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Kettlebell Training: Handle with Care

handle-with-care-karen-kb-overhead-press-295x375The kettlebell is a powerful training tool, but it must be handled with particular care. You may be asking, “Wait, what? Why?” Stay with me for a moment.

When you learn to handle the kettlebell with proper form and technique, from pick up to set down, for each exercise, you are actually taking care of your body. In order to achieve the best results from your workouts, you must stay injury-free—and that can only be done with proper technique.

By no means am I saying that injury is completely avoidable, even with proper technique. There are other factors that can come into play. However, using proper form and technique will help decrease your risk of injury significantly.

The more you practice safe technique, the more natural these movements become in your everyday life.

Think about this for a second: how many times have you or someone you know been injured by doing something simple in the gym or in everyday life? A perfect example would be lifting heavy in the gym, but then throwing your back out when you pick up a large bag of dog food to put it in your car at the grocery store.

You should focus on treating even the lightest of weights or the simplest of movements with care.

If you would not use careless or poor form with”The Beast” ( the 48kg/106-pound kettlebell) then you probably should not use that form all. The purpose of this article and the video you’ll see below, is to teach you proper technique for picking up and setting down the kettlebell for various skills. I will also discuss how to learn volume and tension control for a given skill, although the first step is to learn how to safely pick up a bell.

handle-with-care-kettlebells-on-floor-with-chalk-marks-450x338The Pick-Up

I can’t tell you how many times I have seen people walk over to a pile of bells and bend over with a rounded back to pick up a heavy load. This is one of the quickest ways to hurt your back (and possibly even your shoulder).

When you reach for a bell, you should treat the initial pick up just like a deadlift. Even if you are just moving the bell from the wall to your workout spot, it is still a lift!

Here’s how to do it:

Sumo Deadlift

  1. Stand with the bell on the floor between your feet
  2. Hinge at the hips and slight knee bend
  3. Flat back or neutral spine
  4. Inhale and press through the feet and stand to lockout
  5. Then, walk the bell if you need it moved to a different location.

Suitcase Deadlift

Start by standing with the bell on the floor by the outside of your foot. The rest of the technique is the same as the sumo deadlift, as described above. Pay special attention to keeping your spine in neutral alignment and not allowing the bell to pull your body to the side.

From this point on, some skills require you to pick up the bell in a specific manner.

Turkish Get Up (TGU)

This skill begins with you lying on your back, then you proceed through each step to move your body to standing, and then return down to your back.

Note: In the TGU, the bell should never cross over your face/body. This is for your safety!

  1. Lie on the floor face-up, with the bell at your right side.
  2. Roll into fetal position to scoop the bell with right hand.
  3. Grip the left hand over the right and roll onto your back.
  4. Use two hands to press the bell toward the ceiling,and lock out your arm, keeping your shoulder packed (e.g. shoulder and back muscles stabilizing and firing), and elbow and wrist straight.
  5. Proceed through the TGU steps (if you have never done a TGU, or are not sure you’re doing it with proper technique, I strongly advise you to seek out a certified instructor in your area.)
  6. After returning to the ground, grip the bell with the left hand and draw the bell back down.

One of the most important moves in the TGU is how you transfer the bell to the opposite side for the next repetition. As I mention previously, never cross the bell over your body or face. Instead, select one of the following options (also demonstrated in the video):

  • “Halo” the bell around your head.
  • Move your body around the bell.

Once you complete the TGU on the other side and have drawn the bell back down, roll into fetal position toward the side you just finished, gripping the bell with both hands, and place it back on the floor next to you.

Kettlebell Clean and Rack Position

The kettlebell clean requires very specific technique. It is probably the most misused skill, and one of the main reasons so many people complain about being hurt or bruised by the bell. The kettlebell clean can be performed as an exercise on its own, but it is also the start of many other skills, like the Military Press, Jerk, Push Press, and Front Squat.

In each of these skills the bell starts off in the rack position—very important, especially for females. The weight should never rest on breast tissue, even if it is not painful. To get into the rack position, you need to clean the bell from the floor. If you are not confident that you can perform a clean with proper technique, you can start with what is referred to as a “cheat clean” using both hands (refer to video for a demo):

  1. Stand with the bell on the floor between your feet, with the handle turned to the side.
  2. Hinge at the hips and scoop the bell’s handle with both hands.
  3. Give the bell a gentle swing, and clean it up to the rack position (refer to video for demo).

In a proper rack position:

  • Your elbow is close to your body.
  • Your forearm is vertical. Your wrist is neutral (straight line over your forearm).
  • Your thumb is pointing toward your bra strap.

In order to groove this comfortable rack position, I recommend rack holds, and rack carries for time. Once you have learned the proper rack position through the clean, then you can proceed to many other skills.

Setting Down The Kettlebell

When you are finishing your set, always treat your last rep as if you have one more to do. Never drop the bell toward the ground with a relaxed back. Place the bell down from the rack position by hinging, keeping that nice, neutral spine, and then set down safely.



Volume and Tension

As I mentioned above, volume and tension are other skills that take time to develop.

If you are a beginner, don’t rush into high-volume kettlebell training.

First learn the proper form and practice the movement until it becomes natural. When you rush into high-volume training, you will fatigue quickly. Your form will break down and you’re likely to get injured

handle-with-care-neghar-kb-swing-295x375With regard to tension, I have never forgotten an analogy that I heard years ago from Master SFG, Brett Jones. He was teaching about volume and tension and said to think of a stereo. If you are training a clean and changing from a light bell to a heavier bell, you should be adjusting the “volume” of the stereo (your tension) not changing the station (the technique).

When you become more experienced with your bells, you will learn the skill of “dialing in” the level or volume of tension you need for a given weight, rather than changing the movement or trying to muscle the weight.

Remember, if the path from pick-up to rack position changes on a clean because you increased the weight, you are not ready for that weight! A clean, is a clean, is a clean. It should not look different just because the weight changed.

I hope you are starting to understand why I say you should always handle your bell with care!

As a STRONGFIRST instructor I always teach technique and form for safety first. A safe movement can become a strong movement very quickly.

Learning safe, proper technique for all types of equipment—not just kettlebells—is one surefire way to ensure you get the most out of your training program, and stay injury-free. If you’re looking for a little more guidance with your workouts and exercise technique, we can help!


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About The Author: Karen Smith

Karen Smith is a highly-respected trainer and coach specializing in kettlebell and bodyweight strength training. She is a StrongFirst SFG Master Instructor and Chief Bodyweight Instructor. Karen travels the world instructing and certifying individuals through StrongFirst, and works with clients online and in person. Learn more about Karen on her website and connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.