Laying the Foundation

The kettlebell deadlift is a fantastic exercise to help lay the foundation for all of the kettlebell lifts. It teaches you to push through the floor and generate force from the ground up. In my experience with rowers, I’ve found it translates extremely well to ensuring they push from catch to finish.Whenever I have difficulty with my kettlebell swings or feel my form is not optimal, I’ve heeded the advice of Master SFG Phil Scarito and returned to the deadlift. It really helps clean up your form and picking heavy things up is fun!

Before we go any further you should read my previous article on the hip hinge if you haven’t done so and practice that before adding load. It’s very important for safety, learning, and long term development and performance. Learn the pattern first, then load it. I cannot emphasize this enough.

Kettlebell lifts fall into two categories: grinds and ballistics. Senior SFG Delaine Ross describes grinds as “slow exercises, the ones you want to perform 3-5 sets with 3-5 repetitions in each set “. (1) Grinds include the kettlebell deadlift, military press, squats, and the turkish get up. Ballistics are the quick lifts. These includes swings, cleans, and snatches. The ballistic lifts you want to aim for sets of 10-20 repetitions but always stop before form and technique breakdown. If you continue to push through when are fatigued you are simply teaching yourself to learn a poor movement pattern under load. The brain is a funny thing, it will often go back to it’s last experience with an exercise. So, if you finish your training session under fatigue and with sloppy repetitions you’re more than likely going to begin your next session that way. Remember, safety first!

Note: Here is a link where you can purchase kettlebells.

But aren’t deadlifts bad for my back?

The deadlift when performed properly is actually an excellent exercise for the lower back and strengthens the entire posterior chain: hamstrings, glutes, hips, and back. In a recently published study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research Lars Berglund showed that men with light low back pain who followed an 8 week deadlifting program found that their pain subsided. (2) Furthermore Berglund stated that, “Doing the deadlift with good form teaches you to activate the stabilizing muscles around your spine. It also strengthens your glutes, which are often weak in people with back pain.” (3) This is a huge point Berglund makes here. In today’s society we spend the majority of our time in a seated position, whether at a desk job or as a student. Rowers compound that because our sport is performed in a seated position.  Look at yourself in the mirror and take note if you have well developed quadricep muscles and underdeveloped glutes and hamstrings. The glutes are the strongest muscle in the body – well they are supposed to be at least!

Rowers must take steps to counteract the effects of sitting and Bret Contreras illustrates just how detrimental sitting is, “Obviously regular sitting wouldn’t give you more intradiscal pressure than really heavy deadlifts, but I would definitely agree that prolonged sitting is more deleterious on the spine than deadlifting. You’ve got prolonged intradiscal pressure, plus sitting decreases glute activation by several mechanisms : compression on the tissue, neurological reciprocal inhibition of the hip flexors, and mechanical inhibition of end range hip extension due to adaptive shortening of hip flexors. (4)”  Basically, your butt is falling asleep! The kettlebell deadlift will help hit the reset button and allow you to move better while strengthening your glutes.


If you cannot get into hip hinge position or touch your toes you should not be picking up any weight from the floor, period. Take the time to own your hip hinge pattern. I’ve put a video together on a half-kneeling hip flexor stretch to help you stretch your hip flexors and move deeper into your hinge.

If you’re still having trouble reaching the ground you may need to spend some time at an elevated position and over time move the kettlebell to the floor. Here is a photo of me using a yoga block to raise the kettlebell off the floor. This allows you to decrease the range of motion while maintaining the same weight, keeping athletes in a safe position. Don’t hesitate to seek out an FMS practitioner and have them screen you to identify any underlying dysfunctions that are limiting your movement capability.

Joe DeLeo performing a kettlebell deadlift on a yoga block.

Joe DeLeo performing a kettlebell deadlift on a yoga block.

  • Pattern the Hip Hinge and own the movement
  • Make sure you are working your hip mobility and core stability if you are limited and seek out an FMS practitioner
  • Keep the sets and reps low when introducing load. 3-5 sets of 1-3 repetitions. Groove perfect form while under load and you will pay dividends in the future.


1) Ross, Delaine. Seven Basic Human Movements. Website.

2) Berglund, Lars. Bjorn, Aasa. Hellqvist, Jonas. Michaelson, Peter. Aasa, Ulrika. Which Patients with Low Back Pain Benefit From Deadlift Training. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. July 2015 – Volume 29-Issue 7-p 1803-1811.

3) Easter, Michael. Is Deadlifting Safe? Men’ Website.

4) Gentilcore, Tony. Deadlifts are one of the worst things you can do for your spine. Website.

5) Jones, Brett. Cook, Gray. Kettlebells from the Center: Dynami. Functional Movement Systems. 2010. Print.