Barbell Substitutes – Series 1 – Deadlifts Edition

Using a barbell for weight training is a staple for a lot of people, but what if you don’t have access to one? Or maybe you’re a little timid about getting underneath a barbell, especially if you don’t have a spotter. Can you still have an effective workout routine?

Well of course you can!

This is the first of a series I will do to show you barbell substitutes using bodyweight, dumbbells, resistance bands and suspension trainers to allow you to target a muscle group without the use of a barbell.

No matter what you hear from the “Bro” in the gym, you can get a good workout with out access to a barbell. You just have to find barbell substitutes that you are able to perform and give you the same type of workout. That isn’t always an easy task though, so follow along with the series and learn how to get the most out of your workouts.


The series will start with Deadlift substitutes. Deadlifts are a great exercise that help develop strength in the hamstrings, glutes, quads, traps, upper back and low back, but they are a very technical exercise that if done wrong can cause injury.

Let’s take a look at barbell substitutes that will allow you to target those same muscle groups.

Dumbbell Deadlift

Probably the most obvious choice for a barbell substitute is a dumbbell deadlift. The biggest limitation of this exercise will be the size of dumbbells you have available. Like a barbell deadlift this is a technical lift and you should be certain you are using the proper technique and have perfect form.

Stand with your feet hip width apart, holding a set of dumbbells in front of your hips with your palms facing you. Keep your core tight and your shoulder blades squeezed together, hinge at the hip first and then at the knees as you lower the dumbbells along the front of your legs until they are just touching the top of your feet. Then drive through the mid-foot as you return to a standing position while keeping the dumbbells on the front of your legs throughout the movement.

Bent Over Rows

Bent over rows are a great barbell substitute to work your back muscles that can be performed with dumbbells, a kettle bell or even a resistance band. If using a resistance band stand on the middle of it while holding a handle in both hands, or grab a pair of dumbbells or single kettle-bell. With your legs slightly bent, keep your back perfectly straight and bend your upper body until it’s almost perpendicular to the floor. From this position with arms hanging straight down pull your elbows back as far as possible on either side of your body, squeeze your shoulder blades together before lowering the weights in a controlled manner back to the starting position.

This can be performed as a single arm exercise as well but make sure to brace your opposite hand on a surface in front of you and keep both feet on the floor. There is a popular variation where you will see someone plant one knee on a bench, this is not a good position to do this exercise because your spine is not in a good position for a heavy pulling movement and it could cause an injury.

Single Leg Hip Thrusts

This is my favorite exercise for blasting the glutes and hamstrings, and it can easily be done as a barbell substitute with any heavy weight or resistance band. Sit on the floor with your back against a bench and a heavy dumbbell or kettle-bell on your pelvis. If you are using a resistance band you will need to anchor it to the bench on either side of your body and have it go across your pelvis. Bend your knees, and plant one foot flat on the floor directly under your knee while holding the other leg straight. Now thrust your hips up and squeeze your glute on the planted foot side as hard as you can. Slowly lower your butt back to the floor while keeping tension on your glutes and hamstrings.

Engaging the glutes for some, is one of the hardest muscles to target, if you haven’t read my my post on fitness tips where I discuss the mind muscle connection you can check it out here. To help target the right muscle groups during this exercise imagine you are trying to pull your feet in under your body as you drive the weight up.

Single Leg Romanian Deadlift

Single leg exercises are great to improve balance as well as work on any strength or mobility imbalances the body might have. Most people have a dominant side of their body that isn’t as easily noticed with exercises where both sides of the body are working together.

To perform this exercise you can use any pair of dumbbells or single kettle-bell for a one handed option, you can also use a resistance band anchored low and in front of your body. Start with your feet shoulder width apart and knees slightly bent and lift the foot opposite the hand you are holding the weight in so your foot is just hovering above the floor. Flex the knee on the leg you are standing on and engage your glutes. Then without changing the bend in your knee and keeping a naturally arched back hinge at the hip as you lower the weight forward until your torso is parallel to the floor. Then engage your glutes while driving your hips forward as you stand back up to the starting position, try to keep your balance and don’t set your other foot on the ground. Complete all the reps for one leg before moving on to the second leg.

Glute Ham Raise

The glute ham raise (GHR) is one of the most popular posterior chain exercises in the lifting world, it effectively strengthens the hamstrings at both the knee and hip joint by working its two primary functions, knee flexion and hip extension.

The exercise works best with a glute ham developer which is a fantastic piece of equipment to have in a home gym and can be used for several core exercises as well as posterior chain workouts. There are alternative ways to perform a GHR if you don’t have the space for one in your home though, you will need something that you are able to hook your feet under behind you while kneeling on the floor.

From a kneeling position or with your feet hooked in the GHD and your knees just behind the half moon pad, slowly lower your torso toward the floor while keeping your back straight. Pause when you are parallel to the floor and then squeezing the glutes and hamstrings pull your torso back up to the starting position. Try to keep your feet straight and stop the heels from turning inward as you perform this exercise, this will keep the focus on the hamstrings and glutes.

Cable Pull Through

If you have access to a low cable or a resistance band with a low anchor point the cable pull through is a great barbell substitute to target the posterior chain. Stand facing away from the cable with it running between your legs and hold it with both hands. Keep your knees slightly bent and hinge at the hips as you lean your torso forward until it is parallel with the floor. Pause at the bottom and then engage the glutes as you drive your hips forward to stand back up to the starting position.

Inverted Row

You will need a body weight trainer or even a sturdy table that will support your weight and you can lay under to perform an inverted row. Now lay on the floor under the trainer straps and grab them with palms facing inward, keep your body rigid and your heels planted on the ground, activate your lats as you pull your body up until your elbows are behind you on either side. Hold at the top while squeezing your shoulder blades together before slowly lowering yourself back down until your arms are straight. To make this exercise easier you can raise the handles and take a step backward so your body is more vertical.

Stay tuned for Series 2 where I will cover barbell substitutes for the bench press. Let me know if there are any other barbell exercises you would like me to cover in another series.

What is your favorite barbell substitute for the deadlift?

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2 thoughts on “Barbell Substitutes – Series 1 – Deadlifts Edition”

  1. Hi Tyler,

    I appreciate this post where you explain and show exercises and substitute tools we can use if we don’t have access to a barbell.
    I like the idea to use a kettlebell since I am a beginner in terms of weight exercise. I think kettlebell can help me to build my power endurance, burn fat, and get strong. So, when the time comes for me to get barbells, I will have built a great endurance to guarantee better growth and progression with barbells.
    Do you think the dumbbell deadlift exercise is okay to do if I have mild backache?

    Thanks in advance for your response. I have bookmarked your site for future reference.


    • Hey Ferra,

      If you are using proper form a deadlift should not cause or add to back pain, if you have a medical issue then I would speak to a doctor about doing them first though.


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