Back in the day, your only weight training options in the gym were machines, barbells, or dumbbells. Sure, it got the job done well enough, but lifters were missing out on a versatile, effective, and truly old school piece of equipment for building muscle, strength, power, and conditioning.
Kettlebells have a centuries-long history around the world and, fortunately, they’ve become more and more commonplace in commercial gyms in recent years. They’re also an efficient space-saving option for any home gym. While kettlebell training does require slightly more attention than exercising with dumbbells, the payoff is well worth the effort.
Here are the best exercises to begin your kettlebell experience. You’ll find some irreplaceable exercises that build explosive power, head-to-toe strength and stability, and a muscle-building stimulus you just can’t duplicate with any other equipment. While some exercises require a pair of matched weights, there are plenty of great movements using just one ‘bell.
Best Kettlebell Exercises
The goblet squat is a very accessible way for anyone to learn how to squat with added resistance. The idea of the movement is that you are “sitting into your squat” with a weight in front of your body. It sounds pretty simple in theory and, in reality, it is.
The movement is much easier to learn compared to a back squat which requires more shoulder mobility and upper body attention. A goblet squat can help you feel what it’s like to hold tension in a squat while focusing on your lower body. It’s not strictly for beginners because you can progress to the heaviest kettlebell you have access to before moving on to a barbell.
How to Do the Goblet Squat
Hold the kettlebell handles at your chest. Press your palms toward each other in order to keep tension in your upper body. Keep your chest up and don’t let the weight pull you forward. Push your hips back, drive your knees out, and sit “into” your hips — don’t just fall down.
When your thighs are slightly below parallel to the ground, push your feet through the floor and drive yourself back up to a standing position. Throughout the entire repetition, keep the weight as close to your body as possible and make sure you have control of the weight.
Benefits of the Goblet Squat
- Goblet squats are a great way to build strength in your legs and core.
- Goblet squats allow you to master squat technique, build mobility, and progress gradually over time.
- Goblet squats are ideal for lifters unable to squat with a 35 or 45-pound barbell.
Kettlebell deadlifts are a great way to learn deadlift technique and strengthen the involved muscles without needing to load 65 to 135 pounds on a barbell. Many times, deadlifts are associated with powerlifters moving hundreds and hundreds (and hundreds) of pounds, but a “deadlift” is simply a way of hinging from your hips and picking up a weight from the ground efficiently.
The kettlebell deadlift helps you understand how to turn your lats on during the exercise, which improves upper body stability and strength during the pull. The exercise also grooves the hip hinge movement pattern to improve technique.
How to Do the Kettlebell Deadlift
Set your feet slightly wider than hip-distance apart, with a kettlebell between your feet. Push your hips back and hinge your upper body forward. Grip the top kettlebell handle with both hands. Your torso should be slightly above parallel to the ground, with your chest above your hip-line. Keep your arms straight and feel tension in your lats — the muscles on either side of your back behind your ribs. Pull your shoulders away from your ears.
Slightly bend your knees and take a deep breath in to brace your core (holding tension and position). Drive through the floor and stand up by pushing your hips forward and pulling your shoulders back. Don’t lean too far back in the top position or you’ll shift focus to your lower back.
Once you’re standing upright, descend by driving your hips back behind you and keeping the weight close to your legs. Unlock your knees and “find the floor” with the kettlebell. Remember that a “deadlift” means that there is a dead-stop on the floor. Each time the weight gets to the ground, breathe and to reset your position.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Deadlift
- Deadlifts are a functional movement done in everyday life, whether it’s picking up the laundry basket, your kid, heavy grocery bags, or the end of a couch. The kettlebell deadlift teaches how to safely keep weight close to your body while efficiently lifting from the floor.
- The exercise strengthens your legs, back, shoulders, core, and grip.
Farmer’s carries, also known as farmer’s walks, are one of the most effective ways to simultaneously build your strength and endurance. It also works nearly every part of your body from your core and grip to your shoulders and calves.
If you’ve ever carried more than one grocery bag from the car to the house, you’ve done a farmer’s carry. The goal is to get the snacks home safely, right? At the gym, the goal is to carry the weight with control so, when you think about it, the farmer’s carry is a functional exercise to keep your groceries safe. In any case, the idea is to walk for total distance or time while holding heavy weights and maintaining good posture and control of the weights.
How to Do the Farmer’s Carry
Stand with your feet roughly hip-distance apart with a kettlebell at outside of each foot. Hinge your hips back, pull your shoulders away from your ears, and feel tension in your lats as you pick up the kettlebells. This should remind you of doing a deadlift, because it is. The only difference is having a weight near each hip instead of one weight at your body’s centerline. And instead of putting the weights right back down, you are going for a simple walk.
The main focus is to control the weights while walking. Focus on holding your body in good alignment with your shoulders pulled back in muscular tension to prevent the weights from swinging. If you find you are losing your balance, you are likely not controlling the kettlebells. After you’ve reached your distance or time, set up in the starting stance, hinge your hips back, and bring the weights to the floor.
Benefits of the Farmer’s Carry
- Farmer’s carries are incredibly applicable to life from a functional strength-perspective, safely and efficiently moving with weights at arm’s length.
- The exercise is effective for building core strength and grip strength.
- This total-body movement also builds endurance and conditioning more efficiently than low intensity aerobic exercise like walking on a treadmill.
This movement is powerful and, honestly, fun. A gorilla row is similar to a bent-over dumbbell row, but instead of pressing into a bench with one arm, you’re using the opposing weight to create force and stability.
This row variation helps to reinforce good hip hinge patterns. It requires you to hold your lower back and core in a strong position, otherwise you find that doing the actual row becomes much harder. The wide stance also reduces lower back strain, making it a good choice for lifters with recurring back problems.
How to Do the Gorilla Row
Stand with your feet wide out and a pair of kettlebells on the ground at your center. Bend forward at your hips and squat down to grip the weights with your palms facing each other. Pressing down into one of the kettlebells while pulling the other toward your waist. Don’t allow your upper body to rotate as you pull and push. You can either alternate pulling sides with each repetition or stick to one side for all reps before switching.
This movement is meant to be done powerfully, not slowly. If you have a hard time being in the hinge position without your back rounding, elevate the kettlebells on blocks to make them a bit higher. This will take some of the pressure on your hamstrings and lower back by reducing the range of motion.
Benefits of the Gorilla Row
- Gorilla row is an effective rowing variation, which can be beneficial for building strength and muscle. (1)
- This movement incorporated your entire body, using your legs and core for stability, compared to a more lat-focused row.
- The core engagement and body position reduces lower back strain compared to other rowing movements.
The halo is one of the most complete shoulder exercises you can do. The benefits include strength, mobility, and stability. The halo is versatile and can be done either during a workout or as part of a warm-up.
You can make the movement easier or harder by adjusting the bell’s position in your hands, by alternating directions with each repetition or performing one direction at a time, or by changing your stance from standing to kneeling.
How to Do the Kettlebell Halo
Stand while grabbing the side handles a kettlebell, with the your thumbs in front of your face. Think about an actual halo — a halo is a circle over your head, so create a circular motion around your eye-line. As you bring the weight to the side of your head, start to turn the bottom of the kettlebell up toward the ceiling.
As it moves around the back of your head, the bottom of the kettlebell should be facing the ceiling and your elbows point up to the sky. As the weight finishes the circle around your head, rotate the bottom of the weight to face the floor. You should be in the starting position again.
Don’t allow your head to move forward. Get the range of motion from your shoulders, not from your neck. Pretend you’re stuck in cement from the chest down. This will work on your core stability.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Halo
- The halo efficiently builds core stability and upper body mobility3.
- The shoulders and upper back are worked through a very significant range of motion, making it an ideal drill for improving joint health by addressing scapular stability and mobility.
- The exercise can be performed with several basic variations, making it accessible for people with different abilities and experience levels.
All lunges are hard, but front rack reverse lunges (sometimes called back lunges) are an extra-level of hard. It takes a lot of core and mid-back strength to perform this “lower body exercise” because you have to keep the kettlebells held near your chest during the movement.
The beauty of the front rack reverse lunge is that you get your leg work done while also training your upper body and core at the same time. Doing the exercise with one kettlebell will increase the core challenge even further since you need to stabilize your torso from being pulled down on one side.
How to Do the Front Rack Reverse Lunge
Stand while holding a pair of kettlebells at shoulder-height with your knuckles either touching or fairly close to each other. Think of a classic prayer position without your hands actually interlocking. This is the “front rack” position.
Step one foot back, hinging slightly at your hips as you bend your front leg and lower your back knee down towards the floor. Lightly graze the floor with your knee — don’t just drop your knee to the ground. Focus on keeping your torso strong and your chest up, pointing your knuckles up toward the sky. Once you’ve grazed the ground with your leg, push up through your front leg with the back leg only helping slightly You can either continue all reps with one leg or you can alternate sides.
Benefits of the Front Rack Reverse Lunge
- The front rack position adds a big element of core strength to the reverse lunge, especially if performed with a weight in one arm instead of two.
- Your upper back, shoulders and arms will also be challenged to support the weight during this movement.
- The front rack reverse lunge helps to build lower body strength and mobility as you reach a deep lunge position, stretching the hip flexors of the back leg and strengthening the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes of the front leg.
It’s common to see a basic overhead press, but a front rack push press is a whole different ballgame. You can do the standard overhead press with kettlebells in a slow and controlled fashion, but when you add the front rack position and a lower body push, you’ve now created a relatively unstable environment that you have to work really hard to control.
By using leg drive, you challenge your core to transfer that power from your lower body through to your shoulders. You’re also able to use relatively heavier weights, which can build more strength and power.
How to Do the Front Rack Push Press
Hold a pair of kettlebells in the front rack position — in front of your face with your palms facing each other. Dip your knees and sit very slightly down while keeping your chest tall. From that position, quickly stand straight and punch the weights up. Imaging you’re jumping to create enough power through the floor and send the weights toward the ceiling.
Because you’re creating so much force, you’ll need to make sure that your shoulders are in a stable position to catch the weights at the top. Brace your core as you lockout the weights overhead. Once you’ve stabilized the weights at the top, lower them towards your chest as you sit again to “catch” the force coming down. Repeat the movement by punching upward.
Benefits of the Front Rack Push Press
- Kettlebells are more unstable than dumbbells due to the offset center of gravity and their position in your hand and on your arm. This adds an even greater element of core strength and shoulder stability to each repetition as you must work harder to control the weight overhead.
- The front rack push press allows heavier weights than a strict press, which helps improve strength and force development.
- Incorporating leg drive makes the front rack push press a total-body exercise, creating a more efficient movement for conditioning.
This movement is similar to the farmer’s carry except, instead of practicing carrying groceries, you’re practicing carrying luggage. Using just one kettlebell creates a pull on one side of your body which forces your core, specifically your oblique muscles on the sides of your abdominals, to work extra-hard to keep you upright.
The suitcase deadlift is a single-arm, core-intensive variation of the standard kettlebell deadlift. The suitcase carry is a single-arm, core-intensive variation of the farmer’s carry. Combining the two creates an efficient exercise to build total-body strength and a strong, supportive core.
How to Do the Suitcase Deadlift and Carry
Stand with one kettlebell on the floor next to your foot. Hinge your hips back, bend your legs slightly, and grab the weight with your palm facing your leg. Pull your shoulders away from your ears and create tension in your shoulder. Keep your back neutral and your shoulders level as you drive through the floor and pick up the weight. Walk for total distance or time.
As you are walking, you will feel a bit lopsided, but that is the point. Fight that using your core. Squeeze your free hand hard to help create tension and prevent the weight from pulling you to one side. (2) Once you are done with the set, hinge your hips back, place the weight on the floor and repeat with the other hand.
Benefits of the Suitcase Deadlift and Carry
- The suitcase deadlift and carry addresses natural asymmetries and helps to reduce the risk of injuries by improving core stability.
- The single-sided loading is highly functional and prepares the body for real-world scenarios ranging from walking an energetic dog to carrying a child on your hip.
This is a dynamic and powerful movement that only feels good when it’s done properly. When it’s done wrong, it can tell you it’s wrong by bruising your wrist and forearm — not all exercises talk back to you like that, but kettlebell cleans definitely will.
The clean is a fundamental exercise that builds strength to get your kettlebells up the front rack position, so learning it will benefit your presses, squats, lunges, and more.
How to Do the Kettlebell Clean
With the kettlebell between your feet, and your feet a little wider than hip-width apart, drive your hips back. Bend your knees and put one hand on the bell with a palm-down grip. Make sure that your chest is up so you can look in front of you — you don’t want to be looking at the floor or the bell. Drive up to pull the weight off the floor. As it reaches your hips, start to turn your hand so the weight will land in the front rack position.
Here’s the important thing: you shouldn’t be doing much pulling with your arm. Some, sure, but most of the power to get the weight from the ground to chest-height comes from your hips. You are almost “throwing” the weight up to the sky with a lot of momentum and power from the hips, and then guiding it into the front rack position.
Some key tips would be not to pull off the ground too fast, so you can gather enough power. Also, relax your hand as the bell is turning, to allow a smoother rotation and cut down on calluses. The kettlebell clean does take a lot of practice before you might have a smooth lift, so it’s a good idea to start light and taking your time to increase the weight.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Clean
- Kettlebell cleans are a very effective explosive power exercise.
- The clean is the most efficient way to bring a kettlebell to the front rack position before performing squats, lunges, presses or similar exercises.
- As a total-body movement, it’s an excellent way to train cardio and conditioning while targeting the legs, core, and upper back.
Kettlebell swings might be the most popular kettlebell exercise around, and for plenty of good reasons. They are one of the best hip extension exercises and target the glutes and hamstrings. They are powerful, they are fun, and they are unconventional cardio.
Because your hips and glutes are some of the strongest muscles in your body, you can swing a lot more weight than you realize when you are using the proper momentum, power, and position.
How to Do the Kettlebell Swing
Start standing about a foot behind the kettlebell, with your feet wider than hip-distance apart. Your body should be in a hinged position with both hands palm-down on the bell. Think about hiking a football back behind you. Keep your chest tall, take a deep breath in, and “hike” the kettlebell behind your legs. Once the kettlebell is at its peak, aggressively drive your hips forward and come to a standing position while the kettlebell swings forward in front of you to about chest-height. Do not lift the kettlebell with your arms. Keep your arms loose.
Imagine a slingshot. As you bring the weight back, you’re pulling the sling back and once you release the sling, the weight should shoot forward. In this case, you will be guiding it forward and slightly up. Once the kettlebell is in front of you at its maximum height, actively pull it down through your legs, but very closer to your hips than your knees. A graphic but memorable saying to keep in mind is “thumb in the bum.” Keep the bell high and close between your legs to generate the most power. When the bell swings up, make sure you have fully extended your hips without leaning backward and overextend with your lower back.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Swing
- Kettlebell swings are a great way to change up your cardio workouts.
- Swings build explosive power and strength.
- The movements is highly effective for targeting the glutes and training hip extension, which can benefit athleticism, sports performance, and muscle growth.
Are you bored of planks and also need to work on your shoulder mobility? Here’s the solution. There are many ways to work your core and static exercises where you resist movement, such as basic planks, are great to build stability.
This tall kneeling plank is also great because you will be working on your hip extension and shoulder mobility at the same time. The kettlebell tall kneeling plank is a great way to work on holding our spine in a neutral position, which will translate to many other exercises.
How to Do the Kettlebell Tall Kneeling Plank
The “tall kneeling” position means that you will be on both knees with your thighs toward the ceiling, not sitting on your heels. Grab the handle of a kettlebell with both hands behind you. Your palms will be facing away from your body and you will want to keep your arms as straight as possible.
Actively extend (straighten) at the hips and hold your ribs in alignment directly above your waist. Try not to let the kettlebell rest on your body. You don’t have to pull it far away, but you want to stay active and engage your shoulders and arms in this hold.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Tall Kneeling Plank
- This exercise is a great way to open up your chest and shoulders, improve mobility and stretch your upper body.
- If you can’t perform basic planks due to wrist or elbow problems, this is a great alternative.
The Turkish get-up is a strength, stability, and mobility exercise wrapped up into one. It can be broken down into parts where it becomes a sit-up, a crab bridge, a lunge, an overhead hold… there is a lot going on. The main idea is that you begin lying on the ground holding a weight locked out overhead and have to move into a standing position.
This is a big, involved movement broken down into a step-by-step process. The focus is keeping your shoulders in a stable position so the weight remains perpendicular to the ground the entire time. Even beginning with bodyweight alone, without any weigh in your hand, can be challenging to some people.
How to Do the Turkish Get-Up
Lie on your back with your right foot flat on the floor, your right knee bent to 90-degrees, and your left leg straight out. Your right arm begins locked straight above your chest with a kettlebell in-hand. Your left arm is out to the side at the same angle as your left leg. While looking at the weight and pressing your arm away from you, push into the floor with your right foot and prop up onto your left elbow.
Keep pressing your left arm into the floor and come up the palm of that hand. Keep your shoulders stacked in-line. Press your hips up to the sky with your left leg out straight. Press through your left palm and right foot, and bring your left leg under your body into a kneeling position.
With your knee on the ground, take your left palm off the floor and extend your arm sideways for balance. Press through your legs into a standing position. This is the top of the get-up — the halfway point of one repetition. Stabilize the kettlebell locked overhead and brace your core.
With your left leg, step back into a half-kneeling (lunge) position. Hinge your hips back as you lean to the left side and place your left palm on the ground. Bring your left leg through to a straight ahead position. Bend your left arm and lower to your forearm, and then slowly lower yourself flat onto your back. You should end in the same starting position, with the kettlebell locked straight over your chest. Switch the weight to the other hand and repeat.
Benefits of the Turkish Get-Up
- The Turkish get-up truly is a whole-body exercise. It’s arguably the most involved movement you can do in the gym and everything is working, as you can tell from the extra-long steps on how to perform the exercise
- The movement works shoulder stability and mobility, lower body stability and strength, and core strength.
Benefits of Kettlebell Training
Kettlebells can be used for all sorts of strength exercises, just like you would use dumbbells. The big difference is weight distribution due to the way the kettlebell is shaped and how you hold it. The offset size of the kettlebell can make many exercises much more challenging than similar movements using a dumbbell.
The other major beauty of almost any kettlebell exercise is that you easily flow from movement to movement. For example, you can smoothly transition from a kettlebell swing to a clean to a push press to a front rack reverse lunge all without ever putting the weight down.
This type of exercise flow is similar to using supersets and is an efficient way to train multiple muscle groups with a high level of continuous tension.
How to Program Kettlebell Exercises
Kettlebells are generally used for developing power over raw strength because they can be used explosively but weights are relatively limited. One of the most popular examples would be a kettlebell swing. It’s powerful movement that is best done with a kettlebell rather than a dumbbell or an improvised, homemade kettlebell-like alternative.
Kettlebell exercises can be incorporated into any conventional workout and mixed with standard exercises. For example, performing the front rack push press before dumbbell lateral raises during a shoulder workout.
You can also create a kettlebell-only workout for a plan requiring minimal equipment. For example, performing the goblet squat, swings, and front rack reverse lunge as a complete leg workout. You could also get an intense and effective cardio workout performing the farmer’s carry followed by the Turkish get-up.
How to Warm-Up with a Kettlebell
Because the kettlebell takes up barely any space in the gym, it can be the key to getting a quick and effective warm-up before any workout. Stringing together several exercises, performing each for several repetitions, can be an ideal way to prepare your entire body for any training session. Try this simple circuit:
- Unweighted Turkish Get-Up: Lie flat on the ground with your hand raised to the ceiling. Roll to the opposite side, prop yourself up, swing the leg of your non-working arm through to the back, and stand up. Keep your hand pointed completely vertical the entire time. Reverse the process to lie back down and repeat with the other arm. Perform two reps per side before moving to the next exercise.
- Goblet Squat: Hold a kettlebell with both hands in front of your chest. Pull your shoulders back, engage your core, and sit back into your hips. Descend as low as possible, aiming to increase your depth with each repetition. Perform five repetitions before moving to the next repetition.
- Kettlebell Clean: Take the kettlebell in one hand, hanging between your legs near your knees. Hinge forward at the hips and slightly bend your knees. Explode upwards while pulling the weight to shoulder-level. Bend your arm and “catch” the weight with bent legs. Stand upright and reset before lowering the weight to the starting position. Perform three repetitions per arm before moving to the next exercise.
- Front Rack Push Press: Begin with the kettlebell at shoulder-level. Bend your legs and sit down slightly before quickly standing up while pressing the weight overhead to full lockout. Lower the bell to shoulder-level and “catch” it with bent legs. Perform three repetitions per arm before repeating the first exercise. Perform a total of three circuits.
One Bell, Endless Results
There’s a reason kettlebells have been used around the entire world for well-over a century. Without needing a fully equipped gym, you can train your entire body for strength, muscle, mobility, and conditioning. Kettlebell training might seem complicated, imposing, or even intimidating. But it’s really not. All it takes is patience, practice, and proper instruction. You just got the last piece, but the first two are up to you.
- Baz-Valle, E., Schoenfeld, B. J., Torres-Unda, J., Santos-Concejero, J., & Balsalobre-Fernández, C. (2019). The effects of exercise variation in muscle thickness, maximal strength and motivation in resistance trained men. PloS one, 14(12), e0226989. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0226989
Gontijo, L. B., Pereira, P. D., Neves, C. D., Santos, A. P., Machado, D., & Bastos, V. H. (2012). Evaluation of strength and irradiated movement pattern resulting from trunk motions of the proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation. Rehabilitation research and practice, 2012, 281937. https://doi.org/10.1155/2012/281937
Featured Image: Goolia Photography / Shutterstock