Adding kettlebells (KBs) to my training was one of the best decisions I ever made. What’s that? You want one, too? Lucky for you, I have just the thing for you to pick the right size and brand.
Let me get some basic common sense out of the way, first.
Before you decide to invest money in any tool (good KBs are not cheap), let’s see if this investment is worth your money and time.
What do you want to do with it?
You want to get stronger, leaner, faster and an overall better human being, right? The KB can give you all of that. You just need to base your training on sound principles and make use of the tools that are available to you.
I still stand by that statement.
But nobody said you need to limit yourself to only one training modality.
Instead, choose the tool that get’s the job done in a way that is most convenient for you.
Example: I recently wrote about my hybrid training approach, which is based on training the fundamental human movements. You can categorize almost every movement into an upper body push or pull, or a squat and a hinge.
Now it comes down to A) what tools you have and B) which tool is the best to train in each of these 4 categories.
I think bodyweight training is superior for training the upper body. Nothing is more badass than handstand push-ups, front levers and muscle-ups in this regard. The pistol squat is a useful squatting move that builds lots of strength and mobility for the lower body. No real complains there.
What’s missing for me here is a hinge movement that you can progress with (read: go heavy).
Enter the KB swing.
The swing, done right, can help develop that explosiveness in the hips that almost every athlete needs for his sport. It’s a superb option to train the backside of your body (mainly hamstrings and butt). Swings give you better posture and, done for reps (30+), are phenomenal for blasting off excess body fat (paired with eating real food).
The only bodyweight alternative that I can think of that can deliver similar results are sprints. Sprints are awesome. But I don’t always feel like going outside for sprints. Sometimes it’s more convenient for me to work out at home and that’s fine.
I bought my first KB solely for this purpose: swings.
Later on, I discovered the endless possibilities that are now available to me with this one piece of equipment.
The KB can be used effectively to train the whole body and develop many athletic qualities. But more on this in a sec.
Choosing Your Starting Weight
Next question: How strong are you?
In other words: What is the weight that you should start your KB journey with?
I suggest you take a similar route and start with a focus on mastering the swing and pick the KB size accordingly.
This is my recommendation: 12-16kg for women, 20-24kg for men. We can stop here and use some common sense. On which side of the strength spectrum are you?
Side note for non-metric folks: 1kg is roughly 2.2lbs. I’m going to stick to kilograms for KB sizes. Just multiply by 2 and you know which ballpark we’re in.
Take the bigger KB if you have been strength training for a couple of years. Choose the smaller size if you’re completely new to strength training.
My recommendation is still biased towards choosing a slightly heavier KB. From my own experience, I can say that swings progress really fast. The 24kg KB felt really heavy in the beginning. After a few months, it felt laughably light.
Therefore, get a KB that you can “grow” into. From there on, you can progress to doing one-handed swings and ultimately get a bigger KB.
If you can spend the money, get a second KB that is smaller than your swing KB (women: 8-12kg, men: 12-16kg). Then do Turkish Get-ups and other kinds of Loaded Yoga with it.
Now that you found your ideal starting weight, what’s next?
You buy yourself a quality KB.
I’ll spare you the “if you buy cheap you buy twice” speech and instead tell you why cheap KBs are useless:
- The handle can be formed weirdly. For two-handed swings and similar moves, gripping the bell feels uncomfortable (not the no-pain-no-gain-kind uncomfortable).
- The handle can have a weld seam. This is a sharp edge that will rip off the inside of your hands before even breaking a sweat.
- The are coated with cheap paint. They will rust and chip little bits of the coating when they bounce against something (which happens quite often). The handles can also rust and we’re back to ripping off the insides of our hands.
- When you become really strong, you want heavy-ass KBs. Most cheap KBs range in the weight class of paperweights.
- Most of them just look plain ugly.
I only buy Dragon Door kettlebells. They are indestructible, molded from one piece, with highly durable coating that won’t rust or chip. And they’re fucking beautiful. They are a bit pricier, but last a lifetime.
Disclaimer: I am a Dragon Door affiliate, which means I get a little reward if you buy KBs or books from them based on my recommendation. I never endorse stuff that I don’t use and love myself. If you find my writing useful and were about to buy a KB anyways, why not show some love at the same time? 😉
Progressing with Kettlebells
What do you do with your KB?
Learn how to safely and correctly use it.
I’d say the best option is to find a competent RKC instructor near you and take an Enter the Kettlebell seminar. I did this myself and even took a 10 weeks beginner’s course afterwards.
But it’s possible that that’s not an option for you. Then at least educate yourself. Find good video instructions, take videos of yourself and check if your form is correct and always strive for refining your technique.
I loved Master the Kettlebell by Max Shank (yep, Dragon Door again). Clear, concise instructions on how to perform the most important KB moves, including sample workouts and general training advice which alone was worth the read.
If you’re fairly new to KBs, start with just one movement (like the swing). Work this one move into your training and start owning it.
If you’re like me, you don’t want hundreds of heavy-ass cannonballs with handles attached to them sitting around at your home. So here’s the trick:
Only progress in 8kg steps.
In the early days of KBs, this was actually the only option. This has historic reasons, because KBs were originally used as a weighing unit (a Russian pood is approximately 16kg).
This is genius not only because you save money and space. By only progressing in “big” steps with the weight, you get built in periodization.
Let’s say you got a 24kg KB. In the beginning, the 24kg might feel very heavy. You can only do 5-10 quality reps (power, absolute strength). Your nervous system adjusts to the movement, and you can soon bang out 20+ reps (strength endurance, conditioning, hypertrophy). Now you start doing them one-handed, which gives you an additional grip challenge and asymmetrical training. Let’s just say that asymmetrical training is crazy good and will make you stronger once you switch back to symmetrical training (i.e. two-handed swings).
When you’re ready for the jump, the 32kg is heavy enough so that you are challenged again in the 5-10 rep range. Rinse and repeat. Periodization. Boom.
This even makes sense when you look at the relative increase in weight: Going from 24kg to 32kg is a 30% jump. That’s big. But quick gains are expected for beginners, because they are merely grooving and learning the pattern. Once you’re fairly strong, jumping from 40kg to 48kg is only a 20% jump (which is still pretty big). The stronger you get, the harder it is to make progress (diminishing returns and all that).
Set a goal, like 30 consecutive one-handed swings per side. After that, you can get the next bigger KB. This way, you have to earn your KBs. Maybe you buy a new one every 3-6 months. That’s still a fraction of the average gym membership if you do the math.
You don’t have to do everything with a KB. You can still do bodyweight training, barbells and other stuff you like and add KBs where you think they fit in. After my first KB, I bought a smaller one (16kg) to do all kinds of Loaded Yoga.
Below are my favorite one-kettlebell workouts. They’re great for conditioning and increasing work capacity (being able to do more training without compromising recovery). These fit right into the category of very handy Super Quick Workouts.
All 4 take 15 minutes tops to complete. Do these once you feel comfortable doing swings for reps and familiarize yourself with the other exercises mentioned.
4 rounds per side (never put the KB down)
A. 8 Single-side Front Squats
B. 25m Suitcase Carry
I stole this idea from Dan John’s article The Four Steps. Dan proposed the “Eagle” workout. Here, we do 8 reps of double KB front squats, followed by a 20m farmer’s walk. Repeat for 8 times.
The idea is that your grip can rest when doing the front squats (you hold the KB in rack position) and your shoulders rest a bit while doing the farmer’s walk (you’re carrying the KB at your side).
This workout is a real challenge and you have my utmost respect if you can finish all 8 rounds without putting the KBs down.
The Traveler is the light version, the 1/2 Eagle if you will. With only one KB, do single-side front squats (squatting plus a KB in rack position on one side). After 8 reps, drop the KB to your side. Carry it like a suitcase for approx. 25m. Keep a straight posture. Don’t lean to the side. Ideally, the KB never touches your legs. Repeat.
The goal is to do all 4 rounds on one side first, then switch to the other side. Always start with your weakest side.
4 rounds per side (again, KB never touches the ground)
A. 15 One-handed Swings
B. 25m Rack Walk
Same idea as with The Traveler. Do 15 swings with one hand, keep the KB in that hand and clean the KB in the last rep. You are now holding the KB in rack position. Walk. Keep your rack arm as vertical as possible.
AMRAP for 15 minutes
A. 2 Single-side Cleans
B. 1 One-arm Military Press
C. 3 Single-side Front Squats
Clean the KB 2 times, from there, press it over your head once, come back to single-side rack position and squat down 3 times. Immediately switch sides and repeat. That’s 1 round. Do as many rounds as possible (AMRAP). “Possible” means that you do quality rounds. Heavy breathing and sweating is allowed. Half-assing the movement to call it a “rep” is not.
Strive to complete 15 rounds total. Do 30 rounds and I’m impressed.
A. 5 Goblet Squats
B. 15 Two-handed Swings
C. 20m Crawl
Again, stolen from Dan John. In the original idea, Litvinovs consist of doing a heavy barbell exercise (deadlift, squat, power clean, etc.) immediately followed by a sprint.
Instead of sprinting, we’ll crawl and call it Baby Litvinovs (see what I did there?). When you crawl, it is critical that you keep your upper body horizontal. Otherwise it’s cheating. Imagine having a cup of steaming hot tea resting on your lower back. Don’t spill it.
Don’t be fooled by the name. This is tough.
How often should I do these?
You can use these workouts as finishers for the end of a training session (assuming your training sessions consist mostly of mobility and strength training). Or do them on separate days. If you strength train 2-3 times a week, you could sprinkle in 1 or 2 additional quick KB workouts.
You could also use these as your standalone workout routine. All 4 workouts consist of high bang-for-your-buck movements. You’ll train your whole body. 2-4 times a week, do one of these workouts. Progress by finishing the workouts faster (less rest, quicker/more fluent movement), or doing more rounds or getting a bigger KB (preferably in that order).
What are these workouts good for?
They’re fun. They can help you burn fat and build muscle. They will increase your work capacity and improve your conditioning. Performed with attention to detail, they will improve your mobility, strength and overall quality of movement.
I find the asymmetrical moves (one-sided squats, swings and carries) especially helpful for bulletproofing the midsection. It feels like I’m simply able to handle myself better, bet it with the barbell or bodyweight moves.
Now go forth and get your swing on.
Photo: Sabine Adler