Get More Out of Your Kettlebell Training

Posted November 9, 2016

Guest blogger:  Ridge Carpenter, Rival Personal Trainer

A few quick ways to get more out of your Kettlebell training

So, here we are—you’ve signed on at one of those ‘functional fitness’ gyms, thrown on your new zero-drop HIIT sneakers and stepped boldly onto the turf, laying hands on the most agreeably-colored kettlebell near to hand. Or perhaps this isn’t your first rodeo—you’ve been around the block long enough to have chalked your hands (calluses newly pumiced, of course, to avoid tearing), and have laid hands on not just a bell that exceeds the weight of your mother’s handbag but on one that is labelled in kilos. Whoa. So, what now? How can this thing be of service, whether it’s the only modality you use, just another tool in the shed or maybe even a highly-recommended addendum from a friend or a trainer? A few things come to mind—

1) Learn to swing (correctly). Look, it’s not that the other guys are wrong, it’s just that I’m right. There are a number of reasons to dial in your swing before doing any other kind of monkey business with the old cannonball on a handle (yes, even Turkish Getups, because you have to learn those sans weight anyway), primary among them being that it’s really hard to snatch or clean a bell (or two) if you haven’t mastered the mechanics of the swing. Also, if you can swing really well you will end up with all kinds of benefits in other aspects of your training (unceremoniously christened the “What The Hell Effect”), including postural stability, posterior chain strength and a stronger aerobic base. So yes, learn to swing awesomely, first with two hands and then with one. More on where to do that in a bit.

And since you asked (you didn’t), here are two resources on the main question people will come up with in response to this item:

2) Okay, this is related to the last one, but learn to backswing. Everyone gets so tied up in throwing the bell out in front of them that they often neglect what I take to be the hardest part of the movement, namely the backswing. It’s partly that a lot of us (guilty, I raise my hand here) swing a little shallow when left to our own devices, or end up rounding or rotating as the bell descends, or rock off of half the foot, or swing too low (yes, I’m looking at you), but even given great patterning you can gain a lot from being a bit more purposeful about the return stroke. Enter the overspeed eccentric, which works well on swings, cleans and snatches—really simple, just swing it back with a little force (‘attack the zipper,’ as we say) to harmlessly load up the joints and muscles involved and add a few virtual orders of magnitude to the weight you’re throwing around. True story, experienced swingers (haha) were clocked producing in excess of 500 pounds of force on the return stroke of a 24-kilogram (53-pound) swing. Force plates and everything. It’s like training box jumps without having to land a zillion times! So, if you’re not comfortable ‘belling up’ yet but want to challenge yourself a little more, add some mustard to your backswing. And when you do, make sure you’re not bending your hips until the bell has arrived and is about to pass beneath you—I’m convinced the majority of “my back hurts” swings involve too early of a hip hinge (your back is suddenly horizontal while the bell is still two feet in front of you and traveling straight down, taking your hands with it—in a word, nope).

3) Change your grip—not the way your think, though. Military presses are one of the great applications of the kettlebell’s offset center of gravity, especially when held by the handle with the ball of the bell (which sounds a lot like belle of the ball, by the by) directly over the fist, which is above the elbow. Start light—these are wobbly and hard at first, especially on your non-dominant hand—and go easy on the chalk. It’s not just about grip strength, it’s about training your body to create a solid pillar from the floor to the pressing arm (you can’t fire a cannon from a canoe, after all—well, you could, but only once) and about coordinating tension across the body (notice those side-abdominals and deep stabilizers!). You can squat or press with a bottoms-up bell, or hold it for time,  or use it to perform loaded “rack carries.” All of these will improve your core stability (buzzword there) and pressing strength, not to mention shoulder health and grip strength (which is strongly correlated with shoulder health in the long term anyway). Due to their neurological demand you might consider placing them early in your workout, and I should remind us all that you want to have a clear space in which to lift and maybe drop your chosen bell. Eventually, some say it’s ideal to have your press max and your bottoms-up press max 8 or less kilos apart (18-ish pounds) if possible.

And, finally—

4) Get some instruction! No, this listicle (or whatever it is) doesn’t count! But the guy who wrote it is very nice, and he’ll be teaching a few one-day workshops in November on the very basics of kettlebell training. At the very least you’ll get a solid foundation in the swing, squat and/or turkish getup, share some laughs, and hear (at the very least) one or two really lame dad-jokes. Join us!

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