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  • Garrett Nicole Wood

6 Exercises for a Pain-Free Deadlift

Today's blog post comes from a good friend and exceptionally talented fitness coach Garrett Nicole Wood. She comes from to us from Boston by way of Chicago - loves to powerlift, competes in Bikini - and is an inspiration to so many clients!

I did an interview with her on this site just a few weeks ago - which you can read right here.

You can find her at her site - Crossroads of Fitness.

Ok - let's do this.

(*Passes Microphone to Garrett*)

As a woman who has taken roughly three years to grow comfortable in the weight room, it goes without saying that finding what lifts work best for me has been a process.

I wasn’t always comfortable in the free weight area of the gym.

I worried that men would look at me funny.

I worried I wasn’t fit enough to be in the gym.

I worried that I was doing it all wrong.

However, after working with some really great coaches, experimenting with programs on my own and simply daring to stick it out in weight rooms full of men, I can safely say that I’ve become an efficient lifter and even a competitive powerlifter.

Now my guy friends from high school and college (even some D1 athletes) are reaching out to me wondering:

What set/rep schemes should I do?

What’s the best leg workout?

How much weight should I use?

Do you do back and bis together or chest and back?

I laughed at the latter question because I am a tiny blonde girl…. what do I know?

Just kidding, I know a lot more than you might think.

I now realize that after being an SFG Level I, a competitive powerlifter, a runner-up in an NPC bikini competition and an NSCA-PT that my experience has given me more knowledge than most of my strong male friends who used to lift for fun.

Just last fall I brought my BFF from third grade into the weight room with me. He hung out on the bench where he felt most confident; but I saw his eyes wander…

And I am not talking about wandering eyes in a sexual way either.

He was legitimately curious about how I was front squatting 125 pounds (at 112 bodyweight) without pain…after all he has been fighting back issues since he herniated a disc when we were in 8th grade.

However, he knows that I also suffered herniated discs, (three of of them) in high school.

My strong back baffled him.

He approached the bar to try a set after me. He could only do one rep… and that was after I lowered the weight to 95 pounds.

He is 6’ 3” and 185. He told me it hurt him to get low.

I asked him to show me a bodyweight squat. That hurt too.

And to think he had recently been deadlifting...

That day I didn't pressure him into any big lifts, but instead I took him through some very key mobility drills. What I showed him inspired him enough to reach out to me for a strength training program the very next month.

I am going to teach you six movements my women clients do that you should be doing too. Do these six exercises consistently and you will be back to deadlifting and squatting without pain in no time.

The side effects on your physique won’t be so bad either…

This article was not only inspired by my BFF from third grade but also all of the men I know (*cough,* my father) who don’t take time to train lower body….

The men who have spent spent years doing chin-ups and push-ups, chest pressing/benching and doing bicep curls…. they say it’s because their back hurts— and maybe it does.

Try these exercises and drills below and you will be well on your way to pain-free, stronger lifts.

  1. Mobility drills

One thing most women take time for in their training is flexibility and mobility work.

Simply put, women are better at stretching, because in most cases they tend be more flexible to than men begin with. By nature, we all tend to stick with doing what we know we are good at, right?

A lot of men sit all day and have tight hip flexors, then they go to the gym and run, only to sit some more. Taking the time to stretch will allow you to feel better— or feel good enough to lift without tightness or pain.

Try these mobility movements below to see an improvement immediately:

a. prying goblet.

b. 1/2 kneeling halos

c. dragon push-ups

d. deep squat to oblique pull

e. t-spine reaches

Tip: Take your time and breathe deeply through these drills when you first begin your workout.

2. Hip-Thrust

After mobility work, the hip-thrust is a great drill to start with as it does not require extreme mobility and serves as a great warmup.

Before you use any form of resistance make sure you can do a basic glute bridge.

Before you hip-thrust from a bench you can do a glute bridge with a barbell from the floor.

The hip-thrust is the perfect exercise for glute activation. You must train the glutes to fire effectively before you start working on a heavy squat.

It is very common to compensate with you low back and quads during a squat if you haven’t properly trained your glutes to fire.

Not to mention, many of us tend to use our back, hamstrings and quads for movements wherein the glutes should be the primary mover due to poor mobility and natural tendencies.

Beyond training my glutes to fire and increase my squat, I love this exercise because of the results it has given my booty.

Last Christmas I had the luxury of ample training time and a training partner while on vacation.

My baby brother, who played Division I lacrosse, is really fun to train with because he is so darn athletic. Unfortunately he did not have the best strength training coaches in the past, which means he fears deadlifting right now, even though his ultimate goal is to increase strength.

He is fast as hell, but when it comes to strength training, he thinks it’s a good idea to run 6 miles, do some sprints, crush 100 push ups, and then do back squats—- 50 reps in a row with lighter weight and he will never stretch.

I have been writing training programs for him from a distance that have been focused on improving his back squats and front squats. These are lifts where he feels most confident.

When we got together over the holidays I took him through movements he isn't as comfortable with: enter the hip-thrust.

“I am not doing that,” he said with embarrassment and disgust, adding, “That is just plain weird.”

Remember, I am the big sister - so I get my way.

Not only was he mortified to try it he wouldn't even watch me do it. But I made him try...

He could barely get 135 up.

And not because he isn’t actually strong enough but he has trouble isolating his glutes and getting them to fire.

Can you imagine what his 40 time would be if he hip thrusted more often?

Increasing glute strength will support a better squat and help train the gluteus muscles to fire in other athletic movements.

When you isolate the glutes and they become more efficient at firing, they will activate in step-ups, lunges, squats and even running, instead of letting the quads rule the roost and worse, the low back compensate when you start to fatigue.

If you are trying to increase your deadlift, hip-thrusts help you practice fast hip extension against a heavy load; your deadlift will absolutely increase when hip-thrusts consistenly.

At the end of the day, girls and guys are all after a bigger booty.

Bottom line: guys, if you want a bigger booty and added strength hip thrusts are a must.

Before you move to a barbell, or if you do not have access to a barbell, try un-weighted, single-leg hip thrusts:

Tip: Make sure you keep a neutral spine and angle yourself at 45 degree from the bench you are using. Avoid using your low back, (lumbar extension) by slightly scooping up and in (posterior pelvic tilt). You will know if you are using your low back too much because you will find that your chest is puffed up and your hips are drooping downward. Keep your shins vertical, knees above your heels like pillars.

3. Goblet Squat/ Front Squat

This exercise can be done with a super heavy dumbbell, or a barbell— which we consider a front squat. This exercise targets the core arguably as much as the glutes and quads.

I personally use this exercise to build my glutes and my abs.

I see men spending a lot of time at the gym doing crunch after crunch and I wish they only knew how much more jacked their abs could be if they front loaded some squats in a strength set/rep scheme.

You see, you only really need to do 3 to 5 reps, super heavy, to get the benefits of this exercise.

If you are going for more of a hypertrophy focus on the glutes, doing sets of 8 to 12 will be helpful but I personally find that the 4 to 6 rep range is the sweet spot for my clients.

Remember to practice the mobility drill and glute bridges before you try this exercise.

Start with a heavy dumbbell and then move to a barbell for front squats.

To make it more difficult, before moving to a barbell, try a 1.5 goblet squat:

When you feel ready to increase move to a barbell for front squats:

Tip: Speed is a skill. Focus on speed on the way up, extending your hips fast and driving through your heals. In order to work on speed and fast hips you have to control your breath. Make sure you take a big breath at the top of the lift and exhale on your way up.

4. Single-arm kettlebell press

Taking a break for a moment from lower body exercises, one really important move a lot of my women clients do is the single-arm kettlebell press. Not only is this exercise great for building strong shoulders, but the movement pattern is healthy for former athletes with shoulder issues.

Many of my male clients have a history of shoulder injuries from hockey, baseball, lacrosse and even bull riding!

Unilateral movements are key for exposing the strengths and weaknesses in the body. You stop allowing one side to compensate which forces both sides to work at their own pace.

I love this exercise too because since you are offset, you much engage your core muscles to brace your abs and stay square as your press.

In this video you can see my doing single arm presses in a complex with lunges:

To make the press more challenging and recruit more core muscles, try it from a 1/2 kneeling position:

Tip: A strong single-arm press starts with a strong platform in the rack position. Believe it or not, it’s your lat that creates that strong base from which you press. Learning to engage your lats before you press will only further strength your lats in preparation for the deadlift.

Presses are important, don’t skip them.

5. Bulgarian Split Squats

Bulgarian split squats are the perfect way to target the glutes on one leg at a time.

We can be much stronger unilaterally than bilaterally and so it is easier to load weight on one leg and get an intense burn rather that trying to squat double that and risk injuring your back if you are not ready for it.

A lot of women do these, but they are the furthest thing from “girly;” give them a try and you’ll have trouble walking the next day.

You can do these white holding two dumbbells or you can hold one weigh in the goblet position.

Try completing three rounds of 6 to 8 reps per side, and if you want to make it harder, add a pause at the bottom (exercise shown at :25):

If you want to hit glutes and abs simultaneously while working on balance too, try these rotational Bulgarian split squats with a pulse:

Tip: Make sure you stand up all the way and forcefully extend your hips inbetween each rep. Speed is a skill and the skill of fast hip extension will absolutely help your deadlift, when you eventually begin working on it.

6. Lateral movements and side planks

If you are an avid runner or enjoy running or jogging outside when the weather is nice, having strong gluteus medius muscles is crucial (I’m talking about that side booty).

These muscles help control your gait in every stride. In order to train these muscles, lateral movements are key.

These will not only strength your glute med, but improve your overall balance and coordination.

Here is an example of a lateral lunge with a pulse:

The lateral crawl is fun way to work on lateral movements and core at the same time:

Side planks are another really good way to work in a different plane that forward an backward and bring the lats into the game as well.

Tip: In order to deadlift you will need to learn how to use your lat to pull the bar off the floor, keeping it close to your body. Training 30 second, full tension, side planks are helpful for this muscle activation.


Deadlifting and squatting heavy are very beneficial, big bang for your buck exercises, but we can’t all start off doing those from the get-go.

The body can absolutely do those lifts without pain, but you have to practice mobility drills to give your body the ability to complete the health range of motion without pain. You must take them time to train specific muscles to fire efficiently and work your way into these big lifts.

Do the aforementioned lifts on a consistent basis and you will be deadlifting before you know it!


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