Kettlebells for Beginners

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At first, a workout based solely on lifting, thrusting, and flipping ancient Russian farming equipment may seem intimidating. But with a closer look, it might just be the best way to amp up a boring ol’ workout. The secret to kettlebells? They simultaneously work on strength, cardio endurance, balance, and flexibility [1].

Photo by Jordan Shakeshaft

Because of their unique shape— sort of like a bowling ball with a handle attached— kettlebells are able to incorporate a much larger range of motion than other methods of weight training, while also working in some cardio because of all the swinging. Studies show kettlebells can provide a higher-intensity workout than more traditional  weight-training routines in a shorter amount of time. Plus, a kettlebell workout can burn up to 20.2 calories per minute (that’s about as much as running at a 6-minute mile pace!). Researchers believe this faster calorie burn is due to the total-body movements performed when kettlebells are used in an interval-training routine. Kettlebells also employ more “everyday” ranges of motion when compared to traditional dumbbell movements, helping to build strength in muscles that are used naturally in daily wear and tear. Plus, they’re able to not only work the larger muscle groups, but also the smaller “stabilizing” or gripping muscles (like those in the arms and hands).

For anyone from novice gym-goers to advanced lifters, kettlebells can be a good way to add variety to a strength-training regimen. Plus, research suggests the explosive movements of kettlebell training can also help reduce neck, back, and shoulder pain among adults who had complained of pain before training [2]. Another study suggests kettlebell training can also be effective in rehabilitation programs with injured athletes because of the weights’ ability to help build functional strength and power [3].

But finding and getting started with kettlebells can be hard— and sometimes dangerous! We thought it best to touch base with a certified kettlebell instructor, Terence Gore, at New York Health & Racquet Club in NYC to delve a bit deeper in to this interesting (and increasingly trendy) full-body functional workout.

Beginner Kettlebell Training Program with Terence Gore

This program is easily adaptable for any fitness level. The key to making it work is to choose the appropriate weight, and to make any adaptations necessary to make the movements safe and appropriately difficult. For most of the movements that follow, we’ve included adaptions for beginner and advanced practice, and the primary movements described should work well for anyone at a level in between.

Circuit A

1. Two-Handed Kettlebell Swing, x20: With feet shoulder-width apart and knees bent slightly holding the kettlebell with both hands in front of the body, bring the kettlebell down between the upper thighs, allowing it to swing slightly behind the body— don’t go too low! Allow the momentum to help you then swing the bell up with straight arms to about shoulder/ chin height. Be sure to keep the arms straight, shoulders engaged and held back (don’t let them hunch forward as you bring the weight up). As you lift the kettbell to the front, there should be a “popping” motion with the hips, as you squeeze the glutes and engage the core, using the effort from the hip motion— not the arms!— to swing the weight.

2. Plank, 30 seconds.

3. Plank Pushups, x5 per side: From plank position, lower the left arm to rest on the forearm, then the right. Return the right arm to a straight plank position, then the left. Repeat x5 leading on the left, x5 on the right.

Beginner Modification: If this is too difficult, try a modified plank, resting on the knees. Or, limit the reps to 3 per side.

4. Side Plank with Raised Kettlebell in upper hand, 15 seconds.

Beginner Modification: On knees, or with feet separated instead of stacked for increased support.

5. Side Plank with Raised Kettlebell and Hip Raises, x15:

Beginner Modification: Hip raises without weight in upper hand, lighter weight, or modified side plank (as explained above). 

Advanced Modification: While raising the hips, extend the top arm (with the kettlebell) straight above. As you lower the hips, bring the kettlebell to the floor. Repeat with each hip raise.

6. Repeat simple side plank on opposite side, 15 sec.

7. Push-Ups:

Beginner: 5 non-modified, or 10 with knee modification. 

Intermediate: 10 reps. 

Advanced: 20 reps.

8. Advanced only: From last push-up, hover body about 5 inches off the ground. Hold for 10 seconds.

Circuit B

1. Hand-to-Hand Kettlebell Swings, x20 (x10 per arm): Repeat same movement as kettlebell swing above, but start holding the weight in just the right hand. At the top of each rep (when the arms are extended straight in front), transfer the weight to the opposite hand.

2. Rest, 10 seconds.

3. Repeat side plank, 15 seconds (with same modifications as listed above).

4. Staying in side plank...

Beginner: Modified plank with 15 hip raises.

Intermediate: 15 hip raises.

Advanced: Complete 15 snatches with the raised arm. Start with top arm holding kettlebell on floor. While raising the arm and extending straight up, flip the weight to the back of your hand. The movement should be powerful and pretty fast. This is one rep. Flip the weight back to the front of the hand while lowering the weight back to the floor and flipping the weight back to the front of the hand on the way back down.

5. Push-Ups

Beginner: 5 non-modified, or 10 with knee modification.

Advanced: 20 reps.

Intermediate: 10 reps.

Circuit C

1. Woodchoppers/Samurai Swings x15, right side: Start standing, feet hip-distance apart, both hands holding the weight over the right shoulder. Using the body’s momentum, swing the weight from the right shoulder to the left hip, stepping forward into a lunge on the right side as you swing.

Beginner Modification: No lunge, just step forward, straight leg and swing.

2. Rest, 10 seconds.

3. Repeat woodchoppers/samurai swings on left side, x15.

4. Rest, 10 seconds.

5. Unilateral Upright Row (aka High Pull with Twist), x20 per side: Squat, bringing weight down. When standing up, bring the elbow with the weight to the ear, swing alternate arm straight out, rotate toward hand with weight.

6. Alternate Bent Over Rows, 20x per arm:With a weight in each hand and the feet hip-width apart, bend the knees slightly and lean forward, pushing the hips slightly back and bringing the torso about 45 degrees forward. Alternate arms, pulling weight up and down quickly.

Advanced Modification: Lift 1 foot off ground, repeat 10 reps. Switch feet and repeat 10 more reps.

7. Rest, 10 seconds.

Repeat Steps 1-7.

Circuit D

1. Reverse Windmills, x15 per side: With left arm extended straight above, and weight in right hand, rotate to the left, brining the right arm with weight down between the feet. Return to standing position (with arm extended above).

Beginner Modification: Reduce reps to x10. Advanced Modification: Hold weight in extended upper arm, too.

2. Rest, 10 seconds

3. Side Swing (aka speedskaters), x20 per side: Starting with weight in left hand. Bend arm and place back of right hand on the small of the lower back. As you bend into a squat, swing left arm (with weight) straight out to the left side. Rotate the waist with the weight of the kettlebell, turning out to the left side with the weight, and then all the way back to the right as the kettlebell swings across your body. Repeat on opposite side.

4. Windmill with Arm Press, x15 per side: With weight in raised arm this time, repeat the windmill motion, extending (or pressing) weight straight above as you bring your opposite hand to the ground, and returning the weight to the shoulder as you return to standing position again. Bend left knee, press up with right arm, left arm to floor.

5. Rest, 10 seconds.

Circuit E

1. Russian Twist, 30 seconds: While seated on a mat, lean back slightly and raise bent legs off of mat, balancing. Holding weight in both hands, rotate at the waist as you bring the weight across your body from side to side.

2. Overhead Russian Twist (aka the “Terence Twist"), x10 (This is a more advanced version of the Russian twist): Stack two thicker mats on top of each other, and sit in the center of the mats horizontally, so that there is a good amount of mat to each side of you. Sit with your feet flat on the floor in front of you. Swing the kettlebell from side to side over your head, smashing it onto the mat on the opposite side each time you bring the weight down.

3. Double-Weighted Windmill with Press, x15 per side: Basically, combine the two types of windmills described above. Use a lighter kettlebell in the top arm, and a heavier one on the bottom. Light weight on top. Press the lighter weight up as you rotate and reach down between the feet with the heavier weight. Return to stand, and repeat 15 times per side.

Beginner Modification: Reduce reps to x10.

The Reactions

Photo by Kate Morin

What our Greatist Tester Derek had to say: “I was particularly impressed by the Overhead Russian Twists, smashing the kettlebells on both sides of the body— that was super fun. The windmills, with their focus on the obliques, were also pretty challenging. I think kettlebells (or even just similar movements with dumbbells) can be a great addition to spice up any standard workout routine. The biggest challenge is definitely getting the correct form down. Also, not every gym has kettlebells (or has limited access to them), so learning swings with dumbbells or other similar exercises can be a neat alternative.”

What our Greatist Tester Jordan had to say: “I'm always looking for new ways to mix up my strength training workouts, and kettlebells seemed like a great way to do that.Finding the necessary balance between control and fluidity wasn't easy. Add in explosiveness and there was way more to concentrate on than I expected. Luckily, all of that took my mind off how physically demanding the movements actually were. I loved how dynamic the movements are, and couldn't help but feel really strong doing them (even if I was only using the 10 lb-kettlebells!). Without nailing the basic form, it's impossible to move on to the more badass moves like Windmill and the Overhead Russian Twists (a.k.a. the Terance Twist).”

Tips from Our Expert

  • Always consider previous injuries and overall activity and fitness level when determining what weight to start with. It’s always better to start smaller and pick up a heavier weight as you go than to do the reverse. Start light to keep form in top shape. Weight you can get multiple reps with (more than 10).
  • Let the weight of the kettlebell make the movements easier! Use the momentum of the weight to complete the exercises, allowing the whole body to flow through the movements.
  • Because of the use of momentum, it’s easier to handle more weight with a kettlebell than with a normal dumbbell. This can also help engage the whole body with more weight.
  • Remember to engage the core for the duration of the workout to get the most out of every movement. This will also help prevent injuries. The power the movements should come from the core and the popping motion of the hips— not the arms (for most movements).
  • If using kettlebells as your full body workout, try to fit it in three times per week. If combining with other weight training, try 1-2 times per week, working more isolated body parts.
  • If kettlebells aren’t available to you, try some of the simpler kettlebell movements with regular dumbbells. While this can be dangerous with some movements (like the snatches), start with something more simple, like the kettlebell swings.

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About the Author
Kate Morin
Health and food—and how they're related—have always interested me. I’ve been cooking since I could walk (literally). After spending years...

Works Cited

  1. Oxygen cost of kettlebell swings. Farrar, R.E., Mayhew, J.L., Koch, A.J. Health and Exercise Sciences Department, Human Performance Laboratory, Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2010 Apr;24(4):1034-6.
  2. Kettlebell training for musculoskeletal and cardiovascular health: a randomized controlled trial. Jay, K., Frisch, D., Hansen, K., et al. National Research Centre for the Working Environment, Copenhagen, Denmark. Scandanavian Journal of Work, Environment, and Health, 2011 May;37(3);196-203.
  3. Incorporating kettlebells into a lower extremity sports rehabilitation program. Brumitt, J., En Gilpin, H., Brunette, M., et al. North American Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 2010 Dec;5(4):257-65.

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