Deadlifts with dumbbells or kettlebells are kind of pointless unless you’re doing single-leg variations. Wrong.
Do you ever try single-arm variation instead of single-leg? Two legs on the ground but just one bell, in one hand, held on the side of your body. This is the suitcase deadlift, and in many ways, it trains the same qualities as a single-leg RDL.
The difference is, you can load this exercise up much heavier and have much more fun with it. I have put a lot of the details of your approach in this article, if you need to dig deeper or have specific issues than you should check out my movement principles online course.
The Benefits of the Suitcase Deadlift
Why do we do single-leg exercises? It’s easy to build single-leg strength. Except that’s not all. They also help improve our stability, and it’s not just because they build unilateral strength. It’s from developing the skill of triggering the trunk muscles that keep our hips from rotating or shifting in a coordinated effort.
Our bodies find stability and strength for one side from the other. Our left side obliques turn on to help keep us from side-bending when we’re holding something heavy on the right side of our bodies.
We create a force against the ground from our right foot to flex our left lat.
These cross patterns should be automatic, and we should have control and strength on each side to stabilize the other, but that’s not always the case.
The suitcase deadlift makes it intuitive to sharpen this quality.
It feels wrong to tilt or rotate to one side when you’re picking a heavy weight off the floor in just one hand. You instinctively and actively fight against it.
Should You Do It?
This may seem like a remedial exercise, or something beginners should practice before training heavy barbell deadlifts. Still, it’s just as necessary for elite powerlifters to be far from the competition during general training blocks.
We’ll always develop a tendency to use one side of our bodies in the movement more than the other.
And while some of that is part of being human, too much is part of a problem that can get you hurt.
You may play a sport where you almost exclusively use just one side of your body. Or you could be a busy professional who does some repetitive tasks over and over.
It doesn’t matter what it is; repeat the same movements over and over on one side, and you’re going to struggle with some nagging injuries, aches, and pains.
Exercises like the suitcase deadlift can keep you healthy or help rehab the damage that’s already been done.
What Muscles Are Involved?
The movement itself trains the hamstrings, quads, glutes, and even the back muscles as they help you grip and hold the bell.
But the true advantage in adding these to your workouts is that they build anti-rotational trunk control and strength.
The deep muscles of the trunk that stabilize the spine, pelvis, and hips like the transverse abdominis, psoas major, and even the pelvic floor muscles, to name a few, can really be stressed with this exercise and trained harder than they would be with any exercise where you’d have the same sized weights in both hands.
How to Do a Suitcase Deadlift
Place a dumbbell or kettlebell to the side of one of your ankles.
Hinge over and squat down similarly to setting up for a barbell deadlift. You’ll have to squat down lower and be more upright than you would in a conventional deadlift with a loaded barbell because the bell isn’t as high off the floor, and it’s placed to the side.
Inhale deeply, filling your entire abdominal cavity and expanding and pressurizing not only your belly but the sides of your torso and lower back with the air.
Brace and think of driving your feet and ankles through the floor as you stand, making sure your hips don’t shoot up before your chest and shoulders do.
As you stand, concentrate on letting your shoulders relax and hang but keep the side of your torso with the weight from dipping or slanting lower than the opposite side. You want your hips to stay square and even the whole time. Fight the urge to let your torso bend to the side of the weight as you stand. Concentrate on engaging your trunk to keep your hips square and not allowing yourself to twist or bend to the side at all. Exhale hard at the top, rebrace and squat down the same way to touch the bell to the ground before standing back up
One of the biggest ways to switch things up would be to use a barbell instead of a dumbbell or kettlebell.
Many people think of using a barbell when they do suitcase deadlifts, but it needs to be thought of as a progression to using a bell. With a barbell, not only do you have to fire your trunk to stabilize and keep from turning and rotating, but you’ll also have to stabilize the bar to keep it from tipping forward or back in your hand. This demands a lot of focus on engaging your shoulders, back, and forearms to stabilize the barbell itself and if you can’t first fix your hips and pelvis in place, using a barbell defeats the purpose of the exercise.
Find stability in your body first with bells. Then you can use barbells, also.
Too Far Too Soon
To train trunk stability and get the legs working, you need to challenge yourself with a heavyweight.
But you have to ease into it.
Too heavy of a dumbbell on day one, and you’re stabilizing muscles are likely to tire out too quickly, making you twist or turn.
And once that happens, nothing is protecting your back from injury.
For the Advanced
Despite what you use for weight – dumbbell, kettlebell, barbell – you can make this exercise much more difficult by doing floating reps.
Start the exercise the same as usual, but when you squat back down after the first rep, instead of placing the weight on the floor or even tapping it to the ground, you lower it until it’s just half an inch off the floor. Pause for just a moment and stand back up.
Do your entire set floating the weight just above the ground but never touching, and you’ll feel fatigued, and soreness in a way you haven’t felt since your way over-zealous grade school gym teacher made you do a hundred rep sit-up challenge.