Don't have a lot of time or motivation to do complicated exercises? Have no fear: This stripped-down, straightforward kettlebell routine packs some serious benefits in only a few moves.
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Why Use Kettlebells?
Sure, kettlebells have a lot of hype surrounding them — but if you're going to do just one workout, why should it be the mysterious 'bells? Try this on for size: In an independent study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise, researchers recruited 30 reasonably fit male and female volunteers and put 18 of them through an eight-week program of twice-weekly kettlebell workouts. The rest were reserved as a control group.
When researchers compared the kettlebell trainees to the control group, they found that the trainees' aerobic capacity had increased by 13.8 percent, and their abdominal core strength had increased by a whopping 70 percent. The subjects' dynamic balance and grip strength had improved too.
In another small study sponsored by ACE, the 10 participants performed intense 20-minute kettlebell workouts, alternating 15 seconds of work with 15 seconds of rest throughout the entire period. The researchers reported that the exercisers burned slightly more than 20 calories per minute during the workout — or roughly equivalent to running a six-minute mile.
Now, the "just in case" information: Because kettlebell workouts inherently involve momentum and instability, it's very important to focus on using proper form. Because of that, you're never going to work to actual muscle failure, and it's always a good idea to get some hands-on guidance with form if you can.
Prepping for Your Workout
With some types of weightlifting, you might aim for a one-rep max. But with kettlebells, it's more about setting up a rhythm and activating your whole body as a unit, especially the posterior chain — your calves, hamstrings, glutes and back — which often goes neglected during daily life.
You could count reps, but it's often easier to select a time period — say, 30 seconds to two minutes, depending on the exercise — and set up a timer so you switch exercises at the end of each period, essentially creating a kettlebell circuit.
To do this workout, you'll need a couple of kettlebells around — a heavier kettlebell for ballistic movements and a lighter one for more static "grind" movements. For a typical man, Kettlebells USA recommends starting with a 35- or 44-pound kettlebell for ballistic movements and a 26-pound (or heavier) kettlebell for the grinds. Most women should start with a 26- or 35-pound kettlebell for ballistic movements, and 13 pounds or heavier for grinds.
If you're not sure how much weight to go for, start a little lighter than you think you can lift. Even with a stripped-down kettlebell workout like this, maintaining proper form is paramount.
Consider purchasing a third, very light kettlebell — perhaps as light as 5 or 10 pounds — to use when you first practice these exercises. You could do the workout with no weight to begin with, but having a little bit of weight in your hands often makes it easier to develop the proper form.
Start With a Warm-Up
Set a timer for five minutes and jump on your favorite cardio machine, pick up a jump rope, or bust out some calisthenics exercises like jumping jacks, mountain climbers, burpees and dynamic lunges. The idea is to literally warm your body up, giving it a chance to prepare for an intense workout by elevating your body temperature and increasing blood flow to your muscles.
Once the timer goes off, set it to 30-second intervals and do two or three rounds of the following circuit:
- 30 seconds: Arm swings
- 30 seconds: Leg swings
- 30 seconds: Air squats
- 30 seconds: Kettlebell halos
It's okay to rest between intervals, but try to limit the rest to 15 seconds. If you're not feeling warm and limber after three rounds of this circuit, go ahead and stay in "warm-up" mode until you do.
How to Do Air Squats
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Hinge at the hips as you bend your legs and squat down; imagine that you're sitting back and down on a chair.
- Stop when your hips break the plane of your knees. Press through the whole surface of your feet — not just the toes or heels on their own — to return to a standing position.
How to Do Kettlebell Halos
- Stand with your feet hip-width to shoulder-width apart and hold one of your lighter kettlebells close to your body in a horn grip — with the "ball" portion of the kettlebell pointing up, one hand on each side, or "horn," of the handle.
- Move the kettlebell in a roughly halo-shaped arc around your head: Begin by moving it across your chest toward the right shoulder, then over and around your shoulder to the back of your head, with your left arm reaching up and over your head to make this possible.
- Bring the kettlebell around behind your head to your left shoulder (right arm reaching up and over your head as needed), then move the kettlebell around your left shoulder and across your chest to the starting position.
Make sure you switch and do this movement in both directions.
Your Stripped-Down Workout
Keep that timer set for 30 seconds, and get ready for this lean, mean stripped down circuit:
- 30 seconds: Double-arm swings with heavy weight
- Rest 30 seconds
- 30 seconds: Single-arm swings (right side) with heavy weight
- Rest 30 seconds
- 30 seconds: Single-arm swings (left side) with heavy weight
- Rest 30 seconds
- 1 minute (or two 30-second rounds): Turkish get-up
- Rest 1 minute
If you find yourself struggling with proper form or having to stop and rest during the work intervals, switch to a lighter kettlebell, slow down or both.
Master the Hip Hinge
Before you can do either of the swing moves in the workout, you need to master the art of hinging back at the hips instead of squatting down; this hip hinge is the motion that drives each kettlebell swing.
- Stand up straight, and take a moment to focus on your core posture: Think "chest open" or "chest up and out," while also squeezing your shoulder blades back and down.
- Place the outside edges of your hands in the creases of your hips, one on each side.
- Soften your knees and press back with your hands to start the motion, driving your hips back. Use your core muscles to keep your torso flat — keep thinking "chest up, shoulders back and down" — as it tilts forward, with your hips as the hinge point.
- Think of squeezing your glutes and driving forward with your hips to reverse the motion, returning to the starting point.
Your legs do straighten as you come back up to an upright posture, but the motion begins in your hips. It might help to imagine that you're trying to "pop" your hands forward, away from the crease of your hips. However, do not allow your back to hyperextend past the starting posture.
The Kettlebell Moves
There is much more to any kettlebell workout than meets the eye, so when in doubt, always use every learning resource available to you and, if possible, consult a trainer for an in-person consultation.
1. Double-Arm Swings
Remember to practice double-arm kettlebell swings with a light weight at first. Focus on driving the motion from your hips, not lifting with your arms. If you've perfected the hip hinge and drive forward, your arms and the weight will swing up on their own; all you have to do is keep the motion under control.
- Hold the kettlebell in both hands, using an overhand grip on the uppermost part of the handle. Position yourself with feet hip-width apart, standing with good posture: chest up and out, shoulder blades back and down.
- Soften your knees and keep your arms straight (but not locked) as you hinge back at the hips, letting the kettlebell swing back between your thighs as you do so.
- Drive forward with your hips, reversing the motion of the hip hinge. If you've done the hip hinge correctly, your arms and the weight will swing forward and up naturally — you don't do any lifting with your arms at all during this exercise.
- Stop the weight as it reaches chest level (or let it stop earlier if you haven't generated enough momentum to get it that high).
- Reverse the motion, repeating your hip hinge as you allow the weight to swing naturally down and then back between your thighs.
This completes the repetition, but you shouldn't pause between reps. Instead, drive forward with your hips to power the next swing. When you're ready to end the motion, recover the weight and stop your momentum in the hip-hinge position (kettlebell between your thighs).
2. Single-Arm Swings
A single-arm swing works exactly the same as a double-arm swing, except that you hold the kettlebell in an overhand grip with just one hand. All the other cues remain the same: The kettlebell still travels the same natural swing path along your midline and between your legs (not out to the side). You still maintain a "chest up, shoulders back and down" posture, and use the hip hinge to power the movement.
3. Turkish Get-Up
Use the lighter of your weights for the Turkish get-up, especially at first. Remember, you should be able to press the kettlebell overhead at least eight or 10 times in a row, so that there's no question of your ability to hold it locked out above you. It's always best to consult a trainer for in-person guidance on this exercise, if possible.
- Lie face-up on the floor with the kettlebell in your right hand, arm bent and kettlebell in the "racked" position (with the ball portion resting against the back of your hand/wrist).
- Straighten your right arm, pressing the kettlebell straight up over your shoulder. You can reach across with your left arm for an assist if necessary.
- Bend your right knee and put that foot flat on the floor.
- Roll onto your left elbow, bringing your right shoulder off the floor. Keep the kettlebell straight over your shoulder throughout this and the following movements.
- Keep your hips on the floor as you straighten your left arm, pushing your torso further upright. Reposition your right foot so that you can support your weight on your left hand and your right foot, using core strength to keep your body steady.
- Use your core strength to lift your left hip off the floor, bringing your left leg underneath you and slightly behind your hips, so that you can kneel on your left knee. The ball of your left foot should be in contact with the ground — do not point your toe on that foot.
- Straighten up, using your core to stabilize your body as you shift your torso upright to get into a lunging position, left knee still on the floor. This will bring your left hand off the floor, while the kettlebell remains straight up over your right shoulder, as if you'd just completed an overhead press.
- Stand up, bringing your left leg (the rear leg in the lunge) forward, so that you end up with your feet hip-width apart.
- Reverse the motion, step by step, to end lying face-up on the floor. Carefully bend your right arm and bring the kettlebell back to the floor to complete the repetition, using your left arm for an assist as needed.
If you're wondering whether your kettlebell workout can replace the twice-weekly, full-body strength-training workouts recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the answer is yes. However, make sure you give yourself at least a full rest day between kettlebell workouts for your muscles to recover before you work them again.
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE Sponsored Research Study: Kettlebells Kick Butt"
- American Council on Exercise: "Kettlebells: Twice the Results in Half the Time?"
- Kettlebells USA: "What Size Kettlebell Should I Buy?"
- Mayo Clinic: "Aerobic Exercise: How to Warm Up and Cool Down"
- ExRx.net: "Kettlebell Swing"
- ExRx.net: "Kettlebell Two Arm Swing"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans: Appendix 1. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- ExRX.net: "Turkish Get-Up"
- YouTube: Kettlebell Halo