There are many fitness fads and trends happening all the time.
One of the latest fads is actually not a recent happening at all but a centuries-old Russian training apparatus called the kettle bell.
There are probably just as many people who endorse the kettlebell as those who oppose it. Some of you have probably even read some articles for or opposing the kettlebell. There are even some people who do only kettlebell training.
Although I don't agree with that last group of people, I think the kettlebell, when applied in the context of scientific training principles, is simply another tool that you can use to achieve your peak physical condition.
I personally use kettle bells for corrective exercises, strength exercises as well as conditioning exercises. And when used properly they can be a very effective training tool. So here are a few exercises that I use in my daily workings with clients and even in my own training.
Front squats are very helpful in that they make you work to reverse your thoracic curve. This is called thoracic extension. This is very good for posture and back health. To avoid making things complicated, I’ll just say that everyone should be able to reverse their thoracic curve.
So if you have a 35 degree curve you should be able to reverse the curve 35 degrees and in essence flatten your thoracic spine. Since many people can’t properly squat, let alone front squat, try some “leg starter exercises”. These can include split squats or lying hamstring curls. Eventually, I work my clients towards the goblet squat which is basically a form of a front squat but with a kettlebell.
To perform a goblet squat, start with feet hip-width to shoulder-width apart while holding a fairly heavy kettlebell by the sides of the handle up by your chest with the elbows under the bell. For people who lack range of motion and can’t perform a full squat, simply elevate your heels slightly by using a board or some 10-pound plates.
Start the motion by bending your knees (it’s ok if the knees stick out in front of the toes a bit – the old way of thinking that this is wrong is itself wrong) and drop your butt like you are starting to sit down. As you lower your body down, your elbows should be rising up. Think of it as if there are strings attached from the ceiling to your elbows; as you go down, the strings are holding your elbows up. At the bottom of the squat, your hamstrings should be covering your calves. Basically you couldn’t go any lower even if you wanted to.
By raising the elbows you have also arched your back in the process. It also works conversely: by arching your back it will help to keep your elbows up. So at the bottom of the squat, your back should be parallel with your shins or slightly higher. Check yourself out in the mirror from the side or have a training partner check you out. This is a good total body movement that could be a help in your relationship with father time and gravity. Being the little older lady or man who is slouched forward all the time is not how we are supposed to age. And it doesn’t have to happen to you, either.
This is probably the most popular kettlebell move that people think of when they think of the kettlebell. I really like this move and use it for multiple reasons. I think it’s a great way to get people into “power” movements and intense neural recruitment exercises. It can be used as a really good metabolic conditioning exercise and emphasizes the posterior chain muscles which is a necessity for everyone. The problem I see is most people do it incorrectly and/or shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.
I think that you need to master the RDL (Romanian deadlift) before attempting the swing. It’s essentially the same pattern in the lower body just performed more quickly. And I have my clients perform other exercises before ever getting to the RDL. So make sure you are capable of doing the swing before attempting it. But once you can do the swing, it will be a fantastic addition to your exercise regimen.
The movement of the swing is a “bend” or “hinge” movement. Too many people think it’s a squat and bend the knees when they swing and this is not the case. The kettlebell should start on the floor 12-18 inches in front of the feet. You will have a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance. I start women on 26lbs and men on 35lbs. They soon are swinging much heavier bells but any less than this and it’s too easy to cheat. Put both hands on the handle of the bell. You should look sort of like a football linemen right before they snap the football. The knees are only slightly bent and that is because your butt is reached so far back.
Pull the bell through your legs and quickly thrust your hips forward pushing your arms away from your legs. Leave your arms relaxed and just think of them as ropes holding on to the bell. It won’t fly very high. (You can do a full kettlebell swing where it goes all the way above your head but I only use this rarely and it’s definitely not required). The kettlebell will be at eye level or slightly under, again you are not trying to pull up with your arms/shoulders but rather let the momentum and force of the hips move the weight.
Don’t ever decelerate the kettlebell. When and if you do, you put your back at risk of injury. You will know if you are because the bottom of the kettlebell will “fall” and be facing the floor faster than the handle does. The bottom of the kettlebell should always be facing away from you. Let the forearms hitting the thighs stop the motion. The bell should be behind your hips. Forcefully thrust your hips forward again and squeeze your glutes fully extending your body so you are standing tall at the top.
Keep your shoulders back and chest “proud” at the bottom of the range of motion. Too many people are hunched over and rounded at the bottom of a swing severely threatening themselves with back injuries and such. As long as you keep your back flat and shoulders back you should be safe.
After you master the goblet squat, I would move on to this move which is a bit tougher. The same rules that apply to the goblet squat also apply to the front squat. In the kettlebell front squat you are now holding a kettlebell in each hand up by your shoulder. Your thumbs will be against your chest with the bell resting on your forearm & biceps. From this standing position you now perform the same squatting motion as with the goblet squat. Make sure to keep your elbows up, as well. If your elbows are low, the kettlebells will pull you forward and ruin your posture. Keep that “shelf” created by keeping your elbows up.
An advanced version of this move would be the kettlebell push press (or “thruster”). After squatting and returning to the top continue the motion by pressing the kettlebells above your head in one constant movement.
These three moves are moves that I use quite frequently with different clients. Try the goblet squat and see how you feel then move forward. If you feel competent and confident here is a sample “quick hitter” workout or something you could do at the end of a workout as a metabolic conditioner or what I like to sometimes call a “finishing move”. If you use it as a stand-alone workout, make sure you are warmed up properly:
Alternate between two-handed kettlebell swings and kettlebell push presses for 5 rounds of 10 reps each limiting your rest after each round to only 10-20 seconds. (You would need 3 kettlebells for this) If you can accomplish this with no problem , then up the weight, increase the reps to 15, or add more rounds!
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About Phil Gephart:
Phil Gephart is a certified personal trainer with a Master's Degree (MS) in Exercise Science with a focus in Coaching & Athletic Administration, received in 2009 from Concordia University in beautiful Irvine, California. Phil’s passion for fitness is reflected in his involvement in sports throughout his life—in high school, he played basketball, baseball and soccer, in college he continued playing basketball and soccer. Phil also played basketball professionally for five years.
Phil Gephart is currently a professor in the exercise science department at Concordia University, where he teaches an Advanced Personal Training course to undergraduate students.