I’ve read in many different fitness articles and books stating that deadlifts should be a staple of any good strength training program. However, I have found that they are very difficult for some of my clients to correctly execute. Also, I work with a lot of people aged 50 and up, and many of them have back issues that deadlifts and good mornings exacerbate. Are there comparable exercises I can give my clients in lieu of deadlifts and/or good mornings that will accomplish the same thing?
You’re right that the deadlift is a key lift (perhaps one of the most “functional,” if we must use that term) that provides many benefits. The deadlift is one of three lifts contested in the competitive sport of powerlifting.
But, first let’s be sure we’re talking the same thing.
The deadlift, originally known at the “dead weight lift” since it resembles picking up a dead weight (as in corpse), is a total body lift that involves simply picking up a barbell from a resting position on the ground. The lifter’s arms remain straight, the torso flat and rigid (“neutral” spine), and the lifting is done with the lower body. At completion of the concentric portion of the lift, the lifter’s body is perpendicular to the ground, the bar resting along the front of the thighs. Lowering the weight is done in an identical but reversed fashion, so the deadlift is not unlike squatting with the weight in your hands.
With the torso locked into a rigid posture, all of the so-called core muscles are engaged isometrically, as they are designed to function. Specific muscle activation is noted in the quadriceps, gluteals, the spinal erectors and muscles of the forearms. Properly performed, the deadlift is a great once-a-week exercise for nearly any training program.
It mimics the proper, or recommended, way to pick up a heavy or awkward load, (i.e., with the back flat and the lower body serving as the primary mover). While this makes the deadlift highly functional, it also presents some challenges.
Many people cannot get in the correct starting position, due mostly to flexibility issues or lack of body awareness. This can be corrected over time, but it does present another challenge for the personal trainer. So, while the exercise has lots to offer, it is not one that can automatically be placed in everyone’s program.
Stiff Leg Deadlift (SLDL)
As an advanced exercise variation, and to further confuse the exercise lexicon, we have the stiff leg deadlift. The SLDL is performed with a slight bend in the knees, rather than a heavy dependence on the lower body to elevate the weight. The safest and most recommended way to do SLDL is with a neutral spine, flexing the torso forward at the hip joint. Raising the bar from the floor is done primarily by hip extension, which is accomplished mostly by the hamstrings.
Although this is the most common and safest way to do the stiff leg deadlift, there are a few other varieties. Using the same rigid but slightly flexed knee, some people do not keep a neutral spine but instead flex the spine forward, rounding the back. Rounded back lifters often stand on an elevated surface, aiming to increase their range of motion by allowing the weights to descend lower than if standing on the ground. There are lots of reasons to avoid this version, especially for those with a history of back problems.
Similarly, both the flat and rounded back stiff leg deadlift have been performed with the knees locked. This is usually referred to as the straight leg deadlift. It’s hard to find anyone today who recommends the locked knee, rounded back SLDL, but there are probably a few holdouts who still think this is safe. If you were going to train the SLDL, I’d certainly suggest you do this in the recommended, conventional manner.
You mention the good morning exercise. The good morning, named after a gentleman’s action of removing his hat, bending at the waist and offering up a “good morning” to the ladies, is quite similar to the SLDL. The key difference is that the barbell in held in position on the upper back, as in the squat. The good morning should also be considered an advanced exercise, not one for beginners.
As in the SLDL, the good morning can be executed with slightly flexed or locked knees and with either a flat (neutral) or flexed torso/spine. But keep in mind that the barbell is no longer close to the body’s area of balance as one flexes forward. The weight tends to go forward of the feet, whereas in the SLDL the bar remains close to the shins while both lowering and raising the weight. Bending forward in this position is riskier, and bending forward with a flexed spine is not recommended.
Performing either the SLDL or the good morning with slightly flexed knees and a flat torso provides the lower back with a great deal of isometric muscle activation and stimulates the hamstrings. But again, these are not beginner exercises. Depending on your clients and their specific back issues, either of these exercises may be too dangerous to suggest. On the other hand, as they gain benefits from your training, these exercises may have a place in their training continuum, but further down the road.
But your specific question sought an alternative to any form of deadlift or good morning.
The answer to your question is some form of back extension. With a healthy spine, you can probably tackle the full range of motion back extension. This is most easily performed on an elevated bench, such as a generic back extension bench that holds the knees fully extended. Don’t confuse this with the standing, angled bench that allows the lifter to bend forward while standing, as in a good morning.
The back extension is an isolated, single joint movement that highlights the spinal erector muscles. It’s best to maintain a neutral spine throughout the entire range of motion, provided your client’s flexibility allows this. Don’t forget, just like any other exercise, after the initial break-in period with a new exercise, be sure to use progressive resistance and add external weight to the movement. I find it best to invert with no additional resistance, then pick up a weight plate from the floor and place it behind the head. Return the weight to the floor before finishing the final extension and dismounting the apparatus.
For those with a history of back problems, it’s a good idea to start more conservatively. A “bird dog” exercise (see Stuart McGill’s Low Back Disorders or Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance for details) is an easy way to get those with little low back fitness to activate the spinal erector muscles. After success with the bird dog, a prone back extension (hands alongside hips) may be utilized. Over time, the added resistance of placing the hands behind the neck will be helpful. Finally, you might then proceed into the so-called “superman” position with both feet and hands elevated from a prone posture.
Depending on your clients and what they present, there are many ways to train and strengthen the lower back. Start conservatively but progress steadily. I depend heavily on the back extension for most athletes I train, unless they are strength/power athletes, in which case back extensions, SLDL, good mornings, snatches and cleans all factor into the annual plan.