Both kettlebell swings and deadlifts are great for training the posterior chain — the muscles along the backside of the body like the glutes, hamstrings, lower back, and calves.
As such, both movements are used widely across different types of athletes, from beginner lifters to powerlifters and team sports athletes.
So, what are the differences between the kettlebell swing and the deadlifts? Kettlebell swings are an exercise in which you bring a kettlebell between your legs while hinging at the hips and use your hips, hamstrings, and glutes to forcefully swing the kettlebell in front of you. The deadlift is an exercise in which you lift a weight — typically a loaded barbell — from a dead stop on the floor.
Additional differences between kettlebell swings and deadlifts lie in the load, rep range, and muscles used.
The deadlift will use heavier loads over sets of typically less than 8 reps, whereas the kettlebell swing uses less load for higher rep sets. While both target the hip extensors, the deadlift will target the back more, and the kettlebell swing uses the quadriceps more.
In this article I will cover:
- The differences between kettlebell swings and deadlifts
- How to perform each, along with tips and common mistakes
- The muscles used in each exercise
- The pros and cons of each exercise
Table of Contents
The Differences Between Kettlebell Swings and Deadlifts
The differences between kettlebell swings and deadlifts can be split into four key points.
- Muscles Used
- Weight Used
The kettlebell swing only requires a kettlebell, whereas the deadlift requires a barbell, weight plates, and often matting or a deadlift platform to protect the floor.
This makes the kettlebell swing a more accessible option for those with minimal equipment or those training at home.
Additionally, at heavier weights, the deadlift is often performed with a weightlifting belt and/or lifting straps whereas the kettlebell swing is typically performed without these.
Wondering when it’s appropriate to do deadlifts with and without a belt? Check out Deadlifting Without A Belt: Pros, Cons, & Should You Do It?
Both exercises train through a similar movement pattern because they require you to hinge at the hips, or bend forward at the waist while keeping your back flat. They also both require knee flexion and extension, or the actions of bending and straightening your knees. However, there are notable differences between their execution.
The deadlift is performed from a dead stop on the floor and often requires you to bring the weight back down to the floor after each rep (though the weight won’t touch the floor when doing certain variations like the Romanian deadlift).
However, the kettlebell swing is initiated from a standing position, without the load ever touching the floor. You must maintain full control of the movement throughout the eccentric (downwards) and concentric (upwards) phases.
3. Muscles Used
Both exercises train the hip extensors and knee extensors, or the muscles responsible for straightening the hips and knees.
However, the deadlift will target the hip extensors more, while the kettlebell swing targets the quadriceps and hip extensors more equally.
The deadlift will also train the upper and lower back more alongside this, whereas the kettlebell swing will target the shoulders as well.
Check out Muscles Used In The Deadlift (Ultimate Guide) to learn about all the muscles used in the deadlift.
4. Weight Used
The deadlift will use significantly more load than a kettlebell swing.
This is primarily due to the nature of the exercises. In the deadlift, you’re pulling from the floor in a more stable and shorter range of motion. The kettlebell swing is more dynamic and has longer range of motion.
Kettlebell swings are often limited by the availability of the heaviest kettlebells, whereas a deadlift is only limited by your own strength due to using a barbell and weight plates.
Wondering how much weight you should be able to deadlift? Check out How Much Should You Be Able To Deadlift (By Age & Weight).
Kettlebell Swings: How To, Tips, Common Mistakes, Muscles Used, Pros And Cons
How To Do Kettlebell Swings
Step 1: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold a kettlebell in front of you
Stand with your feet just outside shoulder-width apart, holding the kettlebell with both hands in front of you against your thighs.
Step 2: Hinge at the hips to bring the kettlebell between your legs
Hinge back at the hip and bend the knees slightly, allowing the kettlebell to swing between your legs. Maintain a flat back and keep your neck in line with your torso.
Step 3: Straighten your hips and knees as you swing the kettlebell up and in front of you
Extend your hips and knees until you are standing up straight again. The momentum of this will help swing the kettlebell forward. It may take a couple of reps to reach a full range of motion and swing. Keep your arms straight throughout.
Swing to chest height and allow the kettlebell to descend from here.
Step 4: Bring the kettlebell back between your legs
As the kettlebell begins to descend back down, control the weight and begin to bend your knees and hinge at your hips as you did in step 2.
Tips For Performing Kettlebell Swings
Here are my 3 tips for performing kettlebell swings:
- Start light. Kettlebell swings are difficult to perform. Focus on nailing the technique and loading the correct muscles before adding weight.
- Do them in sets of 8+ reps. It takes a couple of reps to get the momentum going for a full range of motion and swing, so you want to capitalize on the latter reps in a set. Performing less than 8 reps means having to load them heavy enough that they are still effective in lower rep ranges, which can be a challenge if you don’t have access to heavy enough kettlebells.
- Determine whether you want to target the quads or hip extensors more. To target the quads more, you want to incorporate more knee flexion (bending your knee). To target the hip extensors more, you want to limit this knee flexion and bend your knees just enough for you to hinge back and create room for the kettlebell to swing back.
If you are unsure how heavy of a kettlebell to start with, check out my article Is Your Kettlebell Too Heavy? (How To Know Using Examples).
Common Mistakes With Kettlebell Swings
The 2 most common mistakes I see with kettlebell swings are:
- Not maintaining a neutral back position. Lifters often allow themselves to be pulled out of position at the top and bottom of the swing. The aim should be to maintain a straight lower and upper back with a neutral neck/head throughout the entire rep.
- Using the shoulders rather than the hips. Using the shoulders to swing the kettlebell rather than the momentum from your hip and knee extension is a quick way to make these far less effective. Ensure that you are creating the majority of the movement through your lower body.
Muscles Used During Kettlebell Swings
The muscles used when doing kettlebell swings are:
- Spinal erectors (the stabilizer muscles that run along the length of your back)
The hip extensors (glutes and hamstrings) will be the prime movers, with the quadriceps working to extend the knee. The more knee flexion you work through, the more the kettlebell swing will target the quadriceps.
The spinal erectors and core function to maintain position of the lower back and resist rounding or overextending too much from the momentum of the kettlebell.
The shoulders work to keep control of the kettlebell at the top and bottom of each swing. They may also assist in building the momentum needed for the swing in the initial reps.
Benefits Of Kettlebell Swings
There are two key benefits to kettlebell swings:
- They require minimal equipment. Kettlebells are widely available, which make these a great option for those in less equipped gyms or even those training from home.
- Training novelty is high. Kettlebell swings are incredibly novel within most lifters’ programs. This novelty can increase training enjoyment, adherence and potentially overall progress.
If you are looking to get a kettlebell for your own training, check out my recommendations in Best Kettlebells For The Money.
Cons Of Kettlebell Swings
There are two cons that arise when performing kettlebell swings:
- They require a lot of coordination. Within the kettlebell swing, there is a lot happening all at once. Coordinating the hip and knee extension alongside the timing of the swing is crucial to making the movement work well. This can make it harder to learn initially, especially for less experienced lifters.
- You cannot load much weight. Regardless of how strong you are, kettlebell swings are never going to be a low rep, high load exercise. If maximal strength is the goal, you are best off directing your training efforts into other exercises.
Programming Considerations for Kettlebell Swings
As kettlebell swings cannot be loaded with a lot of weight, this means we have to consider our progressions with them from week to week and block to block even more. This leaves us with two other progression options — repetitions or time.
Chasing repetition progressions on highly dynamic and coordination-based exercises can be difficult for some lifters, which is why this timing option is so useful.
More beginner lifters may still look to progress loading as such:
- 3 sets of 10-12 reps – progressing in load when you hit 3 sets of 12 reps with good form and feel like you have additional reps in reserve.
Those that have maxed out their loading options may look to progress repetitions or sets:
- 3 sets of 8 reps as the base target. This is followed by aiming for 10 reps per set with the same load, followed by sets of 12 and adding reps to each set across weeks of training. Introducing extra sets when you want to keep repetitions consistent is another useful way to progress repetitions.
The alternative option of timing can look like this:
- 3 sets of 30 seconds – where you aim to progress the amount of repetitions you complete within each 30-second time period, or you look to increase the time period to 35, 40, or 45 seconds across a training block.
If you are after further kettlebell training guidance, check out my recommendations for the Best Kettlebell Apps in 2024.
Deadlifts: How To, Tips, Common Mistakes, Muscles Used, Pros And Cons
How To Do Deadlifts
Step 1: Load a barbell with your desired weight
Load a barbell with equal weight either side. You may want to use a bumper plate first to set it to the right height and further help protect the floor.
Step 2: Stand with the bar over mid-foot
Stand with your feet hip-width apart, with the barbell lined up over the middle of your foot.
Step 3: Get into your starting position
Reach down to grab the bar, keeping your back flat while doing so. For a conventional deadlift, aim for holding the bar just outside your knees to allow your arms to line up as vertically as possible. For a sumo deadlift, grip the bar in the same width your hands would be if you let your arms hang straight down.
Your shoulders should be either over or just in front of the bar for a conventional deadlift and behind the bar for a sumo deadlift. Your shins should be touching or very close to touching the bar.
Step 4: Brace your core and pull the slack out of the bar
Step 5: Lift the weight off the floor
From here, begin to pull the bar from the floor by extending your hips and knees. The goal is for your hips to rise in sync with the barbell rather than allowing them to shoot up and back.
Step 6: Extend your hips once the bar passes your knees
As the bar passes your knees, shift focus onto extending your hips and pulling your shoulders back. Continue this until you are standing up straight.
Step 7: Lower the bar and let it come to a complete stop on the ground before starting a new rep
Lower the bar to the floor in a controlled manner and allow the bar to settle in a dead stop on the floor prior to the next rep.
Not sure if you should do conventional or sumo deadlifts? Check out Conventional vs Sumo Deadlift: Which One Should You Do?
Tips For Performing Deadlifts
Here are my 3 tips for performing deadlifts:
- Do not simply chase load. While load progression is important, performing deadlifts with the correct technique and control is also important. If loading comes at the sacrifice of quality, then you may want to consider dropping the load.
- Delay knee extension. Do you find that your hips kick back and up, rising noticeably quicker than the bar? Think about trying to delay the knee extension as you break the floor and keeping tension through your legs. Push the floor away just as much as you are trying to pull the bar up.
- Use straps if you need to. Unless you are a powerlifter, strongman, or strongwoman, then your grip strength is not a primary concern. So, there is no need to persevere without straps if it is costing you load or reps that you could otherwise complete with them. However, to get the best of both worlds, you could do your first set or heaviest set without straps and then the rest of your sets with them.
Read my article on How To Fix Hip Shift In The Deadlift (10 Tips) for more ways to address hip shift.
Common Mistakes With Deadlifts
The 2 most common mistakes I see with deadlifts are:
- Bouncing the bar off the floor. Bouncing the bar is a quick way to perform inconsistent repetitions. Often the bar will touch one side first, hit harder, or bounce back higher rep to rep. All of these things affect the consistency of your reps across each set.
- Leaning too far back. You simply need to be standing up straight in the lockout of a deadlift. Often, lifters lean as far back as they can, which offers no additional benefit but places extra load through your lower back.
If you only have access to hex plates, check out my tips on how to deadlift properly with hex plates.
Muscles Used During Deadlifts
The muscles used when doing deadlifts are:
- Spinal Erectors (the stabilizer muscles that run up and down your back)
- Latissimus Dorsi (a wide, flat muscle on each side of the back)
- Rhomboids (a group of two muscles in the middle of the upper back)
- Trapezius (the muscles on the back of the neck and shoulders)
- Core Muscles
The deadlift uses a huge range of muscles to complete each rep.
The hip extensors (glutes, hamstrings, and adductors in the inner thigh) work to extend the hips and bring them closer to the barbell.
The quadriceps function to extend the knee, while the hamstrings work to stabilize this movement.
The spinal erectors and core muscles allow you to maintain your back position and prevent your lower back from rounding. The upper back muscles (latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and trapezius) function to maintain the position of your upper back and help keep the bar close to your body.
Find out more about how the lats are used in the deadlift by reading our article, Do Deadlifts Work The Lats? (Yes, Here’s How).
Benefits Of The Deadlift
There are the two key benefits to the deadlift:
- They are great for developing overall strength. The deadlift trains the entire posterior chain (the muscles on the back of your body) and is great for developing its strength. This strength is widely applicable to a variety of other exercises such as squats or rows. It also has carryover to a variety of scenarios from day-to-day life and many other sports.
- They can easily be modified to suit your goals or limitations. The deadlift is an incredibly versatile movement. If range of motion is an issue, this can be resolved by pulling from a higher position using blocks or even a trap bar. Alternatively, if you are looking for an increased range of motion, you can stand on a plate or block and do deficit deadlifts. Looking to target the hip extensors more? Try Romanian or stiff-legged deadlifts. Want to work your knee extensors more? Try trap bar deadlifts. The deadlift can be adjusted in many ways to match your goals.
If you want to know more about different deadlift bars, read our article, 5 Different Types Of Deadlift Bar And Their Uses.
Cons Of The Deadlift
There is one key issue when performing deadlifts:
- Recovery takes longer than many other exercises. The deadlift is a fantastic exercise. But due to the heavy loads often used and the use of multiple muscle groups, the deadlift can take longer to recover from than most other exercises. This may mean that you only pull once per week.
Programming Considerations for Deadlifts
The deadlift has a huge variety of options when it comes to programming. How you do them will depend on your experience level and training goals. Powerlifters specifically will have more intricate and varying programming while beginner lifters may follow a linear progression across a training block.
An example of linear progression would be following a set and rep scheme of 3 sets of 5 or 4 sets of 4 and aiming to increase the weight by 2.5-5kg (roughly 5-10lbs) per session until plateauing.
More experienced lifters may want to follow a more periodized training program, working through varying set and rep ranges from one training block to the next.
For example, a 16-week program may look similar to this:
- Week 1-4: 4 x 8 at 55-65% of your 1RM
- Week 5-8: 4 x 6 at 65-75% of your 1RM
- Week 9-12: 5 x 4 at 75-85% of your 1RM
- Week 13-16: 4 x 3 at 85%+ of your 1RM
You may also want to incorporate two deadlift sessions per week — one heavier, lower volume session and one lighter, potentially higher volume or technique session.
Check out What Else Should I Do On Deadlift Day? (5 Examples) to find out how to program other exercises alongside deadlifts.
While the kettlebell swing and deadlift may train similar muscle groups and general movement patterns, there are several key differences between them.
The deadlift will use significantly more load than the kettlebell swing, and as such, suits those with strength goals more. It is typically used in lower rep sets (<8 repetitions). The kettlebell swing is more limited in the loads that can be used and suits higher rep sets (8+ repetitions).
While both exercises train the hip and knee extensors, the deadlift will target the upper and lower back more, whereas the kettlebell swing will target the shoulders and quadriceps more.
Other Exercise Comparisons
- 1 Arm vs 2 Arm Kettlebell Swing: Pros, Cons, & Which Is Best?
- Glute Ham Raise vs Nordic Curl: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Back Extension vs Deadlift: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Good Morning vs Romanian Deadlift: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Hip Thrust vs Deadlift: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Leg Extension vs Leg Curl: Differences, Pros, Cons
- Back Extension vs Glute Ham Raise: Differences, Pros, Cons
About The Author
Jacob Wymer is a powerlifting coach and PhD Candidate in Biomechanics and Strength and Conditioning, researching the application of barbell velocity measurements to powerlifting. He is involved in powerlifting across the board, from athlete to meet director. Jacob runs his coaching services at EST Barbell. You can also connect with him on Instagram.