Kettlebell Deadlifting for Strength? Yes, It's Possible

"You're going to hurt yourself trying to pick that up. It's really heavy."

How many times have you heard this in your life? I couldn't tell you how many times my mom and dad have tried to warn me that I'm going to hurt myself deadlifting, or picking up heavy boxes. As I knock on wood, I'm still waiting for this day to occur. This is the misconception throughout the world today. It's not heavy weight that hurts us. It's how we pick said heavy weight up that does.

We always talk about how the deadlift carries over into everyday life, using examples like picking up grocery bags or children off the floor. Off the top of your head, I guarantee you can think of a handful of people that have blown their backs out doing something as simple as bending over to pick up a book bag. The Cliff Notes version to this lower back pain epidemic is caused by dysfunctional movement through the hips. When we can't use our hips properly, we compensate through our lower backs and knees resulting in pain at either/or, and in some cases, both regions.

As fitness professionals, we'd be doing our clients a disservice if we didn't teach them how to deadlift properly. The deadlift is considered the king of all exercises in the fitness world. Google the word "deadlift", and you'll receive just under 10 million different results. That's not a typo.

10 million results. 

With an overwhelming amount of information at our fingertips, where the hell do we start? For me, the kettlebell deadlift is the easiest variation to teaching a solid hip hinge. 

The kettlebell's handle stays directly under our center of mass, which makes it easier to stay compact and maintain tension. The barbell deadlift, whether conventional or sumo, is much more complex due to hand and foot positioning. With the kettlebell, I'll teach individuals to set up hip width apart with their feet, and we could adjust as they start to get the hang of the movement. 

Some folks may never have to play around with the barbell, as heavier kettlebells will be tough enough. The people that come to mind in this scenario include (but aren't limited to) the elderly and those that have had operations on their spine or pelvis. When this is the case, just practicing with a kettlebell might be all they need from here on out. Nowadays, kettlebells weight up to 203 pounds. If your gym supplies these bells, it might be in your best interest to stick with the kettlebell until this weight becomes too easy. 

An average gym typically won't have kettlebells that weight greater than 106 pounds. If you train at one of these gyms, you're not out of luck. As you begin to adapt and the kettlebell  starts to feel light, you'll need to progress to a tougher variation. This is where the barbell can come into play, but that's a topic for another day. For those that feel like they're not ready to utilize the barbell, or might not have access to one, there's a bunch of different ways to create a more demanding challenge through the kettlebell.

Here are three examples of how to do so:

1.) Kettlebell Pause Deadlift

By pausing the deadlift at mid-shin, it requires you to remain tense throughout the duration of the rep. If not, you'll feel a ton of pressure (and pain) in your lower back. Doesn't sound too fun, right?

I've been in this scenario before, and had sharp pain throughout my lower back. I couldn't figure it out, but everything just seemed to click with some practice. The pause deadlift forces you to stay tight through your abdominals and upper back like nothing else. Because of the self-correcting component behind the pause deadlift, I love incorporating them for individuals that lose upper back tension once they come off the floor.

Two second pauses at the shin are more than enough to start. I would stick with sets of no more than 6 to 8 reps. As you get better, you could pause slightly longer or even add another kettlebell to the equation to make it tougher.

2.) Kettlebell Deficit Deadlift

As stated earlier, the kettlebell deadlift isn't as demanding on hip mobility. To increase the range of motion, simply set up on top of an elevated platform. As you can see in the video above, bumper plates work just fine.

With the deficit deadlift, it's important to avoid letting the knees drift too far forward on the descent. At the end of the day this is still a deadlift, not a squat. You'll know you're doing it right if you feel a great deal of tension within your hamstrings.

Similar to the pause deadlifts, sticking within the 6 to 8 rep scheme is a solid starting point. To make the deficit deadlift even tougher, you can increase the platform to a greater deficit over time. Don't get too crazy though, we don't want to start using our lower back to pick the bell up.

3.) Two Kettlebell Deadlift

Last, but certainly not least, would be the two kettlebell deadlift. By adding another kettlebell to the movement, you're essentially replicating a sumo deadlift stance.

In the above video, both kettlebells weight 106 pounds each, totaling up to 212 pounds. To be completely honest with you, this is much tougher than doing sets of 225, and even 275 on a barbell.

Here at Iron Lion Performance, we love using two kettlebell deadlifts to deload after a heavy phase of sumo deadlifting. The total load isn't as taxing on our nervous system, but the compact nature of the kettlebell makes it a challenge in itself. 

There's nothing wrong with solely sticking to the kettlebell deadlift. In fact, I'd argue that a lot of people that deal with discomfort from barbell deadlifting would benefit greatly from practicing their pattern through the kettlebell. Once the kettlebell deadlift is mastered, then movements like the swing, clean, and snatch can be practiced. It's a fallacy to state that you can't get strong using just a kettlebell.

Over the next couple of weeks, I'll be breaking down the kettlebell swing and different drills that can be utilized to achieve the best swing you're capable of performing. Stay tuned!