Kettlebells started to experience a popularity surge in the workout industry (especially in North America) in the early 2000s, largely due to Pavel Tsatsouline. Once thought to be yet another fitness fad, kettlebells (KBs) are definitely “here to stay”, as the old cliché goes. However, do you know which kettlebell exercises you should be doing? Below is a list of seven kettlebell exercises you can implement into your program today.
There are many good kettlebell exercises, but this needs to be the first one you learn. While it’s great for cardio, power endurance, and helping to improve athletic hip drive, it’s primary importance is that so many other kettlebell exercises are based off it. If you can’t swing properly, you’ll never be able to snatch, clean, perform high pulls, and the like.
Swings can be done one arm at a time, with both hands holding a single kettlebell, or a KB in each hand. All single KB swing variations should obviously have the kettlebell traveling between the legs. However, double KB swings can either have the kettlebells traveling between the legs with a wider stance or outside the legs with a narrower stance. Check out five advantages of kettlebell swings here.
After you perfect the swing, the clean should be next on your list. It’s yet another great cardio movement, and can build more explosive power than the swing. While it does involve the upper back a little, it shouldn’t be looked at as a replacement for barbell cleans, though. KB cleans are primarily a hips, glutes, and hamstring movement. Like swings, cleans can be done one arm at a time or with a KB in each hand.
Kettlebell Press / Push Press
Once you can clean a KB to your shoulders, you’ll want to get it overhead. The best way to start this is with the kettlebell push press. Like its barbell counterpart, it involves some dip and drive from the hips and lower body to get the KB out of the “racked” position and traveling overhead.
The strict kettlebell press, however, starts from a static position. Really brace against the lat and use it to start the movement. The main benefit of strict KB presses over other variations is the increased range of motion and increased supination you get from twisting arm / shoulder as you press upward. Like the swing and clean, you can press / push press with one arm or with a kettlebell in each hand.
Kettlebell High Pull
One of the more underrated kettlebell exercises, the high pull gets you most of the benefit of doing KB snatches without having to learn the “flip” at the top and risking injury if you don’t have access to a qualified instructor to teach you proper form.
The KB high pull is a bit different than its barbell counterpart, as the range of motion is more three dimensional. The bottom should be similar to a swing, but as the KB reaches your chest, you should then turn it into almost a mid-air row, pulling horizontally before returning to the starting position. Your movement pattern should almost look like an invisible upside letter “J”.
The benefit here is that the volume can build cardio and work capacity, and it requires more explosiveness than swings or cleans. However, the horizontal pulling action at the top of the movement allows you to target your upper back more, which can somewhat skipped over due to the momentum of other KB lifts.
Turkish Get Up
The Turkish get up (TGU) is one of the more difficult exercises you can do, and even a light KB can humble the strongest of lifters. The TGU has two main benefits, the first of which being that it’s primarily an anterior chain movement. Most other KB movements work all the muscles along the backside of the body (posterior chain), so using the TGU to work the muscles on the front side of the body balances this out.
At the same time, excellent shoulder stability is needed to keep the arm absolutely vertical and the KB over your head the entire time. This sort of constant static contraction can radically improve shoulder strength and mobility.
There aren’t many other movements out there that accomplish as much at one time as the renegade row. Because it’s a rowing movement, you of course build strength and muscle through the upper back. And because you’re holding the planked position, you’re also building static strength and stability throughout the core, shoulders, glutes, and even posterior chain.
More than that, because you’re holding your body perpendicular as you row, you’re also building anti-rotational stability, as well. This not only builds strength, but also better body control as you’re forcing your torso to stay straight when it really wants to rotate. This keeps your lower back healthy, too.
While the renegade row can be done with dumbbells, kettlebells are a better option. This is mainly because kettlebells have a flat bottom, making the entire exercise more stable than trying to support yourself on round dumbbells.
However, even if the dumbbells have flat sides (e.g. – hex dumbbells), their size can sometimes impede your range of motion. However, because the main part of a kettlebell is below the handle, this means you can pull it all the way to your torso without anything getting in the way.
Goblet Squats / Front Squats
While barbell squats are an excellent movement, proper form can be difficult for new lifters to learn and the different types of squat can be confusing. However, goblet squats eliminate that. Kettlebells are easier to use than dumbbells as they’re easier to grab, put less stress on the wrists, and put you into near-perfect form from the very beginning. Provided you don’t have mobility issues, you’ll get proper depth, lower back placement, and muscular activation when doing goblet squats.
The biggest issue goblet squats have is that stronger lifters can top out on them rather quickly. Kettlebells provide the perfect solution to this as you can easily transition from goblet squats to front squats. The movement pattern is almost identical, form is easy to learn and if anything, you get additional upper back / shoulder girdle stimulation by holding the kettlebells in the racked position.
Just drop down from your one single heavy kettlebell to a lighter kettlebell in each hand, then work your way back up again. KB front squats are also preferable for almost all lifters to their barbell counterpart as they don’t need as much shoulder and wrist flexibility or technique to perform.
If you have access to KBs, there’s no real reason kettlebell exercises shouldn’t be a part of your program. Some movements are kettlebell specific (like the swing), while others just provide a better lifting experience (like presses or squats). Regardless, integrate some of the above today, and you should be seeing the benefits almost immediately.