Kettlebells, while not new, are quickly becoming the go-to functional workouts for a wide variety of clients. The spherical shape makes it possible to work with curvilinear movement, centrifugal force and momentum. As long as both trainer and participant receive proper instruction, kettlebells can provide a safe, effective, time-efficient workout that engages multiple muscle groups, including the core. No muscle can escape a “swing” workout, so pick up a kettlebell when you have a chance!
Like any strength equipment, kettlebells can cause serious injury when used inappropriately. Proper use requires strength, coordination and practice. Because most swing exercises require a higher amount of weight than the participant can typically press or pull, technique is extremely important. Each kettlebell exercise involves multiple joints and muscle groups plus momentum. It takes participants time to adjust to these new demands. Mastering the movement patterns requires guidance, instruction and patience. The biggest mistake beginners make is lifting a kettlebell that is too heavy to control. After the basics are mastered, increasing the weight can provide a strength workout unmatched by machines or even dumbbells.
Back. Basic kettlebell moves require back endurance. They also strengthen the back extensors. Proper positioning includes core bracing, which has been shown to decrease back pain and strain. As with any exercise, it is important to learn correct form and technique to avoid back pain.
Shoulders. Increased range of motion and greater shoulder joint integrity can be achieved with proper kettlebell usage. Many people try to “muscle it up” and use the shoulders primarily, which can cause soreness or injury.
Arm Overload. At first glance, a kettlebell workout may look like it involves a lot of overload to the arms, because it appears as if the swings are done by pulling up with the arms. However, when executed properly, the swing is all about “hip drive,” which trains the lower body and core. The back and shoulders act as stabilizers, not as primary movers, as they do not pull up or lift the kettlebell during the swing.
Sample Kettlebell Program
The most common kettlebell exercise is the swing. The swing should be viewed as the foundation exercise and needs to be mastered before other momentum exercises are introduced.
The following exercises make up an introductory kettlebell “swing” session:
One-Arm Swing. Grasp handle with one hand in overhand grip with slight elbow bend. Position feet slightly wider than hip width, and assume athletic stance. Upper body should be upright, with chest lifted and shoulder blades retracted. Free arm should be out to side of body. Rotate body slightly, allowing kettlebell to hang between legs. Initiate swing by rocking hips (versus using shoulders to lift bell). Raise bell upward with momentum, and give forceful hip thrust at top of movement. Bell should go no higher than eye level, with bell pointed away from body at end of arm. Allow gravity to bring bell downward in controlled manner. Keep spine at neutral, rather than rounded, at bottom of movement. Perform desired number of repetitions.
One-Arm Alternating Swing. Repeat steps above (one-arm swing), but switch to other hand at top of movement.
Two-Arm Swing. Perform in same manner as one-arm swing, but with two-hand grip on handle.
Around-the-Body Pass (at waist level). Grasp handle with both hands in overhand grip with slight elbow bend. Position feet slightly wider than hip width apart, and assume athletic stance. Upper body should be upright, with chest lifted and shoulder blades retracted. Release one hand from bell, allowing opposite hand to bring bell behind body. Free hand should grasp bell at back of body and complete the rotation. Grasp kettlebell firmly to avoid dropping it. After desired number of repetitions, repeat in opposite direction.
Figure Eight (between the legs). Grasp handle with right hand in overhand grip with slight elbow bend. Position feet slightly wider than hip width apart, and assume athletic stance. Upper body should be upright, with chest lifted and shoulder blades retracted. Left arm should be out to side and ready to accept kettlebell. Begin movement by handing bell from right hand to left hand through legs from front of body to back. Left hand then brings bell around from back of body to front of body. Continue this figure-eight pattern by passing bell through legs again from left hand to right hand. After desired number of repetitions, repeat in opposite direction.
As an introduction to kettlebells, these five exercises provide an appropriate full-body workout for most clients without physical limitations. After a full-body warm-up, perform each exercise for approximately 30 seconds, rest and repeat. Mastery of the “swing” session can serve as the basis for progressing to longer, more demanding kettlebell workouts. You can also extend the workout with more traditional exercises, such as curls, overhead triceps extensions and bent-over rows.
For more in-depth information on kettlebells, please refer to the full article, “Kettlebell Comeback,” in the online IDEA Library or in February 2010 IDEA Fitness Journal. Watch the author explain and perform several kettlebell moves on video taken at the 2008 IDEA World Fitness Convention®. Access the footage at www.ideafit.com/kettlebell-video.