Why I wrote this guide
It seems that not a day goes by without a new exercise or fitness trend being revealed. Kettlebells are not a fitness trend, they have been around for 100’s of years and trusted by some of the best for the incredible results they can generate.
There are plenty of books about kettlebell training but I felt there was something missing, a guide that really starts at the beginning. I want to take you by the hand and walk you through exactly how to start on your kettlebell adventure and reap the rewards without all the confusion or downsides of injury.
After over 20 years since I took my first fitness qualifications and teaching 1000+ kettlebell classes I want to show you how to get the basics right, the correct order of things, for safer, and better results.
Who this guide is for
I wrote this guide for both men and women who have non, little or very limited knowledge of kettlebells.
I want to walk you through the complete guide so that you have the confidence to start kettlebell training either by yourself or with a qualified instructor.
How much of this guide should you read
This guide is written to be read from start to finish. Each section builds on the one before it. It is my hope that you will develop an understanding of not only the key kettlebell exercises but why they should be performed in a certain way.
What are kettlebells?
A kettlebell is a solid metal heavy ball with an offset handle just large enough to place your hand through.
The origins of the kettlebell are a little vague but they can be traced back hundreds of years. Weights with handles were often used during fitness challenges for both carrying and throwing events and it’s believed that the kettlebell simply evolved from here.
Later the Kettlebell was adopted by the Soviet forces for training their soldiers and then finally gained popularity in the west.
Today you can find kettlebells in most gyms and in all shapes, sizes and colours.
13 Benefits of kettlebell training
Lets get to the reasons why you should be using kettlebells rather than other types of exercise equipment…
#1 – Exercise Anywhere
You don’t need a gym membership, much space or anything other than one kettlebell in order to get all the health and fitness results you need.
Kettlebells are small and compact so they can be taken anywhere. You can get your heart racing like you have just run the 100 metres without even moving your feet. In fact you should never require a space larger than 6 feet square for any kettlebell workout.
#2 – Superb for Fat Loss
Kettlebell workouts when designed correctly use multi joint movements incorporating over 600 muscles at a time. The more muscles you use the more energy that is required and hence the more fat and carbs you burn.
Kettlebell workouts can also be so intense that they disrupt your homeostasis evoking an afterburn effect that can continue to burn calories for up to 24 hours after your workout. Bonus!
#3 – Not expensive
For most beginners one kettlebell is all you require to get started and that kettlebell being made of solid metal will last you a lifetime. You don’t need any special footwear, in fact many people exercise without shoes at all. Don’t worry you won’t drop the kettlebell on your foot!
Also due to the way kettlebells are swung around the momentum actually increases the weight of the kettlebell so a small weight can become a larger weight when used correctly. One kettlebell can be used to push you to your limits with more advanced exercises or made very manageable with more beginner based movements.
#4 – Quick workouts
Kettlebell workouts when designed correctly are intense. The exercises can be made to flow from one movement to the next without having to change weights or rearrange your grip. The flow of exercises enables you to keep your heart rate elevated and muscles constantly engaged.
Due to the intensity of the full body exercises and the dynamic nature of kettlebells good workouts should not last more than 10 – 20 minutes.
#5 – Better for joints
When used correctly a kettlebell improves your joint stability as well as the joints mobility too. When you swing a kettlebell the weight tries to pull the joints apart and it is your stabilising muscles that maintain the closure of the joint.
Strong development of stabilising muscles ensure you have a stronger foundation for your larger muscles to operate from enabling less injury and an increase in strength. Kettlebells also force longer ranges of movement opening up your joints and increasing mobility and thus better movement freedom.
#6 – Great for sports
Explosive strength is vital for sports, it drives you up to the basketball hoop, increases foot speed on the court and creates explosive pushes and pulls.
Kettlebell training is dynamic and involves absorption and regeneration of force in an explosive manner. In other words you need to decelerate and accelerate the weight very quickly. Mix force control with practical and natural movement and you can see why kettlebells are great for strengthening athletes.
#7 – Sculpts a beautiful body
Kettlebell training burns fat and increases muscle tone fast. Most of the exercises are multijoint (compound) movements that link the bottom half of the body with the top half via the core muscles. Great for your abs!
The body recruits 100’s of muscles in order to control and maintain balance of the kettlebell. The muscles time under tension is high resulting in fast muscle development throughout the body.
#8 – Hits hard to reach muscles
Unlike lots of other training tools kettlebells focus intensely into the back of the body and especially the buttocks. The buttocks being the largest muscles in the body require huge amounts of energy to survive and so are great fat burners.
Fundamental exercises like the kettlebell swing will also work hard into the posterior chain (muscles from heel to neck) where lots of muscle resides but is often neglected by other workout tools.
#9 – Improves posture
Want to look great even into your senior years, then kettlebell training is for you. Many of the fundamental exercises work into your postural muscles counteracting sitting and modern day living.
Often the most important postural muscles are neglected in favour of the mirror muscles (chest, abs etc.) but kettlebells prevents this from happening by working deep into the muscles that really matter.
#10 – Quick cardio
You will be surprised at how cardiovascular kettlebell training can be. Just by performing the kettlebell swing for 30 seconds can feel like you have just sprinted 100 metres without even moving your feet.
If you suffer from bad knees then exercises like the kettlebell swing can give you an amazing cardiovascular workout without damaging your knees whilst at the same time strengthening your body from head to toe.
#11 – Comfortable to use
Kettlebells just feel nice to use. If you buy the correct kettlebell (see my tips below) then you will find lifting, pushing and pulling a real pleasure with a kettlebell. In fact as you press a kettlebell the weight rests nicely on your forearm.
You will also find that when held in the racked position (more on this later) the kettlebell nestles nicely into the chest enabling weighted movements to become a real joy to perform without having to worry about the weight.
#12 – Ageing Monkey Grip
As you age your grip weakens, it’s a real sign of getting older. However, if you train with kettlebells this doesn’t have to be the case. Want to develop a strong monkey like grip?
Swinging a kettlebell increases its overall mass and takes added strength to hold onto. The more you use your kettlebell the better your grip becomes. Perhaps you won’t be able to bend nails but you will notice a definite improvement in your grip strength.
#13 – Fun and Addictive
Most of all, kettlebells are fun to use. The more fun something is the more we want to do it and that’s a win win for exercise. Kettlebell training will teach you exciting new skills, unseen exercises and a great feeling of achievement as you master new movements.
Your body will change and you will become addicted. I know people who have taken their kettlebells on holiday with them, personalised them by painting them and had withdrawals from them after only a matter of days.
Dangers for beginners
Just like everything in life there is a logical progression to exercising with kettlebells.
Kettlebells put a large strain on the body and although this is one of the main reasons why they are so effective it can also be the reason why you can get injured very quickly.
It is very important that you progress slowly when kettlebell training and allow time for your muscles, ligaments and tendons to adapt to the additional strain.
Kettlebells also involve a lot of eccentric movements meaning that you are lowing a weight under tension. Eccentric movements cause greater degrees of muscle soreness after your workouts so be prepared.
Ultimately it is better to train less and more often in the beginning than going in ‘all guns blazing‘ and then being sidelined with an injury that prevents any kind of exercise at all.
If you struggle with simple bodyweight exercises like Squats, Lunges, Planks etc. then you should master these first before progressing onto kettlebells.
Buying your first kettlebell
OK, so you have decided that kettlebell training is for you and you would like to give it a go. You are going to need to purchase your first kettlebell or use the one’s down your local gym.
There are so many shapes and sizes to choose from where should you start?
Let’s start with the correct weight:
In Russia they use a measurement called Poods so traditionally kettlebells are measured in Poods, 1 Pood is approx. 16kgs.
– 15lbs / 8kg – Starter weight for all women.
– 25lbs / 12kg – Starter weight for most men unless you have plenty of weight lifting experience. Women will quickly progress to this weight for Two Handed exercises.
– 35lbs / 16kg (1 Pood) – Men will progress to this weight quickly for two handed exercises. Many more advanced women will use this weight frequently for two handed exercises.
– 50lbs / 24kg (1.5 Pood) – More advanced men will use this weight frequently for two handed exercises or as a working weight for competitions.
Most women will begin with an 15lbs/8kg and most men a 25lbs/12kg or 35lbs/16kg depending on weight training experience.
You will come to realise that you can perform many exercises with both two hands or one. So you can make a kettlebell feel much heavier by using one hand or much lighter by using two.
Don’t be put of by the weight of the kettlebell. Many women get very nervous when handed a 15lbs/8kg kettlebell because it feels very heavy at first. You will soon realise that when used correctly 100’s of muscles are helping you and 15lbs/8kg is actually not as bad as you first think.
Women hold babies under one arm that are heavier than 15lbs/8kg or pull suitcases around that are twice the weight of a starter kettlebell.
Types of Kettlebell
There are 2 types of kettlebell, Competition and regular.
As the name suggests competition kettlebells are used during kettlebell competitions where certain exercises are repeated for certain amounts of time.
Competition kettlebells are all the same size even when the weight varies, this enables consistency for holding and movement regardless of weight. The handles are smaller and squarer in shape to allow for less movement of the hand. Most importantly they are designed to be used with just one hand so no good for beginners who should focus on two handed exercises first.
Regular Kettlebells (cast iron)
Regular kettlebells have more of a looping handle that enables you to hold them with either one or two hands, great for beginners. You will also find that the weight changes in size depending on its weight, so a 15lbs/8kg kettlebell is much smaller than a 35lbs/16kg kettlebell.
Kettlebells to Avoid
The popularity of kettlebell training has invited many manufacturers to come up with some weird and wonderful kettlebell shapes and sizes, but you should beware.
Here are 7 things to look out for:
#1 – Vinyl or Plastic Covered – very slippy and uncontrollable when damp or wet through perspiration
#2 – Thick Handles – if you can’t wrap your fingers totally around the kettlebell then control is very difficult and your grip will fail quickly so dangerous
#3 – Large Handle Spacing – if the handle spacing is too large then the kettlebell will lie awquardly on your forearm and against your chest
#4 – Small Handle Spacing – if the handle spacing is too small then the kettlebell will dig into and bruise your wrist making the kettlebell impossible to use for many of the kettlebell exercises.
#5 – Sharp Edges – badly finished kettlebells can have sharp corners and edges that will cut into your hands, wrists and forearms
#6 – Rounded Body – often the body of the kettlebell is made too rounded and this over time will dig into your forearm and chest with many of the exercises
#7 – Foot on bottom – some manufactures, in all their wisdom, have decided to screw on a plastic or rubber foot onto the bottom of the kettlebell to help them stay upright when on the floor. Great for storage but really painful to use for most exercises.
Here’s a video explaining what to look for in the perfect kettlebell:
Parts of a Kettlebell
Here’s what a great kettlebell should look like along with all the parts so when I make reference to them later you know exactly what I’m talking about:
How many kettlebells do you need?
You will get a lot of mileage from your 1st kettlebell. Even when you have outgrown your kettlebell with two hands you can start all over again with one hand.
Also as you eventually grow out of your initial kettlebell there will be more advanced exercises where you first kettlebell will still be needed.
If you are serious about kettlebell training then I recommend the following:
Women – 15lbs/8kg and 25lbs/12kg
Men – 25lb/12kg and 35lbs/16kg (real tough guys just get the 35lbs/16kg)
Don’t be tempted by half weights or unusual sizes. I have never met a man or women, no matter what their size who hasn’t benefited from the standard kettlebell sizes mentioned above.
Preparations for kettlebell training
Before we get started moving I want to quickly detail a few points on preparation.
Clothing – the last thing you want to do is get your kettlebell caught in your clothing as you are swinging and moving around. Ensure that your clothing is flexible enough so that you can move freely but not so baggy that it’s going to get in the way.
Rings and watches – rings can be a real problem when holding a kettlebell, they can quickly pinch the skin and cause calluses. They will also get marked and damaged so best to remove these before training. Watches should also be removed because the kettlebell often rests on the wrist.
Shoes or barefoot – the closer you can get your heels to the floor the better so very flat shoes or barefoot is best. Shoes with a raised heel pushes your weight onto the front of the body and makes it slightly more difficult to activate the correct muscles at the back. There will be no bouncing around so you do not need to worry about impact on the bottom of the foot.
Wrist bands – these are optional and with experience you will not wear them but some ladies like to wear sweat bands on their wrists just to give them a little protection from the kettlebell when holding it in the racked position (more on this later).
Workout space – unlike a lot of exercise activities you will not be moving around too much so a 10 foot (3 metre) clear space is usually enough. Surprisingly I have very rarely seen anyone drop or let go of a kettlebell but you may want to ensure that the floor is solid for when you are picking up and putting the kettlebell back down. Weather permitting, training outside is an excellent option.
Clock or timer – to keep you on track and to help motivate you a timer will keep your workouts and rest periods honest. You can opt for an interval timer like I use, a clock with a second hand or even a phone timer app. Wristwatches can get damaged so don’t use a timer on your wrist.
6 Kettlebell holding positions
The kettlebell is different from many other pieces of exercise equipment because due to the design of the kettlebell you are able to hold it in many different ways.
Different holding positions will allow you to perform variations of the same exercise and also totally unique kettlebell movements.
Two Handed – you’ll use this hold a lot as a beginner. If you purchase the correct kettlebell then you should be able to close your fingers from both hands around the kettlebell handle.
Single Handed – a similar holding position to the one above but only using one hand. Imagine you are just picking the kettlebell up off the floor. The hand will be in the centre of kettlebell.
By the body – hold the kettlebell by the body of the kettlebell. Keep the kettlebell close to the chest, thumbs at the back and with elbows tucked in.
Goblet – in this holding position the kettlebell is upside down with the handle pointing towards the floor. Grab by the horns of the kettlebell and keep the weight close to your chest with elbows tucked in towards your body.
Racked – here the kettlebell is held by one hand with the body of the kettlebell resting against your forearm and chest. Keep your elbow tucked in and shoulder down. Don’t let your elbow drift out like a chicken wing or your arm will get very tired, very quickly.
Straight arm hold – if ever the kettlebell is going to be held with a straight arm then you will hold the kettlebell on the inside corner. As the weight is pressed or held overhead then kettlebell will rest comfortably again the forearm.
There are a few other more advanced holding positions but you will find the ones above plenty for now.
Here’s a video showing you some of the finer points of holding a kettlebell:
Warming up before kettlebell training
Before you start any workouts warming up is always a good idea to prevent injury and improve the activation of your muscles.
Your warm up doesn’t need to take too long (5-10 minutes) and shouldn’t be too strenuous so that you are exhausted but should be enough to raise your body temperature.
Start with joint mobility (part 1)
As you age your joints start to lose their freedom of movement. Lack of movement through your joints is a sure fire way to encourage an injury.
Beginning your warm up with some joint mobility will help to increase your joints freedom of movement but also release the body’s natural joint lubricating oil, synovial fluid.
Here is a simple joint by joint mobility routine:
Neck – side to side, forwards and backwards, left to right
Shoulders – circles, chest openers, arm corkscrews
Upper Back – twists, reaches
Hips – circles, side to side, forwards and backwards, knee hugs
Ankles – circles, forwards and backwards
Wrists – circles, forwards and backwards
I encourage you to perform them in this order from head to toe (except for the wrists) because it helps to ensure you do not miss an important joint.
Spend more time on joints that feel tight and restricted and less on your more mobile areas. 5 -10 minutes is a good target for the complete joint mobility routine.
Try to learn all these joint mobility movements ‘off by heart‘ they will be one of the best investments in your health over your entire lifetime.
Movement specific warm up (part 2)
At this point you should already be starting to feel looser and warmer than when you started. Now you need to get a little more specific based on the kind of workout you will be performing.
It makes no sense to warm up with one movement and then use another in your workout.
There is a simple way to think about your warm up. Perform the same type of movements without a kettlebell as you would with a kettlebell.
If your workout involves a Squatting movement then some bodyweight squats are a great way to warm up and prepare.
Here are 3 movements that I want you to practice and perform:
#1 – Empty Swings & Bridges (x 10 each side) – this movement will prepare you for the Swing.
#2 – Bodyweight Squats or Yoga Squats (x 10) – this movement will get you ready for the Goblet squat.
#3 – Forward Lunges & Hip Openers (x 10 each) – this one will prepare you for Lunges and the Turkish Get Up.
Moving onto the kettlebell warm up (part 3)
Finally, its time to pick up your kettlebell and perform 3 movements that are going to help acclimatise you to your kettlebell and also finish off your warm up routine.
Perform these 3 exercises:
#1 – Slingshot (x 10 each direction) – a great exercise to acclimatise you to your current weight, warms up the shoulders and grip.
#2 – Halo (x 10 each direction) – moves deeper into the shoulder girdle for a more thorough upper body warm up.
#3 – Good Morning (x 10) – ensure your hips are bending correctly and warms up the hamstrings down the back of your legs.
Your warm up is now complete and you are ready to perform your kettlebell workout safely.
For some people getting this far can be a workout in itself, if this is the case for you then spend a week just working through this warm up everyday before moving onto the exercises below. You will be better off for it!
4 Most important kettlebell exercises
There are lots of kettlebells exercises, I’ve listed 52 of them here, but not all exercises are created equally.
To get the most benefits from your kettlebell training I recommend that you focus all your attention on just 4 exercises.
The 4 exercises listed below will build a solid foundation, hit more muscles and burn more calories than any other.
In fact, you could stop your kettlebell training at these 4 exercises and still be getting a more efficient workout than most of the people and even personal trainers you know.
These exercises are listed by importance so learn and master them in this order for the safest and quickest results.
#1 – Two Handed Swing
The kettlebell swing is the most important exercise you need to learn.
Benefits – you will use most muscles in your body but in particular your buttocks, legs, core and back. The swing is dynamic and very cardiovascular without you having to move your feet. The swing is also especially effective at working into the muscles at the back of your body and improving your posture.
How it’s done – the swing involves a hinging movement at the hips and NOT the lower back. The kettlebell is swung from between the legs to horizontal with the ground by forcefully driving the hips and contracting the buttock muscles.
Step 1 – Ensure that you understand and can perform the hip hinge movement.
Step 2 – Once you understand and can perform the hip hinge movement correctly then you can move onto the two handed kettlebell swing.
#2 – Turkish Get Up
Once you have mastered the kettlebell swing move onto the Turkish Get Up.
Benefits – again you will use almost every muscle in your body for this exercise but in particular your core and abs, legs, buttocks and shoulders. Unlike the swing exercise the turkish get up strengthens your stabilising muscles and improves your full body mobility. In other words, this exercise will strengthen you from the inside out and prevent future injuries.
How it’s done – from the floor lay flat on your back with the kettlebell held overhead you will then stand up and return back to the start position without bending your arm.
Step 1 – Begin with the half get up, first practice without a kettlebell and then holding a kettlebell.
Step 2 – Once you can comfortably perform the half turkish get up with a kettlebell move onto the full turkish get up. Practice it first without a kettlebell to get used to the movement. Try holding just a glass of water to test your skill.
#3 – Goblet Squat
Now that you have mastered the swing and turkish get up you can move onto the goblet squat.
Benefits – this is one of our most natural movements and uses a huge amount of muscle mass especially in the legs, buttocks and core. It is also excellent for increasing your heart rate and lung capacity.
How it’s done – imagine you are sitting down and standing up from an invisible chair. Your weight should be on your heels, your chest held high and knees not allowed to cave inwards.
Step 1 – Ensure that you can perform the squat without a kettlebell first. If you struggle with the Y Squat below then don’t move onto the goblet squat until you can perform at least 20 repetitions.
Step 2 – Holding a kettlebell in the goblet position move onto the goblet squat.
#4 – Reverse Lunge
Finally when you are very comfortable with the above exercises, and not before, move onto the reverse lunge.
Benefits – especially powerful at developing the buttocks and legs as well as developing single leg strength, balance and increasing the heart rate. Also great at developing mobility in the hips.
How it’s done – from a standing position you take a large stride backwards and drop your rear knee to just above the floor before standing back up and returning to the start position.
Step 1 – just as with the squat you must practice without a weight before adding a kettlebell. If you can perform 20 repetitions on each leg then move onto the kettlebell version.
Step 2 – hold a kettlebell in both hands to begin with and then advance to the racked position.
Your first kettlebell workout
Now you know the exercises it’s time to put them together into some workouts.
I always recommend that you start off exercising less but more frequently than a totally body annihilation once a week. You only need to workout for 10 minutes with a kettlebell to get some huge benefits.
Try to exercise 5 – 6 days per week using the following workout format:
- Two Handed Swing – 30 seconds
- Rest – 30 seconds
- Repeat 10 rounds
When you first begin it is highly unlikely that you will be able to complete all 10 rounds. That’s OK. Complete as many rounds as you can and then stop and try again the next day.
Most important is that you do not train so hard that your technique starts to fail. When you feel yourself losing form, stop and try again the next day.
Think of each day as a kettlebell practice day rather than a workout.
Progressing your workouts after the swing
Once you can comfortably complete all 10 rounds of the kettlebell swing it’s time to add in the Turkish Get Up.
Use the following format for the Turkish Get Ups…
- Turkish Get Up Left x 1
- Turkish Get Up Right x 1
- Repeat 10 Minutes
When you can comfortably make it through all 10 minutes without resting and constantly alternating between left and right hands increase the numbers to 2 each hand before changing. Work up to 5 each side before changing hands.
Once you add in the Turkish Get Ups ensure that you alternate your workouts with the Swings, like this…
- Monday – Swings
- Tuesday – Turkish Get Ups
- Wednesday – Swings
- Thursday – Turkish Get Ups
- Friday – Swings
- Saturday – Turkish Get Ups
- Sunday – Rest
After 2 – 4 weeks of this format you can start to add in the Squats in just the same way as you progressed the swings. Again you are trying to achieve the full 10 minutes with 10 rounds of Squats.
Finally add in the Lunges once you have mastered the Squats.
This is what your full workout schedule will look like after 4-6 weeks…
- Monday – Swings
- Tuesday – Squats
- Wednesday – Turkish Get Ups
- Thursday – Swings
- Friday – Squats
- Saturday – Lunges
- Sunday – Rest
Do not get ahead of yourself with these workouts, it’s all too common that people want to jump straight to the workout that uses all the exercises. Big mistake!
The exercises are ordered in this way so that you get the most benefit from the time that you put in. The swing is THE most important exercise to begin with so don’t mix it with other exercises until you can complete the full 10 minutes.
If you try and progress too quickly or push yourself too hard then you risk an injury and that will put a stop to ALL exercise. So trust in the program and enjoy mastering each and every exercise in its own time.
I hope you have enjoyed this guide and will use it as a point of reference to keep your kettlebell training on track.
Keep your workouts simple and learn to master each exercise and progress slowly allowing your body to change and adapt over time.
Kettlebells are a wonderful workout tool and I wish you every success with them in the future. Hopefully I can help you progress further once your have got these 4 exercises mastered.
Take care, Greg
Did you enjoy this guide? Got any questions? Let me know in the comments below…