Intro to Kettlebell Training
A multifunctional tool enabling highly effective training for strength, endurance, flexibility, coordination as well as fundamental fitness and health!
The kettlebell and kettlebell training - a multifunctional tool enabling highly effective training for strength, endurance, flexibility, coordination as well as fundamental fitness and health!
Most likely we've all seen a kettlebell at some point! In advertising, in a supermarket, in an online shop, or in the gym. The kettlebell has gone mainstream! That's a good thing!
It constitutes an amazingly versatile training tool, facilitating highly effective workouts using single or even double kettlebells.
But what exactly is a kettlebell and where does this distinctive training tool come from? Moreover, which types of kettlebell training methods exist, what effects are possible when working with kettlebells and what should an exemplary training session/workout look like?
Before you start working out using kettlebells, you should get familiar with a few details about the kettlebell and kettlebell training. To find your way, you could dive into the boundless vastness of the internet, of course! However, it’s wiser and more plausible to consult a trusted coach and qualified trainer in order to obtain all the background details and the best overall support. Most importantly, he or she will teach you the kettlebell-specific movements and exercises correctly and without injury and will boost your motivation for kettlebell training.
The kettlebell is a pretty simple and plain piece of exercise equipment, but that's what makes it so special. If used properly, it’s not only versatile, but it also brings phenomenal benefits.
The classic kettlebell is a cast iron or steel weight that resembles a cannonball with a handle attached to it. Meanwhile, kettlebells are also made of other materials such as plastic, leather, or wood. Kettlebells come in a variety of sizes and weights. The typical cast iron kettlebells vary from a few kilograms (1 kg ≈ 2.2 lbs) to over 90 kg (≈ 200 lbs). Steel kettlebells are usually a bit lighter in weight, normally going up to 48 kg (≈ 100 lbs).
Steel kettlebells are called competition kettlebells. They always have the same dimensions in terms of ball body and handle. They were designed for kettlebell sport and competition. Originally, only the weight and color (each weight level has its own color) of the kettlebell are different. Today there are various manufacturers of competition kettlebells and also many associations for the sport. As a result, standardised weight levels and bell sizes for competition kettlebells have developed, with only slight deviations in dimensions today. The kettlebell sport as a form of training is also called soft style, competition style, or Girevoy style.
All the above types of kettlebells can be found in today’s commercial gyms, and home gyms, but also in physical therapy and rehabilitation. In addition to kettlebell sport, there are other forms and methods of kettlebell training these days. In addition to the “softstyle”, a slightly complementary style, referred to as “hardstyle” training has been developed and popularised. Other newer forms and methods, with emphasis on kettlebell flows, mobility-focused kettlebell work, or even group fitness, have emerged. At the same time, kettlebell juggling is experiencing an upswing again and is mixing with other forms and methods. We will come back to the different forms and methods of kettlebell training later.
Kettlebell training is a type of training that uses the kettlebell as the primary tool for training. It involves a variety of movement patterns, built around lifts, holds, and carries, that might be performed at various speeds and cadences. Those patterns include but are not limited to the push, the pull, the hinge, and the squat. While there are many exercises that use a kettlebell in the same way as a dumbbell, more kettlebell-native exercises, such as, e.g., the kettlebell swing, kettlebell clean, and kettlebell snatch, exist that require a significant amount of skill in order to be performed in a safe manner. In addition to these typical kettlebell exercises, there are a variety of others to target specific muscles, and muscle groups and to train the body extensively. The exercises require a combination of strength, flexibility, endurance, and coordination.
Kettlebell training is a versatile and effective form of training and a method that can be customized to suit individual fitness levels and to achieve sport-specific goals. From fitness beginners to top athletes, kettlebell training can be used in all areas.
Kettlebell training has grown in popularity enormously over the past 10-15 years, partly because it allows us to do an effective full-body workout in a relatively short amount of time.
But as mentioned, as with any training method, learning proper technique and execution of exercises and movements from a qualified trainer is important to avoid injury and maximize the benefits of kettlebell training.
The kettlebell found its way into the gym and its popularity in the fitness lifestyle more recently, in the last 15-30 years. However, as a training device to increase strength, endurance, flexibility, etc., kettlebells have existed for much longer.
The kettlebell as a round weight with a handle was created around the 18th century. But much earlier in antiquity, "weights with handles" were used by different ancient cultures. This usage dates back to 4000-3500 BC. Its origin lies in Asia and Eastern Europe. Exactly what the weights were used for, whether for physical exercise or for something else, is partly unclear and also controversial. We do know that in the 18th century the kettlebell was used as a round weight with a handle for showmanship and for strength demonstrations in circuses and other shows. This is also where the discipline of Kettlebell juggling has its origins. The strong men of this century juggled and tossed the kettlebells, twisting and spinning them in the air. In addition, the heavier kettlebells were lifted high and the audience was shown how strong the men were.
In the further course of history, the kettlebell found its way into sports clubs and mainly into the Russian military as a training tool and fitness equipment. In the Russian military, kettlebells were the standard training tool for the soldier's fitness. There the kettlebell was and still is called "Girya".
A kettlebell lifter or athlete is referred to as a "Girevik". The name "Girevoy Sport" also comes from this historical development.
The kettlebell was measured in "pud" (also pood). One pud amounts to approximately 16.38 kg (i.e. 36.11 lbs). Further, the classic gradations of kettlebells are measured in 4kg increments. This gradation dates back to the development of kettlebells and kettlebell training in Russia.
In the 1990s, Pavel Tsatsouline, a former Soviet special forces trainer, is said to have introduced kettlebell training to the West. He went to the USA, where he popularized the kettlebell and kettlebell training, and founded the Russian Kettlebell Challenge RKC. He introduced the "hardstyle" training method and developed it further for his RKC system. Tsatsouline wrote several books about kettlebell training and created with the RKC a training system for coaches and all those who wanted to be licensed kettlebell coaches. That made kettlebell training popular in the United States and later worldwide. His books are considered essential literature on kettlebell training.
In the years that followed, further training systems such as Strongfirst emerged and so there were more and more possibilities for people to learn kettlebell training and to become certified kettlebell coaches. Today there are a variety of training courses, workshops, clubs, gyms, and groups that focus on and specialize in kettlebell training. Kettlebell training is no longer just elitist or a niche! It is one of the most widely used training methods and as a training tool a symbol of fitness and health. Even in big and well-known fitness competitions, such as the Crossfit Games, kettlebells are almost always present.
Having found their way into the fitness mainstream, the borders between pure softsyle and pure hardstyle have become blurred in some places. While there is still room for style purists, the creativity and diversity that permeates the fitness community have also fostered other novel forms and methods of kettlebell training with an emphasis on flow, mobility, and group fitness.
So the question arises as to where the differences in the various training forms and/or methods lie.
First of all, kettlebell training, no matter which specific form or method you use is already multifunctional. When working out with free weights such as a Kettlebell, muscle groups simply don’t work alone or in isolation. Instead, the body always has to work in whole chains of movement and use many muscles and muscle groups at once to master a movement pattern or exercise. This is what makes kettlebell training so effective and valuable!
The competition-oriented Girevoy, or softstyle, variant of kettlebell sport, makes the movements with the kettlebell look and appear "soft". Therefore, the entire body has to work with the kettlebell and its kinetic energy, not against it. The aim is to expend as little energy as possible to perform a correct repetition of an exercise. The trainee strives to use a minimum amount of muscle work with perfect technique to fully exploit his or her energy budget in order to achieve high numbers of repetitions for a given exercise.
Having said this, in kettlebell sport competition there are usually specific constraints that need to be obeyed. For instance, there is a set time within which as many repetitions as possible of a given exercise need to be successfully completed and managed. While standard kettlebell lifts like the clean, the jerk, or the snatch are often used as stand-alone exercises in sports competitions, they also beautifully combine to form composite movements like the clean and jerk. The latter comprises the movement pattern underlying the infamous long cycle, a paradigmatic discipline of kettlebell sport competition.
As in other competitive sports, there are different age categories in a kettlebell competition and the weight level of the kettlebell that must be used is adjusted accordingly. While kettlebell sport is not as famous as, e.g., soccer or other spectator sports of that kind, it is a competitive sport which is also reflected by its worldwide practice.
The hardstyle method is opposed to the softstyle training form.
The hardstyle method or hardstyle training aims to train the body as effectively as possible in terms of strength, endurance, mobility, and coordination. The muscles should be stressed and trained as best as possible. The aim is also to learn how to control the body's movements in the best possible way in order to be healthier and fitter in everyday life. It is a training method to build strength, stable muscles, functional fitness, and a healthy body.
In hardstyle training, basic kettlebell exercises fall into two categories: ballistics and grinds.
"Ballistics" are exercises in which the movement with the kettlebell is performed dynamically and with speed and explosiveness. During the movement the kettlebell develops a specific kinetic energy and, depending on the exercises, the force exerted by the kettlebell can become a multiple of its weight. As a consequence, kettlebell training can feel a lot harder than it actually looks.
The best example is the kettlebell swing. The more intense and powerful the swing is performed, the higher the amount of energy exerted by the trainee per repetition. This causes immense centrifugal forces which the body has to work against. As a consequence, the body not only has to do simple muscle work and apply strength to do the movement, it also has to counteract all movement forces presented by the kettlebell, keeping the kettlebell under control and the body in alignment.
Besides the swing, the ballistics also include the clean and snatch. The push press and the jerk can partly be subordinated to the ballistics. While primarily serving strength endurance, anaerobic endurance, mobility, and coordination, they also bear several other benefits for the body and health.
"Grinds" are, in simple terms, the opposite of ballistics. They are exercises that are performed with a lot of control, stability, and strength. Also, the movement is performed slowly and not explosively and quickly. The kettlebell is used in the grinds either only holding (static) or slowly moving (slow dynamic). The most paradigmatic grind is undoubtedly the Turkish Get Up (TGU), wherein a heavy kettlebell is progressively moved from the lying position to the standing, locked-out overhead position. However, other slowly performed exercises such as the deadlift, rowing exercises, presses, or squats can also be counted among the grinds. All exercises in which no intensively accelerated movement is performed with the kettlebell in fact qualify as a grind.
The demands of the grinds are primarily aimed at the areas of strength training and hypertrophy training (muscle building), but strength endurance, coordination, and further aspects of fitness and health are also trained.
As already mentioned, kettlebell training is multifunctional and for this very reason every exercise, whether ballistic or grind, has a positive effect on overall fitness and bears health benefits.
In addition to these two very strict forms and methods of kettlebell training other newer unconventional styles or training forms like the Kettlebell Flows or Kettlebell Mobility have evolved. This is due to social media and a constantly growing hype about fitness, lifestyle, and health.
Kettlebell Flows are different exercises combined into a series of exercises in which the trainee moves continuously and transitions from one exercise to the next. A corresponding "movement flow" is created which is repeated or supplemented by other new exercises. A flowing movement sequence is created and this can be shorter or longer.
Typical kettlebell exercises such as the swing, the clean, the press or rowing, squats, and others are used in the course of a kettlebell flow. There is no special distinction made between softstyle and hardstyle. It also doesn't matter whether the exercise qualifies as ballistic or grind. Classic fitness exercises known from dumbbell training or other training methods are also projected onto the kettlebell. In a flow, the focus is mainly on the skill of coordination. While the sequence of movements that build up a flow can become rather complex, a flow is - at best - performed with a kettlebell of moderate weight. Ultimately, a flow should look appealing and bring with it a corresponding aesthetic of movement.
Flows are often performed in groups creating a kind of movement choreography. This looks very impressive, and, in our modern times where 'see and be seen' is an important part of fitness, can serve to impress the audience.
In addition to the coordinative training effects the body and muscles also experience a positive impulse in other areas with kettlebell flows. Strength, endurance, agility, and other aspects also experience some benefit. Sometimes a little more, sometimes a little less.
Since the weight levels used in flows are usually not that high, the effect is not as great as with the aforementioned forms and methods of kettlebell training.
Kettlebell Mobility is all about promoting mobility and agility in our body. The kettlebell is used as an additional instrument to reinforce targeted mobility exercises or to give them a different or new stimulus.
The additional weight gives classic stretching exercises a more intensive external stimulus and in targeted movement exercises the joints and spine experience positive relief and a strengthening effect.
For instance, the kettlebell armbar serves to stretch and relieve the thoracic spine which is always very stressed in normal everyday life due to a lot of sitting.
The kettlebell halo has a beneficial effect on the shoulder joints and promotes both strengthening and mobility.
So you can see very quickly how versatile and functional the kettlebell and training with it is. It is therefore not surprising that the kettlebell has become so popular.
Key Exercise Movements
In my opinion, the top three unrivaled kettlebell exercises that you should urgently embed into your training schedule include the (Russian) kettlebell swing, the kettlebell clean, the kettlebell snatch, and definitely the TGU! These exercises, and more, can be found on the Ironmaster YouTube channel where they are explained for your training, or directly in the specific links above.
In the videos, the Ironmaster Quick-Lock Adjustable Kettlebell is used, which employs Ironmaster's unique adjustment system you'll find on their adjustable dumbbells, and 4 other unique exercise tools! The kettlebell handle alone weighs 22.5 lbs(10.2 kg). For kettlebell training, you usually need one or better several kettlebells in order to be able to vary the training weight. With the Ironmaster Quick-Lock system, it is no longer necessary to have a whole bunch of kettlebells available. Individual weight plates allow the kettlebell weight to be incrementally increased by 2.5 lbs. Depending on what kind of weight is required for your exercise, it is possible to bring the kettlebell over 80 lbs (36 kg). You can find those add-on kits here: The 57.5 lb add-on kit and the 80 lb add-on kit Just one kettlebell - countless possibilities for scaling in training!
Some information about the kettlebell and kettlebell training has now been given. Now it's up to you to get started! It's best to start right away and try not to find any excuses not to start kettlebell training!
See you soon - Coach Fabian
About the Author
Fabian Großklaus is a 44 year old Sports Scientist and Trainer / Coach for fitness and health, living in Germany. He has built his own fitness brand named Paleofitness, which is specifically aimed at kettlebell training and macebell training. As a personal trainer, he has helped many people to achieve better health and a fitter body.
“I love sports, fitness and training, and for me it is great to meet new people and coaches, and to exchange and connect with each other.”
For over 15 years, he has been working as a sport scientist, fitness coach, rehab trainer, personal trainer, group fitness, functional trainer, and lecturer at various training institutes. Further, for 20+ years Fabian has been training with kettlebells by himself and coaching others. While certified as a coach and trainer for kettlebell training by the RKC and also at other institutions, he specializes in Kettlebell Training, Functional Training and Rehab Training. Plus, everyday for many years, he has been working in other fitness areas such as aqua fitness training, and training with older people (over 65 years).
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org (or, email@example.com)
Instagram: @paleofitness.germany and @kettlebell_fabian
Instagram Spiritbells: www.instagram.com/spiritbells_kettlebells