June 09, 2021
While the barbell deadlift is considered the king of all strength exercises, not everyone has access to a barbell and plates, and more importantly, not everyone is ready or wants to do barbell deadlifts. But, that doesn’t mean you should be avoiding deadlifts. Deadlifts are a must. So, if it's not barbell deadlifts, it better be kettlebell deadlifts.
If you train at home, you are a beginner to strength training, or you simply prefer working out with kettlebells, kettlebell deadlifts are the way to go. Just like barbell deadlifts, kettlebell deadlifts can build serious muscle mass and functional strength. Moreover, they are extremely versatile. With kettlebells, you can do all types of deadlift variations to emphasize certain muscles and even add an explosive element to your training.
With that, we want to show you all of the kettlebell deadlifts that you should be doing. The best part is, if you only have one kettlebell, you can still do all of the deadlift variations we have in store for you. All of the deadlift exercises can be done with one or two kettlebells.
Rather than jumping right into the exercises, let’s go over some info on deadlifts and frequently asked questions. If you want to skip ahead to the exercises, just scroll on down.
A deadlift is a compound, hip hinging exercise that involves lifting a weight off the ground to a standing position. It is called a deadlift because you are lifting a dead weight off the ground, meaning a weight without momentum, and with each rep you place the weight fully back down to the ground to a dead stop.
The deadlift is one of the most important weight training exercises there is. It is often referred to as the king of all exercises because it is a compound movement that works so many muscles and very heavy loads can be used. In fact, it should be your strongest exercise (lifting records for deadlifts are considerably greater than any other exercise). The deadlift is the best exercise there is for building total body strength and mass.
There are many effective variations that change the dynamics of the deadlift, both in terms of which muscles are emphasized the most and how your joints act on the movement.
Deadlift variations include: sumo deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, single leg deadlifts, straight leg deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts, and Jefferson deadlifts (or staggered stance deadlifts for kettlebells).
It should be noted that while all of these are called deadlifts, not all of them bring the weight to a dead stop on the ground. Romanian deadlifts, stiff-legged deadlifts and single leg deadlifts will not bring the weight to a dead stop on the ground with each rep.
All of these deadlift variations can be done with barbells and kettlebells because the handles sit high enough up off the ground for proper form. Whereas dumbbells will be too low to the ground for any deadlift variation that involves bringing the weight to a dead stop on the ground.
Deadlifts Muscles Worked:
Deadlifts act on both your knees and hips. Your hips and knees must engage in flexion and extension to perform deadlifts safely and correctly. This applies to all deadlift variations, but there are considerable differences to the degree of knee flexion and extension between the various types of deadlifts. However, all deadlift variations are hip dominant.
As for muscles worked, no matter what deadlift variation you do, you will be working your posterior chain, particularly your glutes, hamstrings and erector spinae, and to a lesser degree your lats and traps. Variations like the conventional deadlift and sumo deadlift make the quads a primary mover too. This is because the first half of the movement involves greater knee extension, which is powered by your quads. Once the weight is past your knees and you are coming to full extension, you will be extending at the hips. So the second half of the movement is powered by your hamstrings and glutes. Note: Your glutes will be activated to a certain degree during knee extension as well.
Out of all the exercises that you can do, deadlifts in general will provide you with some of the best benefits for your body. Here are some of the reasons why everyone should be doing deadlifts, whether that’s with kettlebells or barbells.
While all of those benefits are great, the most pronounced benefit that you will get from deadlifts is a strong, healthy posterior chain. The posterior chain is essentially all of the muscles on your posterior side. While it’s important to be strong both anteriorly and posteriorly, a strong posterior chain is extremely vital because much of your body’s power comes from the posterior side (glutes and hamstrings) and your back muscles, along with your glutes, play the greatest role in balance and spinal stability.
Overall, a strong posterior chain is a strong, injury resilient body.
Deadlifts are one of the best strength and muscle-building exercises that you can do with kettlebells. If you have heavy enough kettlebells, you can see serious gains in strength and hypertrophy, just like you can with barbells.
Because the handle of a kettlebell sits high off the ground, your body positioning will be the same as with barbell deadlifts. However, there are some important differences between barbells and kettlebells for deadlifting.
First, the perfectly balanced weight of a barbell allows you to train for absolute strength (the most possible weight you can lift for one rep). There is no better tool than a barbell for lifting as heavy as possible. Whereas with kettlebells, you’ll be limited by how heavy you can go due to both the design of the kettlebell and very heavy kettlebells being hard to come by.
Note: A 100lb kettlebell will feel far heavier than a 100lb barbell simply due to its design! This makes it great for real world strength, as the world is not full of perfectly balanced objects like a barbell. It also means your body will be stressed and overloaded for hypertrophy without the need of an excessive weight load.
Second, kettlebell deadlifts will involve a different hand positioning. Your hands will be gripping the weight from in-between your legs, rather than outside of your legs like most barbell deadlifts. So, even through your body positioning will be the same for all deadlift variations regardless of whether your are using a barbell or a kettlebell, your grip positioning will be different. Just something as simple as where you grip a weight load can alter how the stress is placed on your body.
Third, kettlebell deadlifts are safer than barbells because the kettlebell will be closer to the center of your base. Barbells are further out from your base because the long bar is blocked by your shins.
All in all, kettlebell deadlifts are highly effective at building muscle mass and strength. They are low risk and high reward whereas barbell deadlifts are high risk and higher reward.
The benefit of doing deadlift variations is that you can stress your muscles in different ways and you can emphasize certain muscle groups. This will allow you to build more well rounded strength and muscle.
Overall, each deadlift variation provides its own benefits which we will discuss as we demonstrate each of the kettlebell deadlift variations.
Here are the kettlebell deadlift variations we will be demonstrating:
As we demonstrate each of these deadlifts with kettlebells, we will discuss their purpose, correct form, and the muscles worked, so you will get an understanding of why doing each of these will help your strength training and overall fitness.
Note: You’ll notice the last two were not listed in the initial deadlift variations we went over. This is because they are not technically types of deadlifts, but they are based off the deadlift movement pattern, Moreover, being that they are ballistic exercises, where the other variations are grinds, they are great to add into the mix when training your posterior chain. They build a different kind of strength, explosive strength.
Now, before we finally get into the exercises, we need to answer two common questions that we get when discussing doing deadlifts with kettlebells…
You don’t need two kettlebells to do deadlifts. All of the deadlifts that we are going to demonstrate to you are done with a single kettlebell.
It should be noted that just because you are using one kettlebell doesn’t mean the exercise will be asymmetrical (one sided) either. Cast iron kettlebells have wide handles so you can grip the handle with two hands and hold it at your centerline.
Note: The ballistic exercises are done with a single kettlebell on one side, so you’ll have to switch sides every other set.
We recommend that beginners do single kettlebell deadlifts because it will be easier to perform the exercise properly. Get the form down and work on maximizing tension before you start doing double kettlebell deadlifts.
You’ll notice that doubles are harder, and it’s not just because you have a greater total load, although that is a considerable reason, but also because using two kettlebells at the same time will feel a little awkward at first.
That said, when you are comfortable with the deadlift variations, doubles are definitely superior as you can double the load!
Related: Single vs Double Kettlebell Training
It’s normal for kettlebell trainees to use two kettlebells of different sizes at the same time for doubles. It’s best if the kettlebells are of similar size, such as a 40lb kettlebell and a 44lb kettlebell, but they don’t have to even be that close in weight. All you have to do is switch the kettlebells around each set and you will build up your strength and muscles evenly. So, rather than getting pairs, you can get heavier kettlebells first. A lot of kettlebell trainees find that getting singles of different sizes is more useful than getting pairs. However, if you have the budget, getting both heavier sizes and pairs of certain sizes is obviously ideal.
It’s best to go heavy with kettlebell deadlifts. This should be your strongest lift.
The average man can do around 70-100+lbs for kb deadlifts, which can be one single heavy kettlebell held onto with two hands, or two 35-50lb kettlebells held with one in each hand.
The average woman can do around 50-80lbs for kettlebell deadlifts.
As for dead snatches and dead cleans, it will be around 30-50% of the aforementioned numbers, but this depends on your experience. Once you master the ballistic movements, you will be able to go heavier.
That said, it really depends on your strength level. Men and women who are experienced at lifting may be able to lift a lot heavier than what we stated above.
If you are new to these kettlebell deadlift variations, start light to get the mechanics of the movements down pat. Form comes first.
Related: What size kettlebell should I buy?
How many reps should you do for kettlebell deadlifts?
Because this is a strength exercise, it’s best to go heavy as you can (with good form) and keep your reps in the 6-10 range. This will give you a good mix of strength and hypertrophy gains.
Here are 7 of the best kettlebell deadlift variations and alternatives. Each of the exercises are demonstrated with one kettlebell, but if you have two and you prefer to increase the difficulty of your deads, then by all means do these exercises with two kettlebells. All 7 of these deadlift variations can be done with one or two kettlebells.
You’ll notice Sam Coleman, founder of SET FOR SET, uses a 40lb kettlebell in the video above. This is a light weight for Sam and was used for demonstration purposes.
Let’s take a closer look at each exercise, discussing the benefits, muscles worked, and important cues.
One could argue that this is more similar to a sumo deadlift because your hands are holding the kettlebell at the center in-between your legs, BUT because your body is positioned like a conventional deadlift, it is far more like a conventional barbell deadlift than a sumo deadlift.
It's about how the joints act on the movement. Your feet will be about shoulder width apart, toes squared perfectly forward and you will have a deep hip hinge with your butt low like a squat, which is a conventional deadlift position.
One considerable difference between barbell conventional deadlifts and this kb deadlift is that the kettlebell will be closer to the base of your body, as the barbell needs to be placed in front of your shins rather than in-between your legs. With the weight load being closer to your base, it is easier to get into a low position with your spine straight, which reduces the chance of injuring your lower back. Because of this, kb deadlifts are much safer.
Out of all of the different kinds of kettlebell deadlifts, this is the one that you can go the heaviest. Albeit, you can also go just about as heavy with sumo deadlifts too. Conventional deadlifts also involve the greatest range of motion, as you knees have a far greater degree of flexion. This is as compound of an exercise as it gets.
Kettlebell Conventional Deadlift Muscles Worked:
The first phase of the movement (the bottom half) is primarily powered by your quads, similar to a squat. This is knee extension. Once the kettlebell comes past your knees, you will start to perform hip extension, bringing your hips forward and your back to an upright position. This second phase of the movement is powered by your glutes and hamstrings. Your erector spinae will also be working hard to ensure your spine remains straight, as will other muscles of your back such as your rhomboids, traps and your lats as they need to maintain scapular retraction throughout the movement so you have good posture with your chest up.
So, to sum it up, your quads, hamstrings, glutes, core, erector spinae, and essentially all of your back muscles will be worked with conventional deadlifts. It is a full body exercise that places significant emphasis on your quads and the entire posterior chain.
How to do a Kettlebell Deadlift (with important cues):
Note: The kettlebell should be going up in down in a straight line, as seen in the video.
If you use two kettlebells, simply hold one in each hand side-by-side each other at the center in-between your legs. You can also play around with grip position, holding the kettlebells with a neutral grip or an overhand grip. This will slightly alter how stress is placed on your body during the deadlift.
The sumo deadlift is the only other deadlift here that involves bringing the kettlebell down to ground to a dead position with each rep. It is like the fraternal twin of the conventional deadlift. They are similar but different.
The sumo deadlift involves a much wider stance and your toes will be pointing slightly outward. Because of these two changes in the feet positioning, your range of motion will be slightly shortened and your back will be more upright (which is great for those with lower back issues as it puts less strain on the lower back). Moreover, because your feet are slightly rotated outward, you will have a degree of hip external rotation along with hip extension. This will place greater emphasis on your inner and outer thighs as well as your glutes. So, if you want a more glute focused kettlebell deadlift, this is the one.
Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift Muscles Worked:
As your feet are in a wider stance and your feet are rotated outward, your glutes and inner and outer thighs get a greater degree of activation than with conventional deadlifts. Your hamstrings and quads will also be engaged, but to a lesser degree. Moreover, your back will be more upright with a sumo deadlift, so it will be a little easier on your back, which means less activation of your back muscles. Nevertheless, if you go heavy, it is still a very effective posterior chain exercise.
How to do a kettlebell sumo deadlift (with important cues):
Just like the conventional deadlift, if you use two kettlebells, you can use either a neutral grip or an overhand grip.
The stiff-legged deadlift will not return the kettlebell to the ground each rep (but it will come close) and it involves just a little bit of knee flexion. Really, the movement is all at the hips, not the knees and hips like conventional and sumo deadlifts. You will have just a little bend in your knee as you lower the kettlebell down using a hip hinge and leaning your upper body forward and down.
The stiff-leg deadlift is not to be confused with the Romanian deadlift (RDL). The two are very similar, but the difference is that the RDL only lowers the kettlebell down to about shin level, whereas the stiff-legged deadlift bring it down to just above the ground. With that, the stiff-leg deadlift require more hamstring mobility.
Kettlebell Stiff-Leg Deadlift Muscles Worked:
This movement is pretty much all at the hips, with just a very small range of knee flexion and extension. Your hips will be moving through the greatest range of motion. Because of this, the emphasis is placed on your hamstrings and glutes. Your erector spinae and back muscles will also be very engaged because you have to maintain a straight spine and good posture. Your back will be in a much more susceptible position like this as you lean forward. Thus, most people use about 50% less weight for stiff-leg deadlifts than conventional deadlifts.
Now, it should also be noted that because you are lowering the kettlebell down so far, your hamstring (and gluteus maximus) will be getting a serious stretch. This is stretching tension to the max. Stretching tension is great for building muscle, so this exercise is by far the best for the hamstrings.
How to do a Kettlebell Stiff-Legged Deadlift (with important cues):
Note: If you lack mobility in your hips or flexibility in your hamstrings, then your might start to bend your knees or arch your lower back to bring the kettlebell down to just above the ground. Don’t don’t this. Rather, perform the Romanian deadlift and work on mobility and hamstring flexibility. With better hamstring flexibility, you can perform this exercise without rounding your back.
The kettlebell Romanian deadlift is very similar to the stiff-leg deadlift. In fact, the movement is exactly the same except you only lower the kettlebell down to your shins.
This is a great exercise for people who want to hone in on their hamstrings and glutes. It’s also good for beginners or those with a weaker lower back (as it will put less straight on your lower back since you won’t be leaning down as far) and tight hamstrings (as you will not need to stretch them as far).
Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift Muscles Worked:
The kettlebell Romanian Deadlift aka RDL emphasizes the hamstrings and glutes. Your erector spinae and upper back muscles will be working as well to maintain a straight spine and good posture.
How to do a kettlebell Romanian Deadlift (with important cues):
Because you won’t be lowering the weight as low, you should be able to use a heavier weight than you do with stiff-leg deadlifts. So that is the advantage this exercise has over stiff-leg deadlifts. If you use the same weight, then the stiff-leg deadlift would be superior for building muscle and strength for the fact that you get a deeper stretch (more range of motion) in your hamstrings.
Related: Barbell Romanian Deadlift Guide
The single leg deadlift is great for realizing muscle imbalances or weakness in your right and left side. It is also fantastic for building better balance, as it will improve your core stability and hip stability. This is an athletic exercise through and through.
Single Leg Kettlebell Deadlift Muscles Worked:
The single leg deadlift will work all of the same muscles as a stiff-leg deadlift, but it will engage your gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and core to a greater degree. This is because your gluteus medius and minimus will be working to maintain hip stability as you are on one leg, and your core will be working to maintain a squared forward position since the kettlebell is on one side.
Because of the greater need for stability, you will be using a considerably lighter weight than your max weight with stiff-leg deadlifts.
How to do Single Leg Kettlebell Deadlifts:
This exercise can be done with two kettlebells. With two kettlebells, your working leg will be in-between the kettlebells. For some, you may find this easier as there is a little balance between the two kettlebells and the leg.
The initial phase of the dead snatch is based off the movement pattern of a deadlift, and like deadlifts, you will bring the kettlebell down to a dead stop with each rep, so it fits nicely for kettlebell deadlift training. In the same way deadlifts build a strong posterior chain and strong legs, the snatch builds explosive power in the legs and posterior chain.
This is not exactly a beginner exercise, but if you have a lightweight kettlebell, you should have no trouble practicing it safely. It is considered one of the basic, staple movements in kettlebell training, so it’s one that you will want to nail down when starting off your kettlebell journey.
The movement mechanics of the dead snatch is a little complex as there are a lot of nuances in the form to understand. We will do our best to give you the cues needed to perform this incredible ballistic “deadlift” correctly.
Kettlebell Dead Snatch Muscles Worked:
The mechanics of the first phase of the movement as you explosively pull the kettlebell off the ground is just like that of a deadlift, but obviously in a ballistic manner, which means the movement of whipping the kettlebell up and overhead is done quickly and explosively. With that, the dead snatch builds incredible explosive power in your hamstrings, quads, back, and shoulders.
How to do a Kettlebell Dead Snatch:
Compared to the other kettlebell deadlift variations, a dead snatch (and dead clean) is considerably harder with two kettlebells. Beginners should always start by learning the movement with one kettlebell.
Note: The kettlebell should be moving from the ground to the overhead position in a straight path.
Like the dead snatch, the dead clean is an explosive exercise based on the movement pattern of a deadlift. The mechanics of the movement are very similar to a snatch except you will be whipping the kettlebell up to a racked position rather than overhead. This might seem easier, but a lot of beginners have trouble getting the kettlebell into a racked position.
A simple cue to get the kettlebell into a racked position from the ground, which you will do with a dead clean, is when you pull the kettlebell up past your knees, pull your elbow back and tuck it to your side body as you bring your hand towards your chest. The kettlebell should automatically fall into position like this, resting on the your forearm and bicep.
Kettlebell Dead Clean Muscles Worked:
The kettlebell dead clean works all of the same muscles as the dead snatch, except it places less emphasis on the deltoids while engaging the biceps more as you are essentially curling (ballistically) it into the front rack position.
How to do a Kettlebell Dead Clean:
This exercise can be done with two kettlebells as well, but like the dead snatch, it will be significantly harder with two kettlebells. So don’t even attempt it until you are very comfortable with doing the exercise with one kettlebell.
Just to be clear... THE KETTLEBELL SHOULD BE MOVING IN A STRAIGHT PATH UP AND DOWN FOR ALL DEADLIFT VARIATIONS AND ALTERNATIVES ABOVE.
Who doesn't like some bonus exercises?
Muscles targeted: Hamstrings, Back, Glutes, Forearms, Quads, Core
How to: From a split stance, perform a stiff-legged deadlift. Just like the deadlift above, make sure the kettlebell is moving in a vertical path up and down, as that means you are hinging correctly.
The kettlebell swing is essentially a ballistic version of the Romanian deadlift.
Muscles targeted: Shoulders, Arms, Back, Erector Spinae, Core, Glutes, Quads, Hamstrings
How to: The kettlebell swing is the king of kettlebell exercises. It is the main movement everyone should learn first. “Stand about a foot and half behind the kettlebell. Feet shoulder-width apart, or even a little wider is fine, with toes facing forward, or slightly pronated outward (whatever feels more natural for you). Put a little bend in your knee, shoot your hips back, chest down, and back flat. This is a hinge pattern. So, with that, our hamstrings and glutes should be active immediately, before even touching the bell. Bring your hands forward and grab the handle of the kettlebell with both hands. Put the kettlebell at a slight angle towards you. Set your shoulder blades back so your lats are tight, core is braced, quads are tight, and glutes are engaged. Hike the bell back like its a football, so it goes between the leg. As soon as your hands go past your quads, drive your hips forward and propel the bell up and forward to about shoulder level, keeping your arms straight. Remember to keep tight and your shoulder back in this top position.”
Related: 50 best kettlebell exercises
Kettlebell grinds are slow and controlled movements that focus on consistent tension of the muscles. They are similar to conventional training with barbells and dumbbells. So, the kettlebell conventional deadlift, sumo deadlift, stiff-legged deadlift, RDL, and single leg deadlift are all kettlebell grinds.
Grinds are great for building muscle and strength.
Kettlebell ballistics are explosive exercises based on more complex movement patterns. The dead snatch, dead clean and kettlebell swing are all examples of ballistic exercises.
Ballistics are great for building explosive power and conditioning as they get your heart rate sky high.
Any good kettlebell training program will have a mix of both ballistics and grinds. Together, they can help you to become a bigger, stronger, fitter, more athletic individual.
Kettlebell deadlifts and the many variations and alternatives will fit best into a lower body workout or a posterior chain workout (like a pull day).
You don’t have to do all the variations of kettlebell deadlifts in the same workout. You can switch things up week-by-week or program by program.
For example, one week you could do conventional deadlifts and the next you do sumo deadlifts, or you could focus on 3-4 of the deadlift variations for a training cycle and then change them up on your next training cycle.
This is a lower body workout, so you will see other lower body kettlebell exercises:
Both deadlifts and squats are the two best exercises you can do, so neither one is better than the other. They are different. Squats emphasize the glutes and quads, whereas deadlifts emphasize the glutes and hamstrings, as well as the entire posterior chain.
For most people, it is easier to learn how to do a squat than a deadlift, but both should be mastered if you want to take fitness seriously. The one biggest advantage a deadlift has is that you can lift heavier weight loads and they recruit more muscles, so you can build serious full body strength with deadlifts.
More Kettlebell Training Resources:
Comparing to a barbell squat and deadlift, a kettlebell squat and deadlift are more similar. This is because you are holding the kettlebells with your hands either way, which means certain muscles will be activated that wouldn’t be with barbell squats and the load position is always on the front side. Nevertheless, the movements are different as the kettlebell squat will keep your back more upright and your feet slightly closer together, placing more emphasis on your quads and less on the hamstrings. Moreover, with the easier mobility using a kettlebell, you can go even deeper with a kettlebell squat than a barbell squat, bringing your butt below parallel (or pretty much ass to grass) without compromising your low back.
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