We turned to the pros for how to easily — and correctly — use kettlebells for optimal strength training.
It’s a debate as old as time in the fitness world: dumbbells or kettlebells. Truly, there’s room in the metaphorical sandbox for both, but many gym-goers — especially those just starting to strength train — often shy away from kettlebells, likely because technique is everything when handling them.
The thing is, ‘bells are a great way to build full-body strength, improve mobility, train for speed, and boost your cardio endurance. Basically, training with kettlebells is like having an entire gym in your hands, says Jon Lyons, co-founder of Strength Haüs, WE/FIT director at City Fitness.
That’s why we asked Lyons, KG Strong founder Katie Gould, and BPM Fitness founder Shoshana Katz — all of whom are certified in kettlebell training and instruction — for their tips on incorporating the equipment into any workout routine. Below, find 12 exercises from these kettlebell whisperers that’ll get you swinging, squatting, deadlifting and more with kettlebells, no matter your fitness level.
Katz says this is the biggie you need to make sure you do really well before you ever swing a kettlebell. That’s because the deadlift is the “gateway for a lot of really cool kettlebell moves,” she says. Here’s her breakdown of the exercise:
- Stand on top of the bell, making sure the handle or the “horn” of the bell is lined up with the bony parts of your ankles.
- Reach your hips back and let your knees soften, creating a stance where your knees are bent, but your hips are slightly higher than your knees, and your shoulders are higher than your hips — think a sideways “V” or packman. Sometimes, depending on your height, you will need to elevate the bell on a yoga block. You basically want to avoid letting your hips get knee-level and your shoulders dropping to hip level.
- Grab the bell and try to crush the handle, squeezing your armpits tight. Take a big inhale, to make sure your abs are engaged.
- Push into the ground, drive your hips towards the floor, and stand straight up as you exhale. Your ending position should look like a standing plank.
This is another type of deadlift to do with a kettlebell, and a good starting point for single leg work, Gould says. Start with the kettlebell next to the arch of your working leg. Step your supporting leg back one or two feet and lift your heel off the floor. Pull your hips back until you are in your deepest hinge, stretching your butt and hamstrings. Grab the bell with the opposite hand, squeeze your armpit, and tighten your core. Drive your hips back up to stand. “This is an awesome exercise to strengthen your glutes, legs and back,” Gould says.
Single Leg Deadlift
If you’ve got the kickstand down and want to challenge yourself even more, opt for a single leg deadlift. Lyons says to hold the bell to one side, like a suitcase. Keeping your shoulder packed (imagine you’re holding a stack of $100 bills in your armpit), hinge at the hips, keeping your back as flat as possible. You’ll feel your hamstrings fire and that’s when you’ll know to come back up. Lyons says the biggest mistakes he sees people do with this exercise are: (1) they keep their standing leg stiff (“Bend it as much as you need to!!” he emphasizes.) and (2) they don’t keep their core engaged, causing their backs to bend like a fishing pole.
All three pros say the goblet squat is another fundamental kettlebell exercise. To execute, Katz says to get the bell at chest height, making sure to avoid letting the bell sit on your chest. (“This can lead to you putting unnecessary strain on your back,” she says.) Stand with your feet a little wider than hip-width, but not necessarily as wide as your shoulders. The key is to find a position where your knees track in line with your toes. She says your feet can also be turned out, your hips can drop slightly below 90 degrees, and your chest can remain upright — something she says can be difficult to maintain, but gets easier with time.
Inhale and pull down into your squat, avoiding the tendency to drop or plop into it. Pause for a moment before exhaling as you think about “ripping the floor apart” as you stand up, continuing to drive your knees in line with your toes. Stand tall at the top, remembering not to let the bell sit on your chest, and repeat.
“There’s just so much nuance to the swing,” Lyons says. “I’ve done five-hour seminars on this movement alone, but it’s freaking awesome so we’ll include it.” Let’s get it, then!
Lyons says to take a big step back from your kettlebell and get into your deadlift stance. Reach for the bell, and without losing your deadlift stance, tip it and drag it towards you by the horn until you feel like you’re sturdy and balanced. From there, keeping your gaze soft on the “shoreline” or “horizon,” hike it behind you like a football. When you feel your forearms hit your crotch and your hamstrings fire, stand up fast — “like faster than fast,” he says. Let the bell float to chest height. As it starts to come down, stay focused and, at the very last second, reach into your backswing. You’ll feel your hamstrings fire again, which is your cue to snap and stand again. “Let the bell float. Live in the float. Don’t fight the float. Don’t try to “lift” the bell. Your butt, quads and core should be doing all of the work. Your hands are just there to guide,” Lyons reminds us.
If you’re starting out with cleans, Lyons suggests opting for a goblet clean first, to get a feel for the movement. He says to start in your deadlift stance (so, instead of sitting “down” like a squat, you push your butt “back” like you’re shutting a door). From there, zip the bell up like a jacket by explosively standing. The bell will end up in the same goblet position as your goblet squat. Let the bell fall back down to the start, catching in the deadlift position.
The traditional clean is a little more nuanced, Lyons says. Start with one hand on the bell in the deadlift position, without gripping too tight. “You are basically going to row the bell and at the exact same time stand up as quickly as possible,” he says. The bell will end up gliding into the racked position (which is where you hold the top handle of the bell with the ball of the bell on the outside of the forearm weighted towards the floor — wrists should be neutral and elbows should point directly toward the ground. See video below). If it bangs your wrist you’re probably pulling on the bell too hard, not snapping your butt/quads/core hard enough, gripping the bell too hard, or letting it drift too far from your body. “Remember: Stand up and ‘zipper your jacket,’” he says.
Katz says the farmer’s carry can help with core, grip, and back strength. Step one: Find two medium-sized bells and place them at your sides. Step two: When picking them up, think back to your deadlift. Hinge your hips back, grab the bells, crush the handles, and drive down into the floor. Step three: Stand tall, not allowing the bells to sit on your legs. They can touch the side, but you do not want your legs absorbing the weight. Move tension out of your neck and shoulders to your hips, squeezing your glutes and pushing into the floor with your feet. To add a challenge, you can incorporate a march or a walk. Step four: Place the kettlebells down by hinging at your waist.
“The push press is a great shoulder strengthener, and a good alternative for folks who struggle with the military press because it incorporates the lower body,” Gould says. You’ll want to start with a kettlebell in the racked position. Bend your knees and pull your hips toward the floor. Then push your feet hard into the ground, extend your hips, and drive the bell overhead. Releasing tension in the arm and hips, dip the knees and pull the bell back into the starting position.
To do this, Gould says to place a kettlebell on the floor, then set yourself up in a table-top position with the bell at chest level. Tighten your core and pull your knees one inch off the floor. Without shifting your hips or rounding your back, reach the opposite hand under your center to grab the handle of the bell, and drag it back across to the other side of your body. Alternate pulling the bell from side to side for 10 reps. This exercise promotes core stability, thoracic spine mobility, and shoulder strength, she says.
Goblet Reverse Lunge
Start in the goblet stance. Step one leg back, keeping your torso upright, core engaged, and knees close to 90 degrees. Return to stand. That’s it! If you can’t lower all the way to the ground, Lyons says it’s no biggie — just go as far as you can. If you can lower down to the ground, he says to do so with control. You want to avoid bouncing your knee off the floor.
Racked breathing can work to strengthen your core and back muscles, and help improve your squat and press, Gould says. Start by standing against a wall with two kettlebells in the racked position. Lengthen your spine from head to tail, and tighten up your trunk. Keep your weight centered over your feet, knees soft, and pelvis neutral to promote deeper core engagement and a fuller breath. Hold this position for 30 to 60 seconds — just don’t forget to breathe!