Kettlebells have been around for centuries, and some of the earliest illustrations of old-timey strongmen depict men in singlets hefting some huge homemade kettlebells. But even these icons of iron were flawed in their technique, and if chiropractic medicine had been around in the 1800s, all these guys would have been regular customers. Because while kettlebells are incredible, versatile tools, they are also some of the most abused when it comes to form, and on any given day in any gym in the world, you can see some truly heinous, cringe-worthy versions of kettlebell moves that would make you millions if caught on camera.
So it’s simply not enough to just pick up a kettlebell and start swinging it around — you could get injured (or injure someone else) and will definitely look odd. “When used properly, the kettlebell builds muscle and burns fat using functional, total-body, non-impact movements that give your knees and joints a break,” says kettlebell expert Madison Doubroff, NASM trainer. “It’s one of the most impressive tools for boosting agility, balance, endurance, stamina and strength simultaneously.”
Doubroff broke down five of the most effective (and most slaughtered) kettlebell exercises, highlighting the most common errors, then detailing the how-to on proper form and function.
Before you launch into the workout, spend some time learning the exercises, practicing them until you can get a sense of proper form. And if you do know these, go through each description and see whether you’re doing the movements correctly.
Two-Arm Kettlebell Swing
6-8 per arm
6-8 each direction
4-6 per arm
Half Turkish Get-Up
8-12 per side
This workout, created by Madison Doubroff, NASM, incorporates all the moves incorporates all the moves discussed here. Do each exercise in the order outlined using a kettlebell that allows you to perform the recommended number of repetitions. Do the required number of sets before moving on to the next exercise. Substitute this full-body workout for your regular routine no more than twice per month.
Two-Arm Kettlebell Swing
Targets: legs and glutes, back, shoulders and core
The Problem: “Most people do this move in a squat position instead of in a hip-hinge position, bending their knees as they go,” Doubroff says. “This places a ton of tension on your lumbar region, and if you have any kind of lower-back pain or have overactive hips from sitting all day, it can really compromise your lower back, especially if you’re using heavy weight.”
Setup: Hold a kettlebell with both hands in an overhand grip, arms hanging straight down in front of you, shoulders packed. Space your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, toes pointing forward.
Move: Keeping your spine straight and your head neutral, hinge at the waist (approximately 45 degrees) as you swing the weight back between your legs. Then quickly snap your hips forward and tighten your glutes, using just enough force so that the kettlebell swings forward, ending the swing about chin height. Let gravity reverse the motion and bring the kettlebell back down through your legs. Link your reps using an even cadence.
- Push your hips back and hold your chest up as you swing the kettlebell between your legs. If you’re squatting and leaning forward, you’re doing it wrong.
- Don’t pull the kettle-bell up. Let momentum swing it for you — your arms are just along for the ride.
- Plant your feet. Your heels should stay on the ground throughout the move.
- Arrest the motion at head level to avoid overarching your back.
- Keep your shoulders packed and in place. Don’t let the kettlebell pull them forward as you raise the weight or down as it comes back
Targets: full body
The Problem: The catch. “Most people bruise the backs of their forearms because the kettlebell slams against it as it rotates around their hand,” Doubroff says. “Gripping the handle to the side — instead of holding it dead center — can help prevent this.”
Setup: Hold a kettlebell in your left hand using an overhand grip toward the inside of the handle, and let your arm hang straight down in front of you, right arm at your side. Space your feet slightly beyond shoulder width, knees slightly bent, toes pointing forward.
Move: In one fluid motion, hinge at the waist and swing the weight back between your legs while keeping your back straight. Then drive your heels into the ground, tighten your glutes and snap your hips forward — the kettlebell should swing forward and upward at arm’s length. Once the kettlebell reaches eye level, punch through the horns to allow it to flip onto your forearm and continue to lift the weight up over your head with your arm straight. Reverse these steps and continue, linking your reps together fluidly and continuously. Do all reps on one side before switching.
- Master your two-arm kettlebell swing first, then move on to the swing snatch.
- Rejig your thinking. Imagine moving your hand around the kettlebell rather than the kettlebell moving around your hand.lKeep your head neutral and aligned with your spine — don’t let it dip down or crane back.
- Tighten your core before you fold for-ward so your back maintains a natural arch.
- Plant your feet as the kettlebell descends, quickly shifting your weight back onto your heels.
- Go heavy. It’s more difficult to stabilize a lightweight kettlebell, making it harder to snatch.
- Wear a sweatband on your forearm as padding until you get used to the move.
Targets: back, shoulders and core
The Problem: “Many women tend to over-exaggerate this movement, moving their arms and body more than necessary,” Doubroff says. “Keep the motion under control and tight to your head.”
Setup: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes forward, knees unlocked. Hold a light kettlebell with one hand on either horn, in a bottoms-up position in front of your chest, with elbows bent.
Move: Tighten your core, then slowly circle the kettlebell clockwise around your head (in a “halo”) — from your right ear to the back of your head to your left ear — until the kettlebell is back in the start position. Switch directions to com-plete one rep. Continue, alternating sides.
- Watch your elbows. They shouldn’t be locked but relaxed.
- Keep your arms bent and tucked in close to your head.
- Keep your hips steady. If they shift around, momentum assists with the move.
- Slow down. A controlled pace makes you focus on the changing weight distribution of the kettlebell as it circles your head.
- Be posture perfect. Keep your hips tucked, and don’t overarch your lower back.
Targets: total body, especially legs, back, shoulders, triceps, glutes and core
The Problem: “Getting into the right stance,” Doubroff says. “If you don’t position your arms, legs and feet correctly before starting, you can minimize your range of motion and increase your risk of injury.”
Setup: Stand your feet shoulder-width apart holding a kettlebell in your left hand, right arm at your side. Curl (or clean) the kettlebell up to your left shoulder — at the top, your palm should face inward toward the midline of your chest, elbow pointing down with the kettlebell resting on the back of your forearm. Turn both feet to angle away from the kettlebell (to the right in this case) at about a 45-degree angle, and press your hips to the left while keeping your legs straight.
Move: Keep the kettlebell where it is in space and move your body (by bending at your waist) away from it, downward and to the right. Simultaneously, with your left leg straight, slowly slide your right arm down the front of your right leg toward the floor as far as you can, straightening your left arm as you move away from the kettlebell without pressing it upward. Your right knee should naturally bend as you lower, and at the bottom of the move, your left arm should be extended straight above you, perpendicular to the floor. Keeping your arm straight and the kettlebell above you, stand slowly back up, then lower the kettlebell back to your shoulder to complete one rep. Do all reps on one side before switching.
- Squeeze your lats to stabilize your torso and shoulders.
- Move super slowly to make sure you do all the steps correctly and decrease your risk of injury.
- Lock the kettlebell in place as you lower your torso down and away from it — your arm will straighten on its own.
- Use a mind-muscle connection to feel the move in your obliques rather than your lower back.
- Keep your torso straight. If you begin to bend to the side, you’ve lowered down too far.
Half Turkish Get-Up
Targets: legs, glutes, lower back and core
The Problem: “A lot of people treat the get-up as one, super-fast movement instead of looking at it as a series of slower steps,” Doubroff says. “That type of thinking leads to sloppy form, diminished results and a greater risk of injury.”
Setup: Lie on your back and hold a kettlebell straight up above your shoulder in your left hand with the kettlebell resting against your forearm. Bend your left leg and place your left foot flat on the floor, right leg straight and right arm extended out to the side, palm flat. Look up at the kettlebell and keep your eyes there for the duration of the move.
Move: Keeping your left arm perpendicular to the ground, roll onto your right side and prop yourself up on your right elbow, then straighten your right arm until your right hand is supporting your weight. Next, press your hips up until your body is straight from your torso through your right leg. Reverse the steps to return to the setup position, then repeat. Do all reps on one side before switching.
- Keep your arm steady. Picture trying to push the kettlebell up into the ceiling.
- Press down into your bent foot to target your glutes and hips.
- Employ your core to maintain control and a solid base.
- Pack your working shoulder before getting up, bringing your scapula down and back.
- Rotate your extended leg at the top, turning it sideways so you're pushing through the outside of your foot.
- Focus upward at the kettlebell to stabilize your arm and protect your shoulder.
Kettlebelled to the core. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse found that after eight weeks of twice-a-week kettlebell workouts (which included snatches, swings and get-ups), the dynamic balance of participants improved by 7 percent, their aerobic capacity jumped by 13.8 percent and their core strength increased by 70 percent!
Swings beat cycling. A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that high-intensity kettlebell training was more effective than sprint interval cycling at burning calories and stimulating cardio-respiratory and metabolic responses that could improve health and aerobic performance.
Kettlebells build power. Just six weeks of kettlebell training was shown in a study to raise maximum and explosive strength. When subjects performed 12-minute sessions of kettlebell training twice weekly, their one-rep max in the half-squat went up almost 10 percent and their vertical jump increased 20 percent!