Diet and Nutrition

Kettlebells for the Uninitiated

If you’ve been busting your ass with barbells and dumbbells for the past few years and are looking for something new to help add slabs of muscle to your body and improve your overall conditioning, it may be time to add something new to your training tool box.

Enter the kettlebell…

Sure, it’s a little funny-looking, but training with the kettlebell – a large, cannonball-shaped piece of steel with a tall handle protruding out of the top is no laughing matter.

Although it was first designed as a counterweight for outdoor markets in Russia in the early 1700’s, throwing and swinging the kettlebell quickly became the exercise of choice for a few of the locals. A couple of decades later, the kettlebell was introduced to the Russian military where it gained much popularity.

Just to give you an idea of how obsessed the Russians were with kettlebells, I learned that the Russian military did ten consecutive minutes of single-arm snatches with a 53 pound kettlebell for their conditioning tests. In the U.S., we do push-ups (it’s not too difficult to tell who may be in better shape).

But kettlebells aren’t only for the militant! Dozens of European track and field teams have been trained exclusively with kettlebells and have frequently achieved personal bests in their event after using this archaic-looking tool…no fancy equipment needed.

Additionally, in the very recent past, major universities across the world have begun using kettlebells to complement the training programs for their sprinters and throwers. And do I even have to mention the current fitness craze? I mean, hell, you can find pink kettlebells in Wal-Mart!

The good news is you don’t have to become a card-carrying member of the Russian Kettlebell Club to reap the benefits of training with ‘bells.

We weren’t joking – you really can buy Pink Kettlebells!

But what are those benefits?

Well, you can learn to generate incredible power while adding some muscle to your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.

You can markedly increase your core and shoulder stability.

If you’re feeling frisky, you can throw in some circuits for a quick fat loss routine that will have you sucking air, lying on the floor, and possibly gently cooing for your mommy.

Just pick it up and go!

Sure, there are a lot of movements that will take months, if not years, of dedicated practice, but the nice thing about the kettlebell is the shallow learning curve on some of the most basic and effective movements.

Movements like the kettlebell swing, one-hand swing, side swing, front squat, goblet squat, and press are easy to learn within your first five minutes. These movements will also establish a fundamental base that you can build on.

I’ll lay out some pictures, descriptions, and sample program templates a little later on,  but first, let’s say you don’t give a damn about conditioning. How could you incorporate kettlebells into your strength program?

Let’s assume you’re in the gym for your lower-body day. You can simply add a few rounds of kettlebell swings and front squats to your program, or just pick an exercise and swap your barbell for a kettlebell.

Here are just a few exercises you can substitute:

Lower body

Exercise to replace Substitute with
Romanian Deadlifts

Single-Leg RDLs

Back Extensions

Hamstring Curls

Double or Single-Hand Kettlebell Swing
Back Squats

Front Squats

Lunges

Leg Extensions

Kettlebell Front Squats

Goblet Squats

Reverse Lunges

Upper body

Exercise to replace Substitute with
Chest-Supported Row

Seated Row

Dumbbell Row

Bent-Over Rows

Kettlebell Renegade Row

Ballistic Row

Seated Dumbbell Press

Standing Military Barbell Press

Kettlebell Press

Just to be clear – any of the exercises in the left-hand darker blue columns can be substituted with those in the right-hand lighter blue columns.

So for example, Chest-supported rows, Seated rows, Dumbbell rows or Bent-over rows can all be replaced with either a Kettlebell renegade row or a Ballistic row.

Are you more of a visual person?

Well, here’s a sample two-day template…I’ll give the “traditional” version first and the kettlebell-infused version second.

Example Current Resistance Plan:

Lower body Push/Pull

1) Explosive box jump 4 x 3
2) Scissor Sprint 4 x 10
3) Back Squat 5 x 4
4) Single Leg RDLs 3 x 8
5) Leg Extensions 3 x 15
6) Prone Leg Curl 4 x 8

Upper Body Push/Pull

1) Standing Military Barbell Press 4 x 6
2) Neutral Pull Down 4 x 6
3) Wide Grip Bench Press 4 x 6
4) Chest Supported Row 3 x 8
5) Upright Row 3 x 8
6) Blast Strap Pushup 3 x failure
7) Russian Barbell Twist 3 x 20

Kettlebell Infusion:

Lower Body Push/Pull

1) Explosive box jump 4 x 3
2) Scissor Sprint 4 x 10
3) Back Squat 5 x 4
4) Single Leg RDLs 3 x 8
5) *KB Front Squat 3 x 10
6) *KB Swing (two hands) 4 x 20

Upper Body Push/Pull

1) *Standing KB Press 4 x 8
2) Neutral Pull Down 4 x 6
3) Wide Grip Bench Press 4 x 6
4) *KB Renegade Row 3 x 8
5) Upright Row 3 x 8
6) Blast Strap Pushup 3 x failure
7) *Alternating KB Side Swing 3 x 20

Once you pop, you can’t stop!

Try adding a few kettlebell movements per training session and I bet you’ll want to keep adding more and more, especially once you see the increased mobility, muscular endurance, and aesthetic improvements.

The benefits and ease of implementation of this tool is truly what makes the kettlebell so appealing. You just can’t go wrong.

Alright, Mike…but what about conditioning?

The beauty of kettlebell conditioning is that you can move from movement to movement with amazing quickness and ease. This obviously takes some practice, but considering that an individual can move through ten or more compound movements in less than thirty seconds makes the journey well worthwhile. 

Even with the small arsenal of kettlebell movements discussed in this article, you can put together amazing cardio-crushing intervals without having to move more than three feet. 

Fair warning: if you’re going to use kettlebells for conditioning, be prepared to be humbled. I’ve worked with athletes from all over the spectrum, from high-level athletes, college guys, and ultra-marathoners to some badass soccer moms who’d put most guys to shame. But when it comes to intensive kettlebell work, these athletes don’t even know what hit them! Kettlebell conditioning is truly one of the best ways to torment the body into becoming hyper-metabolic, burning fat, and increasing the body’s ability to move with supreme efficiency. 

Here’s a simple kettlebell conditioning protocol you can try the next time you get into the gym.

Each round is performed hands-on.  In other words, your hands don’t leave the kettlebell unless it’s airborne!

Round 1

  • KB Russian Swing x 6
  • KB American Swing x 6
  • KB Russian Swing Alternating Hands x 6
  • KB Alternating Side Swing x 6
  • 60 Second Break

Round 2

  • KB Russian Swing x 7
  • KB American Swing x 7
  • KB Russian Swing Alternating Hands x 7
  • KB Alternating Side Swing x 7
  • 60 Second Break

Keep going for three more rounds, adding one more rep to each exercise with each round. You should end by doing 10 reps on every exercise.

Please note, I don’t recommend this workout directly after or before a lower body strength training day.

Performing The Movements

Loading the Kettlebell

When loading the kettlebell for any type of press or top mounted position, make a pocket with the forearm and upper arm with your wrist slightly bent.  Measure your elbow placement by bringing both forearms together in front of the chest (guys with more chest development will not be able to close the gap as well as others).  Keep the elbows tucked tight into the body, and try to prevent separation from arm and body throughout your movement.

Kettlebell Press

Load the kettlebells tightly into the body.  Squeeze the glutes and tuck the hips prior to beginning your press.  Press directly upward, driving the elbow almost directly past the ear.  This is not a dumbbell press!  The elbows should stay tight to the center of the body.  Your hands and elbows will rotate out at the peak of the movement.  Bring the kettlebells back down quickly; the bell should nearly drop back into the original pocket. 

Kettlebell Reverse Lunge

Top mount your kettlebell on one side only, following the previous instructions.  Stride back into a reverse lunge, moving the loaded leg backwards and driving forward off of your stationary heel. 

Kettlebell Front Squat

Load both bells in the top mount position.  Stand with feet shoulder width apart, and drive the hips back and down while maintaining a neutral position with the lower back.  Attempt to keep your elbows pressed into your sides; however, if doing so compromises your low back position (causes rounding of low and upper back), then allow some space to become present.  Drive upward out of the heels and repeat.

Kettlebell Goblet Squat

Hold one bell at the top of the chest with two hands, cradling it like a globe.  Stand with feet shoulder width apart, and drive the hips back and down while maintaining a neutral position with the lower back.  Attempt to keep your elbows pressed into your sides; however, if doing so compromises low back position (causes rounding of low and upper back), then allow some space to become present.  Drive upward out of the heels and repeat.

Kettlebell Renegade Row

Place two bells about 1 foot apart on the floor.  Place hands on both bells and get into a pushup position.  Be sure that your bells lie directly under the chest and not the shoulders.  Push one elbow back tightly to the outer ribs while maintaining a flat body position.  Return the bell to the floor and switch sides.  Keep in mind that you can elevate your feet some if necessary.

Double Kettlebell Swing

American Swing

Russian Swing

Side KettleBell Swing

Alternating Single Swing

Wrap-up

Let’s face it…your program probably needs some spice. Kettlebells are becoming a trend among moms, actors, political figures, and the general layman, but they have more to offer to the avid weight lifter.

If your gym doesn’t have kettlebells, find a new gym, or go to your local fitness store and buy one (but please don’t get a pink one).

Written by Mike Scialabba

About Mike Scialabba

Mike is the Director and Owner of the Missoula Underground Strength Training Center located in Missoula, Montana.

He’s an Expert Strength Coach and has been in the business for nearly a decade working with hundreds of individuals utilizing conventional and unconventional training methods. 

Michael has sent over a dozen kids to collegiate football and basketball and has spent endless hours in the trenches getting dirty with real training and real results.

Be sure to check out his blog!

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Kettlebells for the Uninitiated discussion thread.

Well, you can learn to generate incredible power while adding some muscle to your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.