Getting Started With Kettlebell Training

kettlebells in the gym
Victor Casale/Flickr

You may have heard of kettlebell training as being the next big thing in infomercials, on videos or even at your gym. It looks intriguing - a strange-looking heavy weight you get to swing around, but what exactly can it do for you? Kettlebell training can benefit anyone, from seasoned athletes to the average exerciser.

Although it doesn't necessarily take the place of regular cardio or strength training, it does involve elements of each.

The dynamic, often ballistic movements involve the entire body and work on areas such as balance, coordination, and power development, that don't get the same kind of attention in traditional training. Best of all, it's fun and can refresh and rejuvenate your workouts.

How You Can Use Kettlebell Training

Kettlebell training can be used in a variety of ways - to help you build strength and power as an athlete, to help you get started as a beginning exerciser or to make your current workouts more interesting.

If you're used to doing high intensity circuit training, kettlebell exercises can be a great addition for getting your heart rate up and burning more calories.

How to Use Kettlebells In Your Workouts

  • As a supplement to your workouts – Try adding basic kettlebell exercises at the beginning or end of your cardio or strength workout to get a little more out of your current routine.
  • As a part of your workouts – Another idea is to integrate kettlebell exercises into your routine. For example, doing a clean, push and press as part of your shoulder routine or a swing before moving on to heavy squat work.
  • As a cross-training workout – You can also try kettlebell training as a separate workout you do for an active rest from your typical routine. Putting together a simple series of exercises such as swings, alternating swings, high pulls, presses, deadlifts, squats, and rows, can give you a full body routine that works your body differently than your other workouts.
  • As your only workout – Kettlebell training doesn't take the place of regular cardio and strength but, if you avoid traditional training like the plague, trying kettlebells may be the motivation you need to exercise more regularly. You should have previous exercise experience under your belt before trying kettlebell training.

Choosing Your Kettlebells

Kettlebells come in a variety of styles and weights, starting at 5 lbs and going up 5 lb increments to over 100 lbs.

The key in choosing your weight is to make sure it's heavy enough to challenge you without causing too much strain. It may take some trial and error to figure out the right weight and you'll find that different exercises will require a different load.

If you’re just getting started, many of the more ballistic moves (such as swings or push presses) will be a little strange to you, so start with a light weight to perfect your form.

Below are some general guidelines to use when choosing your weight. These are only suggestions, so err on the lighter side if you're not sure:

  • 5-10 lbs – For women new to kettlebell training
  • 10-15 lbs – For fit women somewhat familiar with kettlebell training or men who are new to kettlebell training
  • 20-25 lbs – For fit women who've tried kettlebell training or men who are familiar with kettlebells
  • 30 lbs and up – For very fit people with previous kettlebell experience

If you plan on regular kettlebell training, you'll find that you'll need a variety of weights depending on the exercise you're doing. When in doubt, start with a light weight and practice the moves before moving up in weight.

You can find kettlebells at most sporting goods stores or discount department stores or you can order them online. They can be expensive, but keep in mind that you can also use kettlebells for traditional strength training as well.

Kettlebell Exercises

Most kettlebell exercises involve a variety of motions, but most fall into two categories: Grinds are slow, controlled movements while ballistic exercises involve fast swinging and/or momentum.

Grind Movements

The following examples show a few basic kettlebell grinds. These moves, which are much like traditional strength training exercises, become the foundation for the ballistic exercises.

If you’ve been strength training, you’ve probably done most of these moves with other types of equipment. If you’re new to strength training and kettlebell training, you’ll want to practice these movements and become comfortable with them before moving on to the ballistic exercises.

Ballistic Exercises

Ballistic moves, as the name implies, involve more explosive, powerful movements. It may seem like you’re swinging or pressing a weight up and down with your arms, but these moves actually involve a hip thrust, allowing you to draw on the power of your hips and legs to move the weight.

That means you shouldn’t feel the exercise in your arms – in fact, the kettlebell should feel weightless at the top of the movement. If it doesn’t, work on driving the hips up as you swing the weight or consider using a different weight.

If the weight is too light, the hip thrust won’t make much of a difference. If it’s too heavy, the hip thrust may not be enough to overcome the weight.

When getting started with kettlebell training, it's best to get instruction from a professional to get the most out of your exercises. If you don't have kettlebell classes or training in your area, consider a video such as Iron Core Kettlebell or The Ultimate Kettlebell Workouts for Beginners.

If you're putting together your own workout, you can try the exercises listed above using the following training guidelines:

  • Intensity: Vary the intensity or modify the exercises by changing the lever length (e.g., hold the weight closer to the body) or changing the speed of the movement (e.g., master the technique with slower movements)
  • Weight: Start with a light weight and consider keeping a variety of weights handy. Different weights may be necessary for each exercise
  • Reps: 8-16
  • Sets: 1-3 sets
  • Frequency: 1-2 times per week
  • Rest: 15-60 seconds between sets

Kettlebell Safety and Techniques

While there's a low risk of injury with kettlebell training, there are risks involved, not the least of which is the possibility of throwing your weight across the room or dropping it on your toe. Use the following tips to keep your workouts safe and effective:

  • Give yourself enough space – Some moves involve swinging the weight up, rotating to the side or lifting it overhead. Practice the moves without the weight first to make sure you have enough room to move.
  • Make sure you warm up thoroughly before your workout to avoid injury.
  • Start simple – Even if you're an experienced exerciser, you'll want to start with the basic exercises before going to the next level.
  • Start with a lighter weight – Even if it feels too light, you'll be able to practice the exercises with good form and improve your muscle memory before going heavier.
  • Wear gloves or keep a towel handy - Sweaty hands can cause you to slip and drop the weight.

Sources:

Bishop, E; Collins, M; Lanier, A. Cardiorespiratory Responses to Kettlebell Training Exercises. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 37(5):S51. 2005.

Roberts, Keli. Kettlebell Concepts: Total Body KB Blast. IDEA World Fitness 2009.

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