If you’re one of those lucky humans who had a kettlebell before social distancing or you ordered one before they all sold out (seriously, the online rush for home workout equipment is intense), you have every right to feel a bit smug.
A kettlebell is probably the single most valuable piece of individual equipment you can have when you can’t get to your gym. From cardiovascular conditioning (think swings) to building upper body strength (think bottoms-up overhead presses) and maintaining pulling strength (think rows and deadlifts without a barbell), kettlebells are unrivaled in their fitness versatility and ability to give you an amazing workout routine without the gym.
But if you have a kettlebell and you’re not sure what to do when you’ve exhausted your repertoire of the classic kettlebell moves — swings, cleans, snatches, Turkish get-ups, goblet squats — you’re in luck. Pretty much anything you can do with a dumbbell, you can do with a kettlebell. And the creativity doesn’t even end there.
[Related: The 9 Best Kettlebells You Can Buy]
Lifting With A Kettlebell
Whatever you would do in the gym with dumbbells, you can usually do with a kettlebell. Some of the grips might be different, but the possibilities are pretty endless.
Hold the bell in rack position or locked overhead for kettlebell leg movements like lateral lunges, reverse and walking lunges, squats, and RDLs. Grip the bell offset from center (with the pad between your thumb and index finger pressed into the side of the handle) and rest it on your forearm, making sure your wrist is neutral, and you can build your upper body with kettlebells with all manner of overhead and floor presses. Want to challenge your grip without barbells? Nothing works quite like the magic of kettlebell swings, bottoms-up presses, and long carries.
If you’re looking for even more kettlebell exercises to do, rest assured that there are endless ways to get creative with even a single kettlebell.The moves that follow can jazz up your kettlebell routine and give you new training stimuli that can help you continue to build strength, increase your cardiovascular conditioning, and maintain muscle mass at home.
First up: kettlebell swing variations.
Sure, you’ve got swings down. You’re even getting a little sick of alternating swings, because you’re just so damn used to them by now. Want a new swing stimulus for your at-home kettlebell routine? These variations have got you covered.
Kettlebell Side Swings
- Start with the bell in your dominant hand.
- With a soft bounce in your knees and keeping your dominant arm straight but not quite locked at the elbow, swing the bell diagonally behind you and then up and… sideways.
So picture the bell in your left hand. With soft knees, let your left arm gather some momentum as you swing it back and to your left (similar to how you initiate a regular swing by swinging the bell back between your legs). Use that momentum you build to sweep your left arm up across the right of your chest, so that your left wrist passes in front of your right shoulder. Keep your core tight and repeat.
Program these like you would program your regular swings, but maybe start a little more conservatively. If you’d normally do 4 sets of 30 second swings, for example, start with 3 or 4 sets of 15 second side swings (per side) and build up from there.
The trick here is going to be keeping your hips square throughout the movement, and if you do feel your hips rotating, make sure you turn your foot into the motion (like you would when throwing a punch) so you’re not torquing your lower back.
To prevent this in general, set up with soft knees, fire up your glutes and quads, and brace your core, making sure your spine stays neutral.
Explosive Kettlebell Rows
- Set up like you would for a dumbbell row (except, you know… with a kettlebell).
- Instead of keeping the movement controlled the whole way through, though, you’re going to transfer the bell between your hands mid-movement.
- Row on your right side. Bring the bell up with enough power to transfer it and catch it right under your rib cage with your left hand.
- Row on your left side. Repeat, over and over again.
Make sure you are never hitching your back up into hyperextension in order to make this lift happen — keep a consistent hip hinge throughout. Do less reps than you think you need to until you get used to the movement, keeping it to 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps per side at the beginning, working your way up from there.
Sure, this isn’t a “swing” movement per se, but you’ve got to have a swinging mindset to get it done.
You know how you let the bell hover in midair for a timeless moment when you transfer it between your hands during regular alternating kettlebell swings? This is going to be similar, except that midair transfer is going to happen underneath your body instead of out in front of it.
Deadstop Kettlebell Swings
- At the end of each swing, instead of hiking the bell right back between your legs, let the darn thing stop in start position (a foot or so in front of you).
- You’ll have to reset your hip hinge and re-tighten your entire body to get ready to start the swing from scratch. This will fire up your entire body to activate the movement with each rep without the benefit of continuous momentum, hiking up the intensity of muscular recruitment.
- Go for 4 sets of 10 to start, and if you’re feeling especially adventurous, alternate your arms throughout (and double the number of reps to compensate).
When people learn to kettlebell swing, they usually learn a continuous movement — back between your legs, up to chest height, back down between your legs, back up to chest height, etc. But just like you often train to avoid the bounce at the bottom of a deadlift (where the momentum pushes you into your next rep), there are times when you want to let the kettlebell come to a full, dead stop before you lift again.
That’s exactly what you’re going to do for your deadstop swings. (Of course, this is not a movement you want to do with a kettlebell that doesn’t have a rubber-coated bottom, and you don’t want to do it on a hardwood or tiled floor. Carpet is king for this guy.)
Kettlebell Swing Cleans
- Instead of letting the bell rest on the ground between reps (which, don’t get me wrong, is amazing for you), ramp up your heart rate by bringing the bell between your legs after each clean rep.
- You’ll get momentum going down, but you’ll have to recruit all the muscular control you can to stall that momentum going into the next rep (so that all that momentum doesn’t go into slapping the back of your forearm with the bell).
- This is also a great way to be able to do more cleans for time. Set a clock for 30 seconds and see how many you can get in per side.
As opposed to the momentum-based way that most people learn to swing, many people learn to clean by bringing the bell back down to the ground between reps. To kick the momentum (and cardio training) up a notch, try swinging through your kettlebell clean as described above.
Russian Into American Swing
- For these puppies, you’ll do a Russian swing (to chest height), let the bell swing back down,
- And then on the next swing, bring it all the way up into an American swing (overhead).
- Those two combined counts as a single rep. Build up to 3-4 sets of 10 reps each, keeping rest time minimal in between, and you’ll be good to go.
Just like 1.5 rep training, turning your Russian swing into an American swing will give you two-ish reps for the price of one. A Russian swing may well be the swing you’re already comfortable with — the lift stalls around chest-height, then swings back down between your legs. The American swing is, perhaps unsurprisingly, well… extra. It’s the same movement, but the American swing finishes not at chest height, but with your arms overhead so that the bottom of the bell is momentarily facing the ceiling.
[Related: Russian vs American Kettlebell Swing – Which Is Right For You?]
Now let’s move onto kettlebell moves for core stability.
If you’re forced to spend time away from your barbells, you might as well use your kettlebell to help your lifts get more solid when you reunite with your less round friends. Explosive kettlebell movements like swings and cleans will definitely increase your core strength and stability, but integrating slower work with more time under tension will also help solidify your brace when you step up to a heavy barbell again.
- Just like you would with a cable at your gym, you can reap amazing benefits.
- Keep soft elbows but straight arms and — with slow, steady control — lift your kettlebell from down next to your right hip, up across your chest, and above your left shoulder.
Following the same path as a kettlebell side swing, this less explosive version will challenge your stabilizers to help keep your hips square and your arms straight out. Adding a 2-2-2-2 tempo to these already slow reps will be even worse (erm… better), and your 3 sets of 12 reps (per side) will have all your muscles ready to sit the heck down.
Static Straight-Arm Holds
- Your hips are going to stay square, your arms are going to stay straight, the bell is going to be in both hands…
- And you’re going to press it out in front of your chest and then just… hold it there.
This one is even more simple than the chops — Time yourself and see how long it takes for you to get to failure, keeping your glutes and quads both fired so you won’t be inappropriately recruiting your low back to keep that weight up for you.
- Pretend your kettlebell is a weight plate and halo the darn thing around your head.
- Depending on your bell size and shoulder mobility, you can either hold the bell on either side of the handles (bottoms up) or grasp it around the body.
- Whatever feels more stable to you is fine, just make sure you’re not (a) conking yourself in the head or (b) yanking your neck forward and backward to avoid (a).
Take your time with this movement and think of all the ways it’ll help you develop a stronger bench press, squat, and deadlift (because your lats and traps are going to be on fire with this, and you need all of that fire to fuel the big three).
Especially if you have a heavier bell, you don’t need to do more than 2-3 sets of 5-6 reps with this guy — it’s about form, not loading it up, so think of this core stabilizer as a mobility tool and strengthener.
- Stand with your feet a little wider than hip-width apart, but this will vary a lot depending on your flexibility, so just focus on finding what feels good.
- From front-rack position, press your bell overhead and pack your shoulder solidly (just like you would with a Turkish get-up).
- Keeping eye contact with the bell, use your free hand to trace your way down the outside of your weight-less side (so if the bell is in your right hand, use your left hand to trace down the outside of your weight-less leg).
- If your flexibility gives out and the integrity of your hips and back position want to give out when your hand reaches your knee, stop there and press your torso slowly back up to standing.
- Rinse and repeat.
If you can get your free hand all the way down to the floor, more power to you — but always make sure you’re keeping your eyes on the bell and your shoulder packed and stable. Three sets of 8-10 are great if you have a heavier bell, but shoot for endurance-level reps (15-20) if you’ve got a lighter bell.
They might not look sexy — and they might reveal that you have super tight hamstrings — but no one is watching you work out at home, so go for it.
[Check out our complete Guide to the Kettlebell Windmill]
Alternating Kettlebell Renegade Row
- If you’ve got two kettlebells, you can use them both here — but if you’ve only got one, dive into your pushups with one hand on the floor and one hand gripping the handle of your bell.
- If you want to add an extra challenge, drive your free hand into the ground at the top (plank position) of your pushup.
- Keeping your hips steady, bring your shoulder blades together to pull the bell into a renegade row.
- With slow control, bring the bell back down to the ground.
- Come into full plank position (both hands on the ground) and reach under your body with the previously free hand.
- Drag the kettlebell under your chest and set it up to do your single-kettlebell pushup on the other side.
- Repeat your renegade row.
- Drag the kettlebell back to the original starting side to start your second rep.
Depending on the weight of your bell and your pushup prowess, 4-5 sets of 4-5 reps (per side) should do quite nicely.
You’ll be one step closer to being able to do the elusive one-handed pushup because of the unbalanced nature of this single-kettlebell pushup. But we’re not done yet.
Unilateral Kettlebell Thrusters
- Front rack a single kettlebell, brace your core, and sink into the familiar beauty of a squat.
- Using the momentum from the squat, push the bell out of rack position into an overhead press.
- Pause for a moment at the top before (slow and controlled, control, you must learn control) bringing the bell back down to rack position.
- And repeat.
Single-kettlebell thrusters really are as simple as that. Try for 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps per side (if you have a heavier bell, 6-8 reps might work too, given that the press is going to be your limiting factor). Not that if you have trouble with overhead squats, you’ll really have trouble with unilateral overhead squats, so it might not be ideal to keep the bell overhead as you squat. (If you were thinking about it.)
[Related: Our Guide to the Kettlebell Thruster]
Alternating Kettlebell Suitcase Deadlifts
- Not quite a single-leg RDL, suitcase kettlebell deadlifts involve the bell starting on the ground just outside your foot instead of in front of your body.
- Still hinge the same way — as though the bell were in front of you — but when you pick up the bell, you’ll notice that (of course) it’s tugging you to one side.
- Your goal here is to continue looking like you’re doing regular kettlebell RDLs — that will mean that your body isn’t compensating by tilting inappropriately.
- Alternate sides by switching hands each time you complete a rep, adding a fun heart rate-pumping variable to this otherwise slow, controlled movement.
- Try 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps per side to start.
Kettlebell Reverse Curls
Reverse curls aren’t just for dumbbells. Even though swings of all kinds (not to mention bottoms-up moves) are going to fire up your grip strength, reverse curls using kettlebells are going to challenge everything you thought you knew about single arm curls. Because of the (frankly, weird) shape of the kettlebell, the balance will be all off. Combine that with the reverse grip you’re using, and you’ve got yourself a proverbial ball game. Never let the weight of the bell yank your wrist down — if it is, your bell might well be too heavy for this movement. Stick to regular curls for now and build up to this (don’t worry — regular curls will still be great for building your biceps without a gym).
Depending on your kettlebell’s weight, you can go for tough low-rep sets at 3-4 sets of 5-6 reps, an awesome pump series of 3-4 sets of 15-20 reps, or an in-between rep range based on what you usually curl.
- With slow control, keep your upper arm in the same position (roughly perpendicular to the ground) as you bend at the elbow to bring the weight just above your forehead and back to starting position. If you’re only working with one bell, keep your free hand in a fist on the ground next to you to help keep everything tight and activated through the movement. If your elbows hurt, stop. If they don’t, have fun with 3-4 sets of 15-20 with a light bell and 2-3 sets of 5-6 with a heavier bell.
Don’t worry, you won’t actually crush your skull — especially because the entire time you’re going through this ground-based kettlebell movement, you’ll be thinking about “motorcycling” your wrist forward so that the weight of the bell doesn’t yank your wrist backwards.
Kettlebells are such a versatile strength implement that it’s only appropriate to use them in versatile ways. So whether you want to experiment with some side swings or take your kettlebell out for a long walk (who said you can’t do suitcase carries outside?), enjoy your workout gains at home with your best bell-shaped buddy.
Featured image via Satyrenko/Shutterstock