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Can kettlebell swings replace deadlifts? [Article]

Posted by Pascal Landshoeft

Jan 29, 2018 10:00:00 AM

Can kettlebell swings replace deadlifts?

Can kettlebell swings replace deadlifts?

The short answer to this question is no as the context is lacking. This article will outline the main principles and sources to help you answer this question in your own context by discussing goal sets, the movements themselves and real-life examples. In the end, you will find links to further resources to cross-reference with other experts.
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What is your goal?

Whenever a question around gym equipment and training protocols is being posed you have to remind yourself why you are entering the strength game or any type of exercise for that matter. Depending on what you want to achieve it is important to choose your exercise regime accordingly. For me, the goal is to become a marathon runner who can perform a sub 3-hour marathon and pull a deadlift of 500 pounds afterward. So, for me, the type of strategies are different from what you might pick to achieve your goals.
 
Especially if you are beginning in training, ask yourself why you want to improve your body:
 
  1. To improve your aesthetics? (let us call a spade a spade, to get laid or work as a model)
  2. To improve your performance in the ring / on the mat / on the field?
  3. To be more healthy?
 
The younger you are the less likely it becomes that you are doing it for health reasons. If you are not in a team or doing a sport already it narrows it down to point one. If it is point one, fair enough, I was young and insecure once, too. As a piece of advice from a man who has two stepchildren, is married and feels like he was always the master of his fate rather than a victim, let me tell you, looks will always wither away whether you like it or not. Consistent business success is also built on trust and consistency. People get paid for looks once. For skill and consistency they get paid for a lifetime so maybe adjust your goal set to something less superficial.
 
For the older crowd out there sorry for the rant. If you are here to get your back into a healthier state with a kettlebell or because you have some cardiovascular problem let me know in the comments or write an email. I am no doctor, but I have been there and gotten through it myself.
 
If you want to increase your strength to beat your opponents or make it on the team I have been in Judo 12 years at a national level and know some of the things to look out for. On team sports, I can not comment as I have never played one.
 

The question "Can kettlebell swings replace deadlifts" is flawed as it lacks context

 
The question "Can kettlebell swings replace deadlifts" is flawed as it lacks the context I provided in the first paragraph. To answer the question like it is stated it would be a no as it lacks specificity. Of course, this is the smart man's sleight of hand to not answer your question to avoid looking stupid. Consultants and salesmen all over the world are trained into answering with "It depends" to a closed question like this to obtain more information.
 
You can distinguish the well-meaning trainer from the predator by paying attention to whether they keep their minds open to all options rather than just one particular one when they explore your goals and thought process. They are there to guide you, not to tell you what is right from wrong. What you want to do in the end is your choice and you have to bear the consequences and benefits of your decisions.
 
Generally speaking, both exercises will help you to get stronger and more explosive compared to doing nothing. Kettlebell swings will help you with back pain and explosiveness more than deadlifts if executed correctly. Deadlifts are the ultimate tool for absolute strength in the gym. Kettlebells have the added benefit of being easily obtained as part of a home gym and working your endurance.
 

Deadlift

 
The deadlift is one of the big three lifts in powerlifting apart from the bench press and the squat. It has recently gained popularity as one of the main tools to build strength in athletes and also regular gym rats. To me, the deadlift is still my absolute favorite lift. I was never especially explosive, nimble or fast. What I have tons of is grit and strength. So no surprise I like the deadlift.
 
 For you, the deadlift can be helpful if you are interested in powerlifting or when all of your opponents stomp you to the ground with ease by overpowering you. If you have enough absolute power to perform your sport (for example you have a bigger powerlifting total than all your teammates, but some of them still beat you at tackles and when in a mosh pit you get send to the mud by aggressive Peter Dinklage's) then look into explosiveness rather than absolute strength. For this, the kettlebell swing and the Olympic lifts are considered more beneficial among strength coaches in general.
 
For aesthetic purposes, the deadlift can be helpful to pack on mass to your back when you are a bodybuilder. Layne Norton makes quite a compelling case for bodybuilders to utilize the deadlift. For the broader public aesthetics usually, means having big arms and a six-pack. To achieve this, the deadlift is not necessary. Abs are made in the kitchen and not in the weight room. Big arms are made with cable work and curls. At least in my experience and you will not have a hard time to find a hand full of people with chiseled abs and big arms to agree with me.
 
The biggest risk with the deadlift is the high potential for lower back injuries if performed incorrectly. In addition, if you train women or you are a woman yourself, there seems to be a negative bias in the female population towards barbell work. This is becoming less pronounced in recent years, but if your client is female and in dire need of lower back strength sell her on the Kettlebell deadlift as you will have a hard time with the barbell.
 

Kettlebell

 
The kettlebell swing is the older of the two exercises as the barbell is a relatively new tool for strength development compared to the ancient Russian strength equipment. It has been made popular in the west through the books and work of Pavel Tsatsoulin with publications like Simple and Sinister, Power to the people or Deadlift Dynamite. 
 
I love the kettlebell personally as one of the simplest tools for my strength warm-ups to work the midsection of the body front to back. Where i used to run a warm-up cycle utilizing a glute ham raise bench, a medicine ball, a sandbag and box jumps I now only do the simple and sinister routine with better results and less fuss. This provides me with improved balance and functionality compared to not using the kettlebell. If you do some research you will find similar reports from other enthusiasts with an interest in strength.
 
For aesthetic purposes, the kettlebell is better suited to achieve your goals of getting a six pack as the exercise is more aerobic in nature. You can run a circuit or TABATA like exercise regime to support your diet choices to get quicker into an area of low body fat percentage. I can back that up with my own experience and research suggests likewise, even though not conclusively.
 
When it comes to absolute strength the deadlift beats the kettlebell as the main linchpin of a program. If you want proof, have a closer look at the routines of powerlifters and strongmen. These guys make a living with absolute strength and you will usually find the swing as an assistance movement and not main exercise. 
 
For health purposes, the kettlebell swing also beats the deadlift as individuals usually are more tolerant to the swing than to the deadlift based on their injury history, fitness level, and mobility. That is why you see more grannies and women swing than deadlift apart from the unfounded gender bias I outlined earlier. 
 
The challenge with the kettlebell is that it is a seemingly easy movement to perform and it is hard to determine where your control over the weight ends and the weight starts controlling you. The eagerness to progress in weight which you especially find in newbies leads to poor form and potentially harmful movement patterns for the lower back. A kettlebell swing should be ballistic in nature and not a pendulum. I recommend to read Simple and Sinister and watching the Strongfirst material before starting kettlebell exercising. Even better, get some instruction with one of their certified members in.
 

Kettlebell vs Deadlift

 
The kettlebell and the deadlift are not mutually exclusive. Often strength coaches observe synergies between the two lifts and use them to make more advanced trainees progress quicker with minimizing the risk of injury. This is usually done by tinkering with volume in favor of heavy kettlebell swings versus deadlifts. The kettlebell swing especially helps with two crucial parts of the deadlift:
 
  • The hip hinge
  • The lockout
 
Vice versa progression on the deadlift increases absolute strength which makes it easier for you to handle bigger kettlebells. The speed with which the kettlebell moves is important as it increases the force you are exposed to. Experienced kettlebell users can turn a 24kg kettlebell into a 500-pound challenge by accelerating it tremendously in the downwards part of the range of motion of the swing.
 

Heavy ass kettlebell lifts vs Deadlifts

 
The main argument between the kettlebell swing and the deadlift goes like this 
 
  1. A kettlebell is a great tool for teaching proper hip movement and for conditioning glutes and hamstrings
  2. But athletes need heavier loads to induce adaptations which they can only get from the deadlift
 
Unfortunately, there are not enough studies and heavy kettlebells out there because of the cost and small popularity of the kettlebell among men which can conclusively provide an answer to whether swings with 40kg plus weight can actually replace the deadlift.
 
For the older generation
 
If you are one of the older folks and want to get into swings I would say go with them first before going into deadlifts. If your goal is to stay mobile, agile and strengthen your lower back I think the kettlebell is a better tool for you than the barbell. Of course, always check with your professional of choice before following any exercise regimen.
 

Conclusion

 
Depending on what you want to achieve the kettlebell can replace the deadlift. In my opinion if you are after general well-being combined with cardio the kettlebell is an excellent tool to get strength in the mix. If you like to see your abs and be chiseled like a Roman god work on your game in the kitchen first. After that, you might want to use dumbbells and cables like most bodybuilders do. If you are into absolute strength or sports performance you will use the kettlebell as well as the deadlift depending on your strength and weaknesses to maximize performance.
 

Further reading

On ketllebell training

On the deadlift


 
 
 
 
 
 

Topics: Lift stronger, Kettlebell