When I got into bodybuilding and eventually personal training, kettlebells were unheard of. In 2005 when I first picked one up, I was not sold. I was used to traditional strength and conditioning workouts and bodybuilding. Kettlebells seemed like just one of those “fads” so naturally I tried it out just like every other fitness “fad”.
After I played around with them a bit; swinging, pressing and squatting with them, I started to see some benefits. I had no idea what I was doing so I decided to buy a DVD by the kettlebell master, Pavel Tsatsouline. I also worked with a guy who went through the RKC program. I quickly realized that these hunks of metal with a half-circle handle had a lot of potential to build dynamic total-body strength and conditioning.
Fast-forward to 2015 and I use kettlebells just as much, if not more than dumbbells and barbells. It did take me a few years to learn how to implement them properly into my programs but after multiple seminars, training sessions with credible coaches, books, DVDs, and practical application, I have managed to safely integrate them into program design.
The kettlebell, in my opinion, is the most versatile fitness tool around, once you learn how to use them properly.
Kettlebells have gotten a bad rep from people who simply have not been taught the basic fundamentals of the kettlebell. Just like anything in life and fitness, you need to take the time to learn how to utilize them correctly. Unfortunalty, not every person or trainer has.
Many trainers would start having their clients perform complicated movements like the snatch right away and would skip over learning the swing and Turkish Get-up. At my facility, we make sure that EVERYONE goes through a Functional Movement Screen before we even put a kettlebell in his or her hands. They must also learn the hinge, squat, and get-up patterns as well.
After that, we then progress them accordingly to learn the 6 fundamental kettlbell exercises. These kettlebell exercises are known as the “Sacred 6”. Master these exercises and you will have a great training arsenal with minimal equipment.
Exercsie 1: The Swing
I have played around with the overhead swing, which the CrossFit world calls the “American Swing”. I am not going to bad mouth this style or anything but I prefer the Russian-style kettlebll swing where you project the kettlebell to shoulder height only. This is a very effective exercise when executed with proper form. Hip power, hip hinging, and breathing techniques make it incredibly powerful. This exercise has many benefits that combine strength, power, endurance, and work capacity.
The swing provides the powerhouse that will propel all of the other dynamic kettlebell movements. The full-body power that is required during the swing results in extreme fat loss and high levels of conditioning.
The swing is not as easy as it looks. It requires a precise ballistic movement that you must take time to learn. You must learn the swing before you move onto the snatch and the clean. Not doing the swing correctly can get you hurt but it is not the kettlebell’s fault, it is the person or the trainer’s fault. If done correctly, you should never get hurt.
The Take Home: The kettlebell swing is one of the best bang for the buck exercises out there. It is the foundation of kettlebell training. Taking the time to learn how to do it correctly will pay off immensely.
Exercise 2: The Goblet Squat
Unless you are new to exercise, I am sure you have heard of the goblet squat. The legendary coach, Dan John, should be credited with its popularity. The squat is one of the most fundamental movement patterns that we all need to improve and master.
Many people think that squats are only to build the legs and with a bar on your back but they are so much more. The goblet squat is the perfect tool to teach the squat pattern, improve hip mobility, build strength and muscle in the lower-body with heavier loads and improve conditioning with lower loads.
While the barbell squat may be king to build mass and strength, the goblet squat makes a nice addition to anyone’s program. The goblet squat can be used to improve the efficiency for any of the kettlebell exercises that you utilize.
Exercise 3: The Turkish Get-up
Unless you have been under a rock for the past few years, you probably have heard of the Turkish Get-up. Some physique and strength athletes shun them off since they don’t feel that they build muscle and strength. I’ve got news for you… they do! The get-up is best described as kalos sthenos, which is Greek for “beautiful strength”.
They may not be a traditional strength and muscle builder but there is more to an exercise than just building muscle and strength. An exercise like the Turkish get-up can be the perfect addition to your program to keep your core strong, shoulders safe and increase your proprioception.
This highly dynamic movement has a huge carryover to lifting heavy things. It does this with it’s series of movements where you go from lying down to standing up with a kettlebell or dumbbell without breaking form and keeping the bell from falling.
Here’s a short list of everything that we can get from a single get up:
- Single leg hip stability during the initial roll to press and during the bridge.
- Both closed and open chain shoulder stability.
- Shoulder mobility.
- Thoracic extension and rotation.
- Hip and leg mobility and active flexibility.
- Stability in two different leg patterns – lunge stance as well as squat stance.
- Both rotary and linear stability.
- The ability to link movement created in our extremities to the rest of our body.
Exercise 4: The Strict Press
After you show proficiency in the swing, squat, and get-up, it is now time to get after the strict press. I will emphasize that you need to have the properly shoulder mobility and stability before you move up to this exercise.
Many people will take this as just another shoulder press exercise but it is much more. The kettlebell strict press requires the entire body to be involved to produce maximal power and strength.
The one thing that I like about pressing with a kettlebell as opposed to a dumbbell is the natural plane of motion that the kettlebell forces you to press through. The unique shape of the kettlebell and offset handle allow you to press in a plane of motion relative to your shoulder joint.
Because of this, you will feel more comfortable producing power when pressing with a kettlebell.
Exercise 5: The Clean
Once you learn the swing, you will have a base to perform a good kettlebell swing. The clean is another explosive exercise for total-body strength and conditioning. Instead of swinging to the height of the chest, you will now finish in the rack position on your chest.
In my experience, this kettlebell exercise takes the most time to master but once you get it down, cleans become a very useful exercise for high-powered complexes. I like them best when used in complexes, especially the clean and press and the clean and front squat. They are also great on their own when using substantial weight.
Exercise 6: The Snatch
Once you get comfortable with the 5 exercises listed above, it is now time to learn the snatch. This exercise is the ultimate display of full-body power. It is much different than the barbell snatch and the only similarity really is that the weight ends up above the head after your propel it from the hips or the ground.
This exercise is highly technical but can provide a ton of benefits. It offers total-body power and strength as well as an awesome conditioning component. I would proceed with caution. Make sure your shoulders are healthy and that you have truly mastered the hip hinge and swing. Also consider taking care of your grip. A lot of snatches can really beat up your hands.
Where To Start
The best way to learn these kettlebell movements it to find a certified instructor. I don’t think that you necessarily have to find an RKC or Strong First instructor, but it would really help if you did. I am currently not certified but have been taught multiple times by many instructors. As long as you can find someone that has been a respected strength and conditioning coach and has taken the time to learn the kettlebell movements, you should be good to go.
Justin Grinnell is a strength coach, personal trainer, nutrition enthusiast and owner of State of Fitness in East Lansing, Michigan. You can follow him on Facebook, on Twitter@JustinGrinnell4 or check out his website grinnelltraining.com