Complete Kettlebell Deadlift Guide – Perfect Your Form and Gain Benefits

Learn all you need to know about the Kettlebell Deadlift including the muscles worked, the benefits, variations, common errors, and FAQs!

Required Equipment: Kettlebell

Optional Equipment: N/A

While not super popular, the kettlebell deadlift offers the ideal introduction to kettlebell lifting, compound exercises, and deadlifting. Not only is it an easy and effective move, it provides the foundation for many other movements such as the kettlebell swing and kettlebell clean. It’s also a great introduction to doing a proper deadlift movement pattern. While an oversimplification, it can also be a great precursor to barbell deadlifts.

The kettlebell deadlift
The Kettlebell Deadlift
AT A GLANCE:

 - The Kettlebell Deadlift is easy-to-learn, safe, and effective
 - It effectively targets the posterior chain (legs and back) as well as core and grip
 - Once mastered, you can progress to harder variations
 - Is a great way to learn how to "hip hinge" and perform other exercises such as the barbell deadlift or kb swing

The kettlebell deadlift is amazingly functional as it has great carryover application to real life. Need to lift that heavy box with hurting yourself? How ’bout moving some furniture for a friend? There’s a good chance you’ll use a deadlift pattern (bending at the waist and knees) when doing those movements. Those are all good reasons why you should learn and master the kettlebell deadlift.

So read on to learn all about the kettlebell deadlift, including the benefits, which muscles are worked, how to perform it, variations, and some common Q & A. Let’s get started…


Muscles Worked

Unbeknownst to many, the kb deadlift is a serious posterior chain exercise. Primarily focused on your hamstrings and glutes, it packs muscle mass onto your body in positions where most lack strength.

Upon initial glance you may think it only works your lower body, but that is not true. Your abdominals and back muscles all work together in a kettlebell deadlift to protect your spine as you lift. Not only that but – if you’re doing the exercise properly – your lats and traps also get a workout. That upper body and core muscular stability and strength winds up translating really well whenever you lift anything heavy in real life.

Visual representation of the muscles worked in a kettlebell deadlift
Muscles worked in a KB Deadlift – the darker the color, the more activation

Finally, you build grip strength. This is especially true when you use a thick handled kettlebell – as your hands have to squeeze even more tightly to hold it. In fact, I’ve never met anyone that can lift heavy objects without a strong grip. And, while the grip impact 1in my experience isn’t as big as doing a kettlebell swing, as the reps pile up it’s a great return on your kettlebell deadlift training investment.


Benefits

Everyone knows exercise in general has a myriad of amazing benefits such as improved joint health, cardiovascular health, and so much more. Virtually any exercise will help you be a healthier person. But the kettlebell deadlift in particular has some additional benefits such as:

1. Posterior body muscle activation – As explained above, this is a great exercises for your legs – specifically your hamstring and glutes – as well as your back. Most people ignore their non-mirror facing muscles so this is a great exercise to balance that out.

2. Core activation – You have to engage your core muscles – both abs and lower back – in order to perform the move properly.

3. Correct imbalances – Once you progress to a single leg version, you’ll probably discover one side is stronger or more flexible than the other. Use that knowledge to work your weaker side and balance out your body.

4. Better Grip Strength – Just holding onto the kettlebell while performing the movement takes grip strength. Use a heavier kettlebell or one with a thick handle for more challenge.

5. Improves posture – If you’re like me, you sit a lot. Excess sitting leads to tight hamstrings, poor hip mobility, rounded shoulders and poor neck positioning. In short, really poor posture. Doing a kettlebell deadlift helps mitigate some of this by strengthening your backside, improving hip extension, and opening up your shoulders.

6. Easy to learn – The kettlebell deadlift is a relatively easy move to learn. Once mastered, you can move on to more advanced movements

7. Enhance coordination and balance – While the kb deadlift is easy to learn, some of the more advanced movements really will test your coordination and balance. This additional body awareness – or proprioception 2 aka kinesthesia, is your body’s ability to sense movement, action, and location translates to your entire being.

8. Low risk – Because it is easy to learn and perform, there’s a lower risk of injury.

9. High reward – A deadlift – and all the various variations – is one of the most functional exercises you can do. It has tremendous carry-over to the real-world movements like picking up a small child 3hopefully yours and not one you picked out at the playground or picking up your delivery box.


Form

There are a few ways to cue the proper deadlift form, but here are the basic steps –

  1. Start standing slightly behind the kettlebell with it between your feet. Keep your hips square, toes facing forward, and feet slightly wider than hip width. “Screw” your feet into the floor and “spread the floor” by pushing your knees out.
  2. Hinge the hips backward and push your butt back. Maintain a straight back.
  3. Bend the knees keeping your back straight with your chest lifted.
  4. Grab the handles of the kettlebell with both hands.
  5. Elbows forward and engage your lats and midback. Keep the tension.
  6. While exhaling, push into the ground and lift the kettlebell straight up. Squeeze shoulder blades tightly while lifting. The kettlebell should up end around your knees.
  7. Squeeze your glutes tight and stand tall. Do not lean backward or overextend your lower back.
  8. Reverse the steps to slowly lower the kettlebell back to the floor.
  9. Repeat
Good posture from @ChadHargrove1

Now be aware of these common errors...

  • The kettlebell is too far out front of your feet; it should be placed around mid-foot and in between your legs.
  • Not resetting at the bottom. When you reset, be sure to come to a quick temporary stop and re-engage your all your muscles.
  • Butt is too low. Your hips should be above your knees – it’s a deadlift, not a squat.
  • Butt is too high. Keep your chest and shoulders up

Variations

 Single Leg Kettlebell Deadlift with one kb
Single Leg Kettlebell Deadlift with one kb

The basic kettlebell deadlift sets you up for plenty of success, but it’s only a starting point move. Once you’ve mastered the kettlebell deadlift with your feet square, you can attack the load in different ways. You can use an offset stance, with one foot slightly in front of the other. Or you can shift the positioning of the load so it’s slightly off-center. Or you can do a single leg deadlift version. All these changes work your muscles differently and help build stability and resiliency against injury.

1. Kettlebell Single Leg Deadlift

In this variation, you simply stand on one leg instead of two. The single leg deadlift equals less stability which means increased coordination and balance. This exercise can be performed with either one or two kettlebells. Using two kettlebells does reduce the core challenge but enhances the posterior chain activation via the additional weight.

2. Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift

Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift
Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift

The sumo position – legs out wide, feet slightly turned out – targets the adductors and groin while reducing load on the back. If you don’t have good hip mobility you’ll probably find it a difficult position to generate a lot of force. Some taller people also find the kettlebell sumo deadlift position uncomfortable. But, if you do have the ability to do this safely, this is a great option that really allows you to overload your legs.

3. Kettlebell Suitcase Deadlift

Kettlebell Suitcase Deadlift
Double Kettlebell Suitcase Deadlift

In this exercise, the weight (or weights) is offset to the side of you, instead of in front. Typically, you’ll see this exercise with a single kettlebell however you can just as easily use two.

If you use just one, for example, the kb may be by the outside of your right foot by your right pinkie toe. Since the weight is offset and lifted only on one side, it takes more core strength to lift and stabilize the kettlebell. If you doing this variation, be careful you don’t smash your toes. The single-arm variation is anti-rotation movement (i.e. you don’t want to twist your torso) that has real-world carryover such as carrying or lifting a suitcase 4hence the name in a car trunk.

Pro tip: It can also be performed with a barbell albeit that is a more advanced move due to the longer lever and instability of the barbell.

4. Kettlebell Single Leg Romanian Deadlift

While not overly complex, a RDL does take more coordination and balance than a “normal” deadlift. It also challenges your ankles, knees, and hips a bit more (in a good way). If you interested in doing the RDL correctly, here’s a good, quick article outlining the steps and some regressions / progressions.

If you’re looking for another type of deadlift, you could always try a trap bar deadlift or even a conventional deadlift.


Q&A

Are kettlebell deadlifts effective?

The question is: effective for what? If you’re talking about posterior chain activation, core development, improved grip strength, and general health or athleticism then the answer is “yes.” Throw-in the fact they’re easy to learn, have some good progressions, and are relatively safe and you have a very effective exercise.

How heavy should a kettlebell deadlift be?

This depends on your fitness goals, strength level, and variation you’re performing. As a general rule, I’d go for the heaviest kettlebell you can use over multiple reps and sets with correct form.

Can kettlebell deadlifts replace a barbell deadlift?

For a lot of folks – good lifters and athletes – I’d say “no.” There’s just not enough weight to most kettlebells to consistently and progressively overload the individual even if you try the harder versions. If all you have is a light kettlebell and the kettlebell deadlift is too easy, you should at least add some other exercises such as kettlebell swings.

For the general population, though, it’s a great exercise. Not only can you learn the right deadlift mechanics, you’ll challenge your body while gaining muscle, balance, and coordination.

Are kettlebell swings like deadlifts?

Yes, in a sense. After all they are both hip dominant (“hip hinge”) exercises with similar start and end positions. Swings, though, are much more dynamic and continuous than a deadlift. They both work your entire posterior chain including your calves, hamstrings, gluteus maximus, and even a tiny bit of your quadriceps at the beginning of the movement. Both are excellent exercises to increase your forearm and trapezius muscle size.

In fact,  a 2010 study found that a kettlebell swing specific training protocol increased relative strength in the power clean. With that said, I wouldn’t necessarily ditch barbell deadlifts for swings (or vice versa). Instead, if you enjoy both, cycle them and use each specific movement to complement the other.

Drop any questions down below. Happy kettlebell deadlifting!

DA
DA is a lifelong athlete who currently trains in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), Judo, and Kickboxing. Since first picking up weights when he was 13, he's been a fitness enthusiast who scours books, studies, and blogs for lifting, health, and nutrition information.