4 Kettlebell Deadlift Variations You Should Be Doing

By Karen Smith

If you are looking for a single exercise that can help you:

  • get stronger
  • gain muscle
  • burn tons of calories
  • improve your athletic performance
  • help reduce your risk of injury

...then look no further than a (properly performed) deadlift.

The deadlift is one of my all-time favorite exercises. It is incredibly empowering to lift something heavy, and it never gets old seeing a student get excited the first time they pull a heavy weight they didn’t think they could. They get addicted quickly and want more!

If you are a beginner to deadlifting, then kettlebells are the perfect place to start, and if you're more advanced, there are several variations that can up the ante and keep you challenged.

In my opinion, some variation of the deadlift should be in everyone’s training program. There is such great carryover to strengthening all other lifts as a result of training the deadlift. Even exercises that you wouldn't normally associate with deadlifts (like pull-ups) get great carryover.

Ladies, I promise you that if you start working toward your one and a half to two times your bodyweight deadlift, your pull-up will feel much easier. Deadlifts are a full body movement that primarily work your glutes and legs, but when done heavy, you will also notice your entire core and upper back working hard as well.

In addition, deadlifts improve your shoulder stability and strengthen your grip. And there are so many different variations of deadlifts, that there is something for everyone, whether you're a beginner or advanced trainee. In this article, I will coach you on the sumo deadlift (single and double bell), suitcase deadlift (single and double bell), single leg deadlift, and a kickstand deadlift.

The video tutorial at the end of this article will give you detailed instructions for each variation. However, there are a few technique details that are the same regardless of which deadlift variation you select.

Basics Cues for the Deadlift

  • Neutral spine and eyes on the horizon
  • Hips should hinge vs. squat
  • Lats should be engaged

Squat vs. Hinge

In the photos above, the movement on the left is a squat, and the movement on the right is a hinge.

Breathing is also very important when lifting heavy loads. If you are lifting something close to a 1RM (one rep max), you might find you have to hold your breath to completion of the repetition. However, with regular reps/set, you would want to inhale and exhale. As you hinge at the hips to set up for the deadlift, take a big sniff of air in through your nose into your belly.

As you push through the floor to stand up, utilize a ‘tension breath exhalation’ that matches the hip drive back to full hip extension. If you are not familiar with a tension breath, it's easy—make a "tsssssss" sound by pressing your tongue against the back of your teeth as you exhale.

Note:  the tension breath is not recommended for those with high blood pressure or heart conditions. Check with your physician prior to trying any new skill, even a new breathing technique.

Stay tuned at the end of this article for a full video tutorial, demonstrating all of the deadlift variations we’re about to cover.

Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift

  • molly-sumo-deadlift-kettlebells-350x375Stand with feet shoulder width apart
  • Toes slightly turned out
  • Bell placed between your feet or slightly behind ankles
  • Inhale through your nose
  • Hinge at the hips
  • Reach for the bell
  • Load your lats
  • Keep a neutral spine with eyes on the horizon
  • Press through floor and stand up

Note: Your breath matches the hip drive on all deadlift variations. Also, if you are advancing to double bells (heavier load), widen your feet slightly (refer to video at the end).

Kettlebell Suitcase Deadlift

  • molly-suitcase-deadlift-kettlebells-350x375Stand with feet slightly more narrow than shoulders
  • Toes facing forward
  • Bell placed on the outside of your foot (or both feet if advancing to double bells)
  • Inhale through your nose
  • Hinge at the hips, knees should track the toes
  • Reach for the bell
  • Load your lats
  • Keep a neutral spine with eyes on the horizon
  • Press through the floor and stand up

Note: A common error with the single bell suitcase deadlift is that people lean sideways to pick it up. You should still hinge and keep the spine neutral. If you are not flexible enough to reach bell on the ground without leaning sideways, elevate the bell on a stop or plate.

Single Leg deadlift

  • molly-1legRDL-450x340Plant one foot on the ground
  • Extend one foot behind you with a straight leg (pushing through the heel)
  • Bell placement (refer to the video for the different places to place the bell)
  • Inhale through your nose
  • Hinge at the hips
  • Reach for the bell
  • Load the lats
  • Keep a neutral spine with eyes on the horizon
  • Tense the glute on the working side, press through the floor and stand back up

Note: Remember to start with just bodyweight to learn proper alignment and balance, and to not rush through the sticking point. This is a great progression for gaining balance and strength for pistols, and to improve the lunge portion of your Turkish Getup.

Kick Stand Deadlift

  • molly-kickstand-deadlift-450x303Stand with feet very narrow
  • Bells placed on the outside of each foot
  • Plant working foot solid on the ground
  • You will be on the toes of the non-working foot
  • Inhale through your nose
  • Hinge at the hips, loading the glute and hamstrings on the working side
  • Non-working side is soft (your kickstand)
  • Reach for the bells with a neutral grip close by your side
  • Load your lats
  • Keep a neutral spine with eyes on the horizon
  • Tense the glutes, press through the floor and stand back up using a tension breath

Note: This is a great skill to load heavy. Try not to “shrug” up at the top.

Watch this tutorial video to see each deadlift variation demonstrated fully!

Practicing each of these variations will help you learn the proper movement patterns, and build a solid foundation of strength so you can progress to more advanced deadlift variations.  If you have access to a Trap Bar, that can be a great bridge between the kettlebell and the barbell. If not, then you can progress to barbell deadlift variations once your bells are too light.

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About the author:  Karen Smith

Karen Smith is a highly-respected trainer and coach specializing in kettlebell and bodyweight strength training. She is a StrongFirst SFG Master Instructor and Chief Bodyweight Instructor. Karen travels the world instructing and certifying individuals through StrongFirst, and works with clients online and in person.

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