Alright, everyone, it’s a new year, and you know what that means! New Year’s Resolutions. This is a time when thousands of people around the world take on challenges to positively improve their lives, and nowhere is this more apparent than the world of fitness. While there are thousands of incredible tools to use and programs to follow, often all you need is one versatile piece of equipment. I’ve written many guides on how to get fit using the art of simplicity, but I’ve never gone in-depth on one of my favorite pieces of equipment to ever grace the mighty halls we call gyms. That tool is the kettlebell. Read on to learn how to accomplish your fitness goals with a single kettlebell.
Some of us are veteran athletes, aiming to break plateaus and try new training programs, use new equipment, join a new sport, and reach performance levels we have never before reached.
For others, we aim to become fit for the first time in our lives, either returning to the gym for the first time in years, making another attempt at finally getting the body of our lives, or as first-timers who have never had a fitness club membership before.
Regardless of your starting point, new challenges can be intimidating. They are full of complexities and unknowns, and many of us don’t know where to start.
What Is A Kettlebell?
You probably already know what kettlebells are. Thanks to men like former Russian Special Forces trainer Pavel Tsatsouline, Kettlebells have become commonplace fitness tools from Miami to Ibiza, and everywhere in between.
In simple terms, a kettlebell is a ball-shaped weight with a large handle you can hold with one or two hands.
What’s so special about that? Versatility. With the simple design of a kettlebell, you gain access to movement patterns far beyond those of other free-weights.
Unlike dumbbells, kettlebells are an optimal shape for rotational movement. Translation, you can swing them!
This simple difference takes what would otherwise be a simplistic weight for lifting and pulling, and turns it into a tool for total body conditioning.
Here at The Ready State, one of our central philosophies is that you should be able to express strength through your entire range of motion without pain or restriction. This means training through your entire range of motion. If you neglect rotational movement, you leave a huge element of your body’s potential on the table.
Without movement variance, restriction and injury become a risk (this is why we don’t love exercise machines.)
By using exercises that require large expressions of your range of motion, you promote resilience and mobility for your health and fitness.
Finding A Kettlebell
I thought about putting this section at the end of the article. Figured I’d convince you kettlebells are awesome before telling you how to get one, but personally, when I read about a fitness tool, I find myself stressing out through the whole experience wondering about the big, looming question of how to get one. What weight should I buy? How many do I need? Does quality make a big difference or is an estate sale a good place to go?
With that in mind, I’m breaking form a little by getting straight to it.
Personally, I almost exclusively rely on a 35lbs kettlebell. It is part of an on-the-go gym kit I have that contains a rope, gymnastic rings, VooDoo Floss, a loop-shaped resistance band (often called a pull-up band), and a lacrosse ball (technically I use The Ready State Supernovito but a lacrosse ball serves the same purpose with only a few less bells and whistles.)
With these 4 tools, I can train for strength, endurance, speed, and power, upper body and lower body for all muscle groups, and do almost all of the mobility routines available via The Ready State.
For me, a 6ft 4 career athlete, my 35lbs kettlebell is plenty. It’s heavy enough to radically improve strength and light enough to do metabolic work. If I have access to heavier bells via a gym, I’ll occasionally do some bigger load work, but generally speaking, I find 35lbs to be all I need.
For smaller or new athletes, a 25lbs kettlebell may be a better fit. My only advice is that for your first kettlebell, get something heavy enough to make your muscles sore but light enough that you can do any kettlebell exercise with it.
When it comes to brand, quality, and type, to be honest, I don’t even know where my bell is from. I snagged it from my Dad’s home gym a few years back and haven’t ever felt like I need something nicer.
A great way to get a quality kettlebell for cheap is to look for Gyms that are replacing inventory or going out of business. Typically these gyms will have quality gear they are looking to quickly sell.
Finally, Kettlebell Kings offers competition-style kettlebells if you are considering Kettlebell Sports. These style bells will be the weight and shape that you will be using in competition. They are more expensive and are weighted in Kilograms rather than lbs, as well as typically being much larger than the kettlebells I use. I will not be focusing on kettlebell sport in this article, and I’d recommend just sticking to a 25 to 35lbs kettlebell if you are going to use the techniques and recommendations here.
The Kettlebell Swing: Minimum Effective Dose
The only exercise you need is the kettlebell swing. This single exercise is enough to make radical changes in your physiology.
A few years back, I was reading Tim Ferriss’ The Four Hour Chef on a journey to master cooking. If you don’t know of Tim, he is considered the king of efficiency and has built a career teaching people to accomplish their biggest dreams with the least effort. His podcast alone introduced me to Crossfit, the leadership master Jocko Willink, and Dr. Kelly Starrett himself.
He also sparked my interest in kettlebells after reading some ridiculous success stories from his minimum-effective dose kettlebell workout.
In a short section in the intro of the Four Hour Chef, Tim suggests a few simple weight loss techniques. One of them was a prescription to do 75 kettlebell swings, twice a week.
One of Tim’s readers, a mother of two named Tracy, lost over 100lbs with this routine.
In addition to weight loss, training the posterior chain is one of the fastest ways to improve your physique.
The kettlebell swing recruits muscles from your toes to the top of your head, and though I’m going to deep dive a host of other exercises in this article, you can lose weight and make massive improvements in your fitness with just this one exercise.
To perform a two-handed kettlebell swing, stand wide with your feet pointed forward.
Hold the kettlebell with both hands, and retract your shoulders by pulling them back and down to avoid slouching.
Bend your knees and hips simultaneously, and thrust your hips forward and up to swing the kettlebell. You can swing the kettlebell up to your shoulders, or swing it up overhead. I prefer the overhead style swing in order to put work into the overhead archetype.
As the kettlebell drops, when it reaches your hips, smoothly repeat the bending of your knees and hips, then thrust forward again to do another rep.
Ideally, most of your force should come from your hips. You can imagine suddenly squeezing a penny between your buttocks as you push the kettlebell forward into the swing.
Once you have the movement down, simply perform 75 kettlebell swings. Take as many sets as you need, they don’t have to all be done in one go. For most people, this takes 12 to 20 minutes when you’re first starting, so don’t beat yourself up if it takes you a while.
As you get stronger, you’ll be able to do more swings without stopping. You can either train until you can do 75 reps without stopping, or you can move on to heavier kettlebells. I have personally been training a lot of endurance recently, and I do 100 kettlebell swings and 100 kettlebell snatches (which I’ll discuss in the next section) both without stopping, with a 35lbs bell. This is just an example that you can continue improving for a long time without increasing weight.
The Kettlebell Snatch: Mastering The Shoulder Archetypes
I love using the kettlebell swing, but it’s not my favorite KB movement. I have tendonitis in the back of my right shoulder from years of martial arts, water polo, and rock climbing. I’ve tried everything you can think of to try to fix it, but nothing really started to help.
Then I started doing the kettlebell snatch regularly.
I actually avoided this movement for a long time, because I thought it would aggravate my shoulder.
Instead, after a few months of training, my shoulder improved 30 percent without any additional mobility work. I didn’t figure out why until I read Kelly’s recent article about shoulder internal rotation.
The kettlebell snatch asks you to perform with optimal shoulder position through both the hang archetype and the overhead archetype, which are the two major components of shoulder position.
Here at The Ready State, We don’t train simply for strength or endurance. We train for resilience. Our goal is to use programs that restore and improve function through your full movement range, and the specific exercises we choose are the battlefield that makes or breaks your resilience.
In comparison to the kettlebell swing, these movements still recruit your posterior chain. You take the kettlebell from the ground, through the press archetype, and into the overhead archetype. The kettlebell swing differs in that it bypasses the front rack with straight arms, whereas snatch puts your arm into the short lever position before entering overhead.
What I love about the front rack position is that it requires great shoulder posture. In order to stabilize the weight, you have to position your shoulder properly vertical over your spine. This is a great countermeasure to the rounded-forward position many of us end up in.
Furthermore, these movements use one arm rather than two. This prevents you from being able to use the force from your other arm to compensate. If you have poor shoulder position, you will find out.
Before I show you how to do these movements, I’m going to teach you the shoulder archetypes it utilizes so you understand the positions of optimal function.
The three fundamental archetypes of kettlebell movements are the hang archetype, the front rack archetype, and the overhead archetype. Within each archetype, there is also the concept of short lever and long lever. Long lever refers to these positions when the arm is straight, and short lever refers to these positions with the arm bent.
I advise watching the following videos to learn these archetypes before moving on to the movement:
The Kettlebell Snatch
The kettlebell snatch involves getting the kettlebell from the ground to the overhead position in a single, fluid movement. You will pop the bell up through the air with your hips, and dip under the bell as it reaches full overhead position.
Again, place the kettlebell on the ground with the handle perpendicular to your hips. Stand 6 inches or so wider than shoulder width, feet pointed forward.
Bend your knees and hinge at the hip, and grip the kettlebell with the back of your hand facing your opposite leg, just like in the Clean and jerk.
Jump by popping your hips and knees, and lift the kettlebell through the air all the way up. As the kettlebell passes overhead, dip your knees and hips to get under the bell.
As the kettlebell reaches fully overhead, allow the bell to flip over your hand so that the weight rests against the back of your forearm.
This movement should be graceful and smooth, and you shouldn’t bang the kettlebell against your arm as it flips over your hand. Timing the dip will prevent this.
Again, this is a somewhat complex movement. I strongly recommend watching the tutorial videos to master this technique.
The Turkish Get-Up: Troubleshooting Overhead Position
The Turkish Get-Up is a movement that combines exercise with rehab. This is a slow movement that focuses on body control above all else.
For these reasons, I recommend including the Turkish Get-Up in your weekly programming.
To perform a Turkish Get-Up, hold a kettlebell directly overhead. Step forward into a lunge with your opposite leg.
From this lunge position, sit down while keeping the kettlebell overhead.
Roll onto your back while keeping the kettlebell above you, then roll back up to the sitting position. Put your leg behind you and get back into the lunge position, and step back up to standing. Now switch arms and repeat.
While this exercise sounds simple, what you’ll find is that it requires great body control to keep the kettlebell stable. You are isometrically working your overhead position throughout a wide range of motion, as your body moves “around” the kettlebell.
This is one of the best rehabilitation and preventative exercises for overhead shoulder position.
If you’re going to pursue full-body fitness with a kettlebell, I suggest including leg exercises alongside the others in this article. While the aforementioned exercises all recruit your legs, they don’t focus on them directly.
Thankfully, you can use a kettlebell with all the classic leg exercises, from plyometrics to squats.
I always prefer exercises that challenge my balance and range of motion, so my favorite kettlebell exercise for legs is the single-arm overhead squat.
The video showcases the overhead squat with a barbell, but it doesn’t take much to modify it for a kettlebell.
To perform this exercise, hold a kettlebell overhead in one hand, and extend your other hand horizontally as a counterweight, then perform a full squat. You will find this exercise challenging for your overhead positioning and your hip mobility.
For a milder leg exercise, many love the goblet squat. Hold the kettlebell with both hands, against your chest, and squat. You can make this exercise plyometric by jumping at the top of the squat.
Another great way to use a kettlebell with your legs is the cossack squat. Hold a kettlebell at chest level, and take a very wide stance. Bend your left knee until you are in a full side lunge. Now, transition over to your other leg while staying low. 30 of these will get your legs burning.
Mobility & Rehabilitation
Finally, we have the efficacy of the kettlebell for mobility work. The bell can be used as a tissue mashing device, a weight to reset position, and an anchor. If you’re looking for mobs, go to The Ready State MWOD archives and search “Kettlebell.”
You’ll find all sorts of incredible ways to use a kettlebell for mobility. Here are two videos on addressing shoulder position, and tissue mashing your calves with a kettlebell:
Putting It All Together: A Total Kettlebell Fitness Program
Now for the fun part, creating a program.
As we said earlier, you can keep kettlebell work as simple as you want. I suggest starting out with 2 to 3 workouts a week, either in the form of 75 kettlebell swings or snatches, or doing a different exercise each day.
For example, do 75 kettlebell swings for workout 1. Then 75 kettlebell snatches for workout 2. And 50 to 75 overhead, goblet, or cossack squats for workout 3.
When you can do 75 reps without stopping, add 25 Turkish Get-Ups to the workout for each workout. If you start to get really good at that, start doing 75 kettlebell swings and 75 kettlebell snatches in the same workout. With leg day, do goblet or overhead squats and cossack squats. Then you can add 25 Turkish Get-Ups.
I also suggest doing kettlebell mobility work on your off days. Do 5 Turkish Get-Ups and either the calf mobilization, the kettlebell shoulder reset, or any other kettlebell mobilization you find.
Simple works, so start simple. Stick to 2 kettlebell swing workouts at a minimum, and increase complexity as desired.