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Ergogenic Aids

How to improve muscular endurance with a Kettlebell

Jamie Hale explains the benefits of kettlebell training, the basic movements and provides a sample training routine.

KettlebellThe "kettlebell" or girya is a cast iron weight that looks like a bowling ball with a handle attached. The odd-looking object has recently been featured on numerous USA TV shows. For the past couple of years, kettlebell talk has become commonplace on the internet and numerous companies are now manufacturing and selling Kettlebells. Kettlebell advocates are reporting outstanding benefits using these devices. I know a few weight trainees who have completely dropped barbells and dumbbells from their routines in favour of kettlebells.

Are kettlebells really this effective?

In the following paragraphs, we will look at the history of kettlebells, the benefits they provide and a sample routine. The sport of kettlebell lifting (Girevoy Sport) is engraved deeply in Russian culture. Russian strongmen and wrestlers of the past contribute a large amount of their success to kettlebell training.

Kettlebells were so popular in Russia that strongmen and weightlifters were referred to as "kettlebell men." American strongman Arthur Saxon included kettlebell movements in his training regimen. With time the use of Kettlebells fell out of existence in western civilizations.

The first official Russian Kettlebell competition took place in 1948. In the following years, kettlebell competitions became increasingly popular. In 1974 many Soviet Republics recognized Girevoy Sport as "an ethnic sport." In 1985 the first USSR National Girevoy Sport Championship took place.

The competition consisted of two movements. The power clean and jerk and the power snatch were used in competition. The movements were performed while counting the maximum number of repetitions that could be performed with each movement.

The original Russian Kettlebells were classified in poods. One pood is a weight measurement that is equal to 16kg or 36 pounds. The kettlebells were made in three different sizes. The three sizes included one pood, one and a half and two poods. There was no need to make the kettlebells any heavier because the sport was a measure of muscular endurance.

A study conducted in 1983 by Voropayev supported the effectiveness of kettlebell training. Two groups of college students were observed for a few years. The control group used a standard military regimen of pull-ups, 100m sprints, a standing broad jump, and a 1k run. The experimental group exclusively used kettlebells. At the end of the experiment, the groups were tested on the military exercises mentioned above. The kettlebell group had better scores in every test, even though they did not practice those specific movements.

Soviet Special Operations (Spetznaz) contribute much of their strength, agility and stamina to kettlebells. The official Soviet armed forces manual on strength training states that bodybuilders' workloads are not as effective in promoting fitness as gireviks. The manual states that kettlebells are the most effective means of developing strength.

In an interview I recently conducted with Mike Mahler I asked Mahler what are the advantages that kettlebell training has over dumbbells? He responded with the following answers:

  • The handles are much thicker making every exercise harder and giving you a tremendous workout. I notice my forearms get pumped even on floor presses
  • The way the weight hangs to one side makes it much more difficult to control. You have to fight to stabilize it throughout the movement
  • It takes more coordination to master exercises such as the kettlebell clean and snatch in which the kettlebell flips over your hand. In addition to increasing coordination, you learn how to brace for the shock of the kettlebell flipping over. This is very applicable for combat athletes or anyone else that trains for mental toughness.

Other benefits offered by kettlebell training include wrist strength, tendon and ligament strength and enhanced flexibility.

Basic Swing Movements

The Swing

As the most basic and essential ballistic technique, the swing lays the foundation for the other ballistic movements and carries over to static exercises, especially deadlifts. Starting with feet about shoulder width apart, fold at the waist and sink back onto the heels, like sitting in a chair. You will feel as though you are falling backwards. The kettlebell starts between your legs and is propelled primarily by the force of the hips driving forward and snapping/thrusting, contracting the hamstrings, glutes and, at the top of the movement, the quads. Squeeze hard then let the bell fall on its own back between your legs as you fold back to the starting position. The hamstrings should get loaded up and, once the bell is behind you, use the momentum stored in the hamstrings to thrust forward again. The arm should be kept straight at all times, acting simply as a lever with the shoulder as the fulcrum. Remember to project the force outward from your body.

The Clean

The clean is performed similarly to the way a barbell clean is done. Start from the same position as the swing and as you thrust forward, keep the arm close to the body. Pull up with the arm until the elbow is about chest high, then bend the knees and "sneak" under the bell, flipping it so it goes over the wrist. Squeeze the bell to slow it down and let your body absorb the shock, not your forearm. The kettlebell should end up resting against your forearm, elbow bent and resting on your lower ribs with the rest of the body straight. It is very important to keep the wrist straight and not allow it to bend backwards.

The Clean and Push Press

The Clean and Push Press is simply a clean, then a press to the overhead position. Make sure you lock the elbow and extend the shoulder. The press is done using the tension techniques described below.

The Snatch

The snatch is almost the same as a clean except that, as you "sneak" under the kettlebell, you punch up toward the sky, fully straightening your elbow and extending your shoulder. The kettlebell should be in a direct line above the shoulder, which should be close to the ear. With the clean, you keep the elbow inward and low, but with the snatch, you should pull the elbow to about shoulder height before bringing the bell over your hand. As with the clean, a slight knee bend is required to allow the force to be absorbed by the entire body, not just the wrist and forearm.

Grinding Movements

Windmill

The windmill is performed with the kettlebell in the overhead position and the feet shoulder-width apart. Assuming the kettlebell is in your right hand, your right foot should point slightly to the left, and the left foot should point close to 90 degrees to the left. Weight is primarily on the right and the shoulder must stay in alignment with the hip and leg. Fold to the side and back and try to put your left hand on the floor. The tension throughout the body is of paramount importance. Always keep your eyes on the bell. Failure to do so will cause the arm to drift, which will lead to damaged shoulders. To return to a standing position squeeze the gluteus maximus, hamstrings and abdominals. Including a military press at the top makes the windmill an even more evil exercise.

The Side Press

The side press uses the same techniques as the windmill except that the bell starts from the clean position and, as you fold and go down, the arm stays put. Basically, you are falling away from your arm while it extends. Return to the standing position, as with the windmill, and then pull the bell back to the clean position. You should feel it in your latissimus dorsi (lats).

The Turkish Get Up

The Turkish Get Up is a favourite. Start lying on the ground with the kettlebell next to you. Use both hands to bring the kettlebell to your chest and press upward with the bell now in one hand, extending the shoulder. Then, in any way you can, stand up. Remember to maintain tension and to keep your eyes on the bell. Return to the lying position by carefully and slowly bending one leg and working yourself back down. Once on your back, pull the bell back to your chest.

Farmer's Walk

A Farmer's Walk is simply carrying any heavy object while walking around. It is a great exercise for grip strength.

Front Squats

Front squats are the same as a front squat with a bar. You are merely substituting either one or two kettlebells for the bar. Pull your hips down keep the shins vertical and the knees tracking with the feet. Do not let the knees drift inward or you risk injury. As you stand contract your abs, hold the breath and again squeeze the butt, hamstrings and quads. You can use 2 kettlebells in the clean position or one bell held in front with both hands.

Deck Squat

A deck squat is similar to the front squat except that, once you are down, roll onto your back keeping the knees and lower legs in the same orientation, then roll back to the front squat position and come back up. Both the front squat and deck squat are excellent abdominal exercises. Hold one kettlebell in front of you in both hands. This makes the exercise both harder and easier. Harder because you have to hold the weight and stand up with it, easier because it allows better control and gives enough forward momentum to return to the front squat position after being on your back.

The Pistol

To do a pistol, raise one leg so it is out straight and perpendicular to you. Then fold back and down until your calf hits your butt with the foot flat on the floor, then stand back up. Try not to let the extended foot touch the floor as you stand. I have found that it is actually easier to do a pistol by holding a kettlebell in both hands in front of you to act as a counterbalance.

Single Leg Deadlift

SLDL, or single leg deadlift, is performed by placing one kettlebell on either side of the foot and folding over at the hips (notice a pattern here?). You are basically in the same position as a regular deadlift with one foot off the floor extended behind you. Keep the natural arch in the back, use full body tension, grip the kettlebells while maintaining abdominal pressurization and slowly stand up by straightening the knee and unfolding from the hips at the same time.

Russian Military Press

The Russian Military Press is a standard press with the feet together.

Figure Eights

To do the figure 8's assume the starting position for the swing then stand up a little. Now start moving the kettlebell around and between your legs in a figure 8 pattern All the pressing/grinding movements are done slowly, the more so the better. Remember to maintain full body tension throughout the movement. After completing the repetition, pause and breathe normally a few times before doing another rep. Also, unless you want to put on mass, keep the reps and sets low and give yourself 3 minutes of active rest between sets.

I incorporate Kettlebells in my training programs and they have proven beneficial. They present athletes with a different neuromuscular stimulus than a dumbbell or barbell. As I mentioned earlier some trainees have dropped all their other modes of training to use Kettlebells exclusively. I do not support this belief. Barbells, dumbbells, agility ladders, jump ropes and many other tools have their place in developing athletes. The addition of Kettlebells is a wonderful addition to a comprehensive program. On a final note, coaches and athletes beware of the overuse syndrome when using Kettlebells.


Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • HALE, J. (2004) How to improve muscular endurance with a Kettlebell. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 13 / June), p. 7-10

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • HALE, J. (2004) How to improve muscular endurance with a Kettlebell [WWW] Available from: https://www.brianmac.co.uk/articles/scni13a5.htm [Accessed

About the Author

Jamie Hale is a Sports Conditioning Coach in the USA, member of World Martial Arts Hall of Fame and contributor to numerous exercise and sports journals.

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