Exercise Highlight 11: Getting Started with the Kettlebell Deadlift

As a Running Coach, Strength Coach and Corrective Exercise Specialist, the main issue I come across with many athletes is a weak posterior chain (the muscles and soft tissue that make up the rear, back or posterior portion of the body). A few muscle groups of note are the gluteals (minimus, medius & maximus), erector spinae, trapezius (lower, mid, upper), muscles of the hamstrings, rhomboid major & minor, and so forth.

Having a weak, disengaged core and posterior chain, especially within the gluteal complex, can contribute to a host of ailments from lower back pain, knee pain, Iliotibial band (ITB) issues, even lower leg & foot issues such as achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis.

Core = the muscles that attach directly to the vertebrae and involves the lumbo pelvic hip complex (LPHC). The LPHC involves the lumbar, thoracic and cervical spine, the pelvic girdle and the hip joint. So a lot more than just your abs…

You say to yourself “I must have functioning glutes and a strong backside, I’m an athlete!” Well, this just isn’t so in many cases, especially if you are seated most of the day and do not include a proper strength & conditioning plan within in your training. When in a compromised position for long periods of time such as sitting at a desk, your glutes end up deconditioned, choking them from blood, oxygen and of any movement, making it harder for them to contract and be involved with posture both static and dynamic. This leads to a decrease in hip mobility, increased compressional forces of the lumbar spine ( L1 - 5 vertebra) and compensations that will cause other muscles to try to make up for what is lost.

Why is it important to have a strong posterior?

Simply put, when you head out the door for a run, walk or any activity without proper activation of your posterior chain, other muscles will have to work harder, becoming the drivers rather than the assisters and synergists that they were designed for. Eventually leading to imbalances, injuries, pain, inefficient movement and loss of your ability to extend properly through your hips.

The gluteal complex & hamstrings help stabilize your pelvis, support your spine & back and are the prime drivers of hip extension and forward propulsion. This making each step taken as a runner or hiker stronger and more efficient. Which is also vitally important for the cyclist and general movement.

So Now What?

How do I get my sleepy posterior chain strong and active? Let’s start with one of my favorites the Kettlebell Deadlift. Most people lack the proper utilization of the Lumbo Pelvic Hip complex (your core) and the mobility to execute the deadlift correctly so we must begin by working on core strength, mobility, and glute activation. 

Warm-up & Movement Prep

Below is a basic idea of what a warm up would look like. For specific workout & training guidelines please feel free to contact us.

First begin with Foam Rolling & Self-myofascial (SMR) techniques to help reduce muscle tenderness and break up trigger points. This will then allow the application of lengthening techniques such as static and active stretching to help reset the muscle. With optimal length tension relationships of the muscles and surrounding tissues, you can then begin the corrective strength work necessary to get your movement patterns in order. To learn more about SMR & Foam Rolling, click here. I’m tired of seeing people just roll around without a specific goal and think all they need to do is foam roll. It is just the 1st step within a properly designed plan.

Once you inhibit overactive muscle tissue and trigger points that are specific to you, you will then move into lengthening techniques such as static, active and dynamic stretching. Here is an example workout using the Kettlebell Deadlift for a common scenario.

We have a runner who is training for a marathon but sits for 8-12 hours a day. Yep, 8-12+ hours a day is very common. Think about it...Arnold wakes up, grabs a cup of coffee and sits reading a newspaper, answering emails & texts and scrolls through their social media feeds. Then he makes his way to work via car or public transportation, again sitting. Finally making it to work after a 1 block walk and then he is seated for the rest of the day (8-10+ hours) with little to no movement other then to go to the bathroom or head out for lunch. Retracing his steps, he heads back home, does a few odds and ends, sits for dinner, then to the couch answering emails and watching TV. This is a very general scenario but a common one.

STEP 1 - SMR (inhibit) with Foam Rolling

STEP 2 - Lengthen (active stretching)

STEP 3 - Activation & Integration (Wake up your butt!)

STEP 4 -  Hip Hinging / Un-tapping the power hidden within your hips

Hip Hinging properly is an extremely important part of deadlifting. You must learn to do this properly or it can lead to an injury when attempting to deadlift or simply picking something off the ground. Many people make the mistake of lifting with their back and not using their hips or engaging their core. It is crucial that the spine remains stable and neutral when sitting your hips back.  

You can stand with your back facing a wall and heels about 6 inches away. Then practice the hinge, trying to touch the wall with your butt. This will help you shift your hips back if your finding trouble hinging. Watch the video below and practice with 2-3 sets of 5-10 reps.

How to Deadlift using a Kettlebell

While there are many different deadlift exercises and techniques, from kettlebell to barbell, wide stance to narrow, one arm to single leg; today we are going to start with a deadlift using a kettlebell. I feel the KB deadlift is a great place to start especially if you have pre-existing back issues or are new to deadlifts, and you need to clean up your hip hinge. Stay tuned for other variations in future articles & exercise highlights.

The Set-up

  • Stand over a Kettlebell with your feet shoulder width apart with the toes slightly pointed out. This is a good position to start with as it encourages a good hip hinge and a neutral spine. It’s extremely important to practice the correct form and set up before going for heavy lifts. Also, don’t skip the warm-up and movement prep before attempting (see above).  
  • Hinge forward at your hips, keeping a neutral spine and sitting your hips back. If you are having a hard time with hinging, keeping the spine neutral or the shoulders packed (avoiding elevating and rounding the shoulders), try placing the KB on a 6-12 inch step.
  • Stand directly over the KB and continue practicing getting into the position until you feel you are executing the hinge with proper alignment and engagement of the core.
  • Grasp the Kettlebell with a firm grip. Grip strength works isometrically with your LPHC.
  • Brace your entire abdomen while sitting your hips back. Press your feet into the floor, driving the hips forward and moving to a standing position while exhaling. Finish is in a tall standing braced posture, with legs fully extended and gluteals rock hard.
  • Lower safely back to the floor retracing the steps. Don’t get lax here!

Why is it important to have your shoulders packed? Both the Gluteus Maximus and Latissimus Dorsi have attachments to the Thoracolumbar Fascia which attach to the sacrum. By keeping your shoulders packed and lats engaged, encourages proper activation of your LPHC & entire core, which is needed to execute the deadlift safely and correctly.

Things to avoid

  • Rounding your shoulders or shrugging
  • Not breathing properly
  • Squatting the weight
  • Rounding or hyper extending your lower back
  • Jerking the weight off of the floor

Be sure to practice the positioning and the pattern of the deadlift. A well rounded fitness program is the key to injury prevention & burnout. If you have any questions regarding how to program this into your routine please feel free to contact us.