If you love working out with kettlebells and are looking for a new challenge, consider leveling up with the Iron Cardio workout.
Designed by Brett Jones, CSCS, a strength and conditioning coach and Strong First instructor, this cardio-and-strength kettlebell workout involves performing 1 clean, 1 strict press and 1 squat; you can do the exercises with one kettlebell and do the exercises alternate sides with each set or use double kettlebells.
Some people follow up this kettlebell flow with a few pull-ups or snatches to get a mix of push and pull movements.
"After performing that for a few weeks, you can spice it up with the 'traveling 2s,' where 1 rep switches to 2 reps for one of the exercises. For example, 2 cleans, 1 strict press and 1 squat. Then 1 clean, 2 strict presses and 1 squat," Colleen Conlon, CPT, a certified kettlebell coach and author of Kettlebell Catalyst, explains to LIVESTRONG.com.
Whether you're new to kettlebells or have been working out with them for some time, here's why you should try the Iron Cardio workout.
Benefits of the Iron Cardio Workout
This kettlebell complex is that it is self-paced, meaning you can do it as quickly or as slowly as you'd like and for as long as you'd like.
"It's a self-paced protocol where you're training anaerobically during the work sets and are able to go for long periods of time working aerobically," Conlon says. "Sometimes being stuck to a timer can cause anxiety; this can take that mental barrier away."
For example, you can either give yourself a time limit and see how many sets you're able to complete in 20 minutes, or you can aim for a number of sets you'd like to finish in a certain amount of time. Over time, you should be able to complete more sets with the same weight, or reduce the amount of time it takes you to finish the programmed number of sets, Conlon says.
Another major perk of doing Iron Cardio workouts is being able to perfect your form and technique. Because you're working with a small rep scheme, the workout encourages you to use a heavier load (think of a weight you can do 5 to 6 reps with) and to focus on better form.
"Iron Cardio is about the practice, it's not about chasing 'the burn.' It's a workout designed to pay close attention to the technique of each exercise with the intention of working towards flawless reps," Conlon explains.
"Whether you are new or seasoned, there's always new cues to discover to work toward better reps," she says. "You get to take it one rep at a time. Iron Cardio allows you to always listen to your body to decide when it's time to do your next set versus being chained to the clock."
Ready to put your kettlebell skills and endurance to the test? Try the Iron Cardio protocol below.
Check out more of our 20-minute workouts here — we’ve got something for everyone.
How to Do the Kettlebell Iron Cardio Workout
To begin, do 1 rep of each exercise for the first set. If you feel comfortable with the weight you're using, you can incorporate the traveling 2s into the next set. So for example, you would do 2 cleans, 1 strict press and 1 squat. During the second set, you would do 1 clean, 2 strict presses and 1 squat, and on the third, you would do 1 clean, 1 strict press and 2 squats.
You never do more than 2 reps of any move, which helps combat the boredom that can often come from traditional weight-lifting workouts.
"What I love about the clean, press and squat is the fact that you are getting pull and hinge (clean), push (strict press) and knee-dominant (squat) patterns all in one, which makes a great well-rounded, total-body workout routine. Not to mention, there's a flow component which can make the workout feel meditative," Conlon says.
If you're new to kettlebells, you can replace the clean with a cheat clean (you use two hands instead of one to clean the bell) and the strict press with a push press (your legs assist in the press), she suggests.
And if you would like to change up the hinge, push, pull and knee-dominant movement patterns, Conlon recommends doing a snatch, viking push press (slightly bend your knees to press the weights overhead) and reverse lunge.
As you get stronger over time, you can decrease the amount of rest you're taking between sets, aim to do more sets or increase the time. Conlon says it's ideal to do this workout two to three times per week.
"There might be a light, medium and heavy day," she says. "Those might look like this: light day is 20 minutes or 20 sets, medium day is 30 minutes or 30 sets and heavy day is 40 minutes or 40 sets."
From there, to make it more challenging, re-test your weight in 5 to 6 reps on the strict press to see if you should move up in weight.
You can decide how long the workout should be, but the important thing is that you're focusing on technique and doing the reps with proper form. If you're not able to do the exercises with good form or control your breathing, try a lighter weight, take a longer rest between sets or stop the workout altogether. Aiming for 15 to 24 sets is a good place to start for beginners.
Iron Cardio Workout: Traveling 2s
1 strict press
2 strict presses
1 strict press
1. Kettlebell Clean
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and place a kettlebell a few inches in front of you on your right side. The kettlebell should be far enough in front of you that you have a straight right arm as you hinge your hips back, loosely grip the horn and tip the bell toward you.
- With your shoulders above your hips and a flat back, hike the kettlebell between your legs. Avoid rotating your shoulders.
- As you straighten your legs to stand, use power from your glutes and hamstrings to punch the kettlebell up to chest height as you pull your right elbow back to clean the weight to a front rack position. Make sure to keep the kettlebell close to your body as you clean the kettlebell up to the front rack position.
- This is 1 rep. Repeat on the left side during the next set if you're using a single kettlebell.
2. Kettlebell Strict Press
- From the front rack position in the kettlebell clean, brace your core and press the kettlebell overhead on an exhale, finishing with your biceps by your ear. Remember to keep your legs straight and minimize head and neck movement when pressing the weight overhead.
- At the top of the press, your arm(s) should be fully extended with your fist pointing toward the ceiling. The weight should be directly over your shoulder.
- Pause for a moment, then slowly bring the kettlebell to the front rack position.
3. Kettlebell Squat
- Hold the kettlebell(s) in the front rack position after your strict press and stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Brace your core and keep your chest lifted as you push your hips back and down until your thighs are parallel to the ground (or as low as you can comfortably go with good form). Remember to keep your feet flat on the ground and your back straight. Avoid caving your knees inward or outward as you lower into a squat.
- Press your feet into the ground to return to a standing position.
- Hang from a pull-up bar with your palms facing away from you and your hands about shoulder-width apart. Your arms should be fully extended.
- Get into a hollow body position, packing your shoulders down and back and tucking your pelvis to brace your core. Straighten your legs.
- Engaging your lats, pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar. Avoid shrugging your shoulders.
- Finish the rep by lowering yourself back down to a full dead hang.
If you don't have access to a pull-up bar, Conlon suggests doing a bent-over row, single-arm swing or snatch. And if you're new to pull-ups, consider dead hanging at the bar, or holding at the top of a pull-up, as well as doing negative pull-ups.
"I like assisted pull-ups, but it's rare I program those for clients. Lat pulldown machines are a great way to get to the pull-up eventually and easier to incorporate into the above protocol," Conlon says.
Can't do a dead hang? Regress to a heavy farmer's hold and carry to work on strengthening your grip and lats.