Kettlebell training boosts your power, strength, flexibility, and mobility, all while being gentler on your body than barbell weight training. You can't just pick one up and go without risking injury, though. Here are all the benefits of using them, and why you should work one into your routine.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
Kettlebell Training Builds Total-Body Strength and Boosts Power at the Same Time
Unlike dumbbells, which are great for building strength and muscle in specific areas, kettlebell exercises activate multiple muscle groups at the same time. They also boost your cardiovascular fitness, similar to high-intensity interval training. The kettlebell swing, for example, uses and develops many of the muscles needed for a powerful sprint, and can get you winded after just a few reps.
If your goal is to just get into better and stronger shape, kettlebells are just as effective as dumbbells or a barbell for increasing the maximum amount of weight you can lift and how quickly you can summon huge bursts of power on the sports field, at least in the short term. You can train exclusively with kettlebells if you like, or work kettlebell exercises into an existing workout program.
With kettlebell training, you focus less on the weight itself, and instead train your body to produce force very quickly and keep your muscles working really hard throughout. All of this together basically means more power and control. Plus, the lighter, limited load of kettlebells puts less wear and tear on your body.
Powerful Exercises You Can Do with Just One Kettlebell
Not going to sugar-coat anything: These kettlebell exercises will kick butt. If you're completely new to fitness, take extra care with really easing into kettlebell training. Just like any other weight or bodyweight training, proper technique makes all the difference. Here are some ideas on what you can do with just one kettlebell.
If you only do one kettlebell exercise, the kettlebell swing is your biggest bang-for-your-buck exercise. Plus, the swing lays the foundation for many other kettlebell exercises. This video by Neghar Fonooni explains the important basics of a good swing.
When you break it down, kettlebell swings are very similar to deadlifts. The hip hinge pattern, for example, is the same, but all of the power of a kettlebell swing comes from snapping your hips forward, not from using your arms to propel the kettlebell in front of you. And just like in the deadlift, your back needs to stay straight and your lats tight, as if you were squeezing juice in your armpits the entire time.
Check this article by Onnit for a detailed breakdown. Not surprisingly, being good at swinging a very heavy kettlebell can also help your deadlift.
Make sure to spend plenty of time (months, preferably) practising and mastering kettlebell swings before you move on to anything else. Part of kettlebell training is developing not only strength and endurance to advance, but also the patience and humility to assess and progress without injuring yourself.
Kettlebell Goblet Squat
You can also goblet squat with dumbbells, but the horn-like handle makes gripping the kettlebell close to your chest easier. Even if you have poor mobility for squats, this counterweight helps you squat deeper, stretches out your hips, and makes you fight to keep your back straight. A few key points: knees go out to the side, tuck your elbows in, keep your chest up, and push through your heels.
When you "clean" a kettlebell (or anything), you lift it in a quick, fluid movement from the floor straight to your chest, then hold it in front of you in what's called a "racked" position. You might be tempted to use just your arm to brute force the kettlebell to your chest, but you're supposed to use the momentum from snapping your hips forward, just like you did in the swing.
Lifting the kettlebell from the ground to the racked position requires a very quick, subtle shift in the kettlebell's position, where the ball part of the kettlebell ends up in contact with the back of your hand and forearm. Most people do a jerking motion that flips the kettlebell over in a wide arc and makes it smack the back of their hands, rather painfully.
You'll understand what I mean after a few tries. Check this fantastic video by Onnit on how to properly rack a kettlebell and this article by Jen Sinkler which provides three great visuals to troubleshoot a kettlebell clean gone wrong.
From start to finish, the Turkish get-up is the ultimate test for shoulder, core, arm, leg, and basically overall strength and stability. There are many steps to a full Turkish get-up, so if you're weak in one aspect, completing the exercise is just shy of impossible.
It starts laying down on your back while you hold a kettlebell upside-down above your head. While balancing the kettlebell overhead throughout the entire exercise, you have to sit up and do an almost elegant sweeping motion to rise to your feet, then reverse every step to return to your initial position. The key is to deliberately do it slowly, pausing between each step, because rushing through it negates the awesomeness of this exercise.
In addition to the video above by StrongFirst, this article by Breaking Muscle drills down into the exercise in very great detail.
The kettlebell snatch starts with a kettlebell swing to bring the kettlebell to eye level. Instead of stopping there, the kettlebell should continue all the way over your head. Similar to the clean, there needs to be a quick flip of the kettlebell so that the ball part ends up touching the back of your hand.
So in order to do a proper kettlebell snatch, you need a great kettlebell swing, a lot of core stability to prevent the kettlebell from flying out of control, be able to reach over your head without overarching your back, and healthy shoulder joints to balance the weight overhead. For a very detailed guide, check out this article by Kettlebell Workouts.
If you're just learning to train with a kettlebell, start between 8kg and 24kg. It's a broad range, but since the kettlebell swing is essentially the bread and butter of kettlebell training, you want a weight that's heavy enough to challenge you for a long time, but avoid encumbering you with out-of-control swings.
You can also find certified kettlebell instructors, like Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC) trainers, using either DragonDoor or StrongFirst to locate RKC-certified trainers near you. Pavel Tsatsouline's book Enter the Kettlebell, Kettlebell Burn, StrongFirst, and Dragon Door are all great resources.
Once you get good at doing these exercises with one kettlebell, advanced variations involve two kettlebells. Some people also use kettlebells to intentionally add instability to their exercises. For example, holding a kettlebell upside down, called bottoms-up, challenges you to keep it from toppling over while still lifting or holding the weight.
Kettlebells are a nice alternative to, or simply a break from, lifting dumbbells and barbells, but they're not something you can pick up and expect to quickly move up in weight. Keep at it and have patience.