The Ultimate Guide to Kettlebells
Kettlebells are increasingly becoming a regular choice of equipment for increasing strength, muscle tone and improving cardiovascular performance. We have been speaking with Stephen Aish Msc, an international kettlebell coach, althlete and record holder to create the ultimate beginners guide to kettlebells.
Introduction to Kettlebels
Kettlebells have become a regular fixture in many gyms and are now tools of the trade for personal trainers and coaches. They offer a variety of exercises and movement patterns that can enhance athletic ability, burn fat, increase strength and improve cardiovascular function. A growing body of research now supports the benefits of kettlebell training as for many years they were just seen as fat loss and fitness tools by coaches working with athletes.
The main benefits of training with kettlebells are time and motion. Basically, a lot of work can be done is a short amount of time. Many of the exercises are compound and involve several muscle groups. For this reason muscular injuries from isolation are very rare and the body is trained as an integrated unit.
10 Quick Facts About Kettlebells
- They have been used for 100s of years to train the military and competitive athletes
- They were a favourite of old-time strongmen for demonstrations of strength
- VO2 MAX can be trained with a simple swing complex as efficiently as treadmill running
- Kettlebell swings oppose the lumbar shear forces of deadlifts to minimise injury potential
- You develop and awesome grip – a key indicator of simple task independence in old age
- The windmill is great for strengthening quadratus lumborum and the obliques which can help hip stability in sprinters
- 3 x 20 minute sessions per week as shown effective fat loss in hundreds of clients internationally
- The ballistic movements are effective for training rate of force development and peak power
- Unlike conventional cardio they are very joint friendly as you do not leave the spot
- They are highly portable and small on storage space so you can train when and where you want
Training With Kettlebells
With regards to programming, kettlebells never really fall in to the classics sets and reps formula. Many lifters simply work for time with a circuit-based approach. There are many ways to mix up a program with bodyweight, inverse ladders, increasing weight, decreasing weight and active rest. Creativity with your training keeps it fun and can often help achieving goals based on the variety of challenges available.
The Classic 30/30
This is a favourite of many coaches and kettlebell lifters for work capacity, technical efficiency and fat loss. Set your timer for 30 seconds on and 30 seconds off and simply work a 1:1 rest ratio of a given exercise for 5-10 minutes. The classic is the swing test and this can also be used for complexes such as clean/squat/press, clean and jerk, snatch ladders and many more. The rest section also does not necessarily need to be rest and could be some bodyweight exercises or static holds.
These always get a round of applause when completed in the gym! Choose 2 exercises such as a swing and press up. The number to remember is 11 and visualise 2 lifts – 1 at floor 10 and 1 at floor 1. Each set they change position with one going up and the other going down so you have a sequence – 10/1, 9/2, 8/3 and so on until you get to 1/10. This only ever really amount to 4-5 minutes of work, but is a great way to get a full body workout in a short period of time and get a lot of reward for a small time investment.
Reps For Time
In traditional kettlebell sport competitions consists of 10 minute sets where the maximum reps indicate the winner. This is no easy task as men lift with 32kg and women can compete with up to 24kg. A key thing to remember is there must be a moment of fixation where the kettlebell and lifter are stationary in all planes of movement to signify a good rep. For this reason there is little point hammering out bad reps if you ever did want to compete. And as the saying goes – quality over quantity always wins.
Up The Ladder
Here you would use different weight and perform a certain exercise for reps with the kettlebell increasing in weight each time. There are a few variable to make this interesting so consider the following example. A session of cleans with a 16/20/24 could be the same reps 10/10/10, or could decrease in volume as the intensity increase – 30/20/10.
Down The Ladder
This is the reverse of above with the weights decreasing for a set. An example would be a drop set on snatches – 24/20/16 for 10/10/10 reps or 5/10/15 as the intensity steadily decreases so volume can increase.
The Stir Fry
This is a personal favourite where you set the timer and see what you are made of. 20 minutes on the clock and a few complexes back to back will provide a very challenging session that will increase cardiovascular efficiency in a big way.
There are many more and they are really down to what you are training for, the equipment you have and the time available.
The Benefits of Kettlebell Training
Aside from the tips above, the real benefits of kettlebell training are based on physics. The fact that the centre of mass is displaced relative to the handle means that the lever being used becomes longer and therefore more challenging. Unlike dumbbells, there is now the added challenge of controlling an object that moves around the axis of the handle rather than remaining stationary relative to it. This enables people to train movements like the clean, snatch and jerk much more fluidly with a kettlebell than with a dumbbell.
Can you get a similar workout with other weights? – Absolutely! We are far from saying everything has to be done with kettlebell so throw your home gym away and cancel your gym membership. Kettlebells are tools in the toolbox and have certain benefits for certain movements based on the goal of the practitioner. If somebody wanted a program for maximal strength and hypertrophy it is fair to say kettlebells would probably not feature in this phase of the periodised model aside from a warm up and some core variations. However, they would feature as part of a beginners program with reference to proprioception, stability, functional movement patterns of flexion and extension, VO2 MAX, unilateral development (relative to corrective issues that need addressing), fat loss and training the force-velocity curve for power development.
Some Basic Movement Patterns
The kettlebell squat is ever an exercise for maximum strength, or big legs, but does sit nicely into a complex as we will see at the end. The squat places different demands on the body compared to the classic barbell back squat and as shown by the images the torso remains relatively upright – similar to a front squat. The weight can be held close to the chest in the racked, or clean, position and the movement is initiated by sitting back as if into a chair.
The swing would be the king of the kettlebell exercises. It is usually the first pattern taught to new lifters after squat and deadlift show no problems and people can move correctly with loading at the hips. The swing could easily take an article in itself to go over many of the myths, bad movement patterns and how to ensure you train for performance and improvement rather than being crippled by a YouTube guru.
The best advice here is to feel it in the hamstrings. Stand with your back to a wall, take a short step forwards, then sit back and hit the wall with your butt – obviously without the kettlebell! This pattern ensures you load the hamstrings, flex at the hips and use the posterior chain to accelerate the kettlebell rather than a squat pattern.
The clean is initiated with a swing pattern, but the movement has a brief interruption as the kettlebells passes the knees and you elevate the trapezius to pull the weight towards the body. For a safe landing the weight hits the arm then the arm comes to rest on the body a split second after. The elbow is close the hip to stabilise the load and the abs and glutes are braced as the body is very slightly hyper extended to offset the additional load and combined centre of mass. This adjustment is mainly for larger and heavier kettlebells.
The clean is very technical so I have put together a detailed explanation video of 10 tips to help you out.
The press is one of the few isolation exercises and has the added benefit of internal and external rotation patterns compared to the static military press. For this reason there are numerous accounts of it actively improving minor shoulder problems due to the strength through range benefit. Take a deep breath and exhale as you externally rotate the kettlebell and push upwards. The reverse pattern sees the palm turning in towards the body to return to the rack/rest.
The windmill is a highly effective core movement and able to laser target this region effectively. Professor Stuart McGill regards it as one of the best movements he has seen for the obliques and quadratus lumborum and these are highly influential muscles in hip control and stability for sprinting. Lean into the movement and take the handle in the yoga triangle pose. Breathe in and brace the core while lifting the weight over 3 seconds to hit the slow twitch fibres. Breathe again to lower the weight and force the exhalation like a punctured tyre rather than a full exhalation as this will maintain abdominal pressure and support the spine.
Putting it together – a brief complex.
To get an introduction into the world of kettlebell training you can now use any combination of the exercises shown and the various workout platforms discussed.
If you really did want an effective warm up variation and to test your work capacity and cardio then a clean/squat/press complex will do nicely. Many triathletes use this format based on the peripheral heart rate demands of upper and lower body activity, the muscular endurance of having most of your body active and the mental rhythm that is very similar to their disciple of switching off and letting the body work on repeat.
Perform a clean, squat with the weight in the clean position, then stand tall and press overhead. This can be repeated 5 times or you can change hands after each sequence of 3 moves. Set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes an put your favourite music on. You will be very surprised at just how effective a basic complex with a relatively light weight can be when you work the system effectively.
Kettlebells are fun, effective, extremely good at producing work for time invested and a great addition to any routine.
About The Author
Stephen Aish MSc