As you likely know I’m a big fan of kettlebell training. It’s not that I think it’s superior to other forms of training, I just enjoy training with kettlebells more than I do other types of gym equipment. Now, don’t get me wrong, if I had room in my studio for a squat rack, Olympic bar and bumper plates I definitely would have those too. But I digress.
But kettlebells are really useful and, in my opinion, should be a part of most strength and conditioning programs. They can help develop strength, power and mobility. You can adapt your training to target hypertrophy or improve muscular endurance. They’re versatile - you can adapt your kettlebell practice to do with a barbell or set of dumbbells. But they are also unique. There are some kettlebell exercises that you simply cannot do with a set of dumbbells.
If you are new to kettlebells I always recommend that you master three basic exercises before you expand your repertoire. I wrote this blog (https://www.tmfitness.co.uk/tmf-blog/29-kettlebells) a while back. Not only will mastering these three exercises give you a great base of skill and proficiency with the kettlebell but they will also develop a solid base of strength, power and mobility.
For me, one of the best things about a kettlebell is that you can get a great workout done with just one or two kettlebells in your front room, in the garden, in the park or even on holiday if you pack one in the boot of your car.
But once you have mastered the basics what’s next?
There are two main styles of training. Competition or Girevoy Sport kettlebells and training practices, which revolves around the snatch and the Long Cycle clean and jerk. The other common practice is often known as Hardstyle and originates from Russian military strength and conditioning training. Most kettlebell training you will see online will be based on Hardstyle or RKC (Russian Kettlebell Certificate). From this point onwards assume that I am referring to Hardstyle kettlebell practice.
If you have mastered the three main lifts or completed the 6-week Kettlebell Challenge and feel like you are ready to move on to some more complex lifts. But I would expect a novice to emphasise these three lifts in their training for at-least 6-months before they are competent enough to expand their training repertoire.
These three exercises could be incorporated into playtime/practice sessions on recovery days during the initial phase in order to get a feel for them and, to drill the movements before making them integral to one's training regime. What you could do is to start each workout (after you have warmed-up) with a couple of rounds of the chosen practice lift with a moderate weight and really focus on form and technique. The three main lifts to develop next are:
(Right click on the exercise name to open in a new window)
The first two are what’s known as ballistics, because they are explosive movements. The windmill is a grind, so-called, because it’s done slowly, like most strength or stability exercises. The windmill was a game changer for me personally, it has really improved my back health and hip mobility.
After you have practiced these exercises enough to feel confident with them you can start to add them to your training plans. Personally I’ll often program the windmill into warm-ups or on recovery days because it has elements of hip and spine mobility and a rotational aspect to it. It just makes your back feel great!
The Clean, and let’s be clear, I am specifically talking about the hardstyle or swing clean here. Many practitioners use more of a dead (from a deadlift position) or hang clean, which is fine and definitely has its place. But the swing clean is great for using in complexes and flows because you can use it to transition from one exercise to the next without setting the kettlebell down. Unless you are doing this with a heavy kettlebell it’s rarely used as an exercise in itself, use this, as I said, to transition to other exercises, like the rack squat or overhead press. The clean is actually really difficult to master and you will end up with lots of bruises before you get it right. Most people make the following mistakes:
The Snatch. This is a great exercise that can be used to transition between exercises, like the windmill or reverse getup. But can also be an exercise in itself. If you do it with a moderate weighted kettlebell (say a 12kg or 16kg for a lower intermediate trainee of average size) you can do multiple reps for a brutal anaerobic workout. Do this for time, use it as a fitness test. If you use a heavier kettlebell and are doing it for low reps, say 3-5 it’s great for developing explosive strength, which has great carry-over for power-based sports.
The Windmill. As I said, I like to use this in warm-ups. But you could do it with a heavy weight and turn it into a strength exercise, which is great for core and shoulder stability. Once you have mastered the Windmill you could start to practice the bent press, an advanced strength exercise which is based on an old school strongman lift. Or you could practice the 2-hand anyhow, seen here.
In my book Sleep Lift Eat I explain how you can program your training using movement patterns like squat/hinge/push/pull/rotate/anti-rotate, etc. Because kettlebells are relatively light compared with barbells, and many of the exercises are highly integrative by using multiple joints and planes of motion, kettlebell training lends itself to full body workouts.
If you like to train on consecutive days like I do there are a couple of ways to do this safely, while allowing adequate muscle recovery between sessions.
Have a push day that includes squats/lunges, overhead presses, press-ups or floor presses and the like. Followed by a pull day that includes deadlifts/swings, cleans, rows and snatches.
In effect, the push session mostly targets the anterior (front) chain of muscle groups, allowing recovery of the posterior chain, while a pull day does the opposite.
This is a bit more complicated and requires a good understanding of exercise physiology. But essentially, you are working the lower half using one pattern and the upper half emphasising the opposite pattern and therefore muscle groups. In other words a lower push/upper pull workout would train the front anterior muscles like the Quads and the upper posterior muscles like the Lats and rear Delts. Here’s an example:
1a. Alternating Reverse Front Rack Lunges x8 (squat pattern)
2a. Gorilla Row x10 (upper pull)
3a. Double Clean and Rack Squat x6 (upper pull and squat patterns)
Complete 3-5 rounds
1a. Staggered Deadlifts x10 each side (lower pull/hip hinge)
2a. Floor Press x15 (upper push)
3a. Clean and Rotational Press x 6 (hip hinge/upper press)
Complete 3-5 rounds
You can do these on consecutive days and, although there is a little cross-over on some of the exercises, the program is balanced enough to not over train any one muscle group.
Even if you don't train exclusively with kettlebells, maybe you prefer barbell or machine-based resistance training, including some kettlebell work into your programs could be beneficial. Maybe use kettlebells in your warm-ups, or as accessory/GPP work, or even as part of a finisher complex for extra volume/intensity. If nothing else, it will add variety to your training and keep it interesting, but you might also find that using kettlebells to improve endurance, power or mobility helps improve your other lifts and overcome 'sticking points' in your training. The swing, for example is a great accessory for squats and deadlifts.
At this point I really need to point out that if these exercise names don’t mean anything to you, you are a novice and should really consider hiring a coach to assess your movement patterning and teach you correct form and technique, while also ensuring safe and effective programming. Swallow your pride and stop struggling to get any results, if you want to drive safely you hire a driving instructor. If you want to exercise safely and effectively hire a coach, here endeth the sermon.
If you are an intermediate (more than a year of consistent kettlebell experience) or advanced trainee and just want to expand your repertoire you could consider signing up to my Patreon account at Athlete tier where you will not only get unique monthly workouts but unlock an entire library of workouts and training plans for all levels and goals, using many different types of gym equipment.
The above is not a prescription, it’s purely for educational purposes. If you found this article useful please do share it on your social media or email it to a mate. Follow my Instagram (@tmfitnessuk) for more exercise and nutrition inspiration and feel free to film your workouts and tag me in for feedback.