How to deadlift with dumbbells, kettlebells and other small weights

Never learned how to do a deadlift with dumbbells or kettlebells before? This is your go-to guide for home lifting 101

Man doing deadlifts with kettlebells
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Learning how to do a deadlift with dumbbells, or other smaller weights such as kettlebells, is an indispensable addition to your fitness arsenal, whether you're a committed weightlifter or a complete beginner. Normally, deadlifts are associated with big, heavy gym barbells, and while that's one way to lift, you can also split things up and deadlift with smaller weights like dumbbells and kettlebells, making deads great for home use. 

Regardless of how you do them, deadlift is a simple, effective weight lifting movement that will make you fitter and stronger, improving your legs, glutes, back, forearms and core. 

Splitting the weight up and deadlifting with smaller weights such as dumbbells is still very effective. We've picked the best adjustable dumbbells to get started with, although you could also sub them in for one or two of the best kettlebells too. FYI, you'll find a selection of these weights and more at bargain prices in our round-up of the best Black Friday weights deals.

Why everyone should do more deadlifts

According to studies collected by Harvard University, deadlifts improve mobility and balance in adults, ensuring you’ll stay fit and active for longer. That's because this dynamic weightlifting move will lengthen the muscles in your legs, keeping you more flexible, as well as working all the muscles you need to propel yourself forward when walking, jogging and even simply bending from the waist. As we get older, our muscles shorten, so keeping that range of motion is vital. 

It improves your grip strength too, which makes it a great exercise to help you fight the effects of ageing. Grip strength is positively correlated with general health in older adults according to research from Campbell University. Someone with a strong grip in later life has good bone density and arm strength, and is able to keep themselves from falling and conduct everyday tasks much easier than an older adult with weak grip strength. 

The study found "grip strength is largely consistent as an explanator of concurrent overall strength, upper limb function, bone mineral density, fractures, falls, malnutrition, cognitive impairment, depression, sleep problems, diabetes, multimorbidity, and quality of life." That's a whole lot of benefits. The better your grip strength, the healthier your muscles, and generally speaking, the more independent you can be in later life. 

Woman learning how to do a deadlift with kettlebells

(Image credit: Getty Images)

It also builds up muscle in your legs, bum and lower back, preventing posture problems and back pain. Most people think deadlifts will harm your back because they've seen it done with poor form, whereas if you do the move with correct form, the reverse is true: it can benefit sufferers of back pain. 

Because it works lots of muscle groups at the same time, it even boosts your metabolism to help you with your fat loss goals. Although you might not actually lose any weight, you will get fitter and stronger because the process of building muscle actually burns fat. Using dumbbells can still hit all the same muscle groups as deadlifting with a barbell, but it also provides a different stimulus: maintaining strict form with separate weights is often harder than holding a single bar. 

First-timers can also go lighter with separate weights as they just get used to the movements, while doing the move with handheld weights allows you to perform the move at home – unless you're lucky enough to have a full barbell setup in your garage. 

How to deadlift with dumbbells

 So where should you start when learning how to do a deadlift with dumbbells?

“To start, practice without any weight,” says PT and expert strength coach, Hendrick Famatumi. “Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and soften your knees. 

"With dumbbells, you’ll want to keep your hands as close to your shins as possible on the way down.” You can also hold your dumbbells at your sides instead of in front of you, which distributes the weight differently and works a slightly different set of muscle groups. 

Follow our step-by-step guide below, which will show you how to do a deadlift with dumbbells in a controlled and safe manner. 

How to do a deadlift with dumbbells

(Image credit: iStock)
  • Pick up a pair of dumbbells with an overhand grip and hold them in front of your sides. Stand with your knees slightly bent, and your feet placed shoulder-width apart. 
  • Bend at the hips and knees, lowering your torso until it’s almost parallel with the floor. 
  • Allow your arms to hang down in front of your knees and shins. Make sure you keep your back in a neutral position, taking care not to round it. You should lower yourself into position slowly, in a controlled manner. 
  • From this position, stand up straight without changing the shape of your back. Famatumi recommends squeezing your glutes as you straight, pushing through the ball and heel of your foot. That’s one rep.  

Preparing to do a deadlift with dumbbells

There's a reason Famatumi recommends keeping your hands close to your shins when deadlifting with the weight in front of you: if you lift heavy weights with improper form, you risk damaging your back and legs. The further away the weights are from your legs, the more your lower back is working instead of your legs and glutes, and straining your back can be dangerous.

It’s one reason why professional environments that involve lifting heavy objects usually require training or a waiver to be signed.

As such, it's essential to warm up with hamstring stretches and movements which limber up your back. 

Man stretching before doing a deadlift with dumbbells

(Image credit: iStock)

Famatumi recommends lying down on your back, bringing one knee across the body and down towards the floor, as in the picture above. Hold it for 10-15 seconds and repeat the movement on the other side, performing the stretch three times. 

While warming up before a gym session is very important anyway, it's especially important when learning how to do a deadlift with dumbbells or any other significant amount of weight due to the strain on your back. But warming up also improves your stability and balance during the exercise according to Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology, so there's no reason not to spend a few minutes limbering up before you approach the dumbbells. 

Variation: Deadlift and row with dumbbells

How to do a deadlift with dumbbells: rowing variation

(Image credit: Future)

 

This exercise, which can be performed with either dumbbell or a barbell, offers a good workout for the hamstrings, glutes and back like a normal deadlift, with the addition of the row working your biceps and upper back. Speaking of your back, try to keep it carefully neutral throughout the exercise to help prevent injury.

  • Pick up a pair of dumbbells with an overhand grip and hold them in front of your sides. Stand with your knees slightly bent, and your feet placed shoulder-width apart. 
  • Bend at the hips and knees, lowering your torso until it’s almost parallel with the floor. Allow your arms to hang down in front of your knees and shins. 
  • Quickly pull back the dumbbells in a rowing movement until they’re to the sides of your chest. Reverse the movement to return to the deadlift position, before standing up straight to complete one repetition. 
  • Take your time over your reps – if you’re holding onto the dumbbells throughout, your muscles will still be getting a workout. 
Matt Evans
Matt Evans

Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and Channel Editor at Fit&Well. He's previously written for titles like Men's Health and Red Bull, and covers all things exercise and nutrition on the Fit&Well website. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen kickboxer and runner. His top fitness tip? Stretch.