When you’re looking to build your strength, barbells are fantastic, but they’re not your only option for getting strong. Using kettlebell strength circuits to get stronger will not only help you lift heavier — they’ll help you lift longer, too.
Circuit training consists of moving from one exercise to the next with minimal to no rest in between. Performing circuits with kettlebells has the unique advantage of combining the refined technique that the implements’ unique shape requires with movement explosivity typical of kettlebell training. You’ll get stronger while also shoring up your cardiovascular endurance, which constitutes something called conditioning. That’s where strength training and cardiovascular training marry to make you a true workhorse.
The keys to an effective kettlebell strength circuit lie in knowing which exercises will give you the most bang for your buck — and how to combine them. This article will teach you what makes a true strength circuit, take you through the best kettlebell strength circuit, and also guide you through warm-ups and programming for circuit training.
The Best Kettlebell Strength Circuit
When you’re looking to build strength while improving your cardiovascular conditioning, short and sweet is the name of the game. You want to lift heavy enough to make you stronger, which means you’ll be working at a pretty high intensity. High-intensity training calls for shorter workouts, meaning that you won’t need a lot of moves to make this session majorly effective.
- Kettlebell Swing: 3 x 45 seconds
- Double Kettlebell Clean and Press: 3 x 30 seconds
- Double Kettlebell Front-Rack Walking Lunge: 3 x 10 per side
- Unilateral Kettlebell Overhead Carry: 3 x 30 seconds per side
Repeat the circuit three or four times, resting anywhere between 90 seconds and three minutes in between rounds.
What is a Kettlebell Strength Circuit?
At its most basic level, circuit training involves performing one exercise after another with as little rest as possible in between. There are, however, several different ways to do this. And beyond performing well, intense circuit training requires that you prepare your body just as attentively.
Circuit training often means performing a prescribed number of reps before moving on to the next move. Or, it can involve working on each exercise for a certain amount of time. Training an exercise every minute on the minute (EMOM) combines these approaches, prescribing a specific number of repetitions that you have to perform at the top of each minute. The more efficiently you complete your reps, the longer you have to rest until the next minute.
No matter how you perform your circuits, when you do them with kettlebells, they’re bound to make you stronger. Kettlebell movements tend to involve your full body — this is especially so because the odd shape requires your stabilizer muscles to wake up and work hard. These moves are also often explosive, meaning they require a lot of energy and get your heart rate way up.
Benefits of Kettlebell Strength Circuits
Performing kettlebell exercises in a circuit — moving from move to move with little rest in between — gives you the best of both worlds in terms of strength and conditioning.
Increased Total Body Strength
You might not load kettlebells with the same kinds of heavy weights that you do with barbells. But kettlebells can still make you very strong. They’re offset in terms of balance, which means they’ll recruit more stabilizer muscles with each exercise than regularly-shaped dumbbells will.
Since most kettlebell exercises are compound in nature, they’ll give you a full-body strengthening experience. Not to mention that kettlebells pose particularly helpful challenges to your core and grip. This is especially so when you’re working with kettlebell circuits. These dramatically lengthen your time under tension, increasing your muscular stress — and therefore, strength and muscle growth.
Even if your circuit doesn’t involve a single kettlebell swing, using kettlebells in circuits will still fire up your heart rate. You’ll be minimizing your rest periods and deploying full-body movements. This kind of conditioning won’t only help improve your cardiovascular endurance. It will also strengthen your entire body — hence, conditioning.
Kettlebell circuits will do all of this without the repetitive stress of steady state cardio activities like jogging. Circuits designed around kettlebells will also be less stressful on the joints than conditioning activities like box jumps. So if you’re looking to get strong and also go easy on your joints, kettlebells will keep your feet on the ground at all times.
Conditioning improves your work capacity, which can help you lift heavier on the strength floor. The less winded you are after a heavy set of squats, the better you can recover. And the better you can recover, the harder you can train and the heavier you can lift.
Improved Mental Toughness
Kettlebell circuits will have you shifting from full-body move to full-body move. You’ll need to keep track of a lot of movement patterns in your head and execute them flawlessly for maximum benefit. You’ll be introducing a variety of exercises into your training, all put together in close proximity and performed amidst building fatigue.
When you’re fatigued — which circuits are designed to do — movements don’t just become harder for your body. They also become more challenging to your mind. In order to keep going during tough kettlebell strength circuits, you’ll navigate wanting to quit and call it a day. It is definitely the sign of a strong lifter when you respect your limits. It’s typically safest and most sustainable to listen to your body and stop or alter the exercises if you need to. But when your mind wants to quit but your body can keep going, you’ll learn a lot about yourself as a lifter.
You’ll need to figure out how best to strategize with yourself to complete your circuit. Do you commit to focusing only on the rep you’re performing and nothing else? Maybe you constantly remind yourself how far along in your workout you are for training motivation (“only one more round to go.”). Or, you might find that different mental strategies work for you in different moments. Whatever works for you, figuring that out and practicing it with kettlebell circuits can translate into more confidence and calm during big moments on the platform, too.
How To Create Your Own Kettlebell Strength Circuit
When you’re looking to design your own kettlebell strength circuit, you need to consider who you are as a lifter and what you want to accomplish. Follow these steps to get it done.
1. Assess Your Training Goals
Are you primarily looking to get stronger or to improve your conditioning? The great thing about kettlebell circuits is that they will improve both factors for you — but the precise design depends on your most important goal.
If your major focus is on building strength, emphasize more slow, steady lifts. Think goblet squats, overhead presses, and lunges. When the major focus is conditioning, opt for a majority of ballistic, momentum-based lifts. Consider programming a majority of cleans, thrusters, swings, and snatches. Moves like Turkish get-ups and overhead carries fall somewhere in between strength and conditioning, and will serve well in either category.
Performed in a circuit, even strength-based kettlebell moves can improve your conditioning. Similarly, conditioning moves like swings and snatches will make you stronger, too. Mixing and matching them in your circuit can be extremely effective — but how do you know which exercises to choose?
2. Choose Your Exercises
To an extent, your exercise selection will be based on your training goals. If you’re mainly trying to improve your conditioning, for example, you’ll want to select more kettlebell swings than floor presses. But choosing your exercises is about more than just your goals — it’s also about developing balance in your workout.
Say you want a kettlebell strength circuit that focuses mainly on upper body pushing. It might sound counterintuitive, but one key to maximizing your pushing strength is actually to incorporate more pulling into your program. Why? Pulling exercises ensure that your body doesn’t become imbalanced front to back. This is already likely in a world where you may well sit relatively hunched over at a desk all day. Pulling movements can help strengthen your back and help your posture.
Not to mention, if you emphasize only pushing and your chest and front delts get super strong, it won’t be sustainable if your back and rear delts are comparatively weak. You might become more susceptible to injury if your back and chest are not balanced. A strong back also plays a very big role in assisting pushing exercises like the overhead press and bench press.
So when you’re building your kettlebell strength circuit, make sure your exercises are balanced. This includes balancing pushing with pulling and balancing front-to-back movements (sagittal plane) with side-to-side movements (frontal plane) and rotational movements (transverse plane). You also want to incorporate strength moves with conditioning moves to really maximize both the strength and conditioning parts of your circuit.
3. Sequence Your Exercises
For your strength circuit, you sometimes want to follow general workout guidelines: perform the most strenuous activity first. Unless you’re specifically trying to pre-exhaust your muscles, you don’t want to wipe yourself out too much before your most intense exercises. Your form might break down in a way that can increase injury risk. Plus, because you’re already tired, you’ll likely be forced to use less weight and potentially leave gains on the table.
That said, that’s exactly where you get some nuance in your circuit exercise sequence. Say you’re performing a conditioning circuit where you’re only using one bell and snatches are the limiting factor in your weight selection.
That means that for every other lift in your circuit, you’ll be going lighter than you could be. In this case, you might choose to sequence snatches toward the end of your circuit to provide an added challenge to the end — kind of like a built-in finisher. If the other exercises in your circuit are goblet squats, swings, and cleans — all performed at very submaximal weights — it might add an extra challenge to put the snatches last, not first.
Exercise sequence ultimately depends on what makes the most sense for your body and your workout. Will you personally be more or less effective doing goblet squats before cleans or after? Pay attention to your fatigue levels with different exercises in the gym, and use that self-knowledge to guide your exercise sequence.
4. Select Your Weights
It can feel tricky to figure out what weights to use when you’re performing a kettlebell strength circuit. But how heavy you go really only depends on a couple of limiting factors.
First and foremost, you’ll think about which movements you’ve included in your circuit and which exercise constitutes your limiting factor. Say for example your circuit includes kettlebell swings, alternating kettlebell cleans, and kettlebell snatches. The snatches are likely to be your limiting factor in terms of how much weight you can lift.
If you’re lifting primarily for conditioning — with strength as an added bonus — stick with that relatively lower weight for the whole circuit. It will increase the efficiency of your rest time to just use one bell. Plus, not putting the bell down between exercises will increase your endurance even more.
On the other hand, if you’re lifting primarily for strength with conditioning as a secondary benefit, you may choose to use different weights for each move. For every exercise, go with a weight that will challenge you with three reps in the tank. In other words, if the circuit calls for six snatches, go with what you can snatch for nine reps.
5. Perform Your Circuit
Once you know what exercises you’re doing, in what order, and with what weight, perform your circuit. But the idea is to perform these exercises back-to-back, with as little rest as possible in between moves. That means that you won’t have a lot of time or space to think about what comes next. If you don’t have the exercise sequence of your circuit easily memorized, consider writing it down. Have your notes available to glance at during your transition between moves.
Try to minimize your rest between the exercises themselves. You might find it helpful to jot down how long you feel like you need rest so you can track your progress when you repeat the circuit. Depending on your experience with conditioning workouts, consider resting between 90 seconds and four minutes between each circuit. To progress your strength circuit, consider adding an extra round when you feel like the workout is getting easier.
How to Warm Up For a Kettlebell Strength Circuit
As with any workout, you’ll need to make sure you’re raising your heart rate and activating your muscles before the intensity begins. To properly warm-up for a kettlebell strength circuit, you have to treat it like its own complete workout — even if the circuit itself won’t take long to perform.
If you’re doing your circuit toward the end of a pre-existing training session, you should already be sufficiently warm. Just make sure any specific muscles your circuit might stress — your shoulders with snatches and presses, for instance — are extra primed before diving in.
When you’re using kettlebell strength circuits as their own workout, try using the following warm-up to get your body ready to go.
- Cat-Cow Stretch: 3 x 30 seconds
- Inchworm to Hip Opener: 3 x 6 per side
- Kettlebell Windmill: 3 x 8 per side
- Band Pull-Apart: 3 x 15 – 20
- Kettlebell Swing: 3 x 30 seconds
More on Kettlebells
If learning all about kettlebell strength circuits has you hankering to pick up a kettlebell, you’re about to become a much more well-rounded athlete. Performing kettlebell strength circuits can enhance your athletic performance from multiple directions — and the more you know about kettlebells, the more fun and effective your circuits can be.
- 10 Questions You’ve Always Had About Kettlebells, Answered
- Can You Train with Kettlebells Every Day?
- 10 Kettlebell Exercises Every Athlete Should Master
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