In the world of strength training there are definitely a handful of exercises that are deemed to be “the best”.
If you look at what the human body can do – push, pull, squat, lunge, bend, twist, and gait – it’s pretty obvious that some exercises fit those criteria better than others for older athletes. It’s one thing to spend an hour in the gym performing a push specific workout as a younger guy but once you get a bit older you need to make workouts far more time efficient. So it’s normal to start looking for the exercises that use the most muscle in those movements.
This is where most functional training enthusiasts fall over. They worry about what it looks like and not which movements it helps. I’d much rather spend my time on push press or bench press than on single arm cable press from a split stance if I were worried about improving my function, for example.
When it comes to lower body there are two moves in particular that are seen to rule the roost – the squat and the deadlift. Thanks to misunderstandings by many these have been basterdised as representing two lower body patterns so we should clear that up here. The lower body is capable of three different movements patterns – feet together, as in a squat or deadlift. Feet split as in a split squat, lunge, or Bulgarian squat. And single leg, as in a pistol squat or single leg deadlift. These three movements can then be broken down further into either quad or hip dominant exercises based off a single factor – how far back your hips move during the movement.
People will automatically tell you that the squat is the king of quad dominant exercises. It is if you’re built like a weightlifter with a relatively long torso and short femurs with excellent hip flexibility. However, if you’re six foot tall with a narrow waist and long femurs, as I am, the squat is still a hip dominant movement. It doesn’t matter at all whether I front or back squat, have my heels raised, or any other trick you can come up with. My femurs are relatively very long and I have to sit back a long way to squat. The further back your hips go the further forwards they need to extend. So if you have short femurs and can squat with a relatively upright stance your hips will travel back a short distance and you will end up with big quads. Guys built like me will get a bigger ass from squats.
As we get older this becomes problematic. We end up with a relatively greater amount of trunk angle forwards, placing more strain on the lower back. Sooner or later an older back is going to complain about that. All that extra time spent sitting in the car or at work will catch up with you and you’ll find your body agrees with squatting heavy less and less as you age, and doubly so if you’re built like me.
The solution with the squat, as world famous therapist Grey Cook says, is to maintain the ability to perform it but not to attack it as a strength movement. We can do this simply with either bodyweight, goblet squat, or double kettlebell squats that see far less stress on the spine. So what can you use as a max strength exercise for the lower body if we’re going to avoid loading it with the squat?
The deadlift becomes the obvious choice and has a string of benefits that come with it, as it:
Improves hip and back strength
Improves grip strength, which is positively tied to health and longevity
Has less spinal loading
Is far more useful in the real world as we’re more likely to pick something up from the floor than put it across our backs and squat with it.
However, the conventional deadlift still has problems attached to it for older athletes. Many will have decreased flexibility thanks to more time spent sitting making it harder to get to the ground to grab the bar. The use of a mixed grip places the bicep tendon at more risk as well as places rotational stress on the spine and back. Finally, as an older athlete ego needs to be put aside and other than bench press the deadlift is the one most likely to injure people as they seek to hit high numbers.
So what are the best alternatives to a hip dominant pattern without using the conventional deadlift?
This is where those who look at only at the deadlift and mistakenly call it a hinge fall short. When you’ve only got one alternative to what they mistakenly call the hinge pattern you are stuck with just the deadlift. But the best choices involve optimising stress and hitting as many muscles as possible in the three possible foot positions. As a reminder they are – feet side by side, feet split, and single leg. And we’re looking for exercises where the hips travel back as far as possible and hit other muscle groups and patterns too. Honestly, for this age group and this task, the barbell is the worst training tool you can be using. Because it locks the hands together and forces you to use a symmetrical stance you’re stuck for options with either conventional or sumo stance lifts.
However, if we switch to a single kettlebell we get far more possible options, along with hitting many more patterns. Here are the best choices for the three different foot positions:
Bilateral/ feet side by side – the one hand kettlebell swing
The advantage of the kettlebell swing over the deadlift is twofold. Firstly, you use far less weight. That means less back stiffness, making it unlikely your hip based exercise choice will prevent you from being able to play with your kids. Because ego is not usually involved with swings there is far less tendency to let your lack of restraint cause you any harm. Secondly, because we can train single sided there is a fantastic anti-rotation element to this exercise, along with the requirement for excellent shoulder stability.
The bonus of the kettlebell swing is that most older trainees perform very little speed or power work. That’s usually a good idea as it can often lead to big muscle or tendon injuries as these become more brittle as we age. However, if we don’t use it we’ll lose it, right? So we need to find a safe way to produce power and help slow down the loss of those fast twitch muscle fibers are the swing is a good choice.
When you add the power element to the hip, anti-rotation, and shoulder benefits it gives it is a clear winner for the bilateral stance hip dominant movement for older athletes.
Split stance – the kickstand deadlift
When it comes to split stance work everyone tends to think that there is one version – feet split evenly apart so that joints are at ninety degrees. That’s certainly one option but there are also all the other options from feet side by side to extended out to that ninety degree point. One of the key elements to a hip dominant movement, along with the hips traveling backwards, is that the shins need to be vertical. Because the legs are not in a bilateral stance we’re really only concerned about the front leg in this case.
The set up of this is simple – take a short step back on one leg. I like to position the back front very slightly behind the front heel, with the heel of the back foot raised. Feet set hip width apart so you have a stable base. Place the kettlebell in front of the back foot so that it is in line with the front foot. Grasp with the opposite hand to the front foot. i.e. if your left foot is forward you’ll be gripping and lifting with your right arm. Pack the shoulder into position by pulling it down towards your hips and lift normally.
The lift is basically a suitcase deadlift performed with s short split stance. However, unlike the suitcase deadlift, which is hampered by the weight banging into your side, the split stance here allows you to lift it without impediment. Because of the single sided nature of the movement we get all the same anti-rotational properties that the one hand swing gets, however we get the added advantage of performing this in one of the other key foot positions instead of always just working from a bilateral stance.
Single leg – single leg deadlift
The single leg deadlift is perhaps the greatest option available to the older trainee to gain hip function, aid stability for activities like running, build grip and shoulder health, and decrease stress on the spine. It can even be used to help strengthen feet. I made this short video describing how to perform this lift.
Give these options a try instead of the conventional deadlift and notice quickly how your body feels and how function improves for other athletic tasks.