Cardio and weights all rolled into one.
Are your efforts at getting incredibly jacked still heavily dependent on a bulky, expensive set of dumbbells and/or loading Olympic plates on a rusting barbell that you salvaged from a picked-clean garage sale? Barbells and dumbbells have long been the staple of an effective training program. And for good reason; they provide the biggest bang-for-your-buck when it comes to building strength, muscle, and sculpting an impressive physique.
But, in recent years, a new kid has shown up on the block and has taken a foothold as a must-do in your training programs.
His name is kettlebell training – and when combined with a Rok F.i.T program – can help take your results to the next level. No longer the sole domain of overpriced group exercise classes, literal circus acts, or 18th century-Russian farmers intently weighing grain at the market, the kettlebell is a round-ish weight attached to a solid handle that looks a lot like, well, a kettle. Unlike dumbbells, which distribute their weight evenly between the two sides of the hand, the kettlebell’s mass is centered beyond the user’s reach, which makes it much easier to incorporate into more fluid, swinging-type motions to which traditional weights do not lend themselves so easily. (I mean, you ever tried to swing a dumbbell?)
Kettlebell Training: What Is It?
The development of kettlebells can be traced back to Russian farmers in the 1700s, as an implement originally used to weigh crops. The farmers noticed that they became stronger through the use of these implements, and used them to show off their strength at festivals. Later, the kettlebell was used as a training tool for the Soviet army.
Kettlebell Training vs Dumbbell Training
While kettlebells and dumbbells can both be used to train similar movements and exercises, kettlebell training has the distinct advantage of being able to produce ballistic movements more easily than dumbbells. These are movements that produce maximum velocity and acceleration over the shortest amount of time.
As far as ballistic movements go, in kettlebell training, it all begins and ends with the kettlebell swing. Precisely why as a coach, I start all of my clients who are beginners at kettlebell training with the Russian swing.
The Swing: The King of Kettlebell Training Movements
First things first…the kettlebell swing is a hinge movement, not a squat. This means that the move originates with the hips, not the knees. But it doesn’t stop there.
With a kettlebell swing, every muscle in your body is involved in every rep, with a specific emphasis on the entire posterior chain. A proper swing involves bending at the hips, not the knees, and using a strong contraction and thrust of the glutes to propel the kettlebell up. Then, your lats and abdominals take over to control the kettlebell as it transitions from the upswing to the downswing, and you start the process all over.
The kettlebell swing is in an elite class of exercises, along with the likes of the deadlift, and full cleans/snatches, that work your entire body in one movement.
The Many Benefits of Kettlebell Training
It’s true “functional” training
While the term “functional” gets thrown around a lot – and often too much – kettlebell training is functional exercise at its best. While a lot of machines and certain exercises train our muscles individually, kettlebell exercises train your body as a whole; utilizing almost every muscle group working together.
This carries over directly to our lives because of our bodies rarely, if ever, use muscles in isolation, instead of working in conjunction with each other to more efficiently perform tasks, prevent injuries, and build strength. Kettlebell training trains your entire body.
Kettlebell training increases work capacity
Work capacity is simply how much work your body is able to do. Increasing work capacity allows you to build more muscle, get strong, and burn more calories. As our previous post pointed out, your body requires more calories the greater your activity is.
Kettlebell training increases work capacity, and it increases it very quickly. Because of the ballistic nature of kettlebell training, you can improve cardiovascular ability while also strengthening your hips, legs, lower back, and core in a very short amount of time.
Training with kettlebells increases power
Power is important for almost any physical activity but especially important for athletes. Power is defined as the body’s ability to generate as much force as possible, as quickly as possible. Or in other words, explosiveness.
Classic kettlebell exercises like the swing, snatch, and clean all must be performed in a fast, explosive manner.
Kettlebell training teaches to you extend and fire through your hips, thus strengthening your glutes, and taking the stress off your lower back.
Not only that, but kettlebell training teaches you how to repeat these movements over and over again, increasing your power-endurance. And, in athletics, it’s usually the athletes that can sustain power and explosiveness over an extended period of time that come out on top.
Develop crushing grip strength
Grip strength is an underappreciated aspect of strength training. A weak grip can be a limiting factor in a number of exercises; particularly the deadlift and pull-ups. A stronger grip means heavier lifts, but also means larger and stronger forearms.
We’ve seen that kettlebell training has been great for improving the grip strength of our clients for a few reasons. One, the handle of the kettlebell is larger than the typical barbell or dumbbell, so any exercise you perform with it is going to stress your grip more.
Two, the nature of kettlebell exercises – the swing in particular – put unnatural stress on your hands and forearms. Swings require you to hold the kettlebell for an extended period of time, as well as having to combat a moving and every changing center of gravity.
Kettlebells are space-savers
You don’t need a lot of room to perform kettlebell exercises. Hell, most could be done in a closet. They also require very little storage, which makes them excellent options for at-home workouts, or for small studios.
Build stability with instability
Because the weight of a kettlebell is not centered like that of a dumbbell or barbell, kettlebell training can help build stability with instability.
Kettlebells teach your body to deal with an off-center of gravity. This means that your smaller stabilizer muscles are activated more than with traditional exercises, thus making them stronger.
Aches and pains are often a result of instability and imbalances. Kettlebell training doesn’t just expose these imbalances but works to correct them through improving coordination, joint strength, and the use of low impact.
Kettlebell training can combat lower back pain
I’ve found with my clients that the biggest cause of low back pain is weak glute muscles. The glutes are the largest muscles in the human body and are responsible for almost all movement. When the glutes are weak and don’t fire correctly, a lot of the work they should be doing is taken over by our lower back muscles, which are not designed to do as much work as the glutes.
Kettlebell training teaches you to extend and fire through your hips, thus strengthening your glutes, and taking the stress off your lower back.
Better posture and spinal stability
In keeping the theme of our back and posterior chain, kettlebell training has the ability to improve posture, as well as spinal stability, which will help prevent injuries.
Thankfully, kettlebell training can provide many of the benefits of traditional cardio and more.
Our posterior chain is responsible for our posture. When these muscles are weak, our posture is normally poor, with our shoulders rolled forward, back rounded over, etc. Poor posture increases our risk for nagging aches and pains, as well as injuries.
Kettlebell training combats this by strengthening the entire posterior chain. A stronger posterior chain helps you keep your shoulders pulled back, with a neutral spine. This is our body’s natural position and reduces our risk of injury issues.
Kettlebell training also addresses the issue of spinal stability. Protecting your spine comes from the ability to properly brace your core. This is done by drawing in breath, and bracing your stomach like you’re about to take a punch. This helps build core strength and will transfer over to other exercises, as well as everyday activities.
Cardio without the cardio
Most people who love resistance training tend to hate traditional cardio. The thought of jogging on a treadmill, or swaying back and forth on an elliptical for an hour is pure hell on earth. Thankfully, kettlebell training can provide many of the benefits of traditional cardio and more.
The reason kettlebell training is a great alternative to cardio is that 1). It’s not boring, and 2). It gives you the added bonus of training multiple energy systems.
There are two main energy systems we use during exercise. The aerobic system is used during sustained periods of activity, usually greater than a minute. This system relies on oxygen the body draws in for energy. The anaerobic energy system, on the other hand, uses stored energy for an activity usually lasting less than 15 seconds.
The best way to use kettlebell training to train both systems is by utilizing a HIIT – or high-intensity interval training – protocol. Typically this is done with a 1:1 or 1:2 work-to-rest ratio. What this means is you’re doing work for say 30 seconds, followed by 30-60 seconds of rest.
This has shown to provide a greater positive effect on both the anaerobic and aerobic energy systems, than simple traditional strength training or cardio alone does.
Burn more fat
Following a sound nutrition plan is the main driver of progress when it comes to fat loss, your training methods can also drastically help increase your results.
Kettlebell training is a great conditioning tool for fat loss for the reasons I just mentioned. Not only does it burn a ton of calories during the activity due to the aerobic response, but also after the activity, due to increased EPOC, or excess post-exercise oxygen consumption.
EPOC is the body’s response to the intensity of activity and its desire to return to a normal state. The higher the intensity, the great the EPOC, because the more oxygen the body needs to return to normal.
Kettlebell Training is fun
Other than heavy deadlifts, kettlebell training is probably the most fun you can have in the gym. Kettlebell workouts are quick and can be done anywhere, so you don’t have to be stuck in a gym. Plus they’re great for friendly workout competitions with a buddy.
Quick Kettlebell Workouts
The great thing about kettlebell training workouts is there are endless combinations of how they can be done. Here are a few of my favorites:
Perform 10 kettlebell swings, followed by 10 burpees. Then immediately perform 9 swings, followed by 9 burpees, then 8 swings, followed by 8 burpees, and so on, counting all the way down to 1 rep. Rest only as needed.
Top of the Minute
At the top of the minute, perform 20 seconds of kettlebell swings, followed immediately by 6 reps of a bodyweight exercise of your choice (push-ups, pull-ups, jump squats, etc). After the 6 reps, rest for the remainder of the minute. That’s one round. Complete 10-20 rounds.
Set a timer for 10 minutes. Perform all reps with one arm/leg before switching sides and repeating. That’s one round. Complete as many rounds as possible in 10 minutes, resting as little as possible. This is a complex so you will use the same weight for each exercise, and perform all reps without setting the weight down.
- One-Arm Swings x 3
- Single-Leg RDL x 3
- One-Arm Split-Stance Row x 3
- One-Arm Clean x 3
- One-Arm Reverse Lunge x 3
- One-Arm Push Press x 3
Perform each exercise for 60 seconds, with 60 seconds of rest in between. At the start of your 60 seconds of rest, perform 10 push-ups, then rest for the remainder of the 60 seconds.
- Two-Arm Swings x 60 seconds
- Shoulder Press x3 60 seconds per side
- Romanian Deadlift x 60 seconds
- One-Arm Row x 30 seconds per side
- Goblet Squat x 60 seconds
Perform as many or as few reps of each exercise as you want during one set. Your goal is to complete the prescribed number of reps for each exercise, for a grand total of 300 reps. Aim to complete all 300 reps in 15 minutes.
- One-Arm Swing x 50 reps per side
- Snatch x 25 reps per side
- Clean & Press x 25 reps per side
- Reverse Lunge x 25 reps per side
- Squat & Press x 25 reps per side
Additionally, kettlebell exercises burn more calories than conventional weightlifting exercises, up 20 calories a minute, according to a study by the American Council on Exercise (ACE). This is roughly the same amount of burn you’d get from a rigorous cardio workout. Despite the benefits, the one drawback is that only select gyms carry them. When combined with a proper diet, kettlebell training is a fun, quick, and unique way to burn fat, increase strength, and improve your overall fitness. With a short learning curve, it can be done anywhere, by anyone, at any fitness level. Add kettlebells to your fitness regimen, and watch your results skyrocket.