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I’m often asked if it’s possible to do HIIT workouts with kettlebells. Traditionally, HIIT was designed to be applied to cardio exercises. For example, you might complete a series of high-intensity bursts on the rower or running machine. Each interval is followed by a rest of equal duration (shorter or longer depending on fitness levels).
Of course, the objective of HIIT is to sustain near-maximal output for the interval. This is relatively straightforward if the exercise is as simple as running.
But when applying HIIT to complex compound movements, such as cleans and snatches, we’ve got to adjust our tact somewhat.
Instead of trying to perform a kettlebell snatch at maximum intensity (which is probably dangerous), we would increase the rep rate. If you’re cruising altitude rep rate is, say, 24 swings per minute (8 per 20 seconds), you might raise this during the high-intensity interval to 36 swings per minute (12 per 20 seconds). When applying HIIT to kettlebell exercises, it’s wise to reduce the weight – perhaps drop a pood or two.
An alternative approach is to confine HIIT to cardio and keep the kettlebell exercises for active recovery. Not only is this strategy safer but it also enables you to exploit the full fitness-promoting effectiveness of HIIT – which is not possible with resistance exercises. Yet, with this method, you can still tap into the benefits of kettlebells.
Both training options outlined above have been used in this HIIT kettlebell workout. But before we get stuck into the session plans, let’s review the fitness benefits on offer.
HIIT workout with kettlebell benefits
The key fitness-related benefits this workout aims to confer include increasing aerobic and anaerobic conditioning and improving functional strength. The former benefits are brought about by the cardio HIIT stations. Though HIIT is regarded as purely an anaerobic exercise method, Wilmore observes that ‘this training format can be used to develop the aerobic system,’ (Physiology of Sport and Exercise).
This is achieved by ‘Manipulating the duration of exercise and rest intervals,’ which ‘can effectively overload a specific energy-transfer system,’ (Exercise Physiology).
Over time, exercising at high intensities trains the body to better utilise ATP (adenosine triphosphate) – the high-octane intermuscular fuel that enables us to work flat out for short exposures. According to researchers, a mere ‘6 sessions increased the relative contribution of ATP,’ (National Library of Medicine). In conjunction with its increased utilisation, HIIT also improves the body’s capacity to resynthesize ATP once it’s depleted.
In addition, because HIIT incorporates the entire spectrum of intensity levels, it enhances your aerobic energy-transfer system by triggering an array of physiological adaptations. According Dr Liberman, author of the book Exercised, these adaptations – which include an increase in the size and strength of the heart and the improved efficiency of the vascular system – tune our aerobic engine making it more effective at meeting the demands of exercise.
How are these physiological adaptations expressed?
After a few weeks of using this kettlebell HIIT workout, you’ll start noticing that you can exercise at higher intensities for longer stretches. Furthermore, your recovery rate will improve which will enable you to complete more intervals in the same workout duration.
Kettlebells forge full body fitness
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, the kettlebell is a powerful tool for forging real-world strength and near-limitless muscle endurance. Unlike conventional resistance equipment – barbells, dumbbells, and machines – kettlebells were designed exclusively for volume training. This accounts for why you’ll rarely find a kettlebell that weighs more than 32kg – the maximum Girevoy Sports competition weight.
The objective of all kettlebell competitions is to amass as many reps as possible in the stipulated time (usually 10 minutes). Such high-volume training not only promotes muscle endurance but also consumes fat like a rugby team at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
And if aesthetical appeal is on your list of exercise outcomes, you’re in luck. The benefits described above provide the perfect tools for sculpting a lean defined physique.
HIIT workout with kettlebell
The warm-up is the most important part of a HIIT workout. The warmer you are the better you’ll perform. To get you prepared both physically and psychologically, the warm-up features an ascending intensity ladder of intervals. Every interval is interspersed with a set of 10 kettlebell swings.
Once you complete the warm-up, you’re ready to start the HIIT workout. You have two plans to choose from. The first involves transitioning between high-intensity intervals of cardio and kettlebell exercises. Starting at 10 seconds, the intervals progressively increase culminating at one minute.
After you’ve reached the top of the HIIT ladder, you are to switch to the next cardio/kettlebell pairing.
The second plan observes the method outlined in the introduction. Organised into blocks of five minutes, you will traverse a quick succession of high-intensity intervals (6 x 20 secs followed by 10 secs rest) before beginning a short kettlebell AMRAP (as many reps as possible).
That’s one down, you have five more to go!
Complete the 10-minute progressive intensity warm-up.
Select the preferred plan.
Option 1 consists of a series of ascending interval ladders. As you climb the ladder you’ll be oscillating between cardio and kettlebell exercises.
Option 2 is comprised of a combination of cardio HIIT and kettlebell AMRAPs. Structured into five-minute sections, you will complete 6 x 20-sec intervals (resting for 10 secs after each interval) before attempting to compile as many reps as possible in two minutes.
1000m row → 100m row (40% maximum effort) → 10 kettlebell swings → 100m row (50% maximum effort) → 10 kettlebell swings → 100m row (60% maximum effort) → 10 kettlebell swings → 100m row (70% maximum effort) → 10 kettlebell swings → 100m row (80% maximum effort) → 10 kettlebell swings → 100m row (90% maximum effort) → 10 kettlebell swings → 100m row (100% maximum effort) → 10 kettlebell swings → Start the workout!
HIIT kettlebell workout hints and tips
Plan one is pitched at an advanced level. However, as with all our workouts and training plans, it can be modified to accommodate intermediates and beginners. Here are a couple of suggestions on how to adapt the first workout to suit your fitness levels.
Reduce the intensity during the kettlebell intervals. As I said above, applying HIIT to complex movements increases the injury risk. The risk, though never completely removed, can be significantly reduced by turning the intensity down a notch of two.
Convert all the kettlebell exercises to simple movements – such as squats, swings, and thrusters. This way you’ll be able to maintain a high intensity without exposing yourself to the same level of risk as you would a complex exercise.
At the risk of repeating myself, using a training timer dramatically improves the fluidity of a HIIT session. Ideally, once the intervals have been preset, you should be able to forget about the timings and instead focus on the exercises and sustaining those all-important intensity levels. Stopping to initiate the rest period or next interval disrupts the training flow and inevitably disorganises the interval duration ratios. Also, when you’re feeling fatigued, it’s all too tempting to fumble your timer so that you can stretch the rest by a second or two. I speak from experience.
It's perfectly acceptable to convert the workouts to align with the traditional HIIT protocol. You could do this by compartmentalising the aerobic and resistance stations. Apply HIIT to cardio and the sets-reps-rest formula to the kettlebell exercises. Adopting this method will not, in any way, impede the effectiveness of the workouts.
Enjoyed this workout?
About Adam Priest –
A former Royal Marines Commando, Adam Priest is a content writer, college lecturer, and health and wellbeing practitioner. He is also a fitness author and contributor to other websites. Connect with Adam at email@example.com.
National Library of Medicine: High-Intensity Interval Training Alters ATP Pathway Flux During Maximal Muscle Contractions in Humans. (Accessed: 16 – 10 – 2023)
Larsen RG, Maynard L, Kent JA. High-intensity interval training alters ATP pathway flux during maximal muscle contractions in humans. Acta Physiol (Oxf). 2014 May;211(1):147-60. doi: 10.1111/apha.12275. Epub 2014 Apr 2. PMID: 24612773; PMCID: PMC4043225.