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Enhance your Strength Training with Kettlebells
When most people think of kettlebells, they usually think of exercises such as swings, snatches, cleans, and jerks, but the kettlebell can be used for a variety of other moves as well. Kettlebells are a great tool for building work capacity, power, strength, and even endurance using a set of classic exercises. Although all of the previously mentioned exercise are examples of quick power movements, it is important to note that most people can simply begin by focusing on building size and strength before working on speed and power (among other goals). Building muscle is a good first step because, as a wise person once told me, “You can’t flex bone.”
To build size and strength, there is probably no better tool than the barbell. The problem is that many people jump right into heavy barbell training without first adequately mastering proper form and movement patterns. For certain movements, the design of the kettlebell actually forces the body into positions that are better suited to learning basic technique using many of the same exercises that are traditionally done with barbells. The right technique will ensure that the targeted muscles are working optimally from both a muscle-building and strength-building standpoint. By mastering good form, lifters will also be able to train longer and harder and avoid injury. As a result, they will make better gains and improve performance more steadily.
There are many different roads to getting big and strong, but I’ve found that using heavy compound movements are the best way to develop size and strength. Variations of the squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press are the keys to developing a strong and powerful physique as well as improving performance in both athletic endeavors and strength competitions. The powerlifting moves essentially challenge every muscle in your body because compound movements use multiple joints and work muscle mass throughout the body, thus making them very effective for building size and strength. Novices and advanced athletes alike can benefit from strength work with kettlebells for the squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press in order to build strength as well as reinforce good foundational movement patterns.
KB Goblet Squat
The kettlebell goblet squat, popularized by strength Coach Dan John, is a great way to learn how to squat properly. Two of the biggest problem lifters face when squatting is rounding the lower back and allowing the weight to go too far forward. Being able to hold the kettlebell in front of the body in the goblet position helps combat this problem. The goblet squat drill reinforces proper position in both the upper back and the hips. Holding the weight in front makes this movement feel very similar to a front squat or Zercher squat in that the weight pulls the lifter forward and actually produces a more upright posture. If the lifter bends the spine and rounds the back, there is a very good chance s/he will drop the weight or stumble forward. Strength Coach Zach Even Esh refers to this movement as “the kettlebell Zercher squat”and has used it with his high school and college wrestlers for many years as both an introductory exercise before barbell squats as well as in kettlebell conditioning circuits. Using goblet squats, lifters learn to brace their cores and keep their upper backs tight, techniques that are integral in all variations of squatting.
Another common problem during the squat motion is knees that cave in excessively, and the goblet position can help correct this as well. When performing the goblet squat with a narrower stance, the lifter can use his or her elbows to guide the knees out in order stretch the hips and develop proper position of the knees. I have my younger athletes hold the bottom position for a few seconds and use their elbows to actively “pry” open their hips while to learning the proper depth position. Once they understand how to force the knees out, I eliminate the pause in the bottom position, and we then increase the loads to work on strength.
KB Goblet Box Squat
Another squat problem many lifters have is difficulty in “sitting back”, and this is where I like to use a box to help lifters learn to do this properly. It teaches people to really sit back, which engages more of the glutes and hamstrings and makes the squat not just a pure quad movement. This method also ensures proper position of the knees and can help to prevent injuries. If the lifter is having trouble getting down to a proper depth, I have them squat to a higher box at first and continue to work on form in addition to mobility drills to help open up the hips. As the lifter gets stronger and more mobile, the squat depth should improve dramatically.
KB Double Front Squat
Once the lifter can handle some heavier weight in the goblet position, he or she can start to utilize the double kettlebell front squat to build even more strength. In this movement, the lifter can effectively double the working load by using two bells instead of one. For the double front squat, the lifter assumes the rack position with the elbows pulled down and in toward the body. This is a really tough exercise for core as well because there is a lot of weight working to pull the lifter forward and out of position. Resisting that forward pull really teaches the lifter to brace the core and maintain good positioning while performing deep squats, and this is a great exercise for overall leg development and pure strength.
Like the squat, the deadlift is one of the most valuable exercises for gains in both strength and size. On the surface, the deadlift is one of the simplest lifts in the sense that the lifter is just picking up a weight from the floor and putting it back down, but it is much more complex than most people give it credit for. It takes a lot of mobility in the hips as well as stability in the spine to execute a proper deadlift. Working with a kettlebell is a great way to introduce beginners to pulling from the floor as the handle is much higher off the ground than a dumbbell, and thus it is much easier to get into proper position.
As with the goblet squat, the handle of the kettlebell makes the weight very easy to grasp and helps to put the lifter in proper position right from the start. The most common form mistake I see with deadlifts is excessive rounding of the back. By using the handle of the kettlebell, lifters can really “pull” themselves down to the ground using their lats, upper back, and hip flexors while keeping the back flat. The guys at Westside barbell refer to this concept as “pulling the slack out of the bar”.
The second biggest mistake I see with beginning deadlifters is that they want to mimic a squatting motion and use too upright a posture–they try to squat the weight up rather than sit back and pull it up. One easy way to help the lifter sit back is to make sure that the body is in a good position at the start. I encourage my athletes to start off with the kettlebell positioned slightly behind them, or at the very least, with the handle of the kettlebell in line with their ankles at the start of the pull. This positioning makes it much more difficult for the lifter to start in a bad position. With the kettlebell slightly behind the lifter, the arms must be held tight to the body, which helps to engage the lats. Also, if the lifter “squats” down, then the arms actually won’t be able to touch the handle until the lifter reaches back.
Having an athlete work with the back to a wall is a great way to correct a “hip hinge” problem. The athlete should face away from the wall (about a foot away or so) and try to get his or her butt to touch the wall by sitting back. Squatting down will cause the lifter to miss the wall, but the lifter will successfully find the wall if he or she pushes the hips back. If form does not improve, then the lifter can try using the elevated KB deadlift as shown below.
Elevated KB Deadlift
If the lifter cannot reach the kettlebell due to a lack of hip mobility (rather than a lack of technique), then the kettlebell can be placed up on boxes until mobility and range of motion improves. This exercise is similar to a block pull or rack pull because it effectively shortens the range of motion, allowing the lifter to stay in good position within the realistic range. Strength Coach Eric Cressey often starts his athletes out on rack pulls at first if he feels they cannot achieve good position while pulling from the floor.
KB Double Deadlift
As with squats, the deadlift load can be increased simply by using two bells instead of one. The lifter will now have to assume a slightly wider stance in order to accommodate the size of the bell. Therefore, this particular lift will be more similar to a sumo deadlift than a conventional deadlift and thus will work the hips a bit more. Using two bells also helps teach a better lockout position as the lifter can get his or her chest up more effectively at lockout than when holding one bell.
KB One Arm Floor Press
For this exercise, the lifter should start in a side-lying position and grasp the handle firmly with the working hand. The free hand should help to guide the working hand into position at the start of the lift. The one-arm kettlebell floor press is a good way to introduce pressing exercises to young lifters and athletes. For more experienced lifters, this movement can also be a great assistance lift that challenges the core and is a little easier on the shoulders than traditional bench pressing. I suggest using one arm for all of the pressing exercises in this article, mainly because the lifter can then use the free hand to help get into better position to lift. As an added benefit, the unbalanced load also works the core muscles and stabilizers a bit more since the lifter is only working on one side of the body and will need to adjust on the free side.
Many new lifters bench press with the elbows out too far, and they often shrug their shoulders up when pressing as well, which puts the shoulder in a vulnerable position. Older lifters who have beat up shoulders may find this kettlebell exercise more comfortable than a dumbbell floor press because it keeps the elbows closer to the body and forces a much harder “elbow tuck”, which is much easier on the shoulders than pressing with the elbows out to the sides. Working with the kettlebell is a lot different than working with a barbell or dumbbell in pressing exercises because the weight sits behind the athlete’s wrist. This weight actually pulls the lifter out of position, so if the elbows flare out too much, he or she will miss the weight or simply have to dump the weight. The kettlebell actually forces a much more “elbows tucked” position than a traditional floor press. The elbow doesn’t necessarily need to be this close to the side in a traditional barbell bench press or floor press, but this exercise helps to teach the concept of “tucking the elbows” in the bottom of a bench press, as seen frequently in modern day powerlifting meets.
The floor press is also a safer option for beginners; if they do miss a weight or get into trouble during the lift, the weight will simply drop to the floor. Once lifters are comfortable with the correct form and set-up for a floor press, they can progress to the one-arm bench press.
One-arm KB Bench Press
As stated previously, using the kettlebell really teaches the lifter to tuck the elbows in an exaggerated fashion, which will help when learning the powerlifting style of bench press in the future. When setting up for both the floor press and the bench press, it is important to keep the shoulder blades pulled down and back to ensure proper stability as well as safety of the shoulder. The other adjustment to look for is to make sure that the lifter maintains proper alignment in the wrist when pressing. The wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints should be in alignment at lockout for both the floor press and the bench press. The weight of the kettlebell on the outside of the wrist helps to achieve this optional lockout position.
The one-arm bench press will feel slightly less stable than the floor press. This movement really forces the lifter to engage the lats, core, and glutes in order to create a stable platform to press from. If the lifter doesn’t create full body tension, he or she will have a very difficult time pressing the unbalanced weight successfully. This is a great variation of the bench press that can be used to get some extra core work in without directly doing any core exercises.
One-Arm Tall Kneeling KB Overhead Press
The overhead press is not as common as the bench press in most gyms, but it is a highly effective movement for developing both size and strength. I personally like to start athletes out in the tall kneeling position when learning this movement because it ensures proper core activation when using larger loads later on. The lifter should get set with both knees on the floor and try to feel “as tall as possible” by bracing the core and squeezing the glutes. These cues teach the lifter how to stabilize the entire body and create the full body tension required to perform a strict overhead press. If the lifter tries to lean back excessively and press the weight forward (rather than press it directly overhead) or begins to bend to the side, he or she will lose balance and miss the lift. Once lifters understand how to brace the core effectively, then they can move to the standing position as shown below.
One-arm KB Overhead Press
A common problem with lifters is that they have trouble mastering the true overhead position. Most people will initially try to press the weight forward (almost like an incline press) rather than directly overhead. Again, having the weight positioned behind the wrist helps to keep the kettlebell in the proper position. Because the weight is behind the lifter’s hand, the kettlebell works to pull the lifter back into proper position. As the lifter presses the weight up, the wrist, hips, knees, and ankles should all line up in a straight line. It is not possible to achieve this position if the lifter doesn’t get the bell overhead.
Just as with the horizontal pressing variation mentioned earlier, the lifter should use the free hand to help “cheat curl” the bell into proper position at the start. (This is the same rack position that the lifter learned earlier in the double front squat except done with one bell). The rack position helps to reinforce the “elbows in” position when performing pressing exercises and is much easier on the shoulders. The elbows should naturally “tuck and flare” just as in a bench press. This means the elbows will be positioned “in” on the way down and will slowly come “out” as the lifter approaches lockout. This should occur with a very fluid pressing motion and will most likely happen naturally without much coaching due to the bell forcing the lifter into good position.
The squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press done with kettlebells are useful exercises that assist the lifter in learning proper movement patterns for the traditional barbell lifts. Because they target nearly every muscle in the body, they are also great exercises to do as warmups before the main movements or as assistance work for both strength and muscle building. I hope you enjoyed this information on kettlebell lifting and that it speeds you on your journey to becoming a bigger and stronger lifter or an athlete who moves and performs better!
Note: All of the movements outlined in this article can be used as assistance exercises for more advanced lifters or as a main movement for beginner and intermediate lifters. This rule isn’t set in stone obviously, but is just a general guideline for readers to follow. In this way, anyone can start incorporating these movements in their own set routines. For the squats and bench press, I would recommend sticking to the 6-12 rep range, and for the deadlift and overhead press I would suggest the 3-8 rep range for strength and muscle building. I have included two sample training templates below so you can see how these exercises could fit into a training routine.
A sample Novice two-day full body program might look like this:
|Training Session 1||Training Session 2|
|A1) KB goblet squat||A1) KB deadlift|
|A2) One-arm KB floor press||A2) One-arm tall kneeling overhead press|
|A3) Side plank||A3) Tall kneeling anti-rotation press|
|B1) Single-leg glute bridge||B1) Split squat|
|B2) Trx inverted row||B2) Assisted chin-ups with band|
|B3) Deadbugs||B3) Plank|
A sample Intermediate two-day full body program might look like this:
|Training Session 1||Training Session 2|
|A1) KB double front squat||A1) Double KB deadlift|
|A2) One-arm KB bench press||A2) One-Arm overhead press|
|A3) Side plank with row||A3) Anti-rotation press|
|B1) Single-leg hip thrust||B1) Bulgarian split squat|
|B2) One-arm DB rows||B2) Chin-ups|
|B3) Supine hip flexion with band||B3) Stability ball roll-outs|
Coach John Gaglione is a Sport Performance Specialist out of Long Island New York. An avid strength sport athlete, John also competes in powerliftering and kettlebell strong sport competitions. If you would like to learn more about John you can reach him at www.gaglionestrength.com or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.