I’m not here to tell you that lifting a barbell is stupid or that everyone should be training to get stronger with super heavy lifting. I will tell you that there has been a huge trend in the fitness industry surrounding kettlebells.
Aside from the old school guys and the Russians, we don’t see too many people flocking to the sport of kettlebell. The sport itself is a whole framework built around doing things like 10 minutes of unbroken kettlebell snatches and the like. What I have seen is a huge surge of people getting into what has been coined the “kettlebell flow.”
Inherently, this is awesome, more people are using an awkward and odd implement in ways that challenge movement patterns to get better at doing shit. The problem is it comes off being closer to looking like Will Ferrell ribbon dancing in the movie Old School than it does looking like someone actually lifting a weight.
There is a time and a place for using kettlebells, but to center your whole premise of getting really strong and capable by swinging a 13lb kettlebell in circles is ridiculous. That being said, I am going to give you my top five exercises for building real strength while using kettlebells—and they are probably going to have to be heavy.
1. High Pull to Squat
This movement utilizes many of the same principles as Olympic weightlifting but without the year of broomstick or PVC pipe lifting.
This movement involves a ton of the posterior chain (muscles up the backside of your body). They are being used to pull the bell off the ground explosively.
Athleticism is at play when you have to quickly pull yourself under the bell and shift your grip to the horns, stabilizing yourself in a full squat.
Then all that’s left is to stand that sucker up.
I’ve used the high pull to squat as muscular conditioning with sets of 8-12, which will knock the wind out of you if you choose the right weight. I’ve also worked up to some heavy sets of 5 with it. Look at your overall volume and stay around 25-30 reps total, which could be a 3×10 or a 5×5.
The trick is to stay back on your heels during the pull so the bell doesn’t get out in front of you and pull you forward during the squat.
2. Double Bent Row
The real trick here is finding a weight that you don’t have to use a lot of body English for. As a matter of fact, your back shouldn’t raise up at all. The only thing that moves is the bell and your arms, coming back to the floor every time.
Rows should be done in higher volume due to the usual lack of pulling exercises present in any lifter’s routine. Just because we can’t see our back in the mirror doesn’t mean we shouldn’t train it. Go heavy, but stick to 6-10 reps on these—not much less, not much more—for 4-5 sets.
3. Floor Press Plus Bridge
What sort of strength article would this be if I didn’t include a bench press variation? I like the floor press for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s one less piece of equipment you need. No bench? No problem! Secondly, it’s way better on the shoulders when you’re forced into a position that doesn’t cause all those issues the big time lifetime bench pressers have.
What’s with the bridge though? Well, it changes the angle we press at and also increases the range of motion slightly. Plus, we have the added benefit of learning to push our feet into the floor to make this a full body lift.
- Keep your shins vertical, keep your hips up, maintain bells racked with vertical forearms, and keep your triceps on the ground.
- When executing this move, think of pressing into the handles to drive your back into the floor—and don’t forget to keep those hips up.
You can perform this move a few different ways, but make sure to get the most out of how unstable these are by really owning the top position while holding for a second then come down slow and very controlled. My favorite rep scheme: 10, 8, 6, 6, 6, 12, 12—and start light, building up to a few heavy sets of six, then add a few drop sets.
4. Double Clean
This is a super explosive movement that forces you to have your balance dialed in, your timing right, and your wits about you.
Pro tip—stay up and keep the bells close so they won’t smash into your forearms as hard.
I don’t like to go over 8 reps and usually stick with 5 at a time on these due to the explosive nature. If you want to go heavy enough to garner results, 5 reps are the perfect set. Look for about 25 total reps, or climb to a heavy set of 5.
5. The Snatch to Press Complex
Utilizing similar principles as the clean, I like to put the snatch in the line-up to keep training a full body scenario. You must firm your foundation before every press.
Start with a backswing and use hip drive to snatch to an overhead position, where you’ll pause for dramatic effect and Instagram selfies.
Stay tight through the body and bring the bell slowly to front rack (thumb to collarbone) before pressing back up and repeating the movement.
Since we’re taxing the shoulder in a few different ways, let’s call one snatch plus one press a rep and shoot for 3-6 reps at a time, depending on weight. Remember, strength and stability is the game here, so don’t go getting all squirrely.
More Bang for Your Buck
It was so tough for me to choose just five exercises, so I’m going to throw a couple more ideas your way that I feel should be staples of your kettlebell training.
- Carries: In a pinch, if you’re looking for a great movement to add strength to your game, grab a few heavy bells and take a walk. Also, try holding one by your side and walk slowly and deliberately, trying to not bend at all.
- Swings: This one should be obvious, but swinging a heavy bell for 10-20 reps unbroken will jack your heart rate and build some serious grit as well.
Kettlebell Training Is Good Long-Term
Kettlebells are a unique way to train that add a ton of instability while making you have to correct and stabilize your form in order to grow stronger. Keep in mind that a barbell is perfectly balanced to maximize the weight being moved, while an odd object will maximize the amount of strength being built from a stability and transferability standpoint.
So, when you’re adding up how much you bench, realize it won’t quite match what you had on your bar for weight, but the end result is a stronger set of shoulders and arms that can handle more of a challenge.
In the end, it’s up to you to find what you love to do as far as lifting and training goes. But if you’re a strength person, don’t shy away from the kettlebells just yet, they have a real place in the world of building up your body to handle awkward weight challenges, just like in actual life.