Kettlebell Exercises: Are They The Missing Staple In Your Workout Routine?

Kettlebell training is a rising star in the world of fitness—and for good reason considering the impressive strength and conditioning outcomes you can earn in a 30-minute sesh.

January 16, 2018
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Looking to switch things up at the gym or get into a sustainable, high-impact workout routine at home?

If yes, it’s time to rejoice, because you’re onto something amazing. Smaller than a squat rack, bench, or barbell, kettlebells can easily fit in any corner of your home. The space needed is minimal, and your one crucial piece of equipment is…well, a pair of kettlebells.

With just these two weights, you can get your heart pounding and muscles screaming. You’ll have the freedom to squeeze in a quick 20-minute session while your kiddos are taking their afternoon nap or to power through your workout outdoors while catching some rays. What could be better than getting your sweat on when and where you want?

Once predominantly popular among CrossFit athletes and Pavel Tsatsouline followers, kettlebells can now be found at nearly any gym or brought home for commute-free workouts. Whether you’re a powerlifting fiend or a mom looking for a workout you can do while the little ones play (or both!) kettlebells are an indispensable tool in your arsenal.

The kettlebell is a solid iron sphere with a handle attached to its top. Its unique shape creates an entirely different demand on the body when compared with traditional dumbbell and barbell exercises. Using kettlebells, an individual is able to “integrate curvilinear movements, centrifugal force, and momentum into a total body, circuit weight training type workout” according to an article published in the Journal of Fitness Research.

The dynamism of a kettlebell workout often entails multi-joint and multi-plane movements, meaning many kettlebell exercises will start with the weight on the floor and end with it above your head. Due to their vigorous nature, these workouts can improve strength, power, flexibility, balance, and even cardiorespiratory functioning.

Mastering the Fundamental Swing

Every kettlebell exercise is founded on the basic Russian swing, which involves projecting the weight to shoulder height. It’s considered the most powerful kettlebell movement because of its exemplification of total-body power and superior levels of cardiovascular training.

Although it looks simple, conquering a proper swing can take time—and perhaps additional guidance from a coach or certified personal trainer. In truth, this exercise is often performed incorrectly, which limits its efficacy and increases the chance of injury.

To perfect the movement, stand up straight with your feet positioned slightly wider than hip-distance apart. Holding the handle of the kettlebell with both hands, keep your palms facing in and your arms in front of your body. Maintain a slight bend of your knees and lower the weight as you drive your hips back.

This isn’t a squat! Instead, hinge at your hips—similar to what you would do during a Romanian deadlift. Hinge, hinge, hinge! Then, in one smooth motion, explode through your hips—contracting your glutes, driving your hips forward, and allowing the kettlebell to swing upward.

Throughout the entire exercise, keep your core engaged. All movement should come directly from your hips. You are neither squatting the weight nor are you using your arms to pull the weight up in a pseudo-upright row.

Building on the Basics

Here are some of our favorite kettlebell moves that you’ll be building on in no time:

Goblet Squat

Level: Beginner

Targets: Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Glutes, Back, Core

Rep + Set Scheme: 3 to 5 sets of 12 to 20 reps

Start in a firm stance, with your feet a few inches wider than shoulder-width apart and your toes slightly turned out. Hold the kettlebell in front of your chest with both hands gripping the handle, keeping your elbows tucked against each side of your body. While maintaining a strong, straight trunk, start squatting down to the ground. Drive through your heels, pushing them into the ground. Focus on keeping your chest up as your hips move backward until your thighs are parallel to the floor—or lower. Continue to push through your heels as you contract your quadriceps and glutes to return to a standing position.

Deadlift

Level: Beginner

Targets: Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Glutes, Back, Core

Rep + Set Scheme: 3 to 5 sets of 12 to 15 reps


Stand with your feet positioned about shoulder-width apart and the kettlebell resting on the ground between your feet. Squat down to reach the kettlebell handle, grasping it with both hands. As you lower down, keep your core engaged, your back flat, and your hips moving backward. Holding the kettlebell with extended arms, contract your glutes to drive yourself up through the lift. As you rise up, squeeze your glutes and pull your shoulders back. Lower the kettlebell back to the ground to return to the starting position and prepare for the next rep.

Lunge Press

Level: Intermediate

Targets: Shoulders, Back, Arms, Core, Glutes, Quadriceps, Hamstrings

Rep + Set Scheme: 3 to 5 sets of 12 to 15 reps per leg


Start with your feet together, holding the kettlebell in your right hand directly above your right shoulder. Lunge forward with your right leg, straightening your arm and raising the kettlebell overhead. In a full lunge, your front thigh should be parallel to the ground. Using only this leg to push your body out of the lunge, return to standing while lowering the kettlebells down toward your shoulder. A wider stance will involve greater glute activation, while a narrower stance will involve greater quadricep activation. Perform 12 to 15 reps on one side before moving on to the left side.

Sumo High-Pull

Level: Intermediate

Targets: Back, Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Glutes, Shoulders, Arms

Rep + Set Scheme: 3 to 5 sets of 12 to 15 reps


Stand with your feet significantly wider than shoulder-width apart, with the kettlebell resting between your feet. Your toes should be turned out slightly. As a good rule of thumb, your knees should track in the direction of your toes throughout the movement. Squat down to grasp the handle of the kettlebell with both hands. Keep your chest upright as you push your hips back. With a firm grip on the kettlebell, rise out of the squat. As your legs straighten, simultaneously raise your elbows and pull the kettlebell to your chest. Your legs should be driving the entire movement, with your upper body moving in synchronicity toward the end. Lower the kettlebell and squat the weight down to the ground, returning to your starting position.

Incline Row

Level: Intermediate

Targets: Back, Arms, Core

Rep + Set Scheme: 3 to 5 sets of 12 to 15 reps per arm

Begin in supported plank position on the edge of a chair or table, keeping your core engaged, quadriceps contracted, and glutes clenched throughout the entire movement. Keep your hips and shoulders square with the ground as you lift the kettlebell in one hand to begin your row. With speed and control, complete all your reps on one arm before alternating arms, maintaining a tight body throughout the entire set.

Push-Up

Level: Intermediate and Advanced

Targets: Chest, Arms, Shoulders, Back, Core

Rep + Set Scheme: 3 to 5 sets of 12 to 15 reps


Move into a push-up position with one hand gripping the handle of the kettlebell. The handle should be positioned so that your palm faces in as you hold the handle. Imagine a plank hold, keeping your core engaged, quadriceps contracted, and glutes clenched. Lower your body until your chest is at handle height, then push back up to the starting position. Alternate arms as you move through your sets.

Turkish Get-Up

Level: Intermediate and Advanced

Targets: Abs, Arms, Back

Rep + Set Scheme: 3 to 5 sets of 10 to 12 reps per side

Lie down on your back with your legs outstretched in front of you. Holding a kettlebell, extend your left arm straight up toward the ceiling. Bend the left knee and start to rise up. While engaging your core, prop your body up with your right arm. Keeping your right arm strong and the kettlebell overhead, kneel on one knee then stand all the way up. Next, carefully lower your body back down to the starting position, keeping the kettlebell overhead as you recline. Perform 10 to 12 reps on one side before moving to the other.

Military Press

Level: Advanced

Targets: Shoulders, Arms, Back, Core

Rep + Set Scheme: 3 to 5 sets of 12 to 15 reps


Start in a strong stance with the kettlebell in one hand. With your elbows bent, bring the kettlebell to shoulder height. The “bell” should be resting against the back of your hand and forearm in what is called the “rack” position, which we’ll use again below!

Engage your core, squeeze your glutes, and press the kettlebell overhead. Lean forward slightly at the waist to ensure the kettlebell winds up behind your head as your arm extends fully. Your palm should now be facing forward. Lower the kettlebell back down to shoulder height and repeat.

Clean + Press

Level: Advanced

Targets: Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Glutes, Back, Shoulders, Core

Rep + Set Scheme: 3 to 5 sets of 12 to 20 reps


Stand with your feet positioned about shoulder-width apart and the kettlebell resting on the ground between your feet. Squat down to grasp the handle of the kettlebell with one hand. Rise to a standing position, with the weight hanging between your legs and your knees slightly bent. With your core engaged, begin to swing upward.

Remember the foundational kettlebell swing here, but keep the weight close to your body rather than pressing it out and away. As you rise, thrust your hips, shrug your shoulders, and pull the “bell” up to your shoulder into the “rack” position you learned earlier, so it rests on the back of your hand and forearm. From here, extend your arm and press the weight overhead. Carefully lower the weight and return it to the starting position (hanging between your legs). If you’re ready for even more of a challenge, try this with a kettlebell in each hand!

Push-Up + Row

Level: Advanced

Targets: Chest, Arms, Shoulders, Back, Core

Rep + Set Scheme: 3 to 5 sets of 6 to 10 reps per arm


Begin in the push-up position, as described above. Lower your body until your chest is at handle height. Once you push up into the top position, lift the kettlebell to perform a row. Keep your hips and shoulders square with the ground and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Lower the kettlebell to the ground and perform the next push-up and row combination.

Why kettlebell?

The benefits of kettlebell training are vast and supported by ample research. Given the total-body nature of these exercises, a wide range of muscles are simultaneously called to action. As a result, kettlebell workouts’ benefits extend far beyond isolated improvements. Although many individuals think of kettlebell routines as cardiovascular exercise, a great deal of research reveals a remarkable influence on strength and power as well. For this reason, kettlebell workouts have quickly become a popular cross-training method for competitive bodybuilders, powerlifters, and Olympic weightlifters.

According to another study sponsored by the American Council of Exercise (ACE) at the University of Wisconsin-Lacrosse, individuals who trained with kettlebells experienced a 70 percent increase in core strength and a 13.8 percent boost in aerobic capacity.

Participants’ dynamic balance, VO2 max, and grip strength also showed significant improvements by the end of their eight-week training period, which means their kettlebell routines improved their ability to balance while in motion and use oxygen during exercise and may even have decreased their risk of heart disease, stroke, and heart attack—all of which are associated with grip strength.

As this study’s particular grouping of benefits suggests, kettlebells combine the perks of resistance training and cardio. But instead of spending one hour hitting the weights and another half hour on the treadmill, it’s possible to experience similar benefits with just 20 to 30 minutes of kettlebell hustle.

An individual’s heart rate is elevated quickly, and when combining their aerobic (cardiorespiratory) and anaerobic (strength) efforts, it’s possible to burn roughly 20 calories a minute while kettlebell training. To put this into perspective, ACE compares the expenditure to running at 6-minute mile pace or cross-country skiing uphill. That means kettlebells can give you the most bang for your buck when you’re crunched on time.

One more advantage of the kettlebell is its ability to decrease the training load while still helping you make substantial headway in terms of your strength and conditioning goals. This reduces the wear and tear on the body without inhibiting forward progress.

For example, one study found that the kettlebell swing engages the low back extensors at 50 percent of maximal voluntary contraction (MVC), and the gluteal muscles at 80 percent of MVC—both of which are adequate for increasing strength. As T-Nation explains, the body doesn’t know the difference between 90 pounds on your shoulders and 45-pound kettlebells in each hand.

A key difference between traditional weights and kettlebells is the kettlebells’ ability to leverage tension as a result of their specific shape and design. Although they may be lighter in weight, the cumulative tension placed on the body while engaging kettlebells is far greater. This allows for the generation of greater force output and superior control, both of which are essential for strength gains.

This is one reason why kettlebells are often touted as being “better” than dumbbells. While a dumbbell allows for slight “cheating”—often as a result of swinging or moving out of the most effective range of motion—a kettlebell maintains constant tension and stimulation throughout an entire movement. If inappropriate swinging occurs during an exercise, the kettlebell will hit the body—alerting you to an issue with form. Proper kettlebell technique ensures that tension and stimulation are emphasized even in exercise positions that are often neglected in traditional dumbbell movements.

Kettlebells are also offset and unbalanced, while the weight of a dumbbell is evenly distributed throughout its length. The offset weight of a kettlebell makes it far more functional and applicable to everyday tasks. Using kettlebells, your strength is not simply improved but can be increased in a way that’s relevant to balancing one crying child and a few bags of groceries. Hello, motherhood. The perfect balance of a dumbbell, however, does not have the same effect. Perhaps you’ve experienced this type of existential dilemma as you struggle to move a load of boxes, thinking about how strong that bicep curl felt just a few days earlier. Kettlebell training can help you overcome that!

Overall, incorporating the kettlebell’s two-pronged approach, which touts strength training and conditioning, helps build both cardiovascular and muscular endurance—all while recruiting a plethora of muscles to increase mobility and balance. Think about it: Balancing a weight overhead as you stand up from a lying position requires quite the motor skill.

Safety First: Own Your Bell

Unfortunately, technical errors are common when training with kettlebells—especially for beginners. These errors can drastically increase the chances of injury considering how vigorous and forceful many of the movements are. Writing for StrongFirst, a website and company founded by the renowned Tsatsouline, Matt Kingstone, owner of King Cobra Fit, explains the key concept of “owning a bell.”

While it’s necessary to use a weight that’s challenging enough for a decent workout (ladies, drop the 5 pounders), it’s also important not to reach for a kettlebell that’s heavier than what you’re ready for. Knowing the proper weight and “owning” the kettlebell is dependent on three key concepts: control, confidence, and competence. If you can move through a workout while maintaining all three Cs, you may be ready to reach for a heavier weight.

Being in control of the kettlebell is the most important thing you can do to prioritize your safety. Demonstrating control means there’s a complete absence of wobbling during the exercise, the movement can be done with equal proficiency on both the left and right side, and there is no difference between concentric (contracting or shortening) action and eccentric (lengthening) action. The movement must look and feel fluid.

You can determine if you have any weak spots in a variety of ways.

First, add a pause or press in each position of the movement. If there’s a problem with stabilizing the bell, you’ll notice yourself losing tension or balance. Second, video yourself working out. Although it may feel awkward at first, this can highlight your performance—good or bad. Kingstone explains that this tends to take the subjectivity out of the exercise. Instead, you may notice yourself rushing through transitions or dropping your chest and hips a bit too low in your swing. A third option is to incorporate what’s called a bonus drill. Try performing the movement in the bottom-up position. It could be a final factor in forcing you to properly brace throughout the entire movement. Recognize your weaknesses and work on them until they become your strengths.

During your training, you must maintain a level of self-assurance and self-efficacy. Applying this to “owning” a kettlebell means you can perform the movement without any worry or concerns, you can demonstrate the exercise at any time, and the movement (again) appears smooth. Confidence will come with sufficient practice and patience. Notice if you feel better in your current session than you did during the one before, and use this as a boost. Acknowledge the fact that you are improving.

During your workout, there shouldn’t be an ounce of doubt. The exercises you’re performing should eventually become reflexive, as if your body has memorized the kettlebell’s path. If you feel hesitant when thinking about increasing the weight, don’t do it. Wait until your answer to a weightier bell is a resounding Yes.

Competency is the third and final pillar. If you’re competent with a kettlebell, you are:

  1. Symmetrical: You don’t have to compensate or sacrifice control in one muscle to complete the movement as a whole.
  2. Knowledgeable and articulate: You can communicate effectively about the movement with your coach, team, or galpal next door and can talk others through the exercise.

Establishing competence is the point at which fine-tuning and attention to detail come into play, according to Kingstone. The “little things” become major areas of mastery. It’s important to understand, though, that you will achieve new levels of competency with particular movements as you graduate to heavier kettlebells. In this way, competency is an ever-changing state that’s continuously building on itself.

Let’s get you going!

When looking for your own kettlebell, think about which movements you are most interested in learning. Kettlebells USA defines ballistic movements as explosive lifts such as swings, cleans, snatches, and tosses. Conversely, grinding movements are defined as Turkish get-ups, overhead presses, windmills, squats, and lunges.

For ballistic movements, “an average, active women should start with a kettlebell between 8 kg (18 lb) and 12 kg (26 lb). An athletic woman should start with a kettlebell between 12 kg (26 lb) and 16 kg (35 lb).”

During grinding movements, you should be able to easily press the weight overhead 8 to 10 times to ensure control. “An average, active women should start with a kettlebell between 6 kg (13 lb) and 8 kg (18 lb). An athletic woman should start with a kettlebell between 8 kg (18 lb) and 12 kg (26 lb).”

If you’re ready to order your first kettlebell, Onnit and Rogue Fitness have great collections. You’re sure to find one perfectly suited for your needs and goals!

Check out HealthyWay’s Kettlebell Series here.

 

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