I’m not here to tell you that lifting a barbell is stupid, or that everyone should be training to get stronger with super heavy lifting. I am going to tell you though, that there has been a huge trend in the fitness industry surrounding kettlebells.
Aside from the old school guys and the Russians, we don’t see too many people flocking to the SPORT of kettlebell, which is a whole framework built around doing things like 10 minutes of unbroken snatches and so forth.
What I’ve seen is a huge outbreak of people getting into what has been coined as “kettlebell flow.’
Inherently, this is awesome, more people are using an awkward odd implement in ways that challenge movement patterns to get better at doing shit.
The problem is it comes off being closer to looking like Will Ferrell ribbon dancing in the movie Old School than it does looking like someone actually lifting a weight.
There is a time and a place for it, maybe in some conditioning, but to center your whole premise of getting really strong and capable around swinging 13 pounds in circles is ridiculous.
So that being said, I am going to give you my top 5 exercises for building real strength while using kettlebells, and they are probably going to have to be heavy…
1. High Pull to Squat
This movement utilizes many of the same principles as olympic weightlifting, but without the year of broomstick or pvc pipe lifting.
A ton of the posterior chain, or muscles up the backside of your body, are being used to pull the bell off the ground explosively.
Athleticism is at play when you have to quickly pull yourself under the bell and shift your grip to the horns, stabilizing yourself in a full squat.
Obviously all that’s left is to stand that sucker up…
How to implement it: I’ve used that as muscular conditioning with sets of 8-12, which will knock the wind out of you if you choose the right weight, or I’ve worked to some heavy sets of 5 with it. Look at overall volume, and stay around 25-30 reps total, which could be a 3x10, or a 5x5.
The trick is to stay back on the heels on the pull so the bell doesn’t get out in front of you and pull you forward on the squat!
2) Double Bent Row
The real trick here is finding a weight that you don’t have to use a lot of body english for, matter of fact, your back shouldn’t raise up at all, the only thing that moves are the bell and your arms, coming back to floor every time.
How to implement it: Rows should be done in higher volume due to the usual lack of pulling exercises present in any lifters routine, because we can’t see our back in the mirror, so why do we train it right? Anyway, go heavy, but stick to 6-10 reps on these, not much less, not much more, for 4-5 sets.
3) Floor Press plus Bridge
What sort of strength article would this be if I didn’t include a bench press variation?! I like the floor press for a few reasons, first, it’s one less piece of equipment you need… no bench? No problem! Second, it’s way better on the shoulders when you’re forced into a position that doesn’t cause all those issues the big time lifetime bench pressers have.
What’s with the bridge though? Well, it changes the angle we press at, and also increases the range of motion slightly, and we have the added benefit of learning to push our feet into the floor and making this a full body lift!
Vertical shins, hips up, bells racked with vertical forearms, and triceps on the ground.
When executing, think of pressing into the handles to drive your back into the floor, and keep those hips up!
How to implement: This can go a few different ways, but make sure to get the most out of how unstable these are by really owning the top position and holding for a second, and coming down slow and super controlled. My favorite rep scheme: 10,8,6,6,6,12,12… starting light, building up to a few heavy sets of 6, then smashing with a few drop sets.
4) Double Clean
This is a super explosive movement that forces you to have your balance correct, your timing right, and your wits about you!
Pro tip: Eyes stay up, keep the bells close, and they won’t smash into your forearms as hard!
How to implement: I don’t like to go over 8 reps, and usually stick with 5 at a time on these due to its explosive nature, and if you want to go heavy enough to garner results, 5 reps is the perfect set. Look for about 25 total reps, or climb to a heavy set of 5.
5) Limiting myself to only 5 movements is tough, so I’ll choose one that gives a double dose…
The Snatch to Press Complex
Utilizing similar principles at the clean, I like to put the snatch in there to keep it full body so I have to work on building a strong foundation before every press.
Start with a back swing and use hip drive to snatch to an overhead position, where you’ll pause for dramatic effect and instagram selfies.
Stay tight through the body and bring the bell slowly to front rack (thumb to collar bone) before pressing back up, and repeating the movement.
How to implement: Since we’re taxing the shoulder in a few different ways, let’s call 1 snatch and 1 press a rep, and shoot for 3-6 at a time, depending on weight. Remember, strength and stability is the game here, so don’t go getting all squirrely!
Bonus: It was so tough for me to choose just 5 exercises, so I’m going to throw a few more your way that I feel should be staples of your kettlebell training.
Bang for your buck:
Carries: In a pinch, if you’re looking for a great movement to add strength to your game, grab a few heavy bells and take a walk. I also like holing one at your side, and walking slow and deliberate, trying to not bend at all.
Swings: This one should be obvious, but swinging a heavy bell for 10-20 reps unbroken will jack your heart rate and build some serious grit as well!
Kettlebells are a unique way to train that add a ton of instability, making you have to correct and stabilize to grow stronger. Keep in mind that a barbell is perfectly balanced to maximize the weight being moved, while an odd object will maximize the amount of strength being built from a stability and transferability standpoint. So when you’re adding up how much you benched, realize it won’t quite match what you had a bar for weight, but the end result is a stronger set of shoulders and arms that can handle more of a challenge.
In the end it’s up to you to find what you love to do as far as lifting and training goes, but if you’re a strength person, don’t shy away from the kettlebells just yet, they have a real place in the world of building up your body to handle weight and be as (here comes the dreaded word,) functional!
So go heavy, focus on staying tight and controlled, and give these exercises a try in your routine!