Kettlebells have been an integral part of my workout programs for over a decade (both my personal workouts and people who I train). I think they are an incredible tool with the potential to deliver amazing results, but like any tool you need to use it skillfully in order to get the desired results. Here are five tips to help get you more from your kettlebell workouts:
1) GET COACHING
This sounds obvious, but due to the surge in popularity of kettlebells over the past five years or so this one is worth saying. I see too many people just grab a kettlebell and start slinging it around with no real idea of what they are doing with it. To be honest some of the worst culprits are people who already workout regularly and just assume they can grab it and do it well. In fact, Mira has told me more stories than I can count about some of her weightlifter friends who thought they were doing Turkish Get Ups and other exercises well, only to realize they’d been butchering it for years once Mira finally got to work with them on it. So, step one, get at least SOME coaching to get you started in the right direction.
2) TAKE YOUR SET UP SERIOUSLY
Whenever you are about to start a set of any exercise (swings, snatches, get ups, and so on) make sure to take a quick moment to get a nice set up before you start moving the kettlebell. This is one that I see happen a ton even in our classes here in person – someone is getting set up for one handed swings and they are a bit forgetful about packing their shoulder; or they are getting ready to do a Turkish get up and they do not straighten their wrist all the way before they start. The bottom line is your set will never be good if your set up is not good, so take a quick moment before each one and get everything dialed in.
3) OWN YOUR POSITIONS
If you have trained with me in person or taken our On-Demand classes you know this is a pet peeve of mine. In fact, me yelling “Own your lockout!” is probably burned into your memory at this point. There is opportunity to “own your position” in just about every exercise, and yet it is one of the biggest places I see corners being cut. The benefits of owning your positions (especially end-ranges of position) are many:
- Your form just looks better – you’ll impress way more people on Instagram
- It is safer – when you stabilize your joints and pull the slack out of them you improve your body’s ability to safely support heavy loads and tolerate high forces
- It is stronger – it is hard to hold a ½ bodyweight kettlebell snatch overhead if you have a soft lockout of if you are accustomed to returning the bell down without completely stopping all movement first; but if you have good habits of a locked elbow and complete cessation at the top, then it is much more do-able
- This last two are a bit anecdotal, but in my experience they are true:
- It helps minimize injuries, and helps you recover from injuries faster and more completely. In 2018 I took a nasty fall in Jiu Jitsu and badly injured my shoulder. I recovered from the injury in a fraction of the time it usually takes and I credit a lot of that to consistently training Turkish get ups, kettlebell snatches, and pull ups for years prior to the injury, and training all those exercises with a big emphasis on control and stability.
- It helps build a strange type of “functional strength” that carries over well to other activities, especially grappling. If you think about it, “owning your positions” basically means you holding your ground where YOU WANT TO BE against the resistance of a weight that is trying to pull you out of the position. That sounds an awful lot like BJJ or other styles of grappling where you want to hold your position while your opponent is trying to pull you out of it.
4) PAY CLOSE ATTENTION TO YOUR WEIGHT DISTRIBUTION
If you have ever wondered why so many people who lift kettlebells do their workouts in bare feet, one of the reasons is to have maximal awareness of where on their feet their weight is distributed. On almost every exercise your weight should be evenly distributed over the entire foot; a good visual is a tripod. If you imagine the three legs of a tripod as 1) your heel, 2) the ball of your foot, and 3) the “ball” of your foot on the pinky toe side, then you want your weight fairly evenly distributed on all three of those. If your weight is not evenly distributed it will cause problems with your form (and possibly the safety of your lifts).
The biggest culprit I see here are with swings: when the kettlebell passes back through the legs in the hike pass, the lifter lets their toes come up off the ground and sometimes even the ball of the foot comes up off the ground, which forces all the weight back on the heels. When that happens the lifter cannot sit back into a deep enough hinge (if they tried they’d lose their balance and fall over), so instead they end up with a shallow hinge that doesn’t let them get power from their hips, and often strains their lower back.
5) GO INTO EACH SET WITH A DESIRED SPEED / TEMPO TO LIFT THE KETTLEBELL
Pretend I gave you a baseball and asked you to throw it two distances:
- 10 feet
- As far as possible
Even if you never played baseball, you can understand the different speeds / amounts of power needed to throw the ball each of those differences. The amount of effort needed to throw the baseball 10 feet is completely different from throwing it as far as possible. When you are doing your kettlebell swings or snatches, your effort should be much closer to the “as far as possible” than the “10 feet.”
The problem is that the way a lot of people actually do their workouts more closely resembles the 10-feet example. Not every single swing (or snatch) needs to be at truly 100% power, but there is a minimum amount of power you need to generate on every rep in order for it to be beneficial and effective, and that minimum level is pretty high. If you are working with a coach in person they should have an eye for this and they can let you know if you need to add a little gusto to your swings, but if you are working out on your own that obviously is not possible, and you need to be honest with yourself on the effort level you are putting into each rep.