Kettlebell training: The ultimate guide for beginners
The kettlebell has been the secret tool that the Russians have been using to dominate the world of strength sports.
The eastern philosophy of strength training always focused on the movements rather than the muscles. Muscles are never meant to be worked in isolation just for increasing its size.
If you want to unlock the true potential of your body, make it work like a single unit rather than separate parts.
The unique design of kettlebell differentiates it from the traditional dumbbells and barbells. The center of mass is away from the handle which allows dynamic movement.
Your body learns to work as a single unit
Every major muscle groups are activated simultaneously when you train with a kettlebell. This is the beauty of kettlebell workouts.
In weight training, we train the muscles in isolation or in a group. Traditional weight training does not offer us the benefit of using our entire body.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that you should not do weight training or it has any fewer benefits. They are the primary source to increase strength and muscle mass.
What I am trying to get at here is that, if you want to ramp up your training to the next level then grab a kettlebell.
Note: All the images in this post are taken at The World Gym & Fitness
Kettlebell training is greatly beneficial and effective
It simultaneously targets many areas of fitness like strength, speed, agility and is also greatly challenging for your cardiorespiratory endurance.
A ten-minute session of kettlebell training will leave you gasping for air and sweating like a water fountain. Thus making it time effective, unlike aerobic and cardio sessions.
Kettlebell training along with weight training will cover all of your fitness goals.
In this article, we will cover all the basic information and knowledge you will require to get started with kettlebell training.
I have covered all the basic information you need to know about the kettlebell. Like what is a kettlebell, its shape, benefits, and why you should add it to your workout routine.
I suggest you read it first if you want to know about the basics of the kettlebell.
If you are already familiar with it, let’s get started with the basics of getting started with kettlebell training.
Precautions to take before getting started
Before getting started with kettlebell training there are some basic things you should take care of.
1. Fuel up– Kettlebell sessions can be very demanding and intense. You need energy that can keep you charged up and not feel uneasy or low.
It is better you have some slow digesting food like whole eggs or oats, 30 to 45 minutes before starting the training.
2. Check with your physician– This is important for people with a history of heart problems, Diabetes, Hypertension, stroke etc.
If you have suffered any joint injury or recovering from some past injury.
If you are over 55 years.
3. Do not train on a slippery surface– There is a chance of slipping or losing balance if the floor does not have proper friction.
Make sure that the floor is not wet and not smooth (like marble flooring). You can use a strong rubber mat that has a good frictional surface.
4. Proper Ventilation- It is better that the room is airy or ventilated. If you want, you can do it outside like on the roof or in a park.
Just make sure that the surface is not uneven.
5. Proper Spacing- Make sure that you are not doing it in a congested space. You should have enough area to move your hands freely(for complete hand movement).
6. No distractions– Do not watch television or talk on the phone while doing the movement.
Kettlebell training requires your full attention and distractions will make the training session less effective and you may also risk injuries.
7. Stay Hydrated- Have a water bottle by your side and keep your body hydrated as you will be sweating a lot.
8. Towel- Keep a towel handy. This will help you wipe the excess sweat off your arms as well as on the kettlebell.
Sweat on the kettlebell will make it slippery and the movement will be difficult to perform. A towel will keep your hands and kettlebell dry.
Basic attire for kettlebell training
Let us quickly go through a few things you may or may not require before getting started with the training.
1. Barefoot or with Shoes- With kettlebell training, the best way is to kick off your shoes and train barefoot. Training barefoot strengthens the posture and the arch of your feet.
There are many nerve endings in your feet that send signals to the brain. When your feet are connected to the ground, your brain will be able to precisely judge the movement and the balance.
You will be able to balance better as your toes will have the space to spread and grip the ground underneath.
Shoes will provide artificial support to your ankles. This will cause the muscle of your ankle to weaken thus increasing the risk of injuries. Barefeet will strengthen the small stabilizing muscles of the ankle and the feet.
However, if you do not feel comfortable with bare feet training or the training space makes it difficult for you, go for shoes with flat soles.
Thin and flat soles will give you some of the benefits of barefoot training while protecting your soles. The thinner the sole the better.
Do not wear shoes with cushioned soles.
Flat sole sneakers will be a good choice.
2. Clothes- The clothes should be comfortable. It should allow you to do the movements freely.
Do not wear any tight fitting t-shirt and a t-shirt with large fancy print on it. You are going to sweat and such t-shirts will make it difficult for you to hold the kettlebell close to the body.
And it is better if you avoid long sleeves. I have tried it. It feels distracting once your hands start sweating. A simple cotton t-shirt is a good selection.
Do not wear baggy shorts as it can get in the way of certain kettlebell movements. Shorts with a proper crotch fitting can be worn or legging. Again the key is, it should be comfortable.
3. Gloves- Ideally, you should not wear gloves.
Certain kettlebell movements are done non-stop for a lot of reps and the gloves can get tangled in the rolling handle inside your hand. It will make the gripping bigger thus handling will get difficult.
Wearing gloves will not allow you to feel the handle of the kettlebell. You will not build up the proper mind-body connection (proprioception) required to learn the movements.
Gloves will change the mechanics of the movements and you will not be able to learn the proper technique.
4. Wrist Bands- When you are starting out you can use wristbands.
Learning how to flip the kettlebell over your hand will take time.
Some bad reps will cause you to hit your wrist hard with the kettlebell. A wristband can offer some cushioning from these impacts.
You have to do a lot of repetitions to learn and improve your technique. Slowly, you will be able to slide your hand inside the handle, thus avoiding almost any impact.
The wristband should not be very thick as this will prevent you from completely inserting your hand inside the handle.
5. Chalk Powder- Chalk powder will be useful if you tend to sweat a lot.
The kettlebell training can make you a sweating fountain. The sweating palms make it difficult to hold on the kettlebell.
You have to put down the kettlebell regularly to wipe off your sweating. This prevents you from continuing the training non-stop thus beating the whole purpose of kettlebell training.
In order to progress, kettlebell movements should be continuous for longer and longer periods of time.
Chalk powder will dry out your hands and help to grip the handle better.
Chalk powder is inexpensive and you can buy it from any sports store.
6. Weight Belts- Weight belts used in kettlebell training are similar to powerlifting belts but they are thinner.
They are worn loosely around the waist. Their purpose is not supporting your lower back.
They are used to give a comfortable rack position to hold the kettlebell so you can relax your shoulders more.
Belts are used by serious kettlebell lifters and specifically for advanced movements like the Jerks and the Clean and Jerk.
As a beginner, you will not be needing this.
What Kettlebell to choose and how to decide the correct weight?
For men the minimum weight is 12kg and for women it is 8kg.
Do not worry about the weight being too much. Once you start practicing it will not feel like much.
Any weight lower than this will be very light for you. You will not feel any stress. It may seem contrary, but to learn the proper technique you need a moderate load.
Too light and you will not know the most effective way to lift. As you will be able to pull it up without much effort.
Do not skip out on the warm-up and cool-down
Do not start any workout session, be it kettlebell or weight training, without a proper warm-up.
There are many who do the warm-ups just for the sake of doing. They are too impatient to waste their time on proper warm-ups and are in a hurry to jump into the fun part i.e. the workout.
However, before skipping or doing a half-hearted warm-up keep these points in mind.
1. Improves joint lubrication- Warm-up activates the synovial fluid present between the two joints which works as the lubrication for the joints.
It also reduces the joint stiffness which is important for the joint safety.
2. Increases heart rate- It will help to gradually increase the heart rate to start pumping blood more rapidly to the muscles.
This helps in providing more oxygen and nutrients to the muscles.
3. Increases the body temperature- Increased body temperature helps your body to gear up for the workout.
Your muscles will work more efficiently with a raised body temperature.
4. Reduces muscle stiffness- A good warm-up helps you reduce the stiffness of the muscles.
This helps in activating the muscles for better contraction and rapid relaxation.
5. Gives a greater range of motion- A greater range of motion makes the exercise or movement more effective and safe.
6. Prepares you mentally- It will prepare you psychologically to perform the workout better. This helps you get in the zone for a more focused workout session.
Remember the target of a proper warm-up is to not tire you. It should help to prepare you better for the workouts.
The list of warm-up exercises to start with
1. Neck Up-Down
- Drop your chin and try to touch your chest.
- Hold this position for 2 seconds.
- Then look up towards the ceiling and hold the position for 2 seconds.
- Repeat 10 times.
2. Neck Rotation
- Stand straight and look forward.
- Now rotate your neck to the right side and try to bring your chin in the line of the shoulder.
- Hold this position for 2 seconds and rotate to the left side.
- Repeat this movement 10 times on both sides.
3. Shoulder Rolls
- In the standing position rotate your shoulders clockwise for 10 seconds and then anti-clockwise for 10 seconds.
4. Interlocked wrist rolls
- Interlock your fingers with the palms facing each other.
- Rotate the wrists in the clockwise direction for 10 seconds and then in the anti-clockwise direction for 10 seconds.
5. Trunk Twist
- Stand with arms at shoulder level on both sides and legs shoulder-width apart.
- Keeping a slight bend at the elbow, twist to your right side while shifting your body weight to the right leg.
- In a controlled manner twist to the other side.
- Repeat for 10 times on each side.
6. Hip circles
- With your hands on the hips make big circular movements with your hips.
- 10 times in clockwise direction and then in the anti-clockwise direction.
- Maintain a steady pace.
7. Leg swings
- Stand sideways while gently touching the wall for balance.
- Put your body weight on the leg closer to the wall and swing the other leg in to and fro motion.
- Keeping your upper body straight, swing higher and higher with each rep.
- Repeat 10 times with each leg.
- Remember it is a swing and not kick. Do not bend your knees when swinging backward.
8. Leg drive
- Stand to face the wall with both hands on the wall for balance.
- Shift your body weight to one leg and swing the other leg sideways.
- When you bring the leg down, swing it to the other side as far as possible like a pendulum.
- Try to swing higher with each rep.
- Repeat with the other leg.
- 10 times with each leg.
9. Knee rotation
- Join your legs and place the hands on your knees in a bent position.
- Now rotate your knees in the clockwise direction where you bent your knees while rotating forward and straighten your legs coming to the starting position.
- Try to keep your feet flat on the floor.
- Repeat in the anticlockwise direction.
10. High Knee
- Keep your hands at waist-height with palms facing the ground.
- Now bring the knees towards the palms in an alternating manner.
- Try to be explosive with the movement.
- 20 times with each leg.
- Place your legs shoulder-width apart with the toes pointing slightly outwards.
- Keep both hands straight at the chest height with palms facing the floor.
- Now keeping your back neutral and chest out, bend your knees and go down till your hips are slightly below the knee height.
- Make sure that the knees do not pass the toe line.
- Repeat for 10 reps.
12. Side Lunges
- Standing with the feet wider than shoulder width lunge sideways while keeping the other leg straight.
- Repeat for 10 reps on each side.
Never skip out on cool-down
The workout session does not end with you finishing your exercises. A proper cool-down has to be done before calling it a day. Cool-down helps you relax and to gradually bring the body back to the normal state.
1. It gradually brings the breathing to a normal level.
2. It helps in bringing the heart rate and blood circulation back to the resting state.
3. Reduces the chances of muscle soreness.
4. Brings the body temperature back to normal.
Do this cool down exercises after your kettlebell workouts are done
1. Behind the neck shoulder stretch
- Lock your hands behind your back, keeping your body straight.
- Try to pull your hands as high as possible.
- Hold this position for 10 to 15 seconds.
2. Shoulder stretch
- Keeping one arm straight and palm facing down pull it across the chest with another hand, holding at the triceps or elbow.
- Do not rotate or twist your body.
- Hold this position for 10 to 15 seconds.
3. Tricep pull
- Put your palm over your shoulder and bring your elbows up pointing towards the ceiling.
- With the other arm grab the elbow and try to pull it further so that you feel the stretch on the triceps.
- Keep your chest straight and body in neutral position.
- Hold this position for 10 to 15 seconds.
4. Neck flexion stretch
- Interlock your fingers and place it behind the head.
- Keeping your body straight pull your head down.
- Try to touch your chest with your chin.
- You will feel the stretch at the back of the neck.
- Hold it for 20 sec.
5. Neck lateral stretch
- Keep your head straight with your eyes looking in front. With your right hand reach over to the left side of your head.
- Now gently pull towards the right side till you feel the stretch on the left side of the neck. Try to bring your right ear closer to the right shoulder.
- Keep your neck relaxed and do not over compress your neck.
- Hold for 20 seconds. Then repeat from the other side.
- Place both knees and palms on the floor.
- Now keeping your arms straight, dip the spine by pulling your stomach towards the floor and your buttocks towards the ceiling. Pull your neck up. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
- Drop your head down and round your spine by pulling it towards the ceiling. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds.
7. Spine extension
- Lie down on your belly with palms flat on the floor near the chest. Keeping the legs close to each other. Raise the upper body with your arms.
- Lower back should be relaxed.
- Go as high as possible without lifting your hips off the floor.
- Hold it for 20 to 30 sec.
8. Knee to chest stretch
- Lie down on your back.
- Now bring one knee towards your chest while the other remains straight.
- Press your back into the floor and pull the knee with both hands towards your chest in a hugging manner.
- Hold for 15-20 seconds then repeat with the other leg.
9. Calf Stretch
- Place both hands on the wall.
- Shift your body weight to the right leg and extend left leg backward.
- Now lean towards the wall by bending the right knee and keeping the left leg straight. The heel of the left leg should be flat on the floor.
- Lean forward till you feel the stretch on the left calf muscles.
- Hold it for 15-20 seconds then repeat with the other leg.
11. Quadriceps stretch
- Place your hand on the wall or something sturdy.
- Now bend one leg up and from behind hold it with your hand.
- Pull the heels towards the body.
- The other leg will be straight.
- Hold it for 15 seconds then repeat with the other leg.
12. Hamstring stretch
- Stand with your legs hip-width apart.
- Now push your hips backward as you bend your upper body.
- Keep both the knees locked.
- Bend your body forward as much as possible without bending the knees.
- Hold the position for 20-30 seconds.
Before getting started with the kettlebell exercises you should know about the different types of breathing pattern used.
There are two types of breathing techniques used in kettlebell training. Your activity, intensity, and the load will determine which breathing pattern to use.
1. Diaphragmatic or Biomechanical Breathing
This is the breathing pattern we use in weight training.
You inhale on the eccentric part of the movement and exhale during the concentric part of the movement.
For example, in the bench press, you breathe in (inhale) when you lower the bar towards your chest and breathe out (exhale) as you push the bar up.
This breathing pattern increases the stability of the body. It is ideal when you are lifting heavy loads.
2. Anatomical breathing
In anatomical breathing pattern, you will match your breathing with the movement.
This pattern of breathing is also called ‘matching breathing’.
Here you will exhale when the lungs and the rib cage is compressed in the movement and inhale as the lungs and the rib cage expands again.
For example, when you go down in the squat you will exhale as your lungs and rib cage gets compressed in the bottom position. And inhale while getting up as your lungs and rib cage expands back.
This breathing pattern is ideal when you are training for higher repetitions and are looking to improve your work capacity. This breathing pattern helps in keeping your heart rate under control.
Basic Kettlebell Moves
Before getting into more complex kettlebell movements, you should get started with these basic kettlebell exercises. With these movements, you will learn how to handle a kettlebell properly and move it from hand to hand.
These exercises will build your confidence and comfort with the kettlebell.
- Place the kettlebell in front of you on the ground.
- Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart.
- Keeping your back straight and chest out, push your hips back while you sit.
- Grab the handle with both hands and stand up with your heels pressing the ground. Repeat this by lowering yourself again in the same manner till the kettlebell lightly touches the ground.
- Continue the movement in a controlled manner for 10 reps.
- This exercise targets your glutes, hamstring and lower back.
2.Figure 8 (Passing the kettlebell between the legs)
- Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart and kettlebell in one hand.
- Bent over, keeping your spine in neutral position, slightly bend your knees.
- Pass the kettlebell from left hand to right hand between the legs from front to back.
- Now bring the right hand forward and again pass it to the left hand between the legs from front to back.
- Repeat this movement in a controlled manner and build momentum.
- Be careful to not hit your legs.
- This exercise engages your legs and core.
- You will develop coordination and body awareness.
- Breath out when you switch your hands followed by breathing in with rest of the movement.
- Start with holding the sides of the handle with both hands in front of your face (as shown above).
- Circle across and over the top of your head all the way till you reach back to the starting position. Now circle back the kettlebell in the same manner in reverse direction.
- This will be your 1 repetition.
- Repeat for 20 repetitions.
- Breathe normally throughout the movement. This is great for conditioning and improving the mobility of your shoulder and cervical.
- Stand shoulder-width apart with the kettlebell in front of you.
- Now raise the right hand straight up with the palm facing inwards.
- The left hand will be in front of your left thigh with the palm turned forward.
- This will be your starting position.
- Shift maximum body weight to the right leg and push your hips diagonally back to the right side (as seen in pic).
- Now, look up at your raised palm as you lower your upper body. Make sure to keep the elbows locked.
- Grab the kettlebell and stand up by extending your right hip to the starting position.
- Following the same pattern, lower your body till the kettlebell touches the floor.
- Breath in when you go down and breath out when you are coming up.
- Do it for 15 repetitions.
- Now repeat with the other hand.
- This is a great workout for increasing your core strength. It also improves your hip mobility and flexibility.
- The movement will be same as the regular squat except you will hold a kettlebell in front of you (as shown above). Stand shoulder-width apart holding the ball of kettlebell in front of your face.
- Your forearms will be close to your body.
- Now squat down and stand up keeping your chest up and kettlebell in front of your face.
These exercises will give you the basic idea about how to handle and control the kettlebell.
Once you get a hang of these exercises you can move on to the next level, which is
Mastering the Fundamental Movements of Kettlebell
The classical lifts are what gives the unique status to kettlebell training.
Kettlebell Swing will be the foundation for all the classic kettlebell movements.
It will teach you all the fundamentals involved with handling the kettlebell.
You will learn how to grip the kettlebell, the anatomical breathing and how the weight feels under momentum.
Mastering this movement will enable you to understand the basic principle and the unique aspect of the kettlebell training.
Do not underestimate swings
This is the very foundation of all the classic kettlebell movements.
Warning– The first time you swing a kettlebell for more than a minute or two, you will get a killer lower back pain.
This happens because your back has never been used to such rhythmic load for a sustained amount of time. But after a couple of practice sessions, your lower back will get adapted to it.
The pain is just like the pain you get the day after your leg workouts (if you seriously train your legs).
Yes, it hurts. But the gain is worth the pain.
- Stand with the feet shoulder-width apart.
- Place the kettlebell on the floor in front of you.
- Sit back in a half squat position with your hips pushing back. Keep your back neutral.
- Hold the handle of the kettlebell with your fingers in a hook grip.
Do not hold it with full palm wrapped around the handle like you hold a dumbbell. Holding like this will make the movement of the kettlebell difficult. And it will tire your forearms sooner, making you stop the movement.
- As you grip the kettlebell pull it towards you and let it swing between the legs.
- The kettlebell will come to a stop behind you when your arms are completely in contact with the upper body.
- Without stopping, push it forward with your hips and let it swing in front of you like a pendulum.
- How high the kettlebell will go depends on how hard you are able to push through your hips. It may reach around your chest or abdomen height.
- But your main focus right now should be your hips.
- You should be using your hips to create the movement and not your arms and shoulder.
- Keep a rhythmic movement throughout.
The breathing will be in two cycles. At the end point, breath out and breath in as the kettlebell moves forward. At the top where the movement changes again breath out and breath in while the kettlebell comes down. (One cycle of breathing is a combination of one exhale and one inhale)
Key points to remember
Always remember to use your hips to push the kettlebell forward not your shoulder. Do not treat it as dumbbell front raise exercise.
This is a complete body movement, not just hand movement.
Keep your back neutral when swinging the kettlebell.
Do not squat when the kettlebell is coming down. Focus on pushing your hips back. The kettlebell should not go below the knees.
Clean will be a bit more complex than the swing and will take some time to get a hang of. Your shoulders may get a beating while learning this movement.
This will be the next step after learning the swing. This movement introduces you to the technique of holding the kettlebell in the rack position.
You will learn:
How to insert your hand into the handle while the kettlebell is still in motion?
How to transfer power generated from legs to your upper body?
How to make the kettlebell land smoothly into the rack position and avoid banging your forearms?
- The movement will start same as the swing.
- Start with a shoulder-width stance and the kettlebell in front of you.
- Now swing it between your legs.
- As the kettlebell swings in the forward direction, instead of going for the complete swing movement you will pull it upwards with a tug using your trapezius (like when you do shrugs) and involving the hip of the same side.
- The upper arm will not lose the contact with the body (Imagine you are holding something under your armpit).
- As the kettlebell is moving towards your chest open your palm and insert it inside the handle till it is stopped by your thumb.
- This will be the rack position (explained below).
- Now from this position you simply drop down the kettlebell by pushing it through your shoulder and sliding the hand out making the hook grip and swinging it backward.
Key points to remember
Do not hold with full grip as it will fatigue your forearm.
Do not make a circular movement when pulling the kettlebell up.
To learn how to pull it straight up, you can practice by standing in front of a wall. Standing close to the wall will make you more conscious about the movement. Plus all the bad pulls will hit the wall instead of hitting your shoulder.
The rack position
The rack position is another distinguishing feature of the kettlebell.
Rack position is the rest position where you can place the load on your forearm and chest, allowing your hand and grip to relax.
It also gives your heart some recovery time, allowing you to catch your breath before starting again.
This makes it more effective to train high rep without muscle fatigue, working on your muscular endurance, and cardiorespiratory endurance.
Without learning this position you will not be able to move on to the more advanced and challenging kettlebell movements like overhead presses, jerks, and long cycles.
How to hold the Kettlebell in a rack position
To master the rack position remember the following points
- Rest the kettlebell in the triangular cavity made by your forearm, bicep, and chest.
- Insert the hand deep into the handle. The handle should lie diagonally across the palm.
- The wrist should be straight and the thumb position should be in the midline of the chest. This gives you a better control over the hold.
- Do not hold the handle in the middle. It will bend the wrist and pull the hand sideways. This makes it harder for you to hold the kettlebell. The goal of rack position is to be comfortable and in control.
- The hand should be in complete contact with the body with your elbows resting on the iliac crest (basically near hips). For this, flex (bend) your thoracic spine (upper spine) and push your pelvis forward.
It may take some practice to find your ideal rack position. But it is important to perfect this position. Otherwise, you will put unnecessary strain on your arms and shoulder.
These are the very basics and anyone who is starting for the first time should be focusing on these two movements.
I strongly recommend on getting a competition kettlebell to learn this movement as the standard shape is same and you will not have to change your hand position according to the shape of the kettlebell for different weights.
We will learn the advanced movement and how to integrate it with your regular workout in the next post.