Have you been thinking about getting started with kettlebell training? If you haven’t you probably should. Training with kettlebells is a great way to add variety to your programming. Most people just know the kettlebell swing, but there are many unilateral movements that can be done using kettlebells that can provide an awesome workout and help to balance out some weak points you may have been neglecting.
Adding kettlebell workouts can be a lot of fun and generally speaking, kettlebells can be a safe and effective tool to add your arsenal of garage gym equipment. If you’re still setting up your garage gym, check out our previous post on the 6 Must Have Items for Your Garage Gym. I like using kettlebells in my programming because normally you can get by with just getting one bell at any given weight. While it is pretty nice to have a pair of kettlebells at the same weight, doing swings and single arm presses only requires you to purchase one kettlebell. Here is a link to the type of kettlebells we outfitted our fitness center with. They aren’t fancy, but you can find them with free shipping which will save you a lot!
Selecting the Right Kettlebell
Selecting the right kettlebell is the next step. You need to decide what you plan on doing with your new kettlebell in order to find out what size to buy. If you can, buy 2 bells. Use one for swings and one for pressing and unilateral movements. You can always add to your collection later. If you can only get one, go for a heavier bell for swings. You’ll be able to use it for a lot more than swings later. I like to have a pair of the lighter bells for double arm work and then a heavier one for swings. If you’re a big CrossFit enthusiast, they typically prescribe a 1.5 pood or a 2 pood for swings. Oh wait, we should probably cover what a pood is. Kettlebell training at its roots began in Russia sometime during the 1700’s. A pood is a Russian unit of measurement that is equal to approximately 16 kilograms or about 36 pounds. So a 2-pood kettlebell is about 72 pounds (pretty heavy for a first time swinger). Even a 1.5 pood bell, which is often used for women’s weight is about 55 pound or so. I’m not saying this is too heavy, but you definitely DON’T have to start there! Take some time to learn the mechanics of the swing and then progress to the heavier weights. I only ever swing a 45-pound bell and if you do it right and for enough reps, it is plenty!
While there are many exercises you can do with a kettlebell, start with the swing. It is probably the safest way to enter the kettlebell training world and also has great transfer to other movements. The primary goal here is to get into a solid, stable position and protect the lower back at all times. Keep the kettlebell close and make sure that the back stays rigid and flat.
The purpose of the swing is to create a powerful hip extension movement. I don’t want to debate the difference in this post, but there are 2 distinct versions of the kettlebell swing. One is typically called the Russian swing which goes to chest/face level while the other is referred to as the American swing which goes all the way overhead.
Start with the Russian swing first. I don’t know many individuals who can safely achieve the proper overhead position of the American swing without A LOT of practice. The chest level swing will give you plenty of hip extension, hamstring work, and conditioning, without jeopardizing your lower back at the top of the swing. In many cases the overhead swing isn’t really necessary. Perfect the Russian swing first and you’ll be fine.
Single arm overhead presses are also a great exercise. To do these, you’ll need to learn the rack position for the kettlebell. It’s different than the rack position for the barbell and requires you to place your hand towards the top of handle and roll your knuckles into your chest a little. The bell should rest comfortably on the forearm and the weight of bell is distributed through the shoulder.
If you’re a bodybuilding fan, this is very similar to the Arnold Press typically done with dumbbells.
Double (or single) kettlebell squats are also a fantastic exercise. I use these a lot for front squat progressions if someone is having difficulty achieve a good front rack position with a barbell.
While you work mobility and positioning on the barbell front rack, you can at least get some squatting in using kettlebells. In a candid conversation with strength coach superstar Joe Kenn (strength and conditioning coach for the Carolina Panthers) he stated that many of his guys can’t get into a good front rack position and the double kettlebell squat was one of their go to exercise in place of the front squat. And by candid conversation I mean that I was hovering around at a conference while he was speaking with someone else. I did speak with him though, and he is an awesome guy and excellent strength coach! You can check out his stuff at the Big House Power website.
Later down the progression charts are the Olympic lifts. I categorize these with Olympic lifts with a barbell because while they aren’t 100% necessary, they are great to know but only AFTER all of the other progressions are learned. These of course are the clean and snatch (done with single arm). One word of caution here: if you decide to tackle these, they can cause serious injury to the forearm if done incorrectly. They do make some protective forearm pads like THESE, but make sure you learn the correct techniques from a trusted professional. They might save you some grief.
Kettlebell safety really comes down protecting the lower back during the swing and not letting the kettlebell control you on the way down. Keep it close between your legs and don’t hinge at the hips until just before the kettlebell arrives to your groin. In other words, don’t let the kettlebell sweep the floor! Also, if you are doing cleans or snatches you must meet the kettlebell and not let it crash down on the forearm. It hurts. And the last point of the safety, don’t drop the kettlebell. Dropping kettlebells (and dumbbells) isn’t really necessary. It’s like dropping a football; you never know how it’s going to bounce. For the sake your ankles and anyone else who may be standing around, don’t dump ‘em.
I hope this gets you fired up to try working with kettlebells. Just remember that you should start light, learn the proper techniques and then progress to heavier or more complex movements. The effectiveness and safety of your kettlebell training will ultimately come down to programming. If you’ve never done swings before, you probably shouldn’t do 50+ for time. Just break it up into some short sets and make sure you are hitting your positions. Kettlebell training is awesome, so take your time and enjoy it!