How Kettlebell Deadlifting Makes You Stronger

Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S.
·5 min read
Photo credit: Eric Rosati
Photo credit: Eric Rosati

From Men's Health

True story: The deadlift movement pattern is one you use way more than you may think. Yes, you do it in the gym, when you gut out barbell deadlifts and trap bar deadlifts. But you see that heavy box over there in the corner of your living room? There’s a good chance that when you walk over to lift it up, your body will shift into your own personal deadlift movement pattern: You’ll bend at the waist, bend your knees a touch, wrap your hands around the box, and then aim to hinge back up to lift the box.

And that’s all part of why the kettlebell deadlift is an exercise that you should learn and master. Sure, the classic barbell deadlift is the gold standard version of the exercise, but it’s also a more specialized motion, says MH fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S.

“The barbell deadlift places the loads outside your body in the form of those weight plates,” says Samuel. “And that’s great for building strength for a variety of reasons. But the kettlebell deadlift places a single centralized load before your body, and that’s much more similar to picking up a box, or even an oddly shaped object like a boulder outside.”

Master the kettlebell deadlift, and you’ve taught your body the optimal way to pick up loads in everyday life, setting you up for success in everything from your next big moving day to your next run to CostCo. “This is a great way to start your deadlift journey,” says Samuel. “Eventually, you may want to try trap bar deadlifts and barbell deadlifts, but starting here gives you a good base for how to move.

The Muscles You Work When Doing Kettlebell Deadlifts

The basic kettlebell deadlift does more than teach you to lift a box. It’s also packing muscle onto your body in positions where you need critical strength. “You’re building serious hamstring and glute muscle, but that’s not it,” says Samuel.

Abs, lower back muscles, and obliques all come together in the kettlebell deadlift to protect your spine as you lift, a skill that winds up translating well whenever you lift anything heavy in real life. And your lats and midback muscles also get a serious workout. “You need to squeeze your lats and shoulder blades tightly,” says Samuel, “and this is sometimes easier to learn with the kettlebell deadlift than it is with the barbell deadlift.”

Finally, you build grip strength. Especially when you grip a heavier kettlebell, with a thick handle, your hands have to squeeze tightly to maintain it. As the reps pile up, that’s serious forearm bang for your training buck.

The basic kettlebell deadlift sets you up for plenty of success, but it’s also only a starting point move, says Samuel. “Once you’ve mastered the deadlift with your feet square, you can attack the load in different ways,” he says. “You can use an offset stance, shifting one foot slightly backwards and lifting your back heel off the ground, placing more challenge on the front leg. Or you can shift the positioning of the load so it’s slightly off-center. All these things challenge your muscles and your fascia as well, building stability and resiliency against injury in unique planes.”

These other options are definitely for advanced users, but they speak to the versatility of this baseline kettlebell move.

How to Do the Kettlebell Deadlift

To do the kettlebell deadlift, first choose a relatively heavy kettlebell. “You want some load to this,” says Samuel, “not something light. It should be something relatively challenging to lift.” Then follow these steps.

  • Start standing slightly behind your kettlebell, feet slightly wider than shoulder width core tight.

  • Hinge forward at the waist and push your butt back, lowering your torso and grasping the kettlebell firmly with both hands.

  • Turn the pits of your elbows forward, powering up your lats and midback muscles. Maintain this tension.

  • Tighten your glutes and hamstrings, driving your butt a few inches lower. Maintain this tension.

  • Exhale and lift the kettlebell straight up.

  • Squeeze your glutes and shoulder blades. Slowly lower it back to the ground. That's 1 rep. Do 3 sets of 8 to 10.

Common Kettlebell Deadlift Mistakes

The kettlebell deadlift seems easy, but it’s easy to make mistakes. Here are several common ones to avoid.

Setting Up Too Far Away

“Very often, first-timers set up with the weight far from their shins,” says Samuel. “That positions you to place the challenge of the load on your back instead of your hamstrings.” Don’t be afraid to get close to the bell.

Skipping Lat Engagement

Yes, you can lift the kettlebell without tightening your lats. “But doing so opens you to shoulder issues,” says Samuel. “You also don’t get the full back benefit of the move.” Always make sure to squeeze lats and shoulder blades as you lift.

Skipping the Squeeze

You may not think you need to squeeze your glutes and shoulder blades hard at the end of every rep. You stood with the weight anyway, right? Wrong. “Make those two final bits of every deadlift intentional, no matter what piece of gear you’re using,” says Samuel. “The deadlift is meant to help teach us hip extension, but we miss the final bit of that if we don’t actively squeeze our glutes.”

For more tips and routines from Samuel, check out our full slate of Eb and Swole workouts.

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