Updated: Feb 23
"Not a single sport develops our muscular strength and bodies as well as kettlebell athletics"
Russian magazine Hercules - circa 1913*
In my previous kettlebell tutorials I dedicated the prelude to a discussion on the health and fitness benefits associated with regular kettlebell training. If you missed those tutorials and you are interested to know about those purported benefits, don’t worry! I have in brief summarised them below.
However, if you have read my other tutorials or you’re already clued-up on the many positive health and fitness improvements kettlebell training can confer, feel free to skip straight to the advanced technique tutorials.
Benefits of Kettlebell training
What possible good can a cannonball with a handle protruding from it do for me? This is a fair question and I imagine that many people, on clapping eyes on a kettlebell for the first time, have probably wondered the same thing.
As exercise equipment goes the kettlebell is quite unassuming and it really doesn’t look like a fitness tool at all. I remember the first time I saw a kettlebell, back when I was serving in the Royal Marines, I had no idea what it was for; initially I assumed they were either decadent paper weights or oversized door stops.
But the kettlebell not only is most emphatically a piece of exercise equipment, and a hefty one at that, they can stimulate the body like no other form of exercise that I know of. How do they do this?
Unlike conventional weights, such as dumbbells, barbells or machines, the kettlebell, because of its unique shape, does not align with the body’s centre of mass. By this I mean, when we perform, say, a barbell shoulder press, or a bicep cur, we can get ‘under’ the weight and centre it so as to execute the lift from a stable platform. This we cannot do with a kettlebell because the weight is situated outside of our centre of mass – this is also the case with traditional exercises (two of which will follow shortly).
Why is this a good thing? You may well ask.
Well for starters, when the weight is positioned on the outside of the body it pulls us off balance. To avoid going the way a Jenga stack inevitable does we are required to activate more muscles just to keep the kettlebell in position (if you don’t believe me try a single arm press with a dumbbell and then with a kettlebell).
One of the primary muscle groups used to stabilise the kettlebell during lifts is the core. Throughout any kettlebell session the core must remain actively engaged. It is for this reason why after thirty minutes of swinging, pressing and pumping it can feel like as if you’ve been stretched on the rack.
Another benefit is what I like to call body strength synchronicity. How can I best describe this term? Have you ever seen one of those meatheads at the gym with huge biceps and a hulking chest but a puny pair of pin legs?
I bet you have because gyms the world over are rife with them. Well meatheads do not have body strength synchronicity. Yes they might be able to curl 100kg and bench twice as much but put them through a series of exercises that requires the synchronisation and harmonisation of force applied through complex movements and their true strength will show.
Remember: just like with any team, which is only as strong as its weakest member, you are only as strong as your weakest muscle.
The kettlebell is a class act at stimulating the cardiovascular system. This much cannot be said of static exercises which do not penetrate beneath the surface musculature – hence why they are used to sculpt the appearance of fitness and not to forge true physicality.
Consequently a person who regularly performs static exercises runs the risk of neglecting arguably the most important muscle of them all: the heart. In the past I’ve trained with seemingly athletic individuals who sported biceps and a chest that were the envy of the gym, but didn't possess the cardio capacity to chase down a bus.
Due to the dynamic way in which the kettlebell forces the body to move and the fact that it’s anything but static, most all major muscle groups including the heart are stimulated. Over time this will forge a body that is both as strong on the inside as it is on the outside whilst also rectifying strength imbalances.
Other benefits include
Turbocharged cardiovascular system
Cast iron core strength
Improved mental toughness (you'll see what I mean after having a bash at the ten minute clean & press cycle)
And palms as rough as tree bark (though some won’t see this as a benefit)
Quick Kettlebell FAQ
Are kettlebells good for toning?
Yes, kettlebells are one of the best (if not the best) piece of exercise equipment for toning and sculpting lean defined muscle. For this aesthetic boon we owe thanks to the dual way in which kettlebells burn fat and build muscle. Because they are highly functional and stimulate the large muscle groups, kettlebells can make for excellent aerobic training whilst also promoting the physiological adaptations that result in hypertrophy. In short, if it’s toning you seek you really couldn’t find a better fitness tool for the job.
Can kettlebells help you lose weight?
This question has been somewhat indirectly answered by the one above. However, I feel compelled to point out that kettlebells won’t burn fat if they are used the same way as conventional resistance weights; that is: 2 to 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps. By contrast the kettlebell is all about volume (see video 3 below). We might aim for a hundred continuous swings, say. Or we might set a ten/twenty or (if you’re sadomasochistic enough) 30 minute countdown timer and complete as many repetitions as our physicality will permit. When used in this fashion yes, the kettlebell can help you lose weight.
Will kettlebell training improve my strength?
You damn right it will! Kettlebells can most certainly develop strength. And not lazy static strength you get from lying on your back under a smith machine. The kettlebell is a great builder of functional strength – the stuff that enables you to exert force through unconventional angels from an unstable foundation. Hence the reason why kettlebells are becoming increasingly popular throughout the combat sports.
Advanced exercise tutorial
The exercises that will be covered in this tutorial are the kettlebell clean and press. Really this a buy two get one free situation because the two aforementioned exercises can of course be combined into one: the clean & press.
However, due to the technical complexity of the clean & press, I always recommend to those just starting out on their kettlebell journey, to begin by splitting the movement into two and mastering each part separately before combining them together. In saying that though, both the clean and press are excellent standalone exercises.
On with the tutorial . . .
Lesson 1: The Kettlebell Clean
Muscles worked: it’d be far easier to identify the muscles not worked. They are those of the mandible – though I’m not entirely confident in that assessment; after twenty continuous cleans with a 32kg KB you’ll be gritting them teeth together pretty hard – and, yep, I think that's it.
How 2 techniques
1: Position yourself directly over the kettlebell with a nice wide stand – about 1 and a bit shoulder width should do it.
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 fire through the quads and glutes to get some momentum in it.
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 you guide it up whilst allowing it naturally to rotate into position. This is should be performed smooth and sleek. No thudding, dropping or slapping.
5: Once the kettlebell is in the halfway position you may momentarily pause for thought.
6: To complete the rep pop the bell out of the nook with a slight shrug of the shoulder.
7: As it obeys gravity, and it inevitably will do, you are to guide it in flight being prepared to arrest the fall by receiving the kettlebell in the groin.
8: Allow the momentum to pull you back as you engage the transverse abdominis in readiness to initiate the next rep.
Lesson 2: The Kettlebell Push (or Jerk)
Muscles worked: primarily those of the shoulder but also the core, quads and calves.
How 2 techniques
1: To get the kettlebell into position you’ll need to follow steps 1 through to 5 of the previous tutorial.
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 it's 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.
Congratulations! You have completed the first phase of the press.
7: To conclude the movement allow the kettlebell to fall – literally – from the sky. Using your arm to guide the trajectory catch – literally – the kettlebell in the nook of the arm.
Remember: as the bell falls into the fold of your arm you should dip at the knee so as to expel the shock of the impact; it also helps to exhale sharply.
Lesson 3: 10 minute clean & press kettlebell cycle
Once you have practiced the two techniques – clean and press – it’s time to put them together. So, assuming that you’ve spent some time developing your lifting skills, and you can now execute a near perfect clean and a near perfect press, have a bash at the 10 minute continuous clean & press cycle.
How it works: after a thorough warm-up (a good 2000m on the rower and few practice reps) set a countdown timer for ten minutes and try to complete as many repetitions as you possibly can.
Of course the idea is to maintain a contentious cycle for the duration. But if you are new to the exercise you’ll probably need to enforce periodic rests. That’s absolutely fine. No shame in it whatsoever. Just make sure that you keep an accurate tally of your reps so that, when you come to repeat the cycle, you can aim to better your previous performance.
Stop reading and start lifting!
(As we are very interested in user feedback at Hungry4Fitness, I would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest is a former Royal Marines Commando, personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.
Quote taken from: Tsatsouline, P. (2001) The Russian Kettlebell Challenge. Dragon Door Publications. USA.