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Kettlebells 101: 5 Best Exercises and Tips for Getting Started

A common misconception among people who are new to kettlebell training is that you need to “get in shape” or be at a certain level of fitness in order to use kettlebells. I assure you, you can start training with kettlebells right now, no matter what your fitness level and exercise history is.

Starting any new training regimen can often feel a bit intimidating, however anyone can learn to use kettlebells safely. One of the reasons I love kettlebell training is that not only is it accessible at any ability level, it is incredibly efficient. With this single training tool you can work both, endurance and strength, and because you’re using your whole body, performing and recovering from the workout will be very metabolically expensive (read: burn a lot of calories), which is a great bonus if you’re looking to get a little leaner.

Performance goals? Physique goals? One thing is certain about training with kettlebells: whether you’re new to training in general, or just new to kettlebells, this tool can help you reach your goals efficiently.

Learning the Basics

If you’re not familiar with kettlebells, I highly recommend that you meet with a certified kettlebell instructor to learn some basics. (Ask at your gym if anyone on staff has a kettlebell certification such as SFG, or search for an instructor online.) Doing so will decrease your learning curve and help you learn how to train safely.

But if working with a kettlebell trainer is not an available option, plenty of resources exist to help you get started on your own. In addition to learning basic safe kettlebell handling, becoming familiar with a few of the basic movements is key. In the following video, I review staple kettlebell exercises to help you establish a solid kettlebell-training foundation. After you watch the video, check out the cues below, and then try the exercises for yourself.

1. Hip Hinge

It is incredibly important for effective and safe kettlebell training to first learn a proper hip hinge. The hip hinge can function as its own awesome exercise that strengthens the muscles of your posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings) as well as your core. It is part of many everyday movements, from picking things off the ground, to transitioning between sitting and standing, to moving large objects.

The hip hinge is also the foundational movement of many kettlebell exercises and most athletic movements. Good hip hinge movement places less strain on your low back and lowers your risk of injury, whether you’re in the gym or rearranging your living room furniture.

To perform a basic hip hinge:

  • Stand with your back against the wall.
  • Step about a foot or so away from the wall.
  • Assume a “standing plank” position with your feet about shoulder-width apart. That is, stand tall, from the crown of your head to the bottom of your feet, while keeping tension in your abs and glutes (the way you would hold your body in a traditional plank).
  • While inhaling, bend at the hips, reaching your butt back toward the wall.
  • Tap the wall with your butt (but do not rest on it). You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
  • Maintain a neutral spine; there should be no rounding or excessive arching in your back. (If you want to ensure that you are maintaining a neutral spine, you can place a dowel rod or broomstick on your back, as shown in the video above, and practice your hip hinge while keeping it in place using your head, shoulders, and butt.)
  • Allow your knees to bend you hinge, but try to maintain your shins in a vertical or mostly vertical position.
  • Exhale as you press your feet into the ground and return to a “standing plank” position.

After practicing and mastering this hip hinge wall drill, try completing the same movement away from the wall without the dowel rod. Once you feel comfortable with the movement, you can move on to perform it with a load.

2. Deadlift

Considered a “slow grind” movement, the deadlift is basically a loaded hip hinge that will increase your stability and strength, especially throughout your glutes and lower body.

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart as you did for the wall drill.
  • Place a kettlebell on the floor between your feet; it should be in line with the arches of your feet or your ankles, whichever is most appropriate for your level of mobility.
  • While maintaining a neutral spine, inhale through your nose as you hinge at the hips and reach down for the bell with your hands. If you cannot reach the bell without rounding your back, place something stable underneath the bell to elevate it to a position that allows you to reach it with proper form.
  • Grip the bell firmly and exhale with a power breath (as shown in the video above) to complete the move in the standing plank position.

3. Swing

The swing is a “ballistic” hip hinge that will increase your strength and power. Plus, since the movement utilizes your entire body and is very metabolically demanding, it can be highly effective if your goal is fat loss.

  • Stand in the same position as you did for the deadlift, but place the bell about a foot or so in front of your feet.
  • Again, while maintaining a neutral spine, inhale through your nose as you hinge at the hips and reach for your bell with both hands.
  • Contract your lats to create tension, and hike the bell through your legs, back behind the hips, and then explosively “snap” the hips to return to a standing position, allowing the bell to float to either hip or chest height.
  • When you reach full extension in the hips you should be a standing plank as the bell “floats” momentarily.
  • As the bell begins to descend, re-hike and repeat the movement additional repetitions.

4. Turkish Get-Up

The TGU is a full-body skill that you can perform with light weight for higher reps or heavy weight for lower reps, depending on your goals. This one skill can greatly improve your mobility, stability, and strength.

It’s important that you learn and practice this move using just your body weight, prior to performing it with a bell. A great way to learn a solid pattern is to practice the TGU while balancing a shoe on your working fist. Once you are able to completely stand up and return to lying on the ground without dropping the shoe, you are ready to start loading this move with a bell. Also, the TGU can be broken down into its individual steps. If you encounter a sticking point, stop there, and pattern and practice just that step.

  • Start by lying on your back with a light bell at your side. Roll into a fetal position toward your working side and grip the bell. Loop both hands through the bell and roll back onto your back.
  • Press the bell up toward the ceiling with both hands and lock out your elbow on your working side. Release your non-working hand from the bell.
  • Bend the knee and plant the foot of the working side of your body.
  • Extend the non-working arm and leg straight out on the floor, at about 45 degree angles.
  • Drive through both feet and your non-working arm and roll up to your forearm.
  • Press through the palm to sit tall.
  • Continue with a low sweep until you reach the half-kneeling position.
  • Lunge up to stand in a tall standing plank position, with the bell locked out overhead.
  • Take a big step back, lunge down to the ground then “windshield wipe” the back leg allowing the body to hinge back to the ground.
  • Kick the leg back through and sit down, returning to the tall sit position, then finally back to the elbow, and then return to laying down.
  • Slowly lower the bell back down toward your chest with both hands, and then roll back to fetal position to safely place the bell back onto the ground.

5. Goblet Squat

The goblet squat is a fantastic exercise that helps you build strength and stability. This movement allows you to lightly load a squat and build a solid pattern before working with heavier weight. Also, holding the weight in front of you elicits greater engagement of your core, which helps you control your pelvis and protects your low back.

  • Stand with your feet about shoulder-width or slightly wider with toes slightly turned out, (no more than 45 degrees).
  • Hold a kettlebell by the horns at chest height. Inhale and “pull” yourself down between your feet to a rock-bottom (or near rock-bottom) squat, depending on your mobility.
  • Press hard into the ground with your feet while exhaling with a power breath to return to a standing plank position and repeat for reps.

These five basic kettlebell movements are great if you’re just getting started with kettlebells. You’ll get quite a workout just patterning and practicing them at first. Once you get comfortable with these movements, you can combine them to create a solid kettlebell workout—which I’ll be sharing with you here next time!

And if you need more help putting together a program that will work for you, 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.