Build Strength and Power with Kettlebells

Kettlebell Exercise

Story at-a-glance -

  • Kettlebell workouts lead to marked increases in aerobic capacity, dynamic balance, and core strength
  • A five-exercise kettlebell circuit is described to help you build muscle and burn fat
  • To really challenge yourself, try the Turkish get-up, a total-body kettlebell exercise that burns calories and builds strength

By Dr. Mercola

If you're looking for a full-body workout that can build your strength, balance, flexibility, and endurance, grab a kettlebell and get moving. If you've never used one, a kettlebell is essentially a cast iron weight that looks like a cannonball with a handle.

The kettlebell allows for ballistic movements and swinging motions you can't do with traditional weights, and they date back to the 1700s, where they were used to measure grains at Russian festivals. Vendors began swinging the kettlebells to show their strength – and the rest is history.1

Kettlebells can help you develop power in your hips, legs, and glutes as well as strength, flexibility, and stability for your back and shoulders. Kettlebells also build wrist and forearm strength and, because they require dynamic movements, throw off your center of gravity during workouts, which builds your core muscles.

Kettlebells Increase Your Aerobic Capacity, Core Strength, and More

Many people like to separate aerobic workouts from strength-training workouts, but they can be combined with great results with simple tools like a kettlebell.

In a study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), participants took an hour-long kettlebell class twice a week, which included one- and two-handed swings, snatches, cleans, presses, lunges, and Turkish get-ups (more on these later).2

After eight weeks, their strength and fitness was retested (it was tested for a baseline at the beginning of the study). In addition to gains in strength, the kettlebell group also had marked increases in aerobic capacity, dynamic balance and core strength.

Abdominal core strength alone was boosted by an impressive 70 percent, while aerobic capacity increased nearly 14 percent. Study author John Porcari, Ph.D., told ACE:3

"Kettlebell training increases strength, which you'd expect, but you also get these other benefits…

You don't really do resistance training expecting to get an aerobic capacity benefit, and you don't do resistance training and expect to improve your core strength, unless of course you're specifically doing core-strengthening exercises.

But with kettlebells you're able to get a wide variety of benefits with one pretty intense workout."

Interval Training with Kettlebells Burns Calories 'Off the Charts'

In another ACE-sponsored study,4 participants were able to burn calories "off the charts" when they used kettlebells in a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) format, which allows you to get an intense workout in a short amount of time.

They used 10 volunteers, ranging in age from 29 to 46, who were experienced with kettlebells, and asked them to do a workout consisting of swinging a kettlebell one-handed between their legs and over their head in what's known as a "snatch" motion. The 20-minute interval workout entailed:5

"Following a basic warm-up, subjects did 15 seconds of one-armed snatches, first with their dominant hand, then after a 15-second rest period, they performed another 15 seconds of snatches with the other hand.

The workout continued like that, with intervals of 15 seconds of work and 15 seconds of rest, for 20 minutes, followed by a five-minute cool-down."

During the workout, participants burned an average of 13.6 calories per minute aerobically, plus another 6.6 calories per minute anaerobically. Porcari, who was also an author in this study, said:

"So they were burning at least 20.2 calories per minute, which is off the charts. That's equivalent to running a 6-minute mile pace. The only other thing I could find that burns that many calories is cross-country skiing up hill at a fast pace."

Other research has shown kettlebell workouts lead to:

  • Enhanced back health and function6
  • Improvements in muscle strength, including both maximum and explosive strength7
  • Improvements to postural reactions to sudden movements, which might, for instance, help you avoid a low back injury if you fall or jerk suddenly
  • Among those with musculoskeletal pain, reductions in pain in your neck, shoulders and low back8

Muscle-Building, Fat-Burning Kettlebell Workout

The exercise circuit that follows was compiled by Dasha Libin Anderson, the creator of Kettlebell Kickboxing, for the Epoch Times, can help you build strength and power while burning fat.9

If you're a beginner, complete the entire circuit (i.e. do all the exercises below) once and then work your way up. If you're intermediate, do the circuit three times (rest two minutes between each), and if you're advanced do the circuit four times through with only minimal breaks in between.

1. Side Kick

This is a warm-up movement to build mobility, dynamic flexibility, stability, and hip and core strength before you move on to the weighted portion of the workout.

  1. "Start from a boxing stance with your lead leg forward and rear leg on the ball of your foot, 90-degrees behind.
  2. Bring your rear leg up and in front so the thigh is parallel to the floor.
  3. Then, with power and stability, kick this leg straight out to the side as you flex your foot.
  4. From the kick, return the leg behind you.

You can alternate legs for 1 minute or continue with one leg for 30 seconds then switch."

2. Swing

This is the basic kettlebell movement that's both a strength-building and cardio workout.

  1. "With both hands, pick up the kettlebell by the handle and sit back, bending first and more deeply at the hips, then bend at the knees.
  2. From this position, swing the kettlebell back and behind your knees as high and as far back as comfortable.
  3. Start to swing the kettlebell forward keeping your arms straight as you thrust your hips forward and raise your torso back into the standing position.
  4. Keeping your arms straight, thrust your hips forward, straighten your knees, and swing the kettlebell in front as you rise to a standing position. You'll generate power by pushing your hips back behind you (not by squatting to the floor) and then snapping your hips forward.
  5. Bring the kettlebell up to shoulder height, this is the top of your swing.
  6. Swing the kettlebell down and behind your legs again, then back up to shoulder height in a nonstop fluid motion.

Repeat for one minute."

3. Burpee (using kettlebells)

If you're a beginner, try doing the burpee without the kettlebells first.

  1. "Place two kettlebells on the floor shoulder width apart about six inches in front of your toes. Make sure the handles are parallel.
  2. To set yourself up for the jump, sit down into a hinge motion, which is where you bend first (and more deeply at the hips), then at the knees. This will allow you to use your glutes when you jump.
  3. Push off with your heels and jump up vertically.
  4. Land lightly making sure not to pound your knees or other joints.
  5. After you've landed, reach down and grab the kettlebells with both hands. Then jump your feet back so you're in plank position.
  6. Make sure you distribute your body weight along your core, back, legs, and glutes. Keep your core tight.
  7. From the plank, lower your body down into a deep push-up. Balance is key to this move so keep your weight evenly distributed between both arms.
  8. After you have finished your push-up, jump back to standing and repeat.

Do steady reps for 1 minute. Prioritize great form over speed."

4. Kettlebell Plank

This is a great exercise for your spine, core, abs, glutes and back that will also get your heart pumping.

  1. "Place one kettlebell on the floor as far from your toes as you can comfortably reach.
  2. Go down into a push-up position with hands on the floor on either side of the kettlebell.
  3. Once you feel stable, place both arms on the kettlebell.
  4. Make sure your shoulders, elbows, and wrists are in a straight line.
  5. Your body should also form a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles. If you were to place a broomstick on your back, it would make contact with your head, upper back, and buttocks.
  6. Pull your belly button to your spine and keep your glutes and core engaged by contracting your abs as if you were about to be punched in the gut.
  7. Hold this position without rounding or hanging through your back. Keep all of your muscles activated.

Hold for 1 minute if you are advanced, otherwise hold for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds, then hold for another 20 seconds."

5. Double Squat Thruster

Squats are a phenomenal workout alone, but adding in an overhead press with kettlebells takes it to a whole other level.

  1. "Hold two kettlebells on each side of the body, or hold one kettlebell with both hands in the center of your chest.
  2. As you inhale, pull yourself down with tension into a full squat.
  3. Keep your back as flat as possible, torso erect, ears over shoulders, and kneecaps tracked over toes.
  4. Your weight should be on your heels, not the front of the foot.
  5. Toes should be pointed outward at an angle that feels natural.
  6. Push the knees apart with the elbows to keep the glutes engaged properly.
  7. On the exhale, stand up without leaning forward.
  8. As you come up, drive through your heals and push both kettlebells overhead in a press.
  9. Make sure to push your arms up simultaneously as you come up from the squat, this way one fluid motion takes you from the squat to the overhead press.

Repeat for one full minute, again paying attention to form and correct muscle use over speed."

The Best Kettlebell Move of All: The Turkish Get-Up

I use a kettlebell regularly in my workouts, and the most phenomenal exercise of all is the Turkish get-up. The video above breaks down each movement in detail, but you are basically going from a lying down position to standing up while holding a kettlebell. It sounds simple, but suffice to say it's a total-body exercise that burns calories, builds strength and, I believe, is one of the best workout moves you can do. Pete McCall, ACE PT, GFI, told ACE:10

"If I was told I could only do one exercise for the rest of my life it would be Turkish Get-ups. This exercise involves a number of muscles, making it energy expensive (burn a lot of calories) and it improves coordination and movement efficiency."

If you prefer to read the details, describes the seven steps of the Turkish get-up this way.11 Try doing three full get-ups with each arm, resting for one minute then repeating for three more full reps.

  1. "From the Fetal position roll onto your back and help the bell into the straight arm position. Don't take your eyes off the bell.
  2. Bend the leg on the same side as the bell and place the opposite arm out at 45 degrees
  3. Crush the handle as you sit up along the line of your arm, first to elbow and then to hand. Keep the kettlebell arm down and in it socket and the opposite shoulder away from the ear
  4. Push from the heel of the bent leg and drive your hips in the air and into full hip extension. There should be a straight line from bell to bottom hand.
  5. Sweep the straight leg back and through to a half kneeling position.
  6. Taking the hand off the floor straighten the body and take the eyes off the bell and look forwards.
  7. Drive from the front heel and stand. Steady yourself and then reverse the movement."

Another Strategy

I have recently started using kettlebells regularly and I have been following the recent book by Pavel Tsatsouline called Kettlebell Simple and Sinister. He is the Russian trainer who helped to introduce kettlebells to the US.

He provides a very simple regimen and only uses two exercises, the swing and the Get-Up. One does 100 swings a day and 10 Get-Ups. The swings are done in sets of ten, then rest until you catch your breath, and do the next set. The Get-Ups are done one at a time, five on each side. I have only been doing them for a few weeks but have been very impressed with the results so far. I am hoping to add 100 pounds to my deadlift by regularly doing them.

Are You Looking for a Beginner, Intermediate, or Advanced Kettlebell Workout?

The two-handed kettlebell swing is an excellent starting point. Stand up straight, with your feet a bit wider than hip-distance apart. Grab hold of the kettlebell with both hands, keeping your palms face down and arms in front of your body. Maintain a slight bend to your knee and drive your hips back, lowering your body — but not too low (you're not doing a squat). Then, in a fluid motion, explosively drive your hips forward while swinging the kettlebell, keeping your glutes and core engaged.12

When you're ready to progress, the one-handed kettlebell swing is the next step. It's the same movement as above, but using only one arm to hold the kettlebell. Swing the kettlebell up with one arm, but still swing the other arm to help drive momentum. Alternate hands when the kettlebell is behind your legs; aim for 10-12 reps with each arm.13 If you're ready to get more advanced, in the video below Darin Steen demonstrates the squat-jump using kettlebells.

This is just one of more than a dozen kettle bell exercise videos you can watch for free to give you some simple yet powerful techniques to add to your fitness regimen today. Part of what makes the kettlebell so alluring is that it's inexpensive, easy to use, and requires only minimal space. So you can easily perform a full-body kettlebell workout virtually anywhere, helping you to stay fit and improve your overall health without even leaving home.

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