Can you teach me the kettlebells?
If I only had a nickel for every time a Move It Session started with this question… And I love it. As a connoisseur of all things athletic and all things training, kettlebells are among my favorite modalities.
And what’s not to like? While everyone else seems to be grunting and straining during their normal-looking barbell, dumbbell and machine workouts, the fluid and dynamic movements performed by those trained to wield the cast iron “cannonballs with handles” have a mystique to them that can leave you mesmerized.
Free, controlled, strong, and precise. If you crossed a pirate with a ninja and mixed in a little ballet, you might get close to a true kettlebell master. Seriously, though, the only thing more fun than watching someone who is good with kettlebells is being someone who is good with them.
Why You Should Incorporate Kettlebells
So what’s the hype? Aside from looking different and intriguing, kettlebell training has been the subject of numerous studies in the past few years with some very interesting findings.
Because of their circuit-like training programs, kettlebells “may be a good alternative to cardiorespiratory training in weight loss programs,” according to one study that measured V02 and lactate changes in a kettlebell circuit against a progressive treadmill workout.[i]
Another study measuring performance improvements found that traditional kettlebell training with moderate weights resulted in power and strength gains comparable to those achieved with traditional, heavier barbell training.[ii]
Some studies have even found that kettlebell work may be an acceptable rehabilitation modality by successfully reducing neck, back, and shoulder pain in individuals over a six week program.[iii] Perhaps most importantly, kettlebells are a kind of compact “all-in-one” gym.
Since most of the movements require similar loads, picking up a few kettlebells is an easy, inexpensive way to bring the benefits of the gym to your home! For a more comprehensive review of these studies and benefits, check out serviceman Guy Leahy’s article). [iv]
Let’s say you don’t care to meld the Jack Sparrow in you with the Bruce Lee. What do kettlebells have for you? In general, kettlebells add an element of abnormality and instability to weight training. The unique gripping handle along with the almost awkward center of gravity challenges the stabilizing muscles that act on the wrists, elbows, shoulders and spinal column.
For most of my clients, I use them to create joint stability and synergy through the upper and lower body and to strengthen tendons and ligaments in the foundation phases of training. I also use them to challenge proprioception while performing anaerobic intervals at the same time.
In my own program, I use them to supplement my climbing, Olympic lifting and parkour training to prevent injuries and to give me a gauge of how recovered I am.
Two Essential Kettlebell Exercises
Although there are many exercises that can be performed with kettlebells, there are two in particular that are unique to the kettlebell training tradition that should be part of everyone’s program.
They can be used as a warm-up to get the body ready for action and to assess its readiness to train, or they can be used within the workout itself to solidify functional movement patterns and to promote full-body strength and power adaptations.
Additionally, these moves could even be applied as corrective exercise tools to rehabilitate flexibility, strength, endurance and balance or to begin to rebuild plyometric power. For these reasons, everyone should learn and progressively challenge themselves with the Turkish Get-Up and the Russian Kettlebell Swing.
The Turkish Get-Up
The Turkish Get-Up is one of the few true “full-body” movements that incorporate all major muscle groups in every plane of motion. Challenging strength, endurance, stability, flexibility within an outline of 8-10 steps (depending on the style), this exercise originated from the kettlebell weight training philosophy and has maintained a respected prominence overseas.
You won’t often come across this complicated but rewarding lift very often in the American fitness arena, but don’t let that fool you. Turkish Get-Ups can be used as a full body, comprehensive, progressive warm-up for any muscle group weight lifting day in just 10-20 reps.
It can also be used as a functional cool-down to re-establish proper length-tension relationships after a hard strength training program. Finally, forget upping your 1RM bench (which doesn’t tell you about your functional strength) or your 1RM shoulder press (which is arguably awful for your rotator cuffs). Instead, measure total body strength and stabilizer endurance with a 1RM Turkish Get-Up. Talk about real strength!
Personally, I incorporate these in every client’s program at least once per week in order to ensure their bodies are fully functional, to detect weak points in their kinetic chain, and to measure progressive stability in the core, shoulder, hip, and spine. Refer to the linked article below to learn how to get it done!
The Russian Kettlebell Swing
The Russian Kettlebell Swing is also a paramountly important and infinitely useful lift that is a staple of the kettlebell tradition. As a program design tool, it is one of the few exercises that, when done correctly, can develop power in the Lumbo-Pelvic-Hip complex without significant impact or strain on your joints. In other words, it can do what sprinting and jumping does for your butt without hurting your knees, ankles, or feet.
Additionally, I’ve used Russian Kettlebell Swings as a teaching tool to help my clients use their glutes for hip extension rather than their hamstrings. This is a very important lesson if you have “tight hamstrings” but would like to maintain a consistent cardio regimen without back pain. You have likely seen this exercise done in the gym or even done it yourself.
A small note about execution: use your glutes to generate the power of the swing, not your shoulders and lower back. Refer to the linked article below for further instruction!
Kettlebells can be an amazing addition to your strength training program. Whether your goal is to burn fat by becoming more cardiovascularly efficient, increase stability to prevent injuries in your performance workout, to warm up or cool down effectively, or just to look for something fun and different, you should incorporate the Turkish Get-Up and the Russian Kettlebell Swing as two amazing lifts for your workout.
Don’t be surprised, however, if you notice people watching you intently. Do these lifts correctly, and you just might become the pirate-ninja of your club. Wear that badge with pride.
For a comprehensive guide to completing this amazing lift correctly, I defer to “How to do the perfect Get-Up” and “How to do the perfect Kettlebell Swing” written by Master Russian Kettlebell Instructor, Andrew Read.
Are you interested in adding kettlebells to your workout routine? Talk with a fitness professional, who can offer his/her guidance on a kettlebell protocol that would serve your fitness level and personal goals.
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[i] Fung, BJ, and Shore, SL. Aerobic and anaerobic work during kettlebell exercise: A pilot study. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 42 (5): S588-S589, 2010. [ii] Rozenstoka, S. Endurance ability characteristics of professional sportsmen. Journal of Human Sport and Exercise 7(1): S166-S172, 2012. [iii] Zebris, MK, Skotte, J, Anderson, CH, et al. Kettlebell swing targets semitendinosus and supine leg curl targets biceps femoris: An EMG study with rehabilitation implications. Published ahead of print. British Journal of Spors Medicine, 2013. [iv] Leahy, Guy. Kettlebell Training: What Does Science Say?. NSCA Classics. TSCAC Report 27. http://www.nsca.com/uploadedFiles/NSCA/Resources/PDF/Education/Articles/NSCA_Classics_PDFs/TSAC_Report_27_Leahy.pdf
[i] Fung, BJ, and Shore, SL. Aerobic and anaerobic work during kettlebell exercise: A pilot study. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 42 (5): S588-S589, 2010.
[ii] Rozenstoka, S. Endurance ability characteristics of professional sportsmen. Journal of Human Sport and Exercise 7(1): S166-S172, 2012.
[iii] Zebris, MK, Skotte, J, Anderson, CH, et al. Kettlebell swing targets semitendinosus and supine leg curl targets biceps femoris: An EMG study with rehabilitation implications. Published ahead of print. British Journal of Spors Medicine, 2013.
[iv] Leahy, Guy. Kettlebell Training: What Does Science Say?. NSCA Classics. TSCAC Report 27. http://www.nsca.com/uploadedFiles/NSCA/Resources/PDF/Education/Articles/NSCA_Classics_PDFs/TSAC_Report_27_Leahy.pdf