You want to improve your deadlift but you haven’t seen a lifting platform in months. You’re near panic mode, and I feel you. But you don’t have to completely despair — sure, it’ll take time to get back into the swing of your barbell game once your gym re-opens, but until then, you can definitely improve your deadlift without weights.
Does this mean that you’ll be able to have an instantly higher 1RM upon returning to the gym? Hell no. Your body will have to readjust to the mechanical stressors that a barbell brings, and that’ll take time. It will require a lot of patience with yourself and your body.
Fortunately, by taking time to use your own bodyweight to hone your deadlift techniques, your body and mind will be much better prepared to step back on the platform and pull with better form than you might have had before.
Deadlift Muscles To Target
Yes, you’re immediately thinking about your glutes and hamstrings — and so you should be. You’re also thinking about your erector spinae, and you’re right to do so. You need to be able to hold a solid brace during your lift, and you’re not going to be able to do that without working on solid, 360-degree core strength. It’ll also help you (like, a lot) to learn how to activate your lats powerfully and on command.
Bodyweight exercises can help you do all of these things, strengthening both your muscles and your mind-muscle connections so that when you get back to the platform, you’ll be able to get back into pulling with smoother transitions and better full body integration. What does that mean? No more accidental yanking with your lower back, and no more unnecessary force leakages that will interfere with maximizing your deadlift potential.
If you don’t have any weights around, you can program these movements into the days that you would normally program your deadlifts. If you do have weights, you can still integrate these exercises into your existing routine — figure out where your sticking points are, and make sure those moves work their way into your program. Generally, if a move feels super challenging… it means there’s something in there you need to work on. Maybe it’s hip mobility or hamstring strength (or both). Whatever it is, these exercises will help you find it and address it, all in the name of getting you higher deadlift numbers in the future.
Like this, but with your spine more parallel with the floor.
1. Deadlift Reverse Fly
- Assume a conventional deadlift stance and hinge at the hips.
- Aim to get your (neutral) back as close to parallel with the ground as you can.
- While you’re doing so, squeeze your shoulder blades together and your elbows back like they’re trying to touch each other behind you. Essentially, you’re marrying a deadlift and a reverse fly.
- Keep tension throughout your body as though you were doing this with weights. For an added bonus, do this on a single leg (so it becomes a single-leg deadlift with reverse flys).
- Just make sure you keep everything even and your spine neutral. Regardless of your leg position, make sure you’re really focusing on activating through your lats, opening up through your chest, throughout your reps.
Training Recommendation: 4×12 (per side if applicable), 30-second rest
2. Tripod Torso Rotation
- Sit on your butt with your knees bent and your feet planted on the floor in front of you, about hip-width apart.
- Place your hands behind you, just outside your hips, with your fingers facing away from your body.
- Adjust so you’re in a position where you can comfortably (no shoulder pain, people) push your hips off the ground, raising them as high as you can.
- Once you find stability here, turn yourself into a tripod — raise your right arm off the ground, reach up over and your body, and then tuck your right arm back down underneath your left side. Give your T-spine a nice stretch, then open your chest on the way back. Switch hands, re-stabilize, and repeat with your left arm.
Training Recommendation: 4×8 per side, 45-second rest
Like this, but in a tabletop position
3. T-Spine Tabletop Crunches
You’re still going to get into opening your T-spine here — necessary for activating your lats powerfully enough during heavy deadlifts — but instead, you’re going to start in regular tabletop position.
- Your hands should be directly under your shoulders, and your knees, under your hips.
- Raise your right hand and bring your knuckles to your temple. Use your core, not your arm or neck, to extend up toward your right side — your right elbow should be reaching toward the ceiling, and try to gaze past it to increase the stretch.
- This will strengthen you core, too, as you work to keep your hips steady and the rest of your body still, with the only movement coming from your T-spine.
- Crunch back down so your right elbow reaches under your body toward your left elbow, again keeping your hips squared and as unmoving as possible.
- Switch sides and repeat.
Training Recommendation: 4×15 per side, 30-second rest
4. Prone Shoulder Presses
- Lie on your stomach with your spine neutral (forehead facing the ground).
- Bring your hands next to your shoulders with your elbows tucked in alongside your rib cage.
- Squeeze your glutes and drive the tops of your feet down into the floor as you peel your arms and chest off the ground.
- Once you’ve reached extension (but not hyperextension), squeeze your shoulder blades back behind you, imagining your elbows trying to touch.
- Keeping that tension, straighten your arms until they’re supermanned out in front of you, like you’re flying.
- Slowly bring them back down by pulling your elbows back to your shoulder blades.
- Let your chest sink back to the ground. Then do another rep.
Training Recommendation: 4×15 reps, 45-second rest
5. Scapular Wall Slides
- Find a blank wall and stand in front of it with your heels as close to the wall as you feel comfortable with.
- Adjust your foot position as much as you need to accommodate your body shape, and tuck your tailbone in so that you’re pressing your low back into the wall (this will help engage your core and protect your low back from accidentally hyperextending).
- Keep this tension, but stand tall.
- Raise your hands with your palms facing in front of you so your hands are next to your shoulders.
- Slowly and with control, drag your hands and arms up along the wall until they reach full extension (like you’re doing a dumbbell press).
- Slide back down, and repeat.
Training Recommendation: 4×20 reps, 45-second rest
[Related: 10 exercises for stronger, healthier scaps]
6. Single-Leg Deadlift Into Knee Raise
- Get into your single-leg deadlift stance — a bit narrower than your conventional stance probably is.
- Brace your core and root down through your right leg.
- Extend your arms out in front of you at the same time as you raise your leg left out behind you, trying to straighten your knee if you can.
- Imagine trying to create a straight line from the tips of your fingers through the tips of your toes. Feel free to keep a soft bend in your right knee as you extend.
- Slowly come out of the extended position, then — for an extra hip mobility and balance challenge — raise your left knee toward your chest.
- Then begin again. Do all your reps on one side before switching.
Training Recommendation: 4×15 per side, 30-second rest
7. Glute Bridge
- Lie on your back with your hands resting by your hips, palms up.
- Bend your knees and plant your feet into the ground, about hip-width.
- Squeeze your glutes and drive down with your feet, raising your hips as high as you can.
- Hold at the top for a moment before slowly descending and repeating.
- With each rep, try to increase your range of motion just a little bit.
Training Recommendation: 4×20, 30-second rest
8. Four-Figure Hip Lifts
- Remain on your back and cross your left ankle over your right leg (so that your right knee is bent, with your right foot on the floor).
- Square your hips, then squeeze your glutes so that you complete another hip lift — but this time, you’ll also be opening up through your left hip (while strengthening your right) because of the unilateral nature of the move.
- Complete all reps on one side and then switch.
Training Recommendation: 4×15 per side, 30-second rest
9. Side-Lying Hip Circles
These are going to look easy, but they’re going to feel like hell.
- Lie on your left side (hence the side-lying bit), with your head resting comfortably on your left arm.
- Make sure your body is in a straight line from your head to toes, and stack your right leg on top of your left.
- Pull the toes of your right foot toward your shin, and simultaneously pull them down toward the ground (so both down and up).
- Maintaining this foot position, create small forward circles with your leg, keeping it as straight as possible.
- Keep the same discipline when you switch sides.
Training Recommendation: 4×30 seconds per side, 45-second rest
10. Reverse Lunge Reaches
- Sink into a reverse lunge with your right leg behind you.
- Press your hip forward and use your right arm to reach up above you and toward your left side.
- Stay strong and balanced throughout the move, which will help you coordinate upper and lower body while giving you more strength and stability through your hips and lats. That’s exactly what you need in a deadlift.
- Make sure you keep it even on both sides, as always.
Training Recommendation: 4×12 per side, 30-second rest
11. Cat Cows
Again, these might not look like much, but they’ll get your back used to doing what you tell it to, following along with your breath — and syncing up your erector spinae with your breath is just what your deadlift requires.
- Get into a tabletop position with your hands under your shoulders and your knees under your hips.
- With a big inhale, make yourself into a bowl, curving your stomach down toward the ground and letting your head loop up at the ceiling.
- On your exhale, wave your spine up toward the ceiling, like a freaked out cat.
- If you want to feel your stretch strengthening your body even deeper, pull your hands toward your knees while you’re in cow pose (of course, don’t actually move them). This will engage your lats even harder, which is exactly what you want.
Training Recommendation: 4×10 cycles, 30-second rest
12. Table Top Frog Kicks
- Stay in tabletop position and find a neutral spine.
- Press down into the ground with your hands and your left knee and foot.
- Without leaning toward your left side, raise your right knee off the ground.
- Bring your knee toward your chest, then — keeping both your ankle and knee as high as you can without tilting to the left — draw a circle with your knee, drawing it away from your chest and away from your body, until it tucks back under your tabletop again.
- Reverse the movement (start your circle by kicking your heel up behind you rather than by bringing your knee to your chest).
- Don’t forget to do both sides.
Training Recommendation: 3×5 (both forward and back, on both sides), 30-second rest
13. Bird Dogs
Again with tabletop position — but hey, it’s important for building all that core stability you need for a stronger deadlift.
- This time, peel your right hand and left leg off the ground at the same time.
- Extend your arm out in front of you and your leg back behind you, really trying to touch the opposite walls with your fingertips and your heel.
- Maintaining core integrity, bring your knee and elbow to touch (or toward each other) underneath your chest.
- Extend out again, then switch sides.
Training Recommendation: 4×10 per side, 30-second rest
14. Dead Bugs
While I prefer to think of them as alive bugs (if they were, alas, dead, the poor little guys wouldn’t be moving), these are great for core stability and full-body integration.
- Lie on your back and bend your knees above you, raising your feet off the floor so your shins are roughly parallel with the ground.
- Raise your arms toward the ceiling.
- Send your left leg and left arm out at the same time (similar to how you did with the bird dogs).
- When they both return to center after full extension, repeat on your right side.
Training Recommendation: 4×15 per side, 45-second rest
[Related: 3 core blasting dead bug variations]
15. Reverse Crunch
- Once again, start on your back with your knees raised and your shins roughly parallel to the floor.
- Focusing on using your core, not your legs, let your feet dip down toward the ground, then use your core to bring your knees back up and — if you can — peel your glutes off the floor.
- Rinse and repeat.
Training Recommendation: 4×40 seconds, 40-second rest
16. Single-Leg Toe Touches
- Stay on your back with a soft bend in your left knee (with your left foot on the floor).
- Raise your right leg completely off the ground, with your heel trying to reach the sky.
- Peel your left shoulder off the ground to touch your right toes (or ankle, or shin).
- Do this without jerking your neck forward, reaching with your arms, or using momentum.
- Switch sides when you’ve completed the allotted time on one side.
This kind of core stability will come in very handy when working with especially heavy deadlift loads.
Training Recommendation: 4×30 seconds per side, 30-second rest
17. Plank Saws
- Get into a forearm plank position, with your forearms parallel to each other and your palms under your shoulders and pressed onto the floor.
- Rock forward on your toes — without arching your back or hips — and complete the “saw” movement by pulling forward on your forearms so your shoulders extend past your hands.
- “Saw” back and forth with your tailbone tucked toward the ceiling, and breathe through the whole exercise.
Training Recommendation: 4×30 seconds, 45-second rest
18. High Plank Shoulder Taps
- This time, start in a high plank position, with your palms on the ground under your shoulders.
- Imagine you’re balancing a bowl of soup on the small of your back — try not to shift your hips, not letting the soup spill.
- Slowly peel your right hand off of the ground, maintaining stillness in your hips as you tap your left shoulder with your right hand.
- Hover for a moment, then return your right hand to the ground. Repeat with your left hand to your right shoulder.
Training Recommendation: 4×40 seconds, 45-second rest
19. Forearm Plank Alternating Leg Lifts
- Back to forearm planks you go.
- This time, you’re going to hold the pose relatively statically. Only your legs will be moving, but your goal is to keep the rest of your body so still that if someone couldn’t see your legs, they would think your whole body is motionless. That kind of stiffness will serve you well in your deadlift, and so will the strength in your hips you’ll need for the next step.
- Instead of tapping your shoulders, you’re doing to slowly lift one leg up (keeping your knee straight), then back down, and repeat on the other side.
- Your glutes, hips, core, and lats (to keep your upper body stable) will all need to work together to pull this off — just like in a deadlift.
20. Pendulum Legs
- Finally, you want to make sure you’re developing core strength in multiple planes. So, you’re going to turn your legs into pendulums or windshield wipers.
- With your hands planted firmly at your sides or just under your outer glutes, raise your legs (straight) to about 60-degree angle off the ground.
- Find that sweet spot where you feel your core engaging in maintaining the position right away. It’s different for everyone, so start around 60 and play around until you find yours.
- Once you do, cue the pendulum — with control, keep your legs together as you sweep them first toward the ground on your left side, then toward the ground on your right.
- Keep your hips and shoulders square on the ground.
Training Recommendation: 4×30 seconds, 60-second rest
More Than Glutes And Hamstrings
Yes, you definitely want to keep your glutes and hamstrings super powerful for your deadlift. But you also need to be actively engaging your core and your lats in training, and that’s what these moves will allow you to do. Full body integration is what you’re going for, and you can build that kind of integration with bodyweight moves super well, so that your deadlift mechanics can start to improve even if you’re not around a barbell.
Featured image via Maridav/Shutterstock