We use kettlebells around here like they’re always new, but in reality, they’re old school.
Kettlebells have been around since at least 1704, when they were used as a measuring tool to weigh dry goods in Russia. However, it didn’t take long for people to observe the opportunities kettlebells presented for functional training, and make kettlebell strength training a real form of exercise.
Ultimately, these cast-iron (or steel) weights are an undoubtedly useful tool to building overall body, core and grip strength, and improve mobility, proprioception (your innate awareness of body position and response), weight loss and triple extension power, which directly translates on to benefits in the field if you’re an athlete.
The shape of a kettlebell — a ball with one flat edge and a handlebar on the other side — gives it an asymmetrically-distributed weight, which forces you to engage more stabilizer muscles throughout your entire body, specifically throughout your core (stomach, low back and hips). The shape of the kettlebell also allows for the user to swing, lift, press or hold the ball during different exercises, varying from the mostly single grip option a traditional dumbbell or barbell offers.
Here, we’re taking a look at different movements you can make with a kettlebell, the benefits of kettlebell strength training, and various kettlebell exercises you can perform for building different muscle groups.
Since we’re focusing on building strength here, try grabbing a heavier bell for some of these movements!
Kettlebell Strength Training Movement: Cleans
A traditional Olympic lift, cleans are as fundamental of a weight lift as they come. They are full-body, explosive movements that in-arguably build strength, explosion and conditioning. Add the shape and instability a kettlebell offers, and you work through the movement in a way that taxes your core even more.
- Start with the bell on the ground about six inches in front of your feet
- With a bend in your knees, hinged forward at the waist with your stomach engaged and hips pressed back, grasp your right hand around the kettlebell handle
- With your right elbow squeezing into your right ribs, row the kettlebell away from the ground
- Thrust your hips forward to come to a standing position, and pull the kettlebell up to your right shoulder.
- To ensure you do not bang your right wrist with the ball portion of the kettlebell you can either: make sure the kettlebell just rotates around to the outside of your right arm with the bottom of the bell always facing the ground. Or, use your left hand to lightly guide the bell portion around the outside of your right wrist.
Benefits: Overall Strength, Conditioning, Proprioception, Triple Extension
Want a bigger kettlebell strength training challenge? Put the Clean together with a few other movements in this Kettlebell Power Flow:
Kettlebell Strength Training Movement: Swings
For many, the first thing that pops to mind when hearing “kettlebell” is the traditional kettlebell swing. This and its variations are full-body movements escalate the heart rate and engage every muscle, from the tiny supportive ones around your ankles as you press down through your feet, all the way up to the meaty lats alongside your back.
Swings will help strengthen your entire backside, along with your shoulders and core.
- Grasp the kettlebell handle with both hands to lift it off the ground
- Come to a standing position with the kettlebell hanging from your hands toward the ground. Keep a slight bend in your knees, stomach engaged and a long, tall spine
- Lift the kettlebell to shoulder height by thrusting your hips and extending your arms forward. Keep your shoulders relaxed and scapula squeezing together on your back
- Lower the kettlebell back to starting position with control
Benefit: Overall Strength, Conditioning, Weight Loss, Triple Extension
Check out these 10 variations of the traditional kettlebell swing as well:
Kettlebell Strength Training Movement: Press
The press is another standard move when lifting for overall strength and power. However, the value added from a kettlebell is additional balance and proprioceptive work. Further, you need to engage your full backside to prevent compensating for lack of shoulder strength by using your low back.
- Rack the kettlebell in your right hand in the web of your index finger and thumb. The handle will sweep at 45-degree angle across your palm, so the bell lands to the outside of your slightly flexed right wrist, which is stacked over your elbow and your elbow over your hip
- Open your forearm away from your chest to engage your lats; your palm will be facing forward
- Press the kettlebell high enough to put your elbow in line with your shoulder; elbow will be bent 90 degrees
- From the 90-degree angle, press the kettlebell to the ceiling
- Ensure that you keep a long spine. Bowing out through your low back to get the full elbow lockout is counterproductive and can cause injury.
Benefit: Overall Strength, Shoulder Flexibility, Proprioception
Watch how it’s done here:
Kettlebell Strength Training Movement: Squat
As if a proper squat isn’t hard enough – add the centralized weight of a kettlebell as resistance, and you intensify the load in your legs, engage your core and create a different type of front squat.
- Hold the ball of the kettlebell chest-high in both palms, handle facing up; or grip each palm around the handle where it meets the bell at chest height
- Squat down, hips back, spine tall and heels planted on the floor
- Low stomach pulled up and in, press down through your feet to extend your legs and stand up tall.
- Return to squat; repeat movement
Benefit: Overall Strength, Conditioning
Kettlebell Strength Training for Weight Loss
Typically, when you’re working with kettlebells, you’re performing a series of exercises at a high intensity for short bursts of time (aka: HIIT exercises). This type of cardio has been proven to help you shred fat without sacrificing muscle.
Increase the intensity by moving quicker, maybe with lighter weight, so that you never sacrifice your form.
My foundational flow for beginner’s is a kettlebell workout loaded with movements that will get you moving and stronger, all while giving your calorie burn a boost. And remember, “beginner” does not mean easy!
The circuit below uses a single kettlebell, and works only one side of your body at a time. Once you complete the following lifts, in the order below, on the right side, take the kettlebell in your left hand and repeat the process. Keep switching sides, doing each exercise for 40 seconds, with 20 seconds of rest in between, then repeat for 10 full sets.
One last perk of strength training with kettlebells: these bowling ball bag-lookalikes are small, consolidated tools that can travel with you anywhere. You can purchase a few, either in pairs or just a single, and keep them tucked away at home, so you can do your kettlebell workout there, rather than always having to head to the gym to get your workout.
Now, grab your workout space, grab your kettlebell, and let’s get to work boosting that strength, endurance, mobility, proprioception and more.
For a full listing of all of my kettlebell exercises and workouts, visit the YouTube channel.