Beginner’s Guide to Kettlebells

For all the technological advances made in exercise equipment, there’s definitely something to be said about the simplistic design of the kettlebell. One of the best things about the kettlebell is that it can give you a total body workout in a short amount of time, without any kind of set up requirement. Since kettlebells have become very popular over the last few years, you’ve probably seen one, but you may not know exactly how to use it. The in-depth guide below will give you all the information you need to know: what a kettlebell is, where to buy a kettlebell, and how kettlebells can help you achieve your fitness goals.

A Kettle in Time

Before the kettlebell became a staple in the gym, it was first used in 18th-century Russia as a way to measure dry goods. Recognizing its utility in building strength, farmers made a competition of lifting kettlebells. The fact that seeing who could lift the heaviest kettlebell built up their strength for the rigors of farming probably didn’t hurt either. Speaking of strength, circus strongmen soon got in on the action of lifting kettlebells to demonstrate their athletic prowess.  

Members of the Soviet Red Army trained with kettlebells after the conclusion of WWII. By the 1970s, kettlebell lifting was officially recognized as the Soviet Union’s main sport.  

As for how kettlebells found their way to the U.S., they were first available in the 1940s. The turn of the century saw them become more prevalent in gyms across the country.

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Bringing Out Your Best With the Bells

Rather than purchase multiple pieces of workout equipment, buy a quality kettlebell and tailor your current workout regime around the kettlebell in order to meet your fitness goals. You may find that you don’t need anything else to get you, your health and your body where you’re trying to go – and you’ll save time and money in the process.

The bottom-weighted structure of the kettlebell means more total body engagement in almost any movement you perform. While kettlebell technique takes time to perfect, building that technique will improve awareness and coordination, as well as better unilateral strength. Additionally, taking the time to focus on good form means you will get better results from your workouts, since you are utilizing the desired muscle groups and therefore have the ability to fire those muscle groups harder.

Taking the time to perfect your form will pay off in the long run, as you will be able to increase in difficulty (weight or intensity) safely and efficiently. When you are ready to increase the difficulty of your training, it will be easier for you to perform complicated exercises with proper form, which will decrease risk of injury.

While it’s great to have a core that’s flat and lean, it’s even better to have a core that functions properly. When using kettlebells, your core muscles are engaged on virtually every single movement you do, so there’s little need to do isolation exercises. Having a strong core is essential for preventing back injuries.  

Athletes of all types sing the praises of using kettlebells, since kettlebell training is an excellent way to build speed, strength, and power. There are few other weightlifting exercises that train explosive strength like the ballistic kettlebell exercises, which have great carryover for any sport that requires the athlete to run faster and jump higher.

Some muscles can be harder to activate than others, especially in today’s world of desks and computer work. Lucky for you, kettlebells engage many of the muscle groups that become dormant from hours of sitting: hamstrings, glutes, back, and core. There’s almost no way you won’t feel your posterior chain muscles – the ones on the back side of your body – fire up when swinging a kettlebell! You may have a thorough workout routine otherwise, but without the right exercises you could still be unintentionally neglecting this chain of muscles.

Another benefit of training with a kettlebell is that they’re easy to carry around. You can throw them in your car and easily transport them for outdoor use at the park or the beach. No matter where you choose to exercise, all you need is a small square of space to work out with kettlebells and have your heart pounding like you’ve just gone for a run.

Kettlebell Buying Guide

For all the amazing benefits of kettlebell training, you need to make sure you buy the right kettlebell for your specific needs to get the most out of your purchase. If you hop online and do a basic search of kettlebells, you’ll find there are plenty of options to scroll through... possibly an overwhelming amount of options. There are kettlebells with rubber coatings to protect your floors, kettlebells designed for professional competitors, kettlebells with a more ergonomic design, and even kettlebells detailed with zombie faces!

How do you find one the kettlebell that works for you as a beginner? First, it’s best to purchase a kettlebell in person the first time rather than go online. That way you can test out the kettlebell in the rack and overhead position, and make sure you can find a comfortable position for the bell to rest. Try out a variety of movements with different grips, as the width and thickness of the handle can also affect the ease of performing specific movements.

What specific weight should you opt for? Experts recommend starting with 26-35 lbs. for men and 17-26 lbs. for women.

While you should know what to look for in a kettlebell, you should also know what to AVOID in a kettlebell. Not all kettlebell manufacturers know what they’re doing, and some designs can do more harm than good. It’s best to stay away from kettlebells covered in either plastic or vinyl, as these materials make for a slippery grip when you start sweating, and will increase the risk of the weight slipping out of your hands in a training session. You should walk right past kettlebells that have sharp edges and corners anywhere on the handle or bell, which will act like blades against your flesh. Additionally, some weights have a bell that’s been rounded too much, which can place undue pressure on your arms and sternum.

The Best Exercises for Beginners

If you’re familiar with lifting dumbbells and barbells, you already have a good foundation for working out with kettlebells. That said, there are numerous exercises that are more challenging and effective for total body engagement when done with a kettlebell. Remember that there is a learning curve to lifting kettlebells, so be patient with yourself when first starting out.

Here are seven great exercises to help you get started:

1. Single-Arm Overhead Press

Start standing with the kettlebell in the rack position, meaning your arm is bent with elbow positioned against your body and kettlebell resting on the bicep and forearm. Your hand should be fully inserted through the kettlebell handle. Inhale and brace your core – like someone is about to punch you in the stomach. Create total body tension by contracting the glutes, lats, and quad muscles, then press the kettlebell overhead as you exhale. The weight of the kettlebell should stack over the elbow, shoulder, and hip joints in the overhead position. Bring the kettlebell down slowly, pulling your shoulder away from your ear as you do so to engage your back muscles for the next repetition.

2. Kettlebell Goblet Squat

Set up by bringing the kettlebell into the goblet position, which means the kettlebell is in front of your chest and your hands are gripping either side of the kettlebell handle. Feet should be about hip-width apart. Inhale, then lower down into a squat position, with weight in your heels and chest up. Drive up and out of the squat, contracting your glutes and exhaling through the sticking point.

3. Kettlebell Deadlift

Stand with the kettlebell between your feet, with feet about hip-width apart. Keep a slight bend in your knees as you hinge at the hips, reaching your butt back so you feel a stretch in your hamstrings as you grab hold of the kettlebell handle. Drive into the floor to return to standing position, contracting your glutes and core to finish the movement. The shoulders should be directly over the hips in the top position; if the shoulders are behind the hips, the lower back is likely overworking. Bring the kettlebell back down to tap the floor before standing back up to complete the next repetition.

4. Kettlebell Chest-Loaded Swing

Position yourself with your legs about hip-width apart. Hold the kettlebell by the horns and place the bottom of the kettlebell where your sternum meets your stomach. Lift your chest and keep your eyes on the floor ahead of you.

Inhale and sink your hips back so you feel a stretch in the hamstrings. There should be a slight bend in your knees. Contract the glutes and core to stand up straight in one quick, explosive movement. The kettlebell placed against your stomach should help you feel whether your abs are contracting.

5. Kettlebell Single-Arm Row

Start in a lunge position, then lean forward and rest your forearm on the front thigh. Reach the free arm down to the kettlebell and grab hold of the handle. Set the back and shoulders in place by pulling the shoulders down and away from the ears. Ensure the back is flat and the shoulders are at or above hip level. Retract the shoulder blade of the working arm, then pull the elbow up and back, toward the belly button. Ensure the work remains primarily in the upper back, and try not to move the rest of the body. The core should be engaged and back should remain flat throughout. Bring the bell back down the same path, releasing the shoulder blades at the bottom before initiating the next repetition.

6. Kettlebell Halo

To start, hold the kettlebell in front of your chest with gripping either side of the handle. The weighted side of the kettlebell should be pointed up. Raise the kettlebell up and over your shoulder, then bring the kettlebell around so it’s directly behind your head. Keep your elbows in as close as you can. Ensure you are not arching your lower back so the work and stretch remains in the arms, shoulders, and upper back. Continue rotating the kettlebell as you bring it over the opposite shoulder. Bring the kettlebell back to starting position in front of the chest, keeping the elbows tight. Alternate sides.

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7. Kettlebell Half Get-Up

Start in the fetal position with a kettlebell beside you. Fully insert the hand through the kettlebell handle, and ensure the wrist is straight. Place the other hand on top. Roll onto your back, placing the legs 45 degrees apart. The leg on the side of the kettlebell should be bent, and the other leg should be out straight. Use both hands to press the kettlebell up and stabilize it over the shoulder. Place the free arm on the floor about 45 degrees from the body.

Push into the elbow of the free arm and the foot of the bent leg to roll up onto the elbow of the free arm. Keep the shoulder of the free arm away from the ear by pushing into the ground. Push up onto the hand of the free arm. With control, lower back down onto the elbow of the free arm, then roll back down to a lying position on the floor.

The kettlebell half get-up is great exercise to practice before doing the full Turkish get up.

Supplementary Uses for Kettlebells

Using kettlebells during your warm up can increase muscular activation and coordination, as well as improve form by using the warm up as a time to practice. Kettlebells can help increase your range of motion and optimize your body’s readiness to perform your training routine.    

Diving into specifics regarding warm up kettlebell exercises: the goblet squat can help prepare you for barbell back squats, and the bottoms up press (with the weighted side of the bell pointing up) is an excellent primer for any overhead pressing work. Chest-loaded swings are a great way to fully engage the posterior chain before performing deadlifts.

Rather than rack your brain trying to think of tons of kettlebell movements to fill up your routine, stick to simple movements that follow the guidelines of push, pull, hinge, squat, and rotate.

Kettlebells are great not just for strength training, but for getting in some heart-pumping cardio, too. Not everyone is a fan of cardio, but training your heart is crucial for recovery. Plus, it’s good to change up your routine and challenge your body every now and then. Lifting kettlebells is a highly efficient way to work out that is not just effective, but fun. Watch out, you might just catch the kettle-bug!

Exercise With Caution

As a beginner, you owe it to yourself to learn the risks involved with any piece of workout equipment. There is always a risk of injury when you engage in an exercise routine. When lifting weights, having good form is very important for preventing injury. Spend as much time as you need learning the correct technique – there is no need to rush to heavier kettlebells, as your nervous system and musculoskeletal system will need 8-12 weeks to adapt to the light weights anyway. You also need to prepare for the inevitable muscle soreness you’ll experience after using kettlebells. Be sure you get in a good cool down and stretch post-workout, nourish your body with good food, and get plenty of sleep in between workouts.

When you first start working out with kettlebells, take it easy. Train less than you think you need to. Perhaps just use kettlebells in your warm up until you feel up to working out with them. Finally, make sure you’ve fully mastered such basics as lunges, planks, squats and the like before you even attempt to use kettlebells.

Hopefully, this guide got you excited about purchasing and using kettlebells for the first time. If you have any questions or need recommendations for kettlebell exercises, don’t hesitate to reach out to us here at Kettlebell Kings. You’re also sure to find the perfect kettlebell and accompanying accessories on our site. Feel free to send us a contact form.