I love kettlebell training, I find them convenient, versatile and progressively challenging. There is a technical element to many of the lifts that just isn’t present with more traditional forms of resistance training. As much as I love a good barbell deadlift, there’s just something more organic about one of the more complex kettlebell movements like, say, the Turkish getup. There are so many joints and muscles being used, it requires control, balance, concentration and coordination, it’s not a million miles away from yoga in many respects but with the added benefit of having to control a massive lump of heavy arse iron.
Originating in Russia about 200 years ago, they are a mainstay of Russian military physical training. Renowned Russian strength coach and master kettlebell trainer Pavel Tatsouline likes to make cultural comparisons, saying that in the west people enter a room head first, while in Russia a person enters the room chest first. This is because Russians, he says, have better posture and stronger backs while westerners have strong chest and arms but weak back and poor posture, I agree. When he was in the military he noticed that US soldiers would test the weight of something by curling it (like a biceps curl) whereas the Russian soldiers would press the object overhead. The Military Press, as it is generally known, is a favourite lift of Russian soldiers and Russian Kettlebell (RKC) exponents because it tests true strength.
There are two basic types of lift, grinds and ballistics. The grinds are the slow strength movements like the get up, the goblet squat, the overhead press, etc. While ballistics are the more explosive movements like the swing, clean and snatch.
Think of the grind in the same sense as a compound lift. When designing a strength program you would generally base your routine around 2-3 compound lifts and then throw in some carefully programmed accessory work to target weaker body parts.
With kettlebells, you would generally perform your grinds early in the routine so as not to fatigue the smaller stabilising muscles and to perform the lift with maximum effective technique. If you were to do them at the end of a session your core, shoulders and spine might not be able to stabilise effectively and you would likely fail to lift the same amount of weight and potentially cause injury.
The ballistics would come towards the end of a session because these are faster movements, they develop explosive power and muscular endurance which can help to further develop your strength in the grinds. Not only this but they lend themselves very nicely to athleticism. Because of the ballistic nature of these lifts they can also help to build V02max, so make a nice substitute for cardio machines. Maybe a great alternative to doing a bike Tabata for instance.
Depending on which experts or certification bodies you follow there are various opinions on which are the three main lifts in kettlebell training. Anything like this is always going to be dependent on your goals if, for example, you wish to take part in kettlebell competition then you will need to master the swing, clean and snatch. Some experts may claim that the windmill is one of the most important and I wouldn’t disagree with that at all. However, for general strength and conditioning I would always start with the Swing, the goblet squat and the Turkish getup. These three will give you a great foundation from which to build your kettlebell practice, are functionally transferable to most athletic endeavours and work as superb accessory exercises for most other forms of strength training.
The swing is difficult for a lot of people because we’re not conditioned to hip hinge, always being told to keep your back straight and bum in when standing or back upright and knees bent when lifting. But, learning to hinge the hips is not only better for your back it engages the posterior chain muscle and fascia systems to a huge degree and can help reverse many chronic back pain issues. Most people you see in the gym aren’t performing a swing, they are doing a weird (though not necessarily unsafe) squat and pull. Practice the hinge until you can do it without arching the lower back and then attempt the swing with a light weight before building up to heavier weights. Interestingly, once the basic movements have been mastered I usually find that people naturally perform the swing with better technique when using a weight that is heavier than they are comfortable with.
The goblet squat requires good core stability and great hip mobility and you may have to work on your mobility before you can perform it correctly. The idea is to squat between your thighs, so you need a wide stance and good levels of mobility through the hips, hamstrings, adductors and mid-spine. I find that many people who struggle to do a bog-standard bodyweight squat to parallel can often get deeper just by widening their stance like this.
The Turkish getup is extremely technical and usually needs to be broken down into 2 or three elements, the sit up, the get up and then the get back down. Once you can perform these with no weight, attempt the full exercise balancing a shoe on your fist, if you manage to get up and back down without dropping the shoe you can move on to using a weight.
There are three planes of motion in human movement, Transverse - which means rotational, frontal - which means lateral or side to side and sagittal - everything else. It’s important to incorporate these planes of motion into your exercise routines, but , in terms of functional movement there are at least 7 prime movement patterns. These prime moves are:
You could make a convincing argument to also include lunges but seeing as they combine elements of squat, hinge and locomotion I don't categorise them separately. That said, it's usually a good idea to include some single leg exercises into your workouts. To build a good kettlebell program you need to master the 3 main lifts shown above, and I do mean MASTER and these 3 exercises cover most of the prime moves, add in some loaded carries for good measure and you have a pretty balanced workout.
Once you have developed the movement mechanics necessary to perform the lifts correctly you need to start to push yourself. A good starting weight for females is 8-12kg depending on your size and experience. For men 12-16kg. Although, 24kg is a good weight to aim for with these 3 lifts, females may struggle to perform the getup with that much weight until they are super well-trained but men should be able to achieve that by intermediate level. After that, it’s pretty much up to you how far you develop it. In case you were wondering, here’s what it looks like when a 56kg female does Turkish getups with a 32kg kettlebell; credit to Neghar Fonooni:
Right, this is a suggestion for a starter workout to develop your kettlebell practice while getting stronger, more stable, improving your mobility and overall athleticism. Warm ups should be around 5-10 minutes, I like to use specific activation exercises that incorporate the 3 planes of motion (transverse, frontal and sagittal) and use this time to work on any asymmetries or rehab any injuries.
Then the serious work begins:
Repeat for a total of 5 sets and then finish off with some loaded carries. To do this just pick up two moderately heavy kettlebells and walk the gym floor, set them down, turn around, pick them back up and walk back. Repeat several times. When picking the kettlebells up, use a deadlift motion which means, hips hinge before knees bend, ‘pack’ your lats tight like you are squeezing satsumas between your armpits and walk with your chest high, like a Russian soldier entering the room (holy shit Pavel was right!).
Eventually you can start to work on the clean, which then opens up the door to a whole array of cool upper body exercises and, my favourite the snatch, but more on that another time.