There’s no one type of weight that’s better than all the others, but it is fair to say that the kettlebell is the most under-appreciated member of the free-weight family. There's a large range of kettlebell exercises you can try, from high-rep HIIT workouts to low-rep heavyweight slogs. They’re also especially good for compound moves like swings and squats.
Next time you go the gym, grab a kettlebell and try some of these beginner, intermediate and advanced exercises, selected and explained by the Coach team, alongside Mitch Lawrence and David Templer, PTs and Multipower ambassadors.
Kettlebell Exercises: Where To Start
Before you dive into these kettlebell exercises, there’s a kettlebell-specific position to familiarise yourself with – the rack. It’s the finishing position of the technical, difficult-to-master clean, and the starting position for presses. Hold the handle with your hand by your chin, elbow out to the side and the bell resting on the top of your forearm by your armpit.
Beginner Kettlebell Exercises
“Stand up straight with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart,” says personal trainer Mitch Lawrence. “Grasp the kettlebell handle with both hands with your palms facing towards you and arms in front of your body. Lower your body by slightly bending your knees and driving your hips back. Explosively drive your hips forwards and swing the kettlebell with straight arms towards shoulder height, keeping your glutes and core engaged. Control the swing back down.”
“You can hold the kettlebell between your legs by the handle with both hands,” says David Templer (aka the Shirtless Chef), “or turn the kettlebell upside down, holding the rounded part with both hands at chest level.
“Your feet should be wider than shoulder-width apart and pointing slightly outwards. Keep your back straight, chest up and engage your core. Push your hips backwards and bend your knees to squat as low as your range of motion allows you to. Push through your heels and push your hips forwards to return to the start position. Don’t let your knees roll in during the upwards phase of the squat – work hard to push your knees out.”
Single-arm kettlebell row
“Place the kettlebell in front of your feet,” says Lawrence. “Take a big step back with your left leg and grasp the kettlebell in your left hand, resting your right arm on your right knee. Pull the kettlebell into your hip and then lower it until just before it touches the floor with your arm fully extended. Keep your back in a fixed position throughout.”
Kettlebell triceps extension
“Grasp the kettlebell with both hands,” says Lawrence. “Take a step forwards with your right leg so your feet are staggered. Raise the kettlebell directly overhead with both arms extended. Keep your elbows close to your ears as you lower the kettlebell behind your head until your hands are in line with your elbows, then return the kettlebell back overhead by extending your arms.”
This kettlebell exercise boosts the strength in your core and shoulders, as well improving your mobility. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with a kettlebell in your right hand. Turn both feet so they are pointing 45° to the left and press the kettlebell straight overhead until your elbow is locked out. Look up at the weight and shift your hips to the right as you bend down towards your left side until your left hand is able to touch your left foot – or shin, if that’s all your flexibility allows. Come back up and repeat. Complete all the reps on one side, then switch the kettlebell to your other hand.
Kettlebell reverse lunge
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding kettlebells by your sides – or for an extra core challenge, rack them. Take a big step back and lower until both knees are bent at 90°. Pause, then push through your front leg, squeezing your glutes, to return to standing.
Figure of eight
Holding a kettlebell in front of you in your right hand, drop into either a squat or half squat position (the lower you go the better), ensuring your back is straight and your core is braced. Bring the kettlebell around the outside of your right leg then through your legs from the back. Grab the kettlebell with your left hand from the front to bring it through your legs. Repeat the movement on the opposite side so you’re moving the bell in a figure of eight pattern.
Intermediate Kettlebell Exercises
Single-arm kettlebell swing
“Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart,” says Templer. “Grasp the kettlebell handle with one hand, palm facing towards you, and your arm in front of your body. Lower your body by slightly bending your knees and driving your hips back. Explosively drive your hips forwards and swing the kettlebell with a straight arm towards shoulder height, keeping your glutes and core engaged. Swing back down with the weight under control, then repeat.”
“Hold the kettlebell against your chest, then extend it out in front of you so your arms are horizontal with the ground. Squeeze your hands as tight as possible, holding the kettlebell out in front of you for a second, then bring it back in and repeat.”
Kettlebell goblet squat
“Hold the kettlebell upside down in both hands,” says Lawrence. “The movement of the goblet squat is the same as a regular squat – lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the ground, then drive back up through your heels. The goblet squat helps improve your squatting movement pattern because of the position the kettlebell is held in throughout the movement.”
Kettlebell Russian twist
“Sit with your feet flat on the floor and shoulder-width apart with legs bent, and lean back so your torso is at a 45° angle to the floor,” says Lawrence. “Hold the kettlebell against your chest using both hands. Twist at the waist to rotate your torso from left to right, moving the kettlebell from side to side, but not letting it touch the floor.”
Single-arm kettlebell floor press
“Lie on your back on the ground with your legs straight,” says Lawrence. “Take hold of the kettlebell with your palm facing inwards, holding the weight by the side of your chest. Press the weight straight up to the ceiling, rotating your wrist so that your palm finishes facing your feet.”
If you’re looking to bulk up your chest then we urge you to take a step away from the bench press and give the kettlebell incline flye a try instead. This kettlebell exercise isolates the chest muscles and allows a greater range of motion than the bench press, so you can work the pecs from new angles to force growth. You can, of course, use dumbbells for your flyes, but the shape of the kettlebell keeps the weight on the outsides of your wrists, so you can maintain the correct angle in your elbows to truly test your chest muscles.
Lie on a bench set at an incline with the kettlebells held above your shoulders, arms extended and palms facing – the weight of each kettlebell should be resting on the outside of your wrist. Plant your feet firmly, bend your elbows slightly, and slowly lower the kettlebells out to the sides. Keep going until you feel a significant stretch across your chest, then squeeze the chest muscles to bring the kettlebells back up.
On the face of it this is a simple move – lie on the floor holding a kettlebell and then stand up. However, it’s a lot harder than it sounds, and not just because you have to hold the kettlebell and stand up in a particular way – it's worth memorising the movements because it’s a terrific core exercise to add to your routine.
Lie on your back on the floor with a kettlebell held in your right hand, arm extended and directly overhead. Your aim is to keep this arm locked out throughout the movement. Bend your right knee, plant the foot and twist your right shoulder up so your weight is on your left elbow. Push up onto your left arm and raise your bum, then take your left leg underneath you and plant the knees and toes on the ground. From this position you’ll be able to stand, then return to the lying position by reversing the steps you just took.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold two kettlebells in the rack position. Lower, bending at the knees and sitting your glutes back until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Pause for a second and then power up explosively, pushing through your heels. As you reach an upright position, press the kettlebells up using the momentum generated from the squat to assist you. You should finish the press with your palms facing forwards. Lower the kettlebells back into the rack position.
Alternating kettlebell overhead press
This move is best done with a pair of kettlebells, pressing one at a time and alternating with each rep. Any overhead press bolsters your shoulder strength, but it’s also great for your core, which will be working to keep you stable and balanced as you press each weight overhead in turn.
Start with both weights in the rack position by your shoulders. Press one straight overhead until your arm is fully extended and your palm faces forwards. Lower it with control, then press the other weight up.
Start in the raised plank position with your hands on the ground directly underneath your shoulders and your arms extended. Ensure your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your heels and your core is braced. Place a kettlebell just outside one hand.
Reach under your body, grab the kettlebell handle and pull it across to the other side. Replace your hand on the floor, then repeat with the other arm. Keep your pelvis square to the ground throughout. If you start to lean or tilt as you pull through, then slow the action or reduce the weight of the kettlebell.
Grab a damp cloth and wipe the outside of the kettlebell, then move on, to the handle. To be clear, that isn’t the kettlebell clean – but you really should wipe down your equipment from time to time, even at home.
Anyway, this kettlebell exercise targets the hamstrings, glutes and back muscles, and is a tricky lift to master. The first half of the move resembles a kettlebell swing done with one arm. Pass the kettlebell through your legs so it’s behind you, hinging at the hips and bending a little at the knees, then drive your hips forwards to swing it up. As the bell rises past your bellybutton, pull it back and move your wrist under it so it rests on the back of your wrist at around shoulder-height. Reverse the movement to swing the kettlebell back down again with control.
If you find that the weight is thudding uncomfortably into the back of your wrist at the top of the move it’s often a question of improving your control and timing. Try using a lighter weight and refining your technique until you achieve a soft landing, then progressively increase the weight. You’ll probably still have to take your watch off, though.
Advanced Kettlebell Exercises
Reverse lunge with single-arm overhead press
“Rack a kettlebell on your shoulder so the kettlebell is resting on your forearm,” says Templer. “With the opposite leg to the arm holding the kettlebell, take a big step backwards and lower your knee towards the ground until it is parallel to the floor, but not touching.
“As you lower your knee, simultaneously press the kettlebell above your head. To return to the start position, push through your back leg, keeping your chest out and back straight until your feet are back together, while lowering the kettlebell back to your shoulder.”
“Simply pick up some heavy kettlebells,” says Templer, “hold them at your sides and walk as far as you can.”
Kettlebell press-up with row
“Start in a press-up position, hands shoulder-width apart and grasping the kettlebell handles, with your feet together,” says Lawrence. “Perform a press-up and then, at the top of the press-up, perform a row by raising your right elbow and squeezing your shoulder blades together so that your elbow comes up past your body. Lower and row with your left hand, then continue into the next rep by performing another press-up.”
“Grasp a kettlebell resting on the floor and clean it to your shoulder by explosively extending your legs and hips as you pull the kettlebell up to your shoulder, swinging the kettlebell over your wrist so that your palm is facing forwards,” says Lawrence. “Keep your torso tight and dip your body by slightly bending your knees, then drive through your heels and explosively extend your knees and hips so that you create momentum. As you do this, press the kettlebell over your head until your arm is fully extended.”
Single-arm overhead kettlebell squat
“Clean and press the kettlebell with one arm so that you are standing upright with your arm locked out above your head,” says Lawrence. “Looking straight ahead and keeping your arm locked out, bend your knees and push your hips backwards to lower your torso, keeping your chin and chest up. Once your thighs are parallel to the ground drive through your heels and extend your legs and hips so that you return to the start position.”
If you really want to work your core and feel the burn in your shoulders, this devil of an exercise has your name on it.
Use a kettlebell at a weight which you can comfortably press overhead. Sit with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor, holding two kettlebells overhead with arms extended and a straight back. Then, in a controlled manner, lower your back towards the ground, bringing the kettlebells towards your chest as you do so. The more slowly you lower, the better the burn.
Then contract your abs and bring your torso into the upright position again while extending your arms above your head to return to the start.
Kettlebell pistol squat
The pistol squat is a showy display of your strength, mobility and balance when done without any kind of weight at all, so holding a kettlebell in both hands in front of your chest while doing it is a move only advanced gym-goers should attempt. Stand holding the kettlebell upside down, with your hands around the bell. Raise one leg straight out in front of you while squatting as low as you can on the other leg, then drive back up to standing.
Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.
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