Have you ever felt that pinch in the top of your hip when trying to do conventional deadlifts? It’s like the lower you try to get your hips, the more painful it gets.
Don't worry; you're not alone. While deadlifts are a fantastic exercise for building strength and muscle mass, they can sometimes lead to discomfort or pain in the hips, especially if there are underlying hip mobility issues where there’s weakness in internal rotation.
In today’s coaching, I’ll share the best alternatives for conventional deadlifts to help alleviate hip pain while still reaping the benefits of this essential exercise.
Before diving into alternatives, let's briefly cover what a deadlift is and its benefits.
WHAT IS A DEADLIFT?
A deadlift is a compound exercise that primarily targets the muscles of the posterior chain (lower body), particularly the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. It involves lifting a weight (often a standard barbell) from the ground to a standing position, focusing on hip and knee extension.
BENEFITS OF DEADLIFTING
As someone who used to experience crippling hip and low back pain, I always thought of deadlifts as some pipe dream that I would never be able to do. I still remember the feeling of deadlifting 315 lbs, which I know is not a ton of weight, but it just gave me this sense of relief, knowing that my back was not a weak link in my life, and that I wasn’t broken.
That brings me to the number 1 benefit of deadlifting, which is, it builds this tremendous amount of self confidence for the lifter. If I can deadlift, then I should never be scared of picking up my kids, heavy boxes, or just a grocery bag out of the shopping cart.
Of course that’s not the only benefit of deadlifting:
Develops strength and muscle in the glutes, hamstrings, quads, grip, upper back, and core
Can increase hip, ankle, and spinal mobility
If using light to moderate weight, can be great for increasing your heart rate in a circuit
DIFFERENT TYPES OF DEADLIFTS
Deadlifts can be done in a variety of ways while still reaping all of the benefits. Choosing which one is best for you is determined by your current hip and ankle mobility, you’re personal biomechanics (do you have longer or shorter arms/legs/torso), and which muscles you’re trying to target.
Here’s a quick rundown of the most popular deadlift variations:
Conventional Deadlift: The traditional deadlift variation where the feet are hip-width apart, and the hands grip the barbell just outside the legs. This was probably the first deadlift ever performed with a barbell.
Sumo Deadlift: In this variation, the feet are placed wider than shoulder-width apart with the hands gripping the barbell inside the legs. Depending on how wide your stance is, dictates how much mobility and inner thigh strength is required. Compared to the conventional deadlift, it does require less mobility and places less stress on the lower back.
Trap Bar Deadlift: Around the mid 1980’s a fancy new bar was created in the shape of a trapezoid, that placed significantly less stress on the lower back compared to conventional deadlifts. This version has exploded over the last 10-15 years in popularity since it requires less hip mobility and is very user friendly.
Other Deadlift Variations
Besides the three above, here are some other variations that tend to get thrown in the world of deadlifting. These don’t have all the same benefits, but they can add great value to a well rounded training program.
Romanian Deadlift (RDL): RDLs involve a slight bend in the knees and focuses on hip hinge movement while keeping the barbell close to the body. This movement has less range of motion since you’re not taking the bar all the way to the floor.
Kettlebell Swings: Swings are a great way to not only work on the hinge, but are also a fantastic way to crank up your heart rate. Much like the RDL, they don’t include much knee bend, thus placing a ton of stress on the muscles of the back side.
Cable Pull-Throughs: For those wanting to really hammer the glutes, cable pull throughs provide a unique stimulus compared to other variations. The setup utilizes the cable pulley system to keep constant tension on the glutes.
Good Mornings: Much like RDLs, good mornings are a great way to attack the posterior chain. However, since the load is now set up on the upper back much like back squat, placing more stress on the upper back muscles. Most people use this exercise as an accessory exercise to increase the strength of their deadlift.
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift: This variation is a great alternative that has a very low risk in terms of causing lower back pain. I personally use this for beginners to teach them the basics of hip hinging.
MUSCLE GROUPS WORKED IN DEADLIFTS
Deadlifts primarily target the following muscles:
Erector spinae (lower back)
THE ROLE OF HIPS IN DEADLIFTS
The hips play a crucial role in deadlifts, acting as the primary joint responsible for hip extension throughout the movement. Poor hip mobility is the number one reason why lifters develop aches, pains, and even injuries from deadlifting.
ARE DEADLIFTS BAD FOR YOUR HIPS?
Deadlifts themselves are not inherently bad for the hips. However, as mentioned above, if your hip mobility is poor, specifically internal rotation of the hip, then yes, deadlifts can be bad for your hips, especially traditional barbell deadlifts from the floor. Determining which deadlift variation is appropriate for you will ensure that these exercises can actually be beneficial.
IS IT NORMAL TO BE SORE IN THE HIPS AFTER DEADLIFTING?
Some muscle soreness in the hips after deadlifting is normal, especially if you're new to the exercise or have recently increased the intensity or volume of your training. However, persistent or severe pain is not typical and may indicate an issue that needs to be addressed.
WHY DO DEADLIFTS HURT MY HIPS?
Deadlifts can hurt your hips for several reasons, including poor form and pre-existing hip conditions, but the #1 reason I’ve found on all clients I’ve worked with, and myself, is lack of internal rotation of the hip.
When you lack internal rotation of the hip, you essentially have a lack of space inside your hip joint capsule. As your femur (thigh bone) moves up toward your chest for hip flexion (think bending over for your deadlift), the top of your femur heads travels backward getting deeper and deeper into the socket. When you run out of space, you feel a pinch in the hip. So how do we create more space? We improve our internal rotation of the hip.
Rotation of the hip requires a ton of space, but the good news is, if we can just increase our internal rotation just a little bit, you’ll see carry over to everything your hip can do. I know it sounds super simple, (because it is), but this is the key if you want hips to stop pinching.
WHAT NOT TO DO IF YOU HAVE HIP PAIN FROM DEADLIFTS
If you're experiencing hip pain from deadlifts, avoid the following:
Ignoring pain and pushing through it, as this can worsen the injury
Using excessive weight that compromises form
Neglecting mobility and flexibility work for the hips
BEST DEADLIFT ALTERNATIVE FOR HIP PAIN: RACK PULLS
The best deadlift alternative for hip pain is called rack pulls, sometimes referred to as deadlifting off blocks, and to perform them we'll pull the barbell from a higher starting point. These are effective because they eliminate how much hip flexion and internal rotation of the hip is required for pulling off of the floor.
Trust me, I’m a former meathead so I know it’s tempting to just deal with the hip pinch so you can keep deadlifting from the floor, but if you keep enduring the pinch in your hip, eventually you won’t be able to deadlift at all.
If you’ve ever taken time off from deadlifting, you know how humbling it is that first time pulling again. It’s like your body forgot what it felt like to hold heavy weights. Your grip sucks, your legs are shaking and quaking, and your head feels like it’s going to explode. However, if you continue to pull, but just from a higher platform with a rack pull, you don’t have to lose all of your gains you’ve worked so hard for. You can still reap all the benefits of deadlifts with just a small adjustment.
HOW TO PERFORM RACK PULLS
Before we get into the rack pull, we first must find out what the proper height should be for the bar in relationship to the floor by testing your hip flexion on both legs. Then we'll get into the actual exercise.
Step #1: Test Your Hip Flexion
When testing how much hip flexion you currently have, you’re going to want to test this with both legs, and then use whichever side has less hip flexion, and that’s the range we’re going to work from in the rack pull.
Standing straight up, without moving your torso, slowly lift one knee up towards your chest.
Determine how high your leg is before feeling the pinch, and then repeat for the other side.
The spot just below where you start feeling a pinch on the worse leg is the angle we’ll use when deadlifting.
See also: How to Test Your HIp Health
Step #2: Perform the Rack Pull
Load the bar with a light weight, and place either blocks or plates under the plates on the bar until you’ve reached a bar height that you do not feel a pinch in your hips when setting up your deadlift.
Turning your feet out and slightly pushing the knees apart will allow you to get a little lower.
Be conservative on your depth to make sure you feel ZERO pinching in the hip.
Deadlift like usual and get all the gains!
TIPS FOR MANAGING HIP PAIN
As I mentioned above, if you’re feeling a pinch in your hip when deadlifting we need to work on your internal rotation. A great place to get started is by addressing internal rotation head on with the video, which is a fan favorite: Best Exercise to Relieve Hip Impingement
In addition to addressing internal rotation, here are some other tips to alleviate hip pain:
Be assessed by a licensed practitioner: Sometimes internal rotation is not the only culprit when it comes to hip issues.
Continue to work on all forms of hip mobility: Here’s a great hip class to get you started: 20 Minute Hip Mobility Routine
Work with a personal trainer or strength coach: Build a well rounded strength training routine customized to your current needs.
Other Resources for Relieving Hip Pain:
If you want to really go deep down the rabbit hole of everything hips, here are some resources to get you started.
In conclusion, experiencing hip pain during deadlifts doesn't mean you have to avoid this powerhouse of an exercise altogether. By understanding the underlying causes of hip pain and incorporating suitable alternatives and strategies, you can continue to make progress in your strength training journey while keeping your hips happy and healthy.
WANT PAIN-FREE HIPS?
If you want the full system to unlock tight, sticky hips, then I’d definitely recommend checking out the Healthy Hips 10 Day Challenge where you get step-by-step instruction on what to do and when. Hope to see you inside!
ABOUT COACH MATT PIPPIN
Matt is a Strength and Mobility Coach with over 15 years experience in his field and has coached over a thousand professional, collegiate and everyday athletes with the goal to help them move, feel and perform at their highest level. He's incredibly passionate about bringing simple and effective online mobility training programs to everyone who wants to take control of their self care and make lasting change. CLICK HERE to learn more.
NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
Level 3: Fascial Stretch Specialist
Level 1: Institute of Motion Health Coach
Certified FRC Mobility Specialist (FRCms)
Level 1 Kinstretch Instructor
Weck Method Qualified