Who Can Benefit from Kettlebell Workouts?
For most people, a lack of equipment in the gym introduces them to using kettlebells. Much like the humble rowing machine and versa climber, most gym bros steer clear of the cast-iron ‘bells, helping you get an effective, time-efficient workout in, without having to worry about your kit getting pinched. This and the growing popularity of sports such as Cross Fit and Strongman have helped drive kettlebell training and workouts into the mainstream.
Kettlebells are one of the easiest weights to move around during your workout in a short timeframe and can be stored away easily, from your car boot to your garden shed or garage. They’re adaptable to your strength and fitness levels, too. Fitness brands such as Rogue and Strong First stock kettlebells that vary in weights and sizes — from 4kg in weight all the way up to a whopping 92kg.
Why Kettlebell Workouts Are Good for You
“Kettlebells give you the opportunity to move athletically with additional resistance from a variety of angles and more challenging positions,” explains Jon Lewis, a personal trainer with fitness outlet Industrial Strength.
Not only that, but exercises such as kettlebell swings can help increase your heart rate, burn extra fat and tone muscle, but where they really come into their own is in building strength throughout your posterior chain.
“Kettlebells are best for swinging to develop your posterior chain. As these are your body’s biggest muscles, you’ll also torch calories,”.
Additionally, kettlebells are an incredibly useful tool for those looking to build their base of strength and mobility, so if you’re struggling with your barbell back squat, for example, utilising the kettlebell goblet squat is a good way of practising proper form with a safer exercise that can then be upgraded as your strength increases.
Well-suited for swings, presses and carries, kettlebells also lend themselves to more dynamic movements, where a dumbbell or barbell may be more difficult to use. “Kettlebells are arguably one of the most versatile bits of equipment you can find in a gym,”.
“They’re great tools for metabolic conditioning, strength training and can be used for resistance work too, if you can’t access dumbbells or barbells.”
“The most common injury that occurs using a kettlebell is in the lower back,”
“Typically, it’s with the kettlebell swing, because of its dynamic nature – moving back and forth quickly at the hip joint”. It doesn’t end there.
“This exaggerated flexion and extension at the hip puts a lot of force through the lower back.” When it comes to getting injuries from poor form, the “arching of the back and not engaging the glutes in an overhead press or folding in a goblet position” can put you at risk of busting your lower back.
Remember your Swing is a Hip hinge movement and not a Squatting movement!!
The 5 Don’ts for Kettlebell Benefits
Let’s get these out of the way. In my experience, over the years of using kettlebells, these five points are what limits people from getting the most out the kettlebell.
1. Do Not Take It To The Extreme
Without fail, if something is good there’s a few people out there who think a hell of a lot more must be better. If a swing is good, then let’s take it higher. If the snatch is good, then let’s do it for an hour.
Unless you plan on competing in kettlebell sport, there’s no reason to take a kettlebell movement to the extreme. At best you’ll get burnt out, and at worst you’ll develop an injury. Balance is key. That applies to just about everything in life, too.
If you’re new to the kettlebell and want to jump in with both feet, three full body workouts hitting each movement pattern per week is plenty.
2. Do Not Go Too Light
The conventional gyms and department stores of the world would have you believe that a 10lb kettlebell is all a man needs and a 5lb is plenty for a woman.
Well, my friend, I hate to burst your kettle-bubble, but if you want to see any benefits from the bell you need to challenge yourself.
Of course, we all have to start somewhere and maybe that’s the appropriate weight for you. 99% of the time (a statistic I just made up to prove a point but is still going to be high) trainees go too light. If you’re one of those people, it’s ok.
There’s still hope. There’s no set standard per se as each person is different, but here’s a good guide for non-injured, healthy men and women:
If you’re relatively strong and fit aim towards the higher end the spectrum. If weights just ain’t your thing then go lower.
There will be outliers and even if you can deadlift a 40kg it’s best to use a kettlebell that you can do many movements with as opposed to just one or two to reap the most benefits.
3. Do Not Go Too Heavy
On the flip side going too heavy isn’t going to help you either. By flexing your ego, you’ll do more harm than good. Just because you saw it online or in a certain “games” doesn’t mean you’re ready for it.
Challenging yourself is important, but if you’re breaking form for the purposes of lifting a certain weight, then the potential harm outweighs any good could be doing.
Most injuries happen from the structural breakdown of either fatigue or load. Heavyweight is essential for building strength as long as you stay within your abilities. It’s easy to have a goal of pressing or swinging heavier and heavier weight and to get a bit overzealous.
Even if you’re using a weight, you can handle for a particular rep range stop the set as soon as form deteriorates and even better yet a set or two before that.[See above weight guide]
4. Do Not Exceed Your Abilities
Just because you want to do something doesn’t mean you’re ready to do something. Will is important, but the ability is crucial.
If I had a nickel for each time I’ve seen someone attempting a technical move like the snatch at a conventional gym with zero knowledge of the movement outside of watching a video I’d be a rich man.
Finding a reputable coach in your area or absorbing instructional videos will do your body good. Social media can be a dangerous place if you’re new to the kettlebell world. Juggling, intense movements, and programs with a ton of volume can look enticing, but if you’re not ready for it take a step back.
Assess where you are with your range of motion on any particular movement pattern. Knowing where you are will give you valuable insight as to where to go. Check out the Durability channel on Onnit Academy On Demand to work through tight areas and open up new movements.
5. Do Not Think The Kettlebell Is Just For Cardio
This is most prolific with strength guys and gym rats. Compared to a 500-pound deadlift even the heaviest kettlebell pales in comparison. Of course, it would be viewed as a cardio tool. Do some ballistic work at the end of your workout and call it a day, right?
Well, my friend, you’ll be missing out on the strength-gaining effects of a powerful kettlebell routine. Double kettlebell work, heavy one arm swings, bent presses, goblet squats, and incredible flows will do far more than get your heart pumping. It comes down to awareness of what’s possible.
A powerful routine that will build incredible strength AND conditioning is utilizing the kettlebell (or a few) for a strength-geared circuit. Pick 3-5 movements with a weight that would be a 5-8 RM per movement. Perform each movement for 5 reps resting a minute between exercises.
For example, you can perform a press, goblet squat, renegade row, and one arm swing. Another powerful way to incorporate your bell into a strength session is utilizing a movement for an OTM (on the minute) style session.
This gives you plenty of volumes while keeping reps low. A favorite of mine is the double clean and front squat for sets of 3-6 for 8-12 sets. This gives you PLENTY of room for growth since you can’t change the weights easily.
Now that we got through that here are the Do’s to make the most of your kettlebell training.
The 5 Do’s for Kettlebell Benefits
1. Do Use The Kettlebell To Help Build Weaknesses
Weaknesses. We’ve all got ‘em and like to hold on to them for dear life. Some of them become a cop out to attempting tougher movements. The bell can help you get rid of quite a few of those stubborn, sticking points that are holding you back.
Between get-ups, arm bars, windmills and sots presses kettlebell deliver amazing strength, but also incredible mobility from your hips to your shoulders and everything in between.
For years I’ve been telling potential clients “one of the best things about the kettlebell is it gets your comfortable in uncomfortable positions.” This is powerful for building injury-proof athletes and clients.
You can incorporate challenging movements as a warm up or what I do is pick the toughest ones based on my body’s abilities and spend a whole session playing with them.
For example, I’ll incorporate a longer mobility warm up and then hit multiple sets (never to failure) of sots presses and deep goblet squats using lighter weights. While these sessions aren’t the most taxing because of the weight or intensity, they are challenging.
Even if you don’t use them with challenging movements just by adding one of the most basic movements (the swing), you’ll increase hamstring flexibility which leads to a more mobile, healthy. Because of the position of the kettlebell even simply pressing it will pull your arm back a bit further stretching your lats and opening up your shoulders a hair more.
2. Do Use Them To Build a Stronger Backside
What does a stronger backside translate to? Just about everything from jumping higher, running faster, kicking harder and better posture. Your glutes and hamstrings are your power source for building hip speed and explosive strength.
Every muscle in your posterior chain will be enhanced with ballistic kettlebell movements. This is what separates them from dumbbells. Sure you can perform dumbbell clean, and presses, squats, and rows, but high rep ballistic dumbbell work isn’t as easy to do.
What builds the backside is performing ballistic work with a hinge (bending at the hips) thus putting more force on the backside.
The cure? Swings (or a variation of them) performed a minimum of three times a week. This can be alternated with heavy and lighter weights and aiming for 50-200 reps (not necessarily at once).
Sets can be broken down and performed ladder-style, on the minute, or pair them with a calisthenics move like pushups for a more robust session.
3. Do Use Kettlebells To Build An Iron Grip
A strong grip is more useful than the mainstream fitness world gives it credit. While admittedly not as sexy as six pack abs it’s not just for arm-wrestlers and cattle ranchers.
The off-center placement of the bell gives the kettlebell an advantage over other tools as it forces you to keep a flexed forearm while in the rack and overhead position. Combine that with kettlebell flows, juggling, and ballistic movements to strengthen your grip from every angle.
For now, try some simple complexes and circuits where you don’t put the weight down. This will breathe life into your grip tremendously if done with adequate weight. Aim for circuits that last at least 60 seconds with a weight you can handle without putting down.
Eventually, you can try tougher routines and juggling complexes to unleash the power of the bell.
4. Do Use Kettlebells To Train In Different Planes
Most of strength training is done with trunk flexion and extension with the occasional rotational movement medicine ball throw. The beauty of the bell is the ability to transition from movement to movement seamlessly which includes movements that take you out of the sagittal plane.
Squats and deadlifts are awesome, but when you combine powerful movements with the likes of rotational swings, lateral punches, and 360 snatches you’ll build strength from a multitude of angles.
Strength in motion (what we’ve dubbed the outside the box thinking and kettlebell flowing) is almost meditative. There are no rules. There are no sets and reps. You just move, and this allows you to explore different ranges of motion, planes, and movement patterns.
Set the timer for 2 minutes using a weight you can handle through just about every movement. From there combine movements, incorporate rotational work, and just play with it.
5. Do Use Kettlebells To Simplify Your Training Life
If you’re a coach or group class leader kettlebells are fantastic to lead clients through a plethora of movements that will deliver strength and conditioning in record time. If you’re a solo practitioner nothing beats the simplicity of one or two bells and some fresh air.
It’s easy to get caught up in the “more is better” mentality when it comes to gym equipment at conventional locations. Racks, and dumbbells, cable machines, and ab stations and the list goes on.
A few kettlebells allow you to add dynamic movements to your home routine of calisthenics allowing you to simplify. A break from in-depth, percentage-driven routines can be a nice change of pace.
Some simple complexes and movements can help you continue on your strength quest without skipping a beat and minus the tons of equipment and weight needed.
An easy way is to limit your tools to a kettlebell and club or mace, a suspension trainer and your body to build an high-functioning physique without all the fluff.
For more in-depth kettlebell work c
2. heck out the Kettlebell Channel on Onnit Academy On Demand that will take you through full programs and instructional videos.
This will help you take your kettlebell abilities to the next level and help you unlock your imagination for some fantastic, out of the box strength and conditioning sessions.
MY TOP 5 KETTLEBELL MOVEMENTS:
1. Kettlebell Swing
1. Stand with feet set wider than shoulder-width and hinge at the hips to grab the kettlebell with both hands.
2. Drive your hips, keep your back flat swing the weight up to shoulder height.
3. Return to the start position and repeat without losing momentum.
Initiated by a powerful hip thrust from your hamstring and glutes, opting for heavier weights (once the move is mastered, of course) for up to 90 seconds a set will vastly improve your anaerobic fitness, accelerating your heart-rate and ignite a fat-burn that the bench press can only dream of.
2. TURKISH GET UP
The Turkish get-up is one of the most comprehensive, holistic exercises you can have in your arsenal. “In addition to promoting stability, mobility, balance, and strength, the get-up can have powerful neurological benefits.
“As babies, we transition from crawling to standing and these transitional patterns are an important part of the hardwiring of our brain,” he explains. Thanks to our deskbound lives, our ability to access these patterns becomes inhibited as we age. The Turkish get-up, though, is the grown-up version of learning to stand up—it takes you through majority of the possible ways the human body can move. And practicing the exercise regularly can help increase sports performance as well as mental function.
Lie face up, one arm to your side, kettlebell straight up with your other arm, same side leg bent and other leg straight, both legs slightly away from the midline
(1). Drive the foot of your bent leg into the ground to initiate a roll towards the down arm (
2). Drive your elbow into the ground and then straighten out your elbow coming up onto your hand (
3). Take the straight leg, bring it through and hinge at the hip to come to a half-kneeling position (
4). Stand up
(5). Go back down the way you came up. Repeat for all reps on that side; then do it on the other side.
Trainer cue: Keep your eyes on the bell the entire time until you reach step 4
The kettlebell swing is widely regarded as the king of all kettlebell exercises. It trains the commonly weak posterior chain muscles (glutes, hamstrings) like no other exercise, and it strengthens the core. It’s hard to argue with the swing’s standing…
But as good as the swing is as a kettlebell exercise, I believe the snatch actually surpasses it. Let’s call it, the Mother of All Kettlebell Exercises—even the king. The snatch is a beautiful, explosive movement that gets the posterior chain firing and core engaged, and it helps to stabilize the shoulder. It increases your heart rate, engages the whole body, and trains up your weaknesses.
How To Do A Kettlebell Snatch
Step 1: Stand with feet between hip and shoulder-width apart, holding a kettlebell in your right hand at shoulder level. The handle should rest diagonally in your hand just above your thumb—not near your fingers.
Step 2: With your shoulders drawn back and downward (think: proud chest), press the bell straight overhead, locking out your elbow. This is the finish position of the snatch, and if you can’t get into it properly, it’s an indication that you shouldn’t be snatching yet. Your ribs should be down, core braced, and pelvis level to the floor.
Step 3: Lower the weight back to the rack position, where the bell is shoulder level and your forearm is vertical.
Step 4: Now bend your forearm inward toward the midline of your body while simultaneously extending your elbow. Gravity will take over and pull the bell toward the floor—control its descent. When the bell lowers to just in front of your thighs, hinge at the hips, bending them back and hiking the bell between your legs. Maintain a long spine, keeping your head and pelvis aligned. Core still braced. Maintain your proud chest position as the bell hikes back, so that your shoulders are square to the floor.
Step 5: When your hips are fully bent, extend them explosively to stand tall again. As you rise, pull your elbow straight up vertically and, when it can’t rise anymore, allow the momentum from your hips to help you punch your fist straight to the ceiling. The bell should wrap around your wrist as your elbow extends. You shouldn’t need your fingers to finish the lift.
If you time it right, the kettlebell won’t smash into the back of your forearm.
When first learning the snatch, begin every rep from the arm extended position, lowering the weight down into the rack position and then hip hinging as described above. As you get comfortable with the movement, you can begin the snatch from the rack position, and then by simply hiking it from the floor.
4. Kettlebell Clean
As far as kettlebell training goes I don’t think there’s a more misunderstood exercise than the kettlebell clean. I’ve written previously about it here in terms of why it’s such a useful exercise. Now it’s time to learn how to do it right.
If you look at the clean, it is the central link in many cases to get the bell from the floor to a position where we can squat, press, or jerk it. Regardless of whether you’re a Hardstyle or Girevoy Sport fan you’re going to need to make sure your clean is good. The saying “your press is only as good as your clean” can also be applied to your jerk and squat.
The first thing to keep in mind with the kettlebell clean is that it is a swing that just ends up with the bell going to a different location. I think about the swing as the driving force behind my clean and snatch. I find when I focus on keeping the elements of the Swing in those moves they are much more fluid and powerful. So, always keep in mind all the things we spoke about when we were doing swings.
The fastest way to learn the clean is actually backwards.
- To begin, grip the kettlebell in one hand and grasp over the top of your first hand with your other hand.
- Now curl the bell to your chest. Remove the non-working hand and get comfortable in this position. Your elbow should be tucked in against your side, as if trying to hold a newspaper between your upper arm and your ribs. Your forearm should be mostly vertical, but angled slightly across your chest. The thumb should be pointing back toward you. It is important to make sure the wrist is straight at all times. Position the handle of the bell parallel to the callus line for now as we’re only concerned about the clean, not setting up for pressing or jerks.
3. This rack position needs to be strong and firmly imprinted in your head so you’ll be able to direct the kettlebell there during your work sets. A good drill at this point is to go for a walk in the rack position working on keeping the elbow in and maintaining good posture – you’ll find it’s far harder than you think.
4. Starting from the rack, we need to get confident hike passing the bell back behind us. The best way to do this is to drop the bell from the rack. Do this by hinging at the hips, turning the hand slightly, as if pouring water, and allowing the kettlebell to trace an arc down between your legs and behind you. Then let it go. Once you’ve released your bell stay in your bottom position. You should be able to stay here with no movement. Your lower arm should be pressed into the thigh of the same leg, not in the center of your body.
5. Front Squat Double/Single
Benefits of the Two-Kettlebell Front Squat
The two-kettlebell front squat (2KB FS) should make its way into your program for a host of reasons, but here’s short list to get you started.
Lower Body Strength
You’ll never be able to load a 2KB FS at like you do a traditional front squat with a barbell, but that doesn’t mean it won’t help you get strong. Granted, the barbell front squat is superior if we’re talking pure lower-body strength, but the increased instability of the kettlebells makes up for the lack of load. In fact, most people feel like a rock when they return to the barbell after a cycle with the kettlebells.
I have yet to meet a single person who has enough core strength and stability. Or maybe I should say too much core strength and stability. By loading the kettlebells anteriorly you put your core on overdrive and force it to maintain position. Not only that, this movement will take your lats of the equation and force you to stabilize without them. A lot of people get into trouble because they lack stability from the right places, and this exercise helps correct that.
Grooving the Pattern
A squat, in its truest essence, is a straight-up-and-down movement. Sitting your butt straight down, staying in your heels, and coming straight back up. The placement of the kettlebells and the increased recruitment of your core makes this one of the best variations to work on grooving this up-and-down pattern. And for my anatomy friends out there, that means getting your outlet to open in the bottom position.
Breathing Into Your Back
Many people lack the ability to fill up their posterior mediastinum bilaterally when they breathe. By putting them in the bottom of a squat and biasing a little flexion, I can work on breathing properly and getting air into both chest walls (it’s a little more complicated than that, but you get the picture).
- Clean the Kettlebells Up – Hopefully step one is fairly obvious. You have to get the kettlebells to the rack position if you hope to do this exercise.
2. Set the Rack Position – Now that the kettlebells are up, you need let them rest on your forearms, biceps, and shoulder with a neutral wrist position. Then interlock your fingers and you’re good to go.
3. Set Your Feet – This could easily be step one, but most people need a little bit of a wider base to clean the kettlebells up. Either way, I want your feet shoulder width apart, and toes straight ahead or turned out five to ten degrees.
4. Get “Neutral” – Go ahead and exhale, bringing your ribs down and hips underneath you. If you do it right, you should feel your abs and hamstrings turn on. If you don’t feel your hamstrings, then think about digging your heels into the ground as you exhale.
5. Sit Down – As opposed to sitting back, which you would do in other squat variations, you’re going to sit straight down, making sure you stay in your heels and keep your hips underneath you the whole time. It’s important to mention that doesn’t mean let your toes come up off the ground. I want those down, too. It just means to feel your heels in the ground as you squat. Also, it may help if you think about using your hamstrings to pull yourself straight down.
6. Breathe – Now that you’re in the bottom position, stay tight. And don’t be in a rush to leave. Take a big breath in (remember the breath into your back piece) and on your exhale you’re going to start standing up.
7. Press the Ground Away – On your exhale, start pressing the ground away through your heels (especially the left – more on that later) to stand up. Be sure to keep your hips underneath you and don’t let them fly out (aka the stripper squat).
Finish – Continue pressing the ground away until you reach the top of the lift and finish in the same neutral position you started in.
My advice to you is if you’re not using Kettlebells yet, then you need to get using them ASAP(correctly)
Contact your nearest Strong First qualified instructor for help!