Back extensions and deadlifts are two exercises that strengthen the posterior chain. They’re used by powerlifters, weightlifters, different types of athletes, and average gym-goers to build hypertrophy and strength in the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.
But what are the differences between the back extension and the deadlift? The back extension is an exercise in which you lie on a hyperextension bench and bend forward at the waist. The deadlift is a movement in which you lift a barbell off the floor. It is one of the three main powerlifting movements.
Whether you choose to do back extensions or deadlifts depends on your goals as well as what equipment you have access to. If you have access to a back extension machine as well as a barbell and plates, it’s beneficial to incorporate both into your routine. But there are still certain times where it may be better to prioritize one over the other.
In this article, I’ll discuss:
- The differences between back extensions and deadlifts
- The pros and cons of back extensions and deadlifts
- How to perform back extensions and deadlifts
- Variations of the back extension and deadlift
- When you may wish to incorporate the back extension, the deadlift, or both into your training
Back Extension vs Deadlifts: An Overview
Lower back pain is common in athletes and non-athletes alike, so it’s essential to strengthen the entire posterior chain to help prevent injuries to this sensitive area.
For athletes, strengthening these muscle groups can also benefit your other lifts and improve your performance in the gym.
The back extension is most commonly performed on a 45° back extension bench. It’s an excellent exercise for people who frequently experience lower back pain from other workouts or daily activities.
The back extension is also a good movement for people with desk jobs. It can help improve your posture and offset the negative effects that sitting in a chair all day has on your spine.
The deadlift is one of the big three powerlifting movements, but anyone who wants to get stronger can do it. You’ll see the standard deadlift and many of its variations done by CrossFitters, Strongman competitors, professional and collegiate athletes, and regular gym-goers.
Because the deadlift only requires a barbell and some plates, or even just a pair of dumbbells, it’s a more accessible movement for people who work out at home or belong to a small gym with a limited amount of equipment.
When doing a standard deadlift, you can choose to do it with a conventional stance or a sumo stance. Which version you decide to do depends not only on what you’re training for but also on your limb proportions.
Back Extension vs Deadlifts: Pros vs Cons
Back Extension Pros
- It’s less taxing on your CNS. Heavy deadlifts are fatiguing on the lower back and core, and they can take several days to recover from. If you find it difficult to train deadlifts more than twice a week for that reason, you can use the back extension to work the same muscle groups without accumulating additional fatigue.
- It’s a suitable deadlift alternate for people with back injuries. If a lower back injury is preventing you from deadlifting, you can do back extensions instead. They’ll allow you to continue training the posterior chain without the heavy load of deadlifts. However, there is a caveat to this, which I’ll explain below.
- You don’t need to use a lot of weight for it to be effective. It’s impossible to be able to use the same amount of weight on a back extension that you would use for a deadlift. Fortunately, you don’t need to do heavy back extensions in order to reap all of the benefits from the movement.
Back Extension Cons
- You need access to a back extension machine. Most gyms should have back extension machines, but there are several barebones gyms that don’t. And if you work out at home, you may not have room for one. There are alternatives you can do instead, but they work the muscles in slightly different ways.
- They can make back pain worse if you do them incorrectly. A common flaw is to hyperextend the back as you lift your torso back up. This compresses the spine and, in a worst-case scenario, can lead to herniated discs or other injuries.
- Deadlifts are a functional movement that strengthens the core and lower back. Many people avoid deadlifts because they’re afraid of hurting their lower backs. But doing deadlifts with proper form can actually strengthen your lower back muscles and make you less prone to injury. Deadlifts also have a lot of carryover to everyday activities because they mimic the actions of picking something heavy off the floor. By practicing deadlifts, you’ll be less prone to injuring yourself when doing other lifts or daily activities.
- There are a lot of deadlift variations. Aside from standard barbell deadlifts, you can do dumbbell deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, straight-leg deadlifts, or deadlifts with tempos and pauses. These all allow you to target slightly different muscle groups or address different sticking points with the deadlift.
- They help improve your athleticism. Deadlifts aren’t just for strength. They’ve been known to help improve the vertical jump, which is important for athletes in sports such as volleyball, basketball, track and field, soccer, and football.
- Grip is often a limiting factor. Grip, not overall strength or technique, is often what breaks down sooner during deadlifts. You can alleviate this by training your grip separately, using lifting straps, and using the grip that best suits your goals.
- Depending on which variation you do, it can bruise your shins. Keeping the bar close to your body can cause some bruises and scrapes on your shins. Sumo deadlifts, in particular, tend to cause bruises because your shins are right up against the knurling of the barbell.
- It can take a while to recover from heavy deadlifts. The deadlift is the heaviest lift for the vast majority of lifters. Because you lift so much weight and utilize several different muscle groups, deadlift workouts can be exhausting and take several days to recover from.
Back Extension vs Deadlifts: Muscles Used
Back extensions primarily work the spinal erectors, but the glutes and hamstrings also play a role. The erector spinae are responsible for straightening your back from a bent-over position while the glutes and hamstrings are responsible for extending the hips.
The deadlift is a compound movement that works the hamstrings, glutes, quads, spinal erectors, adductors, abdominals, and obliques. It also works muscles in the upper body such as the lats, traps, and rhomboids.
The glutes work to move your hips forward and bring them closer to the barbell as you stand up, and the hamstrings and adductors support the glutes during the lockout. The hamstrings also provide stability to the knee joint. The quads work primarily at the bottom of the movement to extend your legs and lift the weight up.
The spinal erectors and other core muscles help prevent you from rounding your back as you pick the weight up from the floor. They also help prevent hyperextension at the top of the movement. The rhomboids and traps help keep your shoulders in the proper neutral position while the lats help you keep the bar close to your body.
Back Extension vs Deadlift: How to Perform
How to Do Back Extensions?
- Adjust the height of the pads on a back extension machine so your hips will be just above them once you step into the machine.
- Step into the machine and rest your thighs against the pads, keeping your whole body in a straight line.
- For bodyweight back extensions, you can either cross your arms over your chest or hold your fingertips behind your ears. For weighted back extensions, hold a plate at your chest.
- Without letting your shoulders fall forward, bend at the waist until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
- Lift your torso back up until your body is in a straight line again. Do not overarch your back at the top of the movement.
- Pause for a second, then repeat until you’ve completed all of your reps.
Can't do a back extension? Check out our Best Back Extension Alternatives
How to Do Deadlifts?
- Load a barbell with plates on each side. If you don’t have access to bumper plates and aren’t strong enough to use 45lbs on each side, you may want to elevate the plates so the bar height is at a more optimal position.
- If you’re doing a conventional deadlift, step up to the bar so it’s over the middle of your foot, keeping your feet about hip-width apart.
- If you’re doing a sumo deadlift, choose a stance that allows you to keep your shins vertical, your shoulders over the bar, and your hips high.
- Keeping your back flat, bend over to grip the bar. Your hands should be just outside your legs for a conventional deadlift and shoulder-width apart for a sumo deadlift.
- Brace your core and tighten your lats.
- Keeping your back flat, lift the bar from the floor while you think about pushing the floor away with your feet. Make sure your hips and the barbell rise at the same time.
- As the bar gets closer to your knees, begin to drive your hips forward and pull your shoulders back.
- Keep lifting the bar until you’re standing up straight. Avoid leaning too far back at the top.
- Slowly lower the bar back to the ground, hinging at the hips and not bending your knees again until the barbell is below them. Do your best to not slam the bar on the ground.
- Come to a dead stop before moving into your next rep.
Back Extensions vs Deadlifts: Incorporating Variation
Back Extension: Variations
There aren’t many variations of the back extension that you can do on the back extension machine itself. But if you don’t have access to one or you’re just looking for a little more variety, there are other alternatives that target many of the same muscles.
Supermans are an alternative to the back extension that can be done anywhere. You have to lie on the floor to do them so you only have a limited range of motion, but if you do them correctly, you’ll feel them working the muscles in your lower back.
Flat Bench Hyperextensions
The flat bench hyperextension is a good alternative for people with home gyms. By laying on a bench with your hips at the top of the bench and placing your feet under the bottom of the bench for support, you can hinge at the waist to mimic the motion of the back extension.
One drawback of this variation is that it can be uncomfortable on your lower stomach. You may need to place something under your hips to avoid discomfort.
Stability Ball Back Extensions
The stability ball back extension is done by lying face down on a stability ball with your feet supported by a wall or another sturdy surface. It’s more comfortable on the lower ab region than back extensions on a bench.
Back extensions on a stability ball are best done with light weights or bodyweight only since most stability balls can only support about 250lbs.
When doing good mornings, it’s imperative to use proper form and only use a weight you’re confident you can handle. Failing a good morning when you have a heavy load on your back can lead to some serious lower back injuries.
Back Extension + Glute Ham Raise
If you have access to a GHD machine and not a back extension machine, you can do back extensions on the GHD. You get the added benefit of being able to add a glute ham raise into the mix for additional hamstring and glute work.
Back Extension Programming Considerations
The back extension is most commonly done as a secondary or tertiary movement after you’ve done your primary lifts. If you’re doing them unweighted, you can do them as often as four days per week. But if you’re doing them weighted, you should do them no more than twice a week.
Because they’re an accessory movement, it’s best to keep your sets and/or reps on the higher side. Three sets of 8-10 reps is a good starting point. As you get stronger, you can increase the reps to a range of 12-15 or add a fourth set.
Romanian deadlifts start with you holding the bar at your hips. As you lower the weight, you hinge your hips backward and keep just a slight bend in your knees, stopping when the bar is just below your kneecap.
Romanian deadlifts are often used by lifters who are training for hypertrophy or need to address weaknesses in the hamstrings and glutes.
Straight-leg deadlifts are similar to Romanian deadlifts except you start the pull from the floor and bring the bar all the way back down to the ground after each rep.
Performed with just a slight bend in the knee, the straight-leg deadlift targets the hamstrings and glutes more than a standard deadlift.
The single-leg deadlift is a variation in which you work one leg at a time. Like a Romanian deadlift, you start at the top of the movement, then hinge at the hips and lower until you feel a stretch in your hamstring. Your non-working leg should extend behind you so that when you’re at the bottom of the movement, your leg and torso are in a straight horizontal line.
You can do this deadlift variation with dumbbells or a barbell. If you have trouble staying stable, you may want to start with a dumbbell in one hand and hold your other arm out to the side for balance.
Deficit deadlifts increase the range of motion because you start by standing on a plate or other elevated surface. It’s a beneficial variation for lifters whose sticking point is right off the floor.
Rack pulls are deadlifts that start with the bar raised off the floor. It can be raised by just a few inches, or you can start with it right below your knee by setting the safeties on a squat rack to your desired height.
Rack pulls can be used to train the top end of the deadlift, which is beneficial for lifters who struggle with the lockout.
Trap Bar Deadlift
Trap bar deadlifts are performed with a trap bar, which is also called a hex bar. Unlike a straight barbell, the hex bar goes all the way around and has handles on the sides.
The trap bar deadlift is a good option for people who experience lower back pain from regular deadlifts because the shape of the bar allows the weight to be more centered around your body and puts less stress on your spine.
Snatch Grip Deadlift
The snatch grip deadlift requires you to use a wider grip, which places more emphasis on your upper back and helps improve your grip strength.
Anyone who’s looking for more deadlift variety can do this movement, but it’s a particularly beneficial exercise for Olympic weightlifters because it helps build pulling strength for the snatch.
Deadlift Programming Considerations
There are numerous ways to program the deadlift based on your experience and what your goals are. If you’re a powerlifter, you may also train different set and rep schemes depending on how close you are to a meet.
If you’re a beginner, you may follow a linear program in which you do deadlifts twice a week for three sets of five, increasing the weight by 5-10lbs each week or each workout until you hit a plateau.
As you become more advanced, you may wish to follow a more periodized training schedule and/or incorporate RPE training. If you do periodized training, you’ll likely cycle through hypertrophy, strength, and peaking blocks.
For example, in a 16-week training block, you may follow a schedule such as this:
- Weeks 1-4: 4×8 @ 65% of your 1RM
- Weeks 5-8: 4×6 @ 70%
- Weeks 9-12: 4×4 @ 80%
- Weeks 13-15: 4×3 @ 85-90%
- Week 16: test a new 1RM or taper for a powerlifting meet
If you want to deadlift multiple days per week, you can also follow daily undulating periodization (DUP). You may have one heavy day and one light or technique day each week. This gives you more flexibility in training intensity and volume and allows you to manage fatigue more effectively.
Deadlift variations such as Romanian deadlifts, straight-leg deadlifts, and single-leg deadlifts are often done as accessory movements with lower weights and higher reps. You can follow a set and rep scheme such as 3×5 or 4×6 if you want to train them for strength, but I like to do these variations for 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps.
Which Exercise Is Best for You?
When To Use The Back Extension?
- You have an injury or technical limitation that prevents you from doing deadlifts.
- You’re training more for hypertrophy than strength.
- You want to continue training the posterior chain but want to take a break from deadlifting.
When To Use The Deadlift?
- You have a home gym and don’t have enough space for a back extension machine.
- The gym you go to doesn’t have a back extension machine.
- You’re training more for overall strength.
When To Use Both?
- You want to work on your posterior chain more often but find deadlifts too taxing to do more than once a week.
- You’re a powerlifter who struggles with the deadlift lockout.
- You want to strengthen your back muscles so you can brace your core properly when doing deadlifts.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can Back Extensions Replace the Deadlift?
While back extensions don’t completely replace deadlifts, they are an effective alternative for strengthening the lower back and glutes. You can use the back extension in place of the deadlift if you have an injury or if you’re in the off-season from competitive powerlifting and want a break from deadlifting.
Are Back Extensions Better Than Deadlifts?
Back extensions are better at isolating the lower back muscles, glutes, and hamstrings, but the deadlift is better for overall strength since it also works the quads, abdominal muscles, obliques, rhomboids, and traps. That said, any lifter would benefit from using the back extension as a supplementary exercise.
The back extension and deadlift are both excellent movements that strengthen the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. The deadlift also works the quads, rhomboids, traps, abs, and obliques, making it a more effective exercise for overall strength.
If you have access to a back extension machine as well as a barbell and plates, I recommend doing both deadlifts and back extensions regularly. But if you train at home or your gym doesn’t have a back extension bench, there are numerous alternatives you can do to target many of the same muscle groups.
Other Exercise Comparisons
- Good Morning vs Romanian Deadlift: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Hip Thrust vs Deadlift: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Sumo Deadlift vs Back Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Trap Bar Deadlift vs Front Squat: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Rack Pull vs Deadlift: Differences, Pros, Cons, & How-To
- Deadlift vs Romanian Deadlift: Form, Benefits, Differences
- Conventional vs Sumo Deadlift: Which One Should You Do?
- Back Extension vs Glute Ham Raise: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Kettlebell Swing vs Deadlift: Differences, Pros, Cons
About The Author
Amanda is a writer and editor in the fitness and nutrition industries. Growing up in a family that loved sports, she learned the importance of staying active from a young age. She started CrossFit in 2015, which led to her interest in powerlifting and weightlifting. She's passionate about helping women overcome their fear of lifting weights and teaching them how to fuel their bodies properly. When she's not training in her garage gym or working, you can find her drinking coffee, walking her dog, or indulging in one too many pieces of chocolate.