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Kettlebell Strength Exercises

Updated: Feb 12

A guy performing kettlebell strength exercises.

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These kettlebell exercises will help you build whole-body functional strength. As well as building strength they can help improve muscle definition while also facilitating.


The kettlebell strength exercises can be incorporated into your general training routine. For example, you could use the kettlebell deadlift in place of the standard barbell deadlift. Doing so engages the body in different ways and broadens the training effect.


Alternatively, the kettlebell strength exercises could be cobbled together into a single session. Similar to these Pavel Tsatsouline workouts, the kettlebell exercises are assigned sets and reps. You’d progress through them as you would a standard gym workout.


But if you want a high-intensity training session, one that improves strength and fitness conditioning, you could complete the kettlebell exercises as a circuit. This Kettlebell Circuit was specifically designed to bring about the benefits outlined above. In addition, it will show you how to create a circuit with kettlebell exercises.


Best competition kettlebells to complete kettlebell strength exercises with.

Why do kettlebell strength exercises?

The obvious answer is to build strength of course! And these kettlebell exercises will certainly support you to achieve this fitness outcome. The snatch, swing, and sumo squat are superlative strength builders. Not to mention the clean, jerk, and long cycle.


Of course, strength should also be pursued for the many health and fitness benefits it confers. In the book The Complete Guide To Strength, the author tells us that strength training promotes:


  • Increased muscle mass and strength

  • Stronger tendons and ligaments

  • Increased metabolic rate

  • Slows senescence (the natural ageing process)

  • Increased bone density

  • Improved posture

  • Reduced injury risk


However, kettlebell exercises build a superior type of strength to barbells and machines. ‘Static strength’, the stuff of conventional resistance training, is suitable for synthetic environments such as the gym. Lifting heavy weights in a controlled setting is great for advancing PBs, piling on mass, inflating the ego, or impressing peers, but not for much else.


Functional strength, the type that kettlebell exercises forge, is reflective of daily tasks and activities.


K-bells build functional strength

The ‘functional’ prefix refers to the application of strength while performing ‘large multidimensional movements that continually change as a function of real-world and sporting situations,’ (Strength & Conditioning Bible). Such a mix of movements is seen when executing exercises like the snatch-lunge.


To explore that point briefly, when snatch-lunging, explosive strength is initially applied to get the kettlebell into position for the first phase of the exercise. But it doesn’t end there.


Strength must be maintained to control and stabilise the body while transitioning into the following two phases – stepping into and out of the lunge. This stabilisation aspect further brings about a whole host of additional benefits. For example:


Strengthen connective tissues
Broadening the range of muscle groups engaged during the exercise
Developing synergist muscles
Improving general control and coordination

Should I use one kettlebell or two?

Your kettlebell training experience and current level of strength will dictate how many bells you get to play with. Beginners and those that have recently incorporated strength training into their routine would be wise to start with one kettlebell.


It’s worth noting that using a single kettlebell will limit the exercises that you can perform. But not by much. The last exercise – the long cycle – is always performed with two kettlebells. All the other exercises can be performed with one bell.


But the question remains, can I still build strength when using one kettlebell? The answer is a resounding Yes! If you use a weighty bell, you can still develop strength. I’ve been kettlebell training for years and I still find a 32kg challenging.


Kettlebell strength exercises quick finder
Kettlebell strength exercises #1: Sumo squat
Kettlebell strength exercises #2: Deadlift
Kettlebell strength exercises #3: Swing
Kettlebell strength exercises #4: Snatch pull
Kettlebell strength exercises #5: Clean
Kettlebell strength exercises #6: Jerk
Kettlebell strength exercises #7: Snatch Lunge
Kettlebell strength exercises #8: Long cycle

 

Kettlebell strength exercises #1: Sumo squat

A woman performing the kettlebell strength exercise sumo squat.

Sumo squatting with two kettlebells builds strength in all the major muscle groups – legs and back. In addition, because the kettlebells move about during the exercise, you are required to engage the muscles of the core to stabilise your position. This is one of the unique benefits of training with kettlebells and it’s an attribute that sets them apart from conventional resistance equipment.


As well as building a bullish back and powerful pair of pins, the sumo squat also develops grip and trap strength. This is because, unlike the traditional back squat, where the barbell is supported by your frame, when sumoing you’re required to physically hold the weight.


K-bell sumo squat teaching points

  • Standing directly over a kettlebell, space your feet one and a half shoulder-widths apart.

  • The toes are angled out slightly and your knees are bent.

  • Keeping the back perfectly straight, squat down, grasp the bells, and stand back up.

  • Before completing your set, it’s good practice to make minor adjustments to your posture. For example, you might want to reposition your feet or find a surer handgrip.

  • Once you are comfortable, proceed to work through your reps ensuring to focus on the quality of your form.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Exercise tip

Due to the extra wide stance of the sumo squat substantial pressure is placed on the outside of the feet. Squatting in soft or loose-fitting trainers can cause your feet to supinate. A way to avoid this is to wear proper weightlifting shoes. The rigid uppers and solid souls provide a rock-hard foundation from which to lift.


Kettlebell strength exercises #2: Deadlift

A fitness trainer performing kettlebell strength exercises. She is doing a deadlift.

Deadlifting with kettlebells offers a novel alternative to a barbell. Puritanical trainers may find it difficult to try a different variation of this classic compound exercise. However, it’s worth mixing up your deadlift styles on occasion. As well as activating all the same muscle groups, many people find that deadlifting with kettlebells is much more comfortable.


Because you can position your body directly above the bells, not behind as with a barbell, you are not pulled forward during the lift. This inevitably improves technique as the lifter is not required to hinge excessively at the hips. Hinging at the hips heaps significant stress on the lower back, which increases injury risk.


Kettlebell deadlift teaching points

  • Position your feet on either side of two kettlebells (of course, this exercise can be performed with one kettlebell).

  • The knees remain bent during the execution of the exercise.

  • Flexing at the hips, grasp the kettlebells and prepare your posture to lift.

  • With a perfectly flat back, and your eyes fixed forward, initiate the movement by standing up.

  • Remember, the focus should be on maintaining near-perfect technique while forcing your hips forward.

  • To help keep correct postural alignment, fix your eyes on a point at your front.

  • When you’re in the upright position, your arms are straight, and the bells are dangling between your legs like two oversized Christmas baubles.

  • To complete the exercise, retrace your steps stopping short half a foot above the floor.

  • Now repeat!

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Exercise tip

Focus on maintaining a smooth transition through the teaching points outlined above. The deadlift should be performed in one succinct movement. No wrenching, jerking, or ratcheting.


Kettlebell strength exercises #3: Swing

A CrossFit athlete performing kettlebell strength exercises.

The swing is such an awesome exercise that we wrote an entire blog about the fitness benefits it builds. In fact, so good is this exercise that in its honour Dan John, celebrated performance coach and world-ranked powerlifter, created the 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Challenge.


Though deceptively simple to perform, the kettlebell swing engages all the muscles of the posterior chain: hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae, lats, and traps. In addition, if performed in high sets or as an AMRAP (as many reps as possible), kettlebell swings stimulate the cardio system.


If there’s such a thing as a complete exercise, the swing certainly qualifies.


Kettlebell swing teaching points

  • Start by positioning your centre of mass directly over a kettlebell. Squat down and, taking a firm grip on the handle, stand back up.

  • Before initiating the movement, ensure that you are in the correct position: feet are a little over shoulder-width, the back is straight, knees are bent, and eyes are fixed front.

  • The swing begins by first pulling the bell back between your legs. This serves to generate momentum as well as chambering the bell for the forward thrust.

  • Using your hips and the surrounding muscles, propel the bell up level with your shoulders. The arms remain straight throughout.

  • Allow the kettlebell to drop back into the start position.

  • As you receive the bell with your body, harness the kinetic energy for the next rep.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Exercise tip

As with all kettlebell exercises, the swing is very physical in the sense that the body is involved in controlling and guiding the trajectory of the bell. The mistake most beginner swingers make is to try and raise the bell using shoulder strength. This is an incorrect technique and by applying it the range of muscles swinging engages is dramatically reduced. Instead, you’ve got to get your body behind the bell and physically thrust it forward. ‘To really swing the Kettlebell,’ Shepherd tells us in The Complete Guide to Sports Training, ‘power must be generated simultaneously through the legs and hips.’


Kettlebell strength exercises #4: Snatch Pull

A CrossFit athlete performing kettlebell strength exercises.

The snatch pull develops strength and power in the posterior chain. In addition, controlling the bells requires considerable core engagement. Also, if you perform snatch pulls in volume (15-plus-reps), this exercise also stimulates the aerobic energy system.


Snatch pull teaching points

  • Stand directly over two kettlebells and adopt a sumo squat stance.

  • Squat down and grasp the bells.

  • From this position, tighten up the core before pulling them back between your legs.

  • When your arms pull into your groin, thrust the hips forward propelling the bells level with the shoulders.

  • When the kettlebells are about level with your chest, sharply pull them to your body before thrusting them back out again.

  • Allow gravity to take over at this point using shoulder and core strength to guide the bells.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Exercise tip

At its essence, the snatch pull is a variation or modification of the swing. The slight difference is the pull bit. This explosive element expands the demands of the exercise. When performing the pull, it helps to lean back a little. You may find that doing so stabilises the body.


Kettlebell strength exercises #5: Clean

A CrossFit athlete performing kettlebell strength exercises - he is executing a clean.

Performing the clean with a pair of kettlebells is a killer exercise. It’s not only more challenging than the barbell variation but it also works a greater range of muscles. Moreover, the kettlebell clean also engages the aerobic system.


In The Russian Kettlebell Challenge, Pavel Tsatsouline cites research showing the effectiveness of cleans for promoting cardio performance. Prof. Arkady Vorobyev conducted an experiment and learned that even an experienced weightlifter’s heart rate went through the roof following a set of ten cleans with two 32kg kettlebells.’


More interesting is the fact that the weightlifter’s heart rate remained elevated for over 10 minutes after the exercise. Meaning, after a 10-minute AMRAP, your physiological systems are still stoked when you’re sitting down and enjoying your post-workout pasta salad.


K-bell clean teaching points

  • Straddling two kettlebells, adopt a double-wide stance. Of course, the wider stance is required to create clearance for the bells to pass through your legs.

  • Setting a strong flat back, bending at the knees, grasp the handles and pull the bells back.

  • Use the forward momentum and posterior chain drive to propel the kettlebells up. This phase of the exercise is also assisted with an ‘explosive pull’ from the elbow.

  • As the bells pass the hips quickly dip at the knees as you wrestle them into position. Now stand up.

  • Pause momentarily before initiating the next rep.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Exercise tip

K-bell clean first-timers ought to practice with a single bell first. The mechanics described above are much the same, but cleaning one bell as opposed to two is considerably easier.


Kettlebell strength exercises #6: Jerk

A CrossFit athlete performing kettlebell strength exercises.

Jerking isn’t just for lonely people or those who have yet to find their one true love. This indomitable kettlebell exercise is for anyone that wants to forge superior functional fitness and enviable upper-body muscle endurance.


To cut to the chase, and to squeeze a few more superlatives into my spiel, the jerk is a formidable movement and one that builds a multitude of coveted physical attributes.


For example, a person that jerks regularly will develop strength and power in the quads, upper chest, deltoids, and triceps to boot. In addition, because jerking requires considerable control, it can cultivate a cast iron core.


And if you’re gutsy enough to pit yourself against a 10-minute AMRAP (as many reps as possible), the kettlebell jerk even promotes cardiovascular fitness. It’s for these reasons (and much more left unsaid) that the jerk is my desert island exercise. That is, if I were stranded on a desert island and only allowed to perform one exercise, it’d be the jerk.


K-bell jerk teaching points

The following description is for a double-bell jerk. However, the exercise can be performed with a single kettlebell.

  • To get the bells into position, execute the first phase of a clean.

  • Now standing strong with two kettlebells supported in the ‘front rack’ position, prepare your stance prior to performing the exercise.

  • The feet are spaced a tad over shoulder-width, the knees are bent, and the arms, currently cradling the bells, are resting flat against your upper torso.

  • To initiate the jerk, first, take a shallow dip at the knees (first dip) and then fire powerfully through the quads. This serves to get the bells rolling.

  • At this point in the exercise, the muscles of the arm serve only to stabilise and guide the trajectory of the kettlebells.

  • When the bells pass your head dip again at the knees (second dip). As you do so simultaneously lock the arms out.

  • If you’re in the correct position at this phase, both bells should be suspended above your head, your arms are locked out, your eyes are fixed forward, and your knees are bent.

  • Resolve the first phase of the exercise by standing up straight.

  • To recover the bells, allow them to sink back into the front rack position. Remember to bend your knees and breathe out! to absorb the impact.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Exercise tip

As the long list of teaching points suggests, there’s much more to jerking than meets the eye. From the outside, the exercise appears relatively simplistic. Just press those bells above your noggin.


And while you’ll get away with the incorrect technique for a pair of light kettlebells, you won’t when you’ve got a big old pair of 24s in the front rack, or you’re testing your mettle against a 10-minute AMRAP.


That said, it’s advisable to practice the proper technique irrespective of how many poods you plan to play with. Three important techniques are worth revisiting:


  1. Supporting the kettlebells in the front rack position. The arms remain flat against your upper torso and the kettlebells are resting in the nook of the elbow. Inconsequential though this teaching points sounds, holding the kettlebells correctly reduces the onset of fatigue in the arms and shoulders. Not convinced? Try it out for yourself. Take two heavy bells and hold them in the front rack position with your arms floating in front of your torso. I give you about 2 minutes max before you acquiesce to the insatiable burn in your anterior deltoids. Once the conflagration has abated, repeat the experiment but this time hold the bells in the proper position as described above. It’s likely that you’ll get bored long before your deltoids begin burning – again.

  2. The first dip is of paramount importance when you’re jerking heavy bells for protracted periods. Take a short sharp dip at the knees prior to driving up with the quads. This generates momentum which makes the second phase of the exercise easier to execute.

  3. The second dip is performed shortly after the first. When the bells are about level with your head, quickly drop underneath them while locking out the arms.


Kettlebell strength exercises #7: Snatch Lunge

A CrossFit athlete performing kettlebell strength exercises.

The kettlebell snatch is a monstrous exercise. It develops explosive power and fitness conditioning. In addition, it activates the upper posterior chain muscles – lower back (erector spinae), lats, traps, and rear deltoids.


However, one limitation of the snatch is that it neglects the legs. A simple way to remedy this minor blemish of what is a brilliant exercise is to throw a lunge into the mix.


The lunge works all the muscles of the legs – claves, soleus, hamstrings, quads, and glutes. This broad range of muscles is further expanded when we hold a weight above our head. By doing so the core and a whole host of synergist muscles must remain activated to stabilise the body.

K-bell snatch lunge teaching points

  • Stand directly over a kettlebell with your feet spaced about shoulder-width.

  • Grasp the bell with the right hand and pull it back between your legs.

  • Firing forward with the hips, execute a perfect snatch.

  • With the bell now overhead, steady your position before lunging.

  • To execute the lunge, lead off with the left leg remembering to step out as you do so. (Stepping to the side stabilises balance.)

  • Before the knee cap of the supporting leg touches the floor, pause momentarily prior to powering out of the lunge.

  • Watch the video demonstration.


Exercise tip

When performing the snatch-lunge for the first, use a light kettlebell. Also, to improve balance, you might find it helpful to lead with the opposite leg to the side of the kettlebell.


Kettlebell strength exercises #8: Long cycle

A CrossFit athlete performing kettlebell strength exercises  - he's doing the long cycle.

If the long cycle could be represented in the form of a statue, it would take on the aspect of an Easter Island head. Why? Because it’s a big, brutish, rock-hard exercise that has stood the test of time. Truly, the long cycle is a mammoth movement that has made many fitness crusaders cry. Have I gone too far yet?


Fine, I’ll shut up singing its praises and get on with the overview of the fitness benefits and teaching points.


Anyone that masters this multifaceted exercise and includes it in their training regime stands to bag a broad range of benefits. By way of an appetiser, the long cycle activates all the posterior chain muscles – hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae, lats, traps and rear deltoids.

Still hungry?


In addition, it also engages the medial and anterior heads of the deltoid as well as the upper chest, and every muscle in the arm. Got room for some more?


Furthermore, because you are controlling two kettlebells simultaneously (the long cycle is always performed with a pair), a myriad of synergist muscles is recruited to stabilise and assist the prime movers.


The obvious question remains, how can a single exercise pack such a powerful punch?


Though classed as one exercise, the long cycle is actually an amalgamation of two – the clean and jerk. Thus, in performing it, you will transition through the full available register of movements: from the floor to the front rack and finally overhead.


Long cycle teaching points

  • Stand directly over two kettlebells and adopt a double-wide stance.

  • Keeping the back straight, squat down and grasp the bells.

  • From this position, tighten up the core before pulling them back between your legs.

  • When your arms pull into your groin, thrust the hips forward propelling the bells up and into the front rack position. This first part of the long cycle is a clean.

  • This is the first of two natural pause points in the exercise.

  • To execute the second part of the exercise, take a short dip at the knee and fire through the quads.

  • Fire through the quads to get momentum in the kettlebells.

  • Use shoulder strength to assist the trajectory of the bells.

  • When the bells pass your face, take a second dip at the knees.

  • Snap the arms straight and stand up.

  • Remember, do not lock out at the elbow joint.

  • This is the second natural pause point.

  • In one smooth and controlled movement, you are going to retrace your steps through the exercise until you are back in the front rack position.

  • Now repeat.

  • Watch the video demonstration.

 

Putting the kettlebell strength exercises into practice

Once you’ve mastered the seven strength exercises above, it stands to reason that you will want to use them in your workouts. In extension of the ideas outlined in the introduction, below you will find various links to kettlebell workouts, challenges, and a complete training programme.


These resources will enable you to maintain training consistency – a key factor for developing competency – while also providing you with more opportunities to practice the kettlebell strength exercises.



 

Put these exercises into practice with Atomic Kettlebells

Kettlebell strength exercises blog concludes with the book Atomic Kettlebells.

 

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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