How I Improved my Barbell Deadlift with Kettlebell Training

by Katie Petersen on July 8, 2015

Katie Petersen Outdoor Kettlebell Press
I like a lot of different exercises, but my all time favorite is the deadlift. I think it is one of the best movements for building overall strength. The most weight you’ll ever move or transfer through your body happens in a deadlift. The sheer power, strength and pride of deadlifting can be intoxicating!

I am not a powerlifter, but like many of us, I want to be as strong as possible. Since “strong” only shows up when we are mentally and physically connected, how do we get there? We must learn (and continue relearning) proper technique—then practice it a lot. I often want to do EVERYTHING I can to work towards my goal, so I will read books, watch videos, and test numerous techniques and programs. I have even had the great fortune of working with world-renowned strength coach, Marty Gallagher. But, the RKC system has yet another “trick” you can use to continually make progress. Implementing a practice of the RKC-I and RKC-II skills will not only improve your work with kettlebells, but will also fortify your strength and awareness in heavy barbell grinds like deadlifts.  I want to share my story of how setting specific goals, adhering to a dedicated program, and working from an RKC foundation can skyrocket your strength in any lift.

The Beginning

My deadlift day is Monday—I look forward to it, fear it, and plan to conquer it every week. This obsession began on January 1, 2014 when the deadlift first challenged me to be better, stronger, and most importantly, smarter.

A few months before, I had started a 10-week program with a 1RM goal of 250lbs. I don’t know what my true max was at the time, but I had never lifted more than 225lb (I could achieve 2 or 3 reps at this weight). I had been deadlifting for years, so this wasn’t an absolute beginning. But until now, I hadn’t stuck to a specific program, I mostly practiced the method of “go heavier next week”. It wasn’t until Rob Miller introduced me to an Ed Coan 10-week protocol, that I found myself finally sticking to a plan. I loved and needed the structure.

Seven weeks later I was supposed to hit 235lb x 2, which seemed impossible even for 1 rep. I tried it on New Year’s Day, so I was a little hungover, tired, and a little less inhibited. If it didn’t go up, I could chalk it up to not being rested. This took away some of the pressure, and I stopped seeing failure just as negative feedback. I confidently gave the 235lb lift everything I had…and failed, but it MOVED.

Everything changed in this moment—and I was determined to lift that weight. My body told me that I had the strength. I walked away for 5 minutes, thinking, “You are stronger than this; break that bar in half; pack your shoulders and jump off the ground! Crack your hips through that bar like it’s the heaviest kettlebell you’ve ever swung!”

As I stepped to the bar this time, I vividly pictured a dramatic life-or-death situation like being trapped under a car. This fear became an opportunity for courage, and better yet, POWER. It was survival! While this might sound extreme, it worked. (Now my set up includes the following visualization: While I lock into the bar, I concentrate inside my body, seeing every vector pull into alignment. I coil every space between the muscle fibers tighter and tighter until I am busting at the seams with potential energy.) That day, after one last huge inhale, I drove my feet into the ground then I exploded upward with focused intention. The 235lb flew upwards for 2 reps with no problem. I got 240 that day and walked away proud. Then things got serious.

I realized there was more missing from my routine than just a super solid deadlifting program. I needed to call on my RKC training in the same systematic way for my strength to flourish.

The RKC Connection…

Double kettlebell front squats are an obvious choice for leg strength; but holding heavy kettlebells in the rack also forces a major flexed lat/stabilized shoulder position. You won’t get this same upper back/shoulder work with a barbell squat. As most of you know, the lower you go—and the heavier the weight—double front squats make your abs very sore.  But this will soon improve how much force your core can transfer in any “ground-up” lift like the deadlift.

The strict pull-up, as taught in the RKC-II, maintains a braced core (hollow ab/neutral pelvis) while the load on the lats increases through the pull.  These mechanics reinforce the same lat/ab tension line that must be sustained in every deadlift rep.

One of my favorite tools, the Turkish get-up, unlocks an insane amount of body awareness. It harnesses shoulder stability by drawing on total uninterrupted lat tension—also needed for the deadlift. Plus all the overhead kettlebell movements help cement the packed shoulder position—overhead walks, presses, windmills, snatches—and they bolster a steel-pillared core that can act like a rip cord when necessary. Speaking of rip cord, snatches, double snatches, and swings continue to challenge explosive capabilities (while developing lat strength and control).

While these kettlebell movements were in my workouts, I had not defined any real goals for them in a while. It was clear that kettlebells were reinforcing my barbell movements, so increasing the load with my kettlebell exercises should help add weight to my deadlift.

I decided to work on the following kettlebell goals for the next 10 months:

Katie Petersen Pressing KettlebellMax out:

Iron Maiden: 24kg 1-Arm press, 1RM

24kg Pull up, 1RM

24kg Pistol squat, 1RM

32kg Turkish get-up, 1RM

275lb Deadlift, 1 RM


24kg Double kettlebell front squats, 8 reps

Strict pull-ups, 10 reps @ bodyweight

20kg Snatch, 100 reps under 10min/gain control of 24kg snatch

I did not plan to attack all these goals at once, but some of the movements worked well with my current deadlift routine, so I added the following 3x/week (my bodyweight @132lbs):

Day 1

Rounds x Reps

5 x 1 Get-up, R/L, 24kg

5 x 10 1-Arm swings, R/L, 20-24kg

Day 3

5 x 1 Get-up – 20kg

5 x 10 Kettlebell snatches R/L, 18-20kg

Day 5

1 x 3 get-ups R/L (consecutive), 16kg; 2×2 get-ups R/L (consecutive), 20kg; 2×1 get-ups, 24kg

5 x 10- Two-arm swings, 32kg


The Journey

Practicing a new deadlift stance at the Purposefully Primitive workshop, March 2014

Practicing a new deadlift stance at the Purposefully Primitive workshop, March 2014

I successfully completed the last 3 weeks of my deadlift program with addition of the above kettlebell routine. The next “cycle” was several weeks of higher volume but lighter weight deadlifting while building up my presses, pull-ups, and front squats. I waited to start my next deadlifting cycle until after Dragon Door’s Purposefully Primitive workshop that March which was a unique opportunity to work with Marty Gallagher, one of the world’s greatest lifting coaches.

My plan was not perfect and underwent many changes. I reignited the original 10-week Ed Coan program with a new 1RM goal, smarter technique, and a kettlebell strategy. Setting goals across the board kept me committed and focused all week long, not just on deadlift day. I am happy to say I surpassed all of the goals listed and am setting new ones. In fact, I was able to perform a 1 arm press and strict pull up with the 26kg kettlebell just a few days before writing this!

With more aggressive goals in any lifting modality, you may need to recast the numbers from time to time. I consulted with Marty this past May and am now working toward a 340lb deadlift with his plan. While I am making my weights each week, 340lb is still a relatively terrifying number! If I miss any of my upcoming weekly goals, I may have to lower the outcome goal to 330 or 325lbs, but this is just part of the journey. With a set framework and a measurable goal, you are far more likely to continue making genuine progress.

While this blog post centers on the deadlift, integrating the RKC system into your workouts will increase your strength in all of your lifts. Combine RKC skills with a sound, goal-based training program, and you will unlock a new world of strength potential. The journey becomes less about the lifts and more about the power we learn to access.

Katie practices new cues from Marty Gallagher; warming up with 225lbs for 6 reps:


Katie Petersen is an RKC Team Leader, PCC Instructor, and also holds nutrition/training certifications with Poliquin, Precision Nutrition, and NASM.  She owns Active Evolution, a successful training and nutrition counseling business in Chicago, working with both online and local clients.  Katie also has a niche clientele of fitness competitors (bodybuilding, bikini, figure), as she has several years experience as an nationally ranked NPC Figure Athlete.  For online or personal training, visit her website, or email Katie directly at Subscribe to her YouTube channels, Katie Petersen RKC and We Train Chicago to follow her training videos and tips.

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