An Introduction to Kettlebells
If you’ve been in a gym recently, you may be wondering about those canon balls with handles that people seem to be swinging around carelessly. Those are kettlebells and those swings are anything but careless. A kettlebell is a solid, heavy ball with an offset handle. In one form or another they’ve been around for centuries, but have only recently gained popularity in the west after Soviet forces began using them to train their soldiers.
A kettlebell has a few advantages over traditional dumbbells and free weights. The most obvious is its unbalanced weight. Unlike a traditional dumbbell that is even on both sides, the kettlebell has an obvious heavy and light side. This unequal distribution of weight lends itself well to aerobic-style exercises without sacrificing the resistance training that helps build muscles. This uneven weight causes more momentum in the kettlebell movement and more muscle and stability used to halt the fluid motion. This translates into stronger, lean muscles and added weight loss.
Taking Your First Step
Just like any piece of workout equipment, it’s important that the kettlebell is used correctly. Proper form is paramount to your safety and your gains from the exercises. It’s also important that you choose the right kettlebell for you. You can’t just grab anything off the rack and expect the best results. Competition kettlebells, while obviously top notch, may not be the best option for beginners or those who are hoping to use them for a wide variety of exercises. The handles are more square and smaller than other types, making it difficult to hold with two hands.
If you’re just getting started or want the flexibility of two handed exercises, a classic cast iron kettlebell is for you. It should be smooth and round on all edges, with no flat plastic or rubber foot attached. And you should make sure that a closed, horizontal fist can fit through the handle, but not a vertical fist.
Once you have the right style, choosing the weight that’s right for you is the next step. With most kettlebell training programs, you only need one weight. While the popularity of kettlebell training has produced many different sizes and interim weights, there are really only seven weights to consider:
- 8kg - This is the best starting weight for women.
- 12kg - This is the best starting weight for unconditioned men, and women will graduate to this weight very quickly.
- 16kg - Most fit men will begin their training here. This is a great goal for women after several months of training.
- 20kg - A natural next step for men. Some very trained women can use this weight for certain exercises like swings.
- 24kg - After some training, men can progress here and will get a fantastic workout.
- 28kg - This weight will help bridge the gap to...
- 32kg - The ultimate goal for men. Only used for certain exercises like getups and swings.
While it might be tempting to keep trying to increase your weight, most women won’t need anything more than the 8, 12, and 16kg kettlebell set, while the majority of men are completely satisfied with the 16, 20, and 24kg set for their entire training. Unlike free weights, the kettlebell’s advantage is in the movement much more than the weight itself.
How To Get Started
Any extreme kettlebell cardio workout begins with the basics. For anyone just getting started, here are five single kettlebell exercises that will build muscle while increasing cardio, resistance, and balance.
Start by standing with feet slightly more than shoulder width apart, toes pointing forward. Stand up straight with your shoulder back, holding the kettlebell in front of your body with both hands. Keep your elbows close to your chest. Squat by pushing your hips back and keeping your back straight. Make sure your knees don’t bend past your toes. Your thighs should be parallel to the ground. Slowly return to the full standing position.
Perform 15–20 times, take a 1 minute break, and repeat for a total of 3 sets. Take it slow and focus on good form.
Start with the kettlebell on the floor. Stagger your feet so that your right foot is just outside of the weight and your left foot is 2–3ft behind. Bend your hips so that your torso is angled at about 45 degrees from the floor. Rest your right elbow on your right thigh and grab the kettlebell with your left hand. Pull straight up with the kettlebell, bending your elbow all the way, then lowering it back to the ground. Repeat 8 times on both sides, take a 1 minute break, and repeat for a total of 3 sets. Make sure to breath and keep your back straight.
Start with the weight on the floor and feet in squatting position on either side of it. Squat down and pick up the weight with both hands, keeping your back as straight as you can. Use your core and glutes as you lift the kettlebell and your body up, keeping your arms straight. Lower it to the floor again. Repeat 12 times, take a 1 minutes break, and repeat for 3 total sets. Focus on your core and back so as not to injure yourself.
Now we get into kettlebell specific exercises! The swing technique is something you’ll use in many kettlebell exercises. Start by standing straight with feet a little wider than shoulder width. Pick up the weight with both hands, palms facing down. Bend your knees slightly and push your hips back to lower your body. It’s not a squat so don’t get too low. In one continuous motion, forcefully push the hips forward while swinging the weight in front of you with the arms remaining straight. The weight should come to about eye level and you should be standing up completely. Swing the weight back between your legs, bending the knees and pushing your hips back. Use your hips to power the motion, not your arms. Repeat the swing 12 times, take a 1 minute break and repeat 3 times. It’s important to remain in control of the swing and don’t let the momentum pull you around.
Start by holding the kettlebell to your shoulder with the palm facing outward. Lower your body by bending your knees but keep your upper body straight. Push quickly down on your heels, using that momentum to push the weight straight up. Lower the weight back to your shoulder and repeat 8 times on each side. Rest 1 minute and repeat for a total of 3 sets. Think of the movement as almost jumping to get the momentum you need to push the weight.
How To Step It Up
Now that you’ve got a few of the basic moves under your belt, give some of these more advanced moves a shot. Some require two kettlebells or heavier weights, but they’ll definitely get your heartrate up and your muscles working. Here are five more advanced exercises:
The double kettlebell swing is, as you would imagine, remarkably similar to the two-handed swing. Just like with its predecessor, the double swing begins in the athletic hip hinged position, making sure your back is straight and your knees are bent. Instead of grabbing one kettlebell with both hands, you pick up two kettlebells of equal weight. Make sure that you squeeze your glutes together to pull your hips forward when you swing the weights up. Repeat 10–12 times, rest for 1 minute, and repeat for a total of 3 sets. Again, staying in control of the swing and not letting it control you is the goal.
One of the better known kettlebell exercises is the basic getup. It sounds simple but is an advanced move that will give you amazing results. Keeping your eyes on the ball the entire time, you begin in the fetal position on your right side, the weight on the floor in front of your abdomen. Grasp it with your right hand. You then rollover onto your back, legs flat, bringing the weight with you, close to your chest. Bend your right knee and place your foot flat on the ground. Push your right arm with the weight straight up, the palm facing forward and the weight behind your hand. Next, place your left hand on the ground, and bring your torso up so that you’re sitting with your weight on your butt and left hand, and a bit through the left leg and right foot (the kettlebell is still high in the air). With your weight on the left hand and right foot, bring your left leg behind you so that you’re kneeling on it and lift your left arm off the floor. Then push off of that left knee into the standing position. Reverse the steps to lie flat again. Repeat 8 times on each side, with a minute break between sets, for a total of three. Don’t take your eye off the ball for safety and form purposes.
Begin in the deadlift position and one kettlebell between your feet. Pick up the kettlebell with your right arm, swing it slightly behind your legs, then explode from your feet to bring the weight straight up your body, close to your chest. Continue the move bringing the ball over your head, flipping the weight so that it’s behind your hand. Bring it back down, swing it between your legs, and continue for 8 reps on each side. Give yourself a minute break and repeat for 3 total sets.
Standing straight, hold the kettlebell in your right hand with the weight behind your hand, resting on the back of your forearm. Make sure that your arm is in, close to your chest. Your fist should be under your chin to start and end your presses. Push the weight straight up, extending the arm all the way, then bring it back to the starting position. Repeat 8 times on each arm for 3 sets with a 1 minute break between. You’ll be tempted to start with your elbow out, but always start and end with your fist under your chin.
The single-arm kettlebell swing will work on your core and balance much more than the two-handed or even double-kettlebell swing. Using the same wide stance as the other swing, you simply pick up a weight with one hand. Keeping your back straight and your knees slightly bent, swing the weight out in front of you to chest or eye level, then swing it back between your legs. Repeat 8 times with each side, 1 minute break in between, for a total of 3 sets. Make sure to keep your core engaged so that your form will help you control the swing.
And just for fun, here’s a bonus exercise that will work your glutes, hamstrings, and pelvic area:
The main difference here is how wide your feet are apart. Like a sumo wrestler, your feet are planted much wider than shoulders or hips and are angled out about 45 degrees. Bend your hips, with a bend in the knee, to pick up the weight with both hands. Keeping your back straight is a little tougher since your hips are closer to the ground. Squeeze your glutes to push your hips back as you raise and lower the weight. Repeat 12 times, 3 sets, with a 1 minutes break in between.
Where To Go From Here
Now that you feel comfortable with a kettlebell or two, it’s time to up your game. There are many kettlebell programs at local gyms and CrossFit gyms that can get you beyond comfortable and to expert level. With a little practice, you can turn your conditioning into extreme kettlebell cardio workouts. You get the benefits of resistance training and muscle building with the added bonus of a cardio workout and a core strengthener. It doesn’t matter if you’re at the gym to lose weight, build muscle, or compete, these kettlebell exercises will help every athlete at every level. Don’t let it intimidate you, use these exercises to become a kettlebell expert and get the most out of your workouts and don’t forget to recover! Kettlebells recruit multiple muscle groups, making proper muscle recovery critical. Progenex Recovery is perfect to take immediately post-workout to help you hit each kettlebell workout at your best.