Kettlebell workouts are one of the most diverse training modalities out there. Depending on the weight of the bell(s), the movement selection, and workout design (sets, reps, timing), kettlebell workouts will increase mobility, strength, power output, endurance, stamina, coordination, movement quality, and body awareness. When it comes to goals around building strength and muscle, losing body fat, recovering from an injury, or learning how to train, kettlebells can serve as the primary training tool or complement your barbell and bodyweight training – they may even improve it.
We hear a lot about “functional training” defined as training that translates into activities of daily living. Kettlebell workouts use the entire body and carry over more than any other strength tool. The shape of the bell with the center of mass being several inches from the handle teaches you how to adapt to the ever-changing center of gravity (1,2), which replicates many sports and everyday life remarkably well. Relevant to both sports and activities of daily living, kettlebell workout routines train you to navigate unpredictable forces and improve your proprioception (8), understanding where your body is in 3-dimensional space. Because of the odd shape and specific movements, your grip strength will be challenged, and you’ll be recruiting more stabilizers than you would with a dumbbell.
The diversity of kettlebells makes them an appealing training tool.
- They don’t take up much space – great for kettlebell workouts at home or while traveling.
- They maximize the time you’re spending training – strength and conditioning all in one.
- Many kettlebell-specific movements engage multiple muscle groups and stabilizers at once – more bang for your buck for hypertrophy, strength, endurance and fat loss.
- You can use them as a way to prime the central nervous system before your heavy compound lifts or as an effective conditioning workout either as a finisher or if you’re short on time.
- The unique shape reinforces proper form and promotes mobility and stability simultaneously, leading to greater strength and resilience.
Kettlebell Workouts for Mobility & Stability
Mobility is paramount for longevity and health not only with training but with life overall (8). Certain kettlebell-specific movements are phenomenal for mobility that, because of the unique shape and hold positions of the bell, are only accomplished with kettlebells. These include armbars, Turkish get-ups, halos, windmills, prying goblet squats and bottoms up presses. Not only do these improve kettlebell strength work, but they counteract the constant flexed positions of our knees and hips, internally rotated shoulders, and stiff thoracic spine from sitting excessively in our daily life. Kettlebell workouts improve your mobility and stability at the same time, will you feel better, and increase your strength because you’ll be able to load a functional system (your body) while avoiding compensatory patterns that come from a dysfunctional system.
Kettlebells for Conditioning
Whether you’re an endurance OR strength athlete or just looking to improve your health and feel better (3,7,8), incorporating more explosive kettlebell workout routines into your training can improve your endurance, stamina and power that carry over. Movements like swings, cleans and snatches are great kettlebell workouts for beginners. Further, one of the beauties of kettlebells is the ability to combine a variety of movements into a complex to improve conditioning along with coordination, grip strength, speed and strength. Movements like clean and push press and clean and jerks are great examples, but the combinations are endless.
Because of these specific movements and combinations, kettlebell training develops and improves power endurance which is “your ability to sustain fast muscular contractions over an extended period of time” (1). When we think of cardio, we tend to think of running, biking, rowing or the elliptical which typically means spending a long time in order to reap the benefits. Kettlebell workouts can provide the same cardiovascular benefits and fitness in a much smaller amount of time and with minimal eccentric loading , meaning less muscle damage and faster recovery (2,5,8).
Kettlebell Workouts for Core Strength
Due to their dynamic nature, kettlebells allow you to work multiple muscle groups at once, the core being at the center of pretty much every movement. By incorporating unilateral movements, you’re able to put greater emphasis on the core stabilizers that translates into greater strength, movement quality, balance, and coordination (4). Some examples include swings, cleans, unilateral upper and lower body strength and ballistics (cleans, snatches, swings, jerks, etc.), windmills, and Turkish get-ups.
Kettlebells for Building Strength & Muscle
Their versatility makes kettlebells great for both strength and hypertrophy goals in a variety of ways. As a compliment to barbell work, the increased grip strength and better movement quality will translate over to bigger deadlifts and squats with the barbell. Further, the explosive nature of the ballistic movements will generate more power with compound barbell movements (5). The next time you have a heavy deadlift or squat day, warm up with a few rounds of heavy single rep swings (i.e. 2-3 sets of 5 singles with a heavier bell) and watch how it improves your power and strength.
When it comes to building muscle, kettlebell workouts can target specific muscle groups while simultaneously engaging the entire body and being much more time efficient (6). Lighter and moderate weights allow for higher repetitions to help stimulate muscle growth. Because of the additional muscle recruitment required, you can get more overall stimulation doing the same movements that you would with a dumbbell or barbell. Adding in some ballistic work with swings, cleans, and snatches allows you to accomplish muscle growth, power output, and high calorie burn at the same time.
Lower body strength/hypertrophy movements:
→ Squats, deadlift, lunges, step ups, swings, cleans, Turkish get-ups.
Upper body strength/hypertrophy movements:
→ Military press, push press, jerks, floor press, Turkish get ups, carries.
With all of these options, there’s endless possibilities in using one or two bells, how you hold the bells, and potential complexes that combine multiple movements without stopping.
Kettlebells for Weight/Fat Loss
There isn’t anything inherently special about kettlebell workouts that make it superior to weight loss than other training modalities. The driver of weight loss will always be a calorie deficit, so the emphasis needs to be on your nutrition. Strength training in general will support maintaining and even building lean tissue while in a calorie deficit and help increase the size of the deficit. Including strength training when your goal is fat loss will improve your results and allow you to sustain them more successfully.
A study funded by the American Council of Exercise (ACE) looked at kettlebell snatches and calorie burn in a 20-minute period and found a comparable calorie burn to running a 6-minute mile pace. They concluded that “kettlebells not only offer resistance training benefits, they also will ultimately help people burn calories, lose weight, and enhance their functional performance capabilities” (9). Additionally, if you enjoy kettlebell workouts, you will be more consistent with your training. As mentioned above, they can decrease the time you’re spending in the gym while still getting the same fat loss results with both aerobic and strength benefits. Because kettlebell training is full body in nature, you’ll experience greater calorie burn both during the workout and after, producing greater energy expenditure to assist with fat loss (7).
Kettlebell Workouts for Beginners
Form and technique are foundational principles with any strength modality, and kettlebells emphasize this based on the shape of the weight and coordination required for the specific movements. Addressing proper form with kettlebell workouts allows you to progress in the kettlebell-specific movements as well as benefit your training on the whole.
The basic movements to start with:
- Goblet squat
- Deadlift, single arm deadlift, single leg RDL
- Overhead press
- Turkish get ups
- Farmer’s carry/suitcase carry
More advanced movements include: bottoms up presses and carries, snatches, double kettlebell work, windmills, bent press, push press, and jerks.
Recommended starting weights:
For women: 8,12,16kg (18,25,35lb) – eventually adding 20,24kg (44,53lb)
For men: 16,24,32kg (35,53,62lb) – eventually adding 40,48kg (88,106lb)
- Brown, J. C. (n.d.). The top 8 reasons why you should train with Kettlebells. Retrieved December 11, 2021, from https://www.performbetter.com/8-reasons-train-kettlebells.
- McLean, S. (2020, October 28). Kettlebell cardio – save time and space while breaking a sweat. BarBend. Retrieved December 11, 2021, from https://barbend.com/kettlebell-cardio/.
- Tsatsouline, P. (2021, March 16). What is “conditioning”? StrongFirst. Retrieved December 11, 2021, from https://www.strongfirst.com/what-is-conditioning/.
- Odden, J. (2019, January 9). How to boost your athletic power with kettlebells…and a push band. StrongFirst. Retrieved December 11, 2021, from https://www.strongfirst.com/boost-your-athletic-power-with-kettlebells-and-push-band/.
- Polish, A. (2021, November 24). 7 undeniable benefits of kettlebell training. BarBend. Retrieved December 11, 2021, from https://barbend.com/benefits-of-kettlebell-training/.
- Iardella, S. (2017, October 20). Confessions from a recovering bodybuilder. StrongFirst. Retrieved December 11, 2021, from https://www.strongfirst.com/confessions-from-a-recovering-bodybuilder/.
- Kettlebells for cardio: An effective alternative? ISSA. (n.d.). Retrieved December 11, 2021, from https://www.issaonline.com/blog/index.cfm/2020/kettlebells-for-cardio-an-effective-alternative.
- Saladino, D., & Holder, C. (n.d.). Why the kettlebell? Perform Better. Retrieved December 11, 2021, from https://www.performbetter.com/why-the-kettlebell.
- ACE study reveals Kettlebells provide powerful workout in short amount of time. ACE Study Reveals Kettlebells Provide Powerful Workout in Short Amount of Time. (2010, February 8). Retrieved December 11, 2021, from https://www.acefitness.org/about-ace/press-room/press-releases/528/ace-study-reveals-kettlebells-provide-powerful-workout-in-short-amount-of-time/.