Kettlebell deadlift vs barbell: ONE winner!

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Kettlebell deadlifts are less taxing on your lower back than barbell deadlifts. This is because the form used is subtly different and the weight lifted is typically much lower. The real question though is whether the kettlebell deadlift variation is actually USEFUL… You bet it is, for some of us. Here’s what you need to know.

Kettlebell deadlift vs barbell: ONE winner!

At a glance…

  • Choosing between kettlebell or barbell deadlifts is a personal decision based on training goals
  • Kettlebell deadlifts are better for aerobic, GPP or power based goals
  • Barbell deadlifts are superior for strength based training programs
  • Using a kettlebell changes the form of a deadlift – it is quite similar to a trap bar deadlift
  • Why not try KB deadlifts as an ACCESSORY to conventional deadlifts?

Are kettlebell deadlifts as effective as barbell deadlifts?

To determine how effective a kettlebell deadlift is we need to define our goals. Both barbell and KB variations will achieve ‘a deadlift’, but whether that lift contributes to our bigger goals – be it strength or physique – is what really matters.

Training for strength? Stick to barbells.

Strength training is typically focused around low reps with heavy weights. Powerlifters are even more specific still with their strength being based on a total for squat / bench / deadlift.

Using a barbell allows much more weight to be loaded safely and easily and therefore for strength trainees a barbell deadlift is superior to a kettlebell.

What about for physique?

Deadlifts are not a brilliant hypertrophy (or muscle building & sculpting) exercise. I have done them relentlessly for over a decade and in my experience physique changes are more notably triggered by other lower body moves such as RDLs, split squats or front squats.

I think deadlifting is awesome to keep a healthy and well balanced body BUT for hypertrophy I don’t think they are 100% required. This means I keep them in my program – but when training for hypertrophy I want to mange the fatigue generated. Kettlebells are a great way to do this as kettlebell deadlifts are less taxing than barbell deadlifts.

What is a deadlift, and how does using a kettlebell change it?

A deadlift is a compound exercise recruiting your back and legs to facilitate standing up with a loaded weight hanging in front of you. In its basic form it’s done from a dead stop on the ground (thus the name) and is considered a ‘hip hinge’ as you drive the hips forward to straighten up.

Being hip driven there is not a lot of knee work as, depending on your body, your knees will be pretty straight so don’t need to travel through a particularly long range of motion when lifting. 

As a compound movement it does involve a ton of muscles as you hold the barbell in your hands and drive with your legs, but for most people it is predominantly back and hamstrings with other muscles as stabilisers. I am one of the fortune group who also manage to get quite a bit of trap work from deadlifts – but not everyone finds this is the case.

Most powerlifters will have the deadlift as their strongest lift in terms of absolute weight lifted.

How does a kettlebell deadlift differ?

Kettlebell deadlifts are different to barbell deadlifts in a number of ways:

  • Weight distribution – kettlebells hang directly down pulling your arms with them. Barbells have the weight fixed at the ends with options for grip width in between.
  • Free movement – a barbell range of motion is impacted by where it touches your legs. Kettlebells do not have this factor – you can have your feet DIRECTLY in the middle of the kettlebells if you want. This allows the form to change dramatically if you want it to – switching focus from hamstrings to glutes is possible for instance.
  • Grip style – single kettlebell deadlifts will have one KB inside your stance versus a double KB deadlift having one in each hand at shoulder width. A barbell allows grip variations from ultra wide snatch-grip style deadlifts all the way through to something closer to a sumo deadlift.
  • Hand position – kettlebells allow neutral grip (palms facing each other) like a trap bar deadlift. Conventional barbells force the hands to work with the straight barbell in front of us which can cause issues with grip for some people (including torn biceps in some extreme cases).
  • Less loadable – barbells are easy to load from 20kg (empty bar) all the way through to hundreds of kilos. I can micro-load a barbell in increments as low as 0.5kg! Kettlebells are more awkward and harder to finely manage as the weight increments are much higher (often 4kg jumps between ‘bells).

These combine to make the kettlebell a far more flexible tool than a traditional barbell deadlift for tweaking the movement to suit your goals, but at the price of being more awkward to load heavily, or finely.

Comparing like for like also becomes harder due to the inherent flexibility of the KB movement vs the fairly ubiquitous conventional deadlift.

Kettlebell deadlift: Trap bar substitute?

Noting the above differences I find that a KB deadlifts is closer to a trap bar deadlift than a conventional barbell one. This is due to the ability to ‘sit back’ in to the weight and lift in a more quad focused way. This is further emphasised by the neutral, shoulder width grip and the relatively high height they are lifted from compared to a traditional barbell.

It feels more like a trap bar deadlift than a conventional one to me as the emphasis drops off from the lower back as you can get more of your body upright in to the centre of mass. I actually think a KB deadlift is a useful SQUAT accessory for these reasons!

Deadlift variations: Not all can be done with a kettlebell

As your training advances you likely move to include some accessories or supplementary lifts when deadlifting. Personally I usually bounce back to Romanian deadlifts most training cycles for the hypertrophy and physique benefits over conventional deadlifts alone!

Some of the variations can be done with a kettlebell – so RDL, single leg RDL, stiff legged deadlift – but others are not possible e.g. snatch grip is hard to replicate as the kettlebells pull your arms downwards perpendicular to the ground.

Kettlebell deadlifts themselves can be an awesome accessory to sit alongside barbell lifts – something to consider!

How heavy should you go on kettlebell deadlifts?

Kettlebell deadlifts lend themselves to higher rep work at lighter weights. Work in sets of 10-20 reps if starting out and taper the number of reps up or down depending on your training goals. Heavier, lower rep work is more commonly associated with strength goals vs higher rep hypertrophy or endurance/GPP work.

As noted above I do not think kettlebells are ideal for pure strength training so I tend to go high reps to build work capacity and cardiovascular system.

Do you need two kettlebells to deadlift?

You do not need two kettlebells for KB deadlifts. There are a few options available:

  • Two kettlebells – One in each hand. This is the most like a barbell deadlift in that both hands dead hang down and pick up a heavy weight
  • One kettlebell – Alternating between left and right hand for each set. This will add a bit of core training your deadlifting as it tries to twist you out of position! This is less feasible as weights go upwards for this reason.
  • One kettlebell – Double handed grip on a kettlebell positioned between your legs makes this the easiest movement to master. The downside is that the weight of the kettlebell required will ramp up quickly

Using a single KB with a two handed grip is closer to a sumo deadlift where the grip is inside the knees whereas a double kettlebell deadlift is more like conventional grip width.

How to kettlebell deadlift

As you can probably tell there are a ton of variables when deadlifting with kettlebells so there is no single form to follow. My preferred technique is as follows:

  • Feet: Shoulder width apart with toes pointing out at around 30 degrees
  • Kettlebell: A single heavy kettlebell positioned directly between my feet
  • Grip: grip the handle overhand with both hands, arms straight
  • Eyes: Eyes forward looking straight ahead (or slightly up!)
  • Hips: Keep hips as high as I can while maintaining a straight back
  • Lift: Lift by driving hips forward to drive my shoulders up
  • Range of motion: Kettlebell should move straight up and down

There are multiple ways to tweak this to suit you, but I like the cross over from this technique to conventional barbell work.

WHEN to program KB deadlifts?

Try fit your KB work in as accessories to your barbell work. For example if you conventional barbell deadlift on day 1 then try KB deadlifts on day 3. Used as assistance work kettlebells can really drive your progress without adding way too much fatigue to your system!

If you’re not interested in barbell work then I would slot in kettlebell deadlifts on a lower body or back day – so in with goblet squats, leg extensions or with rows and hyper extensions.

What can go wrong when doing them?

There are a few risks when lifting with kettlebells to watch for. The good news is that they tend to self right – a KB will always try to hang straight down so they self right themselves! A few of the issues are:

  • KB too far away – if you have a kettlebell too far away when you lift it off the ground it will swing to hang directly under your shoulder. This may pull you out of position.
  • Grip rotates – whereas a barbell is a fixed grip kettlebells can spin. You will want to brace and lock your grip to channel your power most efficiently and not spin yourself out of balance.
  • Lose focus – remember your deadlift is a back and hip movement. It is easy in the more dynamic lifts to end up just sloppily moving around. FOCUS on the movement and muscles you are working. Keep your low back engaged and braced to get the most from the exercise.

KB deadlift vs kettlebell swings: FIGHT!

Kettlebell deadlifts and swings are similar as, at their cores, they are hip hinge movements. A swing focuses on speed, control and momentum compared to a slower deadlift. As a result the loading and programming associated tend to vary a lot.

Swings are more taxing on the cardiovascular system and work the shoulders MORE than a deadlift, BUT as they are more dynamic there is what feels like a larger chance of injury if you lose control. Discipline is needed to control the kettlebell and stop at the right height in front of you while also stopping it from dragging you down and rounding your back when it swings between your legs.

Which is better – kettlebell swing or deadlift? I would choose a kettlebell swing. The dynamic movement trains POWER and as a result the cardio system MORE than the much slower deadlift. I think this is a better way to utilise the comparatively light weights offered by kettlebells.

Where do dumbbells fit in with kettle or barbells when deadlifting?

Dumbbells are more similar to kettlebells than they are barbells. They are independent weights with a handle that can be used single or double handed. For the purposes of deadlifting they are not particularly popular as, similar to kettlebells, they are limited by their awkward loading and lack of suitability to strength training as a result. 

Dumbbells deadlifts are more awkward than kettlebell equivalents as the handles are between the weight plates and more difficult to hold (single or double handed) as a result. The additional length of having the weights at each side make them more unruly when deadlifting as the weights ramp up.

Can kettlebells replace a barbell?

I do not think a kettlebell can replace a barbell in a gym routine if you are focused on strength goals. Barbells offer a superior loading system and allow us to hit the main powerlifting movements.

Kettlebells are still great and you can have an awesome training career with kettlebells – but they are better suited to CrossFit, GPP, aerobic or physique goals over pure strength. 

With that said, even if focused on these goals I would still pick a barbell if I had to choose between one or other as they are more versatile in my experience, not to mention far cheaper compared to a full set of kettlebells. Luckily we rarely have to choose one or other and we can mix it up to suit our preferences – just now I use kettlebells periodically in my training but as a compliment to barbell work.

Conclusion

When looking at a kettlebell vs barbell deadlift it comes down to what your training ambitions are: if you wan to build a ton of strength then the barbell deadlift is far superior as it can be loaded accurately and to a far higher weight than kettlebells. If your ambitions are around general fitness or power the choice becomes less clear cut – in these instances the trap-bar style form and reduced of lower back fatigue make the kettlebell deadlift a really good option to try out.

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