Kettlebell Workouts for Beginners (and “Intermediate”) – Get Strong, Get Ripped, Fast.
Before I started using kettlebells to build muscle and lose weight, I thought the same thing that just about everyone who doesn’t work out thinks when it comes to weightlifting. I thought that there just wasn’t enough time in the day, and I couldn’t imagine finding a weight lifting routine that wouldn’t disrupt my busy schedule.
I was starved for time, trying to balance my need for physical rehabilitation to manage my scoliosis with my passion for martial arts, while still having enough energy left to perform well at work. I needed something that was simple, versatile, and time efficient, and I wanted something that could help me build serious muscle in as little time as possible.
The answer I eventually found was kettlebell training. When used correctly, kettlebells can help you build muscle, lose weight, and condition your cardiovascular system, all in one exercise. Kettlebells excel as the cornerstone of a simple, minimalist routine designed to produce the best results in the shortest amount of time. But I didn’t believe in all of the hype surrounding kettlebells at first.
The trainer who first introduced me to kettlebells looked a lot smaller than I was, both shorter and less muscular. But when he started explaining kettlebells to me and I watched him handle a 16kg kettlebell effortlessly through a wide range of movements while I struggled immensely with the same weight my first time around, I knew there was something to the kettlebell craze. After working with them for just a while, I knew that kettlebells were perfect for me, and offered everything I was looking for in a simple package.
If you are looking to get started using kettlebells to build muscle, lose weight, and increase your cardiovascular health all in one simple and minimalistic form of exercise, you’ve come to the right place. Read on for everything you need to know to get started with kettlebells.
If you have experience with weightlifting in the past, forget what you think a “weight” should look like. Yes, kettlebells are a form of weightlifting weight just like dumbbells and barbells, but they don’t look or function anything like either of these more common types of weights. Basically, kettlebells look like a bowling ball with a handle on top. That makes them very different from a barbell or a dumbbell when it comes to weight distribution.
With a barbell or dumbbell, the weight is distributed on both sides of a bar for optimal stability. With a kettlebell, the weight is placed directly below the handle, which changes the way that kettlebell training hits muscle groups and changes the way that kettlebells are handled during a workout. For example, the initial backswing to prep an exercise’s forward swing looks like you’re hiking a football in the NFL.
Kettlebells aren’t some sort of “newfangled invention,” though they admittedly haven’t been in wide use in the U.S. for very long. The oldest known kettlebell is an artifact from ancient Greece, weighs 314 pounds, and was supposedly hoisted by a man named Bibon.
If you can imagine how challenging it would be to lift a 314-pound handbag over your head, you can guess at how impressive Bibon’s physique must have been. Or if you want a more contemporary example of how effective kettlebells can be, look at Gerald Butler’s impressive musculature during the movie 300. The actors for that film incorporated kettlebell training into their workouts, and it sure paid off handsomely.
Turning back to history, kettlebells were widely used in Russia as far back as the early 1700s. They only became popular in the U.S. at the turn of the 21st century, thanks to Russian fitness guru Pavel Tsatsouline, or the “evil Russian.” Tsatsouline originally worked as the Physical Training instructor for the Soviet Union Special Forces, and is widely regarded as the modern “king of kettlebells.”
After a successful article about kettlebells in 1998, Tsatsouline wrote a more extensive guide to using kettlebells called “The Russian Kettlebell Challenge.” His writing ultimately led to the wide scale manufacturing of kettlebells for U.S. markets, and Tsatsouline remains active today through Strongfirst.com.
Today, kettlebells are becoming more and more popular in U.S. fitness circles. That’s partially because of high-profile success stories, like the amazing body that Gerald Butler and the rest of the 300 cast achieved by working kettlebells into their training. And it’s partially because kettlebells offer so many unique and powerful benefits. Here are some of the key advantages of using kettlebells.
With so many different ways to exercise out there, what makes kettlebells so useful? And why is choosing a kettlebell workout such a smart move for most people looking to build overall fitness? A big part of the answer to that question is based on the design of kettlebells, as we mentioned above, since the physics of kettlebell weight distribution means that they can help you work-out in a unique way.
But the real reason why so many people have already happily converted to kettlebell training, and why so many others can benefit from this type of workout, is the unique benefits that kettlebells provide. Looking at these benefits, it’s easy to see why kettlebells have quickly earned so many fans.
As unique as the shape of kettlebells are the benefits that they provide exercise enthusiasts. Here are a few of the biggest advantages of kettlebell training.
In addition to the unique fitness benefits of kettlebells discussed above, one of the best parts about starting a kettlebell routine is that this type of equipment is very suited to home workouts. Here are a few reasons why.
All of the characteristics that make kettlebells such a beneficial type of workout for anyone make them especially great for beginners. Here are a few reasons why picking up kettlebells as a fitness novice is a great idea.
The single greatest benefit of kettlebell training, which I’ve mentioned above but which can’t be stressed enough, is that with the right kettlebell exercises you can build muscle and lose weight at the same time. That means an efficient workout; it means great things for overall health, and it means that kettlebells are a uniquely powerful way to get a great workout in. Before you get started, here are a few exercise essentials to keep in mind.
Before you get started with kettlebells, here are a few basic things to consider.
In the section that follows, I will cover some of the most common and important Kettlebell exercises in more depth. But first, it’s important to have some general ideas about what working out with kettlebells the right way looks like. Here are some form tips to point you in the right direction. Follow these guidelines, and you will be more likely to avoid injury and get the most out of your workouts.
If you keep each of the form tips in mind for all kettlebell exercises, you will be much less likely to injure yourself while training. Plus, you will be more likely to complete each movement well, and you will be more likely to see good muscle growth and weight loss results, if you follow the tips above.
After I share tips on completing some of the most popular kettlebell moves, I will discuss the perfect minimalist routine that will help you meet your goals. But first, here’s a bit more information about some of the most common and powerful kettlebell exercises.
The Swing is one of the fundamental kettlebell movements, and it is so important and so powerful that we will be posting a standalone Swing tutorial here in the near future. For now, here are a few tips for performing the Swing correctly. First off, check out this video from StrongFirst.com, the modern home of Pavel Tsatsouline, the “king of kettlebells.”
After watching the above video to get a good idea of form, follow these steps to perform the kettlebell swing.
When done correctly, the Kettlebell Swing has the potential to activate a huge number of muscles throughout your body. Make sure that you are comfortable with your form before adding more weight, and always remember to keep your back straight as you swing. The Swing will be the core basis of the minimalist routine we will discuss later, so take the time to get this one perfect, and check out the video above for more tips.
The Kettlebell Snatch is one of the most popular exercises there is in the Kettlebell world, but it is far from a beginner technique. Unless you have a lot of experience with Olympic lifting, you probably won’t be able to perform a snatch correctly the first time.
In fact, most trainers recommend learning a progression of moves building up into the snatch before attempting a kettlebell snatch straight out. Here is a three part video series by trainer Mike Stehle that does a great job of explaining some of the moves you should learn while building your skills up to snatch. After following the progression laid out in the videos below, follow the steps listed to complete a snatch.
Again, kettlebell snatches are an advanced movement. They are very popular, and a lot of people may want to get started trying a snatch the first time they pick up a kettlebell. Here is another demonstration video, this one by StrongFirst Certified coach Danny Sawaya. Until you can perform this movement with the perfect form you see from Danny, don’t try to raise your weight.
The Kettlebell Turkish Get-up
This movement will be less familiar to most people than the snatch and some of the other Olympic-inspired movements on this list, mostly because it is a kettlebell specific exercise. The Turkish Get-up will be an important part of the powerful minimalist routine that this guide ends with, so be sure to pay extra attention. Here’s another StrongFirst video to help you visualize proper form before you follow the step by step instructions below. Since this is a complicated move, it may help to see an illustrated guide as well.
The Turkish Get-up is obviously a complex movement, but it is one of the most important kettlebell exercises out there, and it will help form the basis of the complete minimalist routine we will discuss soon, the Simple and Sinister workout. If you have access to a coach or trainer that is experienced with kettlebells, consult them before attempting the Turkish Get-up on your own.
These are actually easier progressions to prep you for the core Simple and Sinister workout we will discuss briefly. They are both tremendously popular and effective and can be used as add-ons as you get more advanced with kettlebell training. Since neither of these movements will form the core of the routine that follows, they won’t receive quite as in-depth of an explanation from me here.
First, we will start with the kettlebell squat. There are many different variations of the squat, but here we will focus on a version called the “Goblet Squat.” Here’s a great video that illustrates the motion, again from StrongFirst.com
The Kettlebell deadlift will utilize a lot of the same physiological principles, but will help you hit your back and posterior chain more directly.
Both the kettlebell squat and deadlift are somewhat simpler than some of the other exercises on this list, and both can be a great addition to any routine once you learn more about kettlebells and get more comfortable using them. For now, take note of the squat and deadlift as some basic, standard weight lifting motions that just about everyone in a gym is familiar with.
The Clean and Press is a more advanced move, and kettlebell newcomers may want to wait before taking this too seriously. I will only share a few pieces of information to give you an idea of what the move entails. Again, this move should only be attempted once you have built up a familiarity with kettlebells, and ideally you should only try a Clean and Press under the supervision of an experienced coach or trainer. Here’s a video of the Clean and Press, demonstrated as Pavel Tsatsouline would love to see the movement performed.
When completed correctly, the clean and press has the potential to target many of the muscles of the upper body, and comes very close to delivering a “full workout” using nothing but kettlebells. However, again, this advanced movement takes advanced training, and shouldn’t be attempted by novices. Here is one more instructional video to help you understand what the clean and press looks like with kettlebells.
Other Kettlebell Exercises
The six exercises above represent the most popular, powerful, and important kettlebell exercises, especially for beginners just learning the discipline. But the great thing about kettlebells is that they can be adapted into many different movements, and can be used to perform a whole slew of other exercises once you master the basics above. Here is a look at a few other useful, more specialized kettlebell movements.
The kettlebell windmill looks a lot like a side bend, and helps you strengthen your core and lower back. The windmill is performed by hoisting a kettlebell over your head, supporting it there with a static extended arm, and bending your torso towards the ground. Here is an illustrative video by Onnit.
The Kettlebell Row
Kettlebell rows target your biceps and back, especially your upper and mid back, and help you build some “glamor” muscles that the exercises above don’t hit. This movement will look familiar to anyone who has done a dumbbell row, but using a kettlebell makes the movement easier to complete without other equipment. Here’s is an illustrative video of the row.
Notes On Other Movements
There are a whole lot of other kettlebell movements and exercises out there, but the truth is that most should be avoided. When crafting a routine, you want something basic, minimalistic, and straightforward that you can stick to. You want a routine that will hit all of your core muscle groups in at least some way, and in as little time as possible. And you want to be sure that you are using a routine that has been tried and tested, and can guarantee you the strength gaining and weight losing benefits of kettlebell training. Enter the Simple but Sinister Workout by Pavel Tsatsouline.
Developed by the “king of kettlebells” Pavel Tsatsouline, this routine does everything that you could hope for from a good kettlebell routine. Simple and Sinister is very minimalistic, using only a few basic movements to give your body a full workout. But don’t think that by doing less you won’t get a great workout. Even though Simple and Sinister is straightforward, it’s far from easy when done correctly.
With any minimalist program, the warm-up is as important as the actual training movements you will perform. Pavel’s recommended warm-up looks like this, though you can add other light-weight exercises in if you have different muscle groups that tend to “stick” and need extra attention. Here’s Pavel’s recommendation:
Complete all three exercises as a circuit, and complete three circuits to finish your warm-up. Goblet squats we have covered above, but Halos and Supine Bridges may be a new movement for many aspiring kettlebell aficionados. I’ve linked to each of the exercises above, and you can read over the provided guides before adding these movements to your warm-up.
Here is an instructional video of the Kettlebell Halo performed correctly:
And here is a video of a correctly performed Supine Bridge:
Once you have completed your warm-up, it’s time to get into the heavier lifting and complete your workout. With any minimalist work-out, you need to be sure that you are putting your full effort into your workout sets. Make sure that you follow the movement guides above to complete each exercise correctly, but be sure to push yourself and try your hardest as well. Here’s what the main workout of Pavel’s Simple and Sinister workout looks like:
We covered each of these exercises extensively above, so scroll up if you need a refresher. The only big difference to note is that Pavel recommends a one arm swing, to help you focus on balancing your training. You can start by using a two handed swing while you learn, but be sure to work your way up to one handed as you progress.
For the Simple and Sinister routine shared above, you will always want to work with a weight that you are in full control of. Once you have become accustomed to completing each motion, you can raise weights as you go, but be sure that you always have full control of the kettlebell that you are using. For males, make it a goal of reaching a 32kg kettlebell for both major motions. For women, shoot for a 32kg for the swing and a 24kg for the get-up.
While reading this guide probably didn’t make you an immediate expert in the world of kettlebells, I hope that it convinced you of a few things. When used correctly, kettlebells can be a great fitness tool to both lose fat and gain muscle at the same time.
Kettlebell workouts with the Kettlebell Swing at its core, are one of the best all-around minimalist routines that you can find.