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Kettlebell Exercises That Improve Strength & Conditioning

Updated: Apr 3

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In his book, The Russian Kettlebell Challenge, Pavel Tsatsouline claims that the kettlebell is one of the best exercise tools for developing whole-body, all-round fitness. In another Hungry4Fitness article – Advanced Kettlebell Techniques – I outline the many health and fitness benefits you can expect if you make kettlebell training a permanent addition to your exercise regime.


However, to avoid repeating myself, I won’t go into detail about the benefits of kettlebell lifting. Instead, I advise the interested reader either to follow the above links or see following FAQ.


One point I will heap emphasis on, though, is the imperative of participating in regular kettlebell training. Of course, as with anything that confers either health or fitness benefits, or both, we must make it a recurring, habitual feature of our routine.


The occasional kettlebell session is about as useful as the occasional branch of broccoli. In order to get those health benefits from either you’ve got to make them a prominent part of your diet.


So, with that said, find at least one weekly training session where you could include kettlebells or, better still, start this 6-Week Kettlebell Training Program. By implementing this advice, if it could be called that, the sooner you will be enjoying the superior physicality kettlebell training can confer.

 

Kettlebell exercises and training FAQ

Kettlebell exercises FAQ.

Why is kettlebell training so effective?

When swinging, pressing or pulling a kettlebell, whatever your preference (personally mine’s all three), you are engaging in one of – if not the – most effective forms of training. Bold statement I know – made bolder still by that italicised the. However, I feel I can confidently support my statement on a sound justification.


Because traditional kettlebell exercises stimulate both the muscular and cardiovascular systems, whole-body fitness is promoted. Few if any other modalities of exercise offer such a broad spectrum of physical improvement.

Benefits of kettlebell training?

The benefits of kettlebell training are many and varied. Instead of waffling on about them in one almighty paragraph I’ve encapsulated the benefits in a simple list.


Superior muscular endurance
Improved cardiovascular performance
Enhanced proprioceptive sensitivity
Improved coordination
Cast iron core strength
Gorilla-like grip
Augmented mental toughness
And palms as rough as tree bark (though some won’t see this as a benefit)

How to begin kettlebell training?

Start with a light competition kettlebell and firstly focus on a couple of core movements – such as the swing and single arm clean. Once you’ve mastered these movements, and you can swing and clean like a seasoned Girevoy competitor, consider expanding on your parochial repertoire of exercises and increase the weight.


Also, ensure that you are incorporating kettlebells into your training regime at least twice a week. The longer you leave it between sessions the slower your progress will be – obviously. Remember: the royal road to superior proficiency is heavily soiled with sweat (tears and toil).


Does kettlebell training build muscle?

Regular kettlebell training will build muscle in a person who is under trained. However, kettlebell training doesn’t build muscle the way strength training would. But then the kettlebell is not a muscle-building tool. It’s a training tool designed to develop superior muscular endurance and stamina. And in that it excels.


Also, the way in which kettlebells are used (should be used) is not conducive to building muscle. The objective of traditional kettlebell training is about the number of repetitions an athlete can perform in a certain duration of time – usually 10 minutes – which is muscular endurance training. And muscular endurance training doesn’t build muscle. It increases the fibril density and definition of the muscle but not its size. To develop mass the weights must be heavy, the number of repetitions performed low and the rest periods long. Kettlebell training is almost completely the opposite.


 

Now we’ve covered the theoretical side of kettlebell training, let’s get practical. What follows are ten kettlebell exercises. Each exercise features an overview of the key techniques and important dos and don'ts. Once you've mastered an exercise, you can begin incorporating them into your workouts and training regime.


 

Kettlebell exercises #1: The Swing

Muscles worked: All of them! Honestly, the kettlebell swing is such an effective whole-body exercise that no muscle escapes unscathed from this wrecking ball of a movement.


In his ok book, The Russian Kettlebell Challenge, Pavel Tsatsouline cites a 1920s weightlifting champion as having said that the swing: ‘brings into action and develops practically every group of muscles on the back of your body and legs, and a good many others besides . . . If you have time on your schedule for only one back exercise, make it this one . . .’


Tsatsouline himself likens the swing to a physical altercation with a Russian bear because, after a good hundred reps, your muscles feel as though they’ve been torn to shreds (that’s a good thing by the way).


If you decide to become a regular swinger you’ll develop superior grip, core and pelvic thrusting strength whilst enhancing your physical functionality – for few exercises force you to fight to maintain correct posture and foot positioning.


Teaching points

  1. Centre your mass over a kettlebell the weight of which is commensurate with your current strength and ability. In short, don’t go heavy – keep it light to begin with!

  2. Bending at the knee whilst ensuring to keep the back ironing-board straight grasp the bell with both hands.

  3. Firing through the quads squat into the standing position.

  4. Before initiating the movement organise your feet – they should be just over shoulder width apart – fix your eyes on an indefinite point in the distance and prepare your mind for the exercise. I call this bit the calm before the storm!

  5. With knees still slightly bent rotate slightly at the hips so as to create space to pull the bell back between your pins.

  6. On receiving the kettlebell in your groin fire through with the gluteal muscles and, with arms straight, propel the KB forward. Instead of trying to get the KB all the way up in the first swing I find it best to elevate it in stages. Usually after the third swing I’m in full flight – so to speak.

  7. Once the kettlebell has reached the desired height – roughly level with your chin – arrest the movement and allow gravity to do its thing. Ensure to control the kettlebell during its descent.

  8. Again receive the KB in the groin harnessing the kinetic energy generated.

  9. Use that energy (and a bit of your own) to complete the next repetition.

  10. Now you are swinging!

  11. Watch the short video demonstration.


Dos

  • Keep control throughout the exercise.

  • Relax during the movement – you shouldn’t strike the appearance of a soldier on parade.

  • Make sure that your feet are evenly spaced and planted firmly before attempting the swing.

  • Fix your eyes on a point roughly head height.

  • Ensure the arms are slightly bent throughout.

  • Keep your core tight while swinging.

  • Squeeze your bum cheeks together at precisely the moment when the KB reaches the top.


Don’ts

  • Do not bend or round your back – keep it straight or slightly concaved.

  • Do not at any point lock the legs out.

  • Do not over-rotate or ‘collapse’ at the hips during the downward phase. The kettlebell should not pull you down so that your torso becomes parallel with the floor. This is a common mistake which places a lot of stress on the lumbar region of the spine.


 

Kettlebell exercises #2: Under the leg pass

Muscles worked: Mainly lower back (erector spinae) quadriceps and core stabilisers.


Under the leg passing (ULP) is a touch more technical than the swing. With this exercise we pass the kettlebell through and around the legs tracing out as we do so a figure of eight pattern. When performing the ULP you kind of take on the appearance of a stationary basketball player as she dribbles the ball between her legs.


Teaching points

  1. Position yourself directly over the bell.

  2. Your feet should be spaced a little over shoulder width.

  3. Bending at the knee grasp the bell with one hand – I find it best to hold the nook of the handle as this creates more space for when swopping hands.

  4. Keeping the back straight perform a partial squat.

  5. At this point the KB should be suspended majestically between your legs.

  6. Now ‘thread’ the bell back behind either the left or right leg – your choice – ensuring to have the receiving hand open ready and waiting.

  7. The pass should take place when the KB is almost directly in line with your Achilles.

  8. Once safely in the receiving hand, in one seamless movement follow an elliptical path and orbit the bell back round the opposite leg.

  9. Mirror what you’ve done but on the opposite side.

  10. Now just keep tracing those infinity signs until you get bored or keel over from malnutrition.

  11. Watch the short video demonstration.


Dos

  • Keep control throughout the exercise.

  • Engage the core muscles.

  • Relax during the movement.

  • Make sure that your feet are evenly spaced and planted firmly before attempting the ULP.

  • Ensure the arms are slightly bent throughout.


Don’ts

  • Do not bend or round your back – keep it straight or slightly concaved.

  • Do not stiffen up in the knees – keep them flexed or, as they say in the business, ‘soft’.


 

Kettlebell exercises #3: Goblet Squat

Muscles worked: Primarily those of the quadriceps, the glutes and core stabilisers. But, if you hold the bell by the handle in the bottom-up position, your forearms, biceps and anterior deltoids will receive a ruddy good isometric thrashing as well.


When performing this exercise there are a couple of ways to hold the kettlebell.


1) The thumbs are threaded through the handle and the hands are positioned such that it appears as though you are praying to Girevoy Gods. Personally I believe this to be the inferior position of the two as it engages fewer muscles.


2) Grasping the handle and in one smooth movement we hoist the kettlebell from the floor upending it. In the initiation position there should be a 90° angle at the elbow joint and the bottom of the bell should be pointing skywards. From here we perform a squat ensuring to observe correct training principals – outline in more detail below.


Teaching points

  1. Centre your mass over the KB.

  2. Bending at the knee – ensuring all the time to keep that back straight! – grasp the handle in either one of the positions described above.

  3. Assuming that you took my advice and adopted the second hand position, take the strain and pull the bell back between your legs.

  4. In one smooth movement swing it forward upending it as you do so.

  5. The bell should come to a halt almost directly in front of your solar plexus.

  6. In this position there should be a 90°angle at your elbow, the upside down bell poised at your front, arms slightly splayed, eyes fixed forward, knees slightly bent, feet a little over shoulder width.

  7. Brill! Now you’re ready to execute a goblet squat.

  8. Under control perform a perfect squat only stopping when a 90° angle forms at the back of the knees.

  9. From here fire through the quads and stand up.

  10. Watch the short video demonstration.


Dos

  • Organise your feet in the desired position prior to picking up the bell.

  • Keep that back straight throughout every stage of the exercise.

  • Breathe methodically – I only mention this because I have the bad habit of holding my breath when goblet squatting.

  • Look forward while you squat.

  • Keep the core muscles engaged throughout.

  • Smoothly down and smoothly up.


Don’ts

  • Do not lock the legs at the top position.

  • Do not bounce out of the squat position.

  • Do not allow you heels to lift off the floor.

  • Do not lean forward – you should be able to see the ends of your trainers during every phase of the squat.


 

Kettlebell exercises #4: Clean & Press

Muscles worked: All the muscles of the posterior chain including the core, quads, and forearm.


This is the first of the full range of movement KB exercises which sees the trainer cycle the bell from the lowest to the uppermost position. The initial phase of the movement is kettlebell training’s answer to the Olympic ‘clean’ where with one smooth crisp pull the bell is brought into the nook of the arm. From here we execute a perfect jerk pausing momentarily in the top most position before retracing our steps.


Teaching points

  1. Position yourself directly over the kettlebell with a wide stance – a smidgen over shoulder width.

  2. Bending at the knee and keeping the back perfectly straight grasp the kettlebell.

  3. To initiate the movement ensure first that there is no slack in the arm by applying a bit of resistance – a common mistake is to ‘snatch’ the bell from the floor. Don’t do this.

  4. Smoothly pull the bell back and as you bring it forwards generate momentum by firing through the quads and glutes. Remember, you are not swinging the kettlebell out and pulling it into the nook of the arm. It should not drop into position with a thud. As you drive the kettlebell forward guide it up while allowing it naturally to rotate into position. This should be performed smooth and sleek.

  5. Once the kettlebell is in the halfway position you may momentarily pause for thought.

  6. To complete the rep, perform a jerk (see teaching points below). Again pause before retracing your steps. Congratulations! You have completed the first phase of the clean & press. To conclude the movement:

  7. Allow the KB to obey the law of gravitation guiding it into the nook of the arm as it drops.

  8. Now this next technique might be a touch controversial but I’m going to describe the technique as I perform it and have seen it performed by a number of KB masters – Ivan Denisov being the most notable.

  9. When the KB drops from the top position back to the nook of the arm you are to absorb the shock by bending the knees whilst deflecting the KB with your arm allowing it to carry on falling to the bottom position.

  10. Watch the clean and press used as part of a workout.


Dos

  • Keep control throughout the exercise.

  • Relax during the movement.

  • Make sure that your feet are evenly spaced and planted firmly before attempting the exercise.


Don’ts

  • Do not bend or round your back – keep it straight or slightly concaved.

  • Do not at any point lock the legs out.


 

Kettlebell exercises #5: Jerk

Muscles worked: Primarily those of the shoulder but also the core, quads and calves.


The jerk – which can be performed either as a single or double arm movement – is one of the Titans of kettlebell exercises. Why is it that the jerk holds such a lofty place of prominence? Well, for starters, it’s simply an awesome exercise that engages many different muscle groups.


Furthermore, the jerk is a 24-carat gold full-body exercise and though the range of movement is comparatively constricted few muscles can sit back and relax when punching that bell above your head. Don’t believe me? Come back with your incredulity after completing a continuous 10 minute cycle with a 24kg bell.


Teaching points

  1. To get the kettlebell into position you’ll need to follow steps 1 through to 5 of the previous tutorial – Killer Kettlebell Exercise #4: Clean and Press.

  2. Once in position and before initiating the movement organise your feet so that you make a solid base or platform from which to lift. I form a narrow stance and I hold my unencumbered arm out for balance.

  3. Firstly dipping at the knee then firing through the quadriceps we use the body to put some energy into the kettlebell.

  4. As it begins its vertical trajectory we help it on its way with a push of the arm.

  5. When the kettlebell has cleared the head we again dip at the knee and effectively drop or fall underneath the bell locking the arm out as we do so. At this point the kettlebell should be stationary, your arm straight and knees partially bent.

  6. Now stand up. This marks the completion of the first phase of the jerk.

  7. To conclude the movement, allow the kettlebell to drop into the nook of the arm. Ensure to exhale sharply and bend the knees to absorb the impact.

  8. Watch the two-armed jerk video demonstration.


Dos

  • Centre your mass over the kettlebell.

  • Organise your body into a comfortable and stable position before initiating the squat.

  • Feet over shoulder-width apart.

  • Back straight.

  • Look forward whilst you squat.

  • Keep the core muscles engaged throughout.


Don’ts

  • Do not round the back.

  • Do not lock out the arm at the top position.


 

Kettlebell exercises #6: Snatch pull

Muscles worked: The single arm snatch pull primarily targets the transverse abdominus and gluteus maximus; but also, thanks to the ‘pull’, forearms, biceps, latissimus dorsi, rhomboids and teres major and minor are all stimulated.


From a technique standpoint this exercise shares many similarities with the single arm swing. This has something to do with the fact that it is a modification of the aforementioned exercise. But by bolting that pull on the end of the swing a myriad other muscles are mobilised making this one dynamic, fully functional movement.


Teaching points

  1. Centre yourself directly over a kettlebell ensuring that your feet are spaced a little over shoulder width.

  2. Keeping the back straight and bending at the knees grasp the bell with one hand and stand up.

  3. At this point the bell should be suspended between your legs, your arm pulled taught against your torso and groin and your free arm held out at your side for balance.

  4. To facilitate the initial phase of the movement firstly we want to generate momentum. Do this by pulling the bell back into your body before firing through the glutes and transverse abdominus – basically you are thrusting your bell forward with your hips.

  5. As the kettlebell follows a parabolic trajectory cut short the curvature by pulling it into the chest the moment it meets the apex.

  6. The instant your hand touches your chest force the kettlebell down to begin the next repetition. Repeat!

  7. Watch the short video demonstration.


Dos

  • Keep your knees nice and bent throughout.

  • Keep your spare arm out at your side to aid balance.

  • Fix your eyes on an indefinite point to your front.


Don’ts

  • Do not round your back.

  • Do not place the hand of your spare arm on your hip or quad – follow the dictates of Do two.

  • Do not perform an up-right row – there must be a distinguishable ‘swing’ prior to the ‘pull’. By denigrating this movement to an ‘up-right row’ you will rob it of the dynamic quality that makes it such a good exercise.


 

Kettlebell exercises #7: Turkish Get-up

Muscles worked: All muscles are worked when performing the Turkish Get-up!


This exercise requires not only strength but superior body control and the unflinching concentration of a Zen Buddhist. Why? Well, while performing the Turkish Get-hep, you must keep the kettlebell suspended directly above your head whilst carefully manoeuvring your body into the supine position. Then, when you’re lying perfectly flat on your back, with your arm still straight and the kettlebell poised precariously over your face, you are to stand up again!


Teaching points

  1. To get the kettlebell into position, perform a snatch.

  2. Keep the unencumbered arm out at your side for balance.

  3. Slowly and under control – ensuring all the while to keep that arm as horizontal as a flag pole – settle the kettlebell-side knee down on the floor.

  4. Once the kettlebell-side knee has safely touched down lean back slightly and place the hand of the balancing arm on the floor.

  5. Simultaneously collapse the supporting arm so that you are now leaning on your forearm, not your hand, and straighten the leg of the same side.

  6. To complete the movement straighten out the other leg and lie down completely flat on the floor. Of course still keeping the KB supporting arm straight.

  7. Now it's time to get up! To do so simply perform the previous six steps in reverse.

  8. Watch the short video demonstration.


Dos

  • Keep your eyes fixed to the kettlebell – this really does help improve balance.

  • Ensure that you perform this exercise on a soft surface – such as a Yoga mat.

  • Start off with a light weight – or no weight at all.


Don’ts

  • Do not go heavy on your first Turkish Get-up. Chances are you’ll wind up concussed. Practice the techniques outlined above without any weight. When you have mastered the key movements, have a go with a light kettlebell. If your gym doesn't have any light kettlebells, you can always do Turkish Get-ups with a dumbbell.

  • Do not wear restrictive or tight-fitting clothing.


 

Kettlebell exercises #8: Squat press

Muscles worked: Primarily the quadriceps, glutes, transverse abdominus and deltoids. The scope of myofascial stimulation doesn’t stop there though.


The squat press – or 'thruster' – is a terrific maximal stimulation exercise. That is, squat pressing simultaneously stimulates multiple major muscle groups. This explains why after a couple of sets your quads and core are on fire and your heart rate has hit the roof. But, though the thruster is a physically demanding exercise, it confers many training benefits. The two most salient examples are augmented muscular endurance and increased fitness conditioning.


Teaching points

  1. Ok, to cut down on the verbiage, refer to the teaching points for the Goblet Squat. Transition through teaching points 1 to 9.

  2. On completion of the 9th teaching point proceed to press or ‘thrust’ the bell up high above your head.

  3. As soon as the arms are at full extension – of course there should still be a slight kink at the elbow: never lock a weight bearing joint – lower the bell under control ensuring to arrest it the moment it comes level with your solar plexus.

  4. Use the downward momentum generated by gravity’s amorous attraction to all things steel and spherical (especially) and sink smoothly into the next squat.


Dos

  • Keep breathing throughout the exercise.

  • Apply even force through both legs and arms when executing the movement. Be mindful not to rely on your dominant side. Focus on achieving perfect symmetry. It helps to use a mirror.


Don’ts

  • Do not allow you back to bend and bow.

  • Do not lock out at the knee or elbow.

  • Do not bounce out of the squat – not unless, that is, you value the structural integrity of your knee joint.


 

Kettlebell exercises #9: Snatch

Muscles worked: Snatching stimulates the transverse abdominus, latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, teres major (and minor), deltoids, biceps brachi and muscles of the forearm.


The snatch is a powerhouse of an exercise that is widely regarded as one of the best for building power in the posterior chain. (The posterior chain is the group of muscles that run the length of the back of the body. These muscles include the hamstring, erector spinae, lats, and trapezius.) Pavel Tsatsouline calls it the ‘Tsar of kettlebell lifts’ and says that the snatch ‘will quickly humble even studly powerlifters,’ (The Russian Kettlebell Challenge).


Teaching points

  1. Centre your mass over a kettlebell ensuring to adopt a stance slightly over shoulder width.

  2. Keeping your back straight squat down and grasp the bell . . . then squat back up again.

  3. Initiate the movement by pulling the bell back between your legs.

  4. Once you feel the bell push you back, your arm taught against your torso, fire through the glutes and core whilst simultaneously pulling with the back muscles.

  5. If you’ve put enough ‘umph’ into the bell it should sail up smooth and sweet.

  6. As it carries on ascending higher and higher the bell should, just before reaching the top position, swivel round coming to rest on the back of your wrist. This positional transition ought to take place with the mechanical precision of Swiss watch. Basically what I’m trying to say is the bell shouldn’t ‘flop’ over the hand slapping against the back of the wrist. But you’ll soon know if you’re not doing it right because the following day your wrist will be bruised and sore.

  7. Watch the short video demonstration.


Dos

  • Select a weight commensurate with your current ability.

  • Keep that back nice and straight.

  • Adopt a stance slightly over shoulder width: you do not want that bell thwacking into your knee cap as it does the big dipper!

  • Hold your unencumbered arm out to aid balance.


Don’ts

  • Do not snatch near your ma’s finest China.

  • Do not allow the bell to pull you down so that your torso becomes parallel with the floor. Actually, performed properly, the snatch is quite a compact movement. The common mistake is to overemphasise the rotation at the hips as the bell bowls through the legs; when performed incorrectly as has just been described you’ll see a 90° angle form at the quads and abdominals. Yes an angle should form but nowhere near 90°. I would say 45° at most.

  • Do not ‘swing’ the kettlebell out as you would a swing. Instead, after you’ve propelled it forward with the strong muscles of your glutes and transverse abdominus, pull it up. Comparative to the swing when snatching the bell should remain relatively close to your body.


 

Kettlebell exercises #10: The Long Cycle

Muscles worked: All the muscles of the posterior chain including the quads, core, upper chest, anterior deltoids, triceps and forearms.


The Long Cycle is one of the few kettlebell exercise where we would use two bells simultaneously. Trust me when I say, performing such a complex and dynamic movement with two bells requires significant skill, coordination and body control. This is the only kettlebell exercise that has left a hematoma on the side of my face.


Furthermore, whilst we’re on the subject of glorifying this singularly glorious exercise. The Long Cycle is the best whole-body strength builder and if you are sadomasochistic enough to perform this exercise on a regular basis, you will reap the reward of augmented pulling and pressing power.


Teaching points

  1. Straddle a pair of kettlebells. Your stance should be about 1.5 shoulder widths – the widest stance you’ll adopt of any KB exercise for the fact that you must accommodate two bells swinging between your legs.

  2. Bending at the knee and keeping that back nice and straight grasp the bells.

  3. Before initiating the movement organise the bells so that, when gripping them, your hands mirror each other.

  4. Take the strain then pull the bells back through your legs.

  5. Fire through the hips propelling them forward.

  6. If you’ve put sufficient ‘umph’ into the bells they should fly up enabling you to catch them in the nook of the arm.

  7. Prior to performing the press – or ‘jerk’ – we pause momentarily.

  8. Taking a shallow dip at the knee we put some momentum into the kettlebells by contracting the quadriceps.

  9. As the bells are in flight we again take another shallow dip at the knee while simultaneously straightening out the arms.

  10. To conclude the upwards phase of the movement stand up. Again pause momentarily.

  11. Now, at this point you should be standing nice and tall, arms out stretched, eyes trained on the bottoms of bells. In one continuous movement allow the bells to fall into the nook of the arm. But do not stop them there! Simply deflect them so that they continue falling arresting them only at the bottom position. The bells should swing between your legs and then straight up into the nook of the arm.

  12. Watch the short video demonstration.


Dos

  • Take a nice wide stance and ensure that your feet are firmly planted.

  • Practice with a very light pair of KBs.

  • Keep that back straight throughout.

  • Maintain control of the KBs during the movement.


Don’ts

  • Do not attempt to conduct the lift with your arms. They serve merely as guides. The Long Cycle is all quadriceps, transverse abdominus and back strength.


 

To conclude

Now that you have the teaching points for ten kettlebell exercises, it's time to start practicing them. My advice on how best to do this is, beginners should start with the simple exercises such as the swing and goblet squat. These are two foundational movements that are safer to master. The same cannot be said of the Turkish Get-up and long cycle, two technically complex exercises that pose a serious injury risk if performed incorrectly.


Those that have already acquired a rudimentary level of kettlebell-handling competency could progress straight to the more challenging movements – squat press, jerk, and snatch. Still, even if you've used a kettlebell in the past, I recommend starting off with a light bell.


Also, don’t forget what was said in the introduction – if you want to master the art of kettlebell lifting and get your hands on those coveted health and fitness benefits, you are going to have to find a permanent place in your weekly exercise regime for at least one kettlebell session.


 

Never be without a kettlebell workout

Kettlebell exercises concludes with Atomic Kettlebell book.

 

About Adam Priest –

A former Royal Marines Commando, Adam Priest is a content writer, college lecturer, and health and fitness coach. He is also a fitness author and contributor to other websites. Connect with Adam at info@hungry4fitness.co.uk.

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