Kettlebells offer those seeking to get fit a unique tool to help develop upper body strength. Solid and a bit more antique-looking than your standard weights, they’re a fantastic fitness tool, but few people understand how to safely and effectively use them when working out. How can you use a kettlebell to get fit as a beginner?
Kettlebells are useful for developing upper body strength through simple walking lifts, standing lifts, repeated lifting while squatting, Russian swings, and arm exercises. All of these moves should be mastered at one’s own pace, and it’s important to practice safety and stretching before each workout.
Keep reading to learn more about the top five ways to work out with a kettlebell for beginners, how to safely handle the weights, and what healthy techniques can make your kettlebell work out even better.
What’s a Kettlebell, and Why Use One?
Kettlebells look like something straight out of the 1800s. Tough, solid, and made from cast iron or steel, these hefty weights were likely first used by Russian farmers to measure out grain and other crops at the market.
Eventually, lifting and swinging these weights around as a show of physical strength became a popular rural pastime, and in the late 1800s Dr. Vladislav Kraevski (a physician of the Russian Czar) began to recommend this simple activity for improved health, stamina, and prowess. Kettlebells became popular training tools for Russian Imperial troops and throughout the Soviet era, too.
In the late 1990s, a Belarussian fitness instructor named Pavel Tsatsulin brought this Russian weight training tool to the West, using a mix of humor and classic Russian toughness to market this ancient object as a disarmingly simple and effective way to get fit through repeated practice.
Kettlebells are simple, rugged, and don’t need any special equipment to use. The fun in these items is their bulk and impressive weight, and the delight that one can derive from learning to heft something that looks like a blacksmith’s tool or a steam engine part.
You do need to be careful, though, and as you learn to use the kettlebell, you’ll have to take care to go easy on your body and start simply, with stretches and basic moves.
Should I Warm Up Before Kettlebell Lifting?
As with any repetitive exercise involving weights of any kind, it’s very important to warm up and avoid injury or excess strain. You want to get strong, but you don’t want to hurt yourself. The shape of a kettlebell can make it easy to misuse, so make sure you hold it properly (by the horns or handle) and listen to your body as you lift.
Make sure that you’ve stretched and properly warmed up before each session, and if the kettlebell you’ve picked up is too heavy, it’s ok to use a weight that’s a bit lighter as you gradually build stamina.
Make sure that your leg, arm, and back muscles are properly warmed up before each session, and make stretching a part of each routine. These are dense weights, and it’s easy to throw out a back by swinging too hard or taking things too fast. Go at a pace that works for you, don’t overload your arms, and remember that the key to proper kettlebell training is in years of repetition, not immediate strength.
So, what are the simplest five kettlebell exercises for beginners? We’ll walk you through each one and help you complete these moves safely.
This is by far the simplest way to use a kettlebell and would have likely been the original way these weights were carried and used. This move is all about getting used to the heft of the kettlebell, as well as naturally and simply building arm, leg, and upper body strength.
To begin, place kettlebells on either side of you within easy gripping distance. Then, stand between the two weights and squat downward carefully, grasping them by the horns and raising your body back up with your legs. Keep your torso, head, and shoulders straight as you do so, using the legs rather than the back.
With a kettlebell in each hand and your shoulders and upper body straight, begin to walk at an even and careful pace, using smaller steps and keeping your focus on posture, weight distribution, and balance.
This is an excellent way to get used to carrying and lifting with the kettlebell weights, and gently exercises the legs, upper body, and arms at the same time. You also work your abdominal core, as your abs need to brace and work a bit as you walk.
Go at a pace and length of time that is comfortable for you. Try 30 to 60 seconds of walking followed by 30 seconds of rest for five minutes to start. Amp up your walking routine as your body acclimates to the routine, and use your growing core and limb strength to fuel the next basic moves.
Kettlebell Bent Row or Simple Standing Lift
For this move, start with a single kettlebell until your core strength can handle two. Place a kettlebell between your feet, with feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your waist slightly forward while gently bending the knees for better weight distribution and balance as you brace your back and core. Stick your rear end out slightly to minimize back pain. Let this posture lower your arms down naturally to the bell, and grasp the handle with both hands.
Now pull the weight directly up, keeping your back, hips, and core tightened and easing up with the knees as well as lifting with the arms. Straighten the back as you lift upwards. When the weight reaches about belly button height, lower it back down again using the same muscle groupings. There’s no need to bend the spine backward at all. Just bring your back up straight, and lower at the hips again for a second cycle.
This simple exercise works your back, glutes, legs, arms, and core in a single motion, and can also be great for working on balance and endurance. It can be repeated as often as you like and is a great way to gradually and safely build up greater strength. Start with a lighter bell to begin with, and move up to heavier weights as your upper and lower body gets used to lifting. The easier the weights become to heft, the stronger you’re getting.
The Goblet Squat
This is another popular and simple move, and a squat is one of the best ways to get into lifting. The kettlebell, with its unique compact and rounded dimensions is especially helpful here. Beginners will find this move especially easy, as your upper and lower body stay balanced while working key muscle groups.
To start this move, you’ll want to hold a kettlebell with both hands directly in front of your chest, arms straight. Feel free to use a small or lightweight bell to begin. As you do so, brace the shoulders and back to help support the load, and push your rear end back while gently bending at the knees.
Keep your posture strong, your arms in front of you, and your knees balanced. Once in a squatting position, use your knees to spring you back up to an upright stance while keeping the back, glutes, and core braced. Don’t rest your elbows on your knees, but keep each limb separated and working on its own as you squat.
This squat is easy to do, and the braced position makes it easier on your back, as well. In addition, you get a great workout of the upper and lower body while gradually building strength and endurance. Your spine, legs, torso, and arms all get a workout here, and this move has been shown to help improve balance and endurance when practiced patiently over and over.
The Russian Swing
Everyone wants to learn the Russian Swing. It’s one of the simplest yet most impressive-looking moves and makes many observers wish they had some kettlebells to swing around. It can be done safely by beginners, but you’ll want to use a light weight to start, and make sure that your upper and lower body is properly braced as you complete the move.
To start, place the bell between your feet, spaced about shoulder-width apart. Brace the back, shoulders, and core as you lower the upper body at the waist to grasp the bell, and stick out your rear end slightly.
Now, grasp the bell and use the momentum from your upper body to gently swing the bell between your legs, and rise from the squat as you move your arm up in front of your chest. The bell will swing upwards and should come to a natural rest at or slightly above chest height.
You don’t need to swing your arms fully over your head; a chest-high swing is better for beginners, is less stressful on the body, and works a simpler set of muscles more effectively. While a newer American version of this swing has your arms raised much higher, the original Russian form of the exercise may be safer.
Keep the back and shoulders braced and you return to a squat and allow the bell to swing between your legs again as the arms are lowered. The momentum generated by this simple motion can propel the kettlebell a bit like a clock’s pendulum or a metronome, allowing you to work the core, arms, chest, and spine safely and with less exertion on your part.
Keeping the weight at chest level minimizes the risk of injury to the arms and shoulders, and allows your body to store and reuse the maximum amount of energy. This is especially helpful for those just starting, as you can allow gravity to do much of the work for you while still increasing body strength.
Something to note here; you don’t need to fully bend the knees. It’s better to allow the back and hips to do more of the work, as this also allows you to use less energy to bring the bell back up to chest height. You’ll help your back out in the process, and give your core more of a workout.
The Kettlebell as Arm Iron
Kettlebells also make excellent hand weights, and it’s possible to use them one-handed the same way you’d use a small weight. Because of the density and shape of the kettlebell, it’s important to brace your abdomen, shoulders, and back as you arm-lift with the kettlebell. They’re quite dense and pack a lot of mass into a small area, so start with a lighter bell if you’re new to the routine.
This variation is done from a seated position, making it especially friendly for beginners, as well as those with limited mobility or limited experience with kettlebells. Start from a seated position in a chair, and brace your back and shoulders as your spine is straightened. Grasp the kettlebell with one hand. Keep the back, hips, and shoulders tightened. Use the kettlebell as you would a hand weight, swinging it slightly outwards as you lift to keep the bulbous lower part of the bell away from your face.
Lower your arm back down while rotating the wrist slightly, allowing the bell to rest in the same position it was picked up from. This seated exercise accomplishes several things. It provides maximum stability and support for the lower body while encouraging better posture and a mild workout for your core, as well. This position also takes the burden of weight imbalance off of your upper body and transfers that energy more safely through the chair, allowing you to focus on building up arm strength.
Kettlebells are dense, simple, and surprisingly effective tools for gradually building up stamina and endurance. A bulb of cast iron or steel with a simple handle, they’ve gone from rural measuring tools to the realm of professional sports.
When working with kettlebells, make sure to stretch and condition your muscles properly, as these weights can be dense and a bit unwieldy for those used to barbells. Some simple and safe exercises for beginners include the Farmer’s Walk, straight lifting, a goblet squat, the Russian Swing, and a seated arm workout.
All of these moves help exercise the spine, arms, and core, while standing moves give the glutes and leg muscles a great workout, too. The beauty of kettlebells lies in their simplicity and their usefulness over time in building up strength and endurance. Start with lighter bells, and work your way up over time with these simple exercises. Go at a pace that works for you, and enjoy the benefits of greater strength, balance, and core stability.
Gary David is the founder and CEO of CrazyMass, one of the nation’s leading supplement companies. Before starting CrazyMass in 2006, Gary was a bodybuilder and personal trainer for several gyms throughout Northwest Michigan, helping clients meet their fitness goals. Gary happily worked in this profession for over 15 years. He saw that most weight gaining products to increase muscle were made with ingredients that were dangerous or of poor quality. He knew there was a safer and healthier way to do this, so he created a special blend of herbs, amino acids, and nutrients to help bodybuilders slim down and gain muscle.
Although Gary no longer participates in bodybuilding competitions, he continues to be involved in the community, helping others prep for shows and attending events where he can advertise CrazyMass products. When Gary isn’t working long hours, he likes to spend his time working out at the gym, boating on Lake Michigan, traveling the trails around Northern Michigan by four-wheeler, and spending time with his family. He also loves to take a yearly trip to Europe with his wife and children.