The kettlebell does it all. Beyond the bog standard swing you see in every fitness class, the versatility in weight and movement type it provides allows you to target every fitness goal with true intent.
In fact, a study conducted by the American Council on Exercise revealed that high-intensity kettlebell training can tear through nearly 20 calories per minute. While maintaining that speed over an hour workout would be impossible, it’s clear how the weightloss potential can stack up over 60-minutes.
Take the speed down a notch, switch the exercises and you are also able to craft lean muscle – you know, the type you actually want. Not only that, the tensing of your middle required to perform kettlebell exercises safely and correctly helps build six-pack abs (while also stripping away the fat covering them), giving you good posture and protecting against back pain and injury in the process.
Of course, that variety is only useful when harnessed effectively. Attempting to switch up your dumbbell exercises by doing bicep curls with kettlebells will not just earn you strange looks on the gym floor, but it’ll also waste your time and this kit’s potential, too. Which is where Tim Joseph, kettlebell specialist and elite trainer at high-end London gym Third Space comes in. Here he details the best exercises you need to build strength and lose weight with a kettlebell in hand. Hold on tight.
These four exercises, done in high rep ranges, will tax your cardio system more than being chased by a pack of rabid dogs. You’ll be breathing heavy and increasing your fitness, but it’s also these moves that melt through calories and spike your metabolism to max out your weight loss potential. Take a deep breath.
How: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, hinge at the hip and grab the kettlebell handle with both hands. Pull your shoulders down and back and brace your core. Lift the kettlebell and drive your hips forward to propel the kettlebell into the air – don’t use your arms. Allow the kettlebell to swing down and back through your legs keeping your back flat and, again, hinging only at the hip. “Focus on the tension in your glutes and core at the top of the movement,” advises Joseph to maximise the benefit.
Why: This is a fundamental kettlebell exercise that will form the basis of many variations you can progress to. “This is the most cardiovascular kettlebell exercise due to its explosivity and its use of major muscle groups through the hip extension,” says Joseph. It’s also excellent at activating your core, which needs to work hard to maintain proper form. With lots of muscles worked for a potent metabolism boost, plus a core workout, you’re off to a scorching start.
How: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, hinge at the hip and grab the kettlebell handle with one hand. Pull your shoulders down and back and brace your core. Lift the kettlebell and drive your hips forward to propel the kettlebell into the air, rotating it back over your wrist. Lead with your elbow and pull up before punching the weight above your head. Stabilise with your shoulder at the top of the rep. Return under control and then go again with the opposite arm.
Why: “Known as the Tsar of all kettlebell lifts, the snatch is a key fitness test in the Russian military,” says Joseph. “This is due to the demands the snatch places on cardiovascular fitness, strength endurance, core and shoulder stability and grip strength.” It does just about everything, basically, and the more taxing it is, the fitter you’ll become and the easier it will be to lose weight.
Clean And Push Press
How: Start with a light kettlebell in each hand, hanging in front of your thighs. Hinge forward slightly and then explode through your hips to push the weights up and then catch them in the front rack position, resting at shoulder height. Once in the rack, dip the knees, keeping the torso upright and drive the kettlebells overhead initially with the legs and following through with the shoulders and arms.
Why: “This involves lower and upper body pull movement in the clean phase, and then lower and upper body push movement in the press, while also requiring core stabilisation,” explains Joseph. “This means an immense amount of your muscle tissue is active during the lift.” This helps to boost your metabolism for speedier weight loss, but also it’s a dynamic lift requiring fast contraction, which is great for elevating your heart rate to boost your cardio fitness. For maximum calorie burn grab two weights and start pushing out sets of 15 reps or more.
Press Up / Squat Thrust / Deadlift Complex
How: Start with your shoulders directly above your hands in the press up position on the kettlebells. Hold your body in a straight line as you lower your torso between the kettlebells – dropping between them for a full range of motion. Push up, extending the arms, and then jump your feet forward between the weights. Lower your hips and flatten your back before standing up to complete the final deadlift of the complex. Now reverse – this rep takes a while, were afraid.
Why: “Again, this lift is very metabolic due to the amount of muscle tissue involve in completing one repetition,” says Joseph. “The upper body push and pull, leg drive and fast movements required all act together to drive up your heart rate.” A high heart rate means high-calorie burn and so to get the most out of this exercise check your ego at the door and select lighter weights that allow you to work through the higher rep ranges.
Push and pull your way through these next four exercises to get ripped and build functional lean muscle. Go heavier and work through lower rep ranges with good form for the best results. You might want to grit your teeth.
How: Hold a high plank on top of two kettlebells with your shoulders directly above the handles – this will stop the wobble. Push your bodyweight down on one handle and then pull the other one up to just past your ribcage, retracting your shoulder blade into your spine as you bend your arm.Place it back down under control and switch to the other arm. “To get the most out of the exercise you need to stay solid through your hips and keep them in line with your shoulders,” says Joseph. “Don’t let them sag.”
Why: “As a rowing movement that has a heavy push element to it, as well as strenuously working your core, this is a great all-round upper body strengthening exercise,” adds Joseph. As with all strength exercises, using the correct rep scheme is essential. To build strength and to grow your muscles the reps are lower than the cardiovascular exercises, loading is heavier and movement speeds are slower, so there is more time under tension for the working muscles.
Extended Range Floor Press
How: The standard extended range floor press involves laying on your back with one arm on the floor and the other bent up at the elbow holding a kettlebell behind your forearm and off the floor. From there extend your arm and turn your torso towards the arm resting on the floor. However, for an additional step use that elbow followed by the hand to help jack your body up into a seated position. Keep this arm straight and vertical during this phase to support your body and fix your eyes on the weight above you to help keep it stable.
Why: The floor press is excellent for developing pressing strength and should be used by beginners. However, this more advanced variation comes with extra benefits. “It puts your shoulder through a larger range of motion and involves using the opposing arm and core as well,” says Joseph. When you’re tight for time and want to express your route to a solid upper body, look no further.
How: Set up with two kettlebells racked at shoulder height, with elbows high to keep them close to your body. Brace your core and keep your back flat as you sink back into a squat. Go as deep as your lower body range of motion will currently allow. Go too low with added weight and you’re liable to get stuck. Finish by driving from your heels keeping your core braced to prevent any curve in your back until you’re standing. Squeeze your glutes and go again.
Why: Loading the weight in front of your body while performing a squat requires more core activation to tax your abs as well as your legs. “Plus, while you can also hold the weight in a goblet position, this limits the amount of weight you can use because it’s too heavy for your arms,” says Joseph. “Holding two kettlebells in ‘rack’ means you will be able to load the movement more heavily.” That means faster progress from fewer reps.
How: Hold two kettlebells in the suitcase position down by your sides. Step forward, dropping into a lunge with your bodyweight predominantly through your leading leg. Keep your back leg relaxed and sink low enough for your trailing knee to brush the floor with each rep. Drive through your front leg, pushing off your heel and step through without stopping onto the other leg for the next rep.
Why: “This exercise is great for strengthening your glutes and, as a one-sided exercise, helps to even out imbalances in strength between your dominant and non-dominant legs,” says Joseph. “Single-leg strength is more useful to us in everyday life and sporting activity, and strengthens the movement patterns we most regularly use.” When you think about it – walking and running are single leg exercises, after all.