A brief history of kettlebells:
There’s a lot of argument about the origins of kettlebells, with the Russians and Scots both laying quite vocal claim to developing them. The most plausible reason for their existance was that they were used as a form of certified weight on scales around 150 years ago for measuring grain and other agriculture foods in markets. It is thought that a test of ones strength in those days was based on how heavy one of the kettlebells you could lift over head. As famous lifters of the time moved into using dumbells for developing muscle as well as testing strength, the explosive power benefits of Kettlebells got left behind. Mankind has always been fascinated by tests of strength and training with weights in some way, shape or form has always fascinated men ever since we stood upright. What can be said, especially in recent times, is that the Russians have taken kettlebell training and developed it into a highly technical and extremely demanding sport (more on that later)
1. You’ll get a full body workout.
The kettlebell basics focus around three core lifts - the swing, snatch and clean and jerk. What links all these drills together is that they force the body to work as an integral unit. Power is generated from the legs, driven through the hips and expressed through the arms. Every single muscle is brought into play and every single muscle is worked hard.
2. Train your other half.
That is, the other half of your muscles. Traditional gym weight training routines concentrate on slow, controlled lifts. Missing are exercises that specifically work explosive movements. Muscle fibres can be divided into two types, slow twitch and fast twitch. Slow twitch muscle contracts at a slower rate and you can probably guess how fast twitch fibres contract. Again, the core kettlebell drills focus on fast, explosive movements which focus on training your fast twitch muscle fibres.
3. Work those hips!
Your hips and legs are some of the strongest muscles in the body. Okay, they aren’t the most useful for posing on the beach but for almost all sports, powerful hips will always be vital. Kettlebell ballistic drills work the glutes, hip flexors, abdominal region and erector spinae hard and will convey greatly improved athletic performance.
4. Get a grip.
Grip strength can be divided into sub categories, namely, crushing grip, pinch grip, thick bar grip, leverage and bending. We’ll cover these in depth at a later date; for now, in this article, we’ll go over how kettlebells can be used to develop grip strength. A well designed kettlebell will have a thick handle and ballistic pulling of heavy weights is a great way of developing grip strength. Why? Picture a 32kg weight held overhead. Imagine it in freefall and only your grip is stopping it from forming a big crater in the garden. Now imagine that same weight being explosively pulled upwards to get it overhead again. That should give you an indication on the grip demands of kettlebell training!
5. Unparalleled conditioning.
Kettlebell Sport training develops strength, endurance and cardiovascular capacity equally and to extreme levels. Unlike standard gym routines with a prescribed breakdown in number of sets and reps, kettlebell sport specifies a fixed training period where the only two goals are to reach the end of the period and to beat your PB. There is constant time under tension as the kettlebell cannot be released. Even “resting” with the racked kettlebell requires exertion and one of the major benefits is training your work capacity in spite of ever increasing fatigue.
There is something primal about kettlebell training. Anything involving heavy weights instinctively sharpens the senses, gets the blood flowing and adrenaline pumping. Its quite possible this is down to some evolutionary instinct warning you that dropping said weight onto your head or some other, more sensitive, region of the body causes a great deal of pain but I personally believe it comes from strength exerted and power generated. And you don’t get that sensation in your typical workout. Find one that’s hard, makes you work, makes you sweat, makes your curse in seven different languages, but also makes you feel like a much better person by the end of it!
Some of these four drills aren’t the “classic” drills but they are some of the most effective ones!
1. The kettlebell swing.
This is the foundation drill for all kettlebell work and is essential to master first. It’s also one of the most comprehensive exercises ever and will train everything from your calves to your fingers! The basic start position applies to all kettlebell drills. Start with your feet, shoulder width apart, with the kettlebell parked between your legs. Push the hips back and grab the kettlebell with straight arms. Lift the kettlebell and swing it back deep between the legs. Explosively snap the hips to propel the kettlebell upwards and forwards. Once the kettlebell reaches the peak of the swing, squat back and allow it to return to the start position. Once you have this down, progress to one armed swings.
2. The kettlebell clean and push press.
This one exercise is phenomenal for building upper body size and strength. It literally hits every muscle in the torso, gives the hamstrings a pretty decent workout and will give you Popeye like forearms! Start with the kettlebell parked in the start position. Pick it up with one arm and swing it back between the legs. Now, instead of swinging the kettlebell up in an arc, pull it up to the “racked” position. Once racked, hold briefly and return directly back down for the next rep. That’s the clean portion of the clean and push press. For a push press, once the kettlebell has been racked, dip the knees and press the kettlebell up with the assistance of the legs. Once you have locked out, hold briefly then pull the kettlebell down to the racked position. This is a great developer of the upper body, especially the shoulders.
3. The kettlebell Bent Press.
The bent press is one of those old school exercises that everyone tends to ignore, which is a shame as it is a great exercise! It’s a fantastic developer of REAL core strength (none of that Swiss ball nonsense) and will really strengthen your shoulder stabilisers. You’ll also get a sense of satisfaction that you’re doing something that has probably never, ever been seen at the gym! The first step is to clean the kettlebell and hold it in the rack. This description and the accompanying video assumes that you’re bent pressing with the right arm. Step forwards with the left leg slightly. Shift the right arm back so the elbow points backwards and the fist is facing forwards. Anyone watching you should see your fist, elbow and hip all aligned. Tense the upper body and lock the arm in position. Now LOWER the body under the weight, leaning the upper body to the left and continue dropping and turning until the arm is fully extended.
4. The kettlebell half get up.
Possibly the most brutal abdominal exercise imaginable. It’s also a fantastic shoulder stabiliser drill as well. Start with a kettlebell by your side and lie down. The kettlebell should be in line with your shoulder. Roll towards the kettlebell and grab it with both hands. Roll back and you’re now ready to start. Press the kettlebell as if for a bench press. Brace and stabilise yourself with the other arm, bring the knee on the same side as the kettlebell to brace and stabilise yourself with your leg. From there, using the abs with the arm and leg stabilising, sit up whilst keeping the kettlebell overhead. Hold for a second, then return back down and lower the kettlebell.
Q & A
• What weight should I set out with? It all depends, most out of shape and non exercising men should start with a 12kg. Since, you’re reading this on Muscle Bulletin that’s probably not the case so we’d recommend starting off with a 16kg or 20kg. Start with the 16kg if you don’t normally train with weights or use machines more than free weights, otherwise start off with the 20kg. If you’re experienced with weight training, you might consider the 24kg. If you’re one of those that wants it all, buy a set from 12kg to 32kg, that should keep you kettlebell training for years.
• What sort of reps and sets should I do? When you first start out, keep the reps and set count low. Work on perfecting your form first. Once you are proficient, you can perform timed sets for ballistic drills like the clean and push press. Decide on a set time, five minutes for example. What you’ll do is, on the minute, every minute perform three to five reps of your chosen exercise. Swap hands and rest for the remainder of the minute. Repeat until you reach your chosen time target. Don’t let your ego get in the way; start with short sets for five minutes. If you’re working on increasing work output, increase the number of reps you perform. If you’re working on increasing work capacity, increase the target time. For the grinding drills, keep the rep count low, 3 – 5 reps and work on multiple sets.
• Which order should I do things in? I like doing separate ballistic and grind days but for those on tighter schedules work the grinds first but DO NOT work to fatigue or failure, two sets will suffice, and then work on the ballistic drills.
• Why Kettlebell style training? - I find it complements normal training, adds spice to your workout, reduces boredom of always going to the gym, can be done at home in the garden on a hot day or a cold day in the garage, is great for strength and power that will definitely help other sports. The sport is formed of two lifts, the Kettlebell Snatch and the Kettlebell Clean & Jerk. We’ll teach you these lifts in future articles, for now we’ll show you how to use Kettlebell Sport training to get fitter, stronger and a hell of a lot tougher. In kettlebell sport, once you lift the kettlebell you are not permitted to let it go or set it on the floor. One set of ten minutes is the standard length and all you do is crank out as many reps as possible in that time frame. Why is this so brutal? Well, it’s brutal simply because you never get any rest over the ten minutes. You have to learn to manage your ever building fatigue and develop and refine increasingly efficient technique. Try this experiment. Clean your kettlebell and hold it in the racked position. Start your stopwatch and tell me how you feel after one minute. Two minutes, three minutes, five minutes, seven minutes…and if you’re able to speak after the tenth minute, I salute you! And advise you get a heavier kettlebell. Try it. It sounds simple but I promise that you’ll be sweating buckets. If holding it for ten minutes is that hard, how hard is it to knock out ballistic drills for multiple reps? You get the point.
We hope you enjoyed this article and have gained a new appreciation for a unique, tough and highly effective training method. Feel free to shoot us questions and watch out for future articles.
© Ken Liu, London Kettlebells
Ken has been involved in martial arts since 1992. Since 2002, he’s been training with kettlebells and quietly spreading the word amongst martial artists, athletes, personal trainers and members of the public looking for one of the toughest, most effective ways of getting in shape.