Sunday, August 4, 2013

Mastering The Kettlebell

Kettlebells are becoming a popular fitness trend. With popularity, there is a lack of proper technique, and a watering down of the process. It just becomes something to do because someone heard it helps with burning calories or weight loss.

At All Out Effort, it is probably the single most used piece of equipment and we take great care to have every client work their way into KB (kettlebell) movements and to have them all reach a certain skill level. We don't use the KB because its popular, we carefully selected the KB as one of our main tools because its replicable. Meaning anything we have our clients do in our studio, they can do at home. 90% of the workouts can be scaled at home with a kettlebell, a yoga mat, and a balance ball.

That was one of our biggest priorities, not to have them use machines where they develop no skills, but a way to sustainably teach them methods in creating positive physical change for a lifetime. We teach them a model of training, they go home and replicate it safely.

To the left in a popular fitness magazine they are showing an absolutely terrible and dangerous way to do a kettlebell swing. Not only is it bad but it also implies a general lack of knowledge and research by this publication in any of their material. But these are the venues people are learning health and exercise.

You can get away with this sometimes with other pieces of equipment or body weight exercises but because the kettlebell itself is heavy and hard, and you're moving dynamically, there is a lot of room for injury (acute or chronic) if done improperly. It is recommended to have a conditioning phase and fitness evaluation prior to starting kettlebells.

I would suggest against trying to learn it on your own, and if you do learn it from someone, learn it from someone qualified. Just because they are a trainer or a class instructor does not imply they know how to properly teach or execute KB movements. There is no barrier to entry, anyone can start training someone in fitness, you reading this can call yourself a trainer starting tomorrow. I have seen many of my peers to my dismay and horror teaching improper and dangerous kettlebell movements without any respect for the equipment. Its a 40lb bowling ball essentially, you must respect it, just like you would respect a heavy bar on a back squat. Nothing good will come from a heavy ball that you have a client swing, in the hands of someone untrained and unqualified looking to impress their client. Or maybe they are afraid of losing their client to someone more knowledgeable, so they fake it until they break you.

Even learning from a DVD, this isn't like body weight exercises where the only risk of injury is maybe slowly injuring joints, there is A LOT of room for error. The KB may even fly out of your hand and destroy your TV set.

From a popular maker of Kettlebells
The makers of many brands of kettlebells themselves include with it instructionals and DVDs that hire fitness actors to teach, who themselves have no prior knowledge of kettlebells. They can make it but they have no idea how to use it. We get a DVD or instructional because its a celebrity in the fitness field, not because they are knowledgeable in KB. There is a difference between a fitness actor (whether they are famous or not) and a qualified instructor/coach. I have yet to see a TV trainer teach it correctly.

Even when a kettlebell is designed or shaped in the wrong way can greatly affect how the kettlebell moves and swings.

The basic double arm swing

At no point are you lifting the KB, you are creating ballistic energy (as opposed to power where you release the energy). The top of the movement should look much like a plank, at the bottom, the body positioning should look very similar to a deadlift or someone getting ready to jump.


The two movements are essentially the UAP (Universal Athletic Position) and double extension (knee and hip) and relies on the ability to hip hinge with a neutral spine (starting from the top of the head). A jump would be an example of triple extension (ankle, knee, and hip) and would be considered power (release of energy) whereas this is ballistic. But there is a very good crossover of strength from doing KB swings to increasing vertical leap.

DO NOT attempt to jump with a kettlebell unless you want to have no knees or ankles in the future. Remember quiet feet are fast healthy feet. Loud feet are slow feet and basically its made from bone on hard ground contact as opposed to muscle on ground contact. Remember that when you run or jump, otherwise you will be destroying your joints.

Ways to generate power

There are essentially 3 ways for humans to create power, torque, thrust, and the third a combination of the two. The swing is an example of thrust, with a rapid rate of force production. Meaning thrusting over and over much quicker than you could with jumps. This is why it burns so many calories and has a high transfer rate to all sports. This is also why kettlebells are now essentially in all sports training and rehabilitation programs for professional athletes.

Keys to remember

Feet are flat on the ground, heels digging in, glutes activated, abdominal hardening, and neck and back stays neutral throughout the movement.

The most important thing to remember, it takes hundreds and hundreds of repetition to create proper form. Just like any skill (refer to Malcom Gladwell's book Outliers). That's also if you have no physical impairment that prevents you from doing this move. Many Americans with sedentary lives need to actually work their way towards creating a neutral spine. This is why having someone instruct you is so valuable.

If you have already learned some of the essentials from a properly certified or trained instructor, or you are insistent on learning on your own, I am including some more advanced tips and guidelines from the best in the field.


There is a misconception that kettlebell movements are inherently dangerous. They are not. Or weights (load) is dangerous. That is also not true. People lift heavy things without hurting themselves all the time. And people are always going to be bending over and reaching for things and for the most part, they are fine. Load doesn't hurt you, neither does movement. Poor movement hurts you, and even then people move poorly all the time without getting hurt. Look at how you are sitting at your desk? And for how long.

Now poor movement coupled with load is a recipe for disaster (though many have gotten away with it for years). But proper movement and proper load will make you more injury resistant.

Another misconception is that people assume the down swing is the risky part of the KB swing. It is not. The point where you are standing up straight, not bending over at the hips, is where there is the most shearing force (pulling you away from your center).

This is why don't even attempt any swinging movements with KB until you master the plank, and master the carry. You need grip, you need intrinsic core stability, and you need posture. Someone at a desk job doesn't walk in the door with proper posture.

You will also need to master controlled breathing, exhaling hard and tightening your abs, firing your glutes as hard as you can to pull against that shear force at the top. Think of how martial artist breathe before they strike. That's controlled power breathing.

Now with anything with weight, if you can do it, but your form is not good, then its too heavy.

(Photo Courtesy of Inner BJJ)

Let's say someone is deadlifting 300lbs and asks me why they can't keep their back flat or their knees from caving in when they lift it. The answer is simple. You're too weak stupid. And the weight you are attempting is too heavy for you. You THINK you can deadlift 300lbs but you can't.

Strength is also a skill so use common sense.

The Hardstyle

This is probably the most accessible and easiest method to learn KB movements and it's what you will see most often. Popularized by Pavel Tsatsouline and the RKC, it is a modified version of the original style of KB movements from Russia. Now it has been perfected at StrongFirst. Instead of being geared for competition, it has been more geared to the needs of the Western audience, to create strength, posture, and maximal amount of effort. Most people aren't looking to compete in KB challenges. This is a perfect point of entry.

GS Style (Girevoy Sport)

Contrary to popular belief, this is the original KB style, the actual style used in KB competition and the way it is taught in Russia. The man bringing this style of KB movement to the world is Valery Fedorenko and the WKC. The Hardstyle would be impossible to do in competition effectively, it requires too much effort. One thing you will also notice is, in authentic KB movements, you never swing one kettlebell with two hands. That comes from the Hardstyle world and was created because the belief was, Americans would find it too difficult to learn a 1-arm swing. And the 1-arm swing IS more difficult. There are more steps to the GS style, which also makes learning more difficult.

But with all that said, it is much easier on the body, it is a more natural movement, and you will naturally start converting to this style if you are doing long cycles or durations of KB movements. We often have clients swing for 5 minutes. Many avid KB enthusiasts convert from Hardstyle to GS style over time.

Whatever style of method you employ, these 2 styles still encompass a lot of the same principles. And these are the only methods where you will not hurt yourself.

Wrong is not a style.

If you are learning KB from someone who doesn't know what GS or Hardstyle is, that's a clear indicator of their lack of knowledge. It's also popular in CrossFit gyms, and even there I have seen many instructors not know the ins and outs of a kettlebells, they just know its part of a WOD (work out of the day) and needs to be used. It is an art in itself and requires respect and practice.

Start with the swing. Move on to the more advanced movements like press, get up, clean, snatch, with care and try to get someone to observe and correct you if you can. Even paying for 1 lesson after working on your own for a while would be beneficial.

An example of a very simple Kettlebell circuit:

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