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A friend is starting to work out with me. Normally we would deadlift, squat, and do upper-body pushes and pulls. However, my friend seems to lack the requisite flexibility for a full range of motion deadlift.

We're using standard-diameter bumper plates on a 45-pound Olympic bar. Gripping the bar causes either a rounded lumbar spine or a deadlift-grip squat, where the bar makes an S-curve around the knee. Neither of these are ideal.

What exercise can we substitute that will progress to a regular deadlift? We're looking for an increase in flexibility and heavy loading (akin to a deadlift) in the meantime.

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Elliot Hulse seminar video on coaching the deadlift on trainees with tight hamstrings. He touches on several of the solutions here: blocks, sumo deadlifts. –  Dave Liepmann Dec 14 '13 at 13:09
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4 Answers 4

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You could start your deadlifts with the bar elevated higher off the ground - either on the lowest rack setting, or with the barbell-loaded plates resting on a stack of horizontal plates.

Pavel Tsatsouline advocates this approach in Power to the People, saying that it used to be called the "health lift".

I found that squatting under heavy weights quickly increased my hamstring flexibility.

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Not everyone is built for conventional deadlifts. Whether it's due to flexibility issues, or simply the geometry of how they are built, crouching down into a conventional deadlift start position is just not working. A common group of people that fall into this category are folks with long legs. Another common group would be folks with short arms. Put them together, and you have a big problem.

The best alternative I've seen is the Sumo Deadlift.

  • Start with your feet spread wide
  • Reach down between your legs to grab the bar
  • Stand

You can see another article about it here.

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I've considered Romanian deadlifts. Since they start at the top and only go down as far as the hamstrings allow, the height issue is avoided.

While they don't allow for heavy loads like the sumo deadlift or raised-platform deadlifts, I have found that they rapidly improve hamstring flexibility (and strength, too).

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First of all I think that there isn't a flexibility issue for the most part of the athletes. It's a functional pattern problem of how to use the hips correctly and keep the back flat. I mainly use RDL for my leg workouts beneath front squats. For the flexibility issue I recommend rack pulls to get the feeling and dynamic warmup routines before starting working out. –  mchlfchr Nov 29 '13 at 9:39
    
@mchlfchr That's true of many athletes, but not for myself (a programmer/athlete) nor for the friend who was working out with me (a non-athlete). I'm a big fan of RDLs now! I still haven't worked much with rack pulls. –  Dave Liepmann Nov 29 '13 at 9:58
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I am now of the opinion that for novices lacking strength and mobility, the deadlift should be replaced by bodyweight work. In order, the trainee should prove they are able to do:

  1. Supermans, to demonstrate and develop control over the erector spinae, then...
  2. Unweighted back extensions (if one has or can make the equipment), for hypertrophy, endurance, and strength in the glutes, hamstrings, erector spinae and so on -- starting with sets of 8-12, moving on when the trainee can do 3 sets of 12 without more than a minute or two rest between sets, then...
  3. Weighted back extensions - three sets of 8-20, starting with ~10 pounds and moving on when able to do sets of ~50, then...
  4. Romanian deadlifts, to practice the hinge movement while bracing the spine against an external load through the greatest possible range of motion for that trainee -- once significant flexibility has been reached here, the trainee can move on to the main event...
  5. Deadlifts!

Once the trainee is comfortable with this exercise using greater than bodyweight loads for sets of 5, it's a good time to introduce Olympic movements like the power clean.

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