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An Introduction to Kettlebell Training

Known as a Girya, the Kettlebell is a cannonball with a flat bottom and a handle molded to it. Through history, it became synonymous with strength, so much so that the Russian term for strongman is Girevik or “Kettlebell lifter.” Kettlebell lifting in Russia and the former Eastern Block is an international sport with local, national and world championships.

First used in military conditioning programs, Russian research concluded that the Kettlebell is an excellent tool for improving fitness and performance. The Russian military, in fact, does not test push ups. They test the Kettlebell snatch. And in the US, the Secret Service has also instituted a 10 minute Kettlebell snatch test. This is a 10 minute set of maximum repetition snatches where the Kettlebell can be passed from hand to hand as many times as wanted. The current record is 257 repetitions in 10 minutes with a 24kg Kettlebell. (See for more details.)

Kettlebell training is an “old school” fitness tool that holds great promise for current fitness seekers. The style of training used with the Kettlebell returns us to learning how to use our bodies better.  All the moves are ground-based and get the trainee back on his/her feet, learning to use their bodies to produce and control force. These are useful skills for any athlete or client. What follows is an introduction to the Kettlebell, two basic Kettlebell moves and suggestions on how to incorporate Kettlebells into a conditioning routine.

Why Kettlebells (KB)?

Benefits to Personal Training Clients and Athletes

Personal training clients looking for that something different in their routines will enjoy the non-traditional nature of KB training. Most of the KB moves are very integrated and train the body in a coordinated unit. Women who are afraid of “bulking” up from bodybuilding moves will find these moves a great way to increase strength and conditioning without fear of gaining size because KB training emphasizes neuromuscular adaptations in getting stronger. In addition, KB ballistic moves will train clients to produce and control force at realistic speeds with easy-to-learn movements. Bracing and spinal stability will go hand in hand with the breathing technique described in the swing.

Athletes seek a blend of maximum strength, strength-endurance, flexibility and skill. A program should train these aspects with an eye on time spent on non-sport skills so that skill work for the specific sport can be emphasized. Strength training and conditioning creates the potential for athletes to improve but only if they can translate the improved conditioning into enhanced skill through practice of the specific sport skills. A conditioning routine should enhance the athlete’s skill practice, not replace it.

Maximum strength is a vital component of a program. Mistakes are made when it becomes the only component, and as a result, athleticism suffers. Strength-endurance is specific to the demands of the sport and should be tailored as such. Flexibility and the ability to move through the available range of motion (mobility) are necessary for a balanced routine. Skill work is paramount and will allow the transfer of strength, endurance and mobility into the specific patterns needed by the athlete.

So where does the KB fit into the mix? The KB can actually fit into any of the above categories and should be mixed into traditional routines.

Incorporating KBs into a Routine

Kettlebells do come in a range of weights from nine pounds up to 88 pounds in fixed weight and beyond with some shot loadable Kettlebells. You can adjust the resistance, but you can easily cover the drills with just one or two sizes. The routine will be manipulated by changing other aspects such as the number of repetitions performed in a set and/or the total volume of repetitions in a session. Then you can vary the rest periods between sets and change the intensity entirely. Performing heavy swings with ample rest will train explosiveness, and working a moderate resistance with an equal work-to-rest ratio will increase strength-endurance.

You can begin KB training very simply by learning two of the foundation moves. These two moves, the Swing and Turkish Get-Up, will teach your clients and athletes several valuable skills. Swings will teach your clients to connect to the ground and access the posterior chain. The Turkish Get-Up will improve your client’s shoulder stability and core stability. The descriptions for both exercises follow below.

The Kettlebell Swing

The Kettlebell Swing is the foundation of KB training (see figures below). It teaches the hip snap (an aggressive hip extension) and sets the basis for all of the other drills. Begin by finding your ideal vertical leap stance (i.e., shins nearly vertical, hips pushed back, back neutral to arched). Grasp the KB (with two hands) and swing it back between your legs. As it swings back, begin to extend the hips as if to vertical leap but don’t leave the ground. Drive through your heels and “snap” the hips in order to transfer the energy from your hips into the Kettlebell. Project the KB to a point roughly head level. At the top of the swing, your shoulder blades are pinched and your abs are braced, forming a solid platform for the swing. You will get some air forced out at the top, and as the KB swings back between the legs, you will sniff air in through the nose against tight abdominals and use intra abdominal pressure to brace the spine as you “catch” the KB with the hips (this paradoxical breathing or bracing as taught by Dr. Stuart McGill is a key element of back safety). The KB will project out and up on an arc to approximately shoulder height. Then immediately repeat for the desired number of repetitions. You will notice an intense cardiovascular effect from the swings and a crisp, explosive hip action. Begin with the two-arm swing and then progress to the one-arm swing. When performing the one-arm swing, the free hand is either behind the back or off to the side, not on the leg.

The loaded position where the KB is caught by the hips. Top position - Full extension of the hips and legs - KB projected to head height

The Turkish Get-Up

The Turkish Get-Up (TGU) (see figures below) is performed from a supine (lie on back, face up) position on the ground with the KB in one hand held at the lock out of a one-arm chest press. The arm will be maintained with a locked elbow throughout the lift. (Bending the elbow could result in the KB contacting the head of the client – not a good idea.) Bend the leg of the same side as the arm holding the KB and place the opposite arm out at a 45 degree angle. Drive through the heel and use the opposite arm as a guide and “punch up” (keeping the shoulder down in the socket) as you move to a seated position with the KB locked out overhead. With the opposite hand on the ground, shift to the hand and opposite knee on the ground. The leg on the side of the KB will step into the “lunge” position. From here the athlete will move to a full standing position with the KB overhead by driving through the front heel while punching up with the KB. Reverse the movement by stepping back with the leg opposite the KB into a reverse lunge. Then find the ground with the opposite hand and sit to the hip opposite the KB. Once there, it is a “simple” matter of “rolling” back to a supine position.

The TGU is an excellent drill for developing core and shoulder stability as well as shoulder flexibility. It simulates an outside load that athletes must often work against to maintain control of their bodies. Between the swing and the TGU, an athlete or client will begin to “unlock” the explosiveness of the posterior chain and develop core stability and control.

Use both hands to get the KB in position Transitioning to starting position
Starting position Beginning to "punch up"
"Sitting" up with the KB Opposite hand and knee on the ground
Move to the lower position of the lunge Drive to a fully standing position
Step back into the "lunge" position Opposite knee on the ground find the ground with the opposite hand
Continuing down Opposite hand and knee on the ground Sit to the hip
Rolling back to the mat Back to where we started

Incorporating the KB into the overall routine might look something like this:

The exact design of your program will be based on the needs of your athletes and/or clients. Begin swinging the KB with your clients and/or athletes to incorporate the Kettlebell into your conditioning programs. This “old school” tool is a great way to increase force production and reduction, while providing fun and variety.