Updated: Jan 26, 2020
For some of those who haven't used the Kettlebell before or even seen one, the Kettlebell is a ball shaped weight with a handle that loops around the top. I suppose I should have just inserted a picture like this one....
The main uses of the Kettlebell in my opinion would be to use them for your major movements such as swings, snatches, squats and deadlifts.
You can do all the exercises with a barbell but most of the time a quick workout at home with a Kettlebell makes more sense when you don't have the time to make it to the gym. I actually prefer the dynamic nature of the Kettlebell and how you can flow the movements together without placing the Kettlebell on the floor, making it a time efficient compact tool.
For effective programming, personal trainers and strength coaches should train the movement and not the muscle, there are some situations when you do have to train a muscle part but in most sports specific scenarios programming should be based around their clients movements.
One of the benefits of the Kettlebell is the ability to do high repetition without causing damage while you're training the movement, along side a full body strength routine the kettlebell can help you gain better stability, mobility and strength from your joints.
Key exercises for the kettlebell
As noted above, I believe the kettlebell is better used for the more dynamic or ballistic type movements such as a swing or snatches. You are better off performing the other exercises using a barbell or a dumbbell but if you've decided to buy a kettlebell then here are some exercises to lose fat or help gain a little starting strength.
Kettlebell Deadlift -
You really need to increase the weight for this movement as you are able to lift a lot of weight, the kettlebell can help people who are starting out understand the movement but be prepared for it to feel pretty easy. One technical issue to look out for is the shoulders rounding forward, try and keep them pulled back when you're standing straight at the top and as you begin your descent keep them locked while your hips hinge backwards into the deadlift.
A variation of this exercise is the stiff legged deadlift which can also help you improve your hamstring flexibility. Worth doing!
Kettlebell Stiff Legged Deadlift
Kettlebell Swing -
It's not as scary as it looks, if you've never done it does require some co-ordination and timing.
This exercise can help build powerful glute muscles and help you understand the hip hinge movement. I've seen this move taught with too much dip in the knees by trainers and this is my exact reaction.....
All joking aside, the kettlebell is important for learning how to hip hinge and developing a stronger posterior chain. The glute, hamstrings and erector spinae muscles all fire to help propel the weight forward. When performing this exercise focus on the thrust and stop at the point where you squeeze your glute muscles.
There are also different styles of the swing where you'll see the kettlebell be lifted over head (American style) to eye level (Russian style) or you even have a modified version of the swing where you only lift to your stomach.
In my opinion, the American style kettlebell swing may have higher risks involved than the others due to the top height of the Kettlebell. As trainers or coaches we have to factor in whether our client is able to perform the exercise safely and effectively. In most cases our clients may have existing shoulder mobility issues due to working at a desk for hours.
As you thrust the bell overhead there is a risk that the neck drops too far forward, the scapular doesn't hold and elevates the shoulder/neck upwards, the lumbar spine could potentially arch too much.
On the way down, there's potential risk in thoracic spine not bracing with the sudden down force as the bell drops, which in turn causes injuries to the lower back. You get the picture.
For those without a personal trainer at hand, I wouldn't do this particular version of the swing. If you do have a trainer you can only hope that they've understood how your body moves and whether it's a good idea to do the exercise. We should be able to have a better idea of how a client moves during a functional movement screen.
Here's an example of what I'm looking for when seeing you do a Kettlebell swing
Kettlebell Front Squat
This exercise is humbling. I remember doing a single arm front squat for the first time with a 20kg cast iron kettlebell, due to the position of the weight I could feel a lot of tension just to hold my body position neutral as it felt like I wanted to tip to the right.
I find this exercise pretty good for the obliques and general abs, it also teaches us how to brace and keep the back straight.
Be prepared for the extra tension just to hold the kettlebell compared to just using a dumbbell to squat with, you're able to rest the dumbbell on your shoulders when you do a double dumbbell front squat but with double kettlebells the load is very front heavy and it feels like it's all in your arms.
This exercise is not the most straight forward to teach and there's a couple of ways that people perform it.
Russian (Hard) style kettlebell snatch - This style focuses on a having a high pull with the elbow that leads into a punch into the air, it's the quickest way to get a kettlebell user to perform the snatch. From the side view the kettlebell doesn't swing outwards but due to the high pull it lifts upwards.
The Soft Style Kettlebell Snatch - This one is hard to teach as what you're essentially doing is wrapping your wrist around the kettlebell handle and twisting it in or out depending on what phase of the lift you're doing. In the hard style snatch your wrists are straight as you're punching upwards. I do find that when you've understood how to do the soft style, it's difficult to go back into the hard style, there's more of a fluid movement with your body and not as much brute force to get the weight upwards.
You should learn how to do both styles as their applications are different, if you're thinking about doing kettlebell sport then the soft style is commonly used as you're able to endure a 5-10 min snatch test, whereas the the hard style snatch can be used for your fitness workouts with lower repetitions. The choice is yours but it's a good exercise to understand the movement.
I did have one olympic lifter ask me to teach him how to do the kettlebell snatch as his fitness company was bringing education courses in dubai, he found it incredibly difficult to get the olympic snatch movement out of his head so he would somehow double dip his position when he did the snatch.
The Turkish Get-Up
When I first tried this exercise I thought what's the big deal, then I actually used a proper weight. It's a strange exercise to be honest but one that has a lot of benefits, the movement isn't exclusive to the kettlebell but this is where it started so I decided to include it in this article. I would say that this is the most athletic movements in one repetition of an exercise. You need to have good shoulder stability and strength as well as a obliques of steel, the hips need flexible enough to lift from a deep lunge and have the balance and strength to stand yourself up. Going back down the other way is also a party! You'll love it!
For the non-believers -
Exercise physiologist Bret Contreras (aka The Glute Guy) used electromyography (EMG) to determine that a get-up as light as 50 lbs was enough to cause over 100% peak activation in the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, and the spinal erectors. These are all major muscles of the core.