4 Kettlebell Deadlift Variations You Should Be Doing

A kettlebell deadlift performed the right way is one of the most useful exercises women can do.
By Jennifer Lau
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As a strength coach with over a decade of experience, I firmly believe the kettlebell deadlift is one of the most beneficial kettlebell exercises you can do when it comes to a functional strength training program. It’s also one of my personal favorites — It helps me feel my strongest and has improved my overall athletic ability by improving my power output.

Check out some of the benefits:

  • The kettlebell deadlift acts as a stepping stone to the barbell deadlift. Not only can it be less intimidating, but it will also help you gain confidence and “groove” the hinge pattern.
  • It offers tons of variations if you have a limited range of motion or don’t have access to a barbell.
  • Whether it's your first time or you're an advanced lifter, kettlebell deadlifts can help you build muscle in your quads, lower back, glutes, and hamstrings, and increase your power output when running, jumping, and lifting.

Essentially, the kettlebell deadlift is a fantastic lower body and upper body strengthening tool, especially when it comes to your posterior chain.

Strengthening the posterior chain (lats, erectors, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and core) is crucial to improving posture and balance. It also makes everyday activities easier, like when we mimic the hip hinge pattern to pick something up off the ground. Training proper form ensures we can perform this action easily and safely.

The deadlift also improves exercises like pull-ups. Working on your pull-ups too? Avoid these 5 common mistakes.

In this article, I'm going to teach you how to perform the KB deadlift as well as the following four variations:

  1. Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift
  2. Kettlebell Suitcase Deadlift
  3. Kettlebell Kickstand Deadlift
  4. Single-Leg Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift

But before I talk about each of these in detail, I want to answer a commonly asked question.

What’s the Difference Between a Squat and a Deadlift?

A squat is a knee-dominant movement. A deadlift is hip-dominant.

Jennifer demonstrating the difference between a squat and a deadlift

To initiate a squat...

Move your knees first, keeping your torso in an upright position throughout the whole movement.

To initiate a deadlift...

Move your hips first so your torso moves from a 45° angle to an upright position and back again. (For more guidance on the hip hinge, check out this article.)

Basic Cues for a Kettlebell Deadlift

Choose a weight that allows you to perform 3–4 sets of 8 reps with an intensity around 8 out of 10 (1 = lying in bed, 10 = absolute max intensity).

How to Do a Kettlebell Deadlift

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart with the kettlebell handle in line with the middle of your feet.
  • Take a deep breath and engage your core, creating tension throughout your body. While maintaining the tension, send your hips back to find your hinge position. Imagine holding an orange between your chin and your chest to ensure your neck and back stay in a neutral position throughout the movement.
  • Grab the kettlebell with both hands and load your lats by drawing them down and back away from your ears (imagine having to hold a piece of paper in each armpit). Think about externally rotating the pits of your elbows — turning the inner elbow so it faces forward — as you do this. You should feel some tension in your hamstrings.
  • Before standing, imagine splitting the floor with your feet to activate your glutes and maintain tension throughout your lower body (keep this in mind for every variation we talk about today).
  • Drive your hips forward to full extension, exhaling at the top of the movement.
  • Maintaining tension in your core and lats, return to your starting position by sending your hips back and hinging to return the kettlebell to the ground.

To up the intensity if you don't have a heavier weight, you can increase your rep range and/or slow your tempo to allow for more time under tension. Or if you have a resistance band available, add it to the kettlebell to make it a progressive load.

If the range of motion is a challenge, try elevating the kettlebell. As you get more comfortable, continue lowering the KB until you can pull it safely from the ground.

Important note: You may not be able to get to a point where you can deadlift from the floor — and that’s OK! You will still reap major benefits.

Now it’s time to have some fun with variations!

Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift

The kettlebell sumo deadlift helps to target the adductors (inner thigh and groin muscles). The sumo position allows for a smaller range of motion and puts more load on the quads — and less on the lower back — and is thus often favored by lifters looking to pull heavy weight. The structure of a person’s hips and pelvic will often determine how comfortable sumo deadlifts are for them.

How to Do a Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift

  • Begin with your feet shoulder-width apart and slightly externally rotated (toes pointing slightly out), with the kettlebell under your hips.
  • Take a deep breath and engage your core, then send your hips back to find your hinge position. Keeping a neutral spine and neck position, reach for the kettlebell with both hands and load your lats. You should feel tension in your adductors (the inside of your legs) as well as in your hamstrings.
  • Drive your hips forward to full extension, imagining drawing a zipper closed with your glutes on the way up. Exhale at the top of the movement with the kettlebell between your legs.
  • Maintaining tension in your core and with lats still loaded, return to your starting position by sending your hips back and hinging to return the kettlebell to the ground under your hips.

Bonus Move: The Dual Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift

Try using two kettlebells instead of one. You can use this deadlifting variation to increase your load, or as an alternative if you have two lighter kettlebells.

Kettlebell Suitcase Deadlift

This suitcase kettlebell deadlift focuses on anti-rotation strength. As the weight is offset from the center, your core (especially the obliques, in this case) has to work harder to stabilize throughout the movement. This movement pattern also has tons of real-world carryover, like — you guessed it — carrying suitcases, groceries, or a car seat.

How to Do a Kettlebell Suitcase Deadlift

  • Begin with your feet hip-width apart with the kettlebell by the side of your right foot. The kettlebell handle should be pointing forward (just as the handle of a suitcase would).
  • Take a deep breath and engage your core, imagining spreading the load throughout your body. Keeping your spine neutral, send your hips back to find your hinge position.
  • Grab the kettlebell with your right hand and extend your left arm out with tension by creating a fist (this will help keep your shoulders and hips square). Load your right lat and feel the tension in your hamstrings.
  • Drive your hips forward to full extension, exhaling at the top of the movement. The kettlebell should remain as close to your right side as possible. The closer the kettlebell is to you, the more control you will have, and the lighter it will feel.
  • Maintain tension in your core with lats still loaded as you send your hips back and hinge to return the kettlebell to the floor.
  • Repeat the movement on the other side.

Kettlebell Kickstand Deadlift

The kickstand kettlebell deadlift is another offset deadlift variation that helps develop strength and stability while targeting unilateral strength.

How to Do a Kettlebell Kickstand Deadlift

  • Begin with your feet hip-width apart and the kettlebell on the right side. Draw your right toes slightly behind your left heel. Your right foot will act as a “kickstand” as you load your left leg.
  • Take a deep breath. With an engaged core and neutral spine, send your hips back to find your hinge position.
  • Grab the kettlebell with your right hand and extend your left arm out with tension by creating a fist. Load your right lat and feel the tension in your left hamstring.
  • Drive your hips forward to full extension, exhaling at the top of the movement. The kettlebell should remain in front of your right leg, tracking your left leg through this movement. Remember, the closer the kettlebell is to you, the more control you will have, and the lighter it will feel.
  • Maintain tension in your core and keep your lats loaded as you return to your starting position by sending your hips back and hinging to return the kettlebell to the floor.
  • Repeat the movement on the other side.

Single-Leg Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift

The single-leg Romanian kettlebell deadlift will also challenge your stability and mobility. As a bonus, it works your ankle complex, which makes it a great movement for runners. (Try it with this full-body workout.)

As you’re performing this movement, keep in mind that you are aiming to create a T with your body.

How to Do a Single-Leg Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift

  • Begin with your feet hip-width apart, the kettlebell handle in line with the middle of your feet. Use conventional KB deadlift form to hinge forward and grab the kettlebell with both hands. Drive your hips forward to full extension, exhaling at the top of the movement. The kettlebell should be in front of your body, close to your thighs.
  • Draw your right toes slightly behind your left heel. Take a deep breath and engage your core, creating tension throughout your body.
  • Send your hips back to find your hinge position, extending the right leg and bringing your torso parallel to the ground. Imagine a straight line from the top of your head to your right heel as you hinge. Maintain a neutral spine.
  • Ensure your right heel is pointed up to help keep your hips square to the ground.
  • Maintain tension in your core and lats as you drive your hips forward to full extension, standing tall and exhaling at the top of the movement. The kettlebell should track your left leg through this movement.
  • Return the kettlebell to the floor by sending your hips back, hinging forward, and placing the kettlebell back in its starting position.
  • Repeat the movement on the other side.

Depending on the weight of your kettlebells, you can also try the movement with only one hand for a further challenge.

Feeling strong? You should!

By mastering those 4 kettlebell deadlift variations, you’re setting yourself up for some major strength gains — and you’re going to notice a positive difference both in and out of the gym.

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About the author:  Jennifer Lau

Jennifer is a highly accomplished celebrity trainer and holistic nutritionist with over 10 years of experience in the health and fitness industry. Her passion to empower women has led her to become a leader in female training. She is co-owner of Fit Squad, Toronto’s newest premium training facility; the head coach of Fenom training, an all-women strength training program at Fit Squad; and the co-founder of The Real Toronto, a movement created to empower the diverse women in Toronto’s health and fitness industry by creating a space for them to connect, network, and thrive. Jennifer is a Nike Master Trainer for Canada and can be found featured on the NTC (Nike Training Club) App and NTC Premium App. She was also featured on Flare Magazine’s 2019 “How I Made It” list, which celebrates the top 50 ambitious and successful millennials from across Canada who are changing the world.

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