Lift long or well enough and at some point someone will offer you a kettlebell to swing.
As an old piece of equipment that is new in some gyms, the bulbous weights have been touted as a unique solution for strength, cardio and health since their reintroduction into the wide fitness world a few decades ago. Apparently of Russian origin, kettlebells sit at the interface of muscle strength and aerobic capacity.
They’re less mysterious than over-elected: how exactly do we make the most of them? What is the best weight? What are the exercises?
Get to Know the Kettlebell – Kettlebells are different from dumbbells in that their center of gravity is held at one end, about half an inch from the handle. This allows them to act as an extension of the body when they are swung. This inclined center of gravity makes kettlebells perfect for ballistic – even very fast – movements, as they can easily travel across several levels. (Try swinging a dumbbell up and forward and see what happens. Not really.) Here’s the difference: most weights aren’t moved very quickly.
Kettlebells, often derived from Russian girya weights, were used there by strong men in the 18th century, and there is also evidence of similar arm weights that were used earlier in other societies. The Haltere of Ancient Greece – basically rocks with cut out handles – are the best and oldest examples.
But while kettlebells are the oldest weights in a gym and are consistently popular in Russia, they have only recently become a hit here. This recent domestic resurgence is largely due to Pavel Tsatsouline, a Minsk-born and self-proclaimed former Russian special forces instructor who wrote a number of prominent articles and books on kettlebell training by coaches and coaches in the late 1990s and 2000s were devoured.
Which kettlebell to use and why?
As befits a Soviet staple, kettlebells are cheap: once you have one, the workouts are basically free. Prices rose during the pandemic, but have returned to normal as there is no longer any run on the stock. Back in the day, gym outfitters like Rogue were the best choice for a good but large retailer like Target that has a wide selection, and you can even buy kettlebells on eBay.
The consensus of kettlebell trainers is to buy a heavy weight kettlebell. A representative article and a handy, if strangely worded table can be found here. Having two kettlebells is ideal and allows for more exercise, but strength athletes can get by with one for a while.
The Recommendations – Men should swing a minimum of 35 pounds. and women and at least 18 lbs. – are helpful, but rather skewed, as most people who write about kettlebells with authority are doing so for an adjusted – aka strong – audience. Strength athletes should use a weight that feels heavy, but isn’t so heavy that they stop after just a few repetitions. Volume is an important part of kettlebell training.
A kettlebell can be used for both ballistic and slow movements. For slow movements, sometimes called a grinder, the weight is pretty traditional: it’s held like a goblet on squats or with one arm to the side on static marches. There is also a litany of barbell-like movements: there can be hundreds of kettlebell exercises.
The list of ballistic exercises and those that come close to Olympic lifting moves is long and growing when a lifter has a pair of kettlebells to work with. But in general, kettlebell training is short for two exercises, standing up and swinging.
Two ways to use kettlebells for exercise
A stand up, often referred to as a Turkish stand up, is an exercise in which a lifter begins lying down with an elevated kettlebell in one hand. With the weight held, the lifter goes in a series of steps from lying to sitting, then to a gluteal bridge, then to a kind of kneeling, then to a lunge, and then upright.
Done correctly, it’s a full-body exercise that aims to:
- The core
- Back muscles
The required range of movement and balance builds proprioception, strength and mobility. It’s hard to get it right. Strength athletes can work their way up to an insurrection by starting with a shoe – really – and then moving on to a light kettlebell and then the standard recommendation. A strength athlete who worked with a 50 lb. Kettlebell can stand up, does it well.
Kettlebell swings are the hallmark of the exercise. In these, a lifter starts with the weight held in front of the hip and then swings the weight backwards and forwards like a pendulum with a hip joint. The weight rises in the air as if tossed it. Then it swims and comes down.
There are variations – one-armed and two-armed – and disagreements about how high the weight should be thrown. Either way, the lifter pivots back on the hips and planks, squeezing his glutes and quads. When done correctly, the swing doesn’t look like a squat: the hamstrings and glutes take on all of the weight, and the legs and back propel the way up.
Tense time strengthens the core and lat muscles, and repetitions can improve both grip and fitness. Swings do everything. Some powerlifters and sprinters train kettlebells to improve their speed and explosiveness. Ordinary people can use them to get stronger and faster.
Much of the value of the exercise comes from the hinge. Dr. Stuart McGill, an expert in spinal biomechanics and a professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo, tells Inverse he prescribes hinges to “build pain-free capacity” and help people in pain return to the weight room. Bending forward – as opposed to flipping over – avoids stress on the spine, explains McGill, and is a more natural expression of its natural curvature.
Adding swings to the hinge’s daily reminders is not automatic – more work is required when a movement is loaded. But the kettlebell work is helpful enough that McGill is a fan. Rehabilitation lifters can work with lightweight kettlebells to get started while building new patterns. This video is a handy form resource.
What is the best kettlebell program?
There are fewer kettlebell-specific programs than barbell-based powerlifting programs. Kettlebell training is a little more casual than loading a barbell with weights: if you do enough swings and get up, you get a pretty good workout. Because kettlebells are so compact and can be picked up at any time, strength athletes can just use them casually and get a little stimulus.
But strength athletes who want results should approach kettlebell work like barbell training, in the sense that both load and volume are crucial, as is a good program. Swings should be done properly and regularly. Tsatsouline’s Simple and Sinister program is the default: it’s very well designed and deceptively simple. Lifters make 100 swings and five straights per arm a few times a week. Many stay with it for years.
Trainer Dan John’s 10,000 swing program is a little more challenging – and more optimistic. A prominent trainer and expert on fitness, John came up with an even simpler and tougher program a few years ago: swing a kettlebell 500 times a day, five times a week, for a month.
John dictates that the Malcolm Gladwell magical number be achieved through a “wavy cluster” of 100 swings – 10 swings, then 15, then 25, then 50 – with a 53 or 35 lb. kB. The workouts are brutal but well worth it. In addition to building strength and athleticism, they will likely improve your posture as well. A revised program from last year allows a little more variety and lower weights.
In a sense, John’s program is a college-level approach to swing and shows how transformative a single movement can be. Advanced strength athletes who are looking for variety will find swings with high volume just as challenging as barbell exercises. If you want to stick to your programs, you can still get your kettlebell fix. Jim Wendler’s timeless 5-3-1 powerlifting program recommends regular swings to help strength athletes get taller and more conditioned.
What is wild – everyone loves it. But it makes sense. Kettlebells are straightforward, not very expensive, and do pretty much anything. Swinging properly is fun and addicting. A kettlebell and two exercises are all most people need to get in serious shape. And when you get stronger, you just push the weight up.
LEG DAY OBSERVER is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s vintage column Snake America, and a home for anything Leg Day related. Because of the complex nature of the human body, these columns are intended as introductory prompts for further research, and not as guidelines. Read previous issues of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.