I first came across kettlebells when I took an instructor training course through Kettlebell Concepts back in 2008. I was then opened to a whole new way of training that I hadn’t come across before.
A new way of doing things
Rather than focus on isolation movements, the kettlebell requires your body to move as one unit, recruiting multiple muscle groups to work together to complete an exercise. Another amazing benefit to this type of training is that the kettlebell can give you great biofeedback whether it’s positive or negative, meaning:-
if you do it correctly it will feel right, and if you do it wrong it will feel wrong.
For example, the swing, which I will show later, will feel more natural when the kettlebell feels weightless at the top of the movement, than if you just did a squat into a front raise.
What’s so special
You may be asking yourself, “Why kettlebells when I can just use a dumbbell?” Well that is a good question, and the answer lies within its unique design.
Since the mass is centrally located, it allows for the force to be distributed differently than with a dumbbell which has its mass at two different ends. Take a kettlebell and swing it 10 times. Now take a dumbbell of the same weight and do the same exercise. Feels different, doesn’t it?
Now, that’s not to say you should pick one over the other for your training. Each one has its place in your programming. The kettlebell is just more useful for ballistic type exercises like swings or snatches.
Last little caveat: Make sure you pick an appropriate weight for each exercise. Most likely, you’re not going to see a big benefit to swinging a tiny bell when you should be using something much heavier. Conversely, you would not want to take an excessively heavy kettlebell for an exercise such as the Halo or the Snatch.
The most common exercise you’ll see someone do with a kettlebell is the swing. This is also the most basic exercise you’ll learn, however even though it looks simple enough, there are several key components that turn it from looking like a squat with a front raise into a ballistic hip exercise that targets namely the glutes, hamstrings, and core among others.
– Drive hips back
– Keep shoulder back
– Brace core
– Squeeze your glutes!
– Avoid hyperextension of the back
In case this movement pattern is too advanced for you, a regression would be a simple kettlebell deadlift. This will allow for the same hip hinging pattern without the same explosiveness that the swing produces.
Once you develop the ability to perform the swing proficiently, it will allow you to progress to other movements being that it is the foundation for other kettlebell exercises.
Complex figure 8’s
This exercise requires a little more coordination as you are passing the kettlebell between your legs with each movement. Much like dribbling a basketball in between your legs, you’ll pass the bell from hand to hand as you get into the bottom of the movement. If you want to make it a little more intense and/or fancy, you can try whipping the bell up towards your shoulder using the hips.
This is one exercise where the shape of the bell alters the exercise when compared to a dumbbell. In order to do it properly, you have to start with the bell close to your body and your elbow tucked into your ribs.
This exercise holds other benefits as learning the overhead position will prepare you for the next two exercises. If you’re up for an added challenge, flip the bell upside down and do a bottom up press. This will not only test your strength, but the stability of your shoulder as well.
This exercise may look simple from the pictures, but it requires a great amount of stability and mobility as you perform it. It ends up becoming a full body core exercise. If you’re just beginning to use kettlebells, you can try this without any weight, or even just do half the movement.
Another full body core exercise that requires stability and mobility is the Windmill. Make sure you notice how the feet are offset a little bit. The biggest tip to remember is that, you need to push your hip out as much as you can. If you don’t have the flexibility or mobility to reach the ground, you can either bend the knee of the reach arm, or decrease the range of motion.
As with the TGU, start with little to no weight and practice the movement pattern first. Another key point is that when you do the TGU and the Windmill, you want to keep your eyes on the bell to ensure proper mechanics.
Lastly, halos might look like an easy exercise to do, however they require a great amount of shoulder mobility to complete. This is a great drill to do in between sets of more demanding exercises like the swing, Figure 8’s and Snatch and it allows you to still move the bell without a great demand on the body.
This isn’t a ‘be all and end all’ list of exercises that you can do with kettlebells. There are plenty of other ways to utilize the bell, including various ways in which to grip it. The exercises listed above are just ones that encourage basic movement patterns like the hip hinge and the squat along with exercises that challenge your core muscles in a full body way.
Another way to incorporate kettlebells into your programming is to replace the dumbbell that you would normally use with a kettlebell. No doubt that this will change the dynamics of the exercise and how the load affects whatever movement you’re doing.
Remember that the kettlebell is just a tool in your toolbox of weights to use. It has its specific purpose just like a dumbbell or a barbell. Know when to use it and when other tools might be a better option. It’s easy to see a new toy and want to just be a “kettlebell guy” or a “barbell guy.” Understanding when, why, and where to implement kettlebells will put you on a great path to success.
 Transference Of Kettlebell Training To Traditional Olympic Weight Lifting And Muscular Endurance
Manocchia, Pat; Spierer, David K; Minichiello, Jackie; Braut, Steven; Castro, Jessica; Markowitz, Ross
Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: January 2010 – Volume 24 – Issue – p 1