What can you do with one piece of equipment? The answer is: it depends. If you have a treadmill, all you can do is run on it. Stationary bike? You can ride on it and that’s about it. Most exercise machines are designed to do one or a few things.
The Kettlebell, however, is another weapon. In fact, you could buy one Kettlebell and get so much mileage out if it that you will be shocked. The more time you spend hurling a Kettlebells around the more you realise how versatile they are.
Whatever your goals are – weight loss, muscle hypertrophy, strength, endurance – a simple metal ball with a handle on it might be all you need.
Combining Kettlebells with bodyweight training is something that is done in many CrossFit WODs.
Kettlebells were largely unheard of in the west until former-Soviet elite special forces trainer Pavel Tsatsouline brought Kettlebell training to the US in 1998. Up until that time, Kettlebells were a tool for developing incredibly well conditioned soldiers and athletes in the former Soviet Union.
Now you see Kettlebells scattered around gym floors and CrossFit facilities over the world.
Improve Your Workouts With Kettlebells
It’s easy to integrate Kettlebells into your workouts and multiply your results.
Choose Your Weapon
What size Kettlebell? If you are going to buy one Kettlebell, it pays to try them out first. Here is a rule of thumb to work by:
|Poor fitness level||No training experience, recent rehabilitation from injuries, small build||12-16 kg|
|Average fitness level||Some training experience, healthy, moderate build||16-20 kg|
|Excellent fitness level||High training experience, healthy, large build, athletic background||20-24 kg|
|Poor fitness level||No training experience, recent rehabilitation from injuries, small build||8-12 kg|
|Average fitness level||Some training experience, healthy, moderate build||12-16 kg|
|Excellent fitness level||High training experience, healthy, large build, athletic background||
For more details, check out my guide “What Kettlebell is the right size for me“.
Progression for your workouts can involve increasing the weight but we’re looking at what you can do with one Kettlebell only. In that case, choose a Kettlebell you can handle easily for 10-20 Kettlebell Swings. You will increase reps and reduce your rest between sets as you progress.
Basic Kettlebell Exercises
One of the major reasons Kettlebells are so versatile is because there is a core set of exercises that activate many muscle groups and therefore provide a great workout. It is better to think of Kettlebell exercises as working movement patterns rather than specific muscles.
With the basic exercises you can improve results from your workouts for four major reasons:
- Kettlebells can be added to any workout regardless of bodyparts being worked
- By working movements rather than specific muscles you’re improving your mobility
- By activating multiple muscle groups you’re getting a cardio workout as well as muscle strength and endurance
- Kettlebells will make you a better, more capable, more supple human being.
The following list includes some of the best and most commonly practised ketttlebell movements. You will get an opportunity to use these later with the workouts that you can find in this article.
Perhaps the king of all Kettlebell exercises, the Swing is a powerful movement that develops the entire posterior chain of muscles while providing a great platform for building endurance and athletic conditioning. Seriously, just using this one exercise 3 times weekly for sessions of a mere 5 minutes will improve your cardio output, mobility and strength. These are that good.
Performance: place the Kettlebell between your feet in a shoulder width stance. Crouch down as if you were closing a car door with your butt, grip the ketttlebell and swing it in front of you by quickly rising up and thrusting your hips forward. Your hands act as a guide – allow your hip drive to do the work, not the arms or shoulders.
One-Arm Kettlebell Swing
By removing one arm from the Swing you put more emphasis of the core to stabilise the torso making this a great ab builder.
Single Leg Deadlift
Another foundational movement – the Single Leg Deadlift (SLDL) develops strength in the posterior chain, improves balance and acts as a great alternative to barbell deadlifting. The SLDL therefore makes for a great hip and butt builder and is ideal for people recovering from hip, back and hamsring injuries.
In the picture there is two legs deadlift that is easier. Start with it if you are not sure in your strength. More advanced trainees can practise SLDL.
Performance: Stand upright, legs shoulder width apart. Place the Kettlebell in front of your left leg. Bend over by hinging at the hips and raising your right leg up behind you, keeping that leg as straight as possible. Pick up the Kettlebell with your left hand and lift it up by reversing the movement of your right leg. Repeat for desired number of reps then perform on the other leg.
Around the World
This is literally a Swing with a twist. A fantastic variation to the swing that emphassis core rotational strength and mobility.
Performance: Swing the Kettlebell out to the side with a quick hip rotation. Allow the weight to swing back infront of the hips and use its momentum to initiate a powerful hip rotation to the other side of the body. Keep this pendulum motion going by alternating hip rotations.
These are deceptively hard, especially when done for intervals of 30s to a minute. Use these at the end of workouts for grip strengthening and cardio work.
Performance: Stand with legs slightly wider than shoulder width apart. The next movement is similar to dribbling through the legs in basketball. With the Kettlebell in one hand, pass it through your legs until it is below your butt. Change hands and allow the Kettlebell to come around the other side. Pass it back through your legs and repeat the cycle.
Cleans are explosive movements whereby a weight is hoisted to shoulder level from the floor. The benefits to strengthening such a movement may not be obvious. The transfer of weight from leg drive to the upper body is a common, everyday movement, especially in manual labour jobs and is particularly important in many sports that initiate movement from the legs (tennis, hockey, basketball, baseball…)
Performance: With the Kettlebell between your legs, crouch down with back straight throughout. With a single arm grip, drive the heels through the floor explosively so that you rise up. At the top of the squat movement, pull the weight up and drop the hips down again so that the weight is now above the hip line in the beginning position of a press (in front of the shoulders). Squat back up again. Reverse the movement and repeat.
Bodyweight lunges are great on their own but take on a new dimension when adding ketttlebells. Adding weight to one side and lunging the other side creates a tension effect across the core, making it a much better exercise.
Performance: Hold the Kettlebell at just in front of the shoulder, hands facing forward. To make it more challenging, extend your arm overhead and hold it there throughout the exercise. This helps keep your torso upright. Perform the exercise on one side then switch sides.
Exercise variants to experiment with: Reverse Lunges, Side Lunges, Forward Lunges.
Turkish Get Up
Reputedly one of the best movements you can do to improve your mobility and movement. This one exercises works all three plains of body movement and is relied upon by professional athletes to ensure they’re body is primed for physical exertion.
Performance: Lying face up with one leg bent, hold the Kettlebell straight up in the air. Proceed to get up of the floor in a controlled manner without using your arms too much. If you’re unsure about the movement, practise first with something light (a drink bottle for example).
The Way of the Kettlebell
Now you know the core set of exercises that make ketttlebells great, it’s time to weave the movements into your workouts.
As mentioned earlier, Kettlebells work best with other forms of training, especially bodyweight training. This is exercise minimalism at its best. We’ll include a Kettlebell only workout and bodyweight/Kettlebell combo just to show you how simple and effective these chunks of iron can be.
Conditioning and Fat Loss
Perform each exercise for 30s and proceed to the next one with no rest. Complete the circuit and rest 30-60s. Repeat 3-5 times.
- Figure 8s
- Kettlebell swings
- Figure 8s
- Around the world
- Figure 8s
- Cleans (left arm)
- Figure 8s
- Cleans (right arm)
In the routine above, you could use Single-Arm Swings or SLDLs (Stiff Leg Deadlifts) as replacements for the cleans. You could also use lunges to conclude this sequence.
Supercharge your bodyweight conditioning with Kettlebells. A great way to do this is to perform three exercises and include Kettlebell Swings or Around the World as one of the conditioning movements.
- In cycles of 3 exercises.
- Rest 10s between exercises and 30-60s between cycles.
- Cross-body mountain climbers
- Kettlebell swings/Around the World
The sweat will be dripping from your forehead with this simple 3 exercise body blast but you’ll notice a great lift in general fitness level and ability after a few weeks of doing these.
Swing Endurance Workout
The best workout to start with and to complete occasionally is just too swing for either time or reps. Tim Ferriss in his acclaimed book “The Four Hour Body” recommended high rep Kettlebell Swing workouts as a means of improving cardio health, losing fat and becoming generally well-conditioned.
A couple of good schemes:
- Max reps in 2 minutes
- 75 reps x 2 sets
- 150 reps in one set
We’ve seen how good Kettlebells are for conditioning. Bodybuilders can use these during their cutting phase before competitions in order to melt the last layers of fat away.
For muscle building, the high rep nature of Kettlebell workouts works well. High rep sets work nicely as prexhaust exercises or as finishers after a hard set.
Since we’re using bodyweight schemes here with Kettlebells, let’s look at ways of combining exercises for a muscle building effect. To build muscle you want to adequately fatigue your muscles in a progressive way. Here is one way to do that:
- Prisoner or Pistol Squats – 3 sets – perform one set of Kettlebell Lunges after the final set
- Push Ups or Uneven Push Ups – 3 sets – perform one set of 10-15 Kettlebell Cleans after the final set
- Pull ups – 3 sets – perform one set of Kettlebell Bent Over Rows after the final set
- Shoulder Elevated Hip Thrusts – perform one set of 20-30 Kettlebell Swings at the end of the set
The final set of each boodypart will be a Kettlebell finishing set. This is but one way to fully exhaust your muscles. Pre-exhasution techniques work well with Kettlebells. Simply perform the Kettlebell exercise above before your 3 sets of bodyweight exercises. Either way you will be creating a powerful muscle building effect with your trusty Kettlebell.
The Kettlebell Mobility Workout
Kettlebells are ideal for oiling the movements and creating mobile, healthy joints. You’ll get a great mobility workout with most bodyweight and Kettlebell exercises so this is supplementary work for those who might need it.
For this one, we’re simply pairing the Turkish Get Up with a yoga exercise.
- Turkish Get Up – 1 x 8
- Mountain Pose – 1 minute
- Turkish Get Up – 1 x 8
- Warrior Pose – 30s hold
- Turkish Get Up – 1 x 8
- Yoga Lunge – 30s hold per side
Kettlebell Single Leg Deadlift – 1 x 10-15
What you’ve seen here is just a taste of what is possible with Kettlebells. With just one carefully chosen Kettlebell you expand your range of workout options enormously, regardless of whether you’re using weights; performing bodyweight exercises or doing yoga or pilates. You can fit a Kettlebell in as a warm-up or as finishers. The choice is yours – go forth and put this knowledge to work!