Kettlebell 101

Next to the yoga mat and the foam roller, the kettlebell has become the de rigueur piece of gym equipment in the quest for #wellness. But what is it, and how are you using it wrong? 

In the last few years the kettlebell has become ubiquitous in gyms across the country, and workout videos across the web. Where once the humble dumbbell held sway, now the kettlebell is king of the gym. 

And with good reason: as any fitness enthusiast will tell you, the kettlebell challenges you in ways that barbells and dumbbells can’t. 

You’re probably more than aware of the kettlebell. But maybe less aware of where exactly it comes from. And how exactly you use it. Let’s have a look. 


What it is and where did it come from?

“The kettlebell is a ball shaped weight with a handle attached on the top,” explains Richard Young, a level three personal trainer specialising in kettlebells at Kettlebells are usually made out of cast iron or steel and, like dumbbells, come in a variety of weights. 

Young points to Russia as the kettlebell’s country of origin, where they began as weights used to weigh crops three hundred years ago, before being adopted by circus strongmen (like the bros in your gym, right?!) in the 19th century.

“The kettlebell has become one of the most popular pieces of equipment, due to its functionality and effectiveness in building strength, stamina and stability, while being such a versatile and convenient piece of equipment,” Young says.

What are the benefits? 

We’re not saying you should sling your bench and barbell in the bin. But the kettlebell is a pretty special piece of kit. “The benefits of the kettlebell over calisthenics and dumbbells lies in its convenience as a full-body conditioning tool,” explains Young. “One kettlebell allows you to train your entire body and it is superior for building core strength and stability. It can be used for explosive, ballistic training as well as being a core part of a typical strength training programme. It’s an incredibly efficient and versatile piece of equipment.”

Want some science? How about a Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study that found that kettlebell swings improve maximal and explosive strength? Or a second study in the same journal that put participants through 12 weeks of kettlebell training and praised the “potential power and strength benefits of kettlebell training as an alternative to traditional resistance training methods.”

What am I getting wrong with kettlebells?

OK, so you know the background, you have your kettlebells, but something isn’t clicking. So what aren’t you getting right? Young points to five main mistakes.

  1. Swinging with a rounded back: “Keep a proud chest and picture a straight line from the back of your head to the tailbone, as if there was a broomstick in full contact with your back while you hinge forward.”
  1. Squatting instead of hinging during your swing: “Instead of bending your knees, focus on folding/hinging from the hips and allow glutes to drive your hips forward.”
  1. Arching your lower back: “One should always keep a neutral spine by engaging your core,  while keeping your rib cage down to maintain alignment.”
  1. Using the shoulders when swinging: “We should aim to swing the kettlebell to eye/shoulder level and use momentum through the extension of our body rather than the strength of our arms and shoulders to lift the weight.”
  1. Winging your elbow out while holding the kettlebell in the racked position: “The rack position is a neutral holding position for many kettlebell movements and the elbow should be tightly squeezed against our ribs and knuckles aligned under the chin to prevent extra strain on the shoulder joint.”

What’s a good beginner workout?

Straight from the mind of Richard Young to your morning HIIT session comes this three-round kettlebell circuit. Aim for tens reps of each exercise with a 30-second rest between rounds. Start with a moderately light weight while you *ahem* get the swing of things.

Goblet squat

“This is a great full body exercise focusing on upper body posture and glute strength,” enthuses Young. Begin with your feet shoulder width apart, hold the kettlebell by the bottom of the handle in front of your chest and clamp the weight with your forearms. Push your hips back while bending at your knees, lowering into the squat position and then drive your heels into the ground while keeping your body upright and squeeze your glutes at the top of each rep.

Alternating single-arm gorilla row

Young points to this move’s ability to build core stability and strengthen the posterior chain. “Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and hinge forward with a straight back,” he says. “With one hand pull the kettlebell up, keeping your elbow close to your side and shoulder away from your ear and then return to the floor, centered between your legs with control before switching to the other hand.

Half-kneeling kettlebell press (5 each arm)

“With a lower centre of gravity, the half-kneeling press incorporates a great deal of core stability while building shoulder strength,” Young explains. To start, kneel on one knee with the other foot planted in a forward lunge position, hold the kettlebell in the rack position on the opposite side to the front foot, engage your core and glutes as you press the kettlebell overhead, then gently return the kettlebell to the rack position with control before repeating.

Kettlebell swing

The OG. “This is excellent for building power and strength, while improving cardiovascular health,” Young explains. “Stand behind the kettlebell with your feet hip distance apart, collect the handle with both hands and as you lift the weight off the floor and start it swinging backward towards you,” he says. “Maintain a straight back and drive through your heels, bringing your knees and hips into full extension to power the kettlebell with momentum up to eye level. Keep the weight off the floor for the duration of the exercise.”

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