If you’re new to the gym, you’ve probably seen them being pressed, pulled, or swung around. The kettlebell is an amazing tool for building muscle, burning fat, and developing cardiovascular fitness and work capacity. If you’re lacking the space for a fully-stocked home gym, fear not. With a single kettlebell (and some practice), you can take your fitness to the next level.
Remember that being a “beginner” is relative. You might be new to lifting entirely, or you might be a seasoned powerlifter. Whatever your specific experience, know that athletes at any level can benefit tremendously from cultivating a beginner’s mindset.
This article will take you through the basics of kettlebell training, including why you should bother training with kettlebells, the benefits of kettlebell training, and how to incorporate kettlebells into your program — along with some great introductory exercises.
What is Kettlebell Training?
Simply put, kettlebell training is any structured work you’re doing in your program with kettlebells. This might include simply incorporating kettlebell versions of certain lifts into your accessory work. Or it might mean you’re using kettlebells for active recovery, or for making cardiovascular gains.
Kettlebell training might also constitute the bulk of your overall exercise. Kettlebell-only programs can dramatically improve your strength, endurance, and overall athleticism. These programs can look like “regular” training, featuring traditional lifts — think overhead presses, deadlifts, squats, and bench presses — but with kettlebells.
On the other hand, kettlebell programs might primarily focus on conditioning while building strength, with an emphasis on moves like swings and snatches. Kettlebells are an extremely versatile piece of equipment that can help with almost any fitness goal.
Benefits of Kettlebell Training for Beginners
Whether you’re looking to get strong, build muscle, change your body composition, or overall become more athletic, kettlebells are a valid method for making progress.
Kettlebells might not be the first implement you think of when you think about building strength. But still, kettlebells can get you very strong. Due to the construction of the weight (the bulk of the resistance is underneath the handle), traditional lifts performed with kettlebells can increase muscle recruitment by making your stabilizer muscles work overtime.
This means that you’ll reap the benefit of the lift itself plus extra stabilization gains. And the more stable you train your body to be, the more efficient your lifts become. In the strength world, movement efficiency is the pathway to getting much, much stronger.
Kettlebell circuits can target any area of your body for hypertrophy. You can use these circuits to up the intensity of your regularly-scheduled workouts, since kettlebells are great for moving between different exercises quickly. That intensity boost can give your muscles the extra stimulus they need to spark new growth.
Who said cardio has to involve pounding the pavement? There’s nothing wrong with jogging while strength training, but if your joints are unhappy with your current cardio routine, kettlebells might come to the rescue.
You’ll fire up your heart rate in a big way while training with kettlebells. Momentum-based kettlebell movements like swings, snatches, and cleans will improve your work capacity and cardiovascular conditioning while being relatively low-impact, as the resistance is usually kept very close to the body.
Change Your Body Composition
Because so many bread-and-butter kettlebell moves are explosive in nature, you’ll be accomplishing several goals at once. With kettlebells, you can develop power, build muscle, and lose body fat at the same time. This is an optimal combination for changing your body composition.
compound movements are better for fat loss as they involve more musculature (and thus burn more calories). This will maximize cardiovascular engagement, muscle stimulus, and energy expenditure.
Programming Kettlebell Training for Beginners
Whether you’re new to lifting in general or just new to kettlebells, always prioritize your form first and foremost. If your swing isn’t crisp, you probably don’t want to program high volume swings. Instead, perform a few sets a few times a week with a light-to-moderate weight to fine-tune your form and get acclimated.
But if your form is locked in, you can level up your kettlebell programming. If your primary focus is on improving your barbell lifts, integrate kettlebell training into your routine as accessory, conditioning, and recovery work. Slowly switch out some of your dumbbell work for kettlebell moves rather than just tacking them on at the end — you want to maintain a reasonable volume to avoid overtraining.
If you want to put a bigger emphasis on kettlebells in your program, proceed the same way you would when designing any workout routine. Assess your goals first and foremost. Are you trying to get strong? Build muscle? Change your body composition?
Any kettlebell work will likely help with all these goals to some degree. But the type of kettlebell training you focus on will be dictated by your specific goals. As long as you’re keeping an eye on your volume and intensity for recovery purposes, you can train with kettlebells as often as you can with a barbell.
Kettlebell Exercises for Beginners
These exercises are by no means the full lineup of “foundational” kettlebell exercises, but they represent some of the foundational movement patterns found in kettlebell programs. To challenge yourself further (after you have mastered the ones below), take a look at these top kettlebell exercises for athletes.
The American kettlebell swing is the standard for functional fitness competitions. While there are variations, the standard swing involves using the hips to drive the weight from behind the body up over the head in one smooth maneuver.
The standard swing requires you to have active shoulder mobility, so make sure your shoulders and lats are thoroughly warmed up first. This exercise is fantastic for developing power and muscle in the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.
This unilateral movement is great for developing strength, stabilization of the shoulder and core, and muscle as well. If you’re looking to firm up your pressing mechanics, the one-arm strict press can help refine form and add to your power.
With similar benefits to overhead pressing, this kettlebell variation undoubtedly will deliver all the same benefits unilateral training has to offer, while allowing you to build out your arsenal of kettlebell exercises.
The goblet squat offers all the same benefits of squatting, without having to learn complicated techniques or develop extreme mobility. It is a very natural squatting position for beginners.
This front-loaded squat variation can be used to teach proper squatting mechanics, increase range of motion, and even be built into warm-up routines as a primer for your barbell work.
To balance out the squatting and hinging in this lineup, the kettlebell lunge (with the weight held in the front-rack, goblet, or overhead positions) is a fundamental unilateral exercise for the lower body.
What’s great about this movement is that it can be used with any variation of lunging, in multiple planes of motion. Including some single-leg work in your training is crucial from day one in the gym to maintain a balanced body.
Kettlebell High Pull
Developing solid timing is important for the performance of the exercise. Allow your lower body to impart force on the bell before pulling with your arms. With the timing locked in, you can improve athleticism and train your upper back at the same time.
Loaded carries are a great way to teach core stability and total body awareness. Whether you use one kettlebell or two, you can vary the carries to diversify your total body strength and awareness, which can impact your overall athleticism and injury resilience.
Sometimes loaded carries can be overlooked for more eye-catching movements, but they’re one of the best movements for overall fitness and benefit all skill levels. After all, carrying heavy objects is something everyone is familiar with — in the gym and in life.
What to Consider Before Starting Kettlebell Training
The benefits seem promising, but it is natural to have some apprehension before undertaking a new style of exercise. Let’s go over some important considerations to make before you chalk up and hit the bells.
Manage Your Expectations
Kettlebells are possibly the most versatile piece of fitness equipment out there. Their applications are extremely varied, and so are the benefits. That said, there’s nothing in the gym that works like magic. If you need to up your conditioning game, pack on some extra muscle, or get a little stronger, kettlebells can work great. But only if you work too.
More Isn’t Always More
With so many promising exercise modalities out there, it can be tempting to turn to something new. Novelty is a potent persuader, but before you run to the kettlebell rack, take stock of how your exercise routine is already going.
If you’ve fallen in love with the barbell, are enjoying your first steps in the gym, and seem to be making progress — stick with what is already working. A career in strength is long and there is plenty of opportunity to experiment down the line. There’s no reason to pour into a cup that is already full.
You don’t have to be a gym veteran to be a badass with kettlebells. Kettlebell training can help you bust through barbell plateaus, majorly improve your grip strength, and boost your work capacity. If you want to grow into a well-rounded, stronger, and more skilled athlete, grab a bell and get to work.
Frequently Asked Questions
No questions are bad questions, no matter what your high school gym teacher said. From how to hold a kettlebell to how to select the right kettlebell weight, we’ve got you covered.
Can beginners really use kettlebells?
The short answer: yes. The long answer: absolutely. Every lifter needs to be honest with themselves about their form. If it’s not there, they need to scale back and maybe work a few modifications or variations until their form is better. But that doesn’t mean beginners can’t work with kettlebells at all.
Not ready for kettlebell swings? Start with kettlebell deadlifts and progress from there. Are kettlebell snatches too intense? Practice your swings and kettlebell high pulls first.
You don’t need to be able to perform 50 or even 25 kettlebell swings per set to start. Meet yourself where you’re at and build from there. Kettlebells will be your best friend in no time.
How do I hold a kettlebell?
The proper way to hold a kettlebell depends on what lift you’re doing. But in general, there are a few key things to know. If you’re holding the bell for a lift that stays in the center of your body (swings or deadlifts, for example), you’ll want to grasp the handle in the center.
In these cases, keep an overhand grip. But when you’re doing more creative kettlebell moves like the snatch, clean, or Turkish get-up, you’ll want to use an offset grip. Instead of grasping the center of the handle, shift your hand so that the web between your thumb and index finger is hugging the curve of the handle.
This grip will give the body of the bell somewhere relatively comfortable to rest, instead of tugging backward on your wrist throughout the lift. “Motorcycle” your hand forward when holding the bell like this so that your wrist stays neutral and doesn’t get yanked backward.
How do I know how heavy my kettlebell should be?
When in doubt, start light. It’s pretty much always better to learn a movement pattern with light weight than it is with heavy weight. From there, it’s a bit of trial and error, moving up only when the weight feels very smooth and easy.
The exceptions are some of the explosive movements, like the clean and swings. If the bell is flopping around with the movement, select a slightly heavier weight until the resistance is enough to help you perform the exercise better.
For upper body lifts, start a little bit lighter. So if you’re looking to overhead press with a kettlebell, go a few pounds lighter than what you do with dumbbells to start off. With lower body moves, follow the same procedure — though you’ll probably be able to progress much faster.
Featured Image: Jacob Lund / Shutterstock