In a world where everybody seems to be building out their own dope-ass home gyms, a common question I get all the time is “if I could only buy a few pieces of equipment, what should I get?” The kettlebell makes my shortlist because it’s one of the most versatile pieces of equipment, especially for beginners.
Almost any exercise you can do with a barbell, you can also do with a kettlebell, often with a shorter learning curve, making it better for beginners. That’s the case with the kettlebell deadlift. In fact, the kettlebell deadlift is the BEST variation for those learning the deadlift technique.
While some define a squat vs a deadlift based on where the weight is placed, the true difference involves how placement affects the WAY we lift the weight.
In a squat, we get deep knee bend AND deep hip movement.
In a deadlift, we get minimal knee bend and deep hip movement.
One of the most common phrases I coach is “don’t squat your deadlifts.” Just because you’re picking something up off the floor, does NOT mean you’re doing so in a deadlift fashion. You can also squat and pick something up off the floor. In fact most “deadlifts” I see at gyms are a lot more like squats than hip hinge movements.
One of the best ways to teach this hinge movement is with the kettlebell deadlift, NOT a barbell deadlift. With the KB the weight can go through your center of gravity, whereas a barbell can’t go through your body, so you have to shift your whole weight forward.
With that said, limiting knee bend and focusing on hip extension will train the glutes and hamstrings, while limiting the involvement of the quads.
1) Place the kettlebell in line with the front of your mid-feet.
The weight will be directly underneath you rather than too far in front or behind. This is one of the advantages of a kettlebell, or even a trap bar, over a conventional barbell deadlift.
2) Reach your arms out and take a deep exhale.
This is adapted from the principles of the Postural Restoration Institute. When we reach out and take a deep exhale, it encourages our diaphragm to relax, ribs to come down, and glutes to contract. That way when we do the main movement, we’ll get a better glute and hamstring contraction, and keep unnecessary tension off of the lower back (a common culprit of back pain).
(Note: If you feel back pain when squatting or deadlifting, this is an important step, and we have a deep guide on how to eliminate back pain during squatting.)
3) Shove your hips back.
If you’ve ever seen somebody twerk, that’s the kind of butt-back confidence we’re looking for here.
4) Maintaining a slight knee bend, descend down until you can pick up that kettlebell.
In this bottom position, you should feel a hamstring stretch. That’s a sign you’re properly hinging.
5) Stand tall
As you come up, straighten your hips and “stand tall.” In this top position, you should squeeze your buttcheeks together so you’re getting full hip extension.
6) Hinge your hips again and descend down and repeat for however many reps.
What makes the kettlebell deadlift a great, even the best, option in many circumstances?
With the KB deadlift, the weight can go “through” your body, whereas with a barbell it can’t because it has to stay fully in front of you. Having the centered weight places less tension on the lower back, making it both harder to get hurt and easier to learn the deadlift motion.
To comfortably do a barbell deadlift, it helps to have plates on the bar. That makes the load, let’s say with 10lb bumper plates, 65lbs at the minimum. For a complete beginner, that can be a lot, and many gyms only have full-size plates that are 45 lbs. With the KB deadlift, you can start out with much lighter loads. And, kettlebells get deceptively heavy, and we’ll show many unilateral variations that keep kettlebell deadlifts challenging even if you’re ready to graduate to heavier weights.
In the conventional deadlift, stance and grip become more important. In the KB deadlift, it’s harder to mess up. Set yourself up for easy wins.
If you don’t have your core braced and you don’t shove your hips back before descending, there’s a good chance you’re going to bend at your back and not at your hips.
One variation to correct this involves doing a reaching cable deadlift. Because you’re reaching, your back will remain long and reinforce a safe hinge pattern. This will just take some practice, which is another reason why it’s so much better to learn this movement with a kettlebell than a loaded barbell.
Okay, this isn’t a “mistake” per se. There’s nothing wrong with doing a kettlebell squat. But we’re doing kettlebell deadlifts, so don’t squat your deadlifts. Again, this comes down to the knee bend. With deadlifts, our goal is to focus on the hip hinge while keeping knee bend to a minimum. This targets more glutes and hamstrings over the quads.
As an aside, when you progress to kettlebell swings, the only way to get into a rhythm with the swings is to hinge at the hips. If you squat your kettlebell swings, you just won’t be able to swing. Kettlebell deadlifts, then, are one of the best ways to both teach and regress kettlebell swings.
The stance can depend on what your goals are and what muscles you’re trying to work. Generally speaking, however, you should learn to deadlift with your toes pointed forward. Ideally when we walk and run, our toes are pointed forward, so generally speaking, we want to train that way.
Beyond the basic KB deadlift, there are still many variations of kettlebell deadlifts that you can use as you build up to barbell or hex bar options. (If you even want to get there. I’m a huge fan of loading single-leg stiff-leg deadlift variations, which you can read all about here).
The difference between a sumo deadlift and a traditional deadlift stance is the width and angle of your feet. In any sumo variation, your feet are pointed out and further apart. This places more emphasis on the glutes because one of their main jobs is to externally rotate the hips.
The sumo deadlift can be great to substitute in for a few weeks, but I wouldn’t recommend it until after you’ve mastered the traditional deadlift technique.
The kickstand KB deadlift is a great introduction to single-leg deadlift variations. Single-leg training provides many benefits which I’ve outlined in-depth. The kickstand variation, in particular, maintains stability as you learn single-leg variations.
This variation I covered in-depth in my article on stiff-leg deadlifts.
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Explaining the kettlebell deadlift would take a whole other article. A proper kettlebell swing requires a hip hinge NOT a squat. This hinge is what allows you to get into a rhythm swinging the kettlebell.
While not a kettlebell deadlift in the strict sense that you use a kettlebell, the natural progression of the simple kettlebell involves replacing the kettlebell for a trap bar (hex bar). The trap bar has the same advantages as the KB deadlift compared to a conventional barbell deadlift, but you can add load and work on getting strong.
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If you’re just starting to learn how to deadlift, here’s one possible sequence of going from beginner to proficiency in just a few weeks.
Weeks 1-4: KB deadlift
Weeks 5-8; KB sumo deadlift
Weeks 9-12: KB kickstand deadlift
Weeks 13-16: KB 1-leg stiff-leg deadlift
Weeks 17-20: 2KB 1-leg stiff-leg deadlift
Weeks 21-24: Trap bar deadlift
It’s better to stick with this variation and master it, even if it’s not particularly challenging, than to rush into a barbell variation and hurt yourself, or hate your life because they’re way harder and subsequently not go into the gym.
If you want to build that deadlift booty, you gotta remember that it comes with time and consistency, NOT from a magic solution. Don’t expect to do kettlebell deadlift for a few weeks and think you’ll all of the sudden have the body of your dreams.
You have to master the basics of the deadlift technique before adding significant load. I love kettlebell deadlifts because it forces you to do that. You learn to train your posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) without heavy weights first, which will build the foundation necessary to succeed down the road.
Resist any temptations to think this is something you can master in a few weeks. Achieving your training goals, especially if you want them to be sustainable, involves tapering up your skills and not rushing into anything.