Kettlebells are among not only the most versatile pieces of equipment but also the most biomechanically safe ways to add load to any exercise. When helping a client build their home gym or creating their workout program, kettlebells are a staple.
When most people think of kettlebell exercises, they think of high intensity exercises similar to crossfit training. While those are great styles of kettlebell training, they’re also a great tool to improve mobility and add variety to your routine.
The Benefits of Kettlebell Training
The shape of a kettlebell for many exercises allows for much more natural and safe joint positions. The best example of this happens when looking at a shoulder press.
When we press overhead with dumbbells, the size and shape of a dumbbell creates so much space between the center of the resistance and the shoulder that it becomes easy to fall out of proper form and strain your shoulder.
With a Kettlebell, you’re able to hold the resistance close to the primary joint involved in the exercise, giving you much more control of the path of the movement.
For those looking to burn calories, lose weight or become more athletic, kettlebells are an invaluable tool.
For many, it can feel like there’s a bit of a learning curve between your first days in the gym building a foundation and transitioning to advanced high intensity training. That learning curve is actually the reason so many people start to experience pain, discomfort or even injury when going from their beginner workouts to advanced workouts.
Let’s look at deadlifts for example. Doing a deadlift with dumbbells and doing it perfectly does not make it safe to jump straight barbell cleans, plyometrics, or HIIT training. That is because a dumbbell deadlift only trains you to perform a hip hinge slowly with control. It does not train you to create power from that movement, or decelerate effectively, absorb shock from impact or improve your stamina to maintain form through fatigue. All of which are necessary to safely introduce more advanced training.
Kettlebell training, however, does allow you to learn those skills with less risk. For example, if I have a client progressing into more advanced training, once they’ve mastered deadlifts, I will introduce kettlebell swing variations before introducing advanced barbell training.
How Heavy Should Kettlebell Be for Beginners?
Though kettlebells are a unique and versatile tool, they still follow all the same rules to safely introduce load to an exercise.
Start light until you’ve mastered the movement and increase resistance slowly. Of course, likely any other exercise how light you start does depend on the movement. Just like you would start with a much lighter weight for a bicep curl than you would a squat, follow that same principle.
The only unique consideration with adding weight for kettlebells appears when we’re introducing ballistic training exercises. Since these exercises use your created momentum, using weight that’s too light can actually make it harder to control. Fortunately, starting too light is not dangerous, so don’t be afraid to try a few different weights the first time.
As a general rule, if you’re doing ballistic or plyometric workouts like swings, cleans, and snatches and the weight is flopping around in your hand, it’s probably a little too light for you.
10 Essential Kettlebell Exercises
These exercises are your staple that you can and should begin adding to your routine today
1. Kettlebell front rack
Though this is a hold not an exercise, knowing how to properly hold a kettlebell is essential to begin introducing kettlebell training to your routine.
2. Kettlebell Halo
The halo in general is a great exercise for shoulder health. Though it can be done with a variety of equipment, kettlebells are the best design for this movement. Halos are a great way to improve shoulder mobility and strengthen the upper body
3. Farmer’s Carry
Much like the halos, a farmer’s carry can be done with many other pieces of equipment. However, the shape and size of a kettlebell again keeps the center of the resistance close to the control joint, allowing you to be more in control of your posture throughout the exercise.
4. Level 2 Press
This style of press is perfect for anyone that wants to include shoulder strengthening exercises but doesn’t have great shoulder mobility. As an added benefit, this style of press is also great for spine mobility.
5. Kettlebell Clean
Now we’re getting into the high intensity ballistic training. The kettlebell clean is a great introduction to kettlebell power exercises. This is also an exercise that is great and safe for a beginner to try.
6. Kettlebell Swing
The all mighty kettlebell swing. This is perhaps the most recognizable of the kettlebell exercises. Though this is an intermediate exercise and will take time to work up to, it is a movement that most people can begin introducing relatively quickly.
Because a kettlebell is nothing more than a fast, ballistic deadlift, I encourage my clients to not introduce kettlebell swings until they can deadlift their own body weight.
7. Swing to Clean
Now let’s marry the previous 2 exercises to increase the metabolic impact.
This exercise is greatafter you’ve reached a healthy range of motion in your shoulders. It should not be performed by anyone with shoulder pain or injury.
For those that can safely introduce windmills, this is a great way to maintain healthy shoulder and spine mobility.
9. Turkish Get Ups
A true full body exercise. As a note, this exercise should be mastered with just your body weight before adding kettlebells, and resistance should be added slowly.
10. Kettlebell Snatch
Again, this is only safe for those with healthy shoulders and range of motion. Before trying a snatch, you should first master kettlebell cleans and windmills.
How Long Should A Kettlebell Workout Be?
Though kettlebells might feel scary and like a whole new universe of equipment for many, try not to think of them any differently from any other piece of equipment.
If you’re performing exercises from the ‘Foundation’ section above, that can be a full length, 45-60 min workout.
However if you’re introducing power or more advanced exercises, that should be done in short bursts of 5-10 minutes for most people.
As a general rule, when adding any new exercise or skill, always start the workout with these exercises to ensure you’re ready to learn and less likely to encounter fatigue-related form issues.
Kettlebells to Burn Fat
If you’ve read my article on the 7 Best Exercise to Lose Weight and Burn Calories, you know that the best exercises to burn calories are compound exercises that use multiple muscle groups and challenge multiple skills simultaneously. That makes kettlebells an excellent tool to burn fat.
Though not all kettlebell exercises are high intensity, the vast majority of kettlebell training requires stability, mobility and strength and uses several muscle groups simultaneously.
That fact combined with the ability to quickly begin, introducing ballistic and plyometric training into your routine makes kettlebell training a great option to burn fat and generally perform better in the gym.
Even for those that have never used kettlebells, they’re a great tool for beginners and more advanced gym-goers or athletes. Kettlebells allow you to not only reach your fitness goals but also improve your mobility and performance along the way.
I would also encourage anyone interested in kettlebell training and progressions to check out the StrongFirst instructional videos. They are essentially the godfather of Kettlebell training and the most reputable resource for safe and effective exercises for all fitness levels.
Featured photo credit: Ambitious Studio* – Rick Barrett via unsplash.com