The Kettlebell Revolution

Kettlebells sound like one of those goofy “one-size-fits-all” exercise gadgets promoted on late-night infomercials. There are, however, some basic differences. While most gimmick exercise devices are flimsy and ill conceived, kettlebells are rock-solid and its training methods are based on solid scientific principles. Kettlebell training is fun and safe, builds muscle and promotes fat loss. This is one exercise device that you will use for the rest of your life, and it won’t gather dust in the closet.

Kettlebell workouts involve few exercises and don’t take very long, but they’re not easy. Doing 5 to 6 sets of 20 or 30 kettlebells swings or snatches with minimal rest is like riding a bull at the rodeo. Your thighs, glutes and abs burn as you try to control a pendulating weight moving at high speed. The muscles of your upper back, shoulders, chest, lower legs and spine contract and relax to provide stability during these dynamic exercises. Kettlebells are for you if you want impressive results in a short time and are willing to work hard.

The Kettlebell Revolution

Kettlebell Science

The principal kettlebell exercises— the swing and one-arm snatch— are highly ballistic and involve concentric, eccentric and static muscle contractions from different muscle groups. Muscles contract concentrically when they shorten as they exert force. Examples include the active phase of standard exercises such as the biceps curl and bench press. Muscles contract eccentrically when they lengthen as they exert force. Lowering the weight to the chest during a bench press is an example of an eccentric movement. Static contractions develop force without changing muscle length. During any motion, some muscles contract concentrically to cause the movement; other muscles contract eccentrically to control the movement; while other muscles contract statically to stabilize the motion. Most standard weight-training programs concentrate on concentric contractions and largely ignore eccentric and static contractions.

Muscles can exert much more force eccentrically than concentrically. Also, the absolute force during eccentric contractions increases with velocity. In other words, you can overload muscles better training at high speeds than at slower speeds. Kettlebell training works the muscles dynamically in a way that builds strength and fitness while minimizing joint loads.

We are beginning to understand why high-speed ballistic training works so well. These exercises create high levels of metabolic stress that include the release of inflammatory chemicals such as prostaglandins and free radicals (i.e., reactive oxygen species) that combine with other chemicals and cell structures to trigger cell damage. Cell damage from these chemicals stimulates protein synthesis, which results in gains in muscle mass and strength. Kettlebell exercises, such as swings and snatches, create high levels of metabolic stress for prolonged periods (15 seconds to several minutes) that triggers cell inflammation and promotes increases in muscle mass and strength.

Kettlebells build aerobic fitness and promote weight loss. Kettlebell workouts are closer to interval training than standard weight training. The principle exercises (two- and one-arm swings and one-arm snatch) are practiced continuously and intensely using high reps. This causes whole body stresses that more closely resemble repeated 400-meter sprints than standard weight-training exercises (e.g., bench presses and squats). Kettlebell training creates metabolic stress that increases cell structures called mitochondria that build endurance and stresses the heart so that it can pump more blood.

Kettlebell Basics

Kettlebells were standard equipment in almost every gym in the world before about 1930 and were used by 19th-century strongmen such as Arthur Saxon, Eugene Sandow and Ivan Poddubny. While they remain popular in Eastern European countries, high-tech exercise machines replaced them in the United States and other Western countries. Single-handedly, Pavel Tsatsouline, a former physical training instructor for the Soviet Special Forces and a nationally ranked kettlebell competitor in the former Soviet Union, popularized kettlebell training in the United States. He elevated it from an obscure, quaint training method of ancient athletes to a wildly popular form of exercise. He described the elegance of kettlebell training: “You do not need incredible amounts of gear or elaborate venues; just one bell, one man and a lot of green grass.”

Kettlebell Workouts

Beginners

While there are many kettlebell exercises from which to choose, the simplest are the best. The beginner’s workout uses multiple sets of only two exercises: kettlebell sumo deadlifts and two-arm kettlebell swings. These exercises will build fitness in your major muscle groups and boost aerobic capacity. More important, they will teach you basic body positions that are critical for learning more advanced exercises. Stress good form and body mechanics. Most people use their arms and bend their backs when they get tired. Rest when you can no longer maintain good form.

The purpose of the beginner’s workout is to learn proper technique in simple exercises and improve fitness for more physically demanding exercises. The average man should start with a 35-pound kettlebell and the average woman should use an 18-pound kettlebell.

Monday
Do the following circuit 3 times:
Sumo deadlifts, 10 reps
Two-arm kettlebell swings, 10 reps
Rest 30 seconds

Wednesday
Do the following circuit 3 times:
Sumo deadlifts, 10 reps
Two-arm kettlebell swings, 10 reps
Rest 30 seconds

Friday
Do the following exercises:
Sumo deadlifts, 10 reps
Two-arm kettlebell swings, 20 reps
Rest 30 seconds

Increase total time doing the circuit until you can exercise for 20 minutes with 30 seconds rest between circuits.

Intermediates

More advanced routines are extensions of the beginner’s program. You are ready for more advanced exercises when you can complete the beginner’s program using good technique with relatively little strain. More advanced exercises include one-arm swings, clean and press and one-arm snatch. Integrate each new exercise into your routine slowly.

Include two to three exercises in your kettlebell circuit. Pay close attention to technique and good body mechanics. Adjust reps and rest intervals according to your fitness level. Don’t exercise beyond your capacity.

Monday
Do the following circuit for 20 minutes; repeat the circuit as often as you can
Two arm kettlebell swings, 20 reps
One-arm kettlebell swing with right arm, 10 reps
One-arm kettlebell swing with left arm, 10 reps
Rest 30 to 60 seconds, and repeat circuit

Wednesday
Do the following circuit for 20 minutes; repeat the circuit as often as you can
One arm kettlebell snatch with right arm, 10 reps
One arm kettlebell snatch with left arm, 10 reps
Rest 30 seconds
One-arm clean and press with right arm, 10 reps
One-arm clean and press with left arm, 10 reps
Rest 1 to 2 minutes and repeat circuit

Friday
Combined swings and snatches
Do 3 sets of 10 repetitions of the following exercise:
1 rep of the exercise: one-arm swing right arm, one-arm snatch right arm, change hands without stopping; one-arm swing with left arm, one-arm snatch with left arm. You have completed 10 reps when you have completed 10 series of this exercise.

Description of the Exercises

Sumo Deadlift

The technique: Stand with feet spaced wider than shoulder-width apart and feet pointed out slightly. Keeping your spine and head in a neutral position, grasp the kettlebell with both hands and palms facing toward you (pronated grip); keep your arms straight, hips flexed (bent with butt back), chest out, and weight mainly on your heels. Keep your arms straight and lift the weight by driving forward with your hips and extending the knees, while maintaining a neutral spine (straight but not vertical or rounded). Finish the movement by tightening your quads, glutes and abs. Lower the weight to the floor by flexing at the hips and using your legs to bear the load.

The Kettlebell Revolution Two-Arm Kettlebell Swing

Two-Arm Kettlebell Swing

The technique: Begin by holding the kettlebell in both hands with palms facing toward you, in a standing position with knees bent, feet placed slightly more than shoulder-width apart, hips flexed, back straight, chest out, and head in a neutral position. Holding the kettlebell at knee level, swing the weight to a horizontal position by initiating the motion with the hips, thighs and abs (tighten the quads, glutes and ab muscles as hard as you can), keeping your arm straight and relaxed during the movement. Let the weight swing back between your legs in a “football hiking motion” and then repeat the exercise. During the movement, hinge at the hips and not at the spine.

The Kettlebell Revolution One-Arm Kettlebell Swings

One-Arm Kettlebell Swings

The technique: Begin by holding the kettlebell in one hand with your palm facing toward you, in a standing position with knees bent, feet placed slightly more than shoulder-width apart, hips flexed, back straight, chest out and head in a neutral position. Holding the kettlebell at knee level. Swing the weight to a horizontal position by initiating the motion with the hips, thighs and abs (tighten the quads, glutes and ab muscles as hard as you can), keeping your arm straight and relaxed during the movement. Let the weight swing back between your legs in a “football hiking motion” and then repeat the exercise. During the movement, hinge at the hips and not at the spine.

The Kettlebell Revolution Kettlebell Clean and Press

Kettlebell Clean and Press

The technique:
1) Clean (bring the kettlebell to chest level): Begin by holding the kettlebell in one hand with your palm facing toward you, in a standing position with knees bent, feet placed slightly more than shoulder-width apart, hips flexed, back straight, chest out, and head in a neutral position. Holding the kettlebell at knee level. Swing the weight to chest level by initiating the motion with the hips, thighs and abs (tighten the quads, glutes and ab muscles as hard as you can). The kettlebell, elbow and torso should be together at the top of the clean with wrist straight.
2) Press: From the clean position, press the kettlebell overhead, while maintaining a neutral spine, minimal side bend and straight wrist. Keep your abs, glutes and quads tight during the motion and keep your pressing shoulder down. Lockout the kettlebell and pause motionless at the top of the press.
3) Recovery: Lower the kettlebell to the chest under control and then lower it to the floor, maintaining a neutral spine and flexing at the hips.

Kettlebell One-Arm Snatch

The technique: Begin by holding the kettlebell in one hand with your palm facing toward you, in a standing position with knees bent, feet placed slightly more than shoulder-width apart, hips flexed, back straight, chest out and head in a neutral position. Holding the kettlebell at knee level. Swing the weight to a horizontal position by initiating the motion with the hips, thighs and abs (tighten the quads, glutes and ab muscles as hard as you can), bending your arm as it approaches the chest and continuing the motion until straightening it overhead. The kettlebell should rotate from the front of your hand to the back during the motion. Use an upward punching motion at the top of the movement to prevent injuring your forearm. Let the weight swing back between your legs in a “football hiking motion” and then repeat the exercise. During the movement, hinge at the hips and not at the spine.

Is Kettlebell Training for You?

Kettlebell training is a great way to get in shape and develop whole-body fitness. It is not the only way to train and athletes with special fitness requirements, such as runners, throwers, baseball players and football players have to add other types of exercise to develop optimal strength and fitness. However, no other training device allows people to use high-speed ballistic training the way kettlebells do. Give it a try; you might get hooked!

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