Kettlebell Swings and Deadlifts are both excellent exercises for strength and conditioning, but they are quite different.
Kettlebell Swings are a dynamic movement that builds powerful hip extension, while Deadlifts are a more controlled exercise that focuses on building strength in the lower body. Kettlebell Swings are also often used as a conditioning tool, while deadlifts are typically used to build muscle.
Both exercises offer great benefits, so it’s important to understand the differences in order to get the most out of your workout.
Is one better at building strength? Are the muscles worked the same? Are Kettlebell Swings or Deadlifts easier for beginners?
In this guide, I’m going to explain exactly what each exercise is, how to do them, and then compare the two against each other to give you an idea of which exercise you should be doing and when.
First, Kettlebell Swings.
- Kettlebell (you can also use a dumbbell by grabbing the end of it)
- Approach the kettlebell with a stance slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Take a deep breath, slightly bend the knees, hinge at the waist, and squeeze the kettlebell with both hands.
- Maintain a neutral spine, eyes focused on something just in front of you. (DO NOT CRANE THE NECK).
- Initiate the movement by pulling the dumbbell off the ground and into the “power position”.
- The power position is where the hips are flexed (loaded), knees are slightly bent, and you are now going to drive the kettlebell forward.
- Extend the hips and knees (DO NOT LET GO OF THE KETTLEBELL), driving the kettlebell forward.
- The kettlebell will drift from the hip extension to about shoulder height but should not go any higher.
- Gravity will bring the kettlebell back down.
- Actively “pull” the kettlebell back to the power position. You should never feel loose or out of control as you swing.
- As you pull the kettlebell and prepare for the next rep, remember to keep a tight abdomen and upper back.
- This movement is fast and works on rapid force development via hip and knee extension.
The Kettlebell Swing is a great movement to train rapid hip extension and flexion. Remember to always keep a neutral spine (DO NOT ROUND YOUR BACK).
Choosing the proper kettlebell weight is important. Heavier is not always better. Because of the rapid nature of the kettlebell swing, the emphasis should be on velocity, speed, and power.
I would recommend starting light and you will be able to increase weight easily as you get more comfortable with the movement.
I highly recommend novice lifters to start with the kettlebell swing before moving to more complicated movements such as cleans or snatches.
Some of the potential benefits of this exercise include:
- It can improve overall strength and power. Kettlebell swings require the use of large, explosive movements, which can help to increase strength and power in the upper and lower body.
- It can improve cardiovascular fitness. Because kettlebell swings are a high-intensity exercise, they can raise the heart rate and improve cardiovascular endurance.
- Kettlebell swings require the engagement of the core muscles to maintain proper form, which can help to improve posture and core stability.
- Bumper or Iron Plates
- Lifting Straps (optional)
The deadlift is a very basic movement; there is a setup, a concentric movement (pulling the bar off the ground), an isometric hold (locking the repetition in), and an eccentric movement (lowering the bar back to the ground before the start of the next repetition).
One of the most important considerations for Deadlifting is the setup. Two stances need to be considered; traditional, slightly wider than shoulder-width stance, or a wide, sometimes referred to as a “Sumo” stance. (More on Sumo Deadlifts)
An athlete should determine their deadlift stance based on a number of factors:
- What feels comfortable.
- Limb-Torso length ratios (An athlete with longer arms may find that they prefer a wider stance).
- Sport Specificity (An Olympic lifter would find more benefit from the traditional stance as it is more specific to their sport. Conversely, a defensive lineman may find some benefit from a wider stance depending on the time of year in their season).
Once a stance is chosen, a proper setup is critical for executing the lift properly, to reap the benefits of the movement and minimize the risks of injury.
When the athlete approaches the barbell, they should:
- Place their feet slightly wider than shoulder-width (The width of a stance for an athlete choosing a wide stance will vary based on height and comfortability).
- Slightly turn their feet outward (engaging the glutes).
- Take a deep breath to brace the abdominal muscles.
- The athlete should hinge at the waist and bend at the knee simultaneously until they can comfortably squeeze the barbell with both hands pronated (I will talk more later about mixed grips later in the article).
- As the athlete pulls themselves down into their setup position, they should maintain a neutral head posture, with their eyes fixed on something about 1-2 feet in front of them.
- In the final setup position, the athlete should pull their chest up, and shoulder blades back, while still maintaining a brace in their abdominal muscles and ready to lift.
The athlete is now ready for the concentric movement of the Deadlift. The athlete needs to pull the “slack” out of the barbell.
This is where the lifter needs to create tension by slightly pulling into the barbell and pushing their feet into the floor before maximal contraction/attempts.
Once this tension is created, the lifter drives their feet through the floor, drives the hips forward, keeping tension in the abdomen and upper back (DO NOT ROUND YOUR BACK), maintaining the barbell over the midfoot, the lifter stands tall with the barbell, and locks the repetition in.
It is important that each repetition is locked in and controlled at the top of the movement. This is considered an isometric hold. This hold generally only needs to be about 1 second.
Specifically for powerlifting, a judge will tell the lifter when they can lower the weight but it is also important for athletes and general lifters to maintain good control of their repetitions at all times and with all attempts.
After locking in the repetition for about 1 second, the athlete is ready to lower the weight. The athlete will take in a big breath, maintaining a braced core and shoulder blades pulled together. The hips will push back and the knees will bend simultaneously.
The bar should maintain a position over the midfoot and should never rest on the thighs during this movement. The athlete will continue to lower the barbell until the weights rest on the floor and prepare for the next repetition.
Now, let’s talk about gripping the bar. For most field and court sports athletes, gripping the bar with an overhand grip is what I would recommend.
The main reason I recommend this grip is that the athlete is deadlifting to gain strength and athletes should be training symmetrically as much as possible.
This is not to say that a mixed grip is bad for lifters. A mixed grip in some cases will help the lifter pull more weight. But again, I must stress, that lifting more weight for “more weight’s” sake is not a good reason.
Some lifters may switch which grips they mix (right-supinated, left pronated and vice versa) but this will be hard to track after hundreds of reps and sets over the course of a lifter’s career.
Obviously, a powerlifter will be training with the grip that they see that helps them pull the most weight.
By far the most common mistake with Deadlifting is not keeping a braced core and allowing the back to round. This is a mistake that must be corrected immediately as it has the potential to result in injury.
In regards to your setup and form; treat every rep like it’s a 1 rep max. Put a tremendous amount of detail in your setup (Do it the exact same way, every rep)
Make small gains in weight over time. Deadlifting is not a race.
Deadlifts are a type of strength training exercise that have a number of benefits. Some of the benefits of deadlifts include increased muscle mass and strength, improved posture and balance, and increased flexibility and range of motion in the hips and lower back.
Deadlifts can also help to improve overall athletic performance, as well as increase bone density and reduce the risk of injury.
Kettlebell Swings vs Deadlifts: Which is Better?
Now that you’re well-versed in both lifts, let’s compare the two side-by-side.
Better For Developing Strength: Deadlift
This is a landslide in my opinion because I believe Deadlifts are one the best exercises for developing strength, period. So, in a battle of building strength, Deadlifts are going to win against most exercises.
Kettlebell Swings can also build strength, but they are designed as more of an explosive exercise aligned with power development.
The other issue Kettlebell Swings have is most lifters are going to be limited by the size of kettlebell they have access to. For example, if you have a 500-pound deadlift, but the biggest kettlebell in your gym is 36 pounds – you’re going to have an issue trying to build strength with Kettlebell Swings.
Better For Building Muscle: Deadlift
Deadlifts are the clear winner for building muscle as well for the same reasons they are better for building strength.
Deadlifts use almost every single muscle group in the body to move a large amount of weight off the floor. This generates a ton of strength development as well as muscle growth.
Again, Kettlebell Swings can (and will) build muscle, but not nearly to the extent that Deadlifts will.
Better For Beginners: Kettlebell Swings
The area that Kettlebell Swings do have an advantage over Deadlifts is that they are more beginner-friendly. Both the starting position and movement are easier to learn and easier to do.
Being able to use lighter weights is an advantage here for Kettlebell Swings as well. Unless you have specialized training bars and very light bumper plates, the minimum weight you can start Deadlifting with may be too much for a complete beginner.
I’ve just spent an entire article comparing Kettlebell Swings vs Deadlifts. However, the truth is, there is no reason you shouldn’t have both exercises in your strength training program.
Both are excellent exercises for building strength, power and hypertrophy. Both exercises complement each other well and incorporating both into your training can also add much-needed variety.
So, my suggestion would be instead of trying to decide between the two exercises, figure out how you can utilize both Kettlebell Swings and Deadlifts in your training plan.