Kettlebell Swing vs Deadlift (Head-to-head comparison)


One of my clients asked me a good question about her kettlebell workout. She wanted to know what is more effective, a deadlift or a kettlebell swing.

In this article, I share some insights about the differences between kettlebell swings vs deadlifts, and most importantly, which one is better for you.

Me doing deadlift at the local gym with 135 on the bar

In general, a dynamic kettlebell swing is better than a heavy deadlift. First, it provides more range of motion. Second, it doesn’t require maximum load, so it’s less strenuous on the body, less prone to injury, and can be performed more frequently.

However, there is much more to this answer becasue you need to take into consideration your fitness level, workout style, and personal goals.

Overview

Kettlebell swings and deadlifts are both effective exercises and should be part of a well-rounded workout plan. You can think of these two as a foundation of any strength and conditioning program.

  • Kettlebell swings utilize more range of motion during the exercise.
  • Kettlebell swings can be done on a daily basis by both experienced lifters as well as beginners, without worrying about overtraining.
  • Deadlifts are compound exercises that allow you to use heavier weights, therefore, eliciting a higher anabolic response.
  • Deadlifts should not be done every day.

Deadlifts make you stronger

  • Deadlifts allow you to load up the bar with multiple plates, which leads to better strength and muscle gains.

One thing that I’ve noticed after doing deadlifts for a few months is that I was getting stronger in almost every other lift.

I become obsessed. To the point where I would do them 3-4 times per week. Needless to say, this experiment came at a cost.

As I did more deadlifts, I started to feel wiped out after the training. It literally felt like the truck would run over me. Every week.

Kettlebell swings make you less tired

One of the differences between a kettlebell swing and a deadlift is that swings make you less tired.

  • Doing heavy deadlifts 3-4 times per week made me feel weak and less productive.
  • Doing kettlebell swings 3-4 times per week made me feel energized and mobile.

To be clear, I don’t demonize deadlifts by any means.

My point is simple.

  • If you’re a full-time athlete that needs to be better at your craft, then choose deadlifts.
  • If you’re NOT a full-time athlete and you have responsibilities on your shoulders like family, bills to pay, and your business, then you want to find the exercise that energizes you, rather than destroys you.

Equipment

  • Deadlifts require to use bar, several bumper plates, and deadlifting platform. This type of equipment is usually accessible in the fitness center (unless you have a badass garage gym).
  • Some gyms are better than others. For example, in the gyms like Planet fitness, it is tricky to do deadlifts becasue there are no bars.

Related article: Click here to learn more about “how to do deadlifts at the planet fitness“.

  • Kettlebells are also available in gyms, but from my experience, not all gyms have a large selection to choose from. For example, in most gyms that I’ve been to, I could see kettlebells up to 20 kg.
  • One advantage of the kettlebell is that you can use it at home, thanks to its relatively small size. This means you can do kettlebell swings at home, without having to spend a fortune on expensive gym equipment.

At home, I’m using a 24 kg (53 lb) kettlebell from the company called Kettlebell Kings available on Amazon. Details here.

(if you buy through links on this page, I may earn a small commission).

Building Muscle

As a whole, deadlifts and better than kettlebell swings for muscle building and hypertrophy.

  • Deadlifts allow lifting 70-90% of your 1RM, which is been shown in multiple studies as a sweet spot for optimum strength gains.
  • Kettlebell swings allow doing more sets and a higher number of reps, which is good for muscle endurance, but not so much for growth and size.

If your goal is to build as much muscle as possible, then deadlifts are better (no question).

  • Erector spinae, hamstrings, and glutes have much greater muscular activation from deadlifts than from kettlebell swings (source).

Plus, heavy deadlifts activate large muscle groups, stimulate fast-twitch muscle fibers, and ramp up the CNS (central nervous system), which is crucial in hypertrophy signaling (source).

  • From a psychological point of view, it is extremely satisfying to lift something heavy (this is what kettlebell swings cannot do).

So if you’re looking for the best muscle-building exercise from these two, the deadlift is a winner.

Related article: If you are looking for exercise that will get you stronger, without putting on lots of muscle, I wrote an article about doing “kettlebell swings without looking bulky“.

Body Composition

In general, deadlifts are better than kettlebell swings to build and maintain lean muscle mass, which corresponds to a higher resting metabolic rate and better body composition.

  • Deadlifts activate more muscle, therefore, it increases the demand for calories required to recover.
  • The more weight you lift, the more fat it will burn.

But there’s a caveat to it.

The majority of weight loss success happens through diet. Personally, I found that doing less intense workouts, but doing them every day, helps me with managing my hunger, cravings, and appetite.

  • After doing heavy deadlift training, all I could think of was food (basically I told myself that I deserve a good meal after a good workout).
  • After I reduced my intensity and switched to kettlebell swings, I found that I don’t have those crazy cravings for food, that I used to get when I was training heavy.

So long story short, I was able to control my food intake with less intense workouts. In fact, now I barely think about the food.

So, instead of looking at which exercise burns more calories, think of it in terms of which exercise I can do to not feel so tired and hungry.

Related article: Learn more about “how to be in a calorie deficit without feeling hungry“.

Health and Recovery

Kettlebell swings are less strenuous on the body and do not require a significant amount of time for recovery.

  • If you do heavy deadlifts on Monday, then for the next 48-72 hours you will ache.
  • This will put you out of the optimum training for those 3-4 days.

That’s a lot of time without training. Sure, you can technically do some light training on Tuesday, but it won’t make you feel better (you will probably feel even more broken).

  • If you perform 5-8 sets of just 20 kettlebell swings on Monday, then for the next 48-72 hours you will feel normal.
  • Tomorrow you can do it again (and then the next day, and so on).

Of course, it won’t stimulate your muscle activation as much as deadlifts. This means you won’t develop the strongest muscles, but you will feel invigorated every day.

That’s how I look at the difference between the two. Kettlebells work the muscles, without killing them.

Performance

Both deadlift and kettlebell swing are good exercises to improve your performance.

  • Deadlifts help to become stronger in all other lifts, which translates into better overall performance.
  • Kettlebell swings require a greater range of motion and can be done in conjunction with other exercises that improve your speed, agility, balance, coordination, flexibility, reaction time, and power.

Depending on your sport, whether that’s cycling, cross-country skiing, judo, running, baseball, or full-contact karate, then you need to implement all of the components into your training program.

  • Doing a heavy load of deadlifts can compromise the results.
  • Kettlebell swings don’t’ tax the body too much, so they can be an excellent addition to any type of sport.

Safety

On the one hand, deadlifts allow me to use a lot more weight than kettlebell swings, which is good for muscle building and performance.

On the other hand, this may not be the safest way to train, especially for beginners or people with range of motion restrictions.

A good alternative is to do partial deadlifts.

me doing partial deadlifts
Doing deadlifts from the knee level to lower pressure on lower back.

In the picture above you can see me doing deadlifts from the squat rack.

  • The bar is positioned at the knee level, which dramatically reduces the range of motion and takes the pressure off the lumbar spine.
  • I like this variation becasue you can still add lots of weight, without risking any pain or injury.

My thoughts on the kettlebell swing and deadlift workout

The picture below illustrates how I feel after doing kettlebell swings.

picture of cartoon when mario is eating flower and becomes supermario
  • This picture shows a cartoon character Mario that eats flowers and becomes super Mario (which is exactly how I feel after doing kettlebell swings).
  • Kettlebell swings can be done almost every day, whereas deadlifts should be done no more than 1-2 per week.
  • I find that KB swings are an exercise that gives me lots of results and doesn’t require changing my lifestyle around.
  • It makes me move more, do more, be more productive, and be more focused.

My point is that you should look at the exercise you choose as a tool that makes you feel better after you do it, not worse.

Conclusion

  • Kettlebell swings always leave me better than I was before without feeling crippled, whereas deadlifts always beat me up too much.
  • After the workout, I have no brain fog and I don’t feel food cravings.
  • With heavy deadlifts, the time to recover was significantly longer, which reduced my total training volume.
  • I believe that if you were to choose deadlifts over the swings, then stick to the medium weight for more reps (this way you won’t exhaust your body too much, and be able to recover faster, so you can repeat the process).
  • You can combine deadlifts together with kettlebell swings, as long as you don’t overdo it.
  • Those two exercises work for similar muscle groups so you want to alternate them and not do them on the same day.

Michal Sieroslawski

Michal is an exercise physiologist (MSc), nutrition coach, Ashtanga teacher, and fitness blogger. He shares his successes and failures to help busy men and women squash down 20, 50, or even 100 pounds of fat without leaving their home.

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