumbbells, or kettlebells, at hand-level in front of your body with an overhand grip, so your palms are facing you
- Stand tall with your shoulder blades tucked into your back pockets with a soft bend in your knees and your weights in front of you
- Looking at your weights, push your hips backwards and bend forwards until you feel increased tension in your hamstrings (imagine you’re trying to get your bum to touch an imaginary wall behind your)
- Lower the weights as far as you can while keeping your back straight
- Pause for a moment in the bottom position and drive your hips forwards and squeeze your glutes to return to the start position.
Targets: Hamstrings, glues, lower back, upper back
3. Renegade row
This is one of the more advanced exercises. However, it’s very effective, so try give it a go if you can. You’ll need either a pair of dumbbells (one adjustable dumbbell will also do) or two kettlebells.
- Start in a press-up position, with your hands placed directly under your shoulders and your feet hip-width apart
- Have a either a dumbbell or kettlebell in each hand with a neutral grip (palms facing inwards)
- Squeeze your abs and glutes, then slowly lift one of your hands and bring the dumbbell/kettlebell towards your chest
- Once at the top, pause for a second, trying to keep your whole body completely still, then place your weight back down on the floor
- Change hands, then repeat
Targets: Posterior chain, back, core, chest, triceps
4. Goblet/sumo squats
If you don’t like the traditional squat, then you may prefer a sumo squat, our Active Editor's favourite core exercise. You can either do these with one single dumbbell, kettlebell or using your bodyweight.
- Find your correct starting position – some people like their feet shoulder-width apart, others prefer a slightly wider stance
- With both hands, hold a dumbbell/kettlebell in front of your chest with your palms under
- the actual weight rather than holding the handle
- Keep your back straight, core engaged and chest up, then sit the hips back and bend your knees to lower into the squat position
- Aim to squat parallel to your hip crease or lower in order to fully engage the muscles of the lower body
- Keep the weight in the heels, straighten the knees and drive the hips back to the starting position, then repeat
Targets: Quads, glutes, abductors and lower back with support from calves and hamstrings
5. Kettlebell swings
As the name suggests, a kettlebell is needed for this exercise. It’s also one that many people like to do before doing a deadlift, as it works very similar muscles. We’ve got a full guide on kettlebell swings and their benefits, but here’s quick breakdown of how to do one:
- Start with a kettlebell resting on the floor in between your legs and have them a little bit over shoulder width apart
- Reach down for the kettlebell and grab it firmly with both hands and lift off of the floor
- Keep your back straight, core engaged and lift the kettlebell off the floor
- Swing it forward a bit to gather some momentum then, hinging at the hips (like with the Romanian deadlifts) swing it back between your legs
- From here, pull it up almost all the way to eye level and then pull it back down in between your legs
- Make sure your back is straight throughout the entire movement and once you’ve completed your set reps
Targets: the posterior chain, your core/abs, the upper back